I was inspired to write this piece after reading the fascinating series on the Watts Memorial Park in London on Caroline's Miscellany blog. London found a place to celebrate simple acts of heroism, but has there been any such place in Paris? I could not think of one until I remembered the Notre Dame de la Consolation church in the Rue Jean-Goujon (75008), a structure that was built as a permenant memorial to a terrible event that had struck on the same spot 6 years beforehand.
Beneath the dome of Albert-Désiré Guilbert's church are heroic sculptures by Horace Daillion, a date, the 4th of May 1897, and a quotation from Thessalonians ("ne vous attristez pas comme ceux qui n'ont pas d'esperance" – “Do not grieve like those who have no hope”). Inside, the temple is dimly lit and thick with silence. There are few windows to bring in air and light, only heavy, baroque sculptures, marble columns and a monumental painted ceiling. There is little sign of the tragedy in what is today a simple church which has been adopted by the Parisian Italian community. To one side though, in the murky depths of the confessional, stands an iron gateway held together by a cheap bicycle lock. Beyond this a strip of light leads the way to the true monument, a pathway in cross form telling the story of what happened on that fateful day.
This monument is only open to visitors once a month so remains an intensely private and secret space. The images and memorials contained within have so far remained frustratingly out of my reach, but the story is one that has been amply documented elsewhere. In 1897 a large wooden hanger stood where the church is situated today. It had recently been rented by an organisation called the Bazar de la Charité, a group which organised periodic charity events. On this occasion, 22 medieval style wooden boutiques had been set up along the 80 metre space, and these were looked after mostly by members of the Parisian aristocracy. Adding to the celebratory atmosphere, the event also featured a cinematography show, an early precursor to cinema, featuring films created by the Lumière brothers.
On the 4th of May, the second day of a planned five day event, the sales attracted over 1000 visitors, again mostly members of the aristocracy. It was an immense success, but people were soon complaining about the overheated atmosphere whilst the cinematographers were worried that there was not enough space for their equipment in the small area they had been given. At about four o'clock in the afternoon, their concerns were sadly proved to be accurate as the machinery caught fire and quickly spread throughout the building. The wooden structure was soon alight, and the curtains, lace and ribbons around the stalls became streaks of flame. It apparently only took 15 minutes for the entire building to be reduced to ashes. When the dust settled and all the remains had been sifted through, 130 people were found to have lost their lives.
The most famous of all the victims was the Duchess of Alençon, younger sister of the Empress of Austria, better known as Sissi. Being the most widely known to the general public, stories of her heroism were widely reported in the press. It is reported that she said "Ne vous occupez pas de moi. Je partirai la dernière" ('Don't worry about me - I'll leave last') to one lady who managed to escape, and when a nun collapsed at her feet and cried "Ô Madame, quelle mort !" ('O Madam, what a way to die'), she calmy replied "Oui, mais dans quelques minutes, pensez que nous verrons Dieu!" ('Yes, but in a few minutes we will see God'). It is then said that she quietly shielded the head of another lady to protect her eyes from the terrible sight of their final moments of life. Whether these stories are true or were simply an attempt to create a myth around the most prestigious guest at the event will never be known.
What does seem truly incredible today though is the fact that 123 of the 130 victims were women, despite there being an estimated 200 men present at the time the fire broke out. Whilst it is true that many of the ladies were stuck behind their stalls and were hampered by their bulky clothing, the fact that there were so few male victims did not go unnoticed at the time. As one female journalist, Séverine, noted in Le Journal shortly after the event, only about 10 of these men were seen to help at all. "Le reste détala, non seulement ne sauvant personne, mais encore se frayant un passage dans la chair féminine, à coups de pieds, à coups de poings, à coups de talons, à coups de canne" ('The rest ran away, not only not saving anybody, but also pushing their way past female flesh, kicking, punching, pushing with their heels and sticks'). Incredibly, other contemporary newspapers lead with images of heroic men!
Memorials to the victims of a tragedy are essential for the city's cathartic process, but would we not learn more if memorials were also built to reflect the cowardly behaviour of men?
A lower class of tragedy