Today, most people in France get a day off because it is the anniversary of the Storming of the Bastille. The Bastille was a prison in Paris, which had the reputation of being a place where you could be locked up without trial, just for doing something that the King didn’t like. The prison had held assassins and spies, booksellers and magicians. It also held members of the nobility whose behaviour had been deemed too shocking to be revealed in a public trial. But what that actually meant, was that anyone with an embarrassing relative could have them locked away, if they could get the King to agree to it. During the reign of King Louis XIV, some 2,320 people were detained there. It wasn’t necessarily a bad place to be. If you were rich enough, you could take your own clothes, you’re own furniture, even your own servants if you could persuade them to go. But it wasn’t necessarily a good place either. There were tales of torture chambers and mysterious prisoners who had lain forgotten for years. A tremendous amount of secrecy surrounded who was actually held there. People didn’t like it very much but, in truth, by the reign of Louis XVI, it was barely used at all and there were plans to demolish it. Nevertheless, it was a looming symbol of royal oppression, so after the people of Paris stormed the building and freed the prisoners held there on July 14th 1789, it quickly became a symbol of everything the Revolutionaries stood against.
What the people who stormed the building were really after was the gunpowder that was stored there. Earlier in the day, the same crowd had stormed L’Hôtel des Invalides, which does not sound quite so glorious, in order to steal weapons. It was a sort of hospital and retirement home for war veterans. There, they had seized around 30,000 muskets but had found no ammunition.
When it occurred to them that it would be politically expedient to free the prisoners of the King while they were there, they began to search the cells. They found only seven inmates. Four were forgers, who couldn’t believe their luck and immediately absconded. One was an aristocrat named the Comte de Solages who was held there at the request of his family, possibly for kidnapping his sister. There were also two lunatics. One had been imprisoned for telling everyone that he had been involved in a plot to assassinate the present king’s grandfather, Louis XV. The other man was either British or Irish. His name was Jacques-François-Xavier de Whyte. He had a long white beard and looked far more like the sort of prisoner that they were hoping to find. He looked like a man who had been cruelly imprisoned for years on the whim of an uncaring monarch. They paraded him through the streets. De Whyte was delighted and smiled and waved to the crowds, but then he did believe that he was Julius Caesar…
When the liberators realised that there wasn’t a suitably heroic prisoner in the Bastille, they simply made one up. The Comte de Lorge had supposedly been imprisoned for thirty-two years and bore a striking physical resemblance to De Whyte. Despite the fact that someone claimed to have met him and even wrote a book about him, there is no evidence that he ever existed at all.
Had the Revolutionaries arrived ten days earlier, they would have found an eight prisoner. The Marquis de Sade had been transferred to an asylum at Charenton on July 4th. He was moved because he had been shouting at passers-by from the battlements, yelling that prisoners were being killed inside. When he was confined to his cell he continued to shout from his window using an improvised megaphone. His behaviour fuelled unrest in the city so he was bundled out of his cell in the night. He left in such a hurry that he left behind a manuscript he had been working on: ‘120 Days of Sodom’. To the end of his life, he believed that it had been lost during the subsequent looting of the prison but it was later found hidden in the wall of his cell.
The prison itself was raised to the ground, pieces of it were taken away as souvenirs. Nothing now remains of the building, excepting a few foundation stones that were discovered during the construction of the Paris Metro in 1899. On the site where it stood though, there was, for thirty-two years, a large plaster elephant that was also a fountain. When I say ‘large’, I really mean it, it was seventy-eight feet high. It was protected by a guard who lived in one of its legs. The plaster elephant was actually just a stand-in for a bronze elephant, that the Emperor Napoleon planned to have cast from the cannons of his defeated enemies. He imagined people being able to climb up the inside and stand on a platform at the top to take in the view. But Napoleon was defeated at Waterloo in 1815, and the project was abandoned. By 1820, people were pretty fed up of the plaster elephant because it was full of rats. But it was not removed until 1846. Its base was used to support the column that now stands there, which commemorates the second French Revolution in 1830.
When I started to think about Napoleon’s elephant, it occurred to me that the Parisians seem to have been oddly obsessed with buildings that are also elephants. Napoleon probably had his idea from an architect names Charles Ribart, who, in 1758, had proposed building a giant elephant on the site now occupied by the Arc de Triomphe. He imagined that banquets and balls could be held inside it. There also seems to be a little forest, which I’m guessing is a theatre.
In 1889, Paris hosted a World Fair to commemorate the centenary of the Storming of the Bastille. I know that the exhibition included a model of the prison, though I couldn’t find a picture of it anywhere. I also know that there was a large elephant. I know this because it was afterwards purchased by Joseph Oller and Charles Zidler. Creator and manager of the Moulin Rouge. They installed it in their garden where it served as either a venue for belly dancers or an opium den, possibly both.