The story begins with a historical event — the 1672 lynching of the Dutch Grand Pensionary (roughly equivalent to a modern Prime Minister) Johan de Witt and his brother Cornelis, by a wild mob of their own countrymen — considered by many as one of the most painful episodes in Dutch history, described by Dumas with a dramatic intensity.
The main plot line, involving fictional characters, takes place in the following eighteen months; only gradually does the reader understand its connection with the killing of the de Witt brothers.
The city of Haarlem, Netherlands, has set a prize of ƒ100,000 to the person who can grow a black tulip, sparking competition between the country's best gardeners to win the money, honour and fame. Only the city's oldest citizens remember the Tulip Mania thirty years prior, and the citizens throw themselves into the competition. The young and bourgeois Cornelius van Baerle has almost succeeded but is suddenly thrown into the Loevestein prison. There he meets the prison guard's beautiful daughter Rosa, who will be his comfort and help, and eventually become his rescuer
The novel was originally published in three volumes in 1850 as La Tulipe Noire by Baudry (Paris).