Bonfire of Destiny: Fire at the Bazar de la Charité

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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. 

 

Ghouls’ Night Out: Sex, Death, and Damnation in Fin de Siècle Paris

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The Cabaret du Ciel (left) beside the Cabaret de l’Enfer (right) on the Boulevard de Clichy

Every generation likes to think they’re the first to invent counterculture, but today’s goths and Murderinos are part of a tradition of gleeful creepiness that goes back centuries. We’ll be looking into more of this in future posts, but tonight we’re going to start in Montmartre.

In Bohemian Paris of Today (1899), William Chambers Morrow describes Montmartre as “that strange Bohemian mountain with its eccentric, fantastic, and morbid attractions,” and that’s a good start. It was home of the Moulin Rouge, Le Chat Noir, the famous stairs of the Rue Foyatier, and the Sacré-Coeur. Now one of the most recognizable parts of Paris, Montmartre was (and continued to be) the red light district, inhabited by countless sex workers as well as some of the most influential writers, musicians, and artists of the late nineteenth century.

So much of Western art and literature can be traced back to Montmartre in the 1890s that it’s really worth of a blog of its own. We already looked at Toulouse-Lautrec and some of the famous figures who appeared in his art, so today we’re looking a bit closer at some of Montmartre’s hottest nightspots–the magnificently goth heaven and hell nightclubs the Cabaret du Ciel, l’Enfer, and the Cabaret du Néant.

neant postcardCabaret du Néant

At the Cabaret du Néant (Cabaret of Nothingness), the morbid nihilism sweeping fin de siècle Paris found its natural home. If you were thirsty after a long day of morgue tourism*, you could pull up a bench at a coffin of your own in their Salle d’Intoxication, a bar decorated with human bones.

Every aspect of the décor had been chosen to make an impact. The entrance was draped in heavy black curtains with white details, the same ones that hung in the houses of the dead around the city. Even the iron lanterns gave off a sickly green light, giving anyone who passed beneath them the pallor of a corpse. The drinks themselves were named after poisons and diseases and served in cups shaped like skulls**, and the waiters dressed as monks and pallbearers.

After a glass of “spitting tuberculosis”, you could proceed into the adjoining room for entertainment of another kind. With the Pepper’s Ghost illusion, the bar used light and a series of carefully angled mirrors to create some very alarming effects. While Pepper’s Ghost is great at simulating apparitions, Néant took it a bit further. Seated on coffins, the guests would watch as a young woman wrapped in a shroud appeared to fully decompose into a skeleton then slowly come back to life. How they managed it, we can only guess, but they did recreate the experience for their guests; anyone could pass through the coffin, decompose, and be brought back to life in Néant’s “Cave of the Dead.”

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Néant’s chandelier

First established in Paris on the Boulevard Rochechouart as the Cabaret de la Mort (Cabaret of Death) in 1892, it relocated to the Boulevard de Clichy and took the name Néant, because apparently it was the name frightening the residents and not the chandeliers. (right)

In spite of the grim theme, contemplation of one’s own mortality was not the aim—or it didn’t stop there, at least. Néant was above all else a place to hook up. Whether sipping “Asiatic cholera” in the Salle d’Intoxication or taking in a show in the “Cave of Gay Ghosts” or “Cave of Sad Specters,” guests were known to engage in a fair bit of PDA. Secret Montmartre explains it thus:

“It is a constant of eroticism to be bound to the ephemeral and to death. (…) The show does not discourage the libido of spectators who do not forget that in Pigalle, sex has the last word. We kiss each other, we caress each other under the empty gaze of the skeletons.”

Cabaret du Ciel

After passing through the coffin and being dramatically reanimated at Néant, you could stagger a bit farther down the Boulevard de Clichy to the Cabaret du Ciel (Cabaret of Heaven, “the sky”) or l’Enfer (Hell) just beside it. If you’d been good—or didn’t mind a fairly blasphemous drinking session—you might make it up the stairs to le Ciel, where you would be greeted by angels, priests, and St. Peter dripping holy water on you from above.***

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Angels surround the Golden Porcus. That’s not weird.

If the nearly naked angels cavorting to harp music wasn’t enough to keep you entertained, you could listen to their naughty confessions or watch them perform scenes from Dante’s Inferno. It must have been quite a scene–some of them were also dancers at the Moulin Rouge.

Bizarrely, le Ciel also had a massive golden pig (“the Golden Porcus”) that was worshiped like a deity, decorated in flowers, and surrounded by candles. (right)

Like Néant, le Ciel had their own names for common drinks. Morrow describes his experience:

“Brothers, your orders! Command me, thy servant!” growled a ferocious angel at our elbows, with his accent de la Villette, and his brass halo a trifle askew.

Mr. Thompkins had been very quiet, for he was Wonder in the flesh, and perhaps there was some distress in his face, but there was courage also. The suddenness of the angel’s assault visibly disconcerted him,–he did not know what to order. Finally he decided on a verre de Chartreuse, green. Bishop and I ordered bocks.

“Two sparkling draughts of heaven’s own brew and one star-dazzler!” yelled our angel.

“Thy will be done,” came the response from the hidden bar.

Throughout the night, they would invite guests to become “angels” and suspend them on wires from the ceiling, allowing them to fly above the other patrons until Father Time appeared with his scythe to collect tips and send them on their way to l’Enfer.

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Cabaret de l’Enfer

As over the top as Néant and le Ciel must have seemed, l’Enfer was another story altogether. Just downstairs from le Ciel, it couldn’t have been more different:

“We passed through a large, hideous, fanged, open mouth in an enormous face from which shone eyes of blazing crimson. (…) Red-hot bars and gratings through which flaming coals gleamed appeared in the walls within the red mouth. (…) Near us was suspended a cauldron over a fire, and hopping within it were half a dozen devil musicians, male and female, playing a selection from “Faust” on stringed instruments, while red imps stood by, prodding with red-hot irons those who lagged in their performance.

the cauldron at lenfer

A cauldron at l’Enfer. Note the devils lighting the fire beneath it. You can see the walls and ceilings were covered in sculptures of the damned.

“Crevices in the walls of this room ran with streams of molten gold and silver, and here and there were caverns lit up by smouldering fires from which thick smoke issued, and vapors emitting the odors of a volcano. Flames would suddenly burst from clefts in the rocks, and thunder rolled through the caverns.

“Numerous red tables stood against the fiery walls; at these sat the visitors. Mr. Thompkins seated himself at one of them. Instantly it became aglow with a mysterious light, which kept flaring up and disappearing in an erratic fashion; flames darted from the walls, fires crackled and roared. One of the imps came to take our order; it was for three coffees, black, with cognac; and this is how he shrieked the order: ‘Three seething bumpers of molten sins, with a dash of brimstone intensifier!’”

The glasses glowed with “phosphorescent light,” and dapper man dressed as the devil would make the rounds and tell the guests which of their sins had led them to eternal damnation. From there, you could go to “the hot room,” where a contortionist would change from snake to devil and back again. Morrow writes that he was disappointed to find that although the walls appeared to be half melted, the hot room was disagreeably chilly.

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Antonin Alexander, professor turned devil, owner of literally the hottest club in Paris. Dapper AF.

If it seems like these clubs go together a little too well, it might not surprise you to hear that le Ciel and l’Enfer were owned by the same man, former literature professor Antonin Alexander. Alexander himself appeared as the devil in l’Enfer. (right)

After Néant was moved to the Boulevard de Clichy in 1892, le Ciel and l’Enfer joined it in 1896. Jules Claretie, then director of the Théâtre Français, viewed the clubs as essential to understanding Belle Epoque Paris and described them as “Putting Dante’s poem within walking distance.”

Even after its heyday at the turn of the century, l’Enfer continued to be a place of interest. André Breton’s Surrealists met above it in the 1920s. Eerily enough, serial killer Guy Georges was caught at the site in 1998 and confessed inside the same building where a costumed devil once confronted visitors with lists of their sins.

In case you’re curious, le Ciel and l’Enfer were at 53 Boulevard de Clichy, and Néant was at number 34. Today, 53 is a Monoprix, and 34 is a “fully naturist swinger sauna.” Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose…

Jessica Cale

Further Reading

Bohemian Paris of To-Day by William Chambers Morrow and Édouard Cucuel (1899)

*Yes, really. 
**You thought you were so original.
***I really hope it’s holy water.