The Paris Catacombs (Catacombes de Paris in French) are underground ossuaries that were created as part of the effort to eliminate the city’s overflowing cemeteries in the late eighteenth century. The same year that Marie Antoinette’s husband ascended the throne as Louis XVI was the same year that preparation for the Catacombs began after a basement wall in the Saint Innocents cemetery collapsed. Transfers of remains began twelve years later and starting in 1786, a nightly procession of black draped covered wagons followed by chanting priests wended their way to the Catacombs to rebury the exhumed. Of this procession it was reported in the Chester Chronicle in 1815:
“A Royal decree was issued for the formation of a Committee of scientific men to preside over the removal of the bodies. This was a task of difficulty. The multitude of human remains was fearful, as a source of permanent pollution; the exposure was dreaded as the letting loose a plague upon the air; the ground contained at least two million of bodies, piled in layers, without any other bed between, than the clay of their own dissolution! The superintendant of the Cemetary had within the last thirty years buried more than 90,000, in trenches of from 1200 to 1500 each. This was the usual sepulture of the nation. The separate burials never exceeded 200 in the year … [and] on every side long ranges of skulls divide the layers of those remnants of the living world.”
In the first years of the Catacombs, the Catacombs were a disorganized bone repository. They then became a curiosity site for the elite and privileged Parisians. Among those that came to see the site was Louis XVI’s brother, the Count d’Artois, who visited in 1787.
Fortunately, however, the Paris Catacombs did not stay disorganized long thanks to Louis-Étienne Héricart de Thury. He served as the director to the Paris Mine Inspection Service beginning in 1810 and from that point forward, he transformed the Catacombs into a mausoleum that could be viewed by visitors a few times year. He accomplished this by stacking skulls and femurs into patterns, using cemetery decorations, creating a room dedicated to the display of various minerals found under Paris, establishing another room filled with the skeletal deformities found during the Catacombs’ creation and renovation, and adding monumental tables and archways with warning inscriptions.
The Catacombs that de Thury organized and renovated were formed from the remains removed from Saint Innocents, Saint-Étienne-des-Grès, Madeleine Cemetery, Errancis Cemetery, and Notre-Dame-des-Blancs-Manteaux. In addition, to make room for more burials, the bones of the exhumed were packed into the roofs and walls of “charnier” galleries built inside the cemetery walls. As to how these remains were arranged, one visitor to the Paris Catacombs wrote in 1846:
“The bones of the legs and arms are laid closely in order, with their ends outwards, and at regular intervals sculls are interspersed in three horizontal ranges, disposed so as to present alternate rows of the back and front parts of the head; and sometimes a single perpendicular range is seen, still farther varying the general outlines. Passing along what seemed to be interminable ranges of these piles of human remains, we came to several apartments arranged like chapels, with varied dispositions of the piles of legs, arms, and grinning sculls.”
Besides holding the dead, the Paris Catacombs also seemed to be the site of many interesting tales over the years. The first story related to them happened during the French Revolution and involved a man named Philibert Aspairt. He was a doorkeeper at the Val-de-Grâce hospital, a military hospital located at 74 boulevard de Port-Royal in the 5th arrondissement of Paris. Apsairt reportedly entered the Paris Catacombs through an entrance from the hospital courtyard In November of 1793.
Apparently, the hospital sat over a portion of the Catacombs, and reputedly from it descended one of the seventy staircases that existed in the Catacombs. Exactly why Aspairt descended into the ossuaries seems unknown. However, one version is that he wanted to explore them and another version claims that he was looking for the Carthusian convent cellars to steal some bottle of their famous chartreuse. Whatever his reason for going into the Catacombs, it was reported:
“He descended the winding stair. Lantern in hand he entered that awful labyrinth, and he never came back. How long he lived, or how he died; how long his feeble lantern kept alight, or for how many hours or days he may have wandered in darkness, ere death put an end to his sufferings, are among the secrets of the Catacombs.”
Eleven years after Apsairt disappeared, in 1804, Marie François Dupont, a worker, discovered a corpse in the quarry galleries of the Catacombs. Hanging from around the waist was a hospital key ring that was soon determined to belong to the long missing Apsairt, which is supposedly how he was identified. Aspairt’s body was then buried where he was found and his tomb contains the following inscription, “In the memory of Philibert Aspairt, lost in this excavation on 3 November 1793; found eleven years later and buried at the same place on 30 April 1804.” In addition, a death certificate was also later located in the Archives de la ville de Paris that stated:
“Death certificate of Philibert Asper, quarry worker, aged 62 years. Born in Salmeranges, department of Puy de Dôme, residing in Paris, Rue St Jacques 129 of said division. Married – Elisabeth Millard his widow. Found dead in the quarries under the Rue d’Enfer, on 12 Floréal of the present month, at noon. Based on the minutes written on said day by Charles Daubanel, police officer of the Luxembourg division, said Asper had been missing from his house for ten or twelve years as it is found throughout the minutes written the said day, 12 Floréal of the present month and year, by said police officer, of said Luxembourg division. In consequence of which, the extract was remitted to us by Jean Marie François Dupont, worker residing Rue St Jacques 176, Observatoire division, stranger to the deceased, who signed before us, Mayor of the Twelfth Arrondissement of Paris.”
There are, however, some obvious inconsistencies between the death certificate, the tomb inscription, and the tale of Apsairt that circulated. One difference is that the name on the death certificate is Asper rather than Apsairt, but it was common for surnames to evolve and change over time. The burial date is also shown as 8 May 1804 rather than 30 April 1804, which may be due to converting the republican calendar date to the traditional date. The death certificate also describes Apsairt’s occupation at Val-de-Grâce as a doorkeeper and a quarryman, although that may be because he was first a quarryman and then later a doorkeeper.
Although Apsairt may have died mysteriously in the Catacombs, a second tale involves two Russian officers who were much luckier. They had accompanied a group of visitors into the Paris Catacombs in the early 1820s using a black line and a guide to direct them. Unfortunately, the officers wandering away from their party and the line and got lost. The Cambridge Chronicle and Journal maintained their getting lost “may serve as a caution to persons visiting these subterraneous abodes, not to lose sight of the guide or party … in their perambulations.” The paper also provided details of what happened next stating:
“They had come … to see the Catacombs; out of curiosity, and a romantic desire for discoveries, they had deviated from the black line, lost the guide with the company, and were not missed by him when he come to count over the party at going out, because his attention was diverted by a posse of English travellers. After a long, fatiguing, and dangerous ramble in these labyrinths, they, at length, found the line again, but too late. They then reached the outlet; all was silent, their companions were gone, and they found themselves alone in these abodes of death. In this critical situation, the most rational course they could pursue was to wait patiently for the moment of their deliverance. One hour passed after another: a reference to their watches, by the least gleam of their expiring tapers, informed them of the approach of night, and deprived them of all hope of revisiting the upper world before the succeeding day. They now prepared a couch of skulls and bones, and thus bivouacked in a camp of skeletons more numerous than the victims of ambition, with which any conqueror every bestrewed a field of battle. They depicted to us, in lively colours, their feelings amidst this everlasting night, and in this prodigious company of ghastly bedfellows, their alarm heightened by the consideration of the dreadful possibility, that hunger might soon add them to the number of victims of death, and their excessive joy on hearing the sound of human voices, and perceiving the light of our torches, which announced the termination of their twenty-four hours’ captivity.”
A third tale related to the Paris Catacombs was reported by the Tipperary Vindicator in July of 1845, but the paper also reported that the atrocious crime took place about twenty years earlier in 1824. Moreover, the paper reported it involved a torchbearer named Alexandre Francornard. He was described as a handsome young man but noted “to be of dissipated habits and overbearing disposition.” Nonetheless, despite Francornard’s shortcomings he was engaged to a young widow named Eugenie Marsac. She had a 3-year-old daughter and was known to possess a good income and have several nice pieces of jewelry. On the day she threw off her widow weeds she appeared at the Paris Catacombs with her daughter at the lodge keepers where she found Francornard hard at work:
“[At the time Marsac was] bedecked … in the most valuable and attractive articles of jewellery she possessed. Alexandre proposed to show her the catacombs, which she had never yet visited. Madame Marsac assented; and Alexandre, taking a torch in his hand conducted her and the child down the stairs into the catacombs. In an hour he returned … alone; but as the keeper had been relieved in the meantime by one of his subordinates, there was no one to notice … that Alexandre was unaccompanied by any one.”
That same day Francornard left Paris and soon thereafter Madame Marsac’s friends realized she and her child were missing. No one believed that she would had eloped with Franconard and soon an investigation was conducted by her friends. It was soon ascertained that Marsac had gone with her daughter to visit Francornard at the Catacombs and upon further investigation the dead bodies of mother and child were found in the Paris Catacombs:
“Both were cruelly murdered in an obscure nook … The woman’s skull was fractured at the back part and the child’s brains were literally dashed out … A heavy piece of wood covered with blood, was found near the spot; and with that weapon the unfortunate female had evidently been murdered. Horrible to relate, there was proof that the monster must have taken the innocent child by the feet, and dashed its head against the stone pillar.”
Franconard had apparently committed the murder to rob Marsac of her jewelry as every piece and been plucked from her body. Six months passed and there was no information or sighting of the murderer Franconard. It appeared as if he would never be caught until one evening a Paris gendarme entered a small tavern in a village between Calais and Saint Omer, some 190 miles from Paris:
“A person dressed like a labourer was sitting by the kitchen fire. The gendarme was about to light his pipe and looked round for a match. The stranger exclaimed, ‘Here — I will give you a light;’ and taking a letter from his pocket, he tore off a piece, folded it, lighted it, and handed it to the officer. — The gendarme thanked him, took the paper and applied it to his pipe. In doing so the eyes of the gendarme fell upon some writing on the unburnt part of the paper. He immediately extinguished the light, and holding the paper in his hand … said to the stranger, ‘Did you know Madame Marsac who was murdered six or seven months ago in the catacombs of Paris?’ The countenance of the stranger assumed a ghastly appearance, and the gendarme exclaimed, ‘Alexandre Francornard, you are my prisoner.’”
It seems that the gendarme had noticed Madame Marsac’s name written on the letter and that is what had caught his eye as he was lighting his pipe. He then arrested Franconard and took him to Paris where the murderer was tried, condemned to death, and guillotined on 7 March 1825 at the Place de Greve. The same spot where the guillotine had been used for the first time on 25 April 1792 on a highway named Nicolas Jacques Pelletier.
By the time that Madame Marsac’s murder took place in 1824, visitors to the Paris Catacombs had greatly increased from the 1810s when de Thury took over. Instead of permission being granted to a nominal number of visitors by mine inspectors, mine overseers were allowing thousands to enter the Catacombs and these visitors so degraded the ossuaries that a permission-only rule was reinstituted in 1830. The Catacombs were then closed entirely in 1833 because of church opposition to exposing human remains to public display. However, public demand caused a reopening and limited visiting in 1850. The number of visitors then gradually increased from monthly to bi-weekly to daily in 1878, 1889, and in 1900 during the World’s Fair Exposition.
-  Chester Chronicle, “Catacombs of Paris,” September 29, 1815, p. 4.
-  J. P. Durbin, Observations in Europe, Principally in France and Great Britain v. 1 (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1846), p. 96–97.
-  London Society v. 51 (London: William Clowes and Sons, 1887), p. 117.
-  Cambridge Chronicle and Journal, “The Catacombs of Paris,” November 29, 1822, p. 4.
-  Ibid.
-  Tipperary Vindicator, “The Catacombs of Paris,” July 5, 1845, p. 4.
-  Ibid.
-  Ibid.
-  Ibid.