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It’s a crisp autumn night in Paris. The silhouetted gargoyles of Notre-Dame contemplate you from above. A tumble of leaves swirl around your ankles. It’s eerily quiet by the Seine with nothing but the sound of your footsteps… But wait, whose footsteps?
A city as old as Paris would definitely be the haunt of some ghostly beings. Whether a believer or a skeptic, here are some mysterious happenings that might just put a tingly finger up the back of your neck.
“Pleased to meet you – hope you guess my name”
A native of Bath, U.K., George Augustus Sala recounted in his 1879 book Paris: Herself Again his sighting of a red-clad ghost atop the equestrian statue on the Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel. With his back to the blackened ruins of the Tuileries Palace, Sala’s fearsome phantom was the most grotesque thing he’d ever seen. One eyed, with a humped back and cloven hooves, it had the most infernal grin out of which lolled a prodigious tongue. The creature became a shape-shifter, playing a mandolin and regaling him songs from past epochs, calling out the year as he sang. His garments changed as he hopped from location to location. The reader begins to understand that this performance piece is the creation of Sala’s overactive imagination resulting in the destruction sustained during the Siege of Paris.
Nevertheless, Sala’s apparition had its basis in history. The Red Man, a specter familiar at the Tuileries, was Jean the Skinner, AKA Jean l’écorcheur, the henchman of France’s 16th-century queen, Catherine de’ Medici. Jean knew too much about the Queen’s intrigues and to silence him she had him executed outside her Tuileries palace. His abandoned corpse went missing. Queen Catherine’s astrologer claimed that Jean would haunt the Tuileries until the building was destroyed. And he did.
Before long, there were sightings in the queen’s gardens of a man in blood red attire. His apparition foreshadowed the imminent death of an aristocrat. He was in attendance on the evening of Henry IV’s assassination in 1610.
A few days before the 1792 storming of the Tuileries Palace, Marie Antoinette’s ladies in waiting received a visit from the Red Man. A newspaper account, 100 years after the ghostly story, appeared in the press. “Marie Antoinette’s women were sitting in the Salle des Gardes, when they became suddenly aware of the presence of a small man clothed from crown to heel in scarlet, who looked at them with such unearthly eyes that they were frozen with terror.”
Before King Louis XVI’s 1793 date with Madame Guillotine, the Red Man taunted him wearing the red Phrygian cap of liberty.
Napoleon is said to have maintained a working relationship with the ghost, who predicted the outcome of forthcoming battles. After Napoleon’s death, tales began to circulate about a red-draped man at Napoleon’s door. He appeared to Napoleon and uttered the warning word “Moscow.” The last time he appeared to Napoleon he shrieked, “Saint Helena!”
The melancholy figure of the Red Man was recorded on the day rioters set fire to the Tuileries Palace in 1871. Though his haunt was now destroyed, this did not put the Red Man to rest. He is sometimes seen wandering in the Tuileries and flitting throughout the Louvre’s galleries.
“Everybody’s got something to hide…”
If walking a lobster on a blue silk ribbon wasn’t strange enough, Gérard de Nerval’s ghost is said to haunt the Theatre de la Ville. Gérard de Nerval was a Romantic poet and public eccentric. He’s known for his travel diaries, his strange choice of pet, his numerous mental breakdowns and his grisly suicide.
Things started out positively for de Nerval. He helped define 19th-century French Romantic poetry. At the age of 19, he began the momentous task of translating Goethe’s Faust. A friend of Victor Hugo, de Nerval attended the same salons as the important Romantic author.
De Nerval had more luck keeping a crustacean companion than a female one. Thibault was the name of de Nerval’s pet lobster whom he walked in the Palais-Royal. According to Theophile Gautier, de Nerval said something like to this: “Why should a lobster be any more ridiculous than a dog? …or a cat, or a gazelle, or a lion, or any other animal that one chooses to take for a walk? They don’t bark, and they don’t gnaw upon one’s … privacy.”
In 1837, he collaborated, without credit, on a play with Alexandre Dumas. De Nerval fell in love with the lead actress, Jenny Colon. His unrequited love for her was the inspiration for much of his writing. Jenny married a flautist in 1838. In 1841 after crossing paths with her in Brussels, de Nerval had his first nervous breakdown. While recuperating, his obituary was placed erroneously in a French newspaper. When Jenny Colon died in 1842 at the young age of 33, it was a great shock to de Nerval.
His private demons got the better of him and on January 26, 1855 de Nerval hanged himself off a window grill in the narrow and somber rue de la Vieille-Lanterne. Charles Baudelaire observed that de Nerval had “delivered his soul in the darkest street that he could find.” Others were puzzled that his hat remained on his head. This gloomy corner of the fourth arrondissement is where the Theatre de la Ville stands today.
A casualty of the Paris Commune, when the Theatre de la Ville was rebuilt, a plaque was placed in the theater’s basement dressing rooms as a tribute to de Nerval. His cold hand was felt on the backs of the dancers. The startling apparition of de Nerval hanging from the rafters or distracting actors on the stage was seen by theater-goers.
The Phantom of the Opera is here…
“The Opera ghost really existed,’’ claimed Gaston Leroux in the prologue of his book. Leroux, the investigative journalist that penned The Phantom of the Opera, went to his death believing his spectral story was true and that his character of a half-crazed musician hiding in the labyrinth of the famed opera house actually caused eerie events to happen. Some of the occurrences at the beautiful, yet steadfastly oppressive edifice of the Opera Garnier point to the verity of Leroux’s tale. In the 1860s, the opera’s construction crew ran into trouble when they were unable to drain the endless supply of water beneath its foundation. As a remedy, they created a stone cistern, an artificial lake, still seen to this day. The Phantom’s underwater lair and a complex network of tunnels do exist.
In May 1896, a fire in the roof caused the counterweight of the opera house’s chandelier, itself weighing more than a ton, to crash down from the auditorium injuring several of the audience and killing one. The remaining counterweights were sufficient to stop the seven tons of crystal and bronze from falling too.
Performers at the hall have heard ghastly whispers and seen a cloaked figure flitting from room to room. A lucky horseshoe is tacked up by the stage to ward off evil spirits. Some audience members claim to hear ghostly whispers from the vacant Box 5. However, it’s always vacant – the box is reserved for its resident ghost.
The spy who loved him – The Resistance fighter’s wife
Seen wandering on the lovers’ bridge of the Pont Marie is a profoundly melancholy ghost, the loyal wife of a Resistance fighter. Legend has it that during the Occupation she played both sides, juggling a Nazi lover and a husband involved in the Resistance. Like a spy, she used her position to funnel secrets to her husband. Every night she’d meet her him on the Pont Marie. One winter night, he failed to show up at the allotted time, most likely intercepted by the Nazis. The Resistance fighter’s wife remained on the bridge paralyzed with cold and fear until she froze to death. Her phantom wanders the bridge at night as she weeps for her husband.
Don’t talk to strangers – The Man in the Black Coat
Jean Romier was a young medical student when in June 1925 a gentleman in a strange, long black coat joined him on a bench in the Jardin du Luxembourg. After exchanging pleasantries, Jean Romier and the oddly dressed man, who had introduced himself as Alphonse Berruyer, discovered their mutual love of chamber music. Berruyer mentioned that his family had organized a concert for that very evening and would be honored for Romier to join them. Seeing no cause for alarm, Romier readily accepted and followed Berruyer to his large and richly appointed apartment on the Rue de Vaugirard which just bordered the park. Romier was treated to a spirited evening immersed in music, poetry and conversation. When the clock struck midnight, Romier bid his host goodbye.
Realizing that he’d left his cigarette lighter in the apartment, he returned to find no one home who’d respond to his knock. Romier then began to call out. The concierge woken by the commotion pointed out that the apartment had, yes, been occupied by Berruyer but he had died 15 years prior. Out of suspicion that Romier was a thief, the concierge called the police. Romier explained to the police what had occurred and correctly identified objects within the apartment. Romier’s lighter was found on the table.
Let us in!
A reportedly haunted house lies just steps beyond the gate securing the private Avenue Frochot. At No. 1 on this lovely and almost irresistibly enticing road, stands a neo-gothic villa where the composer Victor Masse lived and died in atrocious pain from multiple sclerosis. In the late 1880s the mansion belonged to the owner of the Folies Bergère and the house is said to be haunted by the ghost of his housekeeper, bludgeoned to death in the early 1900s. The murder was unsolved and neighbors said the servant’s spirit continued to haunt the building citing eerie footsteps heard while the mansion was empty and the ghostly moans at nightfall.
The villa’s cursed reputation affected the singer and actress Sylvie Vartan when she owned the house. She felt so ill at ease at the address that she refused to spend time there and ended up selling it. Today, its owner has reported no supernatural sightings or events. The street was the “haunt” of a veritable who’s whooo of Paris celebrities: Toulouse Lautrec, Django Reinhardt, Alexandre Dumas, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Baudelaire, Gustave Moreau, Alfred Stevens and Charles Daubigny. Let us in!
Let us out!
Rue des Chantres is a narrow street – an arm’s width wide – in one of most the beautiful and historical parts of Paris, the Île de la Cité. This medieval heart of the city has seen more than its share of tragedy and rue des Chantres is regarded by many as the most haunted street in Paris. Sometimes heard screaming are the ghosts of sick children who were kept in the one-time annex of the Hotel-Dieu. These young tuberculosis patients were urged to play in the narrow lane during the day; fresh air was thought to aid in curing the disease. However, they were quarantined in their basement bedrooms at night under lock and key. When the Seine burst its banks in 1910 in some of the worst flooding Paris has ever suffered, the children were drowned in their beds.
Lead photo credit : Gargoyle on Notre-Dame. Photo credit: crossine0/ Flickr