Monday, 18 January 2021

Week 3: A baby falls from the sky

100 years ago this week: Week 3

A snapshot of distress and desperation that could have come from a Zola novel or Ken Loach film, but one in which I'd like to imagine a happy ending.

Read on to discover the third snippet in this series.

A newborn falls from the sky

An honest woman from the rue de Gergovie in Paris, who was standing near her doorstep, suddenly saw a rather voluminous package fall at her feet. She picked it up, and – having looked it over on all sides – saw that it contained a new-born child.

After having unwrapped the baby and giving it the care it needed, the courageous woman – knowing that babies don’t just fall from the sky – went to the local police station to report her adventure. A quick investigation revealed that a young servant, mlle Thérèse Degieux, living on the second floor of a neighbouring building, had given birth clandestinely a few hours beforehand, and had herself thrown the baby onto the roof of the neighbouring house, where it fell at the feet of the brave woman.

Mlle Degieux was taken to the La Pitié hospital, where she was placed in the hands of the justice.

This story from the 'Faits Divers' published in Le Petit Parisien on January 18 1921, is a tale of two women. The 'brave' lady who saved a baby, and the guilty mother who disposed of it. For most readers there would be little room for sentiment, context and understanding. The baby was safe, the mother in the hands of the justice (incidentally in a hospital where downtrodden women were previously locked up). This was all that mattered.

Could I find out more? I can only imagine the circumstances that lead up to this sad incident, and the desperation of the young mother. Had she hidden her pregnancy from her family and employers? Had she denied it herself? What is sure is that she had no support from any of the other people playing a role in her story, and had to find a terrible solution herself.

Looking in the edition of L'Humanité published on the same day, I was not surprised to find a slightly more sympathetic angle. From its Socialist/Communist persepctive, it was devoid of the more prevailing bourgeois theological moralism.

I won't translate the more factual text here, but simply point out the new information it gave me. Thérèse was aged just 19. The baby was a girl, and the woman who found the baby (not brave or corrageous, just stupified), the concierge of the neighbouring building. I even had the full address now too.

Running up to the railway tracks behind the Montparnesse train station, the rue de Gergovie would have been a working-class part of the city in 1921. I could learn little from visiting the address though - a quick search on Google Street Maps shows me that the buildings around number 22 were demolished several decades ago, being replaced by a large-scale post-modern block. 

Another factor complicating my research was the discrepancy in the spelling of Thérèse's surname. Was she 'Degieux' - as written in Le Petit Parisien, or 'Dejeux' as noted by L'Humanité? In any case, there would be little chance of finding any information about Thérèse, whatever the spelling of her name. Beyond this city footnote, her life was probably an unremarkable one, and papers rarely chased up their 'faits divers' for additional information.

We leave Thérèse then, hopefully in good medical care and reunited with her child. But what of this baby? She would - if still alive - be 100 years old this week, but what kind of life did she have? I wanted - if possible - to at least find her name, and I think I have succeeded.

The Paris city archives have online records of births, deaths and marriages, known as décennales and organised by decade and by arrondissement. I had the arrondissement - the 14th - and two possible names. However, it was a third variant - 'Dejieux' which possibly provided an answer. A Jeanne Dejieux was registed with a birthdate of January 16, 1921 (see image below). The newspaper articles provide no exact date for the incident, and had a tendancy to report events several days after they occured. The dates would therefore match. The surname was also a tricky one to spell. Whichever variant was the real one, journalists and registrars can easily make mistakes.

For more detailed birth records - with the name(s) of the parent(s) - I would need to visit the archives and consult the annual paper documents, something that is currently extremely complicated. Would I also be intruding in somebody's private family history, disturbing long-buried, painful memories? Perhaps it is best we stop here, and wish Jeanne - who incidently shares the same name as my daughter - and Thérèse the happiest lives possible.


Susan said...

Wow! What an extraordinary tale!! Poor Thérese, how desperate she must have been.

RALJ said...

Can you locate the address and post a picture of the house(s) as they are today?

Adam said...

RALJ - Try this link.
You should see a modern block, a few trees and a G20 supermarket! Go back up the road though and you'll see a few properties that must be similar to what was previously at number 22.

C-Marie said...

What a heart rending story, but your last sentence is beautifully full of compassion. Thank you so much! And, if not still here in the earth, may mother and child be in God's peace.
God bless, C-Marie

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