Scenes of the Crimes

photo: rue de la tour de vanves

You never know what might be lurking in a street like this besides a nervous photographer.

'Désolation des Filles de Joie'

Paris:- Wednesday, 9. April 2003:- It is a spring day bright enough to take photos, and it is not so chilly as the recent winter-plus. I open my map of Paris at random, at the area of the 5th arrondissement as it happens, and look for a likely target. This means focusing on an area that I may not have examined on foot with a magnifying glass.

If you think this is a scientific way to discover Paris' secrets, you will be wrong. This is complete chance. Chance brings my eyes to pinpoint on the Musée de la Préfecture de Police. Actually, I do use the magnifying glass for this, because the identifying type can not be larger than four-point.

What I see is an isolated building with a tiny Ville de Paris logo, between the Rue des Carmes and the Rue de la Montagne-Sainte-Geneviève, seemingly on its own road, the Rue Basse-des-Carmes. All of this is a short block behind the marché at the Place Maubert.

With my brain focused this finely, I cannot help remembering that the library, BILIPO, is not far away, in the Rue du Cardinal-Lemoine. The BILIPO is the city's public library for crime literature. Imagine! The flics' crime museum is only a ten-minute walk from the city's crime library.

Location is everything. By day the area is harmlessly fit for moms to be reading in the ever-shaded little Square Paul-Langevin while their kiddies fuss about, but by night this part of the Quartier Latin is between the 1st century Roman arena and the Rue des Ecoles, with Rue Monge joining them.

Here we need to remember the poet François Villon, 15th century student and delinquent, equally at ease with the Sorbonne's grand professors and the 'Coquillards,' a gang ofphoto: sign, musee police notorious evil-doers. Mischievous elf, dissolute rake, regime critic, he was netted more than once by the constables of the watch, and saved twice from the gallows by the king.

The Rue Basse-des-Carmes looks like a moat around the police préfecture building, which is the commissariat of the 5th. But it - the Carmelites it is named after - started out about 1112, on Mount Carmel, created by the Patriarch of Jerusalem, and the order was approved by Pope Honorius III in 1172.

The Carmelites were imported to France by Saint-Louis. Then they were installed in the area of today's préfecture in 1317 by Philippe le Bel. The convent went the way of the others in 1790 and its place was taken over by a market, which was in turn demolished in 1930. When the history ends, the police had a temporary garage on the south side of the market.

At some later time history resumed again and placed a modern building on the location of the police garage. According to Joseph Wechsberg writing in the April 1974 issue of Gourmet Magazine, the police museum used to be on the top floor of the main préfecture building at 36. Quai des Orfèvres, and was only open Thursday afternoons.

Today it is not clear at all where the entry is and I tour three-quarters of the building before finding it just off the Rue de la Montagne-Sainte- Geneviève. Three officers protecting it tell me the museum is on the second floor.

Inside, like many working commissariats, there are cages and barriers, and wanted posters, and I am buzzed through after being offered a choice of elevator or stairs. In 1974 Joseph Wechsberg had to walk up six rickety flights, while I ascend mechanically.

The first thing to do after entering the museum is to ask for its press information. There is none, and the museum's brochures were exhausted a month ago. The young man, not a policeman, says maybe the archivist can assist me but looks doubtful about it. He does tell me to tour counter- clockwise from his info booth.

The Paris police were organized by Louis XIV on Tuesday, 15. March 1667. Before this they were unorganized, but nobody cares about unorganization, so I have no details.

The museum contain materials - many hand-written documents, arrest warrants, booking notes, accounts of successful executions - and somewhere the arrest document for Ravaillac in 1610, after he assassinated Henri IV, after which he was convicted, tortured and quartered - all without the aid of organized police.

The interest is in the museum's details, rather than in mine. Be sure to bring glasses if you need them, and possiblyphoto: entry bilipo a dictionary - although this might not be too useful because many documents are in old French, dating back to 1584. A magnifying glass won't help much either because everything is in glass-topped cases.

If you've forgotten to bring eye-aids, then you can admire police uniforms on full-sized mannequins, starting off with an archer's simple blue smock that has the city's coat of arms - the boat - embroidered in what looks like silver thread. This dates to 1714. It could be appropriate wear for a damp Friday night roller rando today.

The cheery entry to the BILIPO library.

Uniforms got fancier as time went on, but then 'révolutionary' black was adopted before gradually giving way to today's blue - except for the new affection for black again, by the anti-mutiny and anti-terrorist troops, which aren't in the museum. I wonder if the detectives' current black leather jackets and jeans will ever be included. There is also what appears to be a tropical version of a uniform, dated 1874. Is this a possible model for this coming summer's 'Paris Plage?'

The partitions above the viewing cases are hung with illustrations, of famous events. There are three hand-drawn views of the fire that destroyed the Marché Saint-Germain during the night of 16-17. March 1762. Do the documents below say 'who dunnit?'

There are a couple of engraved views of the 'Désolation des Filles de Joie' and the 'Transport des Filles de Joie à l'Hôpital.' The Révolution is good for a lot of other documents too. In 1789, a pre-July ordonnance proclaimed, "Anybody interfering with transports of wheat will be liable for a fine of 500 livres."

A bit further on the is a portrait of Jean-Paul Marat, then there's a real guillotine blade. It's an ugly piece of old iron. An attached note says it was used during the period of the Révolution. The 'Tribunal Criminel Révolutionnaire' warns citizens to beware of the 'brigands des grands chemins' on an official notice.

Near this poster is another for an entertainment. "Par privilege du Roi, 'Les Grands Danseurs Sauteurs du Roi' donnant aujourd'hui jeudi 4 septembre 1788, 'Le Bombardment et la Prise de la Ville des Armenians par Cambise, Sultan de Babylone'" - in five acts.

This is followed by a 'most wanted' list. Topping it is one Georges Cadoudal, known variously as 'Georges,' orposter: cartouche, roi des bandits, biblio paris 'Larive,' or 'Masson.' Height given as '5 pieds, 4 pouces, agé de 34 ans.' His crimes - ex-chief of the 'Chouans, agent d'Angleterre, chef du complot' to assassinate Bonaparte.

I am interested in the portrait of Napoléon's chief cop - Joseph Fouché. He does not look at all like a sinister thug. Ex-cleric, ex-terrorist, and then ex- minister of police, he maintained his agents - practically inventing all of the characters in the plot to assassinate Bonaparte. Cadoudal, arrested, would not talk.

One of the postcards available at BILIPO.

Then, as now, the confession was the 'king of proof.' Then, and perhaps not now, there were methods of obtaining confessions. Oddly, it is only these days that voluntary confessions are being considered for plea-bargain use. Today in fact, even if caught red-handed, you are not legally allowed to plead 'guilty' - without confessing too.

A scapegoat for Cadoudal was found in the form of the Duc d'Enghien. He was kidnapped in Germany, brought to Paris, tried for treason and quickly executed. Although Fouché said the execution was worse than the crime - the duke had nothing to do with anything other than his girlfriend - Fouché got his job back for cooking up the whole thing. Bonaparte got what he wanted - the status of Emperor - but it turned to vinegar.

Fouché was finally fired by Bonaparte for good on Sunday, 3. June 1810. Although he had near total control through spies and the police, he used the power over the French sparingly - but he frightened his boss.

But at the end, in 1815, it was Fouché who got Bonaparte to disappear for a crucial 11 days just as the coalition was to enter Paris. He then joined Tallyrand to swear fealty to Louis XVIII, while Bonaparte went to Rochefort in hopes of emigrating to the United States.

Fouché, Joseph, Duke d'Otrante, retired in Austria, died in 1820, aged 61. Bonaparte, Napoléon, retired to the island of Saint Helena, not near anyplace in the south Atlantic Ocean, died in 1821, aged 52.

This supercop Fouché has gotten me sidetracked. The museum also has a post-Napoléon engraving showing Lafayette, as commander in chief of France's national guards.

And maybe just a bit later, in the newer revolutionary times of 1848, it appeared to be necessary to remind citizens of the proper graphic aspect of the French flag - "Bleu, rouge, blanc. Le bleu tenant le lance, le rouge au millieu, et que le blanc flotte."

I look for but do not find the pieces that should go with 1871 Commune. Some of the museum's displays are being rebuilt. Elsewhere I have read that the police often dispensed with uniforms during turbulent times.

Two glass-topped cases show off all the shiny police badges through the ages. There are also a lot of city maps. [These are available as, 'A la Découverte des Plans de Paris du XVI au XVIII Siècle,' with 25 maps. Edited by the city's Bibliothéque Historique. See 'Library's Library Books' in last week's issue. ISBN 2 90686 958 9 - for 6 euros.]

There are several other glass-top cases full of puny-looking guns, nasty canes and really ugly-looking knives, and other deadly instruments made of old iron. There are some displays of police crime-lab items.

There is one large and curious engraving showing in detail 'Les Petits Métiers de la Rue Authorisés ou Toléres par la Préfecture de Police.' It appearsphoto: la sante as if 'passive hustling' was not forbidden. As the present Minister of the Interior wants everybody to know, there are very few legitimate 'petits métiers de la rue' left these days, and fewer still are tolerated.

There are two ways to visit La Santé. One of them is to visit someone who has committed a crime.

The museum is not big, but it is crammed with detail. It represents a parallel history of Paris - which is a long one. It is either a place to skim through for its highlights, or a place to linger if you want to get the mood of certain times.

When I leave, the police guarding the building tell me all is quiet. It is still sunny, but it is later and the shadows are longer and deeper. I go up the street and turn left into the Rue des Ecoles and then turn right up Rue Monge.

At the crossing of Rue Cardinal-Lemoine I look for the city's Bibliothèque des Littératures Policières at number 48-50, but there is no such number posted. I look into a dead-end alley named the Rue Jacques-Henri Lartique, and behind two red and white fire department SAMU trucks I find a dim passageway leading into a municipal building.

Its entry is even dimmer, and has a three-quarter-size silhouette of a thug with a gun. The first door is for community services, and the second is for the library. Inside, its entry winds around 180 degrees to the left, past display cases full of books.

The short name of this library is 'BILIPO.' It is unique in France. It is crime-lit central. It is not a lending library - its contents are available for consultation on the spot.

It contains both historical and fictional works, plus photos, posters, collections of crime magazines - English-language ones included. There are about 5000 reference works and 60,000 novels, some of which are 'pulp fiction.' In short, if you write about crime, this is your reference library.

The best way to sum it up are the book displays I passed coming in. Each case contains books withphoto: hotel savoy, nuit an element of climate in the titles - such as fog, ice, wind, storm, night. There are about eight of these displays, and each contains about 20 books. This amounts to a lot of sinister weather.

A scene made sinister by dimming Paris' street lighting with software.

When I leave the dimness of the library the red and white SAMU trucks are gone and there is still sunlight in Cardinal-Lemoine. I go uphill, past the Rue Clovis, to the Place de la Contrescarpe, half in shadow. How many crimes, and crime novels have used this as a locale?

La Musée de la Préfecture de Police - hours Monday to Friday, 9:00 to 17:00, and on Saturday from 10:00 to 17:00. No entry charge. Officially, at 1-Bis, Rue de Carmes. But I entered from the Rue de la Montagne- Sainte-Geneviève. Both Paris 5. Métro: Maubert-Mutualité. InfoTel.: 01 43 29 21 57.

BILIPO - open from Tuesday to Friday from 14:00 to 18:00, and on Saturday from 10:00 to 17:00. Open on weekday mornings for those with appointments. Photocopy machine available. Some items on sale. At 48-50. Rue du Cardinal-Lemoine, Paris 5. Métro: Cardinal-Lemoine. InfoTel.: 01 42 34 93 00.

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