Storming the Bastille – Do French Ghosts Haunt a National Holiday?
Little appeals to the heart of Americans more than a story of a rebellion against a tyrannical government. And so, it’s not entirely surprising that many in America live it up on Bastille Day each year, celebrating alongside the French people on France’s national holiday, le 14 julliet. But why do Americans observe a French nation holiday? And do they know about the dark specters that haunt this deadly and bloody historic event?
July 14 is a busy day in the history of France! Celebrations are annually held throughout the country as the la fête nationale observes the anniversary of the storming of Bastille prison on 14 July 1789, (famously the moment when the French Revolution kicked off). It is also the Fête de la Fédération national holiday celebrating the unity of the French people the following year, on 14 July 1790. ‘Bastille Day’ is the common name given in English-speaking countries to this national day of France.
Like St. Patrick’s Day is a celebration of Irish culture in America featuring parades and festivities in the United States, Bastille Day and French culture has its revelers in the USA as well. With American Independence Day falling on the 4th, the month of July for both countries seems filled with revolutionary spirit. But there is a dark history to ‘Bastille Day’.
Let Them Eat Cake
The storming of the Bastille in France was one of the seminal moments in their national history.
Antoine-François Callet - Louis XVI (Public Domain)
The people of France were suffering under the weak rule of King Louis XVI. They were nearly a bankrupted country (they had overcommitted their treasure into the military and supporting the colonists in the American War of Independence) and with accusations of frivolity, extravagance, and scandalous behavior, their ruling monarchy was thought to be blind and deaf to the plight of the people. To stem the crisis, the king tried to raise taxes, but living with poverty, starvation, and imprisonment—the citizens had had enough.
The figure of Queen Marie Antoinette is connected with excesses of the upper class and heartless rulers. The words “Let them eat cake” (in the face of public starvation) is famously attributed to her, however it’s now felt she never said it. (Public Domain)
Dark Fates for Prisoners of the Bastille
The Bastille was a big deal in France. The ‘Bastille Saint-Antoine’ was an enormous fortress in Paris built to repel invaders but was also used as a state prison for political prisoners by the Kings of France. At one point, the writer and philosopher Voltaire was imprisoned there, as was the infamous Marquis de Sade, and the legendary ‘Man in the Iron Mask’.
Historical reconstruction showing the moat below the walls of Paris (left), the Bastille and the Porte Saint-Antoine (right) in 1420. (Public Domain)
The prison had a reputation for miserable conditions, and many injustices and tortures were carried out in dark, filthy cells. It symbolized the tyranny of the monarchs, and the old regime.
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Tensions reached a breaking point. Parisian revolutionaries and mutinous troops stormed the Bastille on July 14, 1789 looking to free prisoners, and take stored gunpowder and weapons.
Storming the Bastille, 1789 (Public Domain)
It was a momentous occasion that touched off the following decade of the French Revolution, which saw the execution of thousands of people, and made King Louis XVI and his wife Marie Antoinette into infamous figures and symbols of elite oppression and excess. The Bastille was destroyed shortly thereafter, and the ruins of the prison quickly became iconic across France.
Remaining stones of the Bastille are still visible now on Boulevard Henri IV. (CC BY-SA 3.0)
But what of the tales of the undead which are said to haunt Paris and the site of the famous French prison which started it all? Strange stories raise the specters of murdered aristocrats and victims of the Bastille and the revolution.
Author Chris Woodyard relates the story of Louis-Sebastien Mercier, member of the assembly that governed France during the revolution, and witness who reportedly met with King Louis XVI – one year AFTER the king’s beheading! He told his friend about meeting the dead-and-now-returned monarch:
“In the carriage there was seated a man, whom I immediately recognized to be Louis XVI. Having approached near to me, the carriage stopped, and the King beckoned me to advance, I did so, and he said to me:’
‘You did not vote for my death. For that you may be thankful for the sake of your own peace of mind. I was sacrificed; and France will dearly pay for shedding the blood, which I should not regret, had it been spilt for her happiness and glory. Most of my assassins will die on the scaffold, or in exile: all will be victims to soul torturing remorse. The government will pass from the hands of one set of tyrants to those of another, until, at length, my family will re-ascend the throne, and close the abyss of revolutions.”
No doubt the ghost of King Louis would not rest easy with the outcome of the revolution!
Did one man speak with the ghost of the dead King Louis of France? (Public Domain)
Queen Marie Antoinette’s ghost is often sighted roaming the grounds of Versailles at her beautifully gardened hideaway home a half-mile from the palace, so say several witnesses.
The Tragic Tale of Jean D’Arbanville
Not all returned ghosts of the Bastille are of vengeful, privileged or uncaring. One supernatural tale paints the picture of Jean D’Arbanville, the son of the Marquis de Bastille. Said to be a kindhearted aristocrat, Jean would secretly give money, toys, and gifts to the women and children in the Bastille. He visited with them, making friends among the population. When Jean’s father, the Marquis discovered what was going on in the prison, he banished his son from the place to never return. However, Jean wouldn’t abandon the children he cared for, so he donned disguises and visited them in secret. This kept the children happy and all their spirits up, until one fateful day when Jean was at the Bastille against his father’s wishes, the prison was breached by angry revolutionaries, and the other prisoners began yelling to be saved. When the rebels discovered Jean, they pulled him away from the protesting and crying children, and he was executed along with many other noblemen.
Jean returned to the prison to comfort the children. (Public Domain)
It is now said that if sad children go to the site of the Bastille and speak Jean’s name, he will return to them, bringing joy and friendship.
Bastille Day in the USA – Celebrating French Culture
So, it’s easy to see with the eventful history behind it, why France annually celebrates le 14 julliet with the oldest and largest regular military parade in Europe, fireworks, parties in the streets, delicious foods, and national pride. But why did Americans start celebrating Bastille Day too?
The connections are hard to tie down, but it is said to first stem from French migrants to Louisiana who brought the national holiday with them. In 1906 in Louisiana, Frenchman Eugene Eleazara had been trying to start celebrations for the traditional French ‘ la fête national’ in New Orleans, but it wasn’t catching on. However, in nearby Kaplan, Eleazara discovered that locals would come from far and wide to celebrate a ‘Bastille Day’.
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The catchy ‘Bastille Day’ name was a hit and it spread to different cities around the USA. Bastille Day in New York in 1917 was encouraged by restauranteurs. They particularly liked to emulate France’s ‘Waiters’ Race’, where restaurant waiters run the streets in a competitive foot-race while balancing trays of glasses and drink.
Over 50 cities in the US celebrate Bastille Day, enjoying wine and French cuisine, and playing pétanque, a French lawn bowling game. There are no fireworks however – those are all used up on the 4th of July! Each city enjoys its own particular traditions that it has developed over the last 100 years.
Milwaukee, Wisconsin ‘Storms the Bastille’ with a 5K race, with the finish line at a model of the Eiffel Tower. Washington D.C. has dance performances, live music, a four-mile race, and freshly-made crepes. And Philadelphia, Pennsylvania actually recreates the storming of the Bastille prison at their Eastern State Penitentiary! A live show is put on where Edith Piaf, Napoleon, Jeanne d’Arc, Benjamin Franklin, and a life-size baguette appear, and aristocrats are “brought to the guillotine”.
100-meter German waiters race, September 1930. (Bundesarchiv, Bild 102-10446/CC BY-SA 3.0 de)
Events are held in both countries, signifying a bond dating back to times when both nations endured turbulent times. And if there’s one thing that the French and Americans can share – it’s love of food, festivities, and a revolutionary spirit.
Fireworks of 14 July 2017 in Paris. (Yann Caradec/CC BY-SA 2.0)
By Liz Leafloor
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