Bonfire of Destiny: Fire at the Bazar de la Charité

624px-Le_Petit_Journal_-_Bazar_de_la_Charité

Le Petit Journal. May 16th, 1897

On May 4th, 1897, a fire broke out at the Bazar de la Charité. The bazaar was an annual event in Paris, organized by the aristocracy to raise money for their favorite charities through the sale of various items. 1897 was its thirteenth year, and a fantastic structure was built for the occasion at Rue Jean-Goujon 17.

The building was 240 feet long and only 62 feet wide, and the long, thin gallery was packed. A temporary medieval village had been built inside, and because it only needed to last for the four days the bazaar was open, cheaper materials had been used. The miniature houses, shops, and stalls selling items were built out of cardboard and pine and decorated with papier-mâché. The roof itself was tarred canvas, and a gas-filled balloon hung from the center of it. The temporary floor covered a shallow pit the carpenters had filled with their plywood scraps.

It was a popular event, and on the night of May 4th, an estimated 1,800 people were in attendance. They came from all over Europe and America to see and be seen, to support the charities and meet the aristocratic women volunteering at the booths. It was an important society event like no other. For the sake of charity, some otherwise unapproachable young aristocratic women would let fans kiss their cheeks for money. It was for a good cause, after all.

At the entrance to the bazaar was another draw—a cinematograph playing short films. It ran on ether and oxygen. Within twenty minutes of the bazaar’s opening for the night, a match lit to illuminate the cinematograph ignited the ether and oxygen. Both are extremely flammable and can cause explosions under the right conditions.

Conditions that night couldn’t have been better for catastrophe. The fire quickly spread to the cheap wall hangings, burning the pine plywood and climbing to the canvas roof. The papier-mâché wilted and the cardboard went up like kindling. Burning tar dripped from the ceiling, scalding skin and igniting hair. Throughout the 1890s, petroleum-based hair lotions and dry shampoos were popular in Paris and London, but they could spontaneously combust when they were near enough heat. Most of the damage was done within the first ten minutes, and though firefighters arrived quickly, for many it was too late.

Inside, people were trampled and some suffocated in the panic. The fire seemed to be coming from the main door, and none of the other seven exits were clearly marked. When they were found, many were jammed shut when people tried to force them, not realizing they opened to the inside. Within thirty minutes, the building had been reduced to ash, and all that remained were charred bodies and scraps of women’s clothing.

Most of the 126 dead and more than 200 injured were women, and many of them were aristocrats. Though the night would have been a great opportunity to show off their best dresses, it was the dresses themselves that kept the women from escaping. The size and shape of them could hinder movement, but most of them just caught fire.

In the 19th century, some of the most popular fabrics for women’s clothing were also the most flammable. Bobbinet, muslin, tarlatan, and gauze were delicate, diaphanous, and looked great by gaslight. They glowed in the right conditions, but the airiness of the fabrics was what made them so dangerous. All their beautiful, flimsy dresses went up like paper, spreading from one skirt to the next. With everyone so close together in the stampede, there would have been no way to prevent a dress from catching short of tearing it off.

That’s what many women did. On the street outside, other female passersby waited to help the victims rip off their burning dresses. But those who escaped with their dresses intact could not count on avoiding injury. Some made it out only to discover their underwear burning beneath their clothes.

Sophie Charlotte of Bavaria, the Duchess of Alençon and sister to the Empress of Austria, lost her life in the fire. She remained until everyone working under her had been rescued. When she was found, her body was so badly burned that she had to be identified by her dentist, who recognized the gold fillings in her teeth. Some other victims could only be identified by their dental records, making the fire an important landmark in early forensic dentistry.

Others were identified by surviving items of clothing or personal effects. Elise Blonska, Jules Claretie’s librarian, was identified by her distinctive orthopedic corset. Identified by her jewelry was Jeanne de Kergorlay, who died saving others. A stronger woman, she stayed inside to help lift people up to escape through a high window. She died when the floor collapsed beneath her.

Not everyone in the fire was as heroic. Eyewitnesses reported seeing men toss women out of the way or beat them back with canes to escape themselves. On May 16th of 1897, The New York Times detailed these reports in an article titled “Cowardice of Paris Men Exhibited in Brutal Form During the Burning of the Charity Bazaar.” Because of the class of the men involved, some Parisian newspapers tried to cast doubt on the accusations. Surviving women confirmed them, however, and though no names were mentioned, the numbers do support those accounts—of the 126 dead, only six were male, among them a 14-year-old groom and a 5-year-old child.

At the end of the day, many of the heroes were of a humbler class. Aside from the many women who lost their lives trying to save their workers, visitors, and each other, a number of others distinguished themselves in their efforts to help. The cook and manager of the Hôtel du Palais next door—M. Gaumery and Mme Roche-Sautier—pulled 150 people to safety through the kitchen window of the hotel. Two priests at a neighboring convent—Father Bailly and Father Ambroise—helped to evacuate 30 people. Firefighters saved as many as they could, and onlookers stood by to help the women out of their flaming dresses.

In the aftermath of the fire, the site became a place of pilgrimage. A prominent undertaker was told to obtain dozens of pine coffins as quickly as possible, but when he found out who they were for, he ordered better ones. The public was likewise affected, and the Chapel of Our Lady of Consolation was later built on the site, funded by the public. Every year on May 4th, Mass is held there to commemorate the victims.

Jessica Cale

Further Reading

Blume, Mary. Remembering a Belle Époque Inferno in Paris. The New York Times. 

Nudson, Rae. A History of Women Who Burned to Death in Flammable Dresses. Racked. 

Vincent, Susan. Hair: An Illustrated History.

Walton, Geri. The Tragic 1897 Charity Bazaar Fire of Paris. 

Winock, Michel. L’incendie du Bazar de la Charité. L’Histoire.

Bonfire of Destiny is streaming now on Netflix. 

 

Divine Inspiration: How Rome’s Unknown Dead Became Catacomb Saints

St Valerius

Copyright Paul Koudounaris

On May 31st, 1578, vineyard workers in Rome found a passageway that led into an extensive network of long-forgotten catacombs beneath the Via Salaria. The Coemeterium Jordanorum (Jordanian Cemetery) and surrounding catacombs were burial sites from the earliest days of Christianity, dating from between the first and fifth centuries AD.

By the time these catacombs were found, the Catholic Church had been struggling with the Reformation for decades. While certain human remains had been venerated as sacred relics for centuries*, Protestant Reformers rejected the practice of keeping relics as idolatry. Bodies were to return to dust, and that included the bodies of saints as well. Throughout the Reformation, countless relics were interred, vandalized, or destroyed.

With relics under scrutiny from Reformers, the issue was addressed at the Twenty-Fifth Session of the Council of Trent in 1563. The Council maintained that relics were an essential part of Catholic life, and they had a point—kept in local churches, relics were still important to communities. Though they were viewed as sacred, their origins were rightly questioned. Forgeries—random bones or other found items sold as sacred—were common and undermined the value of the remains as religious artifacts. To combat the sale of forgeries, the Council decided that going forward, all relics would have to be authenticated by the Church. 

Relics had always been popular among the laity, and the transportation of new holy relics into German-speaking countries became a strategy of the Counter-Reformation. They needed to replace what had been destroyed, but where were they going to find more saints?

heavenly-1

Copyright Paul Koudounaris

The discovery of the catacombs under the Via Salaria must have felt like an answer to a prayer. The catacombs held the remains of an estimated 750,000 people, including early Christians, Jews, and some pagan Romans. While cremation was more common among pagan Romans, Christians wanted to be buried to allow for the possibility of resurrection; though thousands were resurrected following their discovery, not one of them could have predicted what awaited them after death.

The Church needed relics, and they found them. The bodies of those believed to be Christian martyrs became known as the Katakombenheiligen, the Catacomb Saints. While they had not been canonized and their identities were unknown, these bodies were used to show the connection between the earliest Christians and the post-Reformation Church. They were to symbolize the essential truth of the Catholic doctrine through that connection, and to boost morale among the Catholic communities hurting following the looting of their churches.

But if their identities were unknown, how could they prove they were martyrs? Because they had died during a time of persecution, many were assumed to be martyrs, but depending on who was asked, there were some other signs as well—some believed the bones of martyrs smelled sweeter, while others claimed they had an otherworldly glow. Though the Church had resolved to use more scientific methods of identification following the Council of Trent, conditions in the catacombs were less than ideal. The newest bones were still more than a thousand years old at that point, and any identifying plaques or stones were long gone. Worse, many bodies had been moved over the years to protect them from looting invaders.

The bones that were found could not be positively identified as Christian, much less martyrs, so they relied on largely illegible engravings on the surrounding stones. Anytime they found a capital M—which could be there for any reason from names to common inscriptions—or a depiction of a palm frond, they took this as evidence they had found a martyr’s grave. During one investigation of another catacomb in the 1560s, an Augustinian monk concluded there were at most three identifiable martyrs down there, but by the following century, there were said to be up to 200,000.

As soon as they were found, the remains began to make their way north. It’s impossible to estimate just how many skeletons and individual bones were shipped to the German-speaking countries affected by the Reformation in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, but demand was so high that the Church had to create a new office to manage the excavation of the catacombs as well as starting the Sacred Congregation of Rites and Ceremonies to oversee the whole process. The saints’ popularity increased following the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648); churches wanted to replace the relics that had been ransacked, and wealthier families also purchased them as symbols of piety.

heavenly-7

Copyright Paul Koudounaris

They were certainly symbols of status. The skeletons were given Latin names and decorated from skull to metatarsal in gold and jewels. Decoration varied, but it was often extravagant. The jewels were real or expensive imitations, and the skeletons were dressed in robes of velvet and silk embroidered with gold thread. A few were even given silver plate armor.

As striking as the end result was, there was more to constructing the catacomb saints than decorating dead bodies. Bones that old required expert handling and reconstruction, so they were given to nuns who specialized in the preservation of relics. Many of their convents were known for their mastery of decorative arts, and the state of the Katakombenheiligen today is a testament to their skill and devotion.

Restoration and decoration was a delicate process that could take years to complete. Bones were strengthened with glue, painted, and protected with layers of nearly transparent silk gauze or tulle. Missing pieces were reconstructed with wax, wood, or papier-mâché. In the cases where skulls were missing or too badly damaged, they were replaced with ceramic or wood and plaster.

Given the time, resources, and dedication it would have taken to construct the saints, it is devastating to consider how few have survived to the present day. Viewed as morbid and embarrassing during the nineteenth century**, many were stripped of their jewels and hidden or destroyed. Of all of the catacomb saints that once filled Europe, only about ten percent remain, and few can be viewed by the public. Quite aside from their religious significance, they are stunning works of art and represent a part of history that, while potentially controversial to some, is nevertheless worth remembering.

On August 15th of every year, Roggenburg does just that. Every year, it holds a Leiberfest (Celebration of the Bodies) in order to display and honor the catacomb saints. Once common among towns that had them, Roggenburg’s annual Leiberfest is the last one in the world. During this festival, Roggenburg’s four Katakombenheiligen are brought out of storage and paraded through town on litters decorated with flowers. The three female saints–Laurentia, Severina, and Valeria–are carried by young women wearing white, and St Venatius is carried by young men in top hats and tails.

Jessica Cale

*This practice also occurs in many other world religions
**Yes, even the nineteenth century found them morbid

Further reading: 

For more on the Katakombenheiligen, be sure to check out Paul Koudounaris’s Heavenly Bodies: Cult Treasures & Spectacular Saints from the Catacombs. Atlas Obscura also has a fun post about Roggenburg’s Leiberfest here.