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  • Peter McGuire

Fire and Death: The Wedding Celebration of Marie Antoinette

Updated: Jan 12, 2022

Part 2 of a series on human stampedes and crushes

While it appears that most crushes have happened in the 20th and 21st centuries, there were probably many crushes in history that went unremarked upon in chronicles or downplayed by rulers. One of the earliest (and possibly deadliest) crushes slips under the radar and is rarely mentioned in connection with this famous monarch.

On May 30th, 1770, Parisians crowded the streets to watch a fireworks display around 9 pm. The French aristocracy had grown accustomed, even bored, of fireworks as Marie Antoinette made her way across the country to meet her new husband, being greeted lavishly at each step. She’d already married the French crown prince remotely in Austria (her brother stood in for the groom) and the tour was designed to win support for the controversial and irrevocable decision. Fireworks were a new invention and used extravagantly to impress nobility and commoner alike. In Paris, the fireworks were launched from the Temple of Hymen, the god of marital love, built to honor the marriage.

Plan du Feu d'Artifice at Versailles, Summer, 1771.

They’d hired the Ruggieri brothers, the foremost pyrotechnic experts of their day. The family had earned the patronage of King Louis XV and were appointed royal artificers. The family would go on to invent many of the techniques of modern firework shows including moving effects, unique shapes, and different colors and is still in business today. Many pyrotechnic displays were intricately planned, including several firework-spewing dolphins to honor the title given to the crown prince of France, the Dauphin, which means dolphin. The dolphin of France, the soon-to-be Louis XVI, needed the night to be a success.

In a history of Paris written over a century later, Henry Sutherland describes how the wind blew partially exploded fireworks off the scaffolding, burning and terrifying the crowd. Then the stampede began.

There was, in the first place, a general rush towards the Rue Royale, far too narrow to receive such an invasion; and in the crush numbers of women fainted, fell, and were trampled to death. To make matters worse the stream of persons pressing into the Rue Royal was met by a counter-stream, advancing, in ignorance of what had taken place, to the Plae de la Concorde. Even these, who were not in imminent peril were now affected by the panic which soon became universal. In the midst of shrieks and groans some desperate men drew their sword and endeavoured to cut for themselves a passage through the dense mass by which they were surrounded.

I suppose we can at least be thankful that there aren’t a lot of people swinging swords in crushes nowadays.

We can see even in this early example that it was the fluid dynamics of the large crowd pressing into a small street that caused the crush (once the danger of being exploded became imminent). A crowd always needs ways to evacuate an area quickly.

Estimates of the death toll vary. A guide published in 1839 describes 3,000 mortally injured, which is substantially higher than the official estimate of 133. This was in the early days of journalism, which was developing in Paris mostly through the publication of what today we’d call think pieces or essays rather than objective fact reporting. It was relatively easy for a powerful ruler to simply bury embarrassing incidents like this, particularly if none of the victims were notable. We can only imagine how many similar situations preceded this one.

It was an inauspicious start to the marriage and a cloud that Louis would carry into his reign.

The dead were buried in a mass grave in Paris at the Madeline cemetery. 23 years later, the decapitated bodies of the married couple were unceremoniously dumped on the pile. When the monarchy was restored after Napoleon’s fall, the royal bodies were identified with scant evidence (Marie Antoinette by her jaw, based on the opinion of someone who had seen her smile thirty years earlier) and removed to the Basilica of Saint-Denis. The victims of their wedding remained there until 1844 when they were removed to the catacombs, where they are today.

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