"Enter and Be Damned!": The Macabre Clubs of Belle Epoque Paris

The facades of Le Ciel and L'Enfer Cabarets in Montmartre, Paris
The facades of Le Ciel and L'Enfer Cabarets in Montmartre, Paris
Bibliothèque nationale de France, Wikimedia // Public Domain

The theme restaurants of today's Times Square owe a debt to the cabarets of 19th-century Paris, particularly a trio of death-obsessed locations in the red light district of Montmartre. These nightclubs featured over-the-top decorations and elaborately attired waiters, plus unusual performances with enthralling illusions.

The Cabaret du Néant ("Cabaret of Nothingness"), which opened in 1892, was perhaps the most famous. The entrance was draped in black mourning crepe with white trimming, and instead of a bouncer, a pallbearer dressed in a black cape and top hat stood outside. The 1899 book Bohemian Paris of To-day by W.C. Morrow and Édouard Cucuel, which called it a "grisly caricature of eternal nothingness," described the inside this way:

"The chamber was dimly lighted with wax tapers, and a large chandelier intricately devised of human skulls and arms, with funeral candles held in their large fleshless fingers, gave its small iota of light. Large, heavy, wooden coffins, resting on biers, were ranged about the room in an order suggesting the recent happening of a frightful catastrophe. The walls were decorated with skulls and bones, skeletons in grotesque attitudes, battle pictures, and guillotines in action."

As Morrow's group took their places, a half-dozen monotone voices droned: "Enter, mortals of this sinful world, enter into the mists and shadows of eternity ... and may God have mercy on your souls!" No detail was ignored: bells tolled, a funeral march played, and the place even smelled like a charnel house, according to Morrow. The waiters were also dressed like pallbearers, and addressed the drinkers as macchabées—French slang for a corpse, particularly those found drowned in the Seine. A drink order was relayed to the bar as "One microbe of Asiatic cholera from the last corpse, one leg of a lively cancer, and one sample of our consumption germ!"

While seating at the candlelit coffins and enjoying their poisons, guests were treated to a "discourse on death," which ended with a variety of bloody paintings that seemed to glow and then reduce their subjects (soldiers on a battlefield, an execution by guillotine) to skeletons. But these optical illusions were just a taste of the delights that awaited them in a second room. There, seated on small black caskets, they watched as a member of the audience stepped into an illuminated coffin at the front of the room and seemed to be transformed into bones right in front of their eyes.

This was actually a famous Victorian illusion known as "Pepper's Ghost," and was accomplished by shrouding the skeleton-to-be in fabric, fitting him or her precisely into the coffin, and using a series of lights and glass plates to reflect the image of a skeleton from one side of the room onto the person in the coffin. Named for 18th-century British scientist John Henry Pepper, who developed the trick, it is still used at theme parks, and was the technique behind Michael Jackson's appearance at the 2014 Billboard Awards.

Hardy souls looking for more ghoulish delights could also visit the Cabaret de L'Enfer ("The Cabaret of Hell"), whose entrance took the form of an enormous, fanged mouth. The doorman greeted guests by shouting "Enter and be damned!" while inside, molten streams of gold and silver decorated walls that would sometimes erupt in flames and thunder. When Morrow visited, a waiter dressed as a devil relayed his group's order of three black coffees with cognac as "Three seething bumpers of molten sins, with a dash of brimstone intensifier!" The drinks arrived glowing with a phosphorescent light, while musicians played selections from "Faust."

Just next door was Cabaret du Ciel ("The Cabaret of the Sky," sometimes referred to as "The Cabaret of Heaven"), with gilded gates, shining blue lights, and a crew of angels dressed in gauzy robes and sandals. This time, drinks were referred to as "sparkling draughts of heaven's own brew," but the disheveled angels don't seem to have been as effective as the denizens of Montmartre dressed as devils. Still, Morrow reported that a ceremony where St. Peter blessed the assembled with holy water was enjoyed by all.

Sadly, none of these cabarets survived World War II—which may have rendered their offerings a little tasteless by comparison. But a selection of their images and ephemera still survive (and periodically resurface on the internet), some of which can be seen below.

5 Facts About Edgar Allan Poe on His 210th Birthday

You’ve read Edgar Allan Poe’s terrifying stories. You can quote "The Raven." But how well do you know the writer’s quirky sense of humor and code-cracking abilities? Let’s take a look at a few  things you might not know about the acclaimed author, who was born 210 years ago today.

1. He was the original balloon boy.

You probably remember 2009’s infamous “Balloon Boy” hoax. Turns out the Heene family that perpetrated that fraud weren’t even being entirely original in their attempt at attention-grabbing. They were actually cribbing from Poe.

In 1844 Poe cooked up a similar aviation hoax in the pages of the New York Sun. The horror master cranked out a phony news item describing how a Mr. Monck Mason had flown a balloon flying machine called Victoria from England to Sullivan’s Island, South Carolina in just 75 hours. According to Poe’s story, the balloon had also hauled seven passengers across the ocean.

No balloonist had ever crossed the Atlantic before, so this story quickly became a huge deal. Complete transatlantic travel in just three days? How exciting! Readers actually queued up outside the Sun’s headquarters to get their mitts on a copy of the day’s historic paper.

Poe’s report on the balloon was chock full of technical details. He devoted a whole paragraph to explaining how the balloon was filled with coal gas rather than “the more expensive and inconvenient hydrogen.” He listed the balloon’s equipment, which included “cordage, barometers, telescopes, barrels containing provision for a fortnight, water-casks, cloaks, carpet-bags, and various other indispensable matters, including a coffee-warmer, contrived for warming coffee by means of slack-lime, so as to dispense altogether with fire, if it should be judged prudent to do so.” He also included hundreds of words of excerpts from the passengers’ journals.

The only catch to Poe’s story was that it was entirely fictitious. The Sun’s editors quickly wised up to Poe’s hoax, and two days later they posted an understated retraction that noted, “We are inclined to believe that the intelligence is erroneous.”

2. He dabbled in cryptography.

If you’ve read Poe’s story “The Gold-Bug,” you probably know that he had a working knowledge of cryptography. But you might not know that Poe was actually a pretty darn good cryptographer in his own right.

Poe’s first notable code-cracking began in 1839. He sent out a call for readers of his Philadelphia newspaper to send him encoded messages that he could decipher. Poe would then puzzle over the secret messages for hours. He published the results of his work in a wildly popular recurring feature. Poe also liked to toss his own codes out there to keep readers busy. Some of the codes were so difficult that Poe professed utter amazement when even a single reader would crack them.

Poe was so confident in his abilities as a cryptographer that he approached the Tyler administration in 1841 with an offer to work as a government code cracker. He modestly promised, “Nothing intelligible can be written which, with time, I cannot decipher.” Apparently there weren’t any openings for him, though.

3. The "Allan" came later.

It would sound odd to just say “Edgar Poe,” but the famous “Allan” wasn’t originally part of the writer’s name. Poe was born in Boston on January 19, 1809 to professional actors, but his early childhood was fairly rotten. When Poe was just two years old, his father abandoned the family—leaving the toddler's mother, Elizabeth, to raise Edgar and his two siblings. Not long after that, Elizabeth died of tuberculosis.

Poe actually had a little luck at that point. John and Frances Allan, a well-to-do Richmond family, took the boy in and provided for his education. Although the Allans never formally adopted Poe, he added their surname to his own name.

Like a lot of Poe’s fiction, his story with the Allans didn't have a particularly happy ending. Poe and John Allan grew increasingly distant during the boy’s teenage years, and after Poe left for the University of Virginia, he and Allan became estranged. (Apparently the root of these problems involved Poe’s tendency to gamble away whatever money Allan sent him to subsidize his studies.)

4. He had a nemesis.

Like a lot of writers, Poe had a rival. His was the poet, critic, and editor Rufus Griswold. Although Griswold had included Poe’s work in his 1842 anthology The Poets and Poetry of America, Poe held an extremely low opinion of Griswold’s intellect and literary integrity. Poe published an essay blasting Griswold’s selections for the anthology, and their rivalry began.

Things really heated up when Griswold succeeded Poe as the editor of Graham’s Magazine at a higher salary than Poe had been pulling in. Poe began publicly lambasting Griswold’s motivations; he even went so far as to claim that Griswold was something of a literary homer who puffed up New England poets.

Poe might have had a point about Griswold’s critical eye, but Griswold had the good fortune to outlive Poe. After Poe died, Griswold penned a mean-spirited obituary in which he stated that the writer’s death “will startle many, but few will be grieved by it” and generally portrayed Poe as an unhinged maniac.

Slamming a guy in his obituary is pretty low, but Griswold was just getting warmed up. He convinced Poe’s aunt, Maria Clemm, to make him Poe’s literary executor. Griswold then published a biography of Poe that made him out to be a drug-addled drunk, all while keeping the profits from a posthumous edition of Poe’s work.

5. His death was a mystery worth of his writing.

In 1849 Poe left New York for a visit to Richmond, but he never made it that far south. Instead, Poe turned up in front of a Baltimore bar deliriously raving and wearing clothes that didn’t fit. Passersby rushed Poe to the hospital, but he died a few days later without being able to explain what happened to him.

Poe’s rumored causes of death were “cerebral inflammation” and “congestion of the brain,” which were polite euphemisms for alcohol poisoning. Modern scholars don’t totally buy this explanation, though. The characterization of Poe as a raging drunk mostly comes from Griswold’s posthumous smear campaign, and his incoherent state of mind may have been the result of rabies or syphilis.

Some Poe fans subscribe to a more sinister theory about the writer’s death, though. They think he may have fallen victim to “cooping,” a sordid 19th century political practice. Gangs of political thugs would round up homeless or weak men and hold them captive in a safe place called a “coop” right before a major election. On election day—and there was an election in Baltimore on October 3, 1849, the day Poe was found—the gangs would then drug or beat the hostages before taking them around to vote at multiple polling places.

This story sounds like something straight out of Poe’s own writing, but it might actually be true. Poe’s crummy physical state and delirium would be consistent with a victim of cooping, and the ill-fitting clothes jibe with gangs’ practice of making their hostages change clothes so they could cast multiple votes. With no real evidence either way, though, Poe’s death remains one of literature’s most fascinating mysteries.

This post originally appeared in 2011.

The $13,000 Epiphany That Made Orville Redenbacher a National Popcorn King

iStock.com/NoDerog
iStock.com/NoDerog

Happy National Popcorn Day! While you’re no doubt celebrating with a bowl of freshly popped, liberally buttered popcorn, here’s something else to digest: Orville Redenbacher originally called his product Red-Bow.

In 1951, Redenbacher and his partner, a fellow Purdue grad named Charlie Bowman, purchased the George F. Chester and Son seed corn plant in Boone Township, Indiana. Though Redenbacher’s background was in agronomy and plant genetics, he had dabbled in popcorn, and was friendly with the Chester family.

Eventually, Carl Hartman was brought in to experiment. In 1969, when the trio had developed a seed they felt really confident in, they went to market. They dubbed the product “Red-Bow,” a nod to “Redenbacher” and “Bowman.”

The product was a hit regionally, but by 1970, Bowman and Redenbacher were ready for a national audience and hired a Chicago advertising agency to advise them on branding strategy. At their first meeting, Redenbacher talked about popcorn for three hours. “Come back next week and we’ll have something for you,” he was told afterward.

The following week, he turned to the agency and was told that “Orville Redenbacher’s” was the perfect name for the fledgling popcorn brand. “Golly, no,” he said. “Redenbacher is such a ... funny name.” That was the point, they told him, and they must have made a convincing case for it, because Orville Redenbacher is the brand we know today—and the man himself is still a well-known spokesman more than 20 years after his death.

Still, Redenbacher wasn’t sure that the $13,000 fee the agency had charged was money well spent. “I drove back to Indiana wryly thinking we had paid $13,000 for someone to come up with the same name my mother had come up with when I was born,” Redenbacher later wrote.

Hungry for more Redenbacher? Take a look at the inventor at work in the vintage commercial below.

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