The Versailles railway accident happened on Sunday, 8 May 1842, which was the day scheduled to honor Louis Philippe I, the son of Louis Philippe II, Duke of Orléans, who had been executed during the French Revolution like Marie Antoinette and her husband. The event was scheduled to take place at Versailles, and among other things, fireworks and waterworks were scheduled. About 5:30pm, after the waterworks finished, many attendees went to the Versailles Left Bank Railroad to depart for home. The train was unusually long that day. It consisted of at least 17 carriages and 3 engines, 2 up front and 1 in the rear.
When the train left the station it was hauling no less than 640 passengers locked into their cars. The train was clipping along at about 25 miles an hour and everything was fine until the train began to descend near Meudon. Apparently, at that point, according to the Morning Chronicle that is when the trouble began and the Versailles railway accident became a reality:
“[T]he engine now commenced wabbling, and as the train proceeded, the weight behind and the pushing forward of the six-wheel locomotive [caused the train’s speed to increase, which rendered the train unsteady] … and in avoiding a curve it pressed violently on each side of the rail [and caused] … the axle [to snap off].”
The shock of the axle breaking on the first engine then drove the locomotive off the rails, and it screeched to a stop. The second engine, which was set on full throttle, rose easily over the first as if it were a toy and it pulled the rest of the train after it. The second engine also broke into hundreds of pieces and crushed the conductor and stokers in it. In addition, the fire and grease boxes were scattered across the ground and they all ignited, which was whipped up further by the wind.
At the same moment the second engine went over the first, the first three passengers cars were dragged atop the engine and broke into pieces. The passenger cars also added more fuel to the engines that were already burning. However, most of the people in these car were able to escape “by throwing themselves out the windows; but about forty, who were too much injured to follow the example, were burned to death by the fire.” The fourth passenger car and those cars that followed did not ignite, but many passengers in them received severe wounds or contusions. The Examiner also provided these insights to the suffering and horror that ensued:
“As soon as the crash took place, a general panic seized on the passengers; the persons placed on the roofs threw themselves down from the height; those inside making wild and unavailable efforts to get out by the windows of the fast-fixed doors. … The fire had communicated to the help of broken carriages and boilers, in the midst of which were struggling with each other the wretched victims of the accident. some covered with blood, others scalded with the boiling water, were, when they escaped from the heap, seen running here and there, whilst others again perished in the flames, without the possibility of assistance being given them! One person who happened to be in the foremost compartment of a carriage, though he had received no wound, had experienced such an emotion of fright, that his memory totally failed him and he remembered nothing.”
When the Versailles railway accident occurred, cries of the victims could be heard far away. In fact, supposedly, the cries were heard “at a distance of ten minutes’ walk from the scene of the calamity; they were, however, of short duration, for before the inhabitants of the nearest houses could reach the spot, most of the bodies were calcined and the heat of the fire was so intense that the boat hooks, with which the remains were [later] extricated, became almost red hot.” Moreover, one witness to the incident reported:
“When the shock took place I endeavoured to get the door of the carriage in which I was sitting open; but it was locked, by way of precaution, it seems, against persons throwing themselves out and committing suicide as was done by an agent de change about a year ago. As the wind was fresh the windows were up. I broke one of these and rushed out, as the train had stopped. On looking before me, I saw five or six of the first carriage actually piled upon each other … The first from the locomotive had reached these carriages, and they were burning furiously. The screams of the females were awful; never shall I forget the appalling sounds of agony and dread that reach my ears. The clothes of one female had caught fire, and every attempt to extricate her was vain, for her legs were jammed in amongst the fractured timber of the carriage, and all who attempted to save her had the horror of seeing her burn to death.”
One gentleman who had taken his place in the first-class car was witness to another woman who burned to death. He stated:
“I saw a lady … she was caught by the middle between some fragments of waggons, which had carried her five yards above the ground. Her arms were free, and she threw them about in her agony, calling for assistance. We made a thousand efforts to reach her, but the burning furnace on all sides separated us from her, and not one drop of water to extinguish it. The flames reached her; when seeing that there was no hope, she seemed to resign herself. I saw her raise her eyes to heaven, then cover them with her hands, and remain immovable, suffering herself to be burnt without uttering a single cry. her dress and black scarf burnt slowly; her veil and straw bonnet were soon consumed.
A passenger in one of the last cars gave the following account of the Versailles railway accident:
“I felt a violent shock. Two others followed, then stopped. First there was a dead silence, then the most dreadful cries. Still I thought the danger passed, as nothing moved; but it was only after I had with much trouble succeeded in forcing my way out of the window, that I found the dreadful position we were in. The engines, the coal carriage, and the four or five first waggons were an immense heaps of ruins, under which more than 100 passengers lay buried. Some succeeded in disengaging themselves from the ruins, and ran about in agony. But soon the spectacle … [was] more terrific; this heap became a furnace. The burning coal, excited by the violence of the wind, had spread itself to the mass of overturned carriages, in which the passengers were burning.”
Other horrific stories were also published:
“The husband of a lady who is lodged at the Hotel du Globe, in the Rue Croix des Petits Champs, had both his legs fractured; two gendarmes dragged him from the waggon, but it required so much force that the joints of both the poor man’s arms were dislocated. This was partly occasioned by his grasping his wife in the hope of saving her also, but she was so much burnt that a fragment of her flesh came off in his hand. A M. Albinet, of the Rue d’Enfer, who is 76 years old, had both his thighs broken. He refuses to undergo amputation, and is waiting his last moment with perfect resignation. A young man, who was on the top of one of the waggons, was thrown by the shock into a vine ground. He felt much hurt, but was able to drag himself to a neighbouring house. he opened the door and entered, seated himself on a chair, and uttering a cry, fell dead. One of the stakes for training the vines had pierced his chest.”
When the Prefect of Police learned of the Versailles railway accident, he quickly arrived bringing medical aid and guards on horseback to assist. They dressed the wounded, performed amputations on the spot, and conveyed all those injured to neighboring houses, where homeowners willing received the injured. But there was little anyone could do for victims of the fire. Louis Philippe I also became involved and ordered that the Chateau of Meudon be opened for the wounded.
One thing that made the whole situation worse was the fact water was unavailable to put out the fire, a similar incident that happened years ago at Napoleon Bonaparte‘s wedding celebration to Marie Louise when the ballroom burned. Without water, the fire continued to rage well past 11:00pm and in addition it became extremely intense. To demonstrate its intensity, after the fire was finally extinguished “jewellery and money belonging to the passengers [was] … found in a state of fusion among the ashes.” Moreover, not only were the burned victims extricated from the passenger car with great difficulty, most were so badly burned they were unrecognizable. Of those burnt, one eye witness to the tragedy who was at the scene noted:
“It is utterly impossible to recognise one of them, every feature being gone, and the whole body being more or less calcined. On none can finger or toe be seen, though the stumps remain. The teeth are generally white and uninjured, giving another proof of the indestructibility of that part of the human frame. [In fact,] it was by her teeth that Madame Dumont d’Urville was recognised. The colour is in all cases the same — a dark brown, such as is seen on smoked hams or bacon.”
Most of the burned victims in the Versailles railway accident were men as only seven of the victims were female. In addition, only seven bodies were recognizable and they were therefore conveyed directly to the morgue after the accident. The remains of the other victims were taken by wagon to a railway station in Paris. There, they were laid out in a waiting room, and relatives and friends invited to identify them based on pieces of clothing that clung to them. After identification, the person’s remains were conveyed to Montparnasse cemetery for internment.
Despite all the sad stories relative to the Versailles railway accident, some passengers were saved. For instance, one 69-year-old man wrote that he, his daughter, his three granddaughters, and their maid were involved in the conflagration but were saved when a gentleman wearing a white hat appeared.
“[He] broke the pannels, saved first the three children … then their mother, who had fainted, and myself … He then left us to relieve our unfortunate maid whom he brought on his back, she being unable to walk from having her legs burnt.”
They tried to discover the hero’s name, to which “he jokingly replied, ‘I am called Arthur Trois Etoiles; I have nothing to fear from fire.” He was last seen limping away, and the saved man said, “I owe to him the lives of myself and my family.”
Another story of someone who survived the Versailles railway accident was a stock broker from Nantes:
“Among the sufferers was M. Toulmouche … he was with his son in the third compartment of the second waggon. He was thrown by the first shock on to the rail; when he recovered himself and saw the vehicle on fire, he made an effort to go to succour his son, but a vigorous arm seized him, snatched from inevitable death, and dragged him away to the side, where he fainted. He was afterwards taken home very much injured, but is now out of danger.”
The Versailles railway accident was the worst in history at the time. Newspapers published information providing varying accounts about the number of deaths. These numbers ranged from as few as 46 deaths to as many as 200. Among those killed was the well-known French explorer of Australia, New Zealand and Antarctica, Jules Dumont d’Urville, husband to the aforementioned Madame d’Urville who was recognized solely by her teeth. The explorer was burned so badly he could only be identified when a cast was made of his skull.
In the end, the accident resulted in some significant changes to railway travel. Officials abandoned the common practice of locking passengers in railway cars. French authorities also established a commission that investigated the accident, and the committee recommended axles be tested and replaced after traveling a certain distance. Additionally, the idea that metal could become fatigued also aided in a solution to improve railway axles thereafter.
-  “Fatal Railway Accident at Versailles,” in Morning Chronicle, 14 May 1842, p. 5.
-  “Dreadful Railway Accident Near Paris – Immense Loss of Life,” in Worcestershire Chronicle, 18 May 1842, p. 1.
-  “Dreadful Railroad Accident Near Paris – Immense Loss of Life,” in The Examiner, 14 May 1842, p. 12.
-  “Appalling Railway Accident At Versailles,” in Bell’s Life in London and Sporting Chronicle, 15 May 1842, p. 2.
-  “Dreadful Railway Accident,” in Kentish Mercury, 14 May 1842, p. 2.
-  “Dreadful Railroad Accident Near Paris,” in The Examiner, p. 12.
-  Ibid.
-  Dreadful Railway Accident Near Paris,” in Worcestershire Chronicle, p. 4.
-  Ibid.
-  The Late Accident of the Versailles Railways, in Reading Mercury, 21 May 1842, p. 4
-  Ibid.
-  Ibid.
-  Ibid.
-  Fatal Railway Accident at Versailles, in Morning Chronicle, p. 5.