Tales from the Crypt: Robertson’s Phantasmagoria and the 18th Century Origins of Horror Cinema

Given how often horror is dismissed as a low-culture guilty pleasure, it might surprise you to hear that modern cinema was more or less invented because of it. That’s right—when the first Magic Lantern was invented around 1650, it wasn’t to immortalize the pensive expression of some seventeenth-century Daniel Day Lewis.

People wanted to see skulls.

The invention of the Magic Lantern, an early projector, is commonly attributed to Christiaan Huygens. His contemporary, Jesuit priest Athanasius Kircher catalogued its construction and uses in a suitably scientific manner, then secretly used it to project the image of death into people’s windows to boost church attendance. Horrified by the sudden, inexplicable image of a skeleton with a scythe directly inspired by Hans Holbein’s Danse Macabre—still the equivalent of a bestselling coffee-table book at this point—Kircher’s victims presumably didn’t hear him giggling to himself in the bushes. (Kircher’s 1671 illustration below)

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Johann Georg Schröpfer exploited the commercial potential of the Magic Lantern when he used one during “seances” in his café. Hosting the desperate and the curious, he projected the images of phantoms at key moments, the effect of which was no doubt aided by the fact that he also drugged the punch before they began.

Horror-themed Magic Lantern shows continued to grow in popularity throughout the eighteenth century, but it wasn’t until 1798 that the process was reimagined and perfected by an eccentric and charismatic showman known as Robertson.

Let’s start at the beginning.

A Man at the Crossroads…

Étienne-Gaspard (also styled as Stephan Casper) Robert was born in Liège in 1763. From an early age, he was interested in art, and was particularly drawn to macabre imagery. He was an eccentric child, and later opened his memoirs by recounting an early attempt to summon the devil:

robertsonWho has not believed in the devil and werewolves in his early years! I confess frankly, I believed in the devil, in evocations, in enchantments, in infernal pacts, and even in the brooms of witches; I thought an old woman, my neighbor, was, as everyone assured, in regular commerce with Lucifer. I envied his power and his relationships; I locked myself in a room to cut off the head of a rooster and force the prince of demons to show himself to me; I waited for seven to eight hours, I insulted, jeered that he did not dare to appear: “If you exist,” I cried, slapping my table, “get out of where you are, and let’s see your horns, or I deny, I say that you’ve never been.” It was not fear, as we have seen, that made me believe in his power, but the desire to share it.

His devout merchant parents put pressure on him to become a priest. He studied for the priesthood briefly, but Robert’s heart was elsewhere. Still wanting the devil’s own powers of conjuring, he studied art, philosophy, physics, and the supernatural while at university in Leuven.

A gifted physicist with a particular interest in optics, Robert began to experiment with projections in the 1780s. Over time, he discovered that he could produce a number of elaborate effects through various improvements of his own invention, not least of which was adding wheels to the machine and a system for moving slides that changed the size of the image projected to create the illusion of movement.

…with a Death Ray

mirror_robertson2In 1791, he moved to Paris to pursue a career in art and made it just in time for the Revolution. Making ends meet as a tutor for aristocratic families, Robert—now calling himself Robertson, thinking it sounded more scientific—quickly found himself in a precarious situation. He bounced back and forth between Paris and Belgium for a couple of years, until he returned to Paris and tried to make himself useful to the French government when France declared war with Britain in 1796. Using his background in optics, he gave them the plans for a giant mirror-powered death ray inspired by the myth of the mirrors of Archimedes and designed to use the power of the sun to set fire to the British fleet. (right)

They ignored him.

Undeterred, Robertson spent the next two years working on improvements to the existing Magic Lantern design. He painted his own slides and found that giving his hand-painted ghouls black backgrounds made them appear to float in midair when projected in the dark. He experimented with different light sources and methods of movement, projecting the images onto different surfaces. This became the groundwork for the show that would eventually make his name.

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Robertson’s Phantasmagoria

Armed with modified Magic Lanterns, dozens of hand-painted slides, an Argand lamp, and a deadpan sense of humor, Robertson debuted his Phantasmagoria at the Pavillon de l’Echiquier in January of 1798. (Above; note Robertson behind the projector to the left)

One attendee described the performance:

“The members of the public having been ushered into the most lugubrious of rooms, at the moment the spectacle is to be begin, the lights are suddenly extinguished and one is plunged for an hour and a half into frightful and profound darkness; it’s the nature of the thing; one should not be able to make anything out in the imaginary region of the dead. In an instant, two turnings of a key lock the door: nothing could be more natural than one should be deprived of one’s liberty while seated in the tomb, or in the hereafter of Acheron, among shadows.”

Robertson explained that the spectres were only illusion and presented the show as a physics experiment, but he had come prepared. He offered to raise the dead, and when audience members shouted out requests, he had a slide to suit each one. For every request, he would throw what appeared to be a handful of butterflies or a chalice of blood onto the fire, then an image of the deceased (or someone who could be seen as such) would swoop in from the shadows the astonish the crowd. People attempted to embrace the images, while others drew swords.

When the audience left, they were terrified, convinced they had seen real ghosts despite Robertson’s explanations. Though he’d asserted that he was only a physicist, people thought he was a necromancer. This created such a stir that the show was investigated and shut down by the authorities because they were genuinely concerned that Robertson could bring Louis XVI back to life.

Once again in an awkward position, Robertson was forced to temporarily flee for Bordeaux.

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Resurrection

Once the initial panic died down, Robertson was able to return to Paris and begin his show in earnest later that year. As impressive as his first shows were, he was able to fully showcase his skill and imagination in a new location. He rented out the Couvent des Capucines, a derelict ruin in a convenient location. Only about two hundred years old, it had been abandoned and used as a cesspit during the Revolution. By 1798, it was a crumbling, picturesque shell more than suited to his purposes.

Best of all, to get to the part where the show was held, you had to walk through the cemetery.

From arrival to departure, the whole experience was unnerving. The old convent was falling apart, and it was already known for the sex workers who operated in the crypts. Arriving at night, audience members would have to pick their way around damaged gravestones in the dark.

Inside, the rooms were draped in dark fabric and painted with esoteric symbols, displaying scientific oddities and optical illusions. The last stop before the show was the Galerie de la Femme Invisible, which showcased an empty glass coffin suspended in the air. It was supposed to contain the Invisible Woman, who answered questions and chatted to new arrivals. The voice actually came through a concealed tube designed by Fitz-James, Robertson’s ventriloquist friend, and was operated by a female assistant.

After the final gallery, the audience descended into the crypts.  

Robertson was a charismatic host, but he made the atmosphere work for him as well. Filled with incense and the eerie, otherworldly sound of a glass harmonica and funeral bells, the crypts must have been terrifying. Surrounded by walls covered in velvet and bones, they sat on old graves until Robertson himself entered and pointedly locked the doors before addressing the crowd by the light of a single sepulchral lantern:

“The experiment which you are about to see must interest philosophy. The two great epochs of man are his entry into life and his departure from it. All that happens can be considered as being placed between two black and impenetrable veils which conceal these two epochs, and which no one has yet raised. But the most mournful silence reigns on the other side of this funerary crepe, and it is to fill this silence, which says so many things to the imagination, that magicians, sibyls, and the priests of Memphis employ the illusions of an unknown art, of which I am going to try to demonstrate some methods under your eyes. I have offered you spectres, and now I am going to make known shadows appear.”

At this point he blew out the last candle, because of course, then finished:  

“Citizens and gentlemen—I have promised that I will raise the dead, and I will raise them.”

Suddenly, the crypts were overwhelmed by the sound of rain, thunder, and funeral bells. Lightning appeared to strike, illuminating Death himself emerging from the shadows and floating through the audience with a scythe in his hand.  

If nothing else, Robertson knew how to make an entrance.

The show was about an hour and a half, and it was made up of several scenes introduced by Robertson on the themes of love, death, and resurrection, incorporating ancient gods and figures from history and mythology. Between the ghosts and dancing demons, the story of Eros and Psyche was told; Isis and other mystery goddesses were honored; and Hades and Persephone presided over everything. The Graces were summoned only to degrade into skeletons before the startled audience, and a woman representing love and death was a common feature, appearing throughout to tease the audience until she was killed by the Fates, only to be resurrected with rose petals near the end.

This was no ordinary slideshow—Robertson’s innovation and mastery of the Magic Lantern produced effects difficult to imagine even now. The scenes he created were elaborate, detailed, and animated; between the speed of the changing slides, variable depth, and visual effects, Robertson had all but created early 3D cinema. Multiple devices hidden by screens projected monsters and ghouls onto walls, smoke, and special lengths of canvas and gauze treated with wax for translucence. Ventriloquists and sound effects brought them to life in ways people had never before experienced. The ghosts appeared so real, audience members tried to fight them.

This was exactly what Robertson was going for. He later wrote in his memoirs:

I am only satisfied if my spectators, shivering and shuddering, raise their hands or cover their eyes out of fear of ghosts and devils dashing towards them; if even the most indiscreet among them run into the arms of a skeleton.

It was known to happen. The shows could be so frightening that one contributor to the Ami des Lois advised pregnant women to avoid them for fear of miscarriage. Given their reputation, there was some concern the shows would result in riots or hysteria, but Robertson had everything under control: shows ran the same length every night, and everything was always shut down by ten.

Not one to miss an opportunity for a strong conclusion, Robertson ended his shows the same way. Addressing the audience a final time, he said:

“I have gone through all the phenomena of the phantasmagoria. I have unveiled the secrets of the priests of Memphis, shown you what is occult in physics, but it remains for me to offer you one more thing, which is only too real. Those of you who have perhaps smiled at my experiments, those who have experienced a few moments of fear, here is the only truly terrible spectacle, the one wholly to be feared. Strong men, frail men, monarchs and subjects, believers and atheists, beautiful and ugly—here is the lot which awaits you; this is what you will be one day. Remember the Phantasmagoria.”

The light suddenly returned to reveal a skeleton on a pedestal in the middle of the room.

Subtle, he was not. 

The audiences loved it.

Based in the convent until 1804 (the convent itself was demolished in 1806), the Phantasmagoria made Robertson a wealthy man. So many competitors attempted to copy his show that he was forced to patent his version of the Magic Lantern, the Fantascope. Through the subsequent legal action, Robertson was obliged to reveal his technical secrets, which, even when they were known, could never quite be replicated by anyone else.

Despite copycat shows popping up all over Europe and America, Robertson himself enjoyed a forty-year career, touring the world, writing his memoirs, and pursuing his interest in the science of ballooning, making fifty-nine ascents in several different countries during his lifetime. In 1799, his mistress, Eulalie Caron, gave birth to their first child, a son named Guillaume-Eugène. Robertson married her in 1804, and their second son, Démétrius, was born in 1807. Eulalie and their two sons accompanied Robertson on his world tours, spending time in Prague, Vienna, and Russia. In Paris, they lived at No. 12 Boulevard Montmartre, now Café Zéphyr, until Eulalie’s death in 1813 at the age of only thirty-four. Eugène later became a noted balloonist in his own right.

Legacy

Until his death in 1837, Robertson asserted that he was first and foremost a physicist, but in his memoirs, he reflected on how his early desire to attain the devil’s powers had guided his life:

I finally adopted a very wise policy: since the devil refused to communicate to me the science of creating prodigies, I would apply myself to creating devils, and I would have only to wave my wand to force all the infernal cortège to be seen in the light. My habitation became a true Pandemonium.

Robertson had become a legend in his own lifetime. In an article written in 1855, Charles Dickens summarized his importance to popular science:  

He was a charmer who charmed wisely…a born conjurer, inasmuch as he was gifted with a predominant taste for experiments in natural science. He was useful man enough in an age of superstition to get up fashionable entertainments at which spectres were to appear and horrify the public, without trading on the public ignorance by any false pretense.

Robertson was one of many great scientists who sought to beat back the ignorance and superstition of his day by using his science to entertain as well as educate. He is, in a very real sense, the forefather of all those today who seek to bring science to a larger popular audience. For that, at the very least, he deserves to be remembered and acknowledged by scientists today, as well as all those who believe in bringing scientific knowledge to the public.

Robertson’s legacy long outlived the Enlightenment. Today Robertson is widely regarded as an important forerunner of modern cinema, and his grave is one of the most visited monuments in Père Lachaise. Rather than featuring the man himself, the scene depicts his audience cowering before the phantoms he brought to life.

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Just as he would have wanted.

Jessica Cale  

Sources:

Académie royale des sciences, des lettres et des beaux-arts de Belgique. Biographie nationale, 21. 1907.

Barber, X. Theodore. “Phantasmagorical Wonders: The Magic Lantern Ghost Show in Nineteenth-Century America.” Film History, vol. 3, no. 2, 1989, pp. 73–86. 

Dickens, Charles. “Robertson, Artist in Ghosts.” Household Words, No. 253. January 27th, 1855.

Mannoni, Laurent, and Ben Brewster. “The Phantasmagoria.” Film History, vol. 8, no. 4, 1996, pp. 390–415. 

Robertson, Etienne-Gaspard. Memoires

Skulls in the Stars. “How Étienne-Gaspard Robert Terrified Paris for Science.” February 11th, 2013. 

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. 

 

Composer, Abolitionist, Hero: The Extraordinary Life of the Chevalier de Saint-Georges

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The Chevalier de Saint-Georges. Mather Brown, 1787.

While you’re celebrating the holiday next week, have a drink for the Chevalier de Saint-Georges, born Christmas Day, 1745.

Not only was he gorgeous enough to pull off that wig, he was also a champion fencer by the time he was twenty, a classical composer who inspired Mozart, Marie Antoinette’s personal music teacher, an active abolitionist, and (there’s an and!) he was the colonel of the Légion Saint-Georges, the first all-black regiment in Europe.

So how did he achieve all of this? Well, it wasn’t easy. As a black man in eighteenth-century France, the odds were stacked against him. He was born Joseph Bologne in Guadaloupe to George Bologne de Saint-Georges and Anne Nanon, his sixteen-year-old Senegalese slave. George was married, but he loved Joseph and his mother, and he broke convention not only by acknowledging them, but providing for them. When Joseph was seven, George took him to France to be educated, and he brought Anne to France two years later. In France, Anne was free, and George set them up in an apartment in Saint-Germain.

As a teenager, Joseph drew attention for his extraordinary skill at fencing. While he was a popular student, not everyone was happy to see him succeed. He was mocked by Alexandre Picard, a fencing master from Rouen, which led to a public match between the two while Joseph was still a student. It drew a huge crowd as it was viewed as being about more than just the sport. The public was divided between people who were in favor of slavery and those vehemently against it. Never mind that it was a match between an adult professional and a child, it was held up as almost a demonstration about the validity of slavery.

Though he had significantly less experience, Joseph handily defeated Picard. It was quite an achievement, and it helped to push public opinion a little further in the right direction. Joseph’s father was so proud of his victory, he gave him a horse and buggy. Not long after, Joseph graduated from the fencing academy, becoming a chevalier. He took his father’s title and became the Chevalier de Saint-Georges.

In addition to his considerable skill with a sword, Saint-Georges was an exceptionally talented musician. In 1769, he played violin in Gossec’s orchestra, Le Concert des Amateurs. He became a concert master within two years, and played his first solos by 1772. His performance was much remarked upon, especially among the ladies of Paris, who were particularly fond of the handsome chevalier. He was fond of them too; he had at least one serious romantic relationship, but French law prohibited interracial marriage, so Saint-Georges remained unmarried until his death.

When Gossec took a position at another orchestra in 1773, Saint-Georges took over as director, and under his leadership, Le Concert des Amateurs became one of the best in Europe. He was such a success that when his father died in 1774, Saint-Georges was able to support himself and his mother from his earnings, eventually tutoring and performing with Marie Antoinette at Versailles.

By the mid-1780s, Philippe, duc d’Orléans became Saint-Georges’s patron, giving him an apartment in the Palais-Royal. It was with Philippe that Saint-Georges became involved with the abolitionist movement in France and England. When Philippe sent Saint-Georges—by then a celebrity—to England to secure the Prince of Wales’s support, his chief of staff, Brissot, privately asked Saint-Georges to meet with eminent abolitionists in England to ask for their advice on how to advance the movement in France.

Saint-Georges quickly became a court favorite in England, and the Prince of Wales had his portrait painted by Mather Brown in 1787 (above), which everyone agreed was an excellent likeness. While there, he met with abolitionists William Wilberforce, John Wilkes, and Reverend Thomas Clarkson. He spent the next two years between the two countries, continuing his work with the movement and having British abolitionist literature translated into French for the Société des amis des Noirs (Society of the Friends of Blacks), a group he co-founded with Brissot.

St Georges_from_London_Morning_PostIn 1789, the Morning Post published this cartoon, titled “St. George and the Dragon,” (right) with the dragon symbolizing the slave trade. Note the woman boxing in the background—that’s his friend, the Chevalière d’Eon, a French spy, diplomat, and transgender woman.

We’ll get there.

When the Revolution erupted, Saint-Georges sided with the revolutionaries, eventually becoming colonel of his own regiment, the Légion Saint-Georges, the first all-black regiment in Europe. It attracted volunteers from all over the country, including Thomas Alexandre Dumas, the legendary father of author Alexandre Dumas. Dumas took over from Saint-Georges when he was arrested and very nearly executed during the Terror. Saint-Georges was held for months without ever being accused of any crime, and though he was eventually released, he was unable to reclaim his position in the army.

While he was imprisoned, his mother passed away at the age of sixty. During the Terror, she had taken the name Citizen Anne Danneveau in an attempt to help Saint-Georges by concealing her own African origins. She had lived out her life as a free woman in Paris, and left all of her belongings to her son, who had remained close with her until the end.

Though it was nowhere near the end of the struggle for emancipation in France, Saint-Georges was able to see some progress before the end of his life. Slavery was abolished in French colonies by the National Convention on February 4th, 1794.

By the time he passed away of a bladder infection in 1799 at the age of fifty-three, Saint-Georges was a legend. US President John Adams called him “the most accomplished man in Europe.” He had tutored a queen, founded a regiment, and furthered the abolitionist cause in England and France. In 2001, the Paris City Council named a street in his honor, the Rue du Chevalier de Saint-George. He left behind an impressive body of classical composition that can still be heard today. Listen to it this week and remember the Chevalier de Saint-Georges.

Jessica Cale

Further reading:

Banat, Gabriel. The Chevalier de Saint-Georges: Virtuoso of the Sword and the Bow. (2006)

Bardin, Pierre. Joseph de Saint-George, Le Chevalier Noir. (2006)

Duchen, Jessica. The Chevalier de Saint-Georges: The Man Who Got Under Mozart’s Skin. The Independent, February 7th, 2016.

Garnier-Panafieu, Michelle. Le Chevalier de Saint-Georges. AfriClassical.com, January 1st, 2016.

“The Most Kissed Face in the World”: The Curious Case of l’Inconnue de la Seine

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La Vierge inconnue du canal de l’Ourcq. Photo by Albert Rudomine, 1927

In the late 1880s, the body of an unidentified young woman was pulled out of the Seine at the Quai du la Louvre, not far from the museum of the same name. While the Louvre houses the Mona Lisa, the river offered up an enigmatic smile of its own, and the woman—only the latest in a string of presumed suicides—became a beauty icon in her own right.

Dubbed l’Inconnue de la Seine (the Unknown Woman of the Seine), her body quickly became the star attraction of the already popular public morgues in Paris. People turned out in droves to see her, moved not only by her young age—she was thought to be about sixteen—but by the curiously peaceful expression on her face. She was beautiful, yes, but what struck them was that she appeared to be happy.

A wax plaster death mask was cast so early, it faithfully reproduced her wet, matted hair and the droplets of water in her eyelashes. Her death was a mystery that remains unsolved to this day, and she was never identified. It has been argued that no one who had drowned—let alone a suicide—could have died with such a relaxed, almost joyful look on their face, leading many to speculate that her cause of death was not drowning at all.

Finding a young woman in the river was a heartbreakingly common occurrence. Bodies of sex workers were pulled out of the Seine almost daily, all of them assumed suicides unless there was clear evidence to the contrary. Because no injuries could be found on her body, l’Inconnue was presumed to be another sex worker who had tragically taken her own life.

The mask of l’Inconnue became an obsession of Bohemian Paris, inspiring art and literature for decades after her death. Albert Camus pointed out the parallel to the Mona Lisa, and women were all too happy to emulate her. While her life was presumably difficult and tragically short, she was a muse in death, and bizarrely, an erotic ideal. Copies of the death mask were mass produced and sold as spectacularly morbid household decorations through the early twentieth century, and there is a workshop that still makes masks from the same mold to this day.

Even if you haven’t heard of her before today, chances are, you’ve kissed her yourself. In the 1950s, Norwegian company Laerdal Medical gave l’Inconnue a new life that would become her most enduring legacy. When they were developing the first CPR doll, they decide they needed a non-threatening face people wouldn’t mind kissing. L’Inconnue was perfect—beautiful, widely known, and there was already a mold of her face. As Resusci Anne (CPR Annie), the face of l’Inconnue reached an even wider audience as a staple of CPR courses around the world. Though most don’t know about the macabre origins of the doll, it’s a fitting legacy for the Unknown Woman of the Seine that in death, she saves others from drowning.

Jessica Cale

 

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.”

neant chandelier

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.***

Cabaret_du_Ciel_promo_photo

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.

enfer

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.

Antonin_Alexander

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.