Pandemic & Panic in Paris

V’là l’Choléra qu’arrive’ by Aristide Bruant, published by Le Mirliton (Paris, 1893) and iIlustrated by Théophile Steinlen.

The song V’la le Choléra qui arrive by Aristide Bruant is an ironic and anticlerical hymn to the cholera pandemic that scared Paris. The illustration is by Theophile Steinlen. We have no idea why he chose to dress this very contagious and devastating disease like a stereotypical Englishman. In a previous Bruant publication Steinlen had rather chosen for the image of the cholera as a travelling salesman or a polite caretaker.

V’là l’choléra qu’arrive‘, illustration by Théophile Steinlen, in ‘Dans la rue : chansons et monologues. Volume 1’, published by Aristide Bruant (Paris, 1889-1895). source: Paris Musées (CC-0)

And for a third edition Steinlen chose to represent the cholera as a murdering phantom hovering over the capital, the frightening sign of divine vengeance: “Here comes the cholera! From shore to shore, everyone will die. Here comes the cholera.”

V’La l’Cholera qu’arrive’ by Aristide Bruant, published by Aristide Bruant (Paris, sd) and illustrated by Steinlen. Source WikiArt.

Aristide Bruant created the song in 1884 when cholera was diagnosed in Toulon. Allegedly it had arrived by boat from Saigon and quickly spread to Marseille and Arles. People started to flee from the Midi to Paris. The memory of the huge epidemic wave of 1853-1854 —with more than 143,000 dead— was still vivid: the people from Paris, the municipality and the press panicked!

Le Cri du peuple, 25 juin 1884. Source:

Quickly, prophylactic measures were prescribed. Special train wagons were reserved for travellers coming from Toulon and Marseilles. On arrival in Paris, at the Gare de Lyon, these travellers had to descend into a special waiting room where the floor was covered with sawdust impregnated with thymol and copper salts. Large containers with nitrosylsulfuric acid were left to burn, in the belief that inhaling the hazardous vapours could disinfect. Travellers had to stay there for half an hour, meanwhile their luggage was fumigated in another room.

A newspaper of the time tells the anecdote of a wealthy merchant, arriving from China, who lands in Paris with a collection of parakeets and turtles. The birds sat in an open trunk and the unfortunate animals were poisoned by the spreading vapours of the disinfection ( Le Matin 11 July 1884). Soon however the Academy of Medicine dismissed these disinfection practices as inefficient and illusory.

The press was stirring up the fear for a new murderous epidemic. But by then science had already rejected the old idea that miasma, or a noxious form of bad air, caused cholera and had accepted John Snow’s idea that cholera could originate in water. Louis Pasteur had demonstrated that microorganisms can cause diseases and he had discovered how to make vaccines from attenuated microbes. Robert Koch had determined the causative agent of cholera by isolating the bacterium Vibrio cholerae.(*) And a complex system of new sewers (Les égouts) were being constructed in Paris to sanitize the city.

Le Vaccin‘ by Fernand Heintz and Jean Deyrmon. Published by Marcel Labbé (Paris, s.d.), illustrated by Paul Dubois.

By that time a cholera epidemic was thus no longer automatically synonym for a catastrophe. It is in this view that we must understand Bruant’s song:

Paraît qu’on attend l’choléra,
La chose est positive.
On n’sait pas quand il arriv’ra,
Mais on sait qu’il arrive.

And indeed the epidemic would soon be under control and a very small number of cases would reach Paris. But according to Bruant, entrepreneurs, pharmacists and especially the clergy had made a profit from the anxious situation.

This is the 1935 version of the song by Stello.

The 1884 cholera outbreak was the last one to reach France. By then France had already been haunted by several more serious cholera outbreaks. The first murderous wave of cholera struck Paris in 1832. Hospitals were unable to keep pace with the volume of new patients and morgues were overflowing. Sounds familiar? It prompted the public authorities to clean up the capital, which was still simmering in its medieval juices. The fear for cholera would become a driving force behind urban planning.

Le ministère attaqué du Choléra morbus” by Grandville (1803-1847). in:  “La Caricature” du 4 août 1831. Lithographie. source: Paris Musées / Maison de Balzac (CC 0)

As one of the first solutions, Paris sought to supply its inhabitants with uncontaminated water. Therefore the City Council decided in 1833 to drill the first artesian well. Artesian wells are named after the French province of Artois where the first drilling of its kind was undertaken by monks in the 12th century. Water flows from artesian wells under natural pressure without pumping. However to get to the layer that contains enough water, one had to drill extremely deep in Paris. It was not before the 1830s that technical progress made deep boreholes possible.

Sheet music cover of 'Le Puits de Grenelle', song by Victor Parizot and Ernest Bourget. Published by Nadaud (Paris, s.d.)
Le Puits de Grenelle‘ song by Victor Parizot and Ernest Bourget. Published by Nadaud (Paris, s.d.)

The engineer Louis-Georges Mulot undertook to drill the first artesian well in the courtyard of the Grenelle slaughterhouse, just outside of Paris. It would take almost eight years of effort, slow progress, setbacks and a borehole of 548 meter deep, before water finally squirted out of the well in 1841.

On opening their newspaper the next day, the Parisians learned of the successful end of this scientific and technological adventure and thousands of them rushed to see the new curiosity.

Puits artésien de l'abattoir Grenelle
Puits artésien de l’abattoir Grenelle. Source

A poster was made to show how deep the borehole was, comparing its depth to the height of the Strasbourg Cathedral, Notre Dame of Paris, the Dôme des invalides and St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.

A rumour soon circulated, amplified by a press campaign, and scaring Parisians that their city would be engulfed in a landslide or that the waters of the Seine would seep through some crack and disappear completely into this chasm. Fake news is not a recent thing…

The water that came out of the well was lukewarm and alas somewhat muddy. Decanting was therefore necessary before it could be used.

To that purpose a three-storey cast iron regulator tower, 43 m high, was built outside the slaughterhouse. This tower looked somewhat like a mini Eiffel tower. It is said that it also functioned from time to time as a fountain. I couldn’t find a reliable source to corroborate this, only an engraving which makes me dream that this splendid fountain truly existed at one time…

At the start of the 20th century the aquatic construction deteriorated due to problems of water quality, pressure and silting. In 1904 the tower was —aptly— replaced by a statue of Louis Pasteur.

Monument à Pasteur, au centre de la Place de Breteuil, Paris (7ème). source: Siren-Com on Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 3.0)

(*) Although Robert Koch isolated the vibrio the same year, the miasma theory of cholera transmission was still dominant in Marseille. In 1884, Koch went to Toulon and Marseille, where he isolated the vibrio bacillus in the stools of patients to convince the sceptics and to support two local biologists. Koch gave prophylactic advice and insisted in particular to not consume any uncooked food.