Let’s talk deadly epidemics shall we? Tucked away behind the Hotel de Ville (City Hall) is one of those medieval Paris streets that transports you back in time. And since this portion has been around for a solid 800 years, it might be the closest thing we can get to a legit time machine.
However, you might not want to go back to the year 1832, when Paris was slammed with the Coron.. err Cholera Epidemic.
Within 3 months, there would be 19,000 Parisians dead. This street, known at the time as the Rue de la Mortellerie, was hit the hardest. Of the 4,000 people living there, 304 would perish. If you understand French (mort = dead) and are sensitive to bad omens, you might say “Well what can you expect with a name like Little Dead Street?”. In fact, the street was given this name in 1212 (!!) because many stone masons (some of whom dealt with mortar, thus giving them the title Morteliers) worked here.
In old Paris, many street names were reflected who lived or worked there. Can you guess what inspired the Rue Tire-Boudin (Sausage Puller)? No, its not a Butcher. You can still see the passage people living here took to reach the Seine for water, Ruelle des Trois-Maures. (More bad Juju, it sounds like Three Dead in French) It’s been blocked off since 1841, but not for THIS GUY.
So anyways, post-epidemic, the inhabitants of this street petitioned to change the name of their street to something less macabre. In typical Paris admin fashion, it only took the city 3 years to agree and in February 1835 this street was dubbed Rue de la Hotel de Ville.
The street was mostly razed 1914 but a few remarkably old buildings still exist at the very end. You can still see the former name Rue de la Mortellerie carved in stone above number 95.
I think we can all safely say that finding one’s self in a medieval prison would not be ideal (unless you were one of the 7 lucky released inhabitants of the Bastille prison on the 14th of July 1789) but the Force prison was truly the exception for its level of disease and decay. The 18th century prison was described by Victor Hugo as being so rotted that “the ceilings had to be covered in wood so that falling stones would not kill prisoners in their beds” (Les Miserables). Charles Dickens depicted the Force as “a gloomy prison, dark and filthy, and with a horrible smell” (A Tale of Two Cities).
Originally a 16th century palace King Louis IX’s brother, the building would be converted to become a model prison where criminals went to be rehabilitated, (by the order of Louis XVI himself in 1780). The prison was separated in two parts; The Petite Force for women, and the Grand Force for men.
However, when the Revolution came along in 1789, the prison quickly became overpopulated and conditions went downhill faster than a fart in the wind. In early September 1792; 408 prisoners were examined for crimes against France. About 169 of them would be executed, including the savagely murdered Princess of Lamballe- BFF of Marie Antoinette, which you can read about in the attached post below if you have the stomach for it.
The Force prison was destroyed in 1845, and only a single wall of the Petite Force remains, just next to the History of Paris library (Hotel Lamoignon).
The prison itself occupied the space that Is today between Rue du Roi Sicile, Rue Pavée, and Rue Malheur (see the blue line in the photo, this street did not exist at the time of the prison).
January 21st 2020 marked the 228th anniversary of the execution of King Louis XVI. Instead of memorializing him, I’d like to talk about someone else.. the family responsible for executing the King of France, his wife Marie Antoinette, and thousands more during the Reign of Terror.
Some professions run in families. Lawyers, Doctors, Dentists.. and executioners? La famille Sanson had blood in their, well.. blood. During 6 generations and nearly 200 years, each eldest Sanson male continued the family legacy in the trade of death, beginning with Charles Sanson, who was dubbed Original Gansta Executioner of Paris in 1684- until Henry Clément Sanson who served as the last Sanson bourreau (French for executioner) until 1847.
The “Great Sanson”, Charles Henri Sanson is the most well known as the first to use the guillotine and undoubtedly for his role in beheading King Louis XVI during the French Revolution on January 21, 1793 at what today is known as Place de la Concorde.
So who was the man who killed a King? At first glance, the role of executioner may seem to be an evil one, and history certainly paints Charles Henri with a red (maybe crimson?) marker. But in reality, this man’s life was an interesting one. Despite killing a total of 2,918 people during his career, when asked if he slept well at night, he responded, “if emperors, kings, and dictators can sleep well at night, why can’t an executioner?”
The eldest son of 16 children, Charles Henri took over the role of his father, Charles Jean Baptiste Sanson, in 1778 after several years apprenticing. However he didn’t have any desire to hold this gruesome title, and in fact had a strong aversion to it. Spending his early childhood at a private school in Rouen, he had to leave when his peers discovered his father’s ghastly profession. (Because 18th century bullies can be assholes too right? HEY CHARLIE YOUR OLD MAN SHARE ANY AXE JOKES WITH YOU OR DO THEY JUST GO RIGHT OVER YOUR HEAD HAHAHA!)
He was also forced to leave his beloved medical school training as his father became progressively weakened from his line of work. True story, this was a tough job that required a certain.. finesse. On a moral level, regardless of his opinion of guilt or innocence of the victim before him, Charles had a duty and at the risk of shame to his family name- was required to do as he was commanded. And somewhat surprisingly, he approved of the guillotine as the method of execution for ALL (equality was a key factor in the French revolution, with the king being killed just as his subjects were. Normally, those of higher standing were afforded a quicker, cleaner death by sword) citing that not only was it more humane, it was also more efficient and less physically demanding for the executioner, who even if highly skilled, could have his bad days and ah, miss his mark.
It probably didn’t help his work-life relationship when his eldest son and heir Gabriel, slipped off a scaffold and died in 1790 while holding a severed head after he had assisted his father in an execution. There are quite a few interpretations regarding the morning of January 21, 1793 when Charles Henri executed Louis XVI. Apparently while Charles Henri was not a supporter of the monarchy, he was reluctant to kill the King, who was regarded at that time as chosen by God himself. One can only imagine the pressures he was under being forced to chose between ending the line of Bourbon monarchs and the blood thirsty new government of the French Revolution.
Some say that King Louis XVI was executed swiftly and painlessly. Others say that the guillotine merely severed the back of his head and jaw and he screamed a horrible cry just before his head was held aloft by an executioner’s assistant, who cried out “Vive la Revolution!” According to Charles Henri himself, King Louis XVI died an honorable and brave death, even pardoning Sanson for shedding his innocent blood.
There was a moment of solidarity between the two when it was made clear to Louis XVI that his hands were to be bound with rope. Aghast at being treated like a lowly criminal, the former King cried “Never!” Sanson offered him an alternative, “A handkerchief Sire”.
Perhaps touched upon hearing his old title and shown this small respect by the man soon to be responsible for ending his life, the King gave in and bravely offered his wrists and accepted his fate. What happened to Charles Henri after this pivotal moment in his career? Well he retired as executioner not long after, and spent the rest of his days playing the violin, growing medicinal herbs in his garden, and tracking pokémon on his Iphone X. He died on July 4, 1806 and was buried with his ancestors in a small plot in the Montmartre cemetery, which can be visited today.
Buses having been circulating in Paris for a little over a hundred years and are the preferred method of transportation for Parisians who prefer to avoid the crowds and unpleasant odors from the metro. If you manage to nab a seat, the bus can be quite enjoyable, especially on lines such as 89 (latin quarter), 86 (left bank/Bastille), and 69 (Eiffel tower, Louvre) where for a 2 euro ticket you can have your own Paris tour.
However like any method of transport, accidents do happen, and in this case, don’t necessarily involve a collision on the street. The deadliest Paris bus accident happened on the Archevêché Bridge September 27, 1911 when at about 5pm, the driver of the Line 205 bus (which ran from Jardin des Plantes to Square des Batignolles) lost control after swerving to avoid the same bus coming from the other direction, who had been stopped in the middle of the bridge to avoid running over a jay walking pedestrian.
Crashing through the metal barrier on the bridge, the bus plummeted into the Seine below, hitting the water with a force so hard witnesses described it as a cannon exploding. Carrying 27 people, the bus quickly began to sink to the horror of crowds gathering above.
One passenger, Abbot Antoine Richard- was traveling in the first class part of the bus with two children. They were able to escape by a window and after passing the young Max et Marguerite off to a nearby boat, he went back to save four others until his limited eye sight prevented him from finding passengers still trapped in the water. Another hero was Eugène Mèneveux, who was working nearby when the accident happened. A champion swimmer, he rushed to the scene and saved a few people as well. The bus was pulled out of the water the following day. In total, there were 14 deaths including the driver (4 bodies were never recovered, likely swept away) and 9 wounded.
Witches? Curses? Poisons, Black Masses, and Baby Sacrifice during the 17th century reign of King Louis XIV? At this time, witchcraft was considered like sooo old school 15th century and dabbling a bit in the dark arts was generally considered harmless or just nonsense for bored women. Seeking the help of a bit of black magic to concoct love potions or have a fortunes told was something you kept discreet, but no one was going to go after you with a pitchfork for it.
However things got out of control in the 1670’s when numerous nobles of the King’s court were implicated with some pretty gruesome acts of sorcery. It all started in 1670 when the Marquise of Brinvilliers was found guilty of poisoning her father and brothers so she could inherit the family fortune and live happily ever after with her lover. Confessing under the torture we fondly recognize today as waterboarding; she was burned at the stake and then beheaded.
Around the same time, the Duchess of Orléan (sister in law to King Louis) Henriette also died suddenly under suspicious circumstances. Whispers began to turn into rumor and the police rounded up many alchemists and fortune tellers who were known to practice the dark arts. Looking for people to blame, the accused were tortured and sang like birds when names were demanded. Unfortunately for the King, this backfired because the names included many prominent members of his court, including his long-time official mistress Athénaïs, the Marquise de Montespan.
According to testimony, she sought out the magic services of the notorious Midwife turned Occultist Catherine “Lavoisin” Deshayes. On several occasions, Montespan was said to have performed Black Masses with Lavoisin at her evil Baby Killing Poison Factory home and other secret locations.
Hoping to revive the King’s fading interest in her, it was claimed that during these ceremonies she would act as an alter; lying naked on a table with a bowl on her stomach, where blood from a murdered baby would be collected. This would then be secretly given to the King to consume, acting as an aphrodisiac. Allegedly.
Many of the accused claimed to have spoken out falsely during torture, or gave names to avoid a worse fate. In addition, all court documents were eventually destroyed. When everything started to go B-A-N-A-N-S, the King created a special court to expedite the trial and sweep the whole scandal under a rug. Of the 400 people accused, 23 would be banished and 36 executed for witchcraft and murder. On the 22nd of February 1680 at the Place de Grève (Hotel de Ville today) Catherine Lavoisin was burned alive to the delight of a roaring public.
Found guilty for practicing black magic and murder, it was said the bodies of more than 2,000 babies were buried in her garden at her home formerly located on 23 rue Beauregard, where she performed abortions and her infamous black masses.
And since nothing cools off an already compromised relationship like rumors of murder conspiracy and Baby Blood Soup, the Affaire des Poisons would mark the beginning of the end of Madame de Montespan’s reign as the King’s Mistress.