Nov 2nd, 2017, 11:45 AM

City of Fright

By Jacqueline Wegwerth
Rue des Chantres, where orphan hospital patients drowned in a locked apartment building in the 1900's. Image credit: Jacqueline Wegwerth
The City of Light has an ironically dark history.

In a city built on top of over 200 miles of tunnels filled with millions of dead French men, it’s not hard to believe that the City of Light could simultaneously be the City of Fright. Paris by Foot offers a Haunted Paris tour which gives a glimpse into some of the gruesome stories of the city’s past. Matthew Hayman, another American in Paris with a background in Parisian history and priority access to private archives, gave insight into some stories worth remembering. Below are just a few.

Notre Dame

Ironworks spotted on the doors of Notre Dame. Image credit: Jacqueline Wegwerth

The first place on Hayman’s tour is one that every visitor to Paris has stopped by, likely without acknowledging the history Hayman claims is behind (and on) its closed doors.  Notre Dame is one of the most sacred places in Paris, and arguably the world. Ironically, a demonic event belongs to the story of its construction, a legend dating back to the 1300s about an ironworker by the name of Biscarnet. 

Hayman explains, “When this church got commissioned, it was supposed to be the biggest and best church in all of Christianity.” The Church deemed Biscarnet worthy and capable of such a task, as he was one of the best ironworkers in the city. Hayman continues, “Years went by, and he still couldn't come up with something the Church would accept. So he began his prayers to the Virgin Mary, to Jesus, and to all of the other saints. Still, his ideas weren’t good enough.” With a deadline fast approaching and creativity rapidly declining, Biscarnet took the natural next step and prayed to Satan for guidance. “His deadline was fast approaching, and he got a bit desperate. So, what do you do when you’re desperate? You cast a prayer towards Satan of course,” Hayman notes. 

According to legend, the design was eventually accepted and praised for its devilish good looks. However, once measured to the perfect size and applied to the doors of the church, the cathedral ran into a problem: the doors wouldn't open. After being doused with holy water, the doors eventually opened. Biscarnet was found dead soon after in his apartment. Some say that the story originated in the 1800’s during restoration efforts of the church when the man heading the project deemed the work to be too complicated to have been completed without some 'darker' intervention. The details are rather intricate, especially when considering Biscarnet’s time restraints and lack of tools. A closer glimpse at the swirls on the door may suggest an allusion to the devil, through what some perceive as carefully placed “666”s.

Rue des Chantres

An apartment building where young patients drowned after the Seine flooded unexpectedly. Image credit: Jacqueline Wegwerth

Paris in the 1900s lacked the glamour it’s said to have today. Disease ravaged the city, and many children got infected by tuberculosis. The hospitals reached capacity, and apartments had to be rented elsewhere on Île de la Cité—on Rue des Chantres. 

The children were placed in rooms on the ground floor. “During the day they would let those children come out in the square to play right where we’re standing. They thought the fresh air would cure them, but they were wrong. At night they locked them in their rooms for their safety so no one could get to them or they could come out,” Hayman reveals. All was well until Paris suffered an abnormally large storm. The Seine flooded and rose several feet. If you visit the location, you can see a mark on the wall where the water reached, which stands above the average person’s head. 

The children, trapped in their roomsdrowned. The hospital tried to remove the bodies from the apartments at night to avoid anyone finding out about what had happened, but they were unsuccessful. Rumor has it, faint sounds of children’s laughter and screams can be heard along the alleyway in front of the building.

Rue Chanoinesse

Rue Chanoinesse, the street that inspired Sweeney Todd, and is the street where the butcher and barber burnt in steel cages. Image credit: Jacqueline Wegwerth

Though often claimed by London, the story of Sweeney Todd has roots in Paris. Hayman describes, “Back in the 1380s, this area was much different from what it is today. This street actually—Rue Chanoinesse—was like the Las Vegas strip of Paris," There were chapels on this street to quickly and cheaply get married, as well as boarding houses for young students. These boarding houses attracted a wealthy young man and his dog to the area, who said he would relocate for his studies but really had another thought in mind. He was going to meet his family's servant and the servant’s daughter upon arriving in Paris, where he and the daughter were to be secretly married. Their class backgrounds prohibited them from getting married openly back home.

When the servant and daughter arrived at the proposed place and time, they were surprised to find that the young man wasn't there. They confronted the boarding house mother, who contested that she hadn’t seen the man in a while either, however, she noted that his dog had been barking outside of a barber shop for a few days now, which mimicked several other incidents around this time where boys had mysteriously vanished. The wealthy family was able to do what the others weren’t and launched an investigation. Upon searching the barber shop the dog had been barking outside of, they found a trap door to a secret room where they found the body of the man. 

Next door to the barber was a butcher who had recently introduced a comparatively cheap meat pie, given the steep prices of other meats at the time. Young college boys got lured into the barber shop with offers of cheap haircuts. Following their necks being slit, their bodies were brought down to an adjoining underground room and cooked into meat pies for the townspeople. Eventually, the barber and the butcher got caught and were prosecuted and burnt alive in a steel cage in the street for all to see.

La Conciergerie

The doors of La Conciergerie where prisoners were brought in and later exited through only to be transported to the guillotine. Image credit: Jacqueline Wegwerth

During the Reign of Terror, La Conciergerie was the last stop for over two thousand people before they met their death by way of the guillotine. Of the more well-known prisoners was Marie Antoinette. Unlike most prisoners who were sent to the guillotine within days of being convicted guilty, Marie Antoinette spent several months in La Conciergerie. It wasn’t until the beheading of Louis XVI that Marie Antoinette was brought to the prison. Initially, it was unsure whether or not she would be killed, as nobody had too strong of hatred for her. Unfortunately for her, she was to meet the same fate as everyone else unlucky enough to enter the doors of La Conciergerie.

While in La Conciergerie, Marie Antoinette got treated somewhat well. She was given her own cell with wallpaper and was allowed to sew to keep busy, and additionally, there was a private chapel designated for her personal use. The cell had its flaws too, beyond what I assume would be an awful draft, it was strategically placed adjacent to the torture chamber, which kept its windows open at all times as a way to warn passing by citizens about the consequences of misbehavior. Marie Antoinette couldn’t escape the screams and was left to sulk in feelings of guilt of having let down her country. “This building is now considered one of the most haunted in the city. And it’s one of the few recognized by the government as haunted, so much so that they allow every once in awhile people with ghost hunting equipment to go in and investigate,” Hayman concludes. 

King Henri IV

The marker on the ground where King Henri IV was killed. Image credit: Jacqueline Wegwerth

In 1610 King Henri IV met his death during a phenomenon we have all at one point claimed would be the death of us—traffic. While being held up in his carriage, a man in the cart behind him had come up and stabbed him twice. The second strike hit his lung, and the King died hours later. At this point in time, a crime of this extent meant an excruciating death for the murderer. Hundreds of cuts were made all over his body, and molten lead was poured into these. Then, the man was then sentenced to death by quartering, an ancient practice where all four limbs were tied to different horses who were then sent running in different directions. Unfortunately, the lead added so much extra weight to his body that the process was slow and painful. 

Gone but not forgotten—King Henri’s story isn’t over yet. His body was taken to northern France and placed to rest with the other royal family’s bodies. During the French Revolution, the church got ambushed, and the bodies were taken out of the building and dragged onto the streets. Henri IV, who had been embalmed, was in a rather good shape, so he was put on display. The bodies were then thrown into a mass grave, but not before somebody had the chance to steal Henri IV’s head. 

The head was uncovered in the early 1900s after being sold at a flea market for a few francs. It disappeared again in the 1950s but was recently rediscovered a couple of years ago. DNA testing and digital facial reconstruction helped confirm that it is, in fact, the King’s head, and the French government, now in possession of it, is trying to figure out what to do with it. “Do you put it in a museum next to the Mona Lisa or do you bury it? So they’re trying to figure that out," Hayman notes amusingly, pauses and continues, “Next time you’re in a flea market, I guess keep your eye out—you never know what you’ll get.”