CLOSE
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.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
iStock
arrow
Food
The History Behind Why We Eat 10 Dishes at Thanksgiving
iStock
iStock

Halloween is for candy comas, and on Independence Day we grill, but no holiday is as completely defined by its cuisine as Thanksgiving. No matter what part of the country you're in, it's a safe bet that at least a few of the below dishes will be making an appearance on your table this week. But what makes these specific entrees and side dishes so emblematic of Thanksgiving? Read on to discover the sometimes-surprising history behind your favorite fall comfort foods.

1. TURKEY

A roasted turkey on a platter.
iStock

Turkey has become so synonymous with Thanksgiving that most of us probably imagine the pilgrims and Wampanoag tribe of Native Americans chowing down on a roast bird in 1621. Although we don't know the exact menu of that first Plymouth Colony feast, a first-person account of the year's harvest from governor William Bradford does reference "a great store of wild turkeys," and another first-person account, from colonist Edward Winslow, confirms that the settlers "killed as much fowl as…served the company almost a week." However, culinary historian Kathleen Wall believes that, although turkeys were available, it's likely that duck, goose, or even passenger pigeons were the more prominent poultry options at the first Thanksgiving. Given their proximity to the Atlantic, local seafood like oysters and lobsters were likely on the menu as well.

As the holiday grew in popularity, however, turkey became the main course for reasons more practical than symbolic. English settlers were accustomed to eating fowl on holidays, but for early Americans, chickens were more valued for their eggs than their meat, and rooster was tough and unappetizing. Meanwhile, turkeys were easy to keep, big enough to feed a whole family, and cheaper than ducks or geese. Even before Thanksgiving was recognized as a national holiday, Alexander Hamilton himself remarked that "No citizen of the U.S. shall refrain from turkey on Thanksgiving Day." The country followed his advice: according to the National Turkey Federation, 88 percent of Americans will eat turkey in some form on Thanksgiving Day—an estimated 44 million birds!

2. STUFFING

Pan of breaded stuffing.
iStock

Stuffing would have been a familiar concept to those early settlers as well, although their version was likely quite different from what we're used to. We know that the first Plymouth colonists didn't have access to white flour or butter, so traditional bread stuffing wouldn't have been possible yet. Instead, according to Wall, they may have used chestnuts, herbs, and chunks of onion to flavor the birds, all of which were already part of the local fare. Centuries later, we're still stuffing turkeys as a way to keep the bird moist through the roasting process and add extra flavor.

3. CRANBERRIES

Dish of cranberry sauce.
iStock

Like turkeys, cranberries were widely available in the area, but cranberry sauce almost certainly did not make an appearance at the first Thanksgiving. Why not? The sugar reserves the colonists would have had were almost completely depleted after their long sea journey, and thus they didn't have the means to sweeten the terrifically tart berries.

So how did cranberries become such an autumnal staple? For starters, they're a truly American food, as one of only a few fruits—along with Concord grapes, blueberries, and pawpaws—that originated in North America. They grow in such abundance in the northeast that colonists quickly began incorporating cranberries into various dishes, such as pemmican, which mixed mashed cranberries with lard and dried venison. By the Civil War, they were such a holiday staple that General Ulysses S. Grant famously demanded his soldiers be provided cranberries for their Thanksgiving Day meal.

4. MASHED POTATOES

Bowl of mashed potatoes.
iStock

Potatoes weren't yet available in 17th-century Plymouth, so how did mashed potatoes become another Thanksgiving superstar? The answer lies in the history of the holiday itself. In America’s earliest years, it was common for the sitting President to declare a "national day of thanks," but these were sporadic and irregular. In 1817, New York became the first state to officially adopt the holiday, and others soon followed suit, but Thanksgiving wasn't a national day of celebration until Abraham Lincoln declared it so in 1863.

Why did Lincoln—hands full with an ongoing war—take up the cause? Largely due to a 36-year campaign from Sarah Josepha Hale, a prolific novelist, poet, and editor, who saw in Thanksgiving a moral benefit for families and communities. In addition to her frequent appeals to officials and presidents, Hale wrote compellingly about the holiday in her 1827 novel Northwood, as well as in the womens' magazine she edited, Godey's Lady's Book. Her writing included recipes and descriptions of idealized Thanksgiving meals, which often featured—you guessed it—mashed potatoes.

5. GRAVY

Plate of turkey and potatoes covered in gravy.
iStock

Despite a dearth of potatoes, it's likely that some type of gravy accompanied the turkey or venison at the earliest Thanksgiving gatherings. The concept of cooking meat in sauce dates back hundreds of years, and the word "gravy" itself can be found in a cookbook from 1390. Because that first celebration extended over three days, historian Wall speculates: "I have no doubt whatsoever that birds that are roasted one day, the remains of them are all thrown in a pot and boiled up to make broth the next day." That broth would then be thickened with grains to created a gravy to liven day-old meat. And, if Wall's correct, that broth sounds suspiciously like the beginning of another great Thanksgiving tradition: leftovers!

6. CORN

Plate of corn.
iStock

Corn is a natural symbol of harvest season—even if you're not serving it as a side dish, you might have a few colorful ears as a table centerpiece. We know that corn was a staple of the Native American diet and would have been nearly as plentiful in the 17th century as today. But according to the History Channel, their version would have been prepared quite differently: corn was either made into a cornmeal bread or mashed and boiled into a thick porridge-like consistency, and perhaps sweetened with molasses. Today, we eat corn in part to remember those Wampanoag hosts, who famously taught the newcomers how to cultivate crops in the unfamiliar American soil.

7. SWEET POTATOES

Bowl of mashed sweet potatoes.
iStock

In the midst of so many New England traditions, the sweet potatoes on your table represent a dash of African-American culture. The tasty taters originally became popular in the south—while pumpkins grew well in the north, sweet potatoes (and the pies they could make) became a standard in southern homes and with enslaved plantation workers, who used them as a substitution for the yams they'd loved in their homeland. Sweet potato pie was also lovingly described in Hale's various Thanksgiving epistles, solidifying the regional favorite as a holiday go-to. More recently, some families further sweeten the dish by adding toasted marshmallows, a love-it-or-hate-it suggestion that dates to a 1917 recipe booklet published by the Cracker Jack company.

8. GREEN BEAN CASSEROLE

Plate of green bean casserole.
iStock

Beans have been cultivated since ancient times, but green bean casserole is a decidedly modern contribution to the classic Thanksgiving canon. The recipe you love was whipped up in 1955 by Dorcas Reilly, a home economist working in the Campbell's Soup Company test kitchens in Camden, New Jersey. Reilly's job was to create limited-ingredient recipes that housewives could quickly replicate (using Campbell's products, of course). Her original recipe (still available at Campbells.com), contains just six ingredients: Campbell's Cream of Mushroom soup, green beans, milk, soy sauce, pepper, and French's French Fried Onions. Her recipe was featured in a 1955 Associated Press feature about Thanksgiving, and the association has proven surprisingly durable—Campbell’s now estimates that 30 percent of their Cream of Mushroom soup is bought specifically for use in a green bean casserole.

9. PUMPKIN PIE

Slice of pumpkin pie.
iStock

Like cranberries, pumpkin pie does have ties to the original Thanksgiving, albeit in a much different format. The colonists certainly knew how to make pie pastry, but couldn't have replicated it without wheat flour, and might have been a bit perplexed by pumpkins, which were bigger than the gourds they knew in Europe. According to Eating in America: A History, however, Native Americans were already using the orange treats as a dessert meal: "Both squash and pumpkin were baked, usually by being placed whole in the ashes or embers of a dying fire and they were moistened afterwards with some form of animal fat, or maple syrup, or honey." It's likely that Hale was inspired by those stories when pumpkin pie appeared in her culinary descriptions.

10. WINE

Two glasses of wine.
iStock

Chances are good that a few glasses of wine will be clinked around your table this November, but did the pilgrims share a tipsy toast with their new friends? Kathleen Wall thinks that water was probably the beverage of choice, considering that the small amount of wine the settlers had brought with them was likely long gone. Beer was a possibility, but since barley hadn't been cultivated yet, the pilgrims had to make do with a concoction that included pumpkins and parsnips. Considering the availability of apples in what would become Massachusetts, however, other historians think it's possible that hard apple cider was on hand for the revelers to enjoy. Whether or not the original feast was a boozy affair, cider rapidly became the drink of choice for English settlers in the area, along with applejack, apple brandy, and other fruit-based spirits. New England cider thus indirectly led to a less-beloved Thanksgiving tradition: your drunk uncle's annual political rant. Bottoms up!

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Rey Del Rio/Getty Images
arrow
Big Questions
Why Do the Lions and Cowboys Always Play on Thanksgiving?
Rey Del Rio/Getty Images
Rey Del Rio/Getty Images

Because it's tradition! But how did this tradition begin?

Every year since 1934, the Detroit Lions have taken the field for a Thanksgiving game, no matter how bad their record has been. It all goes back to when the Lions were still a fairly young franchise. The team started in 1929 in Portsmouth, Ohio, as the Spartans. Portsmouth, while surely a lovely town, wasn't quite big enough to support a pro team in the young NFL. Detroit radio station owner George A. Richards bought the Spartans and moved the team to Detroit in 1934.

Although Richards's new squad was a solid team, they were playing second fiddle in Detroit to the Hank Greenberg-led Tigers, who had gone 101-53 to win the 1934 American League Pennant. In the early weeks of the 1934 season, the biggest crowd the Lions could draw for a game was a relatively paltry 15,000. Desperate for a marketing trick to get Detroit excited about its fledgling football franchise, Richards hit on the idea of playing a game on Thanksgiving. Since Richards's WJR was one of the bigger radio stations in the country, he had considerable clout with his network and convinced NBC to broadcast a Thanksgiving game on 94 stations nationwide.

The move worked brilliantly. The undefeated Chicago Bears rolled into town as defending NFL champions, and since the Lions had only one loss, the winner of the first Thanksgiving game would take the NFL's Western Division. The Lions not only sold out their 26,000-seat stadium, they also had to turn fans away at the gate. Even though the juggernaut Bears won that game, the tradition took hold, and the Lions have been playing on Thanksgiving ever since.

This year, the Lions host the Minnesota Vikings.

HOW 'BOUT THEM COWBOYS?


Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

The Cowboys, too, jumped on the opportunity to play on Thanksgiving as an extra little bump for their popularity. When the chance to take the field on Thanksgiving arose in 1966, it might not have been a huge benefit for the Cowboys. Sure, the Lions had filled their stadium for their Thanksgiving games, but that was no assurance that Texans would warm to holiday football so quickly.

Cowboys general manager Tex Schramm, though, was something of a marketing genius; among his other achievements was the creation of the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders.

Schramm saw the Thanksgiving Day game as a great way to get the team some national publicity even as it struggled under young head coach Tom Landry. Schramm signed the Cowboys up for the game even though the NFL was worried that the fans might just not show up—the league guaranteed the team a certain gate revenue in case nobody bought tickets. But the fans showed up in droves, and the team broke its attendance record as 80,259 crammed into the Cotton Bowl. The Cowboys beat the Cleveland Browns 26-14 that day, and a second Thanksgiving pigskin tradition caught hold. Since 1966, the Cowboys have missed having Thanksgiving games only twice.

Dallas will take on the Los Angeles Chargers on Thursday.

WHAT'S WITH THE NIGHT GAME?


Patrick Smith/Getty Images

In 2006, because 6-plus hours of holiday football was not sufficient, the NFL added a third game to the Thanksgiving lineup. This game is not assigned to a specific franchise—this year, the Washington Redskins will welcome the New York Giants.

Re-running this 2008 article a few days before the games is our Thanksgiving tradition.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios