What Did the Men Do?

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Bazar de la Charité Incendie

What Did The Men Do?[1]

It is up to us, women, to ask this—and not one of us should fail to do so.

Gyp[2] ended her article on Sunday with this:

The old Marchioness: Well, I say… with the exception of the servants and a few isolated cases, the men were not very elegant. There are very few of them dead or wounded.

Jalon’s son: They say there were less than two hundred of them in all at the bazar… that’s not very many!

The old Marchioness: Thank goodness there weren’t more because then all the women would have been burned!

Folleuil (thoughtful): That’s very possible!

 

The day before yesterday my friend Simone eloquently expressed her surprise and anger in her column here. Me, I have been waiting impatiently for eight days for my turn to speak, and to ask—at last!—the question that so many people were whispering behind the hearses, around the hospital beds and in the salons where certain people were pointed at.

What did the men do? We should rather ask “What did the Messieurs do?” because as far as men, in the Latin sense of the word, we only find them elsewhere… outside, in the street, in overalls or work shirts, dressed for the kitchen or the stables, in uniforms or liveries.

A member of the committee was interviewed by Le Temps Tuesday evening and said, “We estimate that there were 1,600 to 1,700 people in the Bazar when the catastrophe occurred. Not so many men, only around fifty, because of the hour.”

At first they had said around two hundred. One victim, saved by miracle, whom I had the chance to interview, whose social status compelled her not to lie and demanded scrupulous accuracy, told me, “There were at least a hundred or so Messieurs.”

Of the three different figures stated, I prefer, if you would like to know, the latter, as it is an average, apart from the fact that it just might be correct. Let’s take this 100 as a working figure and do a very simple, although terribly intriguing, little calculation.

How many of them were among the dead? Three. Two old men, Messieurs Potdevin and Mazure, and the admirable Doctor Feulard who saved his wife, then two nuns and went back into the inferno a third time to look for his child. We can even say five with Doctor Rochet and General Munier, the poor brave soldier who did all his age and strength allowed him to do before dying soon afterwards of his horrible burns.

How many wounded? Lieutenant Jacquin of the 102nd, who was wildly heroic, defying all danger, throwing himself headlong inside and then sprinting back out, saving his two nieces from the blaze, one of their friends and three strangers, the last of whom died in his arms while the flames, battling fiercely for its prey, cruelly licked this young man’s legs and face—and finally, crippled as he was, gathering together a dazed group on the wasteland, forty poor women whom he led to safety by breaking through a wall on rue Jean-Goujon!

It is superb… but that makes one. Two with Baron Reille. Three with Garnier. Four with Dieudonné. Five with Tombio Sanz. Six with Henry Blount. Seven with the Count of Montgermont.

I do not know of any others, but let’s round up to ten in case of an oversight since I do not want to upset anyone or seem partial. Of course there was that footman Diligent, but he was not “their people.” And this list contains only the peers, friends and relatives of the victims of the disaster.

So, by being generous—and you can see if I have any malice intended here—we get this number: fifteen percent. It is rather small.

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Now let’s see what the women did, most of them being much less hardy, much less “trained” for the feat, much less prepared for danger. Their presence of mind and courage here is legion: where to begin when there are so many?

If you want to talk about composure, there is the girl Froissard—fourteen years old—saving her grandmother and younger cousin. There is Madame de Silva saving her two daughters. And many others—just take your pick.

If you want to talk about bravery there is Mademoiselle Rosine Morado, after getting out safely went back in to look for her mother, found her, brought her out… and was so burned herself, the poor child, that they feared for her life. There is Madame Borne, out of danger, but her, too, going back in to get her mother, Madame Gillet, and after doing so sacrificing her life in this rush of filial love. There is Madame de Saint-Berier, “over and over again” (no other expression could describe it), from the street to the heart of the fire, each time carrying her glorious spoils, a human being snatched from death until in her last trip she came out no more—fallen for good on the field of honor!

If you want to talk about self-sacrifice, there is the Duchess of Alençon who protested to Mademoiselle de L*** who was trying to drag her out, “Not yet, let the guests leave first.” There is Mademoiselle de Heredia, I believe, stepping up on the chair to climb to safety and when asked to let a foreigner, a wounded stranger, go first, answered like at a party, “Be my guest, Madame. And you, too, go right ahead.” This was said amidst the smoke and flames, between suffocating and burning… There are, too, those noble nuns of Saint Vincent on their knees holding the ladder in place at the life-saving window of the Hotel du Palais, helping one hundred and fifty of the women to escape and refusing to flee themselves until no one else showed up, both of them with their hands and face scorched raw and their robes on fire!

Meanwhile, outside, at the same time as the coachmen, roofers, plumbers, grooms, cops, printers, soldiers and stove-setters, working men and nobodies, came running to the rescue of the French aristocracy, the genealogical tree burning like a log, you could see still more women: Madame Roche-Sautier presiding over the rescue operation performed by her staff, organizing it diligently and intelligently; Madame Bouton, a worker, embracing a poor, crazed man, a living torch, to snuff out the flames; and the Soeurs du Perpétuel Secours climbing up on a wall and holding the ladder for the victims stuck in the wasteland.

That is the record of the women. Odd how it differs from the men.

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However, the negligence, the carelessness, the abstention, the “omission” as they say in ritual style, is that all there is?

But no!

Let’s see first how Le Matin, for example, which is not a biased newspaper, stated the facts:

The women were burned like sheep in a pen, huddled up together… As for the men, I would rather not talk about them: they were beneath contempt. And yet twenty or so determined, cool-headed men would have been able to prevent the disaster. Most of them ran away and who knows whether they were the ones who trampled over the poor women whom they found there squashed at the exit? Basically, in this dreadful calamity the men had abominably “given up” the women and let them fend for themselves. The acts of courage and devotion were carried out by passers-by, people from outside, or even by the servants, some of whom, particularly the footman Diligent, acted heroically. Most of the responsibility of this disaster, therefore, falls upon the men.

 

One of our colleagues, Henri Pellier, has already pointed this out. Another of our colleagues, Gaston Méry, described it in more detail, laying emphasis on the accusation while speaking of three surviving victims of the male brutality and cowardliness.

Because the men beat their way to the exit. In a group the other day I heard a nun tell, “The messieurs threw me to the ground and trampled me underfoot. They beat the ladies with their fists to get out faster. It was a young girl who saved me.”

And they found her on the ground and they told her that among the incriminating evidence were bloodied canes, clotted with hair, with long women’s hair…

Well, isn’t that nice!

[1] L’Echo de Paris, May 14 1897.

[2] Sibylle Riqueti de Mirabeau (1849-1932), notorious right-wing writer, nationalist, anti-Dreyfusard, anti-Semite.

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16-Bilking Panama and Burning Chivalry

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Séverine7

16-Bilking Panama and Burning Chivalry

Back in 1880, encouraged by the success of the Suez canal, Ferdinand de Lesseps founded the Panama Canal Company which was destined to link the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, but which was also destined to end in disaster. Underestimating the extent of work coupled with mismanagement put the company on the verge of bankruptcy. After years of difficulty the company suspended payments in December 1888 and three months later was ordered by the court to liquidate its assets.

The great scandal was aggravated by Boulangism [see 9-General Boulanger] and by a crisis at the Comptoir d’Escompte: after making huge speculations on the copper market, the bank’s director Eugène Denfert-Rochereau committed suicide and his partner at the Société des Métaux was sent to prison for six months. Faced with the collapse of this financial institution the Bank of France and the Rothschilds stepped in to prevent a full-blown financial panic. But Paris was on edge that year of 1889 when the International Exhibition unveiled the Eiffel Tower rising over a thousand feet and standing as the tallest structure in the world[1]. But all the success the Tower had with the public could not overshadow the damaged reputation of Gustave Eiffel himself who, as engineer of the Panama Canal Company, had to refund 20,000 francs and was sentenced to two years in prison, although like the others he was acquitted.

See, the canal had been stopped and the actual liquidation was postponed in the hope of starting a new company or raising the price of American offers[2]. Agents were commission to raise funds, but most of the money went to buy off politicians. By 1892 bankruptcy was inevitable, thereby causing the ruin of 800,000 investors (many of them single women) and the loss of almost two billion francs. In the wake of the failure, many government officials, ministers and parliament members were accused of taking bribes to give away public funds and conceal the facts in the affair. Jean Jaurès was put in charge of a commission to investigate the case and found 104 legislators implicated in the crimes.

The failure of the Panama Canal Company was one of the major politico-financial scandals of the Third Republic and the largest financial scandal of the 19th century. Banking pirates, corrupt politicians, paid-off journalists and unscrupulous businessmen colluded in cheating people out of billions of francs. Although the concerned parties tried to cover up their crimes in the face of glaring evidence, they were inevitably brought to light for raising money under false pretenses, misappropriation of funds and corruption, tried in court, found guilty… and acquitted!

While Vaillant and Henry were throwing bombs at the very people responsible for the wreckage, another kind of attack was coming from a different quarter. The collapse of the Panama Canal Company stirred up anti-Semite activity as people like Edouard Drumont used his paper La Libre Parole to exploit the role of two Jewish speculators in the corruption. Anti-Semitism was a growing problem (as we saw Séverine’s interview with the Pope [12-Pope Leo XIII] attest to) that would culminate in the Dreyfus Affair [see 17-19].

In Fernand Xau’s Le Journal Séverine followed the Panama trial that was the talk of the town. Unlike her support of the anarchists, there was little controversy in criticizing the perpetrators of this historic fraud. Séverine, however, still managed to attract controversy with her thorny insight. She supported Lesseps, the scapegoat, to a certain degree, because the real culprits never appeared in court. The responsibility lay with the regime itself. Not only the guilty parties, but the whole government and all its cohorts were to blame—from the power mongers to the parasites, the entire system was corrupt.

Of course, Séverine’s journalism was not limited to the disgraceful politics of the day. Her on the spot reporting continued as well. As we have seen she was adept at modern journalism, a certain sensationalism, but she always had her principles to accompany her. Back in May 1887 a dreadful fire at the Opéra Comique killed over a hundred people (so many bodies reduced to mere ashes that a precise number was never ascertained) during a performance of Mignon by Ambroise Thomas. Séverine went to the still smoking ruins in spite of the interdictions and warnings, but she was not content to stand around and watch from the outside. She wanted to give her readers a detailed description of the disaster not for the sake of sensationalism but for justice: she wanted to expose the responsible parties and make them pay for their crime. Being the only woman among the officials, she managed to get inside, observe the tragedy and conduct her investigation, which exposed the theater management that had locked an emergency exit for fear of people sneaking in. It was not only stupid, it was criminal. After her article the justice system continue to turn a blind eye toward safety regulations in public buildings, but it could no longer claim ignorance.

Now in 1897, as the Panama scandal was rekindled with the arrest of Emile Arton (one of the criminal bankers) in London, another catastrophic fire gripped the public conscience. An annual charity event, le Bazar de la Charité, had been held for more than ten years in different mansions of the Parisian elite. This fateful year, however, a wooden building on rue Jean Goujon was donated for the occasion. The interior was decorated to look like medieval Paris complete with shop signs and painted canvas backdrops. There was also a demonstration of the fascinating new technology by the Lumière brothers: cinematography. On the afternoon of May 4 the motion picture projector, which used ether in the lamp, caught fire and spread quickly. Over a thousand people, mostly from the aristocracy, panicked to escape. Within fifteen minutes the place was consumed and the charred remains of the victims lay in the ashes. Among the dead was the Duchess of Alençon, one of the organizers of the event and the sister of Empress Elisabeth of Austria. Estimates ranged from 115 to 135 casualties, less than ten of them men.

Within thirty minutes after the blaze Séverine was on the scene and stayed there for almost forty hours. As she gazed upon the lifeless bodies of all the women and children she wondered where all the men were. Her interviews with the witnesses revealed a tragic truth. First with her article “What Did The Men Do?” in L’Echo de Paris then in articles for Le Journal she gave no quarter to the men who had beaten their way through the women to escape. She accused them of cowardice and perfidy and brutality, but went even further. Far from the chivalry that the upper classes boast of in their males here was a tragic expression of the “battle of the sexes” that was being waged against women in the workplace and universities. Her poignant observations made many people stop to think about the real tragedy and consequences of the event.

Be that as it may, after this disaster safety regulations were implemented for emergency exits and the Lumière brothers developed electric lamps for their projectors.

 

[1] Until the Chrysler Building was constructed in 1930

[2] The Americans eventually took over the project and the Panama Canal opened for business on August 3 1914, along with World War I.