Sunday, 15 November 2015

Museum of the Préfecture de Police

The Musée de la Préfecture de Police in Paris can be visited for free and has some interesting 18th-century material.  The museum was originally set up in 1909 by the préfet Louis Lépine (1846-1933), using exhibits collected for the Exposition Universelle of 1900.  You have to be brave,  not just because of the nature of the collections, but because the museum is situated in an actual working police station, the l’hôtel de police of the 5th arrondissement, 4, rue de la Montagne Sainte-Geneviève. Visitors have to negotiate the front desk of the Prefecture and make their way to the third floor.  There are about 2,000 exhibits in a small space.  The museum has  recently been reorganised in a thematic way, but  it is still a bit Ripley – ancient shop dummies wearing police uniforms,  doors off old prisons, wax heads of serial killers.  However, it also contains a well-presented selection of documents from the archives of the  Préfecture, which are otherwise closed to the general public.   

Sadly, the holdings of the archives for the 18th century are limited, since much of the material was destroyed at the time of the Commune in 1871.  Among the items which remain are a series of registers for the old prisons of Paris dating back to the 16th century, plus various lettres-de-cachet and detention orders. The Préfecture also inherited the dossiers of the many committees and commission charged with public order between 1789 and 1800. Again only a small percentage remain, but these include registers of  trials and arrests from the height of the Terror.  There is no online catalogue.

The archive has recently moved to new premises in the Pré Saint-Gervais and now boasts 9 kilometres of shelving.  Plans are afoot for the museum to follow there in the near future.

This year the archives and museum were "guest of honour" at the annual International Rare Book, Autograph, Print & Drawing Fair which took place at the Grand Palais on 24th-25th April. The catalogue of the exhibition is available on the website and provides some useful supplementary information.

Here are a few highlights relevant to the 18th century:

Early history of the Parisian police

Here is Louis XIV's edict establishing the office of Lieutenant of Police, registered by the Parlement of Paris on 15 March 1667.  
The objectives of the post were summarised as cleanliness, clarity, security ("netteté, clarté, sûreté") The first Lieutenant General of Police was Gabriel Nicolas de La Reynie, who held the post for thirty years, and did much to organise the policing of Paris on a professional basis. 

The Treatise on policing was written by Nicolas Delamare, a commissioner of the Châtelet court; the four volumes were originally published between 1705 and 1738. The Treatise lists the many competences of the 18th-century police:  religion, security, public morality, sciences and liberal arts, health, trade, food supply, manufacture, transport, labourers and domestic servants, the poor.

Other exhibits in the museum reflect this  diverse role.  La Reynie's 17th-century successors devoted themselves to improving security in the streets of the capital by attacking centres of crime (destruction of the Cours des Miracles in 1668).  In the 18th century, more prosaically, the Lieutenant Hérault addressed traffic congestion, requiring the registration of public carriages and, in 1725 and 1739 prohibiting double parking. He also instituted road signs  and the numbering of houses. His successor, Gabriel de Sartine established public gas lighting in the streets of Paris.

Prison registers

The prisons of Paris were a major responsibility of the Ancien régime police and the archives of the  Préfecture include an extensive series of prison registers ("Registres d’écrou") Famous entries on show include that for Damiens, who was transferred from Versailles to the Conciergerie on night of 17th to 18th January 1757. I have searched the internet in vain for a picture, but here, as a consolation prize, is the entry in the registry of the Conciergerie for an earlier, more successful regicide,  François Ravaillac, assassin of Henri IV (27 décembre 1594).

Here is a register relating to those held in the "Diamond Necklace Affair" in 1786.

Lettres-de-cachet and police orders.

There are several examples on show, of which the most iconic is surely this Order of 1717 signed by the marquis d'Argenson, authorising the detention of Voltaire in the Bastille on suspicion of writing obscene satirical verses against the Regent and his daughter.  (Voltaire was incarcerated from 17th May 1717 to 14 April 1718)

"Epée de justice" (sword of execution) (17th or 18th century)

 Documents from the Revolutionary period 

During the Revolution the policing of Paris was transferred to the municipality and completely reorganised, with the creation of forty-eight police commissioners and a force of officers of the peace.  The  Préfecture de Police was subsequently set up by Napoleon in 1800.    The archive iincludes orders for the arrest of numerous famous figures:  Beaumarchais, Lavoisier, Charlotte Corday, Madame Roland.  There are also Revolutionary engravings, medals, and an ivory whistle and baton carried by an
officier de paix in 1792. 

Here is the prison register entry for Charlotte Corday (13 July 1793) : 

This is the order for the arrest of Jacques-Louis David, who was imprisoned from 2 August to 28 December 1794 :

Here is the decree of  ordering the appearance of Louis XVI before the National Convention on 11th December 1792, at the commencement of his trial:

The archive contains a number of documents relating to the imprisonment of the Royal family in the Temple. Among the most moving is this original statement, dated 13 June 1818, by  Philippe-Jean Pelletain, the surgeon who carried out the autopsy on Louis XVII.  Pelletain describes how he secretly removed the boy's heart and smuggled it out of the Temple.

But, you ask, do they have a guillotine? Of course they do!. There is a third-size replica and the blade from an actual guillotine. However, although the label would have us believe that this blade dates from the Revolutionary era, Bruno Fuligni (2015) identifies it as a "modèle Berger" from the 1870s.


Préfecture de Police website:

Marie-José Selaudoux  "Le musée de la Préfecture de Police" La critique parisienne, 68 (2012)
 Guillaume Sinoquet, "Le musée de la préfecture de Police de Paris" Criminocorpus post of 18 December 2014 

Bruno Fuligni Musée secret de la police [book] (2015)

Corinne Sorin,"Paris: Musée de la police" Blog de Corinne Sorin, post of 4 October 2011

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