Heinrich Heine: Cholera in Paris 2

Excerpt from The Works of Heinrich Heine, Vol. 14. Translated from the German by Charles Godfrey Leland.
It was amidst unparalleled trouble and confusion that hospital and other institutions for preserving public health were organized. A Sanitary Committee was created, Bureaux de Secours were established, and the ordinances as regards the salubrite publique were promptly put into effect. In doing this there was at once a collision with interests of several thousand men who regarded public filth as their own private property.

These were the chiffoniers or rag-men, who pick their living from the sweepings piled up in dirt heaps in odd corners. With great pointed baskets on their backs and hooked sticks in their hands, these men, with pale and dirty faces, stray through the streets, and know how to find and utilize many objects in these refuse piles. But when the police, not wishing this filth to remain longer in the public streets, had given out the cleaning to their agents, and the refuse, put into carts, was to be carried out into the open country, the chiffoniers could freely fish in it to their hearts’ content.
Then the latter complained that, though not reduced to starvation, that their business had been reduced, and that this industry was a right sanctioned by ancient usage, and like property, of which they could not be arbitrarily deprived. It is very curious that the proofs which they produced in this relation were quite identical with those which our country squires and nobles, chiefs of corporations, gild-masters, tithe-preachers, members of faculties, and similar possessors of privilege, bring forward when any old abuses by which they profit, or other rubbish of the Middle Ages, must be cleared away, so that our modern life may not be infected by the ancient musty mold and exhalations.
As their protests were of no avail, the chiffoniers attempted to oppose the reform of cleanliness by force, or got up a small counter-revolution, and that in connection with the old women called revendeuses, who had been forbidden to publicly sell on the quays or traffic in the evil-smelling stuff which they had bought from the chiffoniers.
Then we beheld the most repulsive riot; the new hand-cars used to clean the town were broken and thrown into the Seine; the chiffoniers barricaded themselves at the Porte Saint-Denis; the old women dealers in rubbish fought with their great umbrellas on the Chatelot; the general march was beaten; Casimir Perier had his myrmidons drummed up from their shops; the citizen-throne trembled; Rentes fell; the Carlists rejoiced.

The latter, by the way, had found at last their natural allies in rag-men and the old huxter-wives, who adopted the same principles as the champions of transmitted rights, or hereditary rubbish-interests and rotten things of every kind.

When the emeute of the chiffoniers was suppressed, and as the cholera did not take hold so savagely as was desired by certain people of the kind who in every suffering or excitement among the people hope, if not to profit themselves, to at least cause the overthrow of the existing Government, there rose all at one a rumour that many of those who had been so promptly buried had died not from disease but by poison. It was said that certain persons had found out how to introduce a poison into all kinds of foodt, be it in the vegetable markets, in bakeries, meat-stalls, or wine.
The more extraordinary these reports were, the more eagerly they were received by the multitude, and even the skeptics must needs believe in them when an order on the subject was published by the chief of police. For the police, who in every country seem to be less inclined to prevent crime than to appear to know all about it, either desired to display their universal information or else thought, as regards the tales of poisoning, that whether they were true or false, they themselves must in any case divert all suspicion from the Government.
Suffice it to say, that by their unfortunate proclamation, in which they distinctly said that they were on the track of the poisoners, they officially confirmed the rumours, and thereby threw all Paris into the most dreadful apprehension of death.
“We never heard the like!” said the oldest people, who, even in the most dreadful times of the Revolution, had never experienced such fearful crime. “Frenchmen! we are dishonoured!” cried the men, striking their foreheads. The women, pressing their little children in agony to the their hearts, wept bitterly and lamented that the innocent babes were dying in their arms. The poor people dared neither eat nor drink, and wrung their heads in dire need and distress. It seemed as if the end of the world had come.
The crowds assembled chiefly at the corners of the streets, where the red-painted wine-shops are situated, and it was generally there that men who seemed suspicious were searched, and woe to them when any doubtful objects were found on them. The mob threw themselves like wild beasts or lunatics on their victims. Many saved themselves by their presence of mind, others were rescued by the firmness of the Municipal Guard, who in those days patrolled everywhere; some received wounds or were maimed, while six men were unmercifully murdered outright.
Nothing is so horrible as the anger of a mob when it rages for blood and strangles its defenseless prey. Then there rolled through the streets a dark flood of human beings, in which, here and there, workmen in their shirtsleeves seemed like the white caps of a raging sea, and all were howling and roaring — all merciless, heathenish, devilish. I heard in the Rue Saint-Denies the well-known old cry. “A la lanterne!” and from voices trembling with rage I learned that they were hanging a prisoner. Some said that he was a Carlist, and that a brevet du lis had been found in his pocket; others declared he was a priest, and others that he was capable of anything.
In the Rue Vaugirard, where two men were killed because certain white powders were found on them, I saw one of the wretches, while he was still in the death rattle, and at the time old women plucked the wooden shoes from their feet and beat him on the head till he was dead. He was naked and beaten and bruised, so that his blood flowed…and one blackguard tied a rope to the feet of the corpse and dragged it through the streets, crying out, “Voila le chlera-morbus!”
A very beautiful woman, pale with rage, with bare breasts and bloody hands, was present, and as the corpse passed she kicked it. She laughed to me, and begged for a few francs reward for her dainty work wherewith to buy a mourning-dress, because her mother had died a few hours before of poison.
It appeared the next day by the newspapers that the wretched men who had been so cruelly murdered were all quite innocent, that the suspicious powders found on them consisted of camphor or chlorine; or some other kind of remedy against the cholera, and that those who were said to have been poisoned had died naturally of the prevailing epidemic. The mob here, like the same everywhere, being quick to rage and readily led to cruelty, became at once appeased , and deplored with touching sorrow its rash deeds when it heard the voice of reason.
With such voices the newspapers succeeded the next day in calming and quieting the populace, and it may be proclaimed, as a triumph of the press, that it was able so promptly to stop the mischief which the police had made.
I must here blame the conduct of certain people who by no means belonged to the lower class, yet who were so carried away by their prejudices as to publicly accuse the Carlista of poisoning. Passion should never carry us so far, and I should hesitate a long time ere I would accuse my most venomous foes of such horrible intentions. The Carlists were quite right in complaining of this, and it is only the bitter manner in which they cursed and raled over it which could excite suspicion.
That is certainly not the language of innocence. But according to the conviction of those best informed, there had been no poisoning. It may be that sham poisonings were contrived, or that a few wretches were really induced to sprinkle harmless powders on provisions in order to irritate and rouse the people; and if this was indeed the case, the people should not be too severely blamed for their riotous conduct, since it sprang not from public hate, “but in the interest of commonwealth, quite according to the theory of terrorism.”
Yes, the Carlists would themselves have perished in the pit dug for the Republicans, but the poisoning was not generally attributed to the one or to the other, but to that party which , “never conquered by arms, always raises itself again by cowardly means, which attains to prosperity and power invariably by the ruin of France, and which now, dispensing with the aid of Cossacks, may readily seek refuge in common poison.” This is about what is said in the Constitutional.
What I gained by personal observation on the day when these murders took place was the conviction that the rule of the elder branch of the Bourbons will never be reestablished in France. I heard the most remarkable utterances in different groups; I saw deep into the heart of the people — it knows its men.
To be continued…