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Posts Tagged ‘19th century Paris’

first day

 

When you take a guided tour in France—whether it is a Loire château, or any other building erected before 1789—inevitably, there comes the time when the guide says: “Unfortunately, during the Revolution…,” and there follows a list of damaged or destroyed artifacts. The French were fond of revolutions – when they were happening. Afterward, seeing what they had done in moments of passion, they wept.

The 1789 revolution, the very first one, is well known. The guillotine, the years of terror, the king Louis XVI and the queen Marie-Antoinette executed. Having gotten the taste of it, the French people became serial revolutionaries. March 18 marks the anniversary of the Commune of Paris, one of the three revolutions that shook the city in the 19th century and, decidedly, the bloodiest of all. The sixty-two days of its duration caused up to thirty thousand deaths (the number varies according to different sources).

What led to this bloodbath? Why did the prosperous France of the Second Empire wake up as an impoverished Third Republic? Why was Paris in ruins?

In July 1870, the French declare war on Prussia, or, rather, are tricked to do it. The crafty Chancellor Bismarck needs the conflict to unify a collection of small German-speaking countries into one powerful nation. Ill-prepared, the French army is defeated by the Prussians in the battle of Sedan and the emperor Napoleon III made prisoner. Riots in Paris follow the bad news and the next day, September 4th, the empire is overthrown. A Republican government moves into the City Hall, while the Prussians close in on Paris.

 

rats

During the siege, dogs, cats, and rats were sold at high prices. The rich dined on exotic meat provided by the zoo animals

 

Paris is besieged during the winter months. The weather is cruel and the city suffers from a severe famine. Hunger and typhoid fever ravage Paris from within, while the Prussians shell it from the outside. Starved and ill, the Parisians learn that a new humiliation had visited the country: the German Empire was proclaimed in Versailles and an armistice has been signed.

 

bismarck

The Empire of Germany, a new European power, is proclaimed in the Versailles palace

 

This does not sit well with the Parisians, who do not consider themselves defeated. The German boots desecrating the exquisite beauty of the Hall of Mirrors? Ce n’est pas acceptable! Anger is rising when they learn the terms of peace.  The Germans demand a two-day entry to Paris, the surrender of two provinces (Alsace and Lorraine) and war reparations amounting to one billion gold coins. Their army would occupy the country until the debt is paid off.

 

victory parade

The German victory parade in the streets of Paris

 

Aware that a revolt is brewing, the government moves its headquarters from Paris to Versailles.  The spark ignites when the government tries to disarm Paris by confiscating 248 cannons from Montmartre and other working-class neighborhoods on the periphery. The cannons belong to the city; they were paid for by war subscription. The people rise to defend their property and the soldiers’ loyalty shifts. Two generals are seized and shot. There is no way back. The insurgents erect barricades and the Commune of Paris is proclaimed.

 

debut

800 barricades went up in the city

 

Elected on March 26th, the Commune is in direct opposition to the conservative national government. The core, like in all revolutions, are intellectuals, students, writers, artists, and artisans with egalitarian ideas and the vision of justice for all. Outraged as they are by the government’s betrayal, many Parisians of the middle class join in the insurrection. The main muscle of the revolution is the impressionable working class which, when excited, easily turns into a mob.

 

women

Women were heavily engaged in the insurrection, both as nurses and combatants. The 1789 revolution had its tricoteuses (women who took their knitting to the guillotine to keep their hands busy during the executions). The Commune of Paris gives birth to the pétroleuses. “The women behaved like tigresses, throwing petroleum everywhere and distinguishing themselves by the fury with which they fought”. (Edwin Child, a young Londoner working in Paris.)

 

The basic ideas of the revolution are modern and positive: reform of the working conditions, good children education, separation of the church and the state, women’s equality. Their application is awkward, to say the least. “Property is theft,” the revolutionaries declare as they seize the Bank of France. All religious institutions are invaded, their material goods confiscated, the churches turned into social clubs for the people. On April 23, George Sand, the famous novelist and, herself a Republican, writes to Gustav Flaubert, author of Madame Bovary:  “The horrible adventure continues. They ransom, they threaten, they arrest, they judge. They have taken over all the city halls, all the public establishments, they’re pillaging the munitions and the food supplies.” 

 

church

Churches became social clubs for the people

 

Without a clear program and with no political experience, the feeling of brotherhood, with which the Commune started, changes into quarrel and resentment. Valuable time is lost in endless debates and little is achieved. Like George Sand, Parisians become tired of this bizarre social experiment. They long for peace and quiet; the poorer ones want to return to their familiar misery with its own reassuring habits. Others, the ardent supporters, are determined to fight. “The Commune or death!” they chant.

 

army

The Versailles troops approach the walls of Paris

 

Meanwhile, in Versailles, the government has reconstituted the army with war prisoners released by the Germans. The Germans hold their position northwest of the city while the Versailles troops approach from the southeast. Paris is surrounded again. The insurgents attempt several attacks outside the city walls, each time with no success. They send emissaries to Versailles, who are killed. The Commune, in turn, captures hostages, chiefly among the clergy.  On May 21st, the Versailles troops break in and the infamous Bloody Week begins.

 

combat

Barricades are reinforced and new ones added as the combat rages street by street. The soldiers break into houses and pierce the walls to avoid confrontation with the barricades

 

The army takes no prisoners. Every adversary is shot dead. Unarmed civilians caught with gunpowder traces on their hands are executed as well. The Communards take revenge by killing the hostages. The Archbishop of Paris is among the victims.

 

commune massacre haxo

The massacre of hostages

 

massacre rue puebla

The execution of the Archbishop of Paris

 

Paris-burning

Paris burning. In the foreground is the imperial palace

Paris is shelled again, this time by the French army. The Ministry of Finance is destroyed in the process. Fires break out in many prestigious locations. These are later explained by the partisans of the Commune as the result of the shelling. However, most of the gutted buildings bore no traces of shelling. They were deliberately set on fire. The legend of the pétroleuses, if it is a legend, started here. As a result, working-class women caught carrying a suspicious container were summarily executed.

 

petroleuse

 

radnice hori

The City Hall on fire

 

tuileries

The imperial palace after the fire

 

Government and police offices are consumed by the fire, their archives destroyed. The air, already unbreathable, is filled with whirling charred paper remains that settle on the roofs and sidewalks. The Tuileries palace is a total loss. The stones will be sold, piece by piece, as construction material. A wing of the Louvre also suffered fire damage.

The novelist Emile Zola, was one of the first reporters to enter the city during the Bloody Week. He wrote: “Never in civilized times has such a terrible crime ravaged a great city […] The men of the Hotel de Ville could not be other than assassins and arsonists. They were beaten and fled like robbers from the regular army, and took vengeance upon the monuments and houses […] The fires of Paris have pushed over the limit the exasperation of the army. […] Those who burn and who massacre merit no other justice than the gunshot of a soldier.”

 

defeat

The end of the Commune

 

The revenge is atrocious and out of proportion. The Commune killed 64 hostages yet the insurgents are now butchered by the thousands. Nobody is spared, even the injured patients in an ambulance along with the doctors and nurses. Women are shot with children in their arms.

 

summary executions

Many innocents were shot along with the rebels

 

Four days after the battle is over, Emile Zola reports in a softened tone: “The court martials are still meeting and the summary executions continue, less numerous, it’s true. The sound of firing squads, which one still hears in the mournful city, atrociously prolongs the nightmare […] Paris is sick of executions. It seems to Paris that they’re shooting everyone. Paris is not complaining about the shooting of the members of the Commune, but of innocent people. It believes that, among the pile, there are innocent people, and that it’s time that each execution is preceded by at least an attempt at a serious inquiry […] When the echoes of the last shots have ceased, it will take a great deal of gentleness to heal the million people suffering nightmares, those who have emerged, shivering from the fire and massacre.”

sand

G. Sand

Emerging, shivering from the fire, is also George Sand. She writes:” I come from Paris, and I do not know whom to speak to. I am suffocated. I am quite upset, or rather out of heart. The sight of the ruins is nothing compared to the great Parisian insanity. With very rare exceptions, everybody seemed to me only fit for the strait-jacket. One half of the population longs to hang the other half, which returns the compliment. That is clearly to be read in the eyes of the passers-by.”

 

march

Prisoners being taken to Versailles

 

The surviving rebels are marched twenty miles to Versailles. They suffer insults along the way. One of the gossipy Goncourt brothers later recalled that he saw society ladies, who had never raised their voice, vomit their hatred using invectives that would make a sailor blush.

 

prisoners versailles

Female prisoners awaiting interrogations

 

condamnation

The trials were of short duration, with the execution shortly after

 

The prisoners, who were not condemned to death, were shipped to New Caledonia, an island in the Pacific Ocean.  Forty-three thousand were sent there in crowded conditions and with little food. A handful came back after the amnesty twenty years later.

In all, with thirty thousand dead, not counting the injured, and another forty thousand deported, it took over ten years to restore the Paris working force. These people were not only the manual laborers. They were also highly skilled workers and artisans of superior training. Even today, 146 years after the event, there are fresh flowers laid at the wall where the last Communards were executed. The working class keeps paying respect to the victims of this Parisian calamity.

Related posts:

How Germany was Born in France (The Shah of Persia, on his 1873 visit to Europe, comments on the post-Commune Paris)

Paris of the 1870s: Risen from the Ashes

12 Events That Influenced 19th Century Paris

 

 

 

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beraud-ballet

Backstage at the Opera by Jean Béraud

The title of this post is not an exaggeration, although the Opera directors would have preferred a more subtle one or, ideally, a complete silence on the subject.  The Béraud’s painting above needs no further words. There is the internationally popular Edgar Degas with his paintings of hard-working, hard-driven little dancers, and there is our say-it-as-it-is Jean Béraud (more of him here), who bluntly covers the other end of the story. The true story of the Degas’s dancers.

In our day, such an enablement of the sex commerce in a prestigious cultural institution would be unthinkable.  Welcome to the 19th century for a taste of life without women’s rights and women’s education, where a career choice outside marriage was limited mainly to servitude or prostitution. In a world made by men for the men, the Opera direction facilitated the meetings between wealthy men and the ballerinas by providing the former with an access to the backstage and, above all, to the dance foyer, where they could observe the dancers at a close range and, eventually, make a choice.  The access was available for a substantial subscription fee.

In the 19th century, the ballet was more than the high-brow entertainment that makes today’s real men yawn. It was the height of an erotic experience.  In an age, when an accidental glimpse of a female ankle could send a man’s heart into overdrive, the spectacle of exposed legs and nude arms in a variety of alluring positions would beat the Stanley Cup in attendance. (Also, and this may be somewhat important, there were no sports matches to watch.) A man’s prestige mattered as well. To maintain a Paris Opera ballerina, or at least to be seen dining with one, meant that you have arrived socially and economically.

danse-lesson

The Dance Class by Edgar Degas, 1874

Now back to Edgar Degas and his suffering little dancers. Since the profession was morally disreputable, the recruits came from a disadvantaged socio-economic background. A pretty daughter with a dancing talent was a God-sent gift to a struggling family.  It was on the frail shoulders of this 12- to 13-year-old that the future of the family rested – it was her duty to provide them with a better life. Dancing alone would not bring the riches, the riches would come from the admirers; the girls knew that from the very beginning.

For the dancer, the road to success inevitably comes through men.  First, there is the ballet master with his close touch while straightening a waist, repositioning a leg, or stretching an arm. The girl surrenders to the inescapable in order not to compromise her professional ascent. Then come other men, who all, one way or another, hold her career in their hands: the librettist, who gives her a role – or not – in the next ballet and the director who renews – or not – her contract. If she really wants to break out of the anonymity of the dance corps, she must quickly seduce a wealthy protector, who would pay for advanced dance classes.

waiting

A daughter’s virtue was a subject to negotiation

To maintain a pretense of respectability, the direction allowed chaperones to be present at all times. These women, whether they were a mother, an aunt, or an older cousin, were the driving force behind each dancer and the unavoidable intermediaries between the girl and men.  Other lessons were needed and provided:  how to be desirable was taught with the same importance as the pas de danse. Théophile Gautier notes the results of this licentious education:  “The young ballerina is at once corrupt as an old diplomat and as naïve as a good savage. At the age of thirteen, she could teach a courtesan.”

The “mothers” then negotiate the charms of their daughters and they can be quite tyrannical. Is the interested party old and ugly? Too bad, he’s got money so the daughter better be nice to him. Prices are agreed upon and, if a long-term liaison is in the making, a contract is signed at the notary’s office. A skillful mother can make herself included in the monthly allowance.

Those, who are not urged by their mothers to give themselves to a man do so on their own will. Without the protection of a wealthy man and, if possible, a titled one, they have no access to a professional recognition. It’s a man’s world and, in this profession, the masculine element holds the power. The only weapons in the arsenal of the ballerina are cunning and seduction.

Related posts:

Jean Béraud: The Most Parisian of the Paris Painters

The Guide to Gay Paree 1869 – Part 6: Entertainment

 

 

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winterhalterEver since she became an empress, Eugenie de Montijo feared Queen Marie-Antoinette’s fate. She was right to feel uneasy. Eighteen years into the reign and some eighty years after Marie-Antoinette’s head was severed under the guillotine, Eugenie ran in terror through the streets of Paris with a mob at her heels. The year was 1870 and the only friend the French empress found in her distress was her American dentist.

Eugenie doesn’t deserve her lack of fame. Who doesn’t know Marie-Antoinette and her horrible end? Who has never heard of Empress Josephine, the wife of Napoleon I? Both are legendary figures of the French history. One was executed; the other had to agree to a divorce. That the French had two more empresses, Marie-Louise and Eugenie, is a lesser known fact. Marie-Louise’s contribution to the French history was reduced to giving Napoleon his only legitimate heir, an heir that Josephine was unable to provide.  After the fall of the First Empire, Marie-Louise and her little son (who might have ruled as Napoleon II had he not died in the exile) went to live in her native Austria and neither saw France again.

napoleon

Napoleon III

With the Bonaparte family banished from the country, France went through two Bourbon kings and two revolutions to become, again, a republic. After 34 years in the exile, the Bonapartes were back, this time headed by Louis Napoleon Bonaparte, the nephew of Napoleon I. His four-year stint as an elected French president ended in 1852 with a coup d’état when he took what he considered rightfully his: the imperial crown. Henceforth, he was known as Napoleon III.

Generally, the French don’t like Napoleon III. They call him Napoleon le Petit and they say that he did nothing for the glory of France. They seem not to notice that their glorious Napoleon I turned Europe into a battlefield where he sacrificed an entire generation of Frenchmen and caused untold misery to people all over the continent from Spain to Russia. His nephew, on the contrary, was an achiever of another sort. Under his 18-year rule, France conquered the world with her culture and industry. He was the builder of Paris as we know it today, with the wide avenues and sanitary underbelly. He was a modern man in every sense and he truly cared for his people’s well-being.

Fortunately, the new emperor was a bachelor and he could hope to find a bride of royal blood to solidify his lofty position.  Unfortunately, he was also the slave of his hormones. While his emissaries were shopping for a suitable bride among the reluctant royal families of Europe—they all still smarted from the consequences of his uncle’s conquests—Napoleon III met the woman of his life and she was not a royal.

Even though Eugenie de Montijo was a stunning beauty, she would never have made the history books had she been only one of Louis Napoleon’s easy conquests. Let’s say it right here:  the man had a long list of bedroom adventures although he wasn’t averse to having sex in any other room, in any stationary or moving vehicle, or even in a haystack –  standing, sitting or laying down.  His sexual appetite was legendary and sometimes embarrassingly noticeable. His Majesty the Empereur was renamed by his sneering courtiers His Majesty the Ampleur.

In Eugenie he found a fortress to be conquered. The rules were laid down very early after the two met.  He was still the Prince-President of the French Republic, she the 26-year-old daughter of a widowed Spanish countess. He invited the two women for a weekend in a country chateau. As he was returning from a horse ride, he spotted Eugenie at one of the numerous windows. Not knowing the exact layout of the building, he called: “How do I get to you?” “Through the chapel, Sire,” she answered.

The siege of Eugenie lasted eleven months before her would-be-conqueror declared defeat. By that time France had, once again, become an empire with Louis Napoleon on the throne. Everyone, especially his family, expected him to do his duty by marrying a virginal princess. Instead, he presented them with a Spanish adventuress of dubious virtue. They were furious.  “But I love her,” he said simply.

Eugenie’s extraordinary resistance to seduction was explained during the wedding night.  She had no appetite for physical love. “Sex? Quelle saleté!” (Sex? What filth!) she was heard saying the next morning. Despite his wife’s attitude, the emperor remained faithful to her for a period of six months before he returned to his old habits. That did not sit well with the new empress. She was very particular about her possessions and she would make a scene for a displaced pillow let alone for a displaced husband. The household was soon aware of her displeasure, most of all the emperor, who was forbidden access to the marital bed. But the pair had to produce an heir. A truce followed during which the task was accomplished. A lovely baby boy was born and given the title Prince Impérial. There were no other children. For the rest of the Napoleon III’s reign, the easily virtuous Eugenie presided over one of the most debauched courts in history, a court where adultery was the norm and a one-night stand with the emperor a badge of honor.

tuileries

The Second Empire court at its zenith. A soiree at the Tuileries, 1867

By now the reader has reached the opinion that Eugenie was a gold-digger with a block of ice where her heart ought to have been. That is incorrect. Most of her life was spent in serious charitable endeavors. An early feminist, she was pushing for female education and advocating the recognition of women’s achievements in literature, arts, and education. That her efforts were largely unsuccessful was the fault of the society she lived in. The reforms she championed came too early.

As an empress, Eugenie was without reproach. Always courteous and elegant, she represented her country admirably, whether at home or abroad. Queen Victoria, favorably impressed, quickly became Eugenie’s intimate friend. Politically, Eugenie certainly had an influence on the emperor, especially when he was weakened by a disease in the last years of his reign.  The Bonapartes had many enemies; the most influential among them was the ultra republican Victor Hugo, author of Les Misérables. Acting from his exile, he bombarded the imperial pair with insulting pamphlets.  The mud stuck and Eugenie was blamed for everything that went wrong. Like Marie Antoinette, she was foreign and foreign queens were suspected of spying for their homeland and generally wishing ill to the French people.

The declaration of war on Prussia and the consequent debacle were entirely laid at her feet. While her husband, suffering from a debilitating pain, eagerly sought honorable death on the battlefield before surrendering to Bismarck, Eugenie refused to shoot into an angry mob that surrounded the imperial palace.  She chose to flee.  Alone, she tried several addresses before help was offered.  Her savior was Dr. Evans, her American dentist. The pair sneaked off to the coast where the empress, in strict incognito, boarded a ship for England.  As for Dr. Evans, he dined on the story for the rest of his life.

eugenie-tissot-1878

The widowed Eugenie and her son in a Tissot’s painting, 1878

After the emperor’s comfortable imprisonment in the newly formed German Empire, the family is reunited in Camden Place, Chislehurst, southeast of London, to begin a life in the exile.  A plan for regaining his throne is certainly in the making when the emperor dies. From then on, Eugenie lives entirely for her son’s future. Not long after, tragedy strikes again: the prince, engaged in the war with the Zulus in South Africa, is slain by the savages.

The news makes the round of the planet. That his mother is devastated is understandable. oldBut the prince’s death crushed the hopes of numerous Bonapartists. It was generally understood that should the handsome prince claim the imperial crown it would be his for the taking. The grief in France could be compared to the one felt by the British when Princess Diana succumbed after the car accident. Husbandless and childless, Eugenie drags her sorrow through the rest of her long life. She dies in 1920 at the age of ninety-four.

Related posts:

Mark Twain on Napoleon III

Cocottes and Cocodettes

The Guide to Gay Paree 1869

How Germany Was Born in France

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chaleur

You would not want to experience a sultry summer in the 19th century, of that I’m sure. Look at the picture of suffering Parisians. No tank tops for the women, no short pants or sandals for the men. The fashion did not allow for such a relief. The only human being happy with the situation is the lemonade vendor, who is doing brisk business while carrying a pack of ice on his back.

Our ancestors fought back without air conditioning. Some  ways of staying cool are described in Mrs Daffodil’s post How to Keep Cool: 1860 – 1902. The post is an amalgam of heat remedies of the past: some efficient, others humorous if useless, and some downright ingenious. Who would have thought of serving ice cream inside a hollowed out rose? Do read the post and see whether you can find something useful should modern technology fail us.

 

 

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André-Adolphe-Eugène Disdéri (1819 -1899)

André-Adolphe-Eugène Disdéri (1819 -1899)

Photographic portraiture in the mid 19th century was a slow and expensive process until a clever man invented the carte de visite format. The inventor, André-Adolphe-Eugène Disdéri, juxtaposed multiple shots on the same negative, forming a mosaic comparable to that of the photo booth camera. The process, patented in 1854, reduced the cost of production of each photograph and made this kind of portraiture more popular. The visit card took its final shape when each image was pasted on a slightly larger rigid cardboard bearing the name and address of the photographer.

A plate with eight portraits of Princess Lizaveta Trubetzkaya with different fashion accessories, 1858

A plate with eight portraits of Princess Lizaveta Trubetzkaya posing with different fashion accessories, 1858

At first, the portrait card was limited to the narrow circle of the aristocracy and the business in the studio was slow. Then, in 1858, the emperor Napoleon III dropped in on his way to a military campaign in Italy. His portrait was immediately sold by the hundreds throughout Paris. The celebrities, who instantly understood the value of the process, wanted in turn to see their image immortalized in the form of a portrait-card and displayed behind the windows of the souvenir shops on the main boulevards. Political leaders, men of letters, stars of the theater and opera, clowns and acrobats, dancers and women of the demimonde, all joined in. The phenomenon, far from being confined to the capital, quickly won major provincial cities. It spread throughout France, Europe, and later the United States. The images of Queen Victoria, President Lincoln, or Sarah Bernhardt were sold by hundreds of thousands. Following the lead, the bourgeois, too, got on board. Smaller studios opened their doors to produce family portraits.

The emperor became a loyal customer along with his son, wife, and numerous mistresses

The emperor became a  loyal customer along with his son, wife, and numerous mistresses

Queen Victoria, too, sat for several portraits

Queen Victoria, too, posed for several portraits

So did Cora Pearl, the most rapacious of all leading courtesans

So did Cora Pearl, one of the most rapacious of all leading courtesans

Monsieur Léotard with his trapeze, checking his plimsole, c.1865

Performers considered the visit card an essential self-promoting tool. Here is Monsieur Léotard with his trapeze c.1865

The evolution of photography brought social changes. The living room now contained a heavy album with portraits of family members, to which were added others containing collections of now immediately identifiable celebrities, of art, curiosities, and faraway places.  Hidden in secret drawers were new gentlemen’s treasures: the first pornographic photographs.

Was it Disdéri;s assistant or the Master himself who spent considerable time creating this photomontage of ballerina's legs?

Was it Disdéri’s assistant or the Master himself who spent considerable time creating this photo montage of ballerinas’ legs? It was, no doubt, a bestseller. A woman’s ankle was rarely seen, let alone a knee!

Emilie Ellis showing almost all. As you have noticed on the previous photos, fashionable ballerina's legs were eather on the heavy side. Thin wasn't in

Emilie Ellis showing almost all. Fashionable legs were rather on the heavy side. Thin wasn’t in

Disdéri’s carte de visite offered a direct view of society, of its rulers, artists, and other personalities of the Second Empire. It helped to forge new connections between people and enriched the social and cultural knowledge.

To visit a 19th century photography studio, click on the image below. It will take you to the Camera Museum.

Related posts:

Mark Twain on Napoleon III

Cocottes and Cocodettes: Two faces of the same morality

maquette

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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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