The Empire of Death: Filling the Catacombs of Paris

Photographing the Dark_ Nadar’s Descent into the Paris CatacombsTo say there was a lot going on in Paris in 1780 is the understatement of the century, but besides the charged political atmosphere, there was one pungent issue affecting everyone that couldn’t be ignored.

In central Paris, within sight of the popular Les Halles food markets, was the Cemetery of the Innocents, also known as Saints-Innocents. Burials had begun in the twelfth century, and almost seven centuries later, they hadn’t really stopped. In 1780, it was the main burial ground for a city of more than half a million people, but it was relatively small—six hundred years of bodies for one of the largest cities in Europe were buried in a space about the size of a football field.

How did they fit all the bodies into it? Eventually, they didn’t.

This was not a neat, modern cemetery with individual graves. Mass burials were layered on top of each other, over and over again for generations. When one pit was filled with up to 1500 bodies, they covered it up and dug another one, only to put the next 1500 over the decomposing remains of a previous cycle. Toward the end of the eighteenth century and the beginning of the French Revolution, bodies were just dumped along the edges of the site. The cemetery became a grotesque swamp, perpetually muddy with decay and bulging six feet above street level with six hundred years of corpses.

Until it burst.

Much has been said about Paris in the Springtime, but the spring of 1780 was not heralded with the scent of apple blossoms and magnolias. In May, Monsieur Gravelot, a man living in the Rue de la Lingerie, not far from the cemetery, issued a formal complaint that there was a strange smell coming from his basement. It was so strong that it soon permeated the rest of his home and made his wife sick.

The state sent an inspector to investigate the complaint. In his report, inspector Antoine Alexis Cadet de Vaux confirmed that toxic vapors from the decomposing bodies interred in the cemetery had made it into Monsieur Gravelot’s home, as well as into the houses of his neighbors.

But it wasn’t only the unlucky residents of the Rue de la Lingerie who noticed the smell.

Around the same time, Louis-Sebastien Mercier, a chronicler of life in Paris, wrote that the smell alone threatened to poison the atmosphere of the city as well as any liquid nearby—residents couldn’t have wine, milk, or even soup without tasting death. Given its proximity to the main food market of central Paris, that was a huge problem. But even worse, Mercier reported that the humidity of decay clung to the houses nearby, so the walls themselves were damp to the touch with cadaverous condensation.

As you can imagine, people got sick.

It wasn’t only Monsieur Gravelot’s wife. Other residents reported respiratory trouble, liver issues, delirium, and uncontrollable vomiting. It was said you could get sick just walking past it, or worse. In 1776, a local shoemaker reportedly tripped and fell into an open pit. He was found dead the next day, though it’s unclear whether it was from the fall itself or from what he landed on.

But the toxic gasses of 1780 weren’t the only thing that had made it into people’s basements. Only a few years earlier, in the 1770s, the filled-to-bursting common grave for Paris’s poor exploded into the cellars of many of the neighboring houses, filling them with countless bodies in no condition to be moved.

In fairness, they tried.

In many of these older cemeteries, they would traditionally leave the bodies buried for a certain amount of time before eventually removing the bones and interring them in charnel houses in other locations. This was done in the Cemetery of Innocents, but it was the same story everywhere—the cemeteries were overflowing, and charnel houses throughout the city were packed. There was nowhere left for the dead to go.

Clearly, this was a problem, so in response to the gas leaks on the Rue de la Lingerie, Louis XVI officially closed the Cemetery of Innocents in 1780, followed by the rest of the public cemeteries in the city. The Journal of Paris commented on the issue that year, writing that no one could possibly deny the danger that the dead posed to the living.

The danger was real, and it was time to do something about it, but it wasn’t immediately clear what to do with all the bodies.

The answer was right beneath their feet.


Making Space For the Dead

Beneath Paris was a vast system of underground quarries that had been mined for limestone and gypsum since the fourteenth century. The rock was relatively soft, and over-mining meant that the streets above weren’t as stable as they should have been. In 1774, the Rue Denfert-Rochereau collapsed, a hundred feet of street and houses caving into the empty mines a hundred feet below.

As a response to this tragedy and other cave-ins that had begun to happen above the mines, Louis XIV signed a decree in September of 1776 to stop mining under public roads. Additionally, he opened the Department of General Quarry Inspection to protect the mines and the houses that had been built on top of them.

177 miles of tunnels stretched beneath the city in several levels descending hundreds of feet below the street. By the time Louis sent his inspectors down there, no one knew how far the tunnels went or if they connected, and the plans—if there ever were any—had long since been lost. The technique the medieval miners had used meant that wells were dug straight down into the deposits, then the minerals were removed via horizontal tunnels gradually winding their way up. Based almost entirely on ancient mineral deposits, they wouldn’t make sense to a modern explorer, let alone an administrator with only a lantern in eighteenth-century France.

It was difficult to navigate and unnerving to explore, but it was just empty space. It was a natural place to put the bodies.

Once the idea to use the catacombs was accepted, it was only a matter of planning.

A portion of the quarries was designated as a public ossuary—a place to store the bones. It began at an old city gate locally known as the Barriere d’Enfer, or the Gate of Hell. It sounds ominous, but it was a play on words based on its proximity to the Place Denfer-Rochereau. Still, it was an appropriate starting point for what would soon become known as the Empire of Death.


The Empire of Death

Beginning in April of 1785, bodies were moved in nightly processions from Paris’s cemeteries to their new resting place beneath the city. Over the next six months, the Cemetery of Innocents was excavated overnight, but people still turned up to watch it in droves. Louis-Sebastien Mercier reported an atmosphere of morbid curiosity as the young and the healthy arrived to watch ghostly gravediggers removing hundreds of bodies in various states of decomposition.

When they were removed, the carts were covered in black cloth to respect the dead and spare the living the sight, but it was never going to be a pleasant process. Residents of nearby neighborhoods complained that the carts smelled terrible as they passed, sometimes dropping human remains in their wake.

More than twenty thousand bodies were removed from the Cemetery of Innocents, but that was just the start. Cemeteries and charnel houses throughout the city were slowly emptied and carried to the catacombs in nightly processions for the next twenty years. By the time they were done, an estimated six million people had been laid to rest in the quarries beneath the city.

The process continued through the Revolution and the Terror, until Napoleon Bonaparte ordered the catacombs to be converted into a public monument. To this end, ventilation was improved, and sections of bones were artfully arranged by a team led by engineer Hericart de Thury. From its grand opening in 1809 until 1830, the catacombs were a popular tourist attraction welcoming curious crowds from every walk of life into the Empire of Death.

This wasn’t the only attraction for the morbidly curious in Paris. This was around the same time Robertson’s Phantasmagoria had conquered Paris. The Phantasmagoria was a popular horror show performed by physicist Etienne-Gaspard Robertson, a charismatic showman armed with hundreds of slides, a modified projector, and a dark sense of humor. After seeing ghosts, demons, and dancing skeletons come to life in the crypts of the nearby Capuchin Convent, it would have made sense for the catacombs to be your next stop.

Cemetery tourism picked up in Paris after the Revolution for a couple of important reasons. The atmosphere was politically charged, and the people of France—and Paris in particular—were trying to find a new national identity. Everyone had different ideas of the direction things should go, and death was one of the only things that united them all. The catacombs became a symbol of history, shared identity, and ultimately equality, as the bones interred were indistinguishable in death—aristocrats were displayed beside laborers and beggars in walls of almost identical skulls. In death, all finally achieved the equality they had fought for in life.

Besides, the new cemeteries were beautiful. Around this time, Père Lachaise was opened at the edge of the city, transforming the idea of the urban cemetery from the overflowing nightmare of the Cemetery of Innocents to the immense, clean, and staggeringly beautiful city of the dead that remains a major tourist attraction to this day.

Paris Catacombs and Associated Interesting Tales - Geri Walton

A Dangerous Tourist Attraction

As they are now, the catacombs were a big draw to nineteenth-century tourists. Starting at the so-called Gate of Hell, guests would descend ninety steps below the city to tour the catacombs by candlelight. The passages were filled with Thury’s decoratively arranged bone sculptures as well as some interesting architectural features, including, bizarrely, a pond full of goldfish. Since they had been renovated, the catacombs were relatively safe, but tour guides still had to warn guests to never leave the group. Lost underground without a candle or any chance of anyone above hearing you scream, if you took a wrong turn and somehow ended up in the quarry, you might never make it out.

Over the years, plenty of people got lost.

As early as 1793, a hospital worker named Philibert Aspairt entered the catacombs from an entrance in the courtyard of the Val-de-Grace hospital. No one knows for sure why he went down there alone, but it has been suggested that he hoped to find a way into the cellars of a nearby convent to steal a bottle of Chartreuse.

It was reported that:

He descended the winding stair. Lantern in hand, he entered that awful labyrinth, and he never came back. How long he lived, or how he died; how long his feeble lantern kept alight, or for how many hours or days he may have wandered in darkness, ere death put an end to his sufferings, are among the secrets of the Catacombs.

His body wasn’t found until eleven years later, when it was identified thanks to his set of hospital keys, which still hung around his waist.

Gothic novels were gaining popularity in France, and throughout the nineteenth century, several horror stories were set in the catacombs. They continue to inspire fiction to this day, as well as art of other kinds. Paris has some of the best art museums in the world, but the largest and most exclusive is under the feet of the millions of oblivious tourists who pass through every year.

Today, the quarries adjacent to the catacombs have been filled with art created by cataphiles who explore the tunnels illegally. This is illegal now due to how dangerous it is, but that hasn’t put people off. Murals and sculptures cover the walls, everything from reproductions of classical works of art to surreal monsters and 3D figures that seem to emerge from the shadows, all of it left over a period of more than 200 years. Murals from the French Revolution and the Prussian Siege are side-by-side with drawings from the German occupation and cartoon characters from the ‘90s.

It’s not all paint. A secret movie theater operated in the catacombs not so very long ago, and over the years, music has been recorded down there as well. But music in the catacombs isn’t a recent phenomenon.

On April 2nd, 1897, a secret concert was held in the catacombs, not far from the Place Denfert-Rochereau. This was the time that the Heaven and Hell Nightclubs were operating in Montmartre. That night, it was a new moon, so the sky was as dark as it gets. A hundred guests snuck into the catacombs at midnight with the help of two workmen for a performance that lasted until two in the morning. The set list included such spooky favorites as Chopin’s Funeral March and Saint-Saens’ Danse Macabre.

Jessica Cale

Caroline Archer and Alexander Parray. Paris Underground.
Alistair Horne. Seven Ages of Paris
Erin Marie Legacey. Making Space for the Dead: Catacombs, Cemeteries, and the Reimagining of Paris 1780 – 1830.
Lost Paris: The Cimitiere des Innocents. Culture & Stuff
Geri Walton. Paris Catacombs and Associated Interesting Tales.

1. Façade n°19 in the Paris Catacombs, photographed by Félix Nadar in 1861.
2. Engraving depicting the Cemetery of Innocents around the year 1550. Late 19th century.
3. Plan of the visitable Catacombs in 1858.
4. Visitors to the Catacombs in 1876. Bibliothèque Nationale de France.

***Prefer to listen? We cover this in Episode 18 of the Dirty Sexy History podcast***


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