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Erin McCarthy
Erin McCarthy

Spending Time Among the Bones of Paris's Catacombs

Erin McCarthy
Erin McCarthy

In Paris, what’s beneath the sidewalks is as exciting as the monuments that tower above them. The underground is a labyrinth of canals, crypts, vaults, reservoirs, and hundreds of miles of tunnels ripe for exploration. Some people who roam beneath the city are doing it illegally to repair neglected treasures, throw parties, or paint murals, but there are legal ways to explore the canals and crypts, too.

For a fee, access is granted to an approved section of les égouts—or the sewers—which Victor Hugo called "the conscience of the city" in Les Miserables. (To accurately write about Jean Valjean's trip through the sewers, Hugo called on help from his friend, sewer inspector Emmanuel Bruneseau.) Visitors with more macabre interests, however, can descend 65 feet underground, below the metro and the sewers, to walk amongst the bones of the dead in the famous les Carrieres de Paris—also known as the Catacombs.

Arrête, c'est ici l'empire de la mort

Forty-five million years ago, a tropical sea covered the area that would become Paris. Over time, the sediment on the seabed became formations of limestone, which the Romans would mine when Paris was known as Roman Lutetia. Open quarry pits gave way to nearly 187 miles of underground tunnels, which provided the stone that built the Louvre and Notre Dame.

Eventually, the quarries were abandoned. But in the 18th century, they became the best solution to Paris’s growing public health problem.  

In the late 1700s, the mass graves at cemeteries like Saints-Innocents in Paris’s Les Halles district were overcrowded with bodies. Improper disposal of corpses led to unsanitary conditions that contributed to the spread of disease.

To save the living, authorities shut down Saint-Innocents and, in April 1786, began relocating the remains buried in the cemetery to the Tombe-Issoire quarries, which had been blessed and consecrated for the purpose. Transferring the bones from the Saints-Innocents Cemetery—the largest in Paris—took two years. Between 1787 and 1814, bones were transferred from other Parisian cemeteries; the final transfer of bones took place in 1859.

A number of notable people buried in those cemeteries likely had their bones transferred to the Catacombs. The list includes writers Jean de La Fontaine (Fables) and Charles Perrault (known for fairy tales like Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, and Puss in Boots), painter Simon Vouet, and architect Salomon de Brosse (who designed the city's Luxembourg Palace). During the Revolution, people were buried directly in the Catacombs. Guillotine victims ended up there, too, including the likes of Maximilien Robespierre, Antoine Lavoisier, and Georges Danton, all beheaded in 1794.

The Catacombs hold the artfully arranged remains of 6 to 7 million Parisians. Above the entrance to the ossuary, carved into a stone, are the words “Arrête, c'est ici l'empire de la mort.” Stop, this is the empire of the dead.

Taking a Tour

The Catacombs opened to the public in the early 19th century. Visitors enter on Avenue Rene Coty and descend 130 steps to the former mines, where a truly spooky, interesting journey awaits.

The walls of the narrow corridors that lead to the ossuary are marked with the names of the streets and historical information. Visitors will pass through "The Workshop," an area of the former quarry featuring stone pillars that support its ceilings.  

Next is the Port-Mahon corridor, which features sculptures created by a quarryman named Decure. The corridor is named for the sculpture of the Port-Mahon, above; Decure, who had fought in the armies of Louis XV, may have been held captive at the fortress by the English. Visitors will also pass the Quarryman's footbath (below), which was uncovered by workers and used for mixing cement.

And then comes the ossuary. The sheer amount of bones in the former quarries is staggering. Though the bones inside are artfully arranged now, it wasn't always that way; at first, they were simply thrown inside. But around 1810, Hericart de Thury, the inspector of the quarries, had the bones organized. (Behind those facades, the rest of the bodies were piled in heaps stretching back to the cavern's walls.)

In addition to these artfully arranged bones, visitors can see a number of interesting things, including commemorative plaques, a sepulchral lamp used by quarrymen to make air circulate through the corridors, a cross and an altar, a spring called Fontain de la Samaritaine, and a single tombstone (it belongs to Françoise Gellain). Two features of the ossuary disguise structural reinforcements: Gilbert's Tomb, which features a verse from the poet (who is buried elsewhere), and a barrel-shaped display of skulls and shinbones in the Crypt of the Passions. (On April 2, 1897, two workers let in scientists, scholars, and artists for a middle-of-the-night, very secret concert held in the crypt. When their identities were discovered, the workers were fired.)

Workers are scattered throughout the Catacombs to answer questions, but mostly, visitors walk alone or with companions through the dimly lit, damp, nearly-silent space. The rules when wandering the catacombs are simple: Respect the final resting place of these Parisians. Look, but don't touch. Don't leave your mark at all, especially with graffiti. It might be tempting to snag yourself a souvenir from this most unique of attractions, but bags are searched for bones at the exit. If you're still looking for something to commemorate your visit, there's a gift shop just across the street.

All photos by the author.

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You Can Now Rent the Montgomery, Alabama Home of Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald Through Airbnb
Chris Pruitt, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

The former apartment of Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald, perhaps the most famous couple of the Jazz Age, is now available to rent on a nightly basis through Airbnb, The Chicago Tribune reports. While visitors are discouraged from throwing parties in the spirit of Jay Gatsby, they are invited to write, drink, and live there as the authors did.

The early 20th-century house in Montgomery, Alabama was home to the pair from 1931 to 1932. It's where Zelda worked on her only novel Save Me the Waltz and F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote part of Tender Is the Night. The building was also the last home they shared with their daughter Scottie before she moved to boarding school.

In the 1980s, the house was rescued from a planned demolition and turned into a nonprofit. Today, the site is a museum and a spot on the Southern Literary Trail. While the first floor of the Fitzgerald museum, which features first-edition books, letters, original paintings, and other artifacts related to the couple, isn't available to rent, the two-bedroom apartment above it goes for $150 a night. Guests staying there will find a record player and a collection of jazz albums, pillows embroidered with Zelda Fitzgerald quotes, and a balcony with views of the property's magnolia tree. Of the four surviving homes Zelda and F. Scott lived in while traveling the world, this is the only one that's accessible to the public.

Though the Fitzgerald home is the only site on the Southern Literary Trail available to rent through Airbnb, it's just one of the trail's many historic homes. The former residences of Flannery O'Connor, Caroline Miller, and Lillian Smith are all open to the public as museums.

[h/t The Chicago Tribune]

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Maynard L. Parker/Courtesy of The Huntington Library in San Marino, California
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History
The Concept of the American 'Backyard' is Newer Than You Think
A home in Long Beach, California, in the 1950s.
A home in Long Beach, California, in the 1950s.
Maynard L. Parker/Courtesy of The Huntington Library in San Marino, California

Backyards are as American as apple pie and baseball. If you live in a suburban or rural area, chances are good that you have a lawn, and maybe a pool, some patio furniture, and a grill to boot.

This wasn’t always the case, though. As Smithsonian Insider reports, it wasn’t until the 1950s that Americans began to consider the backyard an extension of the home, as well as a space for recreation and relaxation. After World War II, Americans started leaving the big cities and moving to suburban homes that came equipped with private backyards. Then, after the 40-hour work week was implemented and wages started to increase, families started spending more money on patios, pools, and well-kept lawns, which became a “symbol of prosperity” in the 1950s, according to a new Smithsonian Institution exhibit.

A man mows his lawn in the 1950s
In this photo from the Smithsonian Institution's exhibit, a man mows his lawn in Long Beach, California, in the 1950s.
Maynard L. Parker/Courtesy of The Huntington
Library in San Marino, California

Entitled "Patios, Pools, & the Invention of the American Back Yard," the exhibition includes photographs, advertisements, and articles about backyards from the 1950s and 1960s. The traveling display is currently on view at the Temple Railroad & Heritage Museum in Temple, Texas, and from there it will head to Hartford, Connecticut, in December.

Prior to the 1950s, outdoor yards were primarily workspaces, MLive.com reports. Some families may have had a vegetable garden, but most yards were used to store tools, livestock, and other basic necessities.

The rise of the backyard was largely fueled by materials that were already on hand, but hadn’t been accessible to the average American during World War II. As Smithsonian Insider notes, companies that had manufactured aluminum and concrete for wartime efforts later switched to swimming pools, patio furniture, and even grilling utensils.

A family eats at a picnic table in the 1960s
A family in Mendham, New Jersey, in the 1960s
Molly Adams/Courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution, Archives of American Gardens, Maida Babson Adams American Garden Collection

At the same time, DIY projects started to come into fashion. According to an exhibit caption of a Popular Mechanics article from the 1950s, “‘Doing-it-yourself’ was advertised as an enjoyable and affordable way for families to individualize their suburban homes.” The magazine wrote at the time that “patios, eating areas, places for play and relaxation are transforming back yards throughout the nation.”

The American backyard continues to grow to this day. As Bloomberg notes, data shows that the average backyard grew three years in a row, from 2015 to 2017. The average home last year had 7048 square feet of outdoor space—plenty of room for a sizable Memorial Day cookout.

[h/t Smithsonian Insider]

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