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Posts Tagged ‘life in Victorian Paris’

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.

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Saint-Lazare: Women in prison

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You are in Paris and you are in the mood for some entertainment. Nothing too heavy on the intellectual side nor do you want to explore the seedy aspect of the city. You are simply looking for clean fun with an edge.
If you don’t mind loud noise, you can stop at the Hippodrome to see The Live Projectile, Miss Zazel de Farini, blasted out of a cannon:

spectacle projectile vivant
Amateurs of the bizarre, go to the Folies Bergère, where Captain Constentenus, tattooed at the order of Yakoob Beg, the Chief of the Tartars, will show you his body decorated with 2 million needle jabs and 325 animal figures:

spectacle tattooed man
Equally bizarre, but more graceful are Rosa-Josepha, the phenomenal Siamese twins at the Théâtre  de la Gaîté:

spectacle siamese
For even more grace, with the added bonus of fantasy, and an eyeful of exposed female legs, head for the Théâtre de la Porte Saint-Martin to see the Snow Ballet in the show The Voyage to the Moon:

spectacle ballet de la neige

Should you find the ballet too tame, there is an additional excitement when dance is performed in a lion cage like here at the Olympia Théâtre:

spectacle danse avec lions

The sight of the most ferocious beasts occupying a single cage will titillate you at the Paris Zoo:

spectacle cage des betes feroces
For a taste of faraway cultures, see the exotic Tuareg tribe from the sands of Sahara at the Vélodrome d’Hiver:

spectacle tuaregs
The Théâtre des Variétés, on the other hand, will take you back in history in a sumptuous play with a cast of druids and pretty heroines on live horses:spectacle theatre des varietes

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Mark Twain and the Cancan

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mont de piete

Excerpt from Europe Viewed Through American Spectacles (1873) by Charles C. Fulton:

Mont-de-Piété is one of the most important and extensive establishments connected with the city government of Paris. It is a municipal pawnbroker establishment for the relief and protection of the poor, and, indeed, of all classes who may by either poverty or misfortune be compelled to borrow money on their personal effects. That the extent of this establishment may be understood, it is only necessary to state that it has two principal offices in opposite section of the city, twenty auxiliary offices in different wards or arrondissements, and has three hundred officers connected with it.

The average number of articles pledged daily is three thousand, but no pledges are received from anyone unless they are known to be householders, or produce a passport or papers en règle, showing who they are and that the property they offer is their own. The privilege of loaning money on deposits is enjoyed exclusively by this establishment: hence thieves have but little opportunity of disposing of their plunder. Out of two millions of articles pledged per annum, the average number delivered to the police on suspicion of theft is three hundred and ninety-one, representing loans to the amount of eight thousand nine hundred francs. Thus this establishment, instead of encouraging theft, leads to detection, punishment, and restoration of stolen goods.

The Mont-de-Piété is under the authority of the Minister of the Interior and the Prefect of the Seine and is managed by a Director, appointed by the former. It has a Council or Board of Managers, consisting of three members of the City Council, three citizens of Paris, and three members of three Council of Public Assistance. The number of officers employed in its management is over three hundred, and they are kept busy for twelve or fourteen hours per day.

Everything that is brought to be pledged is carefully appraised, and the amount loaned is four-fifths of the value of gold and silver articles, and two-thirds of the value of other effects, provided no loan at the two central offices exceeds ten thousand francs, and at the branch establishments five hundred francs. From this, it will be seen it is not used entirely by the extremely poor, but all classes at times avail themselves of its advantages to enable them to ride over temporary difficulties.

mont-de-piete

The pledges of the previous day are brought every morning to the central establishments or the two storehouses and it would be difficult to find in the whole of Paris a scene of more stirring business activity. The system with which the whole business is managed is wonderful, there being one department where borrowers are enabled to refund by installments the sums advanced: even one franc is received.

Whilst the work of redeeming pledges is constantly in progress in one part of the establishment, another is crowded with men, women, and children with bundles to offer for small advances, which continues from nine o’clock in the morning until four o’clock in the afternoon. In another section, an auction is daily held for the sale of forfeited pledges, which have not been redeemed within the time specified. After a year, or rather fourteen months, the effects, if the duplicate be not renewed by paying the interest due upon it, are thus sold, and the auction room is a scene for a painter. Here all the old-clothes establishments are represented, and at times the bidding is very lively, nothing being sold and no bids received for less sum than the amount advanced.

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Election of the Queen

Election of the Queen

Paris of the 19th century was home to a boisterous and hard-working female corporation. Nearly one hundred thousand washerwomen worked either in the brick-and-mortar laundries across the city, or in the bateaux-lavoirs  –  wooden constructions floating on the river.  They labored twelve to fifteen hours a day, six days a week, with no sick leave or paid vacation. Once a year though, Paris treated them like royalty. During the feasts of Mid-Lent, the streets of Paris exploded with the frenzy of carnival, whose principal actors were the washerwomen. With great pomp and circumstance, the women of each lavoir elected a queen and the new sovereigns, escorted by masks, paraded on the boulevards in elaborate floats. Much drinking and merry-making accompanied the procession. In the 1890’s city authorities decided to nominate the Queen of Queens—the best of all the locally elected queens—to represent the spirit of the feast. This custom survived into the 20th century when it was interrupted by the WWII and was never fully revived.

The Queen and her entourage

The Queen and her entourage

The Queen of Queens

The Queen of Queens received by her sponsors

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French-watching in 1850: Feeding time at a popular restaurant

Parisian Lifestyle: Sensual ease and contentment

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As terror stalks the streets of Paris, one is forced to remember the 1890’s when the situation was similar; when men and women infected with extreme ideas and with no regard for human life carried out deadly attacks on innocent people. While the Islamists work for the ideal of the Caliphate—a world-wide state where everyone will be either Muslim or dead—the anarchists of the 19th century advocated a government-free, self-managed society. Have you heard of the anarchists lately? Not so much, I’d say. That’s the fate of all insane movements.

 

aniche bomb au cafe terminus arrestation dynamite a la chambre dynamite au commissariat ravachol

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duel sable

“Le Petit Journal” November 1st 1902:

There are Apaches of both sexes as seen recently in the rue du Général-Morin. Louise Henin, a beautiful girl of twenty, became mortally angered by Andrée Merle, twenty-three years, for reasons difficult to specify. They resolved to meet in a single combat, but refused to choose common weapons such as knives or revolvers. They sought and found the most unusual. Each took a single sock – probably emptied of their savings – and filled it with sand. Then they went into battle with all the wham! and splash! to the amusement of the street. The fight, however, ended abruptly when Louise Henin collapsed after a blow so violent that she had to be transported – in a very poor shape – to the Hotel-Dieu hospital. As for her terrible adversary, she quickly melted into the crowd.

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Street People

 

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jacques

Taking a bath was considered a dangerous undertaking in the not so distant past. It was generally believed that, subjected to a prolonged contact with water, body organs would liquefy and therefore a proper rest was needed to restore them to their normal consistency. We all know the good Queen Bess would bathe once a month “whether she needed it or not”. Her contemporary, the French king Henri IV, having summoned his Minister of Finance, and upon learning that the man had just taken a bath, exclaimed: “Then I must go to him for he must not leave his bed!”

Only at the beginning of the 19th century did the idea of taking a regular bath as a part of personal hygiene begin to take shape. It made a slow progress in the upper classes, but the common people remained blissfully dirty.  The appearance in the mid-century of moneyed American tourists and their constant complaints about the lack of hygienic facilities accelerated the pace.

COBBIrvin S. Cobb (1876-1944), the American author, humorist and columnist, was one of the loud critics of European shortcomings in the matter. Having found the British bathroom arrangements lacking in comfort, he endeavored to compare the situation on the Continent. It must be said that none of the countries he visited met with his American standards, but his lashing tongue was especially sharp when describing the French approach to cleanliness:

I can offer no visual proof to back my word, but by other testimony I venture the assertion that when a boulevardier feels the need of a bath he hangs a musk bag round his neck and then, as the saying is, the warmer the sweeter. His companion of the gentle sex apparently has the same idea of performing daily ablutions that a tabby cat has. You recall the tabby-cat system, do you not? Two swipes over the brow with the moistened paw, one forward swipe over each ear, a kind of circular rubbing effect across the face – and call it a day! Drowning must be the most frightful death that a Parisian sidewalk favorite can die. It is not so much the death itself – it is the attendant circumstances.

Across the river, in the older quarters of Paris, there is excitement when anybody on the block takes a bath – not so much excitement as for fire, perhaps, but more than for a funeral. On the eve of the fatal day the news spreads through the district that tomorrow poor Jacques is going to have a bath! A further reprieve has been denied him. He cannot put it off for another month, or even another two weeks. His doom is nigh at hand; there is no hope – none!

On the morrow the condemned man rises early and sees his spiritual adviser. He eats a hearty breakfast, takes an affectionate leave of his family and says he is prepared for the worst. At the appointed hour the tumbrel enters the street, driven by the paid executioner and bearing the dread instrument of punishment, a large oblong tin tub.

The rumble of the heavy wheels over the cobbles seems to wake an agonized chord in every bosom. Today this dread visitation descends upon Jacques, but who can tell—so the neighbors say to themselves—when the same fate may strike some other household now happily unconscious! All along the narrow way sorrow-drooped heads protrude in rows; from every casement dangle whiskers, lank and stringy in sympathy – for in this section every true Frenchman has whiskers, and if by chance he has not his wife has; so that there are whiskers for all.

From the window of the doomed wretch’s apartments a derrick protrudes – a cross arm with a pulley and a rope attached. It bears a grimly significant resemblance to the gallows tree. Under the direction of the presiding functionary the tub is made fast to the tackle and hoisted upwards as pianos and safes are hoisted in American cities. It halts at the open casement. It vanishes within. The whole place resounds with low murmurs of horror and commiseration.

Ah, the poor Jacques – how he must suffer! Hark to that low, sickening thud! ‘Tis the accursed soap dropping from his nerveless grasp. Hist to that sound – like unto a death rattle! It is the water gurgling in the tub. And what means that low, poignant smothered gasp? It is the last convulsive cry of Jacques descending into the depths. All is over! Let us pray!

The tub, emptied but stained, is lowered to the waiting cart. The executioner kisses the citizen who has held his horse for him during his absence and departs; the whole district still hums with ill-supressed excitement. Questions fly from tongue to tongue. Was the victim brave at the last? Was he resigned when the dread moment came? And how is the family bearing up? It is hours before the place settles down again to that calm which will endure for another month, until somebody else takes a bath on a physician’s prescription.

Even in the sanctity of a Paris hotel a bath is more or less a public function unless you lock your door. All sorts of domestic servitors drift in, filled with morbid curiosity to see how a foreigner deports himself when engaged in this strange, barbaric rite. On the occasion of my first bath on French soil, after several of the hired help had thus called on me informally, causing me to cower low in my porcelain retreat, I took advantage of a comparative quiet to rise drippingly and draw the latch. I judged the proprietor would be along next, and I was not dressed for him.

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The Scarcity of Water

 

 

 

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