The Paris Charity Bazaar Fire

CW: While I’ve tried not to be overly graphic, this post does discuss the injuries and horrors of a historical disaster. I have not included photo references, but if you would like to see images of the building and the aftermath, please follow some of the links below.

If you’ve been on Netflix (US) in the past year or so, you’ve probably seen advertisements for the French language drama Bonfire of Destiny. It wasn’t until I started watching that I discovered it was inspired by true events, and just how much of an understatement the title was.

Beginning in 1885, a group of Parisian charities formed a loose agreement which allowed them to rent a large hall to hold a fair, and attract larger crowds while simultaneously engaging donors who contributed to multiple causes. The bazaar, which sold new, used, handmade, and donated items of all kinds was a huge social event for the French aristocracy, attracting visitors from across Europe and even some from the US. This annual event took place all over Paris, in various venues, but every time was a chance for the wealthiest women in the country to see and be seen–usually flaunting huge wads of cash.

In 1897, the Baron de Mackau was in charge of the bazaar’s organizational committee. He arranged to rent a former warehouse at 17 Rue Jean-Goujon. The long, narrow building was made of wood with a tarred canvas roof to keep off the weather and a courtyard surrounded by neighboring buildings. A team of volunteers consisting of nuns, orphans, poor members of the community, society women, and their servants set to work converting the bare space into a medieval fete, adding plywood facades to mimic tiny shops and houses, and decorating them with fabric, cardboard, and paper mache. At the center of the hall was a huge, gas-filled balloon.

Scheduled for May 3-6, the biggest draw was a cinematograph, an early movie projector. On the first day, the sale brought in about 4,500 francs. It’s hard to translate historical currency to contemporary money due to inflation and exchange rates, but this would be somewhere in the neighborhood of $25,000 in current USD.

Organizers deemed it a successful “dry run” and prepared for larger crowds the following day. When asked if the building was safe for so many people, Mackau responded that of course it was; the men wouldn’t be allowed to smoke.

The second day was set to exceed expectations, in many ways. By 4pm, somewhere in the neighborhood of 1,650 people were crammed into the bazaar. In the back room, the cinematograph was preparing for it’s next show. The technician, Gregoire Bagrachow, went to refill the ether lamp that powered the projector. He returned a few minutes before 4:30 to the dark corner where his partner, Victor Bailac, waited. In the dark, curtained room, it was difficult to see. Victor asked Gregoire for more light as he arranged the machine. The ether fumes exploded, filling the small room with flames.

The two men attempted to put out the blaze, but it was already out of control, climbing its way to the ceiling.

Inside the crowded building, most people were unaware that anything was amiss. They continued to talk and laugh, pressed cheek-by-jowel. But then the cry of “Fire” went up from the projection room. Instantly, laughter turned to screams. Most of the visitors, unaware of any doors except the one they’d arrived by, began a mad crush for the exit. A few women managed to escape just as the fire broke out, running to nearby homes and businesses for help. Meanwhile, more visitors were still trying to enter the building, which didn’t yet show signs of danger from the outside.

As the roughly 1600 people all moved in the same direction, many were crushed, suffocated, or trampled in the chaos. The fire quickly climbed the makeshift walls, catching on the balloon and igniting the roof. Tar dripped onto the panicked people below, clinging to skin and hair and setting lightweight summer dresses ablaze. Socialites became human torches as the stage decor crumbled around them.

The entire building went up in just ten minutes, before the fire department could arrive. Though they battled the flames and tried to save as many as they could, it was too late. The temporary nature of the building and its interior dropped debris on the gathered crowd, pushing would-be rescuers back.

In the courtyard, the fenced-in crowd was saved by good Samaritans from a neighboring convent and the Hotel de Palais that made up the surrounding walls. When the manager of the hotel heard of the fire, he and the cook threw open the kitchen windows, helping victims escape through the hotel; the convent used a similar method and together they saved about 180 people.

Inside, things were less hopeful. Though there were additional exits, they weren’t marked. Wealthy men beat back others trapped inside with their walking sticks, running over the bodies of women, some still alive, in a bid for the exit. Though they may have escaped the building, they were roasted in the press, deemed unfit for any drawing room in the city.

For every tale of a rich man abandoning his wife or stepping on a neighbor, however, there was one of a brave coachman or passing workman rushing inside to save a friend, employer, or total stranger.

The entire thing was over in thirty minutes, but it would take days to calculate the cost. 125 people died in the blaze, but that doesn’t include those who died later of their injuries–about 200 that we know of. Many were maimed for life. Some that were thought to be dead were later reunited with their families. But more commonly, women who were thought to have escaped were later identified by dental records, jewelry, or clothing.

Among the dead were only six males, including a 14 year old groom and a five year old orphan, both likely working at the bazaar. One of the dead men was dermatologist Henri Feulard, who went back for his daughter after they were separated. Feulard, his daughter, and a family servant all perished. His wife survived but was badly injured.

After the fire, profiteers searched the rubble and uncovered some 88,000 objects which were auctioned off to curiosity seekers. The money did not benefit the victims or the charities they originally set out to support.

The fire made international news, with headlines appearing in the New York Times two weeks after the fire as more bodies were identified. All over the world, people looked for someone to blame.

After an investigation, Mackau, Bailac, and Bagrachow were all found guilty of homicide by negligence. Mackau was fined, while the two technicians were fined and jailed.

For years, zealots held up the fire as an example of God’s punishment on the wealthy and those who turned to science instead of the church. Meanwhile, the rest of the city lobbied for change.

If there can be said to be a silver lining, the fire led to the first fire safety regulations in France. It was also the first major case in which dental records were used to identify a person, which was groundbreaking at the time and paved the way for criminal investigations and missing persons cases.

Today, the Nore-Dame-de-Consolation chapel stands on the site, honoring the memory of the victims annually on May 4. Relics from the fire can still be found inside.

Further reading:
Wiki, Bazar de la Charite
New York Times April 28, 2008
New York Times archive
Bonfire of Destiny (Netflix)
The Deadly Fire that Changed Paris Forever
The Tragic 1897 Charity Bazaar Fire or the Bazar de la Charite in Paris

2 thoughts on “The Paris Charity Bazaar Fire”

  1. Disasters like that led to fire proof projection rooms, remember early film was nitro cellulose (TNT). There were quite a few very bad fires in theaters, circus tents, and factories in the late 1800 and early 1900s. Now we have safety practices and regulations.


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