Roughly 5 stories beneath the streets of Paris you’ll find the bones of over 6 million people stacked in neat rows and arranged in grotesquely intricate designs. The Paris Catacombs attract over 500,000 visitors each year, but do you know why such a shockingly morbid site exists? Let’s fix that.
Hello I’m Shea LaFountaine and you’re listening to History Fix where I discuss lesser known true stories from history you won’t be able to stop thinking about. In this episode, we’re delving into the subterranean horror that is the Paris catacombs.
Fun fact, I visited Paris on my honeymoon back in 2017. Full disclosure, I did not find it to be the beautiful, romantic city that people make it out to be. It was actually really touristy and lacking… manners. But whatever. And yes, we visited the catacombs while in Paris because what’s not romantic about an underground cave full of dead bodies. I mean…
So anyway, what are the catacombs? I honestly had no idea when I bought the tickets and showed up on a seemingly random street corner in the 14th arrondissement (sorry I really don’t speak French. Spanish, all day. No French). So I’ll give you a quick play by play. We roll up to a super nondescript building. You know the Louvre is very elaborate. You know you’re at a tourist attraction. It’s like massive and literally palatial and there’s a glass pyramid out in front. The catacombs are not that. It was just a line of people on the sidewalk and a normal looking door and no backpacks. You’re not allowed to bring a backpack which, like, were people really stealing backpacks full of actual human bones? Like, on a large enough scale that the entire attraction banned all backpacks. I don’t even know what to say about that.
So you go inside and there’s this little narrow staircase you walk down. And you walk down and you walk down and you walk down for a very long time. And it’s getting colder and darker and my claustrophobia is starting to kick in because it’s like a single file staircase. I’m literally tapped going down. I couldn’t go back up this thing if I wanted to because there’s a whole line of backpackless people behind me and I’m just really starting to second guess this decision. 131 stairs to the bottom. I can’t stress to you enough how much I didn’t do my research before planning this outing.
So you finally get to the bottom and you’re walking through this series of stone passageways, like a mineshaft. It’s actually literally a mineshaft but we’ll get to that later. And lining the walls of this tunnel are bones. So. Many. Bones. Mostly femurs and skulls. They’re stacked all the way up to the ceiling on either side. And they’ve been arranged in all of these patterns and designs, and honestly you just have to see it. Just do a quick Google image search of the Paris catacombs. It’s indescribable.
So I’m walking through and the weight of it is just hitting me that all of these bones were people. It’s mostly femurs and skulls. So if you think about it, a person only has 2 femurs and 1 skull and there are literally millions of them. And they’re so old. They’re this sort of rusty brown color and on the top of each skull you can see the suture marks where the pieces of the skull come together as a person ages and they’re all different. And it hits me that I can tell how old these people were when they died because of how open or closed their cranial sutures are. That realization had a really humanizing effect on this endless sea of bones and it really hit me that each of these skulls was an individual, they each lived a life, they were different ages when they died.
So the catacombs were awe inspiring, to say the least and I’m glad I went. I’m glad I saw it. But I was left with inescapable burning questions. Mostly, why, why, why, why would someone take the time and effort to put all of these bones down here and arrange them just so and who let them do it. How was it not desecration of a corpse of millions of corpses. How did this come to be?
Well, it all comes down to infrastructure, or lack thereof really, in Paris. Just Google Maps Paris and have a look at the way the streets are laid out. It literally makes no sense. Like who planned this city? Apparently, no one.
The catacombs which are actually called the “Paris Municipal Ossuary” first opened in 1809 and it was essentially Paris’ way of killing two bird with one stone. It was the solution to 2 major infrastructure fails.
The first fail was poorly regulated rock quarries. Beneath Paris is a bunch of limestone. It’s like a special type of limestone called Lutetian limestone that was highly sought after as building material. It was actually used to build the Louvre, so there you go. So, they started extracting this rock in ancient times but it really ramped up during the middle ages. That’s when they built the Louvre and a bunch of churches, like Notre Dame, and a wall around the whole city and of course it all had to be built out of this lutetian limestone because, why not?
So they’re digging out these rock quarries to get to this limestone and after centuries of this, the quarries got so deep, they started to dig out tunnels, which were called galleries, to reach more rock. They put in pillars to support the ground and a well system to bring up the rocks. It was a huge operation. But, it was not well regulated at all plus, like, very little knowledge of physics and engineering and other important mathy things you might want to factor in when digging extensive underground tunnels under a major city. They are quite literally undermining the city of Paris and, surprise surprise, the ground started to collapse. In 1774 300 meters of the Rue Denfert-Rochereau collapsed like a giant sinkhole. Terrifying. By 1776 the quarries were permanently closed and the King’s architect was given the task of stabilizing the whole system to prevent the collapse of the entire city which he somehow pulled off.
The second infrastructure fail was all the bodies. More specifically, what to do with bodies when people died. One cemetery in particular, called the Holy Innocents Cemetery was used for over 1,000 years as a place to bury bodies. But when you think of a cemetery or a graveyard, each person has their little plot with their headstone and that’s their spot where they get buried when they die. That was not the case at this cemetery. It was more of a mass grave situation. They buried bodies on top of bodies on top of bodies. They even dug up older bodies so they could bury new ones. They built these outbuildings, if you will, called charnel houses lining the perimeter of the cemetery and that’s where they’d store the old bodies they dug up. They just sort of stuffed them into the attic of the charnel houses. The ground of the cemetery was so full of bodies it was said to have an elevation 2 and a half meters higher than the neighboring streets. That’s 8 feet you guys. Supposedly 2 million bodies were quote unquote buried at the Holy Innocents Cemetery. A million in the ground and another million dug up and stuffed in the charnel houses. Many of them were bubonic plague victims so we’re talking about a lot of bodies in a short period of time.
Quick side story, during a 16th century French religious war that lasted 36 years, Paris experienced such a terrible famine that they removed some of the bones from the charnel houses in 1590 and ground them up to make flour. They then baked the bone flour into bone bread, like Jack and the beanstalk style, and ate it in order to avoid starvation. However, in another epic fail moment, everyone who ate the bone bread died. So, lesson learned.
Anyway, back to the catacombs. This overcrowding situation at the Holy Innocents Cemetery became dire in 1780 when the adjacent wall of a restaurant cellar collapsed and dead bodies poured in. I mean can you imagine? You’re heading down to the cellar to grab some turnips or onions or whatever for your soup and you’re met with an avalanche of human remains.
So all of this is coming to a head around the same time. You’ve got whole streets collapsing, swallowed up by these poorly dug rock quarries under the city and cemeteries literally overflowing with dead bodies. What do we do with these tunnels we can’t use? What do we do with all these bodies? Let’s put the bodies in the tunnels! And that’s what they did.
They started removing bones from the Holy Innocents cemetery in 1785. They dug them up, as many as they could anyway and removed them from the charnel houses and moved them in the middle of the night to avoid causing a stir among Parisians. They had a priest with them, muttering things to keep the spirits at rest.
The bones were dumped into 2 of the quarry wells that had once been used for bringing up limestone and then the quarry workers spread them throughout the galleries. So, I’m just thinking about these poor quarry workers. They had a good gig down there getting that limestone. They’re digging their tunnels, doing their thing, then the whole operation gets shut down and they're scrambling to find other work. And then 10 years later Louis XVI is like “ummm… guys, we’re actually gonna need you back down there in the quarries.” And they're like “OMG really?” and he’s like “yeaahhh… you know all those graves we’ve been digging up? I’m gonna need you go ahead and start moving those bones for us.”
So they move all the bones from the Holy Innocents Cemetery and destroy the whole horrifying place. All that’s left today is the fountain that used to stand in the center and a few of the arches that supported the charnel houses. Then, over the next 20 years, they empty more cemeteries and move more and more bones down into the quarries.
So we’ve got old defunct rock quarry tunnels full of bones, but the big question remains, who took it upon themselves to turn them into a sculptural masterpiece?
Well that man’s name was Louis Etienne Héricart de Thury. Sorry, I know I butchered that. He was the chief engineer of mines in Paris from 1810 to 1830. So I guess they finally decided they needed one of those, a little late there guys. So Héricart de Thury was in charge of inspecting the ossuary, which at this point was just a bunch of bones piled in some underground tunnels. And although he was essentially just a building inspector, he took it upon himself to start arranging bones. Well, actually he instructed the quarry workers to arrange the bones. I don’t even know why we’re still calling them quarry workers at this point they’re like bone sculptors now.
Here’s a quote from the Catacombs website: “The bones, which had previously been loosely piled, were carefully organized in walls, according to a quarry backfill arrangement. The façade consists of rows of tibiae alternating with skulls, and the remaining bones were piled behind this wall. They were often only small fragments, as a consequence of their being dumped into the quarry. Masonry monuments in the Antique and Egyptian styles were also installed along the circuit, in the shape of Doric columns, altars, steles or tombs. Certain areas were named after religious, Romantic or Antique sources… With the aim of adding an educational aspect to the circuit, Héricart de Thury had two cabinets built in the style of traditional cabinets of curiosities; one was dedicated to mineralogy, the other to pathology. The pathology cabinet showed specimens that referred to bone illnesses and deformations… Another pedagogical tool are the plaques featuring religious and poetic texts that are found throughout the galleries. They encourage visitors toward introspection and a meditation on death.”
I find the pathology cabinet interesting. I don’t remember seeing that, unfortunately. So Héricart de Thury is ordering all these quarry workers around arranging these bones and he’s like, “but don’t put the funny looking ones up, save those for my cabinet” They had to be like “dude, we’re miners. We just blow stuff up and move heavy rocks. You’ve already got us creating classical sculptures out of bone, now you want us to diagnose centuries old diseases in a dimly lit cave? I think you’ve overestimated our qualifications monsieur.”
Hericart de Thury put out what is referred to as a “clever brochure” in 1810 advertising the catacombs as a tourist attraction. At that point it was by appointment only. Today the catacombs are open to the public. A ticket will run you 29 Euros which is about $31 as of this recording and, while I know I’ve been hating on Paris (I don’t actually hate Paris, it’s fine) I do recommend visiting the catacombs if you find yourself there. I’ve truly never seen anything like it. It’s weird, for sure, and borderline irreverent. But, these people have been dead for centuries, I really don’t think they mind. I think I’d prefer my skull be displayed in a doric column for the world to see instead of overflowing into someone’s basement somewhere.
Thank you all so very much for listening to the very first episode of History Fix. I hope you found this story interesting and maybe you even learned something new. Be sure to follow my instagram @historyfixpodcast to see a photo of me in the Paris Catacombs, plus some other must see images from this episode and to stay on top of new episodes as they drop. I’d also really appreciate it if you’d review and follow this podcast on whatever app you’re using to listen, that’ll make it much easier to get your next fix.
Information used in the episode was sourced from the Paris Catacombs official website, a sortirparis.com article titled “History of Paris: The Holy Innocents Cemetery and What Remains of It”, an Ancient Origins article titled “The Desperate and Distasteful Practice of Grinding Human Bones to Make Bread,” the mineralogical record website biography of Héricart de Thury, and a walksofitaly.com article titled “The Unbelievable Story of the Paris Catacombs” by Rizhlaine F. You’ll find links to these sources through my instagram @historyfixpodcast.