Last month, when I learned that absinthe had been known as the “Charenton omnibus” – Charenton being the site of a famous mental hospital – I became curious about mental institutions in the Paris area. There are many interesting stories associated with them, and here is one.
Before the Revolution, there were three types of mental hospital. First, there were the “hôpitaux généraux” – the Salpetrière for women, the Bicêtre for men. Both institutions remain as general teaching hospitals to this day, both with massive buildings on vast grounds with internal streets. The Salpetrière is in the 13th arrondissement, close to the Gare d’Austerlitz. You can see a bird’s-eye view image of it here.
The Bicêtre is just outside the Periphérique in what is now the commune of Kremlin-Bicêtre. (In case you were wondering, the first part of the commune’s name dates to the 1830s, and commemorates an inn called “Au Sergent de Kremlin,” a hangout favoured by veterans of Napoleon’s Russian campaign.) Here is an image of the huge hospital that dominated the town from the mid-18th century.
It is generous to call these places mental hospitals, for they also served as beggars’ prisons and workhouses, housing a range of people from delinquent youth to poverty-stricken invalids to people with venereal disease to those suffering from mental illness.
Others were founded by the church and operated as charities, which makes them sound more pleasant than they were. Charenton, situated outside Paris just south of the Bois de Vincennes, was one, along with St-Lazare, a former leper hospital in what is now the 10th arrondissement, not far from the Gare de l’Est.
Charenton remains, but now goes by the name of Hôpital Esquirol and the town is called Saint-Maurice (too many negative associations with the name Charenton, perhaps). St-Lazare, after serving for many years as a prison, was demolished in the 1930s. There is now a park, the Square Alban Satragne, where it stood. Here it is during its time as a prison in 1912.
The inmates in these establishments represented much the same mixture as those in the hôpitaux généraux. One writer describes them as “populated by clerics, by mentally diseased people, and by the so-called libertins [a type of political prisoner], sorcerers, abortionists, pornographers, adulterers, spendthrifts, Jansenists, and protestants.”* A merry crew indeed. They do not sound like people with whom the mentally ill could find respite from their troubles.
Finally, there were smaller establishments called “maisons de santé.” Perhaps a dozen or so of these existed in Paris before the Revolution, and many more were out in the surrounding countryside. Some were run by doctors, others by entrepreneurs, because fees could be charged. Wealthy families were prepared to pay handsomely to have an embarrassing relative put safely out of sight.
One of these maisons became notorious during the Revolution for charging very high fees indeed. It was called the Maison Belhomme or Pension Belhomme. It was founded on the rue de Charonne (in what is now the 11th arrondissement) by a cabinetmaker called Jacques Belhomme. He branched out into this new venture in 1768 after discovering that taking care of people with developmental disabilities or mental illness could be surprisingly profitable. He bought the former Hotel de Ventadour and set himself up in business.
The place really did function as a mental hospital at first. It was here that Philippe Pinel, one of the earliest physicians to advocate for the humane treatment of the mentally ill, got his start. He went on to work at the Salpetrière, where he famously did away with the chains that bound the mental patients there and instituted – imagine this – non-violent forms of treatment. Here is a famous painting by Tony Robert-Fleury of his breakthrough, unshackling the chains of the unfortunate inmates at the Salpetrière.
Meanwhile, on the rue de Charonne, Belhomme’s establishment continued to flourish. When the Revolution broke out, Jacques Belhomme was a figure of some authority in his neighbourhood, and realized that his maison de santé might be put to even better – and more profitable – use.
In 1793, a new law required that residents of the city obtain a Certificate of Good Citizenship from what was known as the Vigilance Committee established in each quartier. Failure to obtain such a certificate could mean being hauled before the Revolutionary Tribunal, and from there it was just a short trip in a tumbril to the guillotine.
Belhomme spied both a business opportunity and a loophole. The business opportunity was the growing demand for prison accommodations. The existing prisons were full, and buildings such as the Luxembourg Palace and various convents and abbeys (by now emptied of their regular inhabitants) had been pressed into service. But the Tribunal still demanded that more and more people be locked up. Mental institutions were filling up with prisoners.
As for the loophole, it was this: it was possible to delay one’s appearance before the Tribunal if one were declared too sick or infirm to appear.
Belhomme decided to kill deux oiseaux with un caillou. His maison de santé became a prison-cum-asylum for those willing to pay to be declared unfit to stand trial. There was no shortage of customers.
The initial fee, once one had established contact with those empowered to make the negotiations, could be as high as six thousand livres… Upon payment of this sum, one was pronounced too “sick” to stand trial, transferred out of whatever disagreeable prison one happened to be in, and committed to Jacques Belhomme’s remarkable maison de santé.**
The establishment offered comfortable quarters and spacious gardens. The food was merely adequate, but one could always order out. Belhomme even expanded his operation into a neighbouring house, the Hotel de Colbert-Chabanais (shown here), to meet the demand.
For a few months, it was a popular place to be.
Visitors from the outside world were not only permitted but encouraged. Every evening a long line of carriages waited in front of the gates, and the sounds of laughter and music drifted into the street until the early morning hours… [Meanwhile] the accusations made against Belhomme’s prisoners became mysteriously misplaced by intermediaries in the busy offices of the public prosecutor.**
There was, however, one catch. You had to keep paying the bills each month. They included gratuities for the staff, wine merchants’ bills, and other extras. The inmates had once been affluent, but many had been reduced to penury during the Revolution. Income-producing lands and houses full of treasures had been confiscated. Relatives had been executed. Belhomme was sympathetic, but he made no exceptions. If you did not find some way to pay him, he simply declared that you were now fit to stand trial and released you to the Revolutionary Tribunal. And the Tribunal very rarely showed mercy, as the Duchesse de Châtelet fatally discovered after she failed to pay Belhomme’s bill.
Eventually, like so many others, Belhomme himself was denounced and his premises were inspected by members of the Comité de Sûreté Général. They were appalled to find that the regular patients – the sans-culottes, the citoyens – had been relegated to cramped, insanitary quarters at the top of the house while the aristocrats occupied the spacious quarters below. Belhomme was arrested, convicted of misappropriation of public funds, and sentenced to six years in fetters. He served a mere nine months in the Saint-Pélagie prison before being released on appeal.
While he was imprisoneed, Belhomme’s wife managed the maison de santé, but she died a few years later. At the age of 61, Belhomme married a 16-year-old, who bore him four children. Meanwhile, his establishment continued to take in a mix of patients and political prisoners.
Under the [First] Empire, the Belhomme pension once again served in its double role as a place of healing and a prison, preserving the ambiguity and confusion between the mentally ill and the opponents of the regime in power, [and] making the medical supervisor assume the role sometimes of an ally and advocate, sometimes of a jailkeeper, and sometimes of an accomplice in patients’ escape.***
In the photograph below, the building with the balcony across the front is the Hotel Colbert-Chabanais and the shadowy archway just beyond it leads into the courtyard and the other buildings.
After Jacques Belhomme’s death in 1824, his eldest son, Jacques-Etienne, who had studied with Pinel and written a thesis on the care and treatment of mentally handicapped individuals, and who went on to become a pioneer in the treatment of mental illness in children, assumed the directorship.
The maison de santé survived into the 1950s under a series of different directors, and acquired a solid reputation as a treatment centre.
The buildings on the rue de Charonne are gone now, demolished in the 1970s and replaced with a line of modern apartment blocks, but the gardens remain, complete with a two-storey pavilion that now serves as a social club for seniors, run by the City of Paris. Here is a photograph showing the pre-Revolutionary buildings on the site that have survived.
The story of Jacques Belhomme and his maison de santé has been told and retold by academic historians, but one of the more colourful versions, which I have quoted here, was written by Stanley Loomis, published posthumously in the magazine Horizon in 1974. The title he chose was “Vacation Hints: Where to Go in Case of a Reign of Terror.” The sort of thing one feels one should clip and file away, just in case.
*Erwin H. Ackernecht, “Political Prisoners in French Mental Institutions before 1789, during the Revolution, and under Napoleon I,” Medical History 19:3 (1975), 250–255.
**Stanley Loomis, “Vacation Hints: Where to Go in Case of a Reign of Terror,” Horizon 16:1 (Winter 1974), 80–83.
***Olivier Walusinski and Denis Tiberghien, “Jacques-Etienne Belhomme (1800–1880): Pionnier de la pédopsychiatrie et aliéniste oublié, » Annales Médico-Psychologiques 174 (2016) : 615–623 (my translation).