Tuesday 28 January 2014

The Hopital Bicêtre: site of a hundred ghosts

As regular readers of this blog will know, I find hospitals fascinating. The Hopital Bicêtre, situated just to the south east of Paris, was always one I’d meant to visit without ever quite finding the time. I was glad though that I did finally make the effort.

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:


Anonymous said...

Always interesting and lovely photos as usual. Wondered if Bicetre might in fact be a corruption of Bicester, which might still have been within the archbishopric of Winchester.

Adam said...

Thanks for the comment, and an interesting remark about Bicester. According to Wikipédia though (so it must be true), Bicester only really became the established name of that town in the 17th century. The name 'Bicêtre' though seems to date back until the 13th or 14th century.

kirkw said...

As you mention, the former hospital’s name could reflect a long-lasting memory of a former owner of the property—Jean de Pontoise, Bishop of Winchester from 1282-1304. However, an alternative explanation might be a mordant expression of the unfortunates who were unlucky enough to end up in the Bicêtre. “Bissêtre” is an old metaphor deriving from the inauspicious time of the bissextile in the Julian calendar: the extra day occurring in leap years during late February, 6 days before the start of March. As an example, shortly before the newly built hospital opened in the 17th century, Molière used the word in one his plays: “Il nous va faire encore quelque nouveau bissêtre” (“He’s going to make another blunder”).

w3c said...

"Russian campaign"? "Kremlin" tavern? I think I can see where this name came from... :)

Adam said...

kirkw and w3c: the origin of the name Bicêtre is definitely unclear, but the other half of the town name much less so. I think we can all agree that its great to have a town named after a tavern!

Philippa said...

Wonderfully moody photographs!

Unknown said...

Hello Adam,

Would you happen to know how to get tours here?


Adam said...

Hello Allachka,

There seems to be nothing regular. The best idea is probably to check with the Val de Marne tourist office (@CDTValdemarne on Twitter, or http://www.tourisme-valdemarne.com/).

Apart from that, there's nothing stopping you taking a look round by yourself!

Esmée said...

Hi, I have a question about the part where the men from bicêtre were forced to mary woman from Salpêtrière. Because other sources say that Philip Pinel saved them from their chains, the men first in 1793 and the woman in 1795. They were later said to live in a facility where they would be treated in a morally okay way compared to the prison they lived in. Is this true? Because no other source online says a thing about the marrying?
As well as a comment on this question I would love to know your sources because I am doing a research paper about the subject of mental health.

Adam said...

Hi Esmée,

Thanks for your comment. It's an interesting point you raise, and I'm afraid I'm a bit casual about my sources sometimes. This post is a good six or seven years old now, so I'll have to have a dig around my sources again, and will post here any links I find to forced marriages. It's certainly something I didn't make up!

Adam said...


Not 'prisoners' as such and certainly not the mentally ill, but orphans were placed in the two hospitals and later forcibly married and shipped off the colonies, according to this source: http://hbdd.fr/files/visites/La%20Pitie-Salpetriere.pdf

"Les fillettes abandonnées à la naissance étaient recueillies, élevées, éduquées, placées pour un travail et mariées par l'institution après enquête sur le conjoint ("les noces des orphelines"). Colbert trouva bon de peupler nos nouvelles colonies d'Amérique (Canada et Louisiane) avec quelques-uns de ces jeunes orphelins et orphelines en les mariant "à la chaîne" (60 couples dans une matinée) lors de grandes cérémonies à l'église Saint-Louis de la Salpêtrière. Cette pratique s'est poursuivie sous la Régence."

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