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Les Halles were the commercial heart of Paris, a place of exchange and supply to the abundant life that had developed over the centuries. An entire chapter in Paris history was closed in 1971 with the destruction of this central market. Author Emile Zola closely described this anthill of human activity in his 1873 realistic novel Le Ventre de Paris (The Belly of Paris). It is a must read for researchers of this period, as are all Zola’s novels. (All twenty of them in one e-volume are available on Amazon for the ridiculous price of US 2.99).

A close look at the famous marketplace before it disappeared forever is provided by the 1950s documentary Twelve Hours in Halles posted below. No English translation is available, so here is what we see:

At midnight, when the Halles open, the first delivery trucks arrive. The merchandise is displayed, awaiting auctions. Around 4:00 AM, the Paris elite drops in for the famous onion soup, to rub shoulders with the market workers after having drunk champagne at some glitterati party. At 9:00 AM the market opens for shoppers. Old people from the neighborhood rummage through the organic garbage to gather ingredients for their soup. At noon, following a feverish trading, the market closes for cleaning, to be reopened again at midnight.  In the twelve hours of the never-changing routine, thirty thousand tonnes of merchandise have changed hands. Let the pictures talk and enjoy the forever-gone local color:



Since the first video is no longer available, here is a replacement:


The History


halles pilori.

The marketplace supplied Paris for 800 years before it closed down. In medieval times, it housed a pillory. Convicts, mostly crooked traders using false weights, pimps, and blasphemers, were exposed there, and passers-by could throw all kinds of garbage at them. The executioner had his accommodation on the ground floor.



Les Halles at the beginning of the 1800s


Around 1850, the cramped conditions and lack of hygiene forced the city council to vote for a reconstruction. At the same time, Napoleon’s ambitious nephew, Louis-Napoleon, seized power and crowned himself an emperor. With Napoleon III came the forceful “hausmanization” of Paris described in this post.The emperor had a look at the building plans and halted the project of heavy stone pavilions. Inspired by the Crystal Palace in London, and enthusiastic about the recently built spacious Gare de l’Est, he said to Prefect Haussmann: “I need large umbrellas, nothing more!”

halles design

Architect Victor Baltard’s light-weight pavilions won the emperor’s approval. The construction started in 1854, and took 15 years to complete. The market covered an area of 135 thousand square feet


halles interior

The airy cast iron and glass interior


Each pavilion had its specialty: number 3 for meat, number 9 for fish, and so on. Fruits and vegetables were also sold in the covered alleys and on the surrounding streets. The volume of the merchandise was enormous. As an example, each day, the butter, egg, and cheese pavilion took in a delivery of one hundred wagonloads of eggs, each wagon carrying seventy crates. Each of these cases contained 1,440 eggs.


halles eggs

Inspecting eggs with the help of candlelight in the Dairy Pavillion cellar. The City of Paris employed one hundred egg inspectors to guarantee freshness. They were sworn in and placed directly under the supervision of the Prefecture de Police. 



A postcard shows the feverish morning activity at Les Halles


Someone had to move all this merchandise, and not just anyone. The task was performed by the Forts. These strongmen were easily identifiable thanks to their large hat, the coltin, with a built-in lead disc helping to support heavy loads carried on the head. The Forts formed a famous brotherhood, created under the reign of Louis IX during the 13th century.


halles forts

Two Forts wearing their coltin hats 


The organization was hierarchical. The chiefs were recognized by their silver medal, while the simple Forts wore a copper one. Their motto was Strength and Honor. Not everyone could become a Fort. The hiring conditions were strict and the applicant had to fulfill all five of them:

  • To be of French nationality
  • To have done military service
  • To have a clean criminal record
  • To measure at least 1.67 meters (5,5″)
  • To be able to carry a load of 200 kg (circa 450 pounds) over a distance of 60 meters (65 yards)


halles forts 2

The Forts at work


With the constantly growing population, Paris suffered circulation problems. Around 1960, it became clear that the current food distribution had to be changed to ease the cramped conditions. It no longer made sense to bring all the food into the city to be redistributed afterwards. The decision to transfer the market to two suburban locations, Rungis and La Vilette, became official in 1962.


halles end

This photo by Pierre Doisneau, taken after the destruction of Les Halles, fits the mood of the place at the end of an era in the city’s history


Related posts:

Camel Steak, Anyone? Shopping for Food in Paris

Extreme Food Recycling Caution: Not for weak stomachs!

Paris Markets in Victor Gilbert’s Paintings


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André Brouillet – A Clinical Lesson at the Salpêtrière ( 1887)
Professor Charcot in his French Academy uniform


Hysteria, although no longer a recognized disease, is still a word that refuses to die. We use it whenever someone’s behavior exceeds the norm. In the 19th century, hysteria was often paired with an exceptional scientist. His name was Jean-Martin Charcot. Charcot was born in 1825 and began his medical carrier at La Salpêtrière hospital in Paris, studying pathological anatomy. He was utterly fascinated by the many strange and seemingly incurable neurological afflictions he encountered there. At the time, the asylum/hospital of La Salpêtrière was a prison-like institution housing all the female detritus of Paris: all the social outcasts that could cause contamination, either physical or moral. Beggars, prostitutes, and the insane were picked off the street and brought to the asylum by cartloads. Up to ten thousand inmates, caregivers, and guardians populated this city within a city.


La Salpêtrière

To Charcot, the outcasts represented a treasury of unsolved medical mysteries. He plunged into this unknown territory with the same zeal seen in globe-trotting explorers. In1862, he founded a neurological clinic—the very first of its kind worldwide—where he reigned for the next 31 years. During that time, Charcot made important discoveries and advances in his field of expertise, and his vast merits should not be overshadowed by his exploitation of hysteria.



Hysteria was one of the oldest and the most mysterious nervous pathologies. The name came from the Ancient Greek word for uterus (hystera). By far, most patients diagnosed with this condition were women. The Ancient believed that the strange behavior of the afflicted was caused by the uterus wandering inside the woman’s body and causing all sorts of problems, such as violent attacks and infirmities without apparent physical cause.

Before Charcot stepped onto the world stage as the King of Hysteria, this illness was considered to be madness and the place for the mad was the asylum for the insane. Charcot saw the problem in a different light. He diagnosed hysteria as a neurological pathology which could be observed in both sexes. In his opinion, the basis for hysteria was some trauma faced by the patient which left a lesion on the nervous system. He noticed that hysterical attacks would happen several days after a traumatic incident. Further observations lead him to believe that attacks of hysteria occurred in a self-induced hypnotic state, and he decided that the patients should be treated under hypnosis.

It worked to a certain degree. Under hypnosis, Charcot brought on the hysterical attack, making it visible and treatable. What’s more, he was able to reproduce it on demand in front of an audience of students. Up to this point, hypnosis had been associated with occultism and frowned upon by science. Charcot made it into a scientific and empirical method to study hysteria.


Hypnosis consists of three stages: lethargy, catalepsy, and somnambulism. To reach the first stage, the patient has to be induced to the hypnotic state. Charcot had several tricks up his sleeve, from the usual swinging pocket watch, to a blinding light, or the loud vibrations of a giant tuning fork. For more resistant patients, he applied metals, magnets, or static electricity.


Inducing hypnosis with light


Induction by sound (left) State of lethargy (right)


If the induction is successful, lethargy sets in. In this state, the patient collapses and has to be supported by assistants to prevent a fall. Lethargy is characterized by complete relaxation, inattention, and amnesia. Charcot would use this stage to test the muscle contractions. Most hysterical attacks were accompanied by strong contractions he would call neuromuscular hyperexcitability. While the patient was unconscious and totally relaxed, Charcot could ascertain whether the case was a legitimate neurological disease or not.


The next stage is named catalepsy. During this stage the patient is under the hypnotist’s control, obeying his commands, and can communicate to a degree. Free of conscious thought, the person cannot dissimulate and answers with all sincerity. Her limbs can be manipulated by the hypnotist’s commands and the patient is able to stiffen and remain in uncomfortable positions without a sign of fatigue. Many hysterics claimed numbness in certain parts of the body. In their conscious state, they could be poked with sharp objects without feeling pain. Under hypnosis, the numbness was gone and Charcot could demonstrate that there was no physical damage to the body.

The third stage, somnambulism, opened more communication between patient and doctor. Charcot believed that it represented the self-induced state of hysteria during which the attacks occurred. The patient was more conscious at this point and able to accept healing suggestions.

All this turned Charcot’s lectures into exciting stage productions with light and sound effects, with half-clad women fainting or screaming, thrashing about or slavishly obeying orders, and stiffening in unnatural positions in front of a fascinated masculine audience. As Charcot’s fame grew in medical circles, his neurological clinic saw students from far abroad. By that time he had his stars: Blanche, Louise, Augustine, and others/ They were young, pretty, and skillfully playing the part.


Charcot and his patient: The show could not go on

Toward the end of his life, Charcot admitted that hypnosis was not really used to treat the symptoms of hysteria. He could alleviate them, but in most cases it was only temporary relief. He used hypnosis to exhibit hysterical symptoms: it was a teaching tool, not a cure. After Charcot’s death, in 1893, hypnosis would continue, but in different forms. It was abandoned as a medical procedure, mainly because very few people had the ability to induce hypnosis the way Charcot could. Sigmund Freud, Charcot’s pupil, and great admirer failed at the task and developed psychoanalysis instead. Hypnosis returned to the occult and stage entertainment.

Modern medicine buried hysteria in the 1980s when it was eradicated from the official medical diagnoses list. It’s been replaced by the vague label of dissociative disorders.


Next: The Madwomen’s Ball at La Salpêtrière. (When the Parisian high-society went to the madhouse for entertainment.)


Related posts:

Murder Most Horrible: The Bloody Trunk Case (Hypnosis and crime)

Louise and Jeanne: The Two Antipodes of Moulin Rouge (Child abuse and mental illness)

Poor and Helpless in 19th Century Paris


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An attack on a police wagon. Criminal gangs were the scourge of Paris

It was never easy to police Paris. Parisians, instead of being glad for the help and protection, have always despised their policemen.  The contempt has been profound and general. It could be that Parisians, more than most, don’t want to be told how to behave. A strike, a riot, a revolution, have been their tools of political and social change across the 19th century and well beyond. To say that policing during the Belle Epoque  (1870 – 1914) was a martyrdom would be a slight exaggeration, but it was a very hard job on a tiny salary. The police staff were recruited mostly from the army, and the discipline in the police corps was just as strict, if not stricter. The recruits had to have no criminal record. According to the 1880s tariff, a policeman earned 4 francs and 75 cents for an eleven and a half-hour day. In comparison, a maid-of-all-work touched one franc a day.  For that pitiful wage, the men had to risk their lives in many wild scenarios that are nowadays shared among different rescue services. In 1884, for example, the statistics show one killed policeman and 144 injured.

Let’s have a look at a policeman’s day and the variety of crimes committed in that era:



Strikes of all sorts are still part of the urban life in Paris


Belle Epoque Paris faced the threat of various anarchist bomb-throwers. Bombs exploded in the National Assembly, in police stations, in cafés, or simply in the street. Premature explosions also happened, as in this picture



The public, accustomed to the explosion of anarchists’ bombs, reacts to a malfunctioning motorcar

"" Jeanne Weber

Police had to deal with the raging crowd when a hated criminal was transported. Here they protect Jeanne Weber, a serial child killer



Arrest of the Sirène de Reuilly. Marie-Thérèse de Gordoue, or simply Gourdon in real life, was a successful courtesan and the head of a large crime organization


Criminal gang members, suspected of snitching, were separated from their noses during a surgery without anesthesia


Shopkeepers, working alone, were often victims of robbery and murder



The Bois de Boulogne on the outskirts of the city continues to this day to be the playground of vice and crime. From time to time, the authorities ordered a thorough cleanup.


A police raid in a “hôtel de passe”. These establishments rented rooms on the hour. Considered immoral, they were often visited by the police. Men went scot-free but women caught in the raid were transported to the police depot, and from there to the Saint-Lazare female prison


Escapes and roof chases kept the policemen in good physical condition


The police operated at various height levels. A pickpocket plucked from a tree


At the commissariat, a thief surrenders a watch he had swallowed


Family drama: The father is not dead yet, but the fierce competition among the siblings is already in a full swing


A police commissaire is seriously injured in a Paris riot


Another victim of duty, an undercover police officer is shot in front of the Moulin Rouge


Acts of bravery and dedication abounded despite the public contempt for policemen

Related posts:

The Gangs of Paris: Les Apaches

Murder Most Horrible: The Bloody Trunk Case

Saint-Lazare: Women in Prison

1890’s Terror in Paris: History Repeating Itself


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