Alfred Nobel’s Obituary Calling Him a “Merchant of Death” Never Happened & Never Inspired the Nobel Prize

If you read many biographies of Alfred Nobel or of the Nobel Prize, including Wikipedia and Encyclopedia Britannica, you will read a dramatic story: in April of 1888 Alfred Nobel’s brother died and a newspaper mistakenly reported that Alfred had died.  More than that, the paper ripped Albert to shreds.  “The Merchant of Death is Dead!” the newspaper cried, “Dr. Alfred Nobel, who became rich by finding ways to kill more people faster than ever before, died yesterday.[1]” Albert Nobel was so distraught by this that he willed most of his vast fortune to create the Nobel Prizes to improve his image.  However, some modern biographers have started to wonder if this story is apocryphal, as no one can seem to find a copy of this important newspaper.  However, no one has found proof one way or another, until now.  I have found pretty conclusive evidence that Alfred Nobel did read his own premature obituary but it didn’t call him a “Merchant of Death” nor did it inspire him to create the Nobel Prizes.  In fact, I found that the “Merchant of Death” version of events was basically completely made up by an unscrupulous biographer in 1959. 

Alfred Nobel
Alfred Nobel

Let us start with the actual premature obituary.  Alfred Nobel’s brother Ludwig did die in Cannes, France in April of 1888, and a newspaper did mistakenly think that Alfred died instead.  However, the newspaper printed a far more mild misstatement.  The real newspaper blurb stated in full: “A man who can not very easily pass for a benefactor of humanity died yesterday in Cannes.  It is Mr. Nobel, inventor of dynamite.  Mr. Nobel is Swedish[2].”  The next day the paper printed a correction that it was Alfred’s brother who had died not Alfred[3].  His friend Madame Juliette Adam-Lambert then wrote a letter to Nobel saying how glad she was that the rumor was false[4].  It would obviously be traumatic for anyone let alone the private and shy Alfred to tell friends and relatives that he wasn’t dead yet.  However, the negativity of this mild statement seems unlikely to have devastated Nobel especially as Alfred Nobel had been known for decades as “the dynamite King[5]” who often had a contentious relationship with the French press[6].  In addition, Alfred was an atheist who had complained just the previous year, “Who has time to read biographies, and who can be so naïve or fatuous as to take an interest in them?[7]”  Now it is possible that another French paper made the same mistake and that paper called Nobel a “Merchant of Death” and this disturbed him so much that he created the Nobel Prize seven years later.  However, that event seems quite unlikely as we have many of Nobel’s letters to his family, friends, employees, and even his mistress, and nowhere does he mention the whole “Merchant of Death” thing.  Mind you, Alfred Nobel was often depressed and he expressed his fears and frustrations freely with his friends and family. For example, he wrote his mistress Sophie Hess in November of 1889, “What a sad end I am going toward, with only an old servant who asks himself the whole time if he will inherit anything from me.[8]”   Although Alfred Nobel suffered from melancholy, it was not related to his work, for Albert Nobel stated many times that he felt that dynamite and other weapons would make the world a safer place.  See, Nobel thought that if he could make a truly terrible weapon it would scare countries away from war.  Back in 1877, eleven years before his brother’s death he told his friend, Bertha von Suttner, “I wish I could produce a substance or a machine of such frightful efficacy for wholesale devastation that wars should thereby become altogether impossible.[9]”  He continued to express that sentiment repeatedly for the remainder of his life.  To Alfred Nobel, weapons and dynamite did not make him a “merchant of death” but a “merchant of peace” and anyone who didn’t agree with him was short sited.   In addition, in 1892 (4 years after his brother’s death), Alfred Nobel went to his first Peace Conference[10] and became enamored of the disarmament movement and asked his secretary to look into how he could support it.  When his secretary told him to start a propaganda magazine he replied, “I might as well just throw my money out the window! [11]”.  If Alfred Nobel were only interested in PR, wouldn’t he have wanted a peace paper in his name independent of how effective it was to create actual change?

Merchant of Death

So, where did the “merchant of death” story come from and why has it taken hold of our consciousness?  As far as I can tell, a man named Nicholas Halasz was the first person to suggest that Nobel created the Nobel Prize because of the premature obituary and the first person to state that the obituary called Alfred Nobel a “Merchant of Death” in his biography of Nobel published in 1959.  In fact, Halasz began his book “Nobel: a Biography” with Alfred reading his own obituary and being “overwhelmed” to realize that he was known, “quite simply a merchant of death, and for that alone would he be remembered.[12]”   Later in the book the author repeated the story and said that the paper called Nobel, “a merchant of death who had amassed a huge fortune from the sales of more and more devastating weapons.[13]”  But where did Halasz get that idea and that provocative phrase?  Halasz did not include a single reference in his book so we have to guess his motivations and sources.  But the biggest clue may be the term “Merchant of Death”.  Startlingly, as far as I can find, no one used the term “Merchant of Death” about anyone for over 43 years after Ludwig Nobel’s death.  The term seems to have been coined by an author of an article written in 1932 about a real character named Basil Zaharoff who was known for his ruthlessness, selling munitions to anyone who had enough money.  In fact, Zaharoff was even known to encourage conflict and then sell arms to both sides!   This article was poetically titled, “Zaharoff, Merchant of Death”[14].  Two years later, another author “borrowed” that phrase for his book on arms dealers, which he titled “Merchants of Death: A Study of the International Armament Industry. [15]”  The New York Times reviewed this book[16] and after that, the phrase “Merchant of Death” was often used to describe people who sell weapons[17].  By the late 50s, Halasz must have heard the term “Merchant of Death” for arms dealers but had not investigated and found that the term was only 25 years old and therefore could not have been in Alfred’s premature obituary.

Nobel Prize

Why did Halasz think that an obituary inspired Albert Nobel?  Well, he might have felt that it was totally illogical that an arms dealer and an inventor of dynamite would make a Peace prize.   Nobel’s theory that terrible weapons would end war seemed, in the 1950s, to be so naive as to be absurd.  So, when Halasz read about Nobel reading his own obituary, probably from Madame Adam-Lambert’s letter of relief that Nobel wasn’t dead, it must have seemed like the key to the puzzle.  When Halasz couldn’t find the actual obituary, in an act of journalistic malpractice he just made one up.  After Halasz’s book was published the phrase “Merchant of Death” was too delicious to not repeat.  In addition, the story of a premature obituary inspiring the world’s most important prizes was a simple and satisfying origin story.  Soon, many biographers were repeating this version of events.  In 1991, a Swedish actor and historian named Kenne Fant wrote a biography of Alfred Nobel that is considered the gold standard that said, “the obituary characterized Alfred as a “merchant of death” who had built a fortune by discovering new ways to “mutilate and kill.”  Alfred … became so obsessed with the posthumous reputation that he rewrote his last will, bequeathing most of his fortune to a cause upon which no future obituary writer would be able to cast aspersions.”[18]  Kant’s book also doesn’t have references, so it is not clear if he got the story from Halasz or from someone who was influenced by Halasz.  Although the “Merchant of Death” premature obituary origin story is satisfying, it just isn’t true. 


[1] www.wikipedia.com/Alfred_Nobel

[2] Le Figaro April 15, 1888 p. 1 & 2  Link:  https://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/bpt6k280366k/f1.item (I found the link due to the fantastic research of Lars Bosteen who posted an answer on stackexchange.com: https://history.stackexchange.com/questions/43461/is-there-any-record-of-the-premature-obituary-of-alfred-nobel)

[3] Le Figaro April 16, 1888 p. 1   Link:

https://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/bpt6k280367z.item

[4] Adam-Lambert, J to Nobel, A April 1888 translated in Larsson, Ulf Alfred Nobel: Networks of Innovation (Nobel Museum, 2008) p. 193

[5] According to Fant, K Alfred Nobel: A Biography (1991) p. 97

[6] According to Nobel, Alfred. “Alfred Nobel’s House in Paris”Nobel Media AB. Nobel Media AB, Alfred Nobel was charged with “high treason against France” in 1891 for selling Ballistite to Italy so he escaped from France to Italy.

[7] Nobel, A to Nobel, L 1887 in Fant, K Alfred Nobel: A Biography (1991) p. 1

[8] Nobel, A to Hess, S, Nov 11, 1889, translated in Fant, K Alfred Nobel: A Biography (1991) p. 318

[9] Nobel, A recalled by Suttner, B in Memoirs of Bertha Von Suttner, The Records of an Eventful Life (1910) p. 208

[10] According to Suttner, B in Memoirs of Bertha Von Suttner, The Records of an Eventful Life (1910) p. 429

[11] Nobel, A quoted in Sohlman, R The Life of Alfred Nobel (1929) p. 205

[12] Halasz, N Nobel: A Biography (1959) p. 7

[13] Halasz, N Nobel: A Biography (1959) p. 140

[14] Hauteclocque, X “Zaharoff, Merchant of Death” The Living Age Vol. 342 (1932) p. 204

[15] Engelbrecht, H. C. The Merchants of Death (1934)

[16] “Merchants of Death Who Profit When Men Go to War: Three Excellent Books on the World’s Armament Industry That Are Written With Fine Humanitarianism” The New York Times Book Review, April 29, 1934 p. 3

[17] According to dictionary.com and wikipedia.com “Merchant of Death” originated with the book “Merchants of Death” published in 1934, but of course, that author got the term from the article about Zaharoff that the authors referenced in their book.

[18] Fant, K Alfred Nobel: A Biography (1991) p. 207

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