Previously on Voices In The Attic, I told the story of the Paris Catacombs, a great underground network of tunnels containing six million corpses, constructed in the late eighteenth century to remedy overcrowding in Paris’ cemeteries. This time, there is another story to be told concerning France in the eighteenth century.
It is the summer of 1793, the first anniversary of the French Revolution, which overthrew and executed the reigning Bourbon monarch, King Louis XVI. The King has been dead for several months, and the Reign of Terror, led by Maximilien Robespierre, is just two months away. Yes, despite all the people who have gone under the National Razor, the worst is yet to come.
But the Revolution is more than just murder left, right and centre. It’s heinous acts of sacrilege, and destroying things—historically and culturally significant artefacts, buildings, anything and everything representing the Ancien Régime. Does this also include corpses, you ask? Well, yes, of course. This is eighteenth-century France.
So, this brings us to the Basilica of Saint-Denis, nine kilometres outside the city of Paris. It is in this cathedral that all the preceding French monarchs, save for three, are interred. This includes Clovis, first King of the Franks, who died in 511; Henry VI ‘the Great’, who died in 1610; Louis XIV ‘the Sun King’, who died in 1715; and his brother, Philippe Duc D’Orleans, founder of the royal house of Orleans. In total, there are about thirty-six Kings, including an additional forty-six corpses belonging to former Queens, princesses, dukes and other members of the nobility. They lie beneath grand cadaver tombs, decorated by magnificent effigies of their likeness.
So, to the raging revolutionaries, the Basilica of Saint-Denis sounds like an excellent place to go, because they are running out of living nobles to decapitate, and the guillotine just won’t cut it anymore. With Christianity outlawed, the Basilica of Saint-Denis deconsecrated, and the Benedictine monks disbanded, the revolutionaries descend upon the royal crypt like vultures. The Convention calls this act ‘The Last Judgement of Kings’. If it sounds ominous, that’s because it is.
On August 10th, to celebrate the Festival of Reunion, they empty the tombs of the oldest dynasties—the Merovingians, the Carolingians, the Robertian, the Bosonids and the Capetians. Luckily, these bodies have had a good nine hundred years to decompose, so it’s mostly bones and ash left. Not too revolting, especially compared to everything else that has happened recently. They strip the lead lining from the coffins, so it can be recast and used elsewhere, before throwing the bones into a mass grave.
Then, in October, to celebrate the execution of Queen Marie Antoinette, the revolutionaries return to ransack the tombs belonging to the Houses of Valois and Bourbon. These ones, unlike their predecessors, contain the recent corpses, thus they are intact, they have flesh, and they smell. The Bourbons, the house to which the last King belonged, are by far the most disgusting corpses. Onlookers describe “a malodorous black vapour that sickened workers”. This suggests to the revolutionaries that the corpses are morally tainted, as they were in life.
Henry VI of House Valois, known to the people as “the Good King”, is, however, remarkably well preserved for a man who died two hundred years ago. He is so well preserved, in fact, that workers call it a miracle. They make a plaster cast of his face and prop his body up for display for a few days, much like a Saint.
Unfortunately, though Henry is well-liked by the workers and onlookers, that does not stop them from clipping his hair, taking his beard and pulling his teeth. One woman actually comes barrelling in, curses Henry’s corpse, then punches Henry in the face, sending the corpse crashing to the ground. So much for resting in peace, right? After that, Henry ends up in the Valois trench, alongside his infamous mother-in-law, Catherine De Medici.
There is a bit of a mystery about Henry’s head, though, and whether it actually went into the trench with the rest of him. In 1817, an exhumation by the Bourbon Restoration finds the head missing. Another hundred years later, one Joseph Emile Bourdais buys a severed head for three francs, which he insists belongs to Henry. Exactly another hundred years later, the head resurfaces in an attic in Paris, belonging to a man who bought it in 1953. Who doesn't have a mummified head in their attic, right?
Scientists and anthropologists come to two entirely different conclusions: that it is and is not the head of Henry VI. To this day, there is something of a forensic dispute going on concerning this mysterious head. According to witnesses at the 1793 exhumations, Henry’s head is sawn open, and the brain removed, replaced with herbs.
Alexandre Lenoir testifies the following;
“The body of this prince [Henry IV] was so well preserved that the lines of his face were unchanged. He was laid down in the passage of low chapels, wrapped into his shroud, which was also preserved. Everybody could see him until Monday 14th in the morning; he was brought into the choir, at the bottom of the sanctuary’s steps, where he remained until 2 pm, and he was taken to the cemetery of de Valois, then into a large grave dug down on the right, on the North side. This cadaver, considered as a dry mummy, had a sawn skull, and contained, instead of the brain which had been removed, tow, oiled with a liquor made of herbs, which spread a strong smell, no one could stand.”
The mystery head, however, has a brain. Initial DNA testing doesn’t seem to render any definite answers either. For comparison, they use what is allegedly the blood of Henry’s great-great-great grandson, King Louis XVI, collected from the guillotine by a witness to his execution. But the samples don’t match. So the House of Bourbon arrives to help out. Prince Sixtus Henry of Bourbon-Parma and Prince João Maria of Orléans-Braganza add their samples, thus proving that the comparison blood does not belong to Louis XVI.
If you’d like to know more, there’s an academic article in the Journal of Forensic Research, authored by Doctor Riaud Xavier, Historian Delorme Philippe, and Lorin de la Grandmaison Geoffroy from the Department of Forensic Medicine and Pathology, Raymond Poincaré Hospital.
Another body to be uncovered is that of Henri de La Tour d'Auvergne, Vicomte de Turrene, remembered as one of the greatest generals in modern history. By this time, he’s been dead for about a hundred years, but, like the Good King, Turrene emerges intact and without odour, despite having been killed by a direct hit from a cannonball. The revolutionaries decide that Turrene is a worthy of the title of ‘grand homme’, so he manages to avoid most of the posthumous humiliation and desecration his crypt-mates endure.
Alexandre Lenoir, the archaeologist presiding over the exhumations, does detailed drawings of both the monuments and the bodies. The drawings are of corpses belonging to Turrene, Louis XIII, Henry VI and Louis XI, including the effigies of Henry II and Catherine De Medici.
Meanwhile, workers take off with souvenirs including Henry VI’s beard, Hugh Capet’s shoulder blade, Turrene’s finger, and a multitude of teeth and tufts of hair. Then, after the bodies been plundered, they all go into the trench and the workers pour quick lime over them so that they are utterly destroyed. Turrene is the only corpse from Saint-Denis to escape the ‘obliterating trench’.
When the deed is done, Alexandre Lenoir returns to Paris with his drawings, having saved the scapula of King Hugh Capet, the femur of Charles V, the tibia of Charles VI, the vertebrae of Charles VII, one rib belonging to Philip IV and another belonging to Louis XII, the lower jaw of Catherine de Medici, and the tibia of Cardinal Retz. A few monuments and statues survive the symbolic decapitation too. Everything goes into the new Museum of French Monuments, founded by Lenoir himself.
The Bourbon dynasty returns to the throne again in 1814, under King Louis XVIII, the brother of the executed King. They immediately dig up the trenches, but there they mostly find scattered fragments of the bodies buried thirty years prior. It is a sad fate indeed for these poor cadavers, whose bodies were supposed to be laid to rest in peace, some of them children and babies. But, they are now together in a shared ossuary, marked by the surviving monuments, their names carved in marble, unforgotten, remaining forever in memory. May they finally find peace and dignity, once again.
The following story may contain triggering and/or sensitive material. Topics discussed include detailed and graphic descriptions of a train crash.
There have been some dark days in London’s history, and in the history of the London Underground, amidst bombing raids and outbreaks of the Black Death—but perhaps one of the darkest days during peacetime is what happened at Moorgate Station in 1975.
I begin this story at some point in the early 1970s, before what will come to pass three or four years into the future. Passengers and workers at Moorgate Station on the Northern Line report seeing the apparition of a man in blue overalls, sometimes in the tunnels, sometimes in the terminus. When approached, the expression on the apparition's face becomes one of absolute horror before he vanishes into the walls.
It is worth noting, for reasons that will soon become evident, that this particular station is a dead end. Trains approaching the station must slow to 15 mph and come to a complete stop, but there is a twenty metre overrun track and buffer just in case of a minor overshoot. After that, there is a solid concrete wall.
On February 28th, 1975 at 8:46 AM, a train coming from Drayton Park arrives at Moorgate station, platform 9. However, it does not slow to the aforementioned speed. The train actually accelerates into the terminus, travelling at somewhere between 30-40 miles per hour. To some witnesses, the driver, Leslie Newson, appears to be in a trance, staring straight ahead. The train goes right through the station like a bullet, into the overrun tunnel, where it slams into the wall at the end.
As the first compartment collides with the wall, it is forced upwards into the tunnel ceiling, crushing the driver's cab and the first fifteen passenger seats. Before the crash, the first compartment is sixteen metres in length, but after the crash, what remains is just six metres long. Upon impact, the second compartment collides with the first, essentially collapsing it like an accordion, and the third rides up over the second. Forty-three people, including Newson, are killed, and seventy-three people are injured.
Rescue crews begin arriving within five minutes of the crash, where they discover a scene of true horror. First responders describe all-encompassing darkness, thick dust-laden air, screams of pain, bodies heaped on top of one another and arms reaching out for help from the twisted metal. To make matters worse, the ventilation is no longer working, as air travels through the tunnels via the force of trains travelling back and forth, otherwise known as the piston effect.
With no trains running, oxygen levels drop and the temperature shoots up to 49 degrees Celsius in the tunnels. Rescuers are also unable to communicate via radio between the station and the surface, as they are separated by twenty-one metres of soil and concrete. They have to make do with runners, though messages often do not arrive on the surface as they have been given at the station.
The last survivor is removed from the mangled wreckage at 10:00 PM, eighteen hours after the crash. At that point, the rescuers cease all noise, to listen for anyone left alive, but only silence greets them. Anyone left has most certainly perished.
In the following five days, members of the Fire Brigade endure the heat and the stench of decomposition in order to remove all the bodies, detangle the compartments and then winch them out of the tunnel where they can be properly examined. The last body to be removed is that of Newson, on March the 5th. At the same time, the wreckage is taken away, and the investigation begins.
The train, one of many built in 1938, is thoroughly examined, but no technical defect or equipment fault can be found. So it seems like the only one responsible is Leslie Newson, a father of two who rarely drank, who was carrying money on him to buy his daughter a car that day.
The investigation concludes that it was Newson to blame for the crash, but they still don’t really know what happened. His blood alcohol levels were above average, but the body produces alcohol after death, especially after five days of decomposing in the heat, so investigators turn to his co-workers. They all say that Newson was behaving normally that day, and he’d been running the train for two and a half hours before the crash without fault. All of this makes the crash that much stranger.
At the moment of the crash, experts deduce that Newson was sat bolt upright, still holding the dead-mans-handle to keep the train going, making no attempt to shield his face from what was coming right towards him. What could cause a person to behave in such a way? Well, no one ever figured that out.
What we did figure out from Moorgate is that the London Underground needed multiple fail-safes to prevent such a catastrophe from happening again, and that’s exactly what happened. Three years after the crash, the ‘Moorgate Control’ was installed at all dead-end stations. Should a train approach a dead-end at a speed above 12.5 mph, the Moorgate Control automatically applies the emergency brakes, and the train will come to a stop before the hydraulic buffers, not after it hits a concrete wall. Another six years after, tracks were fitted with resistors to prevent acceleration into stations.
And now, we think back to that apparition at Moorgate, which appeared several times before the crash. Was it an omen, trying to warn us of the horrors to come? Maybe, maybe not. That’s up to you.
1,324 firefighters, 240 police officers, 80 paramedics, 16 doctors and several nurses were involved in the valiant rescue and clean-up efforts. 43 people perished in the crash, 73 people were injured. If you happen to pass by Finnsbury Square, lay some flowers at their memorial.
What do you think happened at Moorgate? Tell us in the comments or tweet at @atticvoices!
When you think of Canada, it doesn’t take long for your mind to wander to the red-haired girl with the famous puffed sleeves. Her books are still wildly popular in bookstores today, and she is a constant attraction for Japanese tourists.
Anne-with-an-E Shirley managed to steal the hearts of Canadians everywhere upon publication, and she grew in popularity over the decades. It was never much of a mystery as to why Canadians took to her so quickly. She was optimistic. She was thoughtful. She was loving, and in return she was so easy to love. We cherish her as part of a childhood that Canadians seem to universally share. Her book is a beloved staple.
Even during the war years, her upbeat tale managed to inspire. Poland managed to have the story translated during the war, and she snuck her way into school curriculums globally over the decades. Like the classic Cinderella story, she transformed her flaws into her most beloved attributes. Everyone fell madly in love with her charming speeches, as well as her fiery nature.
The tragic orphan had certainly managed to find her happy ending at Green Gables, while also inspiring several sequels, a beloved mini series in 1985, and even a Japanese anime, furthering her reach across the globe. Anne Shirley was such a staple that even the Canadian tourism industry capitalized off of her story, transforming Prince Edward Island into a landscape of Anne Shirley. One cannot visit the island without stopping by and exploring Green Gables, the home where the author Lucy Maud Montgomery grew up.
Canadians love talking about Anne Shirley and the impact the series had on their own lives. Traces of her can be found in the Canadian landscape. Still lakes, bright beneath the sun. Long sweeping fields of golden hay. Cherry blossoms, in particular, hold a treasured connection to the story and character.
What the country shrinks from, however, is the long legacy of home children, the inspiration behind Anne of Green Gables. Originally plucked from a newspaper advertisement, Montgomery had been inspired by the tale of a girl named Ellen, adopted by an elderly couple when they had originally sent for a boy to take up a role on their farm.
Even from this optimistic portrayal of the adoption and happy-ever-after for the girl, there is a bleakness that lingers. Fate had chosen Ellen to find her way to this home, when so many of the home children were abused and lost, left to work like slaves in Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. One wonders what happened to the sought for boy and how his story turned out. Another question leads to the girl’s experiences before she arrived to Canada, safely secured in the hold of two siblings willing to let her remain in their family, despite her gender.
The mission for Home Children brought few happy-ever-afters, and instead scattered children across the globe.
Poverty had been a common element to life in the UK. Workhouses and their legacies terrorized the lower classes, casting a long shadow of abuse. These workhouses had been designed to fix poverty. Those who could not manage on their own would be taken into the hulking buildings and reduced to numbers. Women and men were separated, and children went off to their own section. The working conditions were overwhelmingly desperate, and the prisoners of the workhouses suffered, trying to work long hours on a low-calorie diet.
Home Children was the child migration scheme that took root in 1869, directing 100,000 children towards countries like Canada and Australia. They suffered extreme hardships and had no social security network to protect them, and were overworked by the settlers of early Canada.
The original intention was to liberate children from crushing poverty and to provide brand new opportunities that they ordinarily wouldn’t find in the UK. In exchange for their labor, they would be provided with shelter and food. However, instead of being adopted into families, children often discovered that they were simply workers-in-training, and separated from the rest of the children living in the area. Tasked with work, they often suffered under the demands.
When we look at Anne of Green Gables, we often fail to see the darkness present in the text. Her comments about her past spent looking after young children and acting as the working child often slip by. She frequently experiences despair, having her own father figure die near the end of the first novel, and in later sequels watches her friend die from consumption and suffers herself a miscarriage. Grief and despair linger in the background of her bright enthusiasm, but we ignore it.
In the most recent adaptation, Anne With An E took to Netflix and brought with it a nearly faithful adaptation. However, by layering in impressive twists to the original plot, they manage to reinvent the story. The formula is all the same— a red-haired orphan girl adopted by the elderly Cuthberts, and growing up over a string of adventures. It seems simple enough, but there is a brilliance that is added to the rehearsed formula.
The writers brought forward the darkness that loomed in the backdrop of the original source material. While Home Children and their legacy remain absent from the television adaption, flashes of previous trauma flicker across the screen, and the story introduces dangerous characters willing to inflict harm. In the second episode, viewers witness a man attempting to abduct children from the train station, and how close Anne is from being whisked away and never seen again. There is something startling in the casual aspect of the scene as audiences finally acknowledge the perils Anne finds herself engaged with.
One of the main elements to the first season was the harsh financial blow that the farm suffers, representing the dark difficulties of rural farming. The family running the farm depended on yearly success, and without it, things swiftly would go dark. This newly updated story provides insight to how crippling this devastation can be.
The only traces of Home Children can be found in the original inspiration for the novel, and that brings forward a shame. Having played a massive role in working in agricultural realms of Canada, they have been written out of history books. We fail to note our shortcomings in protecting and supporting these workers. Despite being children, they were shipped out for labour purposes only, and were lost from records over time. These children experienced limited agency and only found relief from the Home Children program during the Great Depression, when excess labour was no longer needed.
For now, their grim shadows can be found in the history behind Anne of Green Gables.
It is a fact that Canada fails to properly represent the Home Children. In 2009, the Minister of Immigration refused to apologize for the plight they underwent, and the suffering that they experienced at the hands of Canadians. Only a few token efforts were made to account for their presence, such as a plaque that can be found at the Home Children Memorial and Orphanage Building in Ottawa, a lone marker of the long history that sits in the shadows of elegant trees. A year after the Minister’s refusal to acknowledge the suffering of these labourers, the image of Home Children was printed into a postage stamp, rendered down in a plain piece of art.
As we fail to account for the labour that the country benefited from, the memory of these children suffocate under our silence.
Rachel Small is not a small person and might be the present day reincarnation of Lizzie Borden. She crawled to life one night after midnight in the basement of a bookstore just to write bad poetry.
In 1863, the world’s first rapid transit system opened beneath the city of London, running from Farringdon to Paddington with steam locomotives and gas-lit wooden carriages. On its first day, the steam trains carried 38,000 passengers. It was a massive part of London’s industrial revolution, allowing for people living in the squalid, overcrowded slums to move further out of the city while still being able to commute to work.
However, constructing the tunnels meant engineers had to tackle a unique problem—London’s unmarked burial sites, scattered underneath the city, some so densely packed with bodies that they could not be easily tunnelled through. It was originally suggested that the rail lines curved to avoid them, but according to historians, the curvature of the lines was simply to save money. In actual fact, the construction teams tunnelled right through the burial sites, only stopping when human remains were recovered in order to have them hastily removed and reburied elsewhere.
There are many incidents recorded in newspapers and publications that tell of construction crews encountering unmarked mass graves. In 1862, a year before the line went into service, tunnelling from Paddington to Kings Cross hit remains twenty-four feet beneath the surface. The London Metropolitan railway then sent payment to the London Necropolis Company for swift removal and reburial at Brookwood.
It happened again in 1865, wherein an investigation was launched into the treatment of remains found during construction on West Street by the North London Railway. Having discovered the remains, the company didn't know what to do with them immediately so they put them into one of the railway arches until a solution was decided upon. Eventually, they did retrieve the bodies and had them reburied at Ilford. I can’t imagine the owners of the bodies were all too happy with the North London Railway though.
In more recent times, similar problems were encountered during excavations for the new Crossrail Elizabeth Line, a seventy-three mile long high-speed train from Reading to Heathrow, passing through the heart of London. But the Crossrail team were more careful than their Victorian predecessors. Before they began work at Farringdon, they conducted a preliminary forensic geophysics survey, because a previous dig nearby in the 1980s had unearthed 759 confirmed bubonic plague victims. So it should come as no surprise that, when Crossrail did a test dig, they discovered an additional twenty-five skeletons, all confirmed victims of a plague outbreak that occurred during the late medieval period.
The same thing happened again during the excavation of the Liverpool Street Station, which unearthed the Bedlam cemetery. Crossrail dug up three thousand five hundred bodies there. But forty-two of them, in cheap coffins, had been buried on the same day, stacked four deep with no earth between them. These bodies too tested positive for Yersinia Pestis, the bacteria responsible for the dreaded bubonic plague.
All told, Crossrail did a pretty stellar job of treating the dead with the dignity that they deserved and gathering vital missing pieces of London’s history, while completing a major part of London’s infrastructure. The same cannot be said for the 2002 Eurostar extension at St. Pancras Station, where no one expected to hit the Camley Street cemetery, because it was assumed that the bodies had been cleared out during the nineteenth century. It turned out that this was not the case at all.
When they discovered just how many bodies were left, they sought and were granted an act of parliament which allowed them to remove the bodies via mechanical means. They employed the use of bulldozers and conveyor belts so they could dig out the bodies and coffins, then put them on the belts that dumped them in trucks. Two thousand bodies were desecrated in the 2002 operation, some buried there as late as 1854. They could not be identified, as the process of digging them up led to them being scattered and separated from the nameplates on their coffins.
The moral of the story here is, well, always expect corpses if you’re digging in London.
Have you heard any gruesome stories about the London Underground? Let us know in the comments, and tune in next time for more tales of the Tube!
When I was a kid, my grandma told me my first ghost story. Maybe this doesn’t sound like such a big deal, but my grandma doesn’t like ghost stories. She doesn’t believe in them, she doesn’t tell them, they just “aren’t her cup of tea” as she’d tell me.
But she told me this one. So, without further ado, here’s a story this Voice has been meaning to tell from the beginning:
On the way out of Ottawa, Canada, there is a small suburb called Manotick. I’ve been there myself countless times growing up. It was where the best dancewear store was, so my mom would take me to buy all of my clothes and shoes. It’s where my mom rushed me to practice from school every day for the two years I was in the Nutcracker. It’s where my mom took me and my grandma for Sunday afternoon lunches when I was a kid.
It’s a peaceful, sleepy little town, with cute shops and beautiful scenery, The Rideau River runs right through.
But in the very heart of this peaceful, sleepy little suburb, it’s also where Watson’s Mill stands.
Watson’s Mill is not in itself a problem. It was opened in 1860, by Joseph Merrill Currier and Moss Kent Dickinson. They had obtained the water rights to the property just a year previous, and in fact, it’s Dickinson who’s said to have named Manotick in the first place, after the Ojibwa word for ‘long island’ or ‘island in the water’.
It was a powerful mill; according to Rideau-info.com, it “was capable of producing 100 barrels of flour a day and the sawmill could cut up to two million board feet per year.” The problem in this story was a combination of things.
In 1861, on the one year anniversary of the mill’s opening, Joseph Currier brought his new bride, Anne Crosby Currier, in for a tour. They made it all the way up to the attic, while Joseph pointed out all the machinery and inner-workings of the mill to his beloved bride. On their way back down, however, tragedy struck.
Anne was dressed in a flowing dress with a hooped skirt that allowed the dress to drag behind her. It was no doubt a beautiful dress, but an unfortunately disastrous choice to wear inside the mill.
On their way back down from the attic, between the third and second floor, a part of Anne’s dress got caught in one of the Mill’s rotating shafts. The rotating shafts moved too quickly for her to realize in time to pull herself free, and she was yanked against a pillar, dying on impact.
Joseph was so heartbroken that when he left the mill that day, he never looked back. He sold his shares to his partner, and never again returned. Anne, on the other hand, never left.
Over the years, many have reported seeing and hearing things that had no explanation while wandering in and around the Mill. Some reported seeing a woman peering out of a second-floor window, while others swore they heard light footsteps creaking across the upstairs floorboards, even when there was no one up there to make them. What’s more, some visitors to the Mill even report being grabbed or shoved while walking around the upper floors. Many believe it to be Anne, likely trying to warn them away from the same fate she suffered.
Maggie Kendall spent the first fifteen years of her life furiously avoiding all things horror, but then her friend forced her to watch Paranormal Activity, and there’s been no turning back. She still checks the bathroom mirror for Bloody Mary before getting in the shower.
This post was originally published on SPINE Online, October 21st, 2018.
Leading up to 1834, the LaLauries were members of high society: hosting lavish parties and pampering their guests. Madame Delphine LaLaurie was a beautiful, charming woman who purchased the mansion in 1832 and maintained the household herself; her husband had little to do with the property and its affairs. Behind closed doors, she was known to be quick of temper and lashed out.
When a young female slave fell to her death from the roof (in order to escape being beaten after brushing a snag in the Madame’s hair), neighbours who had seen the Madame burying her in the courtyard called for law enforcement. This little girl was not the first reported death at the mansion; one man had purposefully jumped out a window to escape punishment. That window was quickly sealed with cement and remains so to this day.
As there were laws restricting the mistreatment of slaves, Madame LaLaurie was forced to give up her slaves. However, she convinced a relative to buy them back for her, and heads turned the other way. After that, rumours circulated Madame LaLaurie about her brutal treatment of her slaves, despite showing civility to them in public (and even manumitting two of her own). The LaLauries quickly lost popularity in the French Quarter, which worsened the Madame’s temper.
Suspicions were confirmed when a fire started in the kitchen in 1834: Madame LaLaurie was, in fact, torturing her slaves. Rescuers found that at least seven of her slaves had been locked in the attic and were mutilated beyond belief. Reportedly, the cook set the fire herself, either as a suicide attempt or to expose the horrors taking place. She named Madame LaLaurie responsible for the treachery in the attic. More exaggerated tales claim that these were macabre medical experiments and that Madame LaLaurie’s doctor husband aided her.
When the attic was discovered, locals flew into a rage and ransacked the mansion. The LaLauries were nowhere to be found; they had fled the scene amidst all of the commotion. Most rumours claim they left for Paris: others whisper that Madame LaLaurie returned under a new identity. However, a plaque with Madame LaLaurie’s name and death date can be found in New Orleans.
As for the rest of the LaLaurie slaves, witness accounts say that the slaves in the attic died from their wounds or were already dead when they were discovered. Some even swear they were put on display at an auction as proof of Madame LaLaurie’s brutality.
Today, the LaLaurie mansion is now privately owned and has been converted into apartments, but before then it had unoccupied. Nicolas Cage bought it in 2007, but never spent a night there and sold it a year later. It most recently came under the spotlight as a filming location in American Horror Story: Coven (according to Huffington Post).
Passersby claim the mansion itself has a spooky atmosphere about it, that ghostly screaming and the clanging of chains can be heard from within. On occasion, the little girl who fell from the roof can be seen around the place. Unfortunately, there are no tours of the interior since the mansion is privately owned, but walking tours of New Orleans usually make the detour.
Michelle is a wandering soul. She doesn’t know what she’s doing with her life. She hopes she’s doing something right. She is a great person to talk to; doesn’t talk much herself. If you’re nice, she’ll haunt you forever. Or until she’s bored.
Welcome back to the Attic.
This will be our final post on the Ottawa jail for now, as our stay was unfortunately only for one night. However, while we were there, we experienced some things and learned even more about the happenings on the property, both past and present. To begin, we sat in a cell on Death Row with an audio recorder, which returned some sounds that did not come from any of us, that we know of. The recording is below, including the time codes of the unexplained sounds.
1:26 → Distant scream.
6:34 → A long breath.
7:30 → A low ‘Ooooo’ sound.
Some of the Voices went to the explore the jail before midnight, when the noise of traffic outside had died down. Two of them got lost in the maze of cells and hallways before they too got separated. Michelle, sensing that she was being followed or watched, called Joseph from her phone, while Rachel was looking for the source of what she believed to be rain. She never found where the sound was coming from, but it certainly was not raining outside. When they found one another again, both of them described feeling the same thing: that they were not alone.
Meanwhile, in the guards’ quarters, I learned about some more interesting stories associated with the jail. First off, the vampire. And no, not the Dracula-kind.
The story of The Jail Vampire began with a cryptic note left in one of the walls in a Death Row cell. It’s something of a legend, which you will read about in books or hear on the Haunted Walk, with various bits of misinformation. So we asked a member of staff at the hostel and they did indeed verify that there had been a note discovered during renovations. It was apparently placed there at some point in the sixties, but not actually discovered until some time later.
The message read like this:
“I am a non-veridical Vampire who will vanquish you all. One by one I will ornate your odorous flesh with famished fangs. But Who? Are there 94 or 95 steps to the 9th floor? A book on the top shelf will lead you on the right path.”
In the book ‘Haunted Ontario’ by Terry Boyle, Haunted Walk guide Carol Devine revealed that even while the jail was in operation, prisoners described the vampire as a spiritual entity which “tries to push your soul out of your body”.
“They say it feeds on the sick. No one knows for sure whether this creature’s territory extends throughout the jail or not.” She said.
Two stories in particular are associated with the ‘non-veridical’ vampire. The first occurred in 1994, and the second occurred while the jail was still in operation.
The 1994 incident involved two men who were staying overnight in the Governor’s quarters. One of the men woke up in the night to see a shadow in the doorway, so he turned the light on. As he did so, the light bulb exploded, and the shadow darted into the wall. Later workers discovered a passage behind that same wall, which subsequently led to theories that the vampire spirit was using the old passageways to travel around the jail.
The second ‘non-veridical’ vampire story also took place in the Governor’s quarters. At that time, the warden’s family, including his eight year old son, had moved into those quarters. I know, a jail probably isn’t a great place for a boy to grow up, but then, the management at this jail had a long record of bad ideas. As most little boys do, the son often played in the stairwell outside the quarters. But, after a while, the warden’s son changed. He developed an intense fear of the dark, a mysterious illness, and a rather swift change of personality. His sudden decline is attributed to the vampire.
Spirits such as this are not at all uncommon. They have been well-documented all over the world, often described as parasites, which suck the energy and life out of their victims, or anyone who resides in their vicinity for too long. So it’s safe to say that the Governor’s quarters are not a great place for an extended stay.
The stairwells are also rather notorious for their violence. The first stairwell, which we used to go from reception up to our room, was allegedly the sight of an incident between two inmates and a guard. The inmates overpowered the guard and pushed him over the railings, where he fell to his death. Subsequently, steel railings were placed down the middle of the stairwells to prevent such things from happening again.
At the back of the prison, there is another stairwell, and they lead from death row down to the gallows, then further down to the gallows courtyard. Both stairwells, though they are now lit by emergency lights, would have been extraordinarily dark, but at least the front stairwell has a little illumination from the skylight, whereas the gallows stairwell does not. And it’s absolutely frigid in the winter months.
It is said that several prisoners voluntarily jumped to their deaths there. I say voluntarily because other prisoners were not lucky enough to choose how or when they perished, as they were the victims of illegal, undocumented executions.
We looked up above the stairwell, to see a thick wooden beam cemented into the walls on either side. It’s clear that the beam serves no structural purpose, and that it was placed there after the wall’s completion. What’s even more clear are the rope marks in the beam.
Deaths at the jail often went undocumented, left up to mystery. Inmates either died with a noose around their neck, hanging from that beam, or they perished from neglect. This was also the case for immigrants—men, women, and children who came to Canada seeking a better life, then found themselves locked in the basement of the jail, exposed to the elements. They were in the dreaded quarantine, because it was believed that they carried foreign diseases.
Until recently, it was unknown how many people really died at the jail. But construction next door on the Mackenzie King Bridge gave a harrowing indication as to what really went on behind the six metre high walls. The courtyard, which now serves as a parking lot, was uncovered, revealing one hundred and fifty charred skeletons, one of which likely belongs to Patrick Whelan. Later deaths were interred at Beechwood Cemetery in unmarked graves, so the courtyard corpses could be just the tip of the iceberg.
If this place sounds like a medieval dungeon, as it was so accurately called in 1972, then you are getting the right idea. As a jail, it was a cold, overcrowded hellhole at the best of times, and it would’ve likely been shut down much earlier had word got out about the unrecorded deaths and burning of bodies on the property.
However, as a hostel, the Carleton County Gaol is a wonderful place to stay. There is so much to learn from the walls around you, from the heavy prison doors, and the creaking floorboards. They all tell the grim tale of Ottawa’s past, and the poor souls who endured their sentences inside. But somehow, despite the many horrific things that happened at the jail, there’s something warm about the building, and it’s not just the radiators blasting heat into the rooms. There’s a new life there which exists alongside the darkness of its past, which I attribute to the care and positivity given to it by the staff members and the much needed renovations.
In conclusion, long may the Ottawa Jail stand, and long may we learn from its lessons.
If you’ve heard stories about the jail, or experienced something on the Haunted Walk, let us know in the comments! If you haven’t spent the night before, book a bed at Hostels International and stay a while.
Ladies and gentleman, it is February 20th, and tonight, we are going to jail.
Well, not exactly. We are going to the Ottawa Jail Hostel, formerly known as the Carleton County Gaol. If you’ve been on the Ottawa Haunted Walk or stayed here yourself, then you’ll know all about this place.
It seems lost now, as a brooding and austere five-story Victorian building amongst the modern high rises and shopping centres. There’s still a pillory on the front lawn, and a faded sign above the courtyard gate saying: ‘Jail Entrance, Entrée De La Prison’. But no prisoners have passed through the doors in forty-five years now, or not a living one at least.
Yes, you guessed it. The building is very, very haunted. In fact, Lonely Planet calls it the ninth most haunted place in the world, and that is what we call a good review.
But first, before our stay begins, the story of the jail itself.
The Gaol was constructed in 1861, with a four story cell block to the rear, the administration block facing directly onto the Rideau Canal, a gallows yard surrounded by walls up to six metres high, and an underground tunnel going to the Courthouse next door. Its architect was Henry Hodge Horsey from Kingston, who also designed many of Ottawa’s notable Victorian buildings like the Banque Nationale and the original City Hall. At the time, the Gaol was considered ‘state of the art’, but as we all know, the standard in the nineteenth century tended to be quite low.
For starters, men, women and children were all doomed to serve their time within its walls—some of them murderers, others pickpockets and the like. They shared sixty cells with one hundred and fifty of their fellow inmates, in unsanitary conditions and without heating in the frigid winter months. Inmates only received one meal per day if they were lucky, while some of them were placed in solitary confinement, naked and alone. So it should come as no surprise that some inmates died before their sentences were up.
Seven years after the Gaol began operation, an important part of Ottawa’s history took place between one Patrick Whelan and the Minister of Parliament for Montreal West, Thomas D’Arcy McGee.
McGee was coming back from a Parliamentary debate just after midnight on April 7th, 1868. He ascended the steps towards the boarding house on Sparks Street where he had been staying, and greeted the owner of said boarding house, when he was suddenly shot through the neck. The shot reportedly knocked his dentures right out of his mouth. When others came to the scene, they found McGee dead on the street, with no sign of his assassin.
But it only took the police a day to find the culprit, in a tavern, with a .32 Smith & Wesson pistol in his pocket—allegedly the very pistol that had taken the life of McGee the previous night. The assassin was Patrick J. Whelan of County Galway, a man suspected of sympathizing with an Irish militia called ‘The Fenian Brotherhood’. When brought before the Court, however, Whelan insisted upon his innocence, but it was to no avail. In September, the Court found him guilty and sentenced him to die. Upon receiving the verdict of the Court, Whelan spoke these words:
"I am held to be a murderer. I am here standing on the brink of my grave, and I wish to declare to you and to my God that I am innocent, that I never committed this deed."
It’s not entirely clear if Patrick Whelan was indeed the man who killed D’Arcy McGee, as the evidence against him ended up being circumstantial at best. Nevertheless, not six months after the murder, in front of a crowd of five thousand spectators, Whelan again declared his innocence, before being hung from the Gallows at the Carleton County Gaol.
His body was buried on the property, where it presumably still remains with all the other men, women, and children who perished there. Afterwards, only two more executions took place there, the last being in 1945.
Eventually, in 1972, the outdated and infamously inhumane County Gaol closed for good. However, unlike most of the beautiful buildings designed by Henry Horsey, the Gaol was not demolished. It was instead turned into a hostel, after enjoying a much needed renovation. Guests stay in former cells, tour-goers pass by on the Ghost Walk and spirits linger alongside them. According to the stories, Patrick Whelan is unsurprisingly the most prolific phantom at the jail-turned-hostel. Guests often describe waking up to find Whelan standing over them, or he is seen walking towards the gallows. His spirit is certainly not alone though. There have also been many reports of disembodied screaming and crying, a feeling of intense negativity, and even violent encounters with the more aggressive spectral residents.
So we are going to spend the night with them.
Only men would become actual cannibals in order to avoid encountering hypothetical cannibals.
The Essex was not the only whaling ship in history to be demolished by a whale. It was, however, the inspiration for Moby Dick, a classic ocean tale of the perils of whales. The Essex was also the true story of three crew members vanishing to Australia, a Captain with a pocket of bones, and a berzerk sperm whale.
Arguably, the entire crew suffered from limited brain capacity. In 1820, after facing serious damage to the ship during their time at sea, they managed to settle upon Charles Island to repair The Essex and hunt plenty of tortoises to stock their food supplies. While they were on the island, they also managed to set the island on fire, due to the dry season. With the entire place burning away in a mass of black smoke, they took off eagerly for their good fortunes to be found hunting whales.
They cemented their reputation of becoming the alleged reason for the extinction of the Floreana Tortoise and the Floreana Mockingbird due to their inability to control a singular fire.
Perhaps it was foreshadowing that their travels would suffer from extremities. The island was still burning away in their shadows, a dark omen for their collective futures.
They managed to maintain their course, relying on navigation equipment and seasoned crew members to guide the ship to whale hunting grounds. The Essex, like other whaling ships at the time, was a large ship with smaller whaleboats that could be attached. These boats would allow crew members to hunt the whales from a smaller vessel, harpooning the creatures with far more ease.
The worst luck to have been experienced by this boat was an unprovoked sperm whale becoming visible to crew members. Despite no direct confrontation from the crew, it attacked the boat, ramming into it hard. As the boat began to take on water while crew members floundered, struggling to stall the damages, the whale returned, charging the ship at a faster pace.
Devastated, the boat began taking on water far quicker as supplies were being directed to the whaleboats. Navigation equipment was split between two boats, leaving the third one void of any guiding materials. Limited food and water rations were supplied, making dehydration a nasty force to combat as many crew members would find themselves reliant on drinking salt water or their own urine.
With The Essex rendered hopeless, they began sorting out their options. Stranded on the ocean with limited supplies, they felt it unwise to set off for the nearest land, which happened to be the Marquesas Islands and the Society Islands, due to the rumors of wild cannibals populating those areas. Instead, the better decision appeared to be setting off for South America, which would require travelling a far greater distance.
However, they soon learned that the whaling boats were not meant for vigorous use. They began struggling from the water intake and would often be obliged to bail water out. This distance was massive, and upon sighting a barren island, three men found it better to abandon the boats and settle upon the island.
No longer the hunters, the dwindling crew had become victims of their game. After one crew member died, the surviving members settled upon his body, becoming what they each had so greatly feared: cannibals.
As their numbers continued to decline, the men found themselves sucking marrow from the bones of deceased crew members. Eventually, the rate of death was not fast enough and they began a lottery to propose who would be the next meal, which was a rather popular custom for seamen. No longer were they able to wait for their rations, but now they found themselves obliged to hurry the process.
The three boats, during their long voyage, eventually drifted apart. One of the boats had sunk, leaving no survivors. The second boat, manned by a crew member named Chase, was able to flag down an English ship that they had come across. The other surviving boat that contained the Captain was found full of bones. The Captain himself was discovered delusional and stuffing bones in his pockets, terrified of the men that were rescuing him.
The three men who had fled the gloom of the whaleboats in favour of a seemingly barren island managed to survive on bird eggs for four months, before an Australian ship happened across them.
The moral of this story is that hunting large creatures with men capable of setting islands on fire is rarely a great idea.
If you’re interested in learning more about aggression in sperm whales and possible reasons for the behaviour of the whale that attacked The Essex, check out this link, or take a look at this article by Gilbert King to learn more about the ship.
Rachel Small is not a small person and might be the present day reincarnation of Lizzie Borden. She crawled to life one night after midnight in the basement of a bookstore.
In the last week of January 1959, a group of ten college students from Ural Polytechnical Institute in Russia began their hiking trip into the Ural Mountains. Their goal was to reach a mountain named “Otorten”. However, they never made it. With the exception of one hiker, who turned back at the beginning after getting sick, the entire group died.
The group had told friends back home that they expected to return from their journey around February 12th, and that when they did return, they would send a telegram. By February 20th, when the telegram still had not been received, search parties were sent to find the group. What they found instead were five bodies scattered throughout the snow, all in various states of undress and apparently having died of hypothermia.
The problem with this is that everyone in the group was an experienced hiker and were very familiar with what needed to be done to survive in the wilderness on such an excursion. Citing hypothermia as the cause of death made sense considering the frigid temperatures and their lack of clothing, but why were they without clothing outside in the first place? And where were the other four members of the group? These were the questions so many people asked in the wake of what they found.
Another detail worth noting is the state of the campsite. The tent had been cut open from the inside, and all of their shoes and coats and proper clothing had been left behind. The first two bodies, Yuri Krivoshenko and Yuri Doroshenko, were found a ways away, by the remains of what had apparently been a fire pit. They were dressed only in their underwear, and there were scratches on their hands that indicated that they’d tried desperately to climb the nearby trees.
The other three bodies, those of Igor Dyatlov,—the leader of the group, who later became the namesake of the pass—Zinaida Kolmogorova, and Rustem Slobodin, were found scattered across the snow. They too were wearing next to nothing, and from the pattern that their bodies were found in, it appeared that they had been running back to the tent. Aside from a few small injuries, and a head fracture on Rustem Slobodin that was discovered not to have been fatal, these five group members appeared more or less uninjured. This led to the conclusion of hypothermia as the cause of death.
But the story, unfortunately, did not end there, and those five were just the beginning of what would become a decades-long mystery that remains to this day unsolved.
About two months later, the last four bodies, Semyon Zolotaryov, Lyudmila Dubinina, Aleksander Kolevatov, and Nikolay Thibeaux-Brignolle, were found, at the bottom of a ravine, covered in snow, partially dressed, and with horrific, seemingly impossible injuries.
Unlike the previous five group members that had been found, these four were still clothed. But the clothes they were wearing were not their own. Instead, they were dressed in each other’s clothes, including the clothes of the group members who had already been discovered. It was as though they had grabbed whatever they could in their haste to get away.
Also unlike the others, they didn’t die from hypothermia. They were all covered in injuries so extensive it only provided more questions as to what happened, instead of answers. What’s more, medical examiners said that they didn’t have many external injuries; instead, all their injuries were internal. These were very extensive internal injuries, similar to that of a car crash or some other extremely high-pressure impact. It was not a force that could have been caused by another human, or even most animals.
On top of these injuries, one of the victims, Lyudmilla Dubinina, was apparently also missing both of her eyes, her tongue, and parts of her lip.
A great many theories surfaced over the years as to what happened to these nine hikers. They ranged from nearby military testing and subsequent government cover-up, all the way to alien interference. Unfortunately, no satisfactory conclusion was ever reached beyond ‘natural deaths’, because the investigation was ordered to an end. To this day, nobody really knows what happened.
The theories are seemingly infinite, and a number of books and research papers have been written on the matter over the years. For a more complete look into the theories of what happened, and a detailed account of the incident itself, check out dyatlovpass.com.
Maggie Kendall spent the first fifteen years of her life furiously avoiding all things horror, but then her friend forced her to watch Paranormal Activity, and there’s been no turning back. She still checks the bathroom mirror for Bloody Mary before getting in the shower.
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, better known as MGM, is responsible for film classics like Gone with the Wind and The Gorgeous Hussy. As one of the older American movie studios, they helped pave the way for massive success of many actresses. However, despite the bright lights and glittering history of the studio, it has a darker underside that it’s still haunted by to this day.
While the studio certainly had connections to unleashing glamorous movies and using new technologies to keep up with the times, they were also responsible for unleashing one of the earliest pioneers of the #metoo movement.
Patricia Douglas managed to boldly fight her way into headlines across America before vanishing, shrinking into the grim shadows of Hollywood. Her rape, caused directly by trickery from MGM, had become a spectacle, broadcasted as she underwent extreme efforts to snatch at justice for herself.
The 1930s was a difficult decade. Full of economic turmoil, the studio managed to persevere and adapt to new budgets and compete with other major film studios. By 1937, MGM had not only managed to maintain their success, but also reap in huge financial rewards that helped to keep them popular. To celebrate this achievement, they sponsored a large party for the men involved in maintaining their legacy, where over a hundred women were taken to a remote location to serve as entertainment.
A scheme had been developed to hire a large group of women under the premise that they would be working as dancers and extras on a movie set. The location was at an isolated ranch, and the women soon realized their dangerous predicament as they were stranded with no way to contact the outside world for aid.
They had been delivered to this set after sitting through dress and make up and were left for hours before the men eventually showed up. Quickly inebriated after their arrival, the men descended like a swarm of locusts.
Sexual assault and harassment, as always, has been a difficult subject in media. Often, victims become further victimized. In the more recent years, though, media has allowed for people to support victims in rape cases, allowing for more encouragement and bringing awareness to the issue. In the 1930s, however, more archaic beliefs of assault ran rampant, making it extraordinarily difficult for any woman to step forward and demand justice.
This party saw many men harass the women tricked into attending. Women attempted to swiftly flee the wandering hands and lewd comments by hiding in bathrooms or darting away. Nevertheless, Douglas was not lucky enough to find safety.
Intentionally humiliated by men forcing alcohol down her throat against her will before a man by the name of David Ross managed to drag her away and rape her. She was underage and publically a teetotaler. Douglas had trusted MGM for honest work as an extra for a film and instead she had been tossed into a pit of snakes.
In the chaos of the aftermath, Douglas had been brought to a hospital for a medical exam, that had been arranged by MGM, that claimed that no intercourse could be proven. No follow up police report was ever filled out, which allowed Ross to slip back into his life comfortably and left Douglas with no support.
Most women would have vanished quietly. Some might have sought out money from the guilty party in exchange for their silence, but instead of remaining passive, she led a charge for justice.
Her career was wrecked with this crusade. Publically proclaiming her rape at the hands of Ross, Douglas suffered the humiliation of being forced into the same room with the man and also from the attempts of a smear campaign against her. Detectives, hired by MGM, failed to pinpoint any loose behaviour from her character, as she was an underage girl who publicly identified as a teetotaler. They found limited ammunition to use against her.
Despite their limits, the case did wither and collapse in court before it was dismissed. Douglas swiftly followed up with a lawsuit that was aimed at the men who arranged the party and for women to be hired under false premises. This was eventually dismissed as well, but Douglas was not a woman to roll over and accept defeat.
By connecting her assault to a violation of her civil rights, she managed to make her case a federal one. This was the first time any woman took rape to a federal level, which paved the way for future assaulted women. Douglas was fighting for visibility and justice, and she is the reason why the #metoo movement has managed to flourish in the past year. Without her first voice, the hashtag would have been caught in limbo.
This was the unfortunate final end, though, to her public campaign for her rights. With a dismissal at the federal level, she was left stagnant and without options. Her career had suffered from collateral damage because of this public crusade, but it had also become meaningless to her. Douglas accepted the stigma that was to drown her social standing and run her out of the Hollywood movie industry.
Why had Douglas failed constantly in her legal battles? It was an uphill battle against MGM, who refuted evidence and tried to undermine her by buying false witnesses. They refused to attend court and leave her standing alone, underrepresented and faltering beneath the pressure from the outside world. Their arrangements with the hospital after her rape saw that the medical exam was botched, and they failed to contact the police. Douglas was fighting against a powerhouse from the very beginning of her journey, and the odds were very much not in her favour. MGM had been intent on dismantling any evidence.
It wasn’t just the men at MGM that failed Douglas, but also journalism. Her public demand for justice made headlines nationwide, thrusting her into the spotlight. However, the word “rape” was censored in print, and other words would be used in its place, such as “ravished”. Very few headlines would feature the word “assault”. Her identity was completely exposed in these articles, as even her home address was included in the text. No one was protecting Douglas.
MGM was responsible for many great hits that make up such a huge part of pop culture. Fantastic movie classics, however, cannot compare to their efforts to demolish Douglas. She suffered from not only from the rape, but the aftermath as the film studio attempted to figuratively murder her. By promoting unsavoury lies about Douglas’s character, and purposely preventing the case from gaining any traction by refusing to cooperate, they are entirely responsible for this woman’s overnight vanishing act.
“We had her killed,” the studio’s general manager allegedly said decades later, in regards to whatever happened to Douglas. She lived, stubbornly, for decades in isolation after the desperate bribing of witnesses, dismantling of any support she could have found, and the failure of the justice system.
When headlines swivel to Harvey Weinstein and other men of his kind, attention should be focused on the long line of transgressions that have brought us to this era. MGM taught us that not only do men have the ability to put women in dangerous situations, but certainly in this case they believed that they had the right to ridicule them in the aftermath. This is the generation that allows the use of lace panties as proof in a courtroom to deny rape, but it is also the generation that is finally letting victims reach out and support one another. We can thank Douglas for our ability to come forward and join hands.
Rachel Small is not a small person and might be the present day reincarnation of Lizzie Borden. She crawled to life one night after midnight in the basement of a bookstore.
I will preface this story with a short disclaimer, for those of you with weak stomachs, about the grizzly and grim details contained within. For my story today is about the Catacombs beneath Paris, and how they came to be.
We begin in the mid-eighteenth century, at which time Paris is the second largest city in Europe. Louis XV, described by historian Jerome Blum as “a perpetual adolescent called to do a man's job”, rules from his great-grandfather’s 300 billion dollar palace, Versailles, twelve miles away from the cramped quarters of the city and the seething ranks of poor Parisians. His reign is marked by extravagant spending, incompetent management, and a widening rift between the monarchy and the common people, especially those living in Paris.
Thus, the State ignores the needs of its people until problems become severe, and let me tell you, the problems that necessitate the Catacombs are severe. At some point, Paris runs out of space for its half a million living residents and the six million deceased, specifically in Cimetière des Innocents.
Now, Cimetière des Innocents opened in the twelfth century as a small burial site consisting of individual burials. But as time and several plague outbreaks pass, the cemetery gets bigger, and individual burials turn into mass graves twenty feet deep, each containing about fifteen hundred corpses. Most of the burial pits are barely covered too, so it’s not uncommon to see dead bodies sticking out of the mud.
What is it like for the people unlucky enough to live nearby? Well, it’s enough to make even the most mild-mannered peasant want to guillotine the King. The stench of decomposing flesh is overwhelming, the water is poisoned, and the air is so impure that even candles won’t light. And people are actually falling into burial pits.
And you thought your commute to work was bad.
Finally, after a particularly bad rain storm, a burial pit bursts through the wall of a private home, filling some poor family’s living room with corpses in various stages of decomposition. That is when the State intervenes.
King Louis XIV issues an edict in 1780 to finally halt burials at Cimetière des Innocents, and all other cemeteries within Paris. Sounds like common sense, but it's not for these people. Fortunately, Paris has a disused limestone quarry waiting in the wings. So the work begins!
The task of moving the six million corpses happens only at night, in carts covered by black shrouds, accompanied by chanting priests and a lot of incense. They then have to be taken down to the tunnels, which are about five stories underground, and stacked in rooms called ossuaries. Additionally, the city must maintain fires to purify the air, and resourceful citizens collect the large deposits of adipocere left behind, otherwise known as ‘corpse wax’, to make candles. (When life gives you corpses, make corpse candles).
Twelve years later, the cemeteries are empty, Cimetière Des Innocents is raised to the ground for the health and sanity of all, and spoiler: the King is dead, he lost his head. After the revolution, bodies go straight into the catacombs—including that of revolutionary Maximilien Robespierre, who shoots himself in the face and then gets guillotined by his former comrades during the “Reign of Terror”. It’s a really bad day for Max.
The catacombs remain in use for another twenty years—by which time the decapitating has slowed down—until Louis-Étienne François Héricart de Thury renovates the catacombs and transforms them into the work of macabre beauty they are today.
The whole complex finishes up at about two hundred and two kilometres of tunnels and ossuaries, only two of which are open to the public. Above the entrance reads the infamous inscription; “Arrête! C'est ici l'empire de la mort.” It’s a warning that should be heeded by all who enter.
That brings our story to an end, for now. However, should you choose to visit, always be respectful, and don’t get lost.
Have you been to the Catacombs? Share your experiences below, or tweet at us.