The Vanishing Children of Paris

Anna Mazzola

In the winter of 1750 children started disappearing from the streets of Paris.
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My novel, The Clockwork Girl, was inspired partly by the real scandal of the vanishing children of Paris. In my book, I worked largely with the urban legends that sprang up around the scandal. But what, in fact, really happened?

Rumours and leprous princes

In the cold winter of 1750 people began to notice that children were disappearing from the streets. No one, however, seemed to know or what was taking them. Various theories took shape. In May 1750 a lawyer named Barbier wrote in his diary: ‘People have been saying that police constables in disguise are roaming around various quarters of Paris, abducting children, boys and girls from five or six years old to ten or more, and loading them into the carriages which they have ready waiting nearby.’ Some said the children were being sent off to the colonies or to the wars, as this had happened some years before. Some believed the police were using them to extract ransom money.

Louis XV

Then came the whispered rumour that something far darker was at work. Barbier noted the belief that the kidnappers were agents of ‘a leprous prince whose cure required a bath in human blood, and there being no blood purer than that of children, these were seized so as to be bled from all their limbs’. Some went even further and said this prince was in fact their King. ‘The wicked people … are calling me a Herod,’ whined Louis XV, the so-called ‘Well-Beloved’ whose popularity was rapidly dwindling.

A rising tide of fear and anger

With no official explanation forthcoming, the panic continued to mount. School-masters placed posters on walls warning parents ‘not to allow their children to go to school alone but to accompany them and collect them for we can take no responsibility for the consequences.’ Parisian glazier Jacques-Louis Ménétra later remembered being met from his primary school by his father, along with ‘seven strong cooper lads each carrying a crowbar over his shoulder’.

Madame de Pompadour

On 22 May, street-fighting broke out in six different quarters of Paris. Crowds numbering four of five thousand people, women prominent among them, broke windows, forced down doors, stoned public buildings and looted shops for weapons with which to fight. The revolt flared up again, stronger, the following day after a constable called Labbé was seen trying to grab an eleven-year-old boy from the Pont Marie. A crowd rushed to the scene, liberated the boy, then chased Labbé through the city. Despite the intervention of the Watch and exchange of gunfire, the furious crowd managed to drag Labbé away from his guards and beat him to death in the street. He was not the only casualty. Over the course of the revolt, at least twenty rioters were killed, and an unknown number injured on both sides.

An official inquiry was instigated. The police, speculating wildly, blamed the riots on a variety of sources: organised criminals, bands of disreputables, mysterious men in black who mingled with the crowds and whipped up trouble.

The real villain

Nicolas-René Berryer

But it transpired that it was in fact with the police that the trouble had begun. Specifically, it was with the Lieutenant General of Police, Nicolas-René Berryer, one of the appointees installed by Louis XV’s mistress, the Marquise de Pompadour (one of the main characters in The Clockwork Girl). According to Tocqueville, Berryer was ‘a hard, haughty, cruel man, with much ignorance and even more presumption and stubbornness’.

In November,1749, an edict had been issued that: ‘all beggars and vagrants found in the streets of Paris…of whatever age or sex, shall be arrested and taken to prison, there to be detained for as long as shall be deemed necessary.’ Berryer was the man in charge of enforcing the edict and he wanted instant, tangible results. Rather than pay his officers a flat rate, he decided to reward them according to the number of arrests they made. He also ordered that those arrested be taken immediately to prison, without first going to the commissioner, and he sanctioned the arrest of ‘all children of workers and bourgeois alike caught gambling in the squares and market places along with other little rascals and vagabonds’. This was why not just ‘vagabonds’, but the sons and daughters of tradespeople running errands, and children playing in the street, had been carted off in shuttered carriages and left in Paris’ bleak houses of detention until their parents could find them and pay for them to be released.

Official whitewash

If the people of France had been expecting justice, they were to be sorely disappointed. The inquiry sentenced three constables to a symbolic punishment, but Berryer himself was never explicitly criticised. The real role of the inquiry was not to investigate the causes of the vanishings, but to punish insurrection against authority. Three young rioters were condemned to the gallows, the youngest only sixteen years old. At the hour of their execution, the crowd rose up again to try to save the condemned men, but they were pushed back.

The people dispersed, but they did not forget. Their discontent crystallised on the figure of Louis XV. This, it was said, was the summer when it was discovered that the people of France no longer loved their King.

Anna Mazzola is the author of The Clockwork Girl.

Further reading:

The Vanishing Children of Paris: Rumour and Politics before the French Revolution, by Arlette Farge, Jacques Revel, Claudia Mieville.

Fragile Lives: Violence, Power and Solidarity in 18th century Paris, by Arlette Farge.

Aspects of History Issue 8 is out now.