The Bazar de la Charité: The Tragic True Story Behind the TV Series

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The Bazar de la Charité: The Tragic True Story Behind the TV Series
The devastating fire that killed 126 people at a charity event in the late 19th century is considered one of the worst catastrophes in Paris history. Over the years this tragedy has been depicted in popular culture, such as the Netflix series “The Bonfire of Destiny” In the afternoon of May 4th, 1897 the annual Bazar de la Charité was in full swing. The temporary pavilion housing the bazaar was packed with mostly women and children, and the great attraction of the event was the new invention of the Lumière Brothers, the cinematograph showing moving pictures. No one who was there that day could have imagined the terrible tragedy which was about to unfold. Institut Lumière – Cinematograph. By Victorgrigas / Wikimedia Commons The annual fundraising event was a highlight of the social calendar for Paris’s Catholic elite. It was quite recent – the first had been held in 1885 – but it attracted large crowds of upper middle class and aristocratic ladies. Since these women didn’t work, they directed their efforts towards charity and donated homewares, jewelry, art, and furnishings to be auctioned at the bazaar, as well as staffing the stalls and visiting with their maids and children. In 1897 added glamour was provided by the star visitor, the Duchesse d’Alençon, sister of the Empress of Austria. Sophie de Wittelsbach, duchess in Bavaria and, by her marriage, Duchess of Alençon, was born on 23 February 1847 in Munich (Bavaria) and died in a fire at the Bazaar of Charity in Paris in the 8th arrondissement on 4 May 1897. From Wikimedia Commons The bazaar was housed in a temporary wooden structure on an empty lot in Rue Jean Goujon in the 8th arrondissement. The building was themed to represent “Old Paris” with the stalls designed to look like medieval streets, but flimsily built of cardboard and papier-maché with shelter from the weather provided by a painted canvas “roof.” Ominously, a large helium balloon floated in the center. May 4th was the second day of the bazaar and when it opened at 3 p.m., between 1200-1800 people streamed in. Many queued to watch the amazing new moving picture show and crammed into the small cinema. The projectionist was working in a tiny space – he had already complained it was too small – and barely had room to work his hand-cranked projector, surrounded by oxygen tubes and cans of ether to light the lamps. He was separated from the audience by a mere tar-covered curtain. Interior of the Bazar de la Charité before the fire. Unknown author. Wikimedia commons

Lead photo credit : After the fire at the Bazar de la Charité. Livre d'or des martys de la charité. Hommage aux Victimes de la Catastrophe du 4 mai 1897", Paris, 1897. Unknown author. Wikimedia Commons

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Pat Hallam fell in love with Paris when she was an adolescent. After many years of visiting, in 2020 she finally moved from the UK to live here and pursue her passion for the city. A freelance writer and history lover, she can spend hours walking the streets of this wonderful city finding hidden courtyards, bizarre and unusual landmarks and uncovering the centuries of history that exist on every street corner (well, almost). You can find the results of her explorations on Instagram @littleparismoments.


  • Ed Cobleigh
    2023-02-12 10:30:53
    Ed Cobleigh
    Quite the tragic story. However, the balloon in question was not filled with helium which is inert and inflammable. The balloon undoubtedly was filled with highly flammable hydrogen. The world learned that lesson with the Hindenburg airship, also hydrogen filled. Now all airships and gas balloons, including Chinese spy balloons, use helium.


    • Pat Hallam
      2023-02-13 12:38:49
      Pat Hallam
      Thank you for your comment Ed, and for correcting me. I should have realised hydrogen was a more likely gas. It must have been absolutely horrific when the balloon exploded. I hope you enjoyed the rest of the article.