A famous legend exists about the “Red Man,” “L’Homme Rouge,” or the “Red Spectre” who inhabited the Palace of Tuileries (Palais des Tuileries). The Red Man, an apparition variously called a devil, a goblin, or a ghost, allegedly first appeared in the sixteenth century. He supposedly haunted the palace’s corridors and salons. In fact, the story of the Red Man begins with Catherine de Medici. She was an Italian noblewoman who married Henry II and became Queen of France.
Two stories exist as to how the Red Man originated. The first story begins after the death of Catherine de Medici’s husband, Henry II. She supposedly hired a henchman to commit murders against her political foes. His name was Jean l’écorcheur (John the Skinner). Unfortunately for Jean, he knew various unsavory secrets about the Queen. To silence him, the Queen ordered his murder, which was accomplished by a man named Neuville in the Tuileries garden.
Neuville left Jean’s corpse in the garden. Later, when Neuville returned, he found Jean’s corpse missing. A few days later, the Queen’s astrologist reported having a vision. In the vision, he claimed he saw all the inhabitants of the Tuileries die a terrible death. The astrologist also claimed that Jean would haunt Tuileries until it was destroyed. Thus, supposedly thereafter, every time something terrible was about to happen, the Red Man reputedly appeared to the inhabitants of the Tuileries.
The second story is that the Catherine de Medici wanted a new palace, built the Tuileries palace, and moved in before it could be finished. To her dismay, she discovered it already inhabited by an apparition clothed in red. The apparition prophesied to the Queen that she would die near Saint-Germain. As the palace was in the parish of Saint-Germain, the Queen forsook Tuileries, never to return. However, fate being fate, she discovered on her deathbed that the Benedictine friar administering last rites was named Laurent de Saint-Germain.
Pierre-Jean de Béranger, a prolific French poet and songwriter, described the Red Man as a devil dressed in scarlet. This devil was also reported to have various characteristics, such as being humped-back and one-eyed. There were also reports that he had a hooked nose, misshapen mouth, and cloven feet. Another person reported the following about the Red Man:
“He is described as small man, clothed from top to toe in scarlet, whose eye is so piercing and unearthly that it terrifies the most courageous. He never speaks, nor are his visits of much length; he vanishes soon after his presence is discovered.”
There were numerous reports of the Red Man appearing to Tuileries inhabitants. For example, people claimed to have seen him on the evening of Henry IV’s assassination on 14 May 1610. Before King Louis XVI died in 1793, the Red Man supposedly appeared wearing the red Phrygian cap or cap of liberty and a tri-colored cockade. Finally, Marie Antoinette‘s ladies supposedly received a visit from the Red Man. This visit occurred a few days before the 1792 storming of the Tuileries, known as 10 August and in this version it was reported:
“Marie Antoinette’s women were sitting in the Salle des Gardes, when they became suddenly aware of the presence of a small man clothed from crown to heel in scarlet, who looked at them with such unearthly eyes that they were frozen with terror. They rushed to the apartments of the Madame la Dauphine and related their adventure.”
Henry IV, Louis XVI, and Marie Antoinette were not the only royal inhabitants to receive a visit from the Red Man. After Napoleon Bonaparte‘s death a version began to circulate about him and the Red Man. A tall man dressed in red supposedly appeared at Napoleon’s door on 1 January 1814 insisting on seeing him. He was let in and their conversation was overhead with the Red Man reputedly saying, “This is my third appearance before you.” He then related had he had come first at the Battle of the Pyramids, second at the Battle of Wagram, and had now a final time to warn Napoleon “that you have … three months to complete the execution of your designs, or … comply with the proposal of peace offer you by the Allies.” Other versions state that he came during Napoleon’s coronation or appeared to Napoleon on the eve of the Battle of Waterloo.
There is also a version that the Red Man warned him about invading Russia and that it occurred in the winter preceding the Russian campaign. At that time, the Red Man appeared to one of the sentinels requesting a visit with Napoleon. The sentinel told him, “No.”
“[T]he demon brushed him aside, and ran quickly up the steps. He said to the chamberlain, ‘Tell the Emperor that a little Red Man whom he saw in Egypt wishes to see him again.’ Napoleon admitted the petit homme; a long conversation followed in the private cabinet; from a few words that were overhead Napoleon seemed to be pleading for something which was refused. Finally the door was opened, the Red Man came out, passed quickly through the corridors, and disappeared on the grand staircase which nobody saw him descend.”
Despite the depressive nature of many of the Red Man stories there is at least one practical joke related to the Red Man. It happened in 1815 and occurred one night as two women sat dining in one of the Louvre apartments. They were guests of Louis XVIII’s niece, the Duchess of Angoulême. As they dined, to “their supreme astonishment a ‘grand diable rouge’ came down the chimney,” snatched a leg of mutton, and disappeared with it by the way he came. When the Duchess heard the diners and their frightened story, she told the King. He ordered an investigation and discovered the apartment’s chimney was next to an art studio. Apparently, some art students made a hole in the wall and then decided to play a prank on the unsuspecting diners.
Although art students may have played a practical joke, the final visit of the Red Man happened in the last days of the Commune in 1871. Supposedly the journalist that reported the story, heard the tale from the trembling lips of a Louvre concierge (caretaker) who saw the Red Man in person.
“While making his accustomed round one night, lantern in hand, through the silent galleries, he observed in the Galerie d’Apollon a human form standing against a window, with crossed arms and drooping head, in an attitude of profound affliction. Believing he had surprised a robber, the concierge made towards the intruder, who hereupon disappeared in a most mysterious fashion. He tried to persuade himself that his senses had deceived him, when on reaching the Grand Galerie he saw the same figure again, in the same melancholy posture. On being challenged the form vanished. The official then remembered the legend of the Homme Rouge, and lost no time … Presently he returned with some of his comrades, to whom he had related what he had seen; but this time the search for the goblin was fruitless, and was cut short by another kind of apparition — a lurid glare in the sky.”
That was the last time the Red Man was seen because on 23 May 1871, the Tuileries palace was swathed in petroleum, liquid tar, and turpentine. Twelve men under the orders the former chief military commander of the Commune, then set the palace on fire at 7pm in the evening. “The conflagration soon assumed the most terrible dimensions, and all tempts to extinguish it were fruitless.” Flames poured out of every window at the Tuileries, and it burned steadily for 48 hours. Thus, with the death of the Tuileries, the death of the Red Man was also inevitable as he was never seen again.
So, did this story begin with Catherine de Medici? It seems the first time “l’homme rouge” appears in French texts is around 1774 and in 1761 for English texts (according to my Ngram search). Moreover, the idea of a Red Man did not really gain traction until Auguste Jean-Baptiste Defauconpret published Mémoires et anecdotes sur la cour de Napoléon. In the book, Defauconpret mentions Napoleon speaking with a man wearing a red coat (l’homme au manteau rouge) around the time of the Battle of the Pyramids. However, Sir Walter Scott is supposedly the person who popularized the Red Man in England, and, thus, by 1821 the Red Man became a part of popular folklore.
-  Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine, Volume 43, 1889, p. 759.
-  “The Red Spectre of the Tuileries,” in Aberdeen Journal, 19 January 1883, p. 6.
-  Sylvanus Urban, The Gentleman’s Magazine and Historical Chronicle, Volume 85, 1815 p. 123.
-  Ibid.
-  Heroes and Heroines of Fiction, Volume 1, 1914, p 257.
-  “The Red Spectre of the Tuileries,” p. 6.
-  The Present Age, Volume 2, 1882, p. 876.
-  Paris and Environs with Routes from London to Paris, 1888, p. 150.