The Dandy Criminals who Terrorized Paris

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The Dandy Criminals who Terrorized Paris
France and Paris have plenty of stereotyped images associated with them, but one of the most enduring is that of the Apache. Even if the name is unfamiliar, the image persists of a ruffian-looking man wearing a striped Breton jersey, neckerchief and waistcoat, and his girlfriend sexily dressed in another Breton jersey and tight black pencil skirt slit all the way up the thigh, the outfit usually accessorized with a beret. Right through to the 1960s, they personified the dangerous but sexily glamorous underworld of Pigalle. In the popular imagination they supposedly hit the dive bars and dance halls of Montmartre with their exciting Apache Dance – a combination of sultry, close dance steps and a lot of throwing-around (of the woman, that is). The Apache dance. Leo Rauth, 1911. Public domain The Apache costume and dance have become clichés in the iconography of Paris but at the turn of the 20th century the Apaches were seen as a real threat to law and order. The origins of the name are uncertain, but it’s thought to refer to the Native American tribe, although by 1902 it had been vanquished and its leader, Geronimo, had become an international celebrity (the name in French is pronounced ‘A-pash’). Apache is a nuisance for Paris. Illustration from “Le Petit Journal”, 1907. Wikimedia commons The Apaches represented an early form of semi-organized crime, with gangs carving out territories in particular working class quartiers, especially of northern Paris in the 17th, 18th and 19th arrondissements. The superficial glamor associated with Apaches hid a life that was brutal, slum-ridden and almost certainly destined to be short. By and large they were petty criminals, specializing in muggings, inter-gang warfare, and general hooliganism. To the respectable bourgeoisie they were Public Enemy No. 1 but they appeared more threatening and dangerous than they probably were, largely due to their escapades being magnified in the popular press. A 1907 cover of the popular magazine Le Petit Journal shows a giant Apache facing off a tiny policeman with the strapline “30,000 Apaches against 8,000 policemen.” There was definitely an element of the gangs and the press feeding off one another to pump up their notoriety. “Apache customs. Atrocious revenge of a prowler.” Le Petit Journal, 19 May 1907. Public domain.
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Lead photo credit : Meeting of Apaches and police officers on the Place de la Bastille. Credit: Gallica/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.