Among the Poisoned
The carriage rolls past the animal market, the slaughterhouses, of La Villette by the desolate and sinister steppes of La Plaine Saint Denis. For the casual passer-by it is only dirty and bare; for the observer, especially for someone who thinks, examines and compares cause and effect, there is no region more desolate.
The south of Paris, in spite of everything, has a few open-air cafés, lattice walls, barrel vaults, more than one tree remaining from the woods that were here and whose edge has been pushed back not very far away. So, from the Bois de Boulogne to the Bois de Vincennes there is a thin green line like a strand of lichwort binding the little suburb stuck between “no man’s land” grass and the flowering hills that demark the horizon.
In the northwest Neuilly stretches all the way to the Seine, extending the remains of the royal domain far to the right. Montmartre has its cemetery and the hill with its windmill; the Buttes-Chaumont has its park; Belleville has Lake Saint-Fargeau and the surviving forest of “little houses”; Charonne has Père Lachaise, the most beautiful and most shaded park.
Everywhere in these places the poverty and labor have the solace that emanates from the open earth or that falls from the leafy heights onto the saddened faces and weary limbs. Everywhere the social state can pluck off a leaf from a plane tree or a chestnut to hide the cancer that is gnawing away at its belly, the shameful evil that it would rather deny than cure—and that is killing it!
But here, nothing: the razed plain scattered with rocks and broken glass like a cursed land! For trees, like limbless trunks bare of branches and nests, the giant smokestacks of factories squeezed together as far as the eye can see… the organ pipes that carry the lamentations of a desperate people into the heavens!
In the air the eternal stain of soot snows relentlessly, impalpably down. Low houses that humidity plagues with its rashes; sections of leprous walls enclosing more scabby, bumpy land where children dressed in rags try to play: pale children with chlorosis whose lips and pupils have almost no color, whose hair is ashen, and who are afflicted—believe it or not!—with malaria!
The atmosphere throbs with the incessant noise of wheels, reels and belts shuttling back and forth; the grinding gears of life as well as of matter. And while the roadways and alleys remain empty, the countless factory windows pour out the panting of an entire race toiling away under the strain, crushed by the yoke—a race kept in servitude by the scepter of Gold, like Israel in captivity under the Egyptian whips!
For, over all the building fronts, on the sides of all the structures are the famous names that are known for establishing useful industries but whose founders are dead, for the most part, and whose heirs (professional party-goers living far from the busy beehive or stockholders remaining anonymous) squeeze the last drop of blood out of this multitude in order to get the summum of their luxury and leisure!
The meeting of matchstick makers is being held in a little building that was or is, I cannot really say, the community hall of the district.
Two whitewashed walls pierced on two sides with high windows. Across from the door a kind of stage, as wide as a bedsheet, that forms a platform. A table full of papers, with the traditional glass of water, stands there. The five delegates in their work clothes. A few chairs in the back for strangers to the corporation, visitors and friends. Almost the entire contingent of strikers sits on the benches—because out of the 680 men and women working in the factories of Pantin and Aubervilliers, 680 joined the movement.
At the same time, their 500 comrades in Marseille, the 180 in Bègles near Bordeaux, the 320 in Trélazé near Angers and the 220 in Saintines in the Oise followed them. Now, since this is the total number of all the personnel in France, the manufacturing came to a grinding halt.
What, then, were they asking for? What was the basis of their demands, which were obviously absurd seeing that they were denied contemptuously and that for more than a month—while living on such minimal resources that they have almost had to starve voluntarily like heroes—these poor men and women have been waiting, hoping and pleading for?
This: Stop using white phosphorous which is causing necrosis in the workers who handle it.
What is necrosis? As the name implies, it is bone death. Among the male and female workers in matchstick factories it attacks the jaws first.
The Administration foresaw this. Every male and female applicant, in order to be put on the hiring list—EVEN THOUGH THE PAINFUL ORDEAL DOES NOT GUARANTEE A JOB—has to undergo not only a dental examination, but also the extraction of any teeth that might look defective!
Every month the employees undergo the same inspection. As their teeth slowly start to ache, they pull them out… twenty-year old girls smile and show their Carabosse gums.
In 1894 all the personnel in the Factories in Pantin, Aubervilliers and Pont-de-Flandre rose up against the surgical procedures of the dentist attached to these establishments. The mandatory monthly visit forced on them by the rules had become a real session in hell where the employee, under threat of being fired, had to suffer every operation or experiment that the doctor was pleased to inflict. After the doctor was forced to resign, the employees went back to work, content with their minor victory and believing in the old theory of a character defect.
However, since 1888 Magitot, the eminent professor, has pointed out to the Academy of Medicine the dangers of handling phosphorous and has proposed preventing the effects not with operations on the mouth but with a set of hygienic rules.
It was too humane. They did not listen to him! The Academy limited itself to republishing its vow already taken on several occasions for half a century regarding the abolition of phosphorous and the use of other products—and that was that for the unlucky workers.
And afterward that they carved them up more than ever. They “prepared” them, which means that they tore out their roots, opened up abscesses and every month performed on these poor jaws what they considered to be favorable to the “needs of the service”… without thinking for a minute that phosphorism, just like diabetes, does not tolerate open wounds or erosion, and the slightest danger can turn fatal.
They are dilly-dallying like that with the disease and gaining time. Did I say that these exploited workers get 3 F 30 for eleven hours of work? But in its motherly way the Administration guarantees them, after thirty years, a pension of 300 F for the women and 600 F for the men, and all this without any deduction in pay. We must admit that such generosity is uncommon, highly edifying, philanthropic and surely prone to encourage the good servants.
Yes, but nobody gets to enjoy it! Those who handle white phosphorous are all dead or gone before the time is up! The lame end up dying in some hovel, poisoned throughout their skeleton and unable to work. And the deceitful promise remains a despicable irony. Because whenever a “subject” is identified as sick, they throw him out! During the time of his forced unemployment he earns nothing. He eats, gets treatment and takes care of his family as best he can. If he gets better, they take him back. And this option lasts until he is utterly doomed, lost, without any hope of being cured. Then they drive him out for good.
Get on the road, old man of thirty years, and look for your living on the streets. Drag your hungry brood behind you—and watch out! The first policeman you meet will arrest you; the first judge you see will sentence you; and you will bear all the torments of hell in your carcass, in your tainted marrow, in your decayed bones.
I saw the medical students, accustomed to lecture halls; I saw the “quacks”, deaf to the cries, who shivered when pronouncing this word. And I heard them rattle on about the series of complications that linked, in such a dreadful way, the first attack to the last convulsion.
As I said, the teeth decay… first. Then the intermittent fever becomes constant; a quenchless thirst devours the patient who, however, can ingest no food. The hair follows the teeth, falls off the scalp by the handful. Then this sort of ghost, with his skin sticking to his ribs, writhes in horrible pain; his joints swell; his fingers and limbs deform. And the necrosis appears: it kills the bones, mortifies them, separates them, hollows them out and erodes them.
“What? Really? These putrefied rags were once a man or a woman?”
Well, yes. This poor body had to accept this martyrdom because he had a stomach to feed… and because it was worth 3 F 30 a day!
So, is it really an inevitable plague? Can’t they try another product? What was the owners’ response to their pitiful complaints?
Just this: “IT WOULD COST TOO MUCH!”
So, who is this greedy or cruel owner? Who is this heartless exploiter who chooses to earn money over the human beings shuddering in anguish under the tormentor’s lancet, who chooses profit over the little crosses lined up as far as the eye can see in the cemetery next to the factory?
It is the State!
Yes, the State. The same called by Monsieur Ribot, its current representative, the “good father of the family.” The State, protector of the weak and the expression of the sovereign people under this regime.
It is the State who refused Billau—operated on four times, part of his lower left jaw amputated and his upper right jaw just hanging, who can no longer eat—the prosthetic he has the right to. Because this prosthetic would cost 1,500 F and the State is too poor so can only give 300!
It is the State that said, “These people will die because I don’t want to make less money off their salary.” And they turn to smuggling, in spite of the law about foreign production, because these wretched, exploited cattle keep demanding the right to live.
A man with a furrowed face, frightfully thin, spoke to me just now, without even knowing it, in Shakespearean words: “We can’t even have children. My wife and I tried three times. They were all born dead and already turned green.”
But this is nothing compared to the procession that I watch, terrified—of the macabre, unforgettable vision I can still see with horror.
One man after another, one woman after another, whom the phosphorism has not yet led to the grave or to prison, whom the hospital did not take or did not take back, march before me. With the identical movement they pop out their false teeth, gums and palate. They tip back their head automatically, showing their injuries like soldiers in the ambulance.
There is nothing but open wounds, gaping holes, scars, voids hollowed out by the surgeon’s knife. On Billau, like I said, they took off the entire left side of his chin. Marie Harpp—a young woman—is missing half of the roof of her mouth. Others, carved up to one degree or another, pass by while they hold in custody a comrade who became blind with rage and whom the nurses are going to pick up.
This is what exists in our country of France at the gates of Paris. This is what I saw. This is the lot of the unfortunates to whom Monsieur Ribot, Minister of the Republic, said, “I have nothing more to say” when they offered to go back to work if they promised, within a month, to stop using white phosphorous—their executioner!
IT WOULD BE TOO EXPENSIVE!
Was there ever a more appalling response? Was there ever a more cynical declaration? Too expensive! To save human beings from such torture! Too expensive! To avoid similar abominations! Too expensive! So that these poor young ladies not lose their youth, their beauty, their health, their living and their life!
These are the words of an ogre.
Don’t fret! There will soon come a time when everything will be less costly…
 En Marche, 1896.
 The largest cemetery in Paris.
 The wicked witch or stepmother in fairy tales such as Sleeping Beauty.
 Emile Magitot (1833-1897) considered the founder of stomatology (the study of mouth diseases) in France.
 Alexandre Ribot (1842-1923) was Minister of Finance at the time.