Beyond the Touristy Sheen: Inside Paris' Bloody and Odd History
Thousands of years old, the city of Paris has a deep, tumultuous, and often remarkably dark history. While the tourism and entertainment industries most often present a glossy and cheerful picture of the French capital that gives an illusion of solidity and idyllic beauty, under that shiny veneer lies a wealth of secrets and historical details that are, well, often less than pretty.
From underground networks and passageways hidden from everyday view to sinister, violent-- or just plain weird-- moments in the city's history, we take a look at a fascinating metropolis that has radically changed many times over the course of its existence, wracked by multiple political and cultural upheavals. Scroll down as we count down 10 decidedly strange-- and often disturbing-- facts about the city of light.
#10. Paris' Main Medieval Cemetery Was Exhumed & Transferred to Catacombs
Ambling through the bustling, central Parisian neighborhood on the right bank known to locals as Les Halles, best known for its monstrous and uninspiring underground mall complex, nothing immediately suggests that the area once housed the city's largest cemetery. While it started out in the 12th century as a humble graveyard and church with individual headstones, by the late 18th century, the now-defunct Holy Innocents Cemetery (Cimetière des Innocents) was overflowing with the corpses of some two million Parisians. Many were victims of the bubonic plague of the 14th century, piled into mass graves holding up to 1,500 people at a time.
During the 1780s, the cemetery was deteriorating under terribly unhygienic conditions. Overcrowding and persistent rain made numerous graves wash up. The stench of rotting flesh was reportedly horrible and persistent. Demand for space was so high at certain periods that corpses were sometimes left on the premises as gravediggers eked out spots to bury them.
There are also enduring rumors-- unlikely to all be fictional-- that grave robbers and necromancers frequented the cemetery, digging up bodies to sell to medical schools or attempting to resuscitate the dead with esoteric spells.
In late 1780, French King Louis XVI closed the cemetery and all other existing cemeteries in Paris, exhuming the millions of corpses and transferring them to the Catacombs.
According to some historians, many of the exhumed bodies were so badly deteriorated that they had decomposed into margaric acid, a fat used to make soaps, candles, and other materials. These fats were collected from Les Innocents Cemetery and other sites in Paris and recycled into products such as these. In a twisted way, this commercializing of death seems fitting, since the area was also home to the historic central trading market, also referred to as Les Halles. That market was also eventually shut for hygiene reasons, transferred to the bland suburb of Rungis south of Paris.
So when walking around Les Halles or the very pleasant Rue Montorgueil district just around the corner, it might amuse (and/or disgust) you to remember that the area was once a fetid and overcrowded site of decay, and that unspeakable odors once regularly emanated from the place.
Today, only one unassuming relic remains to remind us of the history of the cemetery and its victims: La Fontaine des Innocents, a fountain built during the 16th century and standing on place Joachim-du-Bellay (it formerly marked the defunct cemetery's entrance).
Read Related: Pictures From 4 Beautiful Cemeteries in Paris
#9. Nope, Paris Didn't Always Look Like This: How Haussmann Gutted Old Paris
When you picture Paris, what do you immediately imagine? If you're like most people, you probably first see the Eiffel Tower in your mind's eye, and perhaps imagine people strolling down grand, sweeping boulevards like the one pictured above in Camille Pissarro's portrait of Boulevard Montmartre circa 1897. Paris in all its grandeur: chic modernity balanced with hallowed traditions.
But while we tend to associate these features with Paris in a timeless and stable sense, they're actually very recent, and the product of mass destruction in urban development terms. In the late mid-19th century, Emperor Napoleon III commissioned Baron Georges-Eugene Haussmann to lead a massive renovation project that saw not only the laying of modern infrastructures that continue today-- from sewers to aqueducts-- but also saw the mass demolition of most of medieval and Renaissance Paris.
Replacing the narrow, constricted streets and predominantly wooden structures of the old "Faubourgs"-- only a few of which survive today, notably in the Marais and around the 10th and 11th arrondissements-- Haussmann and his massive team of architects and builders broke old Paris to construct the massive grands boulevards, enormous squares, sweeping plazas and gardens and typical, gray stone facades that now dominate most of the city.
Why Was the City Overhauled?
While the reasons for this massive gutting and renovation of the capital include addressing overcrowding andunhygienic conditions, many historians see the destruction of the old Faubourgs as an essential anti-revolutionary tactic. Destroying the old layout and infrastructures would effectively prevent Parisians from barricading the streets-- a resistance technique that had been used en masse during the 1848 popular revolution known as La Commune de Paris (think Les Miserables).
The bottom line? Next time you're walking around what seems to be a timelessly idyllic Paris, remember that the city has been razed and rebuilt many, many times, and that the image of comforting solidity it tends to project is entirely an illusion.
#8. The First Photograph of a Person Was Taken on This Paris Street
Next up in our inventory of odd facts about Paris? The likely first-ever photo of a human being was taken by Louis Daguerre (of daguerreotype fame, you guessed it!) on a Parisian street, Boulevard du Temple, in 1838. The small, ghostly figure, barely visible, can be discerned in the lower left corner of the image, waxing his shoes.
Another uncanny aspect of this earliest of images of the city of light? The street was in fact crowded with people and carriages, but due to the quite limited capacities of the daguerreotype camera, which was rather terrible at capturing moving figures, these simply do not show up in the developed image. It would appear that the shoe-shining figure stayed still long enough to be committed to eternal memory.
Read related features:
#7. The Duke of Orléans Was Murdered Here
Not far from Les Halles (see #10 on our list for a grim history of the area) is a rapidly gentrifying fashion and market area known to locals as the Montorgueil district. Standing on Rue Etienne-Marcel just across from the eponymous Metro station lies Paris' only standing fortified medieval tower, La Tour Jean Sans Peur.
Named after the Duke of Burgundy, or "Fearless Jean", the tower, the only remnant of the once-grand Palace of the Dukes of Burgundy that stood here, was the site of a grisly assassination in 1407 when "Fearless Jean" murdered his rival and cousin, the Duke of Orleans, on the premises.
Tourists routinely overlook the tower, but shouldn't, especially if interested in medieval history. You can climb the ornate (and original) spiral staircase to the top. See more details here.
#6. This Parisian Apartment Was Left Untouched Since 1942
Sadly, because of photographic rights restrictions, I am not able to post photos of a ghostly Parisian apartment near Pigalle that had been abandoned by its owner in 1942 and left untouched for some 70 years. You cansee some great photos of the apartment here over at Messy Nessy Chic's lovely blog.
Here's the story: A prominent Parisienne named Madame de Florian occupied a sumptuous apartment in the capital, filled with antique furniture and a portrait of her grandmother, Marthe de Florian, by painter Giovanni Boldini (pictured here), but suddenly abandoned it in 1942 after leaving for the South of France. Perhaps she fled the war and the Nazi occupation of the city: no one's really sure of her circumstances.
Read related: Unusual and Off-the-Beaten Track Things to Do in Paris
What is certain: The discovery of her Belle-Epoque apartment, caked in dust and cobwebs and oddly, eerily beautiful, captures the imagination. From old, gilded mirrors and regal furniture to vintage Mickey-Mouse stuffed toys, to the discovery of the aforementioned painting which was valued at over 2.1 million Euros, the apartment is not only a testament to lost time (to wax Prussian): it also shows how vulnerable to time and entropy everything is. The apartment may have been untouched for 70 years, but the incursion of dust, spiderwebs, and sunlight shows in the faded fabrics and furniture cakes in layers of dust.
#5. During the Occupation, Propaganda Photos Showed "Happy" Locals
In 1940, Paris was stormed by Nazi troops; the image of Hitler leading his troops triumphantly under the Arc de Triomphe symbolically marks the beginning of a dark five-year occupation of the city, and of the French Collaboration. During that time, Nazi propaganda campaigns proliferated, designed to show French locals happy and thriving under Gestapo and Nazi rule. Photos, posters, and Gestapo-sponsored movies filled the city.
This photo circa 1942, taken by French photographer André Zucca, showing smiling, sunglass-donning young Parisiennes enjoying the sun, was possibly used as part of one such campaign, although many speculate that the photographer was simply shooting "what he saw". What we do know is that Zucca, who held a press card issued by the occupying forces and was a collaborator if not an "active" supporter of the Nazis, chose to selectively represent Paris in cheerful ways that certainly occlude the nightmarish realities of the occupation.
A Paris Exhibit Showing Zucca's Photos Led to Controversy
This glossing-over effect of Zucca's photos from the period explains the controversy that arose when around 70 of his color photos like the one above were shown in a 2008 exhibit in Paris at the Bibliothèque Historique (Historical Library). Some critics, including several politicians, decried the exhibit as one glamorizing the Nazi Occupation and failing to show its devastating crimes and consequences, including the persecution of French Jews (see next page). As a columnist at British daily The Independent opined at the time of the controversy:
"[T]he exhibition makes Paris under Nazi occupation seem like a pleasant enough sort of place. There are few cars. Nazi propaganda posters, swastikas and strutting officers in German uniform occasionally intrude. Otherwise, people chat gaily at terrace cafés; children roller-skate and watch puppet shows; lovers sit beside the Seine."
This is especially remarkable given that only miles away, other Parisians were being rounded up in preparation for their deportation (see next slide).
#4. Nazi Persecution of French Jews at the "Vel d'Hiv" Stadium
Far from the glossy, propaganda-style images of contented Parisians like the one shown in the previous slide, in July 1942 the Gestapo in Paris repurposed a sports stadium in the 15th arrondissement as a massive holding cell to sequester over 13,000 French Jewish citizens, including many children.
Not many tourists know about the infamous Velodrome d'Hiver, but It was here that thousands of Jews-- stripped of their rights as citizens and arrested-- were detained in squalid and inhumane conditions as they awaited deportation to Nazi death camps elsewhere in Europe. Many, including young children, died from hunger or disease while held here.
Memorials Honoring the Victims of the Vel' D'Hiv Roundup
While the stadium was subsequently damaged in a fire and eventually demolished, a memorial garden and statue now stands in the area on the Quai de Grenelle, designed so that no one forgets the atrocities that were committed at the site, as well as at internment camps in the nearby French towns of Drancy, Pithiviers, and Beaune-la-Rolande.
Read related: Museum of Jewish History and Arts in Paris
#3. Paris Has a Network of "Ghost" Metro Stations No One Uses
The Paris metro is a bustling, often unnervingly crowded network, and you're lucky if you ever get to feel at peace in a station or a train. But did you know that several "ghost" stations exist that either went out of use at some point, or never opened to begin with?
Some of the stations, like the defunct "Victor Hugo" station, simply fell out of use as lines expanded or were rerouted. Others, like the Haxo station, never opened to the public at all, and have no entrances. Still others serve as movie sets, like the appropriately named "Lilas-Cinema" station in the city's northern tip. Those clever Parisians...
See a beautiful slideshow dedicated to the ghostly Metro stations here. There are also, intriguingly enough, plans in the works to transform and repurpose some of the over 100 ghost stations into public pools, nightclubs, and other public amenities.
On a related note, Paris has an extensive secret network of catacombs that are NOT open to the public, but that are regularly explored and colonized by intrepid types who neither fear the law nor suffer from claustrophia, and have deemed themselves "cataphiles". Underground parties are known to take place in these secret networks, and some of them even hold makeshift theatres and cinemas. Here's an interesting essay on the topic.
#2. Paris: Hub for Alchemists and Freemasons?
Perhaps because of the radical separation of church and state in France and the spectacular rise of secularism from the mid-20th century onward, people often forget that Paris has a long and legend-filled history as an alleged hub for alchemists, members of masonic lodges, and spiritualists. Many of the legends hold only a grain of truth, or none at all, but some of the lore stands up to historical scrutiny.
Nicolas Flamel is probably Paris' most famous and celebrated alleged alchemist. His 15th century wood house, one of the oldest in Paris, still stands at #51 rue de Montmorency in the 3rd arrondissement, in close reach of the Centre Georges Pompidou.
Flamel, a wealthy bourgeois scribe and notary prominent in medieval Paris, became truly legendary in the 18th and 19th centuries, when popular interest in the alchemical arts reached a peak and all sorts of pamphlets and books were printed and attributed to Flamel and other purported masters of the art.
Flamel's great wealth led some to speculate that he gained his riches by successfully achieving the Philosopher's Stone, gaining immortality along with his wife Pernelle. Legend has it that he has been spotted roaming the streets through many centuries. He is so popular as a mythical alchemist that he is mentioned in JK Rowling's Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone.
However, while some no doubt did dabble in alchemical pursuits in Paris, the city's beloved icon probably never did.
Freemasonry and the Knights Templar
Interest in French freemasonry and masonic orders still reigns today, and has some grounding in historical fact. While it's not the sort of stuff you'll read in the fine literary prose of Dan Brown's novels, several freemasonry organizations still exist in Paris, and there's even a museum dedicated to their history and displaying masonic relics. In France and Paris, the Knights Templar order is inspired by, if not directly related to, the medieval order of knights and monks fighting in the Crusades.
The original Knights Templar order built a massive fortress in central Paris, in the same location where the metro station, "Temple", now stands. Their legacy continues to inspire fictional imagination, as books and movies like The Da Vinci Code illustrate; but these popular vehicles tend to grossly misconstrue the ideologies and histories of such traditions.
One interesting and gruesome fact about the Knights Templars that is grounded in the historical record: 2014 marked the 700th anniversary of the public immolation of Jacques de Molay, the Templars' last Grand Master. While the Knights Templar were once closely affiliated with the Christian Church, their growing power and influence had raised suspicions; they were accused of unspeakable acts of blasphemy, including sorcery.
In 1314, Jacques de Molay was strapped to a stake in Paris and burned alive in public. Which brings us to our final disturbing fact about the city featured here.
#1. Paris Held Public Executions Until 1939
Many assume that the guillotine as an instrument of capital punishment went out of fashion after the French Revolution died down, but this is untrue. France held public executions, including by guillotine-- a form of capital punishment that was in fact considered more humane than others due to the rapid and painless death it inflicted-- into the early 20th century.
The final public guillotining in the Paris region took place in the summer of 1930 at nearby Versailles, when serial killer Eugène Weidmann was executed in front of the prison. The last public execution carried out in Paris was in 1939: prisoner and convicted murderer Max Bloch was killed by firing squad outside a city prison.
Executions Continued Into the 20th Century
While the death penalty wasn't abolished in France until 1981, public executions ceased after 1939. But the end of the barbaric practice was a long time coming-- Paris had been a site of bloody and torturous public executions since the early medieval period.
In fact, what many tourists fail to realize when they visit the lovely city hall (Hôtel de Ville) and its vast plaza in close reach of the Seine River-- now the site of a yearly ice rink and summer music festivals-- is that this very site was once the Place de la Greve, the central place for public executions in Paris until fairly recently. The gallows were once set up there, and victims were routinely drawn and quartered or subjected to other tortures. See Manning Leonard Krull's lively account of the square and its dark history at Cool Stuff in Paris.
I also highly recommend visiting the Musee Carnavalet and its extraordinary collection of artifacts related to the history of Paris, including the revolutionary period, for a deeper understanding of how radically France's penal codes have changed over its history.