Due to this post from Roni Loren (thank you for the warning, Roni) I’ve decided to remove most photos from Thriller Thursday. I hope you’re still able to enjoy them!
Some of you know the storm drains of Las Vegas–an underground labyrinth of dark, dank flood channels doubling as housing for the city’s homeless population–plays an important role in my novel Light and Dark. Hidden tunnels have always fascinated me. History is full of them, but none are more famous than the Catacombs of Paris.
The official name for the macabre place is “les Carrieres de Paris,” or The Quarries of Paris. The underground chamber once served as limestone quarries in the Roman era and was converted into burial ground near the end of the 18th century.
18th century Paris was at the heart of the enlightenment. The city is bustling and the population is on the rise. Voltaire called the city “the whipped cream of Europe.” But the place was dirty and stinky, and no social class went unaffected. Garbage littered the streets and provided a delicious fodder for the rats. Streets had open drains, and the sewers were filled with trash and human waste. The few public toilets were rare and usually overflowing. Disease ran rampant, and more people died than were born.
Victims of the black plaque, epidemics, starvations, of all the wars since the Middle Ages rest in the city’s 200 cemeteries, piled up on several levels in the mass graves of the churches. Every day, new cadavers join the previous ones. Paris is flooded by the dead, the odor is unbearable. — The Paris Catacombs
The entire city fought disease, but the Les Halles district was at the epicenter due to contamination caused by improper burials in church graveyards, particularly the Saints Innocents Cemetery, known as Les Innocents, (yes, the same one Anne Rice used in the Vampire Lestat). It had been used for nearly ten centuries and an estimated 80,000 cadavers were added during the last thirty years of the monarchy. In order to stave off the disease, city officials decided to remove the bones and house them in the abandoned quarries.
The removal of the bones began in April, 1786. Work was done under the cover of night and chanting priests accompanied the procession. The quarries were used to collect the bones from all the cemeteries of Paris until 1814.
The catacombs began as a bone repository but in 1810, Louis-Étienne Héricart de Thury began renovations to transform the caverns in to a visitable internment. He directed the relocation of skulls and femurs in the arrangements seen today and used the tombstones and cemetery decorations brought over from the old graveyards to complement the walls of bones.
Naturally legend and lore abound in the catacombs. Victor Hugo used his knowledge about the system in Les Miserables. The dead from the riots in the Place de Greve, the Hotel de Brienne, and Rue Meslee reside in the catacombs. Walls are decorated with graffiti dating back to the 18th century. During WW11, Parisian members of the French Resistance used the tunnel system to hide.
The underground system is a structural nightmare. The tunnels are carefully monitored and consolidation work continues. Because of the various safety issues, only a small portion of the quarries is open to the public. The system is complex and confusing. Some tunnels do have plaques indicating the name of the street above, but it’s very easy to get lost among the bones. Although it’s illegal to access the catacombs unescorted, secret entrances exist throughout the city. The system is accessible via the sewers, metro, and certain manholes.
And there are people who would love to explore the hidden system, myself included. As dark and sad as it may be, hundreds of years of history lies beneath the city of Paris. Journalist Matt O’Brien and author of Beneath The Neon: Life and Death in the Las Vegas Tunnels, told me the Quarries of Paris were high on his list to explore some day.
What about you? Would you venture underground to see the bones of the past?