Despite her birth as a commoner, Jeanne-Antoinette Poisson effectively used her beauty and intelligence to rise through the ranks and beds of Parisian elite until she peaked with King Louis XV in 1745. Like an 18th century Melania Trump, Jeanne managed to have not only a position under a man of power (literally and figuratively) but one as an influential advisor next to him.
She dabbled in a bit of everything at Versailles, acting as Lady in Waiting to the Queen (AWKWARD) to unofficial Prime Minister. She was responsible for the latest trends in art and fashion during the Age of Enlightenment and was even a BFF of Voltaire. She retired from her Mistress duties after only 5 years at the age of 29, but remained a close friend and confidante to the King, even helping him select his new night time companions. The Petit Trianon, which is usually associated with Marie Antoinette, was actually initially built for her. Unfortunately, she contracted TB at the age of 42 and despite the Royal Custom that NO ONE SHALL BE ALLOWED TO KNOWINGLY DIE AT THE COURT OF VERSAILLES EXCEPT THE KING OR HIS FAMILY, Jeanne kicked the bucket in her Versailles Chateau apartments in 1764.
What happened next is where myself, history, and Paris streets come in. Jeanne was laid to rest next to her daughter who died at age 9, in the Couvent des Capucines, today the area just north of the Place du Vendome. However when the Couvent was destroyed in 1806 to make room for today’s Rue de la Paix, her tomb in the cave was apparently never moved to the Catacombs with the rest. Legend has it she lies there today, just under the pavement of number 3.
Exactly one year after the fire, the first stone of the memorial chapel, Notre Dame de Consolation- was laid where the bazaar had been located. The Neo-Baroque edifice was designed by Albert Guilbert and took about three years to complete. Today it still stands, between the Seine River and Champs Elysées, and a stone’s throw from the fashionable Avenue Montaigne.
Above the entrance sit two statues symbolizing charity and faith with the date of the fire and inscription “Don’t be as sad as those with no hope”. Inside the chapel is a gorgeous nef which sits under a majestically painted cupola ceiling that depicts the holy spirit as well as the likenesses of several well-known victims of the fire.
Surrounding the nef is a Way of the Cross, which lists the names of all who died at this site and several funeral urns. Four years after the devastating fire, ten family members of victims created the Association of the Memorial of the Bazar de la Charité, which still exists today. There is a memorial service here each year on May 4th, and a monthly conference visit, which I was able to join in December 2019. I was delighted to see the President of the Association, Madame Nelly Du Cray- was leading the tour, which was pretty special because she herself is the Great Great Granddaughter of a victim.
There were only about fifteen other people present, which made the 3hr long tour wonderfully intimate. Although many artifacts were sold off right after the fire as macabre souvenirs (an unclaimed bracelet that still held bits of charred human flesh was one item of popular interest), a few are preserved in a glass case. The objects were mostly made of metal, but they had been deformed due to the high intensity of the heat. Among them were a few heartbreaking items, like delicate dolls (which may have been for sale at the charité or more disturbingly, a much loved toy for a little girl who didn’t survive) and a watch, which curiously was stopped at 4:30. Apparently this was used to determine the start of the fire from between 4:20 and 4:25.
Madame Du Cray knows the story of each of the 125 victims and her precision on some of their details was extraordinary. You can read about a few by looking at the photos below, taken from the facebook page of the Association.
Top:Madeleine de Clercq, 9 years old. Came to the bazaar with a great aunt, her cousin, and her little brother. She became serperated in the chaos and died from being trampled on. Below:Alice Jacmin, 16 years old. Daughter of the Inspecter of the East Railroad, she came with her mother and grandmother to help venders. She became seperated from them when her mother fell. Her mother and grandmother managed to find the exit and escaped. Her mother was on fire, but doused with water upon leaving the building, and was taken home with severe injuries. Alice’s body was identified the next day.
Above:Marie de Marbot and her daughters Antoinette (18) and Marguerite (16). When the fire started, all three ran towards a window but their mother fell, and told them to save themselves. The girls escaped but Marguerite died from a severe head wound the next day, and Antoinette died 10 days later. Below:Dr; Henri Feulard and his daughter Germaine (10). Henri came to the bazar with his wife who was a vender, and daughter. He was able to escape with his wife, but in the frenzy they realized Germaine was not with them. Henri went back in, and on the way saved two nuns who begged for help. He did eventually find his daughter, but witnesses saw them both die when a part of the ceiling fell upon them. His body was later identified by his work keys, his daughter by her bracelet. The wife was especially devastated, she had lost already lost two young children unexpectedly before the fire. Now her entire family was gone.
Madame Emile Nitot came to the bazaar as a vender with her daughter Suzanne (8yrs old) and her friend Helen (23yrs old). When the fire started they were close to the exit, and Emile escaped by being pushed out with the crowd, but went back for her daughter. All three perished.
At 80 years old, Louise was the oldest victim. She came to the Bazar with her chambermaid Elodie Van Biervliet (20) to assist with selling. When the fire broke out, Elodie refused to abandon her, and together they made it to the back enclosed terrain. They died waiting to escape through the window of the Hotel du Palais. Louise dedicated her whole life to charity, particularily orphans.
Countess Christian de Malezieu came to the Bazaar with her four young children to help her mother in law selling. After the initial blessing at 15h, she left with her three youngest children, leaving her oldest, Suzanne (7) with her mother in law. When she heard of the fire, she came back for Suzanne and desperately found a way inside, where she died. In a cruel twist of fate, an unknown woman had escaped the fire with Suzanne, by wrapping the little girl in her dress. Suzanne was able to give the woman her address, and she was brought home safely.
One remarkable tale that made an impression on me was that of a young girl, who was found hours after the fire ended on the roof of a building directly next to the fire. Severely traumatized, she couldn’t recall anything of the fire, or how she arrived on the roof next door.
I spoke with some of the other visitors during the tour and several of them were descendants as well, a few having just found discovered distant ancestors from genealogy websites.I’ve attached a link below for a really interesting video on the fire with more in-depth explanations and a witness description of the fire from a survivor made in the 1950’s (its only in French but you can watch with subtitles) that I highly recommend. If you are interested in participating in a conference, you can sign up on the association’s website below.
Warning: This post contains images that may be disturbing.
Witnesses claimed that only 2 weeks before the fire, the famous Parisian psychic Madame Henriette Couedon entered a trance and ominously foresaw “near the Champs Elysées, I see a place not high, for it is not for pity.. but for the purpose of charity. I see the fire rising and the people screaming. Grilled flesh, charred bodies..”
In the hours after 17h30 on May 4th 1897, a 2nd wave of horrors emerged from the smoking ashes where only one hour prior the annual Bazaar de la Charité had stood. The injured that were well off were discreetly taken home where they had private doctors and nurses to care for their wounds. The nearby Palais de l’Industry (today the site of the Petit and Grand Palais) became a makeshift morgue, where the husbands and fathers were sent when they couldn’t find their wives, daughters, and children at the nearby hospital. There they were forced to attempt to identify their loved ones, most of which were burned beyond recognition.
The corpses once known by their respectable titles such as Countess d’Hunolstein, Marquise Maison, and Baroness Laumont were now distinguished by what little remained of them. One maid was able to find her mistress by the charred remains of a petticoat and the stitching she recognized as her own. Others were claimed by their jewelry and marriage rings. In one of the first cases of forensic dentistry, the Duchess of Alencon was identified by her gold fillings. As many as 30 corpses were simply beyond any recognition.
Back at the site of the fire, a more gruesome task was being completed of which war veteran George Grison, who witnessed the horrors of 1870- declared to have never seen anything so grisly. Many of the victims had succumbed not to the flames, but to being trampled upon. The fire burned so savagely that body parts were unidentifiable. The press went wild and narrated the disaster down to the most macabre details, describing the charred and nude bodies of former female social and religious elite with disturbingly intimate details.
Combined with PTSD and disfigurement of many survivors, this created a cloud of shame over the fire that led to its memory being repressed by polite society. Gentlemen who lost their female family members, some their wives, mothers, and daughters all at once- retreated to their country homes and mourned privately away from society.Burn victims recovered at home, then hid with their scars for the rest of their lives. The lucky ones who escaped unharmed often never spoke of it again, and its only thanks to the popularity of genealogy tracking that many current descendants are discovering they had ancestors who perished here- the living preferred to keep those horrors in the past.
The press also focused on the controversies around the fire as a battle of the sexes and social discrimination. They implied that the reason for the disparities between the men and women (118 females and 7 males, including a 4 year old orphan) was because the men savagely sacrificed the women to survive. A New York Times headline on May 16th read “Cowardice of Paris Men Exhibited in Brutal Form During the Burning of the Charity Bazaar”. Today this is considered an exaggeration because so few men were present inside the bazar itself at the time of the fire.
Whatever brutal acts did occur can only be attributed to the animalistic fight to survive. However it was obvious that the real heroes of the fire were the working class, like the stable hands and kitchen workers that saved so many lives. For these reasons, as well as the upcoming horrors of both world wars; that the tragedy of the Bazar de la Charité became largely obscure and unknown.
Post fire, Parisians were in mourning, but they were also mad. Who was to blame? At the memorial service of Notre Dame on May 8th, the priest implied the fire was a consequence of man and their endless pursuit of science, which caused them to provoke the wrath of God. At the trial, the projectionist claimed he had tried to explain the potential dangers with his allotted lack of space, but nothing was done. When one of the organizers later testified, it was said by a witness that when asked if the building was safe, he replied “Of course, smoking will not be allowed inside”.
It was determined that the president of the charity held the most responsibility for negligence, but because he had saved the lives of a few women (although his sister perished) he was let off with a large fine and ruined reputation. Ultimately, the fault was in the structure, which lacked clearly marked exits.
It didn’t help that the tinderbox-like framing held endless potential explosives inside, where everything from the combustible wall drapery to the highly flammable lotions worn in the hair of the women contributed to the fire’s intensity. In addition, a lack of available water prevented the fire fighters from suppressing the flames as fast as they could have. All of these issues brought new legislation to protect the public from fire at large events. Continue to Part Four for more.
If you haven’t already read Part One, I strongly encourage you to before continuing here!
Disclaimer- if you’ve been following this page for awhile, you know I try to find the humor in anything. However, this is one instance where there is none to be found. I’ve done a lot of research into the subject and I wrote this being mindful of the more gruesome details while still intending to share this historical event accurately, thus some can’t be avoided. Here’s your warning to not continue if you are triggered by this sort of subject.
It was reported that within 3 minutes from the time the projectionist’s assistant lit the match, the entirety of the bazaar was up in flames. An explosion caused by the combustion of the ether vapors combined with the highly flammable materials used to construct and decorate the bazaar created a perfect storm that would later become the worst fire related tragedy Paris had ever known.
By the time the crowd realized what was happening, it was already too late and panic ensued. The sky painted canvas that stretched over the ceiling burst into a wave of fire and literally began to rain upon the crowds below as everyone rushed together to escape. The most fashionable women of Paris society with their giant silken hats and dresses made of taffeta and mousseline stood no chance and ignited where they stood, spreading the fire to those around them as they spun in circles tearing at their flaming skirts.
The estimated 1,200-1,800 people in that space began to surge towards the only way out; two revolving doors which quickly became overrun by the frenzied crowds. Those lucky enough to be near the entrance steadily streamed onto the street screaming for help, but soon the doors themselves became blocked as too many people tried to cram through them, creating a human barricade. All social etiquette was abandoned and people began to push and trample over others in a desperate, animalistic attempt to escape.
It was later said that the few men who were present at this female-organised event violently pushed women out of their way to escape, some even using their canes to help clear the path. (more on this controversial subject tomorrow) However, throughout this inferno of living hell, a few acts of heroism managed to save lives that would have otherwise been lost.
The Duchess Sophie Charlotte stoically declared that she would not leave until the nuns and women working beside her were saved first. A survivor’s testimony reported she seemed to be patiently awaiting her death, and was last seen on her knees praying, her hands clasped with women around her.
Behind the bazaar was an open empty space almost entirely enclosed by the surrounding buildings. The back wall was that of the Hotel du Palais, (no longer in existance) where a single metal barred kitchen window was located several feet up from off the ground. The workers inside somehow managed to remove the bars and pull up nearly 150 women, some by their hair. They later recounted how the hysteria to get through the small window forced them to break the fingers from hands that clawed at them in order to continue saving lives. Countess Jeanne de Kergorlay, a large woman, was seen hoisting women up to this window forgoing her own rescue.
Directly across the street from the bazaar were stables owned by the Rothschild empire, and the coachmen there immediately tried breaking into the wall with anything they could get their hands on. One of these men would later be awarded the Legion d’honneur for his heroism. He managed to use the iron shaft of horse hitch to ram a small hole into the wall. With others covering him by spraying water at his back through the hole, he was able to enter the building and carry survivors out in his arms one by one (if you have seen the series you will recognize this part played by the dashing Victor Meutelet).
A few frantic survivors somehow made their way back inside when they realized their daughters or mothers were not with them, further complicating those desperately trying to escape through the same revolving door. Most of them didn’t come back out. In the meantime, the nearby horse drawn fire brigade was called for and arrived within 10 minutes, but there was little they could do as they couldn’t get through the doors with so many people trying to get out.
They fiercely hacked away at the building with axes as the few small windows began to explode from the heat, which was so intense they had trouble even to approach. Crowds gathered, some helping the injured, some staring helplessly at the burning building as the screams inside began to subside. By 17h30, about one hour after the fire started, it was done. The surrounding buildings were saved and the flames extinguished, but the nightmare was not yet over.
The number of victims was totaled at 125, of which only 7 were male– and 250 injured. Pretty heavy stuff huh? If you are wondering why you haven’t heard of this real-life nightmare as compared to similar catastrophes like the sinking of the Titanic 17 years later; stay tuned for tomorrow. I’ve attached the trailer to the series (based on these events) known in English as the “Bonfire of Destiny”, to give you an idea of how this tragedy may have appeared to those who experienced it. It is available on Netflix at the time of this publication.
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.
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.
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.