Have you ever seen a ghost in Paris? Many say they have…
Paris has ghosts in abundance. We can search for them and find them, then shudder as we feel their closeness to us. The spirits of historical events litter the timeless landmarks of the great capital. Notre Dame Cathedral, the Opera, the parks and the murky backstreets all provide the cover. Such places are where the spirit life skulks and where they can be winkled out for posterity.
The stories, the embellishments and perhaps even the truth is out there for all to find if they dare. There is no need to go to the cemeteries; the spirits walk the open streets where they can hide…
The original Phantom of the Opera
A fictional novel by Gaston Leroux told of strange things taking place beneath the foundations of the Opera Garnier. The book featured a vast underground lake with many tunnels leading from it. Unbeknown to Leroux at the time, the reality is that the Opera house is built on top of a vast water tank that still to this day, mysteriously, cannot be drained. It’s said that the firefighter of Paris use it to practice swimming in the dark…
The wicked art of Satan
During the construction of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, an artistic craftsman called Biscornet was tasked to create decorative ironwork for three of the main doors. The story has it that Biscornet discovered that he could not achieve this work on his own so asked for help from the Devil. Whilst Biscornet slept, the work was completed. The penalty though, was that Satan took Biscornet’s soul and the doors could only be opened by use of vast quantities of Holy Water. To this day, the work that Biscornet carried out in the 13th century continues to amaze those that see it.
The Ghost dressed in red
Catherine de Medici, Queen of France in the 16th century had many enemies and often feared for her life. She would, occasionally, get her protector Jean the Skinner to despatch a few of them. Eventually she feared that Skinner knew too much. She had him murdered in the royal gardens of the Tuileries Palace. Soon after, aristocrats reported seeing a man in blood red robes wandering among the trees. Whenever a sighting took place, it seemed to be followed by a violent death.
Marie Antoinette was said to have seen Skinner just before her execution at the guillotine. Napoleon was much more positive though. He claimed to have a working relationship with the Red Man. The ghost would predict the outcome of his future battles.
The poet, writer and traveller, Gerard de Nerval
A French romantic poet and eccentric, Gerard de Nerval, has a habit, apparently, of roaming the streets of Paris accompanied by his pet lobster. De Nerval committed suicide by hanging himself in the place where the Theatre de la Ville currently rests. In death he seemingly haunts theatre goers by popping up on stage unannounced and deliberately distracts the actors. His lobster, strangely, never seems to accompany him on stage.
The loyal resistance fighter’s wife
During the days of the occupation of Paris in WWII, it seems that there was a Parisian lady who alternated her life between her French husband and a German lover. Her husband served secretly in the French Resistance. She used her advantage to pass secrets gathered from her lover to her husband.
She waited for her husband one evening on the Pont Marie. He failed to arrive and she eventually froze to death on the cold winter night. Her ghost has been seen standing and sobbing on the bridge many times since.
The Wicked Isaure’ de Montsouris
Just by the Parc Montsouris stretches the Rue de la Tombe Issoire. This was where an opportunist brigand Isaure de Montsouris lived in the 9th century. He enjoyed terrorising passing travellers. His head was ultimately lopped off by William of Aquitaine but what was left of him seems to have survived in spiritual form. He has often been spotted lurking by the park’s Palais du Bardo observatory. Strangely, in 1991, the observatory was sold to the French government for restoration but mysteriously burnt down just before work could commence.
The Parisian demon barber
Half a millennium before Sweeny Todd in London, a 14th century demon barber in Paris committed similar offences. Like his successor in London, this Frenchman passed his victim’s bodies to the local butcher where they were ground into pies. Hungry customers began to complain of unpleasant tasting meat. They reported the butcher who was subsequently arrested. Nowadays some passing no 20 Rue Chanoinesse say they have heard the faint ghostly screams of the long dead clients.
Albert le Grand
Albert le Grand had many interests. He was a theologian, alchemist and a once in a while necromancer. Le Grand was also a mystic and medieval scholar. His spiritual survival is recalled in three ways. One of his students was Thomas Aquinas who is recorded as saying that he found him ‘odd ’. His surviving sorcerer’s manual, Petit Albert, can still be read, and there is a street named after him, Rue Maitre Albert in the shadow of Notre Dame Cathedral. Night time visitors sometimes find him there in full occultist dress. Others choose to remember him more comfortably at the fine restaurant nearby called Albert le Grand.
The mysterious gypsy who foretold the future
At 1b Rue de Bievre, in central Paris, there once stood a shabby bar. During the period of German occupation in WWII, the landlord would occasionally find a gypsy at his door offering to tell his fortune. The publican turned him away. Soon after, pets and relatives of the landlord died in mysterious circumstances. The landlord’s wife ran off with the gypsy, never to be seen again. He closed the business out of fear of the unknown. The following year, German soldiers destroyed the tavern. Property developers have never been interested in the site despite its location. The ruins can still be seen through the overgrown bars of a gate that never opens.
The man in the black coat
Jean Romier was sitting reading in the Jardin du Luxembourg on a warm evening in 1925. He was approached by a quietly spoken man in a black coat who invited him back to his house nearby to enjoy an evening of music and poetry. They went off together.
After Romier departed from his new friend, he realised that he had left his lighter in the house and went back to retrieve it. He knocked on the door. A neighbour responded and said that the musician who had lived there had not been seen for twenty years or so and that the property was empty. Several, still living claim to have been invited there by the Man in the Black Coat. They have never had the courage to accept. I don’t know why.
Some believe and some do not. There are always exaggerations, rumours, distortions and inventions. But were ghosts to exist, they would surely prowl the streets of Paris…
Bob Lyons is an ex-pilot turned travel writer