Monday 15 February 2021

Week 7: the deaf, the dumb and the apache

100 years ago this week: Week 7

What happened when a deaf musician met a dumb stranger late at night on the streets of Paris?

Read on to find out more.

A deaf man knocks out a dumb man he mistook for an apache (hoodlum)

After making the guests dance at a wedding on the boulevard de Grenelle, the violinist Jean Patat set off, at night, to his home on the rue Didot. In fear of apaches, he was following the tramway rails in the middle of the street when he realised he was being followed. An individual, walking on the pavement, was matching his strides.

The violinist felt his heart in his stomach when he saw the individual step off the pavement and come towards him making big gestures. There was no doubt – it was definitely an apache. Mr Patat did not have a weapon on him, but the newlyweds had given him a bottle of rum as a gift to thank him for his services. He gripped it in his pocket, and when the attacker was at hand, struck him on the skull. The individual fell to the floor without making a sound. The police officers who arrived took him to the Boucicaut hospital where it was confirmed that his injury was not serious.

The next day, Mr Labat, the superintendent of the Grenelle district, summoned the violinist and his victim to his office. The task proved a difficult one, with Mr Patat being deaf and his ‘attacker’ dumb. Both wished to explain, but neither could understand the other. An explanation was eventually found however, with the peaceful dumb man simply wanting, the previous evening, to ask the deaf man for directions.

Le Petit Parisien, 20/2/1921


I don’t want to find this story funny. The incident must not – at first - have been amusing for the two men, and yet there is something so 1920s about the whole event. It is Laurel and Hardy in an episode of the Keystone cops. But what does it tell us about the Paris of 1921?

Firstly, it appears that streets at night were probably not for the faint-hearted - and all the more so for those with any additional vulnerabilities! As a musician (and kudos for being a deaf violoinist!) Mr Patat must have regularly experienced after-dark Paris, and yet he is still extremely nervous. The distance between the venue and his home was around 3.5km – a good 40 minute walk – but he still chose to go by foot rather than pay for a taxi, probably because he simply couldn’t afford such luxuries.

Mr Patat is obsessed with the apaches, which I find quite surprising in 1921. An apache was largely a media construction, a word used to describe any gang member, night mugger or hooligan, appearing initially at the beginning of the 20th century. If the reputation of this criminal sub-culture was extremely strong in the first decade, it is generally agreed that it died out with the outbreak of WW1. All young men were conscripted to fight, and street crime dropped significantly. Post WW1, the word was rarely used, but poverty was running very high again in 1921, and crime was rising. If the word had gone out of fashion, the fear factor was returning.

The same well-lit night walk today - across a hushed and comfortable part of the city - would offer little in the way of danger, but the district was gloomier in 1921. Just getting home with your day's wage and a bottle of rum seemed a challenge, and if not everyone out at night had bad intentions, in the dark - and silence - it was difficult to differentiate friend from foe. La nuit, tous les chats sont gris...

1 comment:

Susan said...

Oh dear! I don't want to laugh either, but what are the chances? A very tabloid story.

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