The 4th of May 1897, in the 8th arrondissement of Paris, an alarming smell of horror and smoke invaded Street Jean-Goujon. Quickly, a general panic spread in the street and its surroundings. The Bazar de la Charité where the annual charity event organized by the Catholic high society and aristocracy is on fire.
Since 1885, the Bazar de la Charité is an event that takes place each in Paris. Organized by Henri Blount and the Baron Armand de Mackau. The purpose of this charity event was to sell various objects, mostly clothes to the profit of the poor. Many Catholic ladies from the aristocracy were present every year and in addition of a charity fair, it also became a moment where all the high society gathered.
In 1897, the event had been moved to Street Jean-Goujon, inside an old and vast wooden warehouse. This year, the charity is a Middle-Aged themed event, with decorations and shops representing this period. Instrument for the Catholic society, the Bazar received the presence of an Apostolic Nuncio thus was blessed by the Vatican and the Pope himself. For 50 cents, the visitors are offered the possibility to assist to a projection of three movies by the Lumière brothers, including the famous The Waterer Watered. Cinema, which is still in its cradle, attracted many people.
The charity started the 3rd of May and like the previous years, it was a success. However, several persons expressed their concerns to the organizers regarding the security of the event. Among these persons was the man in charge of the cinematographic projection or ladies and men of the high society. The worries were not taken into consideration.
The guests present are far too important to be frightened by the concerns of only a few. In this reconstitution of a street from the Middle Ages, could be sighted the Duchess of Alençon sister of the famous “Sisi” Empress of Austria and Queen of Hungary, the General Munier, hero of the Franco-Prussian war and the invasion of Mexico, the Marquess d’Isle Clémence Capitaine, the painter Camille Moreau-Nélaton or the Duchess of Vendôme. The presence of hundreds of ladies and gentlemen from the low and high nobility or the bourgeoisie lured the attention of the media of the time.
The responsible of projection should have be listened to more carefully. At this period, the use of cinematographic material was still at its beginning and more dangerous than it would seem. The assistant had to use matches to refuel the ether reserve in order to continue the diffusion of the movies. Ether is extremely flammable and the vapours turned into a deflagration of fire. First, only a curtain is burning but before the assistant could even realize what was happening, it had reached the wooden walls. Someone ran to find the Baron de Mackau to inform him of the urgent need to evacuate the building. Too late. The wooden building, 80 meters or so long in a middle-aged style decoration could not resist the incredibly fast advance of the fire. With the stocks of clothes, the ensigns, paintings and various decors representing the Parisian street in the Middle-Ages, nothing could stop the fire.
Inside, more than a thousand people tried to rush out of the warehouse in complete disorder and panic. The men jostled the women and some of them would die under the feet of their husbands and friends. The ladies, wrapped in their huge and heavy robes are not able to move fast enough or were stuck. Prayers and screams are being heard in the adjacent streets. The very place that had been blessed the day before by the Holy Father has turned into an inferno of flames. 50 years old Sophie-Charlotte in Bavaria, Duchess of Alençon and favourite sister of Empress Sisi proved herself to be a hero during the fire and helped the younger ladies to escape the flames, willing to be the last to leave. Only a handful of people managed to remain calm and help the others.
The news has spread in the surroundings of the Street Jean-Goujon. At the arrival of the firemen, the building is already impossible to save and the general hysteria complicated their work. With the fire, no more gallantry, no more standards, no more gentlemen or sensible ladies. Everyone tried to save his own skin, often at the prince of someone else’s chance of survival. Witnesses said that they saw “ flocks of human torches “ rushing out of the warehouse.
At around 4:30 pm in this afternoon of the 4th of May 1897, less than 15 minutes after the beginning of this terrible event, the fire is extinguished by the firemen who, helped by a regiment of line infantry began the difficult operation to recover the burned bodies. The Parisian press is already present and the politics soon arrived.
Even in the most rural places of France, the first page of the 5th of May newspapers was about the fire at the Bazar de la Charité. It was not tears the press shed, instead it was red ink. The papers started a political battle on the morrow of the event. Republican papers blamed everything on the aristocracy and praised the bravery of a handful of simple people helping the victims to escape the flames, liberals papers blamed the Catholic organizers and mocked the lack of help of god ( after the event had been blessed by an ambassador of the Vatican ), Catholic papers blamed the increasing lack of faith and a liberal behaviour ( many men ran away without helping the women, sometimes sending them to a certain death while knocking them on the ground during the panic ).
The political class was immediately involved. The President of the Republic Félix Faure was present to a ceremony in the memory of the unidentified victims. The bodies are first placed in the Palais de l’Industrie at the Champs-Elysées so that the families could come and help identify the victims. A dentist recognized one of his patient, the huddled body of the Duchess of Alençon who helped people to escape and her friend, the Countess of Beauchamps, who died in her arms. The dowager Baroness de Saint-Didier, president at the time of the charity Oeuvres des Saint-Anges which helps poor orphan girls is among the victims. Countesses, baronesses, a general, sisters, the cost in human lives is a shock : 106 deaths during the fire, 5 non identified corpses and 10 deaths after the fire due to burns or intoxication. 110 of the victims were women and 6 were men, a young child and a teenager also perished during the fire.
Two other persons would also be counted as victims though their deaths were indirectly caused by this dreadful event : General de Poillouë de Saint-Mars who died of a heart attack at the news of the death of a kin and 75 years old Henri d’Orléans, Duc d’Aumale and son of King Louis-Philippe of the French who suffered from a heart attack on the 7th of May while writing more than twenty letters of condolences. He was an uncle by marriage of the Duchess of Alençon.
The Baron de Mackau, president of the Bazar de la Charité and survivor was deeply affected by the fire. Soon after the catastrophe, he received a letter blaming him for his cowardice : “ As an ex officier of the navy, I have the regret to announce you that a commander should be the last to abandon his vessel “. Mackau bought the plot of land on which the Bazar de la Charité took place and with the support of a cardinal, helped to the construction of a chapel, which still stands today as Notre-Dame-de-la-Consolation.