Descent Into Hell


Le Grisou1


Descent Into Hell[1]

It is seven o’clock and the hotel awakener beats a reverberating drum roll on my door. It sounds like a warning.

“Madame, you have to get up! It’s time!”

It is time, in fact, because at exactly nine o’clock I am supposed to be over at Villeboeuf to descend into the mine. I will be the first Parisienne, the fourth woman since the mine opened—a good while ago now—to take the journey. Two English women and one from Saint Etienne went before me, but when it was calm; whereas right now the earth is being cruel, treacherous, unappeased… in spite of its one hundred and fifty murders!

I am thinking about all this while getting dressed as best I can. Not at all my best because they already told me that before stepping into the “cage” I would have to put on miner’s clothes. And, well, my nerves are really on edge! Not because of the danger, but because of the fear of the dark that always kept me from visiting the Catacombs and stopped me in my tracks at the entrance to the lava tunnels of Herculaneum.

My ancestors’ blood runs strong in me—it loves sun and air; it is brave when the light laughs in the leaves; it is much less grandiose when the night snuffs off the moon, its big lamp, and blows out the stars, its lanterns. And insofar as there is darkness down in the burial, in the horrible suffocation that the depression of the atmosphere and the smell of mold cause, I am really scared—I only have courage in the free air full of free light.

But when you have my name and you are defending the poor, you do not have the right to be a coward, even out of nervousness.

I hurry into my duster like Decius[2] throwing himself into the gulf. I clap my hat on my head with the same heroic gesture as Jason donning his helmet before boarding the Argo. I am setting off a little like him in search of the golden fleece. If the readers of Le Gaulois find my story interesting, they will give more[3]… Onward, then!


Here we are at Villeboeuf. The troops have left the site. Only a pile of stretchers in the courtyard recalls the dreadful ceremony of the day before. But the disaster is here in the slightest details.

The ground is littered with wisps of straw and flakes of cotton, some filthy, others all oily.   There are bits of human skin and lumps of clotted blood stuck together with field grass. The snowy cotton is the puss from the wounds and the fat they put on them that rolled into big, glistening balls. Moreover, everything is sullied with the ashen mud. The phenol [or carbolic acid] spread out in waves with its mix of the coal from the mine and the carbon from the miner.

I enter a small room to wait for the management. A small room cluttered with buckets and bars of Marseille soap, towels and rags. My future costume sits on a chair: blue canvas pants and smock, a gray and white man’s shirt made of Vichy cotton, a small, purplish headband and a low felt hat with the brim folded up like the “capello” of the Calabrian bandits. On my feet I wear a pair of old, flat shoes thanks to the lady who runs the hotel. My “Parisian” ankle boots would have left me high and dry on the rugged, rocky ground in the tunnels.

In no time at all the transformation is complete. Now I just look like a little scamp, a bit chubby but tough enough to make a serious rat-a-tat-tat there on my left side under the man’s shirt.

The courtyard is full of women with eyes ringed red from weeping. They shake my hand without knowing me and without saying a word. Those who have an almost religious fear of the mine—this mine that makes them orphans and widows, that takes from them their brothers, sons and husbands—(and in this region they have never gone down into it) have a superhuman idea of my act. They imagine, almost, that I am going down to conquer the Dragon, to kill the evil spirit of the firedamp[4] that is eating their men… their mute tenderness is tinged with worry.

We wait behind the “screening”[5] for the cage to come up. In the shadows there are still four open coffins on trestles. They contain their cargo: three poor men not yet identified, without any relatives in the convoy, awaiting the anonymity of the tomb. The other was in such a sorry state that they almost had to bring him up in the cage with shovels. His brother could say, “That’s my brother!” only because the big toe on his right foot was missing, having been cut off six months before in a previous accident—and he hugged and kissed this rotting mess that stuck to his sleeves.

It is in this same cage that we are going to descend. Here it is. We get in: Monsieur Flamin, one of the young and most distinguished engineers of the Company, who very much wanted to be my guide, along with one of his colleagues and me. In the lower compartment crouch Dr. Alvin, the very eminent doctor of Saint-Etienne, and Michel Rondet, the Secretary General of the Federation of Miners of France.

“Goodbye!” the women say, making a big sign of the cross in tribute to the dead.

And the cage dives down. Or rather drops with dizzying speed.


Black and black and black. Barely penetrated by the flickering light from the lamps that we are all holding.

The frightful din is deafening. An icy rain drenches our shoulders. The descent is ghastly. It last six eternal minutes—one minute for every hundred meters.

A violent jolt. Two other little glimmers of light move in front of us in the darkness. We have arrived.

The timbering of this tunnel, called English timbering, is very beautiful. Imagine the trunks of three-foot tall trees locked together like the walls of certain negro huts. Supported by these two walls and joining together like the roof of a chalet, the ceiling is made in the same way. Because of the construction you can walk standing up in the middle of the tunnel, but on the sides you have to hunch over a little so as not to bang your head.

A stop: it is the point to check the lamps. An old miner sitting here examines them meticulously one by one. On the left lies a huge, battered door, four fingers thick. The explosion had torn it off its hinges and thrown it here like a broken toy.

The atmosphere grows heavy. The ceiling, squared off from here on in, gets lower and lower.

“Watch your heads!” the engineer calls out. And a minute later, “Watch your legs!”

The ground, in fact, is littered with all kinds of debris: pieces of wood, beams, tools. And I feel it turn softer. With all this they roll on the rails and you have to squeeze into the crevices every minute to let the wagons pass by, loaded, or so it seems in this murky darkness, with diamonds.

A slip: it is me who stumbles, thinking I was stepping on solid ground but I am up to my ankles in water. It is the mirage of the mine, an optical illusion caused by the swamp. We have to go back up the slope because the mud is up to our knees.

Men, however, are slaving away down there, their legs stiff and numb, wet up to their waists, saving up infirmities for the day when the mine will want no more of them and they will have to die of hunger!

Their faces, black like the wall, blends in with it—and it seems like these walls, which have seen so many ghastly things, have eyes, very gentle eyes, full of resignation and despair…


We leave the “below” and climb to the upper tunnel.

“This is going to be hard, Madame,” Monsieur Laporte warns gently, the experienced engineer who met us at the landing and really wanted to go along with our little convoy.

I know very well that it will be hard! But seeing that I “wanted” to come down, I “want” to see everything.

A cliff of coal shot which we have to climb up by crawling on our stomachs because the ceiling is so low to the ground. A mole’s path where you lose your breath, sight and hearing because so much fine dust enters your lungs, eyes and ears… It is horribly agonizing. Sweat runs down your forehead and your clothes stick to your skin like they are soaked in boiling water. And all of a sudden the temperature becomes intense, unbearable: 40° minimum[6].

“Get up here… Sit down!”

If only I could sit down! But under my hands the coal is warm, as if it just finished being burned up.

The men work bare-chested, undaunted, with their slow and broad movements, a nobility of attitude that is almost Islamic.

None of them, when they recognize me as a woman, give a welcome smile, radiating all white from their black face, but they let off working for a minute before toiling away again directly.

“How much do these men earn?”
“Five to six francs a day.”

Five to six francs a day! For which they accept this life underground, this awful labor, this ever-present danger and atrocious death! But the mutilations are worse!

“This is the place where we found the most corpses,” one of the engineers tells me.

I can smell it! The noxious air full of putrefaction empoisons the atmosphere and mingles with a pungent odor of roasted hair, horn and leather.

“It’s the horses,” they answer me. They only pulled them out yesterday.

And in this heat, in this stench, in this darkness, all of a sudden a song strikes up, sweet and shrill… It is the only animal that accompanies man into these final depths, the one and only companion of the miner: the cricket of the mines. To the first call, a second one responds, then a third. Now they give us a real concert. They are so tiny, so puny that the firedamp that slaughters man spares the insect.

After that deep silence that follows disasters, the chatter of the crickets is the first sound that the wounded hear. Their little comrades in the walls ask them if they are still among the living and if they are suffering much! As help arrives, the sunless cicadas sing to them of the sun and the joy of surviving, promising them health and safety…


I am exhausted. Now Rondet takes my hand and pulls me along behind him. Being so tall, with his terrible aquiline nose, his eyes like burning embers and his huge black beard, he looks like one of those Italian chimney sweep bosses who buy small boys from the poor families in Piedmont and drag them far from their homes.

We go back the way we came and arrive at the entrance tunnel. The air is freezing. We lean back against the wall while the two miners with big copper hats and leather cassocks who are in charge of the cage call it down by banging.

They put us up above; we get ourselves squeezed in; and the ascension begins.

This time the rain becomes a torrent. A relentless, violent swill pours on my shoulders. Oh, daylight! Daylight! The beautiful, delightful light! The dazzling, warming star!

We arrive, at last!

I spent three hours in the mine… three hours! The good women have been waiting for me. I say “hello” to them, hurrying past, rushing (that is the word) into the improvised restroom. A quick glance in the mirror and a cry of horror. It’s me, this little negro, this “ramona”—little chimney-sweep girl—this abominable little fellow stunned at how nasty he looks…

Fifteen minutes later, changed back into a woman, I am carrying the lamp that I had used and that they were kind enough to offer me. I will keep it with me always!

Before getting back into the carriage, I turn around and take one last look. I just spent three of the worst hours of my life—and there are men whose entire lives are spent in these worst hours! So they can earn a hundred sous, six francs, and they all have between three and seven children. When they are dead, their widows get twelve sous a day, each child five sous…

Well, the thunderbolt lies dormant up on high?


P.S. I received from Monsieur Hervé, the editor of Le Soleil, the following telegram with 500 F:

Madame, I have just read your appeal in Le Gaulois on behalf of the victims of the disaster at Saint Etienne. I see that the resources put at your disposal have almost run dry. I am sending you by telegraph my modest contribution. I know that in your hands they will be distributed without any political involvement. Please accept, Madame, the homage of my respect.

Monsieur Hervé can be sure that it will be done as he desires, which is why I distribute the donations personally, without any administrative interference or any organization, receiving information from whoever wants to give it, but basing myself solely on one criteria: a man’s suffering and not his opinions.


[1] Le Gaulois, August 2 1890.

[2] Trajan Decius, Roman Emperor from 249 to 251, who died in battle in the swamps of Abrittus.

[3] By way of donations.

[4] Extremely explosive flammable gas found in coal mines.

[5] Where the coal is sorted.

[6] 105° F.



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