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Posts Tagged ‘19th century France’

 

Apaches at Work

Encounter of the Apaches with the police on the Place de la Bastille

 

Tourist traps were not invented yesterday. The Parisians have got the hang of it very early on. One of the tourist attractions in the past was the glimpse of the redoubtable Apaches, the vicious gangs that terrorized Paris. (More about them in The Gangs of Paris.) Like other tourists, the American author and humorist Irvin S. Cobb followed this fashion of playing with the fire. We first came in contact with his caustic humor in Jacques Takes a Bath where he questions the local hygiene. In the following text, Cobb explores the Paris underground hoping for an adrenaline high in mingling with the Apaches:

Knowing from experience that every other American who lands in Paris will crave to observe the Apache while the Apache is in the act of Apaching round, the canny Parisians have provided a line of up-to-date Apache dens within easy walking distance of Montmartre; and hither the guides lead the round-eyed tourist and there introduce him to well-drilled, carefully made-up Apaches and Apachesses engaged in their customary sports and pastimes for as long as he is willing to pay out money for the privilege.

Being forewarned of this I naturally desired to see the genuine article. I took steps to achieve that end. Suitably chaperoned by a trio of transplanted Americans who knew a good bit about the Paris underworld I rode over miles of bumpy cobblestones until, about four o’clock in the morning, our taxicab turned into a dim back street opening off one of the big public markets and drew up in front of a grimy establishment rejoicing in the happy and well-chosen name of the Cave of the Innocents.

Alighting we passed through a small boozing ken, where a frowzy woman presided over a bar, serving drinks to smocked marketmen, and at the rear descended a steep flight of stone steps. At the foot of the stairs we came on two gendarmes who sat side by side on a wooden bench, having apparently nothing else to do except to caress their goatees and finger their swords. Whether the gendarmes were stationed here to keep the Apaches from preying on the marketmen or the marketmen preying on the Apaches I know not; but having subsequently purchased some fresh fruit in that selfsame market I should say now that if anybody about the premises needed police protection it was the Apaches. My money would be on the marketmen every time.

Beyond the couchant gendarmes we traversed a low, winding passage cut out of stone and so came at length to what seemingly had originally been a wine vault, hollowed out far down beneath the foundations of the building. The ceiling was so low that a tall man must stoop to avoid knocking his head off. The place was full of smells that crawled in a couple of hundred years before and had died without the benefit of clergy, and had remained there ever since. For its chief item of furniture the cavern had a wicked old piano, with its lid missing, so that its yellowed teeth showed in a perpetual snarl. I judged some of its important vital organs were missing too – after I heard it played. On the walls were inscribed such words as naughty little boys write on schoolhouse fences in this country, and more examples of this pleasing brand of literature were carved on the white oak benches and the rickety wooden stools. So much for the physical furbishing.

By rights—by all the hallowed rules and precedents of the American vaudeville stage!—the denizens of this cozy retreat in the bowels of the earth should have been wearing high-waisted baggy velvet trousers and drinking absinthe out of large flagons, and stabbing one another between the shoulder blades, and ever and anon, in the mystic mazes of dance, playing crack-the-whip with the necks and heels of their adoring lady friends; but such was not found to be the case. In all these essential and traditional regards the assembled Innocents were as poignantly disappointing as the costers of London had proved themselves.

According to all the printed information on the subject the London coster wears clothes covered up with pearl buttons and spends his time swapping ready repartee with his Donah or his Dinah. The costers I saw were barren of pearl buttons and silent of speech; and almost invariably they had left their Donahs at home. Similarly, these gentlemen habitués of the Cave of the Innocents wore few or no velvet pants, and guzzled none of the absinthe. Their favorite tipple appeared to be beer; and their female companions snuggled closely beside them.

apache 1

We stayed among them fully twenty minutes, but not a single person was stabbed while we were there. It must have been an off-night for stabbings. Still I judged them to have been genuine exhibits because here, for the first, last and only time in Paris, I found a shop where a stranger ready to spend a little money was not welcomed with vociferous enthusiasm. The paired-off cave-dwellers merely scowled on us as we scourged past them to a vacant bench in a far corner. […]

For the sake of the conventions I tried to feel apprehensive of grave peril. It was no use. I felt safe – not exactly comfortable, but perfectly safe. I could not even muster up a spasm of the spine when a member of our party leaned over and whispered in my ear that any one of these gentry roundabout us would cheerfully cut a man’s throat for twenty-five cents. I was surprised though at the moderation of the cost; this was the only cheap thing I had struck in Paris. It was cheaper even than the same job is supposed to be in the district round Chatham Square, on the East Side of New York, where the credulous stranger so frequently is told that he can have a plain murder done for five dollars – or a fancy murder with trimmings, for ten; rate card covering other jobs on application. In America, however, it has been my misfortune that I did not have the right amount handy; and here in Paris I was handicapped by my inability to make change correctly. By now I would not have trusted anyone in Paris to make change for me – not even an Apache. I was sorry for this, for at a quarter a head I should have been glad to engage a troupe of Apaches to kill me about two dollars’ worth of cabdrivers and waiters. For one of the waiters at our hotel I would have been willing to pay as much as fifty cents, provided they killed him very slowly. Because of the reasons named, however, I had to come away without making any deal, and I have always regretted it.

Related posts:

Jacques Takes a Bath

The Gags of Paris: Les Apaches

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100

A milestone like the hundredth post naturally calls for a pause, for a look back at what has been achieved. These days VP posts are read around the world, even in countries I never knew existed.  It was not so at the very beginning.  Buried deep in the archives are posts that few eyes have seen recently. Yet given the small readership at the time, they gathered exceptional attention either for their content, or for the quality of the writing. Victorian Paris, it should be known, is history written by the people who lived it. From time to time, I contribute by writing a post, but usually I limit myself to finding a catchy title. After all, the texts published here don’t need more than a short introduction. Even though they were written more than a hundred years ago, they are rich in content and very often full of sparkling wit. Let’s revisit three of them:

 

La Grisette

Homage to the grisette. Statue erected in 1830

 

 

Living Vertically: Parisian Housing in 1850 / Part 1

Parisian house, January 1st, 1843

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Paris Morgue in Emile Zola’s Words (warning – gruesome!)

The Morgue at Paris. The Last Scene of a Tragedy.

 

 

 

 

 

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1858 Italian gownThe previous post dealt with the duel – a very masculine endeavor of two men killing each other for the sake of honor. Unlike the male population, women did not carry swords or pistols to assert themselves. They used fashion to that end. The 1850’s  and 60’s was the era of expansion in every way including the fashion. Railways expanded around the world, an undersea cable was laid and the telegraph carried instant news across the Atlantic. Machines and bridges were built that required chains of links the size of a human body. International expositions united goods and people from every corner of the globe. Women in their ever-increasing skirts took more and more room at such gatherings. A dress made of 15 to 20 yards of fabric covered with an ample mantle in the winter made women look like moving pyramids. Fortunately, the sewing machine was invented just then to help with assembling the abundant material.

Although I published a few posts on the 19th century fashion, especially on the infamous 1850-60’s crinoline, none of them can compete with Mimi Matthews’ meticulous work The 1850s in Fashionable Gowns: A Visual Guide to the Decade. Mimi is working her way through the century post by post, each decade a careful assemblage of museum collections photos: a visual feast not to be missed. You’ll find some fashion atrocities like the Queen Victoria’s Great Exhibition gown with cancerous satin growths, but also things of stunning beauty, of rich materials and clever use of sewing skills. The winning entry is the orange Italian court gown. Do click on the photo to enlarge the gorgeous gold embroidery. You will be taken directly to the Metropolitan Museum fashion collection. But do come back to read Mimi Matthews’ remarkable post!

Related post:

The Hoop Crinoline: Dying for fashion

 

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cassagnac2

 

In the A Tramp Abroad, published in 1880, Mark Twain mocked the French practice of dueling:

“Much as the modern French duel is ridiculed by certain smart people, it is in reality one of the most dangerous institutions of our day. Since it is always fought in the open air, the combatants are nearly sure to catch cold. M. Paul de Cassagnac, the most inveterate of the French duelists, had suffered so often in this way that he is at last a confirmed invalid; and the best physician in Paris has expressed the opinion that if he goes on dueling for fifteen or twenty years more—unless he forms the habit of fighting in a comfortable room where damps and droughts cannot intrude—he will eventually endanger his life.”

Paul de Cassagnac, who fought twenty-two duels, will be mentioned again in this post and in the embedded video you will be able to see his son follow the family’s dueling tradition.

Whatever Mark Twain might have said with his customary sarcasm, the duel was no laughing matter. In the Middle Ages it was a legitimate procedure to settle a personal dispute. Yet as time went by, an excess of testosterone combined with personal pride made it the prime cause of death among young nobles, who felt obliged to fight for the slightest personal offence. At the rate of 500 deaths a year, France was in danger of losing all of her nobility to trivial disputes. Duels were outlawed by a royal edict. However, the social pressure remained strong and the image of a hero executing a mortal dance to avenge an insult had an irresistible pull. From public places, the duels merely moved to private enclosures or to forest clearings.

After the Revolution, all the royal edicts were abolished including those banning duels. All citizens were allowed to carry arms which led to the democratization of duel: now men of all classes could kill each other just as stupidly as the nobles had done for centuries. Fortunately, most of the duels fought by now ended with the first appearance of blood and a mere scratch was often good enough to satisfy the offended honor. Even so, 200 deaths in duels were registered between 1826 and 1834.

cassagnac3Although in the 19th century a duel kill could be punished as a murder, the authorities were generally indulgent if the result was a mere injury. For instance, in 1868, Paul de Cassagnac was condemned by the Sixth Chamber of the Criminal Court of the Seine to six days in jail and 200 francs fine after his victorious duel with his cousin Prosper-Olivier Lissagaray. The four witnesses were sentenced to 50 francs fine each. The victim was left off to lick his wounds. (Lissagaray was put to bed for a month. Barely recovered, he sent his witnesses to Cassagnac to continue the duel. Cassagnac replied: “No, sir. I left you on the ground riddled like a sieve. I could consent to be your opponent, it disgusts me to become your butcher.”)

Now we have heard enough about Paul de Cassagnac to be curious. Who was this duelist extraordinaire? A French Casanova?  Most would think that duels were fought mainly over a lady’s honor, especially in France, but that would be an error. Journalists and politicians were called out more often than wife’s lovers. De Cassagnac, both a journalist and a deputy at the National Assembly, made numerous enemies with his radical views. His son, Paul de Cassagnac Jr., inherited both his father’s dangerous occupations and his fiery temperament. You can see him fighting in the following video clip (second duel).

 

By the beginning of the 20th century, the duel was the thing of the past in all countries except in France, where it was still going strong until the killing fields of WWI took away the lives of an entire generation. There were a few duels afterwards, all duly caught on film, but one would believe that even the French would be entirely done with dueling after the horrors of WWII. Right?

The last duel in Paris (Ribière left, Deferre in the center)

The last duel in Paris (Ribière left, Deferre in the center)

Wrong! The last duel in Paris was fought  April 21st 1967. Again, the point of contention was not an affair of the heart fought over by two young bucks. The participants were two staid politicians in the French hotbed of disagreement: the National Assembly. Deferre, the mayor of Marseille was constantly interrupted in his speech by the deputy of Val d’Oise, René Ribière. “Mais taissez-vous donc, abruti!” (Shut up, asshole!), shouted Deferre. Refusing to apologize for the insult, he was challenged to a duel. President Charles de Gaulle sent emissaries to cancel the duel, but without success. The participants avoided the police and organized a secret encounter on a private property. The duel lasted four minutes and the referee put an end to it after the second scratch.  Just as well because Ribière, the loser, was getting married the next day. And so, after all the politics, we can finally mention l’amour.

Related post:

Events in the Street: Female duel with sand-filled socks

 

 

 

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The Café-Concert at “The Ambassadeurs”

The Café-Concert at “Les Ambassadeurs”

Jean Béraud 1848 - 1935

Jean Béraud 1848 – 1935

Jean Béraud was born in Saint-Petersburg, Russia, where his father worked as a sculptor.  In 1853, after Jean Béraud Senior died, his wife Eugénie took Jean and his three siblings back to France. Jean studied at the Lycée Bonaparte then became a pupil of Léon Bonnat at the School of Fine Arts in Paris. He started at the Salon of 1872 and in 1876 he enjoyed success with his painting After the Funeral.

He became one of the leading painters of Parisian life. From the sweeping views of the boulevards to the intimate twosome at a bistro table, Béraud knows his Parisians. He paints with acuity and often with humor the scenes of daily life in every social setting.

After the Funeral

After the Funeral

A Windy Day at the Pont-des-Arts

A Windy Day at the Pont-des-Arts

Children with a Toy Seller on the Quai du Louvre

Children with a Toy Seller on the Quai du Louvre

Boulevard Poisonière in the Rain

Boulevard Poissonière in the Rain

An Argument in the Corridors of the Opera

An Argument in the Corridors of the Opera

La Marseillaise

La Marseillaise

First Communion

First Communion

The Boulevard

The Boulevard

The Garden of Paris

The Garden of Paris

In a Café

In a Café

Related post:

Paris Boulevards

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Jean-Georges Béraud: Street Scene

Jean Béraud: Street Scene

“One of the characteristics of the people of Paris, for which they are known the world over, is their politeness,” wrote David W. Bartlett, an American author, who visited Paris during the Second Empire (1852-1870). Reading this, the immediate reaction of today’s visitors would be an utter disbelief since Parisians are known world-wide for their unpleasant behavior. The only consolation for the foreigner is that they don’t treat each other any better. During my last visit, my Parisian friend was called “une conne” (and a few more choice words) because of a tiny parking mistake she had made. The aggressor was a middle-class, middle-aged man. Things are looking up though. Well-aware of their bad reputation, Parisians are trying to soften their manners. In my experience (compared to ten, twenty years ago) there is a noticeable improvement.

David W. Bartlett

David W. Bartlett

Yet if we are to believe Mr. Bartlett, present-day Parisians come nowhere close to their ancestors’ civility. “I noticed this politeness in all circles and in all places,” he writes, and goes on: “In England John Bull stares at your dress if it differs from his own, and hunts you to the wall. Or if anything in your speech or manners pleases him, he laughs in your face. But in Paris, the Frenchman never is guilty of so ill-bred an action as to laugh at anybody in his presence, however provoking the occasion. If you are lost and inquire the way, he will run half a mile to show you, and will not even hear of thanks. The only time that I ever experienced anything but politeness in Paris, was when in a great hurry I chanced to hit a workman with a basket upon his head. The concussion was so great that the basket was dashed to the pavement. He turned round very slowly, and with a grin upon his countenance said, “Thank you, sir!” This was politeness with a little too much sarcasm. It was spoken so finely that I burst into a laugh, and the Frenchman joined me in it.”

Lucky Mr. Bartlett!

Related posts:

Mending Their Manners

Events in the Street: Female duel with sand-filled socks

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trunk affaire

Readers who remember the O.J. Simpson’s trial fever will have a small idea of the immense frenzy that surrounded the Bloody Trunk Affair in 1890. Never was there a murder case where a suspect in custody was cheered by the crowd, thrown flowers, blown kisses, exchanged hand-shakes with officials and reporters, travelled first-class, displayed elegant gowns, and enjoyed gourmet food. The four-foot eight waif Gabrielle Bompard (21) did all that after having admitted that she was, indeed, somewhat guilty of murder.

Gabrielle Bompard

Gabrielle Bompard

Gabrielle grew up in Northern France, the daughter of a widowed metal dealer. A burden to her father’s live-in mistress, the young girl was dumped into boarding schools and convents where she repeatedly misbehaved until she was sent packing. Finally, at her father’s request, she was locked up in a corrective institute where she remained until the age of twenty.

Once released, she decided to seek fortune in Paris. The little money she had brought with her soon ran out and it was then that her path crossed with that of Michel Eyraud’s. She became his mistress. In his fifties and no longer handsome, Eyraud proudly displayed his youthful paramour in the boulevard cafés. Once an army deserter, he had spent many years in the Americas until an amnesty allowed him to return to France. He spoke several languages and was an accomplished crook. At the time he met Gabrielle, his bumpy business career was nearing its end and he would soon be accused of fraud unless he found enough money to plug up the hole. He turned to Gabrielle for help.

The plan was simple: Gabrielle was to lure a rich man to an apartment where they would rob and kill him. As modest as the plan was, its execution was anything but. First, the would-be murderers travelled to London, where they purchased a trunk large enough to accommodate a human body. Next on the shopping list was fabric to sew into a body bag, followed by a rope, a pulley, and a silk cord to use as a noose. Back in Paris, Eyraud hammered the pulley into a crossbeam and installed a curtain across an alcove to hide a chair and the hanging rope. Here he would wait for the victim. Now the couple only needed to snare a man known for carrying large sums of money and susceptible to the lure of the fair sex. Among their boulevard acquaintances, they chose Toussaint-Augustin Gouffé, who was manifestly interested in Gabrielle’s charms. Gouffé was a skirt-chaser extraordinaire (investigation revealed that during the month before his death he slept with twenty women) and he readily accepted Gabrielle’s invitation to a romantic candle-lit evening.

gouffeAt first, everything went according to the plan: Gabrielle, clad in a dressing gown tied with the cord, skillfully maneuvered Gouffé onto a chaise longue next to the curtain. Her role was to playfully tie the silk cord into a noose and slip it over the victim’s head. Something went wrong at that moment. Gabrielle froze, as she later claimed, and Eyraud brutally took over. In the subsequent struggle, the pulley gave under the weight of Gouffé, who crashed to the floor and had to be strangled by hand.

Gabrielle spent a sleepless night alone with the trunk containing Gouffé’s body, while Eyraud rejoined his marital bed. His unsuspecting wife later reported that he snored loudly that night. In the morning, the couple hired a cab and had the trunk transported onto a train to Lyons. Once there, they rented another vehicle and drove to a remote place above a river. They dumped the body down the steep embankment, after which Eyraud destroyed the trunk and disposed of the debris further down the road. Now was the time to start anew in another country.

George Garanger

George Garanger

The couple landed in Dover as Monsieur Labordère and his teenage son. The petite Gabrielle, her long hair chopped off, made a convincing boy. Several days later they boarded a transatlantic steamer heading for Canada. They were now known as E.B. Vanaerd, a wealthy businessman, and his daughter Berthe. They travelled from Québec to Montréal, and on to Vancouver, to end up in San Francisco. Along the way they met Georges Garanger, a wealthy Frenchman. Garanger immediately fell under Gabrielle’s spell, which was most convenient as Eyraud needed another victim to fleece and kill. Completely confident in Gabrielle’s obedience, he allowed the pair to travel East, presumably to meet Gabrielle’s aunt and settle an inheritance. He planned to wait for them in New York and to kill Garanger there. It was a fatal error. Gabrielle, tired of Eyraud’s frequent brutality and in love with the handsome Garanger, warned her new lover as soon as they were out of Eyraud’s reach. Instead of going to New York, the two diverted to Canada and from there to Europe. During the voyage, Gabrielle slowly unburdened herself, but Garanger did not fully grasp the reality until they reached Paris.

Meanwhile in France, the investigation of Goussé’s disappearance started without a clue. Weeks later, a decomposed body found near Lyons

François-Marie Goron, head of the Paris Sûreté

François-Marie Goron, head of the Paris Sûreté

was connected to the missing man thanks to the intuition of François-Marie Goron, the brilliant head of the Paris Sûreté. Goron did not hesitate using the press to gather information from any member of the public willing to co-operate. The intrigued public was more than willing. When the reconstructed bloody trunk was exposed in the Paris morgue for a week’s duration, thousands of people—Frenchmen as well as foreign visitors—patiently waited for hours to catch the sight. Two names were linked with the missing Goussé: Michel Eyraud and Gabrielle Bompard, both shining by their absence since the victim’s disappearance in July. The big hunt began, first in France, then in England, and on to America. From each destination, the detectives returned with a wealth of information. There was no doubt whatsoever about the couple’s involvement with the Goussé’s murder. Long before Gabrielle’s return to France, both she and Eyraud became the world’s most wanted criminals.

Gabrielle, playing Eyraud’s victim, surrendered herself to the police, the faithful lover Garanger at her side. The press and the public went wild. Perhaps unconscious of the severe charges held against her, she thrived on her fame, or rather infamy. Her every appearance, whether it was a transfer from prison to the Palace of Justice for interrogation, or a trip to the crime sites, drew huge attendance. Her portraits appeared in print and the most trivial details, from her fashionable attire to the food she ordered, were deemed worthy of public interest. Pleased with so much attention, Gabrielle did her best to charm the crowd.

A mug shot of Michel Eyraud

A mug shot of Michel Eyraud

Waiting in vain in New York, the betrayed Eyraud was alerted by the American newspapers that a French investigative team was on his heels. He quickly removed himself to Cuba, but his luck ran out. Apprehended in Havana and transported in a cage to France, he knew that he was finished. Now that the two criminals were safely locked up, the stage was set for an action-packed trial. Gabrielle pleaded extenuating circumstances. She acted under the influence of hypnosis, she claimed. Eyraud would have none of it. Seething with hatred for her betrayal, he wanted her to share his all-too-sure death sentence. According to him, he never hypnotised Gabrielle; he was actually a lap dog carrying out her orders. However, Gabrielle had an extensive background in hypnotism and many witnesses reported her ability to fall into a deep sleep during hypnotic séances dating as far back as her childhood.

Today, we cannot fully understand the status of hypnosis in the 19th century. Not only was it the playground of the idle classes, but it was seriously considered by respected scientists. At the time of the trial, hypnosis was the battleground of two schools, one led by the neurologist Charcot and his team in Paris and the opposing School of Nancy headed by Professor Liègeois. “Is it possible that the accused killed under the influence of hypnosis and therefore is not responsible for her action?” was the burning question of the trial. “Absolutely not,” thundered the Paris team. “Absolutely yes,” countered the opponents. In the end it fell to the jury to decide the outcome. The jury knew that, by acquitting Gabrielle, they would create a dangerous precedent. However, the accused was young and personable. Some extenuating circumstances could be admitted, couldn’t they? Gabrielle Bompard was sentenced to twenty years of which she served twelve. Michel Eyraud was publicly guillotined soon after the trial. Thus ended the cause celèbre of the Bloody Trunk.

Related post:

Saint-Lazare: Women in prison

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