The Bazar de la Charité Disaster: Part One

Rue Jean Goujon 75008 Paris

On May 4, 1895 the worst Paris fire disaster occured just steps from the fashionable Champs Elysées. Recently repopularized from the loosely based mini-series that aired in France a year ago, the controversial tragedy and its aftermath peeled back scars from wounds that still don’t seem to be healed more than a century later. It’s a long history of a brief event full of details so I’ll be spreading it out over multiple posts.

The mini series loosely based on these events

Since 1885, The Bazaar de la Charité was an annual event organized by the Catholic church and aristocracy of France where donations of valuables would be given to the organization, then sold to the public during a carnival of sorts, with the profits going to charity. The Bazaar was a hugely popular occasion with people coming from all over the world to bid on jewelry, art, and collectibles of the crème de la crème of Parisian society, as well as to mingle with these 19th century celebrities up close (kinda like going to a rummage sale at Oprah’s house).

As high-class women during this time period didn’t work, they were expected to fill their free time with socially acceptable hobbies, such as religious or charitable work. For this reason, the Bazaar was considered a “woman’s event” and men did not play a significant role in the planning or execution of it. In 1897, the event received extra special press because it was to be attended by the pious Sophie Charlotte; Duchess of Alençon and sister to Empress Elisabeth of Austria, aka SISSI.

Duchess Sophie Charlotte

The theme that year was Medieval Streets of Paris and a temporary wooden building was erected on an empty lot near the river Seine, with two revolving doors from the street opening to a long and narrow room (80m long x 14m wide/262 by 42 feet) comprised of 28 stalls decorated with cardboard and paper-mâché as if they were shops from 14th century France (see photo). A canvas ceiling was painted to resemble the sky and a large helium filled balloon floated in the center.

In the back, a small space was dedicated to the curious new attraction of the late 19th century- a cinema. The Lumière brothers had projected the first motion picture in Paris only 18 months prior and a high selling point of this years event was a special screening for a short film. See where I’m going with this?

On May 4th, the second day of the event, as many as 1,800 people came to the Bazaar. Catholic nuns and aristocratic women accompanied by their servants and children, as well as the general public- all crammed into the narrow space. Predominately female, their wide skirts and elegantly coiffed hair made conditions even more cramped. The auction began at 15h after it was blessed by priest and hoards of people steadily began streaming in through two turnstiles, their husbands and valets bidding them a good afternoon, probably reminding their wives and daughters to not spend too much!

At 16h, the projectionist was overwhelmed. The excitement of the motion picture brought too many people to his small room, and he barely had enough space to access his equipment, which consisted of a hand cracked projector, oxygen tubing, lamp and cans of ether- all of which was hidden behind a thick tar covered curtain. His earlier complaints of lack of space had fallen upon deaf ears. At approximately 16h15, the lamp suddenly went out and the tiny room was swept into darkness. The projectionist needed more ether and asked his assistant for a light. Rather than opening the curtain and bothering the crowd with the harsh glare when the lamp was relit, he kept it closed, and struck a match. Within seconds, the linen sky covering the timber building of the Bazaar de la Charité was consumed by an inferno of flames. By 17h30, everything in this space ceased to exist.

Continue with Part Two!

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