The Tragic 1897 Charity Bazaar Fire or the Bazar de la Charité in Paris

Front elevation of the Bazaar and layout inside. Courtesy of semanticscholar.org.

An annual charity event known as the Bazar de la Charité was organized by the French Catholic aristocracy in Paris from 1885 onward. However, the best known or infamous of these charitable events was the tragic charity bazaar fire that occurred in May of 1897. It had been organized by Henry Blount, the son of Sir Edward Blount and opened on Monday, 3 May 1897. It was scheduled to last four days and was held in the 8th arrondissement at Rue Jean-Goujon 17 that lead from the Avenue d’Antin to the Place de l’Alma in the Champs Elysées quarter.

The building used for the bazaar was a large wooden structure that measured 80 by 13 metres (approximately 262 by 42 feet). Across the top of the structure was a combustible draped canvas. At the entrance there was also a cinematograph that provided light and used a system of ether and oxygen. The structure was divided into little shops representative of ancient Paris that were enhanced by a stage painting that had been painted for the Theatre and Music Exhibition on the ground-floor of the Palais de l’Industrie. One person who visited the bazaar described the scene:

“[It was] a long gallery having small, narrow, picturesque houses, the shops standing open in which smiling ladies in bright costumes kept the stalls, while outside the shops were young assistants, pressing the passers-by to enter and make purchases.”[1]

Duchess of Alençon, sister to the Empress Elisabeth of Austria. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

On the second day of the event, 4 May, attendance was high with estimates of between 1,500 to 1,800 attendees that also included visitors from America and Europe. A variety of important aristocrats were also there. For instance, there was the Duchess of Alençon (née Duchess Sophie in Bavaria), who was the favorite sister of the famous Empress Elisabeth of Austria, often called Sisi. In addition, many important society women were officiating as saleswomen and stall holders.

At half past four in the afternoon, the fire erupted unexpectedly and spread rapidly. It seemed as if in an instant the entire structure was aflame, stalls were blazing, and flames were licking at the crowd. A fearful panic ensued, and everyone present rushed for the exits, but because of the massive crowd, people could not find the exits or clogged the exits quickly. In addition, many people were knocked down and trampled over while others were suffocated in the crush of the crowd.

Some of the first women out of the fire rushed to neighboring houses crying for help. Other women lucky enough to escape rushed into the street screaming and shrieking only to find that their underwear was on fire while their dresses remained untouched. In the meantime, as soon as the fire was realized, the police rushed to the scene and endeavored to provide some sort of order among the terror-stricken people still trying to escape the building, but their help proved minimal as the fire quickly became what one person termed a “huge brazier.”

Many of those escaping the fire were injured. Numerous women were noticed to have been burned severely on their faces and heads. The explanation proposed as to why this happened was “that the capes of the dresses being generally composed of very light material first caught fire.”[2] The Figaro, a French daily morning newspaper founded in 1826 and published in Paris, had a journalist at the scene who reported:

“As the flames commenced to shoot up and round the Charity Bazaar frenzied women, for the most part in light costumes, escaped from the furnace, uttering cries of ‘Fire!’ The faces of several of them were covered with blood. From time to time a little girl ran out crying for her mother. A number of women of the poorer classes standing in the crowd, at the risk of burning themselves, tore the burning clothing in pieces from the persons of the ladies as they dashed in terror into the street.”[3]

Another observation made by the same journalist stated:

“One poor old woman succeeded in making her way through one of the gaps in the wall … When she reached the open air she seemed to be only half-conscious, and with her hat half-torn from her head and her face covered with blood, presented a pitiable spectacle. As we hoisted her, an inert mass, out of the reach of the flames we were suddenly drench with streams of water poured by the occupants of a neighbouring house over their walls, which were becoming gradually hotter and hotter.”[4]

Drawing showing the confusion and trampling of people as everyone tried to escape. Courtesy of Bibliothèque nationale de France.

As fire raged on, people outside began helping those inside to escape. Two heroes mentioned were Father Bailly and Father Ambroise. They appeared quickly because the event was located next to a convent and they helped saved about 30 people. The cook (Monsiuer Gauméry) and the manager (Madame Roche-Sautier) of the Hotel du Palais also helped save about 150 people who had escaped to a courtyard. The cook and manager broke a window, worked loose several iron bars, and pulled people inside from a tiny courtyard while also pouring a stream of water onto the fire burning in the courtyard.

As the fire continued to rage, it became more dangerous and less likely that those who escaped would survive. For example, two persons emerged from the flames and then writhed in pain on the ground just beyond the lick of the flames. As witnesses approached to help them, they were halted by flying embers and sputtering sparks that landed everywhere, including on them. Thus, instead of saving the escapees, they were forced to watch the two unfortunates “burning like torches.”

Moments into the fire the fireman arrived, but the fire had spread so fast the roof was already blazing when they appeared. Still there was a momentary glimmer of hope that everything might be made right again, but that was quickly extinguished. The Fireman had hoped to slow or stop the roaring fire, but despite their heroic efforts, the flames barely took notice and continued to leap without care while those on the sidelines stood helplessly by weeping in horror as the fire consumed everything.

One man and his friends were inside the bazaar before the fire began. He claimed that event was so crowded and the air so “stifling,” he and his friends decided to leave. However, despite their best efforts there were unable to make any headway towards the exit, and as they were struggling to get out, they heard the cry of “Fire!” He then described what happened next:

“We tried to keep cool, but the rush from behind forced us forward, and we got separated. I saw it was useless to try to find each other. Nevertheless, I endeavoured to work my way back, and in so doing was carried right off my feet and swayed backwards and forwards. I lost my hat, and my coat was torn off my back, while all my other clothes were torn. All this happened in a few seconds. Then the full extent of the calamity began to dawn upon us all, for the flames had spread with startling rapidity through the whole building. … I gradually found myself pulled towards the back of the building, and at length succeeded in scrambling through an opening made in a wall by some of those near me. A second later and I should have been among for the victims, for I had hardly struggled through the hole before I heard a dreadful crash as the blazing roof fell in.”[5]

Cover Le Petit Journal showing the horror of the fire. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

The brave fireman continued to fight heroically all the while listening to heartrending cries and despairing appeals from victims trapped inside. Some of those in the crowd seeing that the firemen’s attempts were in vain, tried to leap into the flames to help those crying to be saved, but they were held back by the crowd. Within moments of the firemen appearing, the fire reached its height and amidst the hissing and crackling sounds, onlookers heard the shrieks of victims who cried out for help and then became deathly quiet. One onlooker reported:

“Some minutes later the whole of the wooden building in which the fire was raging collapsed with a frightful crash, enveloping us in smoke and covering us with sparks and flaming debris. We were now able to approach the scene of what had been … but a few minutes before … a fashionable crush of gay and elegant people. On all sides were to be seen the bodies of poor women whom it had been impossible to help — some completely incinerated, other stretched on their backs with their arms extended as if appealing for help. In some cases, only the upper part of the body and been touched by the flames. Others were still burning, emitting a crackling sound. Our progress barred by the fire, we were unable to give these poor remains such care and attention as would at least have permitted the unfortunate relatives to identify them.”[6]

One newspaper noted how quickly the fire ignited and burned when it stated, “Had the spacious pinewood shed — for that is really what the building was — been struck by lightning at its four corners it could hardly have vanished more quickly from the eyes of men.”[7] In fact, the fire lasted no more than a half hour. Because it had burned so fast, survivors and mourners couldn’t believe the devastation. They quickly crowded round the horrific scene sobbing pitifully at the sight of their friends and loved ones reduced to ashes. One witness reported:

“Within a short half-hour I witnessed scenes of grief and despair which it is impossible to describe. One lady rushed about frantically asking for her daughter, and some one having told her that she was safe, the inquirer jumped, danced, and screamed, and, after rushing to her coachman and telling him to drive her home fell down in a dead swoon. Another lady went clean out of her mind on reaching the scenes of the disaster. Yet another lady imagined she recognised her daughter’s dress, and called hysterically to her husband to tell the police to prevent her going to the bazaar.”[8]

The ruins of the fire. Courtesy of Bibliothèque nationale de France.

One newspaper reporter wrote about the devastation and provided a clear picture of what those who survived saw after the fire was out:

“Thirty minutes after the electric wire of the cinematograph had set fire to the hangings which hid the walls, the ground was an open space, between the neighbouring houses, black and level, without sign of its having ever contained any building whatever. There was no masonry left standing, and there were none of the iron girders twisted by the heat nor the half-burned oaken rafters which usually characterize the debris of a great fire. Almost everything had been reduced to ashes, and even charred wood was rare. The only elevation which caught the eye along the sinister black space was a little heap of charred corpses near the entrance of the building. Here were shreds of women’s dresses, here and there 20 fr. pieces, blackened shoes, and odds and ends of articles from the bazaar which had resisted the fire, but of the numberless bodies that still remained in the ashes, now sodden by the water poured in upon them by the firemen, not one was recognizable.”[9]

News of the disaster could not have spread quicker throughout the capital. As soon as Parisians heard they dashed to the site of the fire. In fact, “by six o’clock hundreds of carriages and equipages of every description came streaming along the Champs Elysées conveying people with anxious, tear-stained faces coming to inquire for relatives and friends.”[10]

Dr Henri Feulard. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

It was ultimately determined that 150 or so people were injured, and 126 people lost their lives. Most of those involved were women. Some of the more interesting deaths include the following: The first is Elise Blonska, a Russian immigrant who was librarian to Jules Claretie, and whose body was burned beyond recognition and only identified by her orthopedic corset. Thérèse Donon, Baroness Saint-Didier, attended the bazaar to assist her husband’s aunt, and although she escaped, she died after she re-entered the structure thinking her niece was still inside. Dr Henri Feulard, a leading dermatologist of the 19th century, visited the bazaar with his wife, 10-year-old daughter, and the family maid Ernestine Moreau. During the stampede, the family became separated, and Dr Feulard re-entered the building attempting to save his daughter, but, unfortunately, both perished, as did the maid. Mrs Feulard was critically burned and required hospital care but survived.

Jeanne de Kergorlay, Viscountess of Poilloue of Saint-Perier by John Singer Sargent, 1883. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Several women were burned beyond recognition. Among them was Blanche Grossier, wife of the industrialist Achille Chouippe, who visited the bazaar as a customer. Her body was only identified because of her clothing. Claire Dalloyau, wife of Auguste Bouvyer, was working at the Duchess of Alençon’s stall and her body was entirely consumed by the fire and required a court order to pronounce her dead. Lastly, there was Jeanne de Kergorlay, Viscountess of Poilloue of Saint-Perier. She was a large woman who remained inside the building giving a leg-up to others escaping through a high window. She died when the floor gave way. Her children’s governess identified her based on her jewelry, which was also later confirmed by her father.

There were several high-ranking women who perished in the fire. The first was the wife of the Spanish Consul in Paris named Madame Florez. She survived for time and was taken to the Beaujon Hospital but died of her injuries. There was also Elise Weyer, wife of Emile Hoskier, the Danish consul general in Paris. She died with her daughter Marie Hoskier. The Illustrated London News printed two pages of portraits of some of the victims on 15 May 1897. Among the portraits included was that of Sisi’s sister, the Duchess of Alençon. She had been a leading patron of the bazaar and insisted on remaining until all those working under her had escaped. Her body was burnt beyond recognition and she was identified by her dentist who had done her gold fillings.

Soon after the fire, Parisians looked for someone to blame. Many people pointed the finger at Blount even though he had also been injured in the fire. Claims were that he had used his cane to forge a path through the crowd to get to the exit. In response to all the criticism he received, he wrote a long letter of explanation in which he stated that he was conducting a lottery at the time the fire broke out and told the women surrounding him to leave. A newspaper then published the following information about Blount:

“Suddenly the whole building became a mass of flames. In vain he shouted, ‘Be calm, ladies; you have plenty of time.’ A frightful panic ensued and everyone rushed for the door. He was carried away by the rush and bruised his ribs. On the steps he stood on one side, however, and allowed several persons to pass out before him. At this instant a burning curtain fell on his head blinding him completely, and frightening those around him. Once more he was swept off his feet, and thrown down the steps, whilst someone pulled the burning material from off him. He himself then took off his coat and extinguished the burning hair of several ladies, and afterwards he helped the firemen with their hose real. He emphatically affirms that he never had a stick or a hat in his hand, and he declare that he is conscious of having done nothing but his duty, although he never expected that circumstance would force him to publicly proclaim the fact.”[11]

Outrage over the fire resulted in large angry crowds attending the Chamber of Deputies hoping to prevent similar disasters in the future. During the meeting, a Monsieur Berry questioned authorities about apportioning responsibility for the fire, and the Minister of the Interior claimed, “it was well known that the outbreak was caused by a match which set fire to the ether in the kinematograph lamp.”[12] There were also claims that the responsible party would be dealt with appropriately.

Ange-Ferdinand-Armand, Baron of Mackau. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Eventually three people were charged with homicide by negligence. The first person charged was the President of the Charity Bazaar Committee, Ange-Ferdinand-Armand, Baron of Mackau. He was described as a “finely-built, aristocratic-looking man of sixty-five, with a broad forehead, short white whiskers, and a small white imperial.”[13] He was also a well-known man of society, politician, and member of the Conservative party who held important positions in the Ministry of Justice during the Second Empire and who was said to have “always shown himself to be an excellent party leader.”[14]  

Also charged were the cinematographer operator Victor Bailac, and his assistant Gregoire Bagrachow. During the trial, Bailac testified that the oxyetheric lamp suddenly went out and that the owner of the cinematograph, a Monsieur Normandin, only allowed him two minutes to fill his lamp and that part of the fault for the fire should lie with Normandin because the time restriction forced Bailac to hurry. According to one newspaper the fire happened as follows:

“Bagrachow who was helping him, opened a wooden shutter, so that the public should not remain in the dark. He then returned and placed himself close to Bailac, behind the curtain which separated the lamp from the public, and prevented the light from penetrating into the closet in which were the operators. Bailac unscrewed the stopper that closed the orifice of the lamp. He placed on the table a bottle containing ether; then, incommoded by the darkness, he asked Bagrachow for a light so that he could pour the liquid into the reservoir.”[15]

When Bagrachow lit the match, it immediately burst into flames because of the ether vapors. The two men tried to put out the fire by blowing on it, but their strategy was unsuccessful, and, in the meantime, the drapery hangings caught on fire. Because the men were behind a curtain no one else could see the disaster in the making and so no one could helped them stop the fire. The fire then spread quickly, and no one realized there was a problem until the men screamed “Fire!”

The Court of the Correctional Tribunal heard the case. Radicals tended to blame Mackau for the disaster partly because he was an aristocrat and partly because he belonged to the Conservative party. Critics felt that he should take full responsibility for the disaster and radical papers viciously attacked him. Supporters argued that Mackau should not be blamed based on his social rank and noted that radical papers had “sought to rouse, by every inflammatory means, the party passions of their readers, and to force the hand of the Government into making a scapegoat of the Baron for the satisfaction of advanced Republicans.”[16]  

When the verdict came back, it was determined that all three men were guilty to varying degrees:

“Mackau as president of the committee, was guilty of negligence and imprudence in not having asked for firemen and for having so small a staff of men to guard such an inflammable building. He was therefore sentenced to pay a fine of 500 francs. The man Bailac … was fined 300 francs and sentenced to one year’s imprisonment, and his colleague Bagrachoff, who struck the match as the ether lamps was being filled, was fined 200 francs and sentenced to eight months imprisonment. … M. Normandin, the owner of the cinematograph, was held to be responsible for the faults of his employees, as Bailac had very little experience of the apparatus before he was placed in charge of it.”[17]

The accused, however, were noted to have displayed great heroism at the fire and this aided them as the benefits of the Loi Bérgenger of 1891 (Berenger First Offenders Law) was used. This law distinguished between habitual, professional, or accidental offenders and allowed first offenders to be released on probation instead of being committed to penal institutions for crimes.

Site where the bazaar stood with the remains after the fire. Public domain.

Eventually it was also determined that several contributing factors led to the horrendous loss of life. Among them was the combustible draped canvas that caused the fire to spread quickly. There was also insufficient water available from the road, although there was a plentiful supply of water for the steam fire engines from the Seine River. Exits were another major problem. They were only eight and they were not clearly marked. Attendees were also not aware of all the exits available. Moreover, several exit doors opened inwards instead of outwards, and so, panicked people quickly blocked these inward opening doors because they could not figure out how to exit.*

After the fire many relics went unclaimed and were auctioned off in December 1898. The bidding was brisk, and among the items sold were 28 mourning pins, melted halfpence, pieces of rings, a cameo, a necklace of broken pearls, bits of parasol handles, and some side combs. There were also a number of ladies’ watches and a “small pile of memorandum books with entries of purchases at the bazaar that were not even scorched. … Brokers and hunters were visibly disappointed when it was stated that no memorandum book, visiting-card, or manuscript would be sold. All such objects were to be destroyed.”[18] There was also one gruesome item that sold for 925f., “a good-sized brilliant in a bit of one earring, to which an atom of charred flesh adhered.”[19]

*Ultimately, the knowledge acquired from the fire helped to establish the first fire safety regulations in France.

References:

  • [1] St. James’s Gazette, “The Paris Disaster,” May 5, 1897, p. 9.
  • [2] Ibid., p. 8.
  • [3] Ibid.
  • [4] Ibid.
  • [5] The Shipley Times, “The Terrible Tragedy in Paris,” May 8, 1897, p. 6.
  • [6] Ibid.
  • [7] St. James’s Gazette, p. 9.
  • [8] Montrose, Arbroath and Brechin Review; and Forfar and Kincardineshire Advertiser, “Fearful Calamity in Paris,” May 7, 1897, p. 2.
  • [9] St. James’s Gazette, p. 9.
  • [10] Ibid.
  • [11] Shields Daily Gazette, “The Charity Bazaar Fire: Mr Blount and his Critics,” May 21, 1897, p. 3.
  • [12] Western Monring News, “The Charity Bazaar Fire,” May 31, 1897, p. 8.
  • [13] Pall Mall Gazette, “The Charity Bazaar Fire: Commencement of the Trial,” August 20, 1897, p. 6.
  • [14] Pall Mall Gazette, p. 6
  • [15] Ibid.
  • [16] Ibid.
  • [17] Liverpool Mercury, “Charity Bazaar Fire: Result of the Trial,” August 25, 1897, 7
  • [18] Croydon Guardian and Surrey County Gazette, “Relics of the Paris Charity Bazaar Fire,” December 24, 1898, p. 6.
  • [19] Ibid.

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