Tuesday, July 15, 2014

le Quatorze Juillet is not the Revolution

Let's burst your bubble right away. The French Revolution did not begin on July 14, 1789. Nor did it commence at the 'citoyens' outrage at the Bastille prison and erupt into a spontaneous storming of the Bastille that ignited the 'paysans' all over France. The Revolution and Reign of Terror began a day earlier on July 13th, 1789 and at another prison up the 'hill' in Paris. Now a few Metro stops away. In these days, insurrections were fermenting all over Paris against the Royalty, and this time the powder keg was lit.
I think we should know this because the straw that broke the big French Royalty's back in France stemmed from protests against the inhuman conditions at the Women's Prison of Saint Lazare. The Prison Saint Lazare held Marquis de Sade at one time and later Mata Hari, who was shot,
before it was torn down in the 1930's.
But yes, the crowds did storm the Bastille a day later after they'd marched down from Prison Saint Lazare -which they hadn't pulled down and they should have. Imagine their frustration that the Bastille held only seven occupants, the angry crowd which had swelled into a riot, re-inforced by arms stolen from the military at Invalides,  tore it down as a symbol making it a rallying place to this day.
Originally Saint Lazare prison was a leprosarium founded on the road from Paris to Saint-Denis in the 12th century. St. Vincent de Paul and his Mission took it over later to make it a place of detention for people who had become an embarrassment to their families: un enclos, an enclosure for 'black sheep' who had brought disgrace to their relatives.
The prison was situated in the enclos Saint-Lazare, the largest enclosure in Paris until the end of the 18th century, in the tenth arrondissement between the Rue de Paradis to its south, the Rue du Faubourg-Saint-Denis to its east. Its site is now marked by the Church of Saint-Vincent-de-Paul, the only remaining part of the prison as it was then.
The building was converted to a prison at the time of the Reign of Terror in 1793, where the Marquis de Sade was held, a year later into a women's prison.
Women were imprisoned for debts, prostitution, thievery, even being 'not quite right in the head' and giving her landlord trouble, you name it. To give an example; a father, a gambler, of a family living in a tenement ran off without paying the rent. His wife, with three young children, was held responsible for his debts and the rent. She and her children were thrown into St. Lazare prison. No records indicate they ever got out. Women gave birth in prison, whole families lived there in squalid conditions. Few of the women imprisoned in St. Lazare had rich families or benefactors who paid off the guards for better conditions or food as happened de riguer in other prisons like the Bastille. Abuse and vermin infestation made the place notorious. It took more than forty years, after a decree mandated that the prison should be shut down, for it to finally happen.
That special treatment prison option hasn't changed. Carlos, the Jackal, imprisoned for life, lived in le Santé previously in the VIP wing with disgraced government officials and got better meals and service than you or I would. He still does and 'runs', according to my source, a wing of a prison in northwest France where he's now incarcerated, after marrying his attorney, and smokes imported Cuban cigars. A gift of you know who.

This is the painting of Prison Saint Lazare that stays with me -
Cara - Happy real Bastille Day


  1. Or not so happy. What a horrid history we humans have. What a wonderful history we humans have. What an interesting species we are. Bastards and saints, thieves and philanthropists, murders and mothers, sinners and fathers, sadists and farmers, ... we could be here all day going over humanity's finer and fainter attributes.

    But that's what authors are for, n'est-ce pas?

  2. The deplorable state of so many of the world's prisons has been written about for centuries, and yet the horrors persist. As recently as yesterday, The NY Times wrote about deplorable conditions in its own city's jail. A timely, great piece, Cara.