I'd first become interested in this establishment after discovering that it was paired in infamy with the Pitié Salpetrière. In the 18th century, male patients (perhaps we should say the mentally ill) from Bicêtre were forcibly married to female patients from the Salpetrière and sent out to populate French colonies in the Americas.
Although classed as hospitals, these early institutions were closer to prisons, with their primary role being to keep beggars and ‘undesirables’ off the streets of Paris. But they also played several other curious roles.
On April 17, 1792, a herd of sheep were decapitated by a curious new machine that had been set up at the Bicêtre hospital. Delighted with the success of this initial test, the gathered dignitaries pressed on with further experiments. The corpses of three vagabonds were wheeled in, then also quickly relieved of their heads.
This was the very first test of a new execution machine, the guillotine, that would soon become infamous in France and around the world.
Looking around today's institution, it's strange to imagine that this was once a place more concerned with killing than healing. This establishment though has always had a rather dark history. The Bicêtre was originally a monastery then a number of different chateaux, all of which were pillaged and destroyed in various wars. It eventually became a hospital under Louis XIV in the middle of the 17th century.
Several buildings on the site date from this period, notably a magnificent 'grand puits' well dug by the architect Germain Boffrand in 1733. Even here though, progress was coupled with cruelty. Although water was originally drawn from the well by 12 horses, the job was quickly given to 72 prisonners at the 'hospital', then same number of its 'patients'. Eventually this task was thankfully taken over by three pumps.
The hospital is today situated in the town of Le Kremlin Bicêtre, a name that is impossible not to love when you discover its etymology. Bicêtre is very probably a corruption of Winchester, an English city I am very familiar with (the Bishop of Winchester bought the monastery in the 13th century). The stranger Kremlin part comes from the name of a tavern that stood outside the hospital.
During the first French empire, the hospital welcomed a large number of soldiers injured in Napoleon’s Russian campaign. Risking even greater traumatism for these soldiers, somebody decided to open an establishment outside the hospital called ‘Le Kremlin’. The memories of the campaign were though obviously good ones as the establishment was a great success and eventually gave its name to the entire district.
Hospital rooms or prison cells?
A very colourful section of today's hospital is reminiscent of a similar strip at the Salpetrière. There they were the cells of the 'aliénées' - the mental patients were in fact more likely to be beggars or prostitutes. Despite having a room to themselves, their movement was restricted by the chains attached to their legs. They could move from their bed to a bench on the terrace outside, but no further.
These units look airy and cheerful today, and seem to be home to resident artists. They may hide a much darker past.
The majority of these older buildings no longer serve a medical purpose - if indeed they ever did play such a role. They are grouped together in a southern corner of the site, overlooking clinical modernity and a helicopter landing zone.
Today they are crumbling, their future somewhat cloudy. The largest is La Force, the main prison block. This was the holding zone for the condemned, the departure point for those being sent across the seas to the bagnes, hellish hard labour prisons in the new French territories. In the courtyard of this building, prisoners were chained by the neck, two by two.
It is possible to walk around these historic buildings at any time, but rarely possible to look inside. Nevertheless, visits are sometimes organised, notably to the grands puits. I'll try to give Advanced notice of any future visits on Twitter (@INVISIBLEPARIS)!
Other Invisible Paris posts on hospitals: