Paris has been steeped over the centuries in human culture of so many forms and styles. The greatest and the worst of human experience, aspiration, learning and knowledge decorate the spiritual landscape of the City. There are ghosts in vast abundance to remind us all about the past layers. We can search for them and find them, then shudder as we feel their closeness to us.
The spooks of historical events litter the great Capital amongst its timeless landmarks. Notre Dame Cathedral, the Opera, the parks and the murky backstreets all provide the cover. Such places are where the spirit life skulks and where they can be winkled out for posterity.
Paris was drenched in the events of the French Revolution around 200 years ago. The highest members of the aristocracy were held to account for their deeds in the most barbaric form whilst surrounded by the beauty of their city. The mist of the guillotine still floats around the central streets. The spiritual debris is still there lurking behind the shadows.
The stories, the embellishments and perhaps sometimes even the truth is out there for all to find if they dare. There is no need to go to the cemeteries; the spirits walk the open streets where they can hide. Maybe it is scary and perhaps even dangerous to turf them out, but fun and exciting, certainly.
The mysterious gypsy who foretold the future
At 1b Rue de Bievre, in central Paris, there once stood a shabby bar. During the period of German occupation in the nineteen forties, the landlord would occasionally find a grubby gypsy at his door offering to tell his fortune. Due to impatience and irritation the publican would just turf him out.
Subsequently, pets and relatives gradually would die under mysterious circumstances. The bar owner’s wife suddenly ran off with the gypsy, never to be seen again. He closed the business out of fear of the unknown. The following year, Nazi soldiers destroyed the tavern by fire. Property developers never became interested in the site. It can still be viewed through the overgrown bars of a gate that never opens.
The original Phantom of the Opera
A fictional novel by Gaston Leroux accounts for reports of strange things taking place beneath the foundations of the Opera Garnier. This book features a vast underground lake with many radiating tunnels. Unbeknown to Leroux at the time, the reality was that the Opera was built on top of a vast water tank that still to this day, mysteriously, cannot be drained.
The wicked art of Satan
During the construction of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, an artistic craftsman called Biscornet was tasked to create decorative ironwork for three of the main doors. The story has it that Biscornet discovered that he could not achieve this work on his own so asked for help from the Devil. Whilst Biscornet slept, the work was completed. The penalty though, was that Satan took Biscornet’s soul and the doors could only be opened by use of vast quantities of Holy Water.
The ghost dressed in red
Catherine de Medici was Queen of France in the 16th century. She had many nasty enemies and often feared for her life. She would, once in a while, get her protector called Jean the Skinner to despatch a few of them. After a number of these events, she feared that Skinner perhaps knew too much. Catherine decided to have him murdered as well, just outside her Tuileris Palace in the Royal Gardens. Soon after, passing aristocrats reported seeing a man in blood red robes wandering among the trees. This generally seemed to signal that another violent death was just about to occur.
Marie Antoinette was said to have seen Skinner just before her execution at the guillotine. Napoleon was much more positive though. He established a working relationship with the Red Man. The ghost would predict the outcome of his future battles.
The poet, writer and traveller, Gerard de Nerval
A French romantic poet and eccentric, Gerard de Nerval, has a habit, apparently, of roaming the streets of Paris accompanied by his pet lobster. The mad de Nerval committed a grisly suicide by hanging himself in the place where the Theatre de la Ville currently rests. In death he seemingly haunts theatre goers by popping up on stage unannounced and deliberately distracts the actors. His lobster, strangely, never seems to accompany him on stage.
The Loyal Resistance Fighter’s wife
During the days of the occupation of Paris in the last war, it seems that there was a Parisian lady who alternated her life between her French husband and a Nazi lover. Her husband served secretly in the French Resistance. She used her advantage to pass secrets gathered from her lover to her husband.
She was waiting for her husband one evening on the Pont Marie. He failed to arrive and she eventually froze to death on the cold winter night. Her ghost has been seen standing and sobbing on the bridge many times since. Surely such a poor reward in death for her loyal service to her country.
The wicked Isaure de Montsouris
Just by the Parc Montsouris in the City stretches the Rue de la Tombe Issoire. This was where the opportunist brigand Isaure de Montsouris of the 9th century lived. He enjoyed terrorising passing travellers. His head was ultimately lopped off by William of Aquitaine but what was left of him seems to have survived in spiritual form. He has often been spotted lurking by the park’s Palais du Bardo observatory. Strangely, in 1991, the observatory was sold to the French government for restoration but mysteriously burnt down just before work could commence.
The Parisian demon barber
Half a millennium before Sweeny Todd in London, a Demon Barber in Paris committed similar offences in the 14th century. Like his successor in London, this Frenchman passed his victim’s bodies to the local butcher where they were ground into pies. Hungry customers began to complain of unpleasant tasting meat. They soon reported the butcher who was subsequently detained. Nowadays pedestrians passing no 20 Rue Chanoinesse say their ears have pricked up as they hear the faint ghostly screams of the long dead clients.
Albert le Grand
Albert le Grand had many interests. He was a theologian, alchemist and a once in a while necromancer. Le Grand was also a very strange mystic and medieval scholar. His spiritual survival is recalled in three ways. One of his students was Thomas Aquinas who is recorded as saying that he found him ‘odd ’. His surviving sorcerer’s manual, Petit Albert, can still be read, and the street named after him, Rue Maitre Albert. This is still present in the shadow of Notre Dame Cathedral. Night time visitors sometimes find him there in full occultist dress. Others choose to remember him more comfortably at the fine restaurant nearby called Albert le Grand.
The man in the black coat
A certain gentleman called Jean Romier was sitting reading in the Jardin du Luxembourg on a warm evening as recently as 1925. He was approached by a quietly spoken and genteel man in a black coat who invited him back to his house nearby to enjoy an evening of music and poetry. They went off together.
After Romier had left later, he realised that he had left his lighter in the house and went back to retrieve it. He knocked on the door. A neighbour responded and said that the musician who had lived there had not been seen for twenty years or so and that the property was empty. Others, still living, have since been invited there by the Man in the Black Coat. They have never had the courage to accept. I don’t know why.
Like all things spiritual, some believe it all and some do not. There are always exaggerations, rumours, distortions and even inventions. The stories all seem though to have a basis in some truth that continues to rear its head even today in the 21st century. Were ghosts to exist at all, they would surely prowl the streets of Paris.