The Bad Boys of Paris


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Interesting Facts about Convicts of France in the 19th Century:

  • 80-86% of prisoners were male
  • Majority of defendents were born in the department where they had been arrested.
  • Women were in prison roughly for the same categories of men-thievery
  • In 1844, an inspector-general of prisons "reported that in a population of 1,200 inmates, nearly 800 of them 'habitually' engaged in 'the crime of sodomy' (O'Brien )

Jean-Joseph Clemens, Souvenirs du Bagne,1840-1842

Convicts At Work

" The saving function of work was stressed for all deviants including the mentally ill." (Louis-Rene Villerme Paris, 1820)

Prisoners often lied about thier occupation in order to get the more favored work in prison.

This is why statistics were often skewed and unreliable in the 19th century prison records.

"The most widely represented occupations among entering male prisoners were :

  • building trade workers
  • agricultural workers
  • workshop and factory laborers
  • day laborers
  • building trade workers

The most frequently identified occupations for entering women were:

  • seamstresses
  • domestics
  • day laborers

Prisoners were required to work as part of thier punishment. Protestors of the state rule got "special" treatment such as:

  • total solitary confinement
  • bread and water diet

Convicts At Play


Tatooing was often practiced in prison.

Tatoos established identification for a person and since it was very painful, required an extreme amount of desire on the part of the prisoner.

Argot -a distinctive speech pattern with its own vocabulary-first appeared in prisons and became an important variable torwards "communal cohesiveness"

Argot could vary from prison to prison and region to region. "There is every indication that argot, especially of the criminal class, actually expanded and flourished in the nineteenth century. The specialized vocabulary and idioms indigenous to prison life were inventive and always changing."(O'Brien,75-109)

Victor Hugo was one of the first to research and record an exstensive list of argot from members of the "dangerous classes" and relates to it in Les Miserables: "What is argot; properly speaking? Argot is the launguage of misery."-Les Miserables Book VII

Hugo does not hide his detest for argot and goes on to describe it more directly not hiding his pride for the native language- French:

" Argot is nothing more nor less than a wardrobe in which language , having some bad deed to do, disguises itself. It puts on word-masks and metaphoric rags. In which way it becomes horrible. We can hardly recongise it. Is it really the French tongue, the great human tongue?...We percieve, without understanding, a hideous murmur, sounding almost like human tones, but nearer a howling than speech. This is argot. The words are uncouth, and marked by an indescribably fantastic beastliness. We think we hear hydras talking."--Les Miserables Book VII

The Following phrase was used in a French prison by the prisoner Cartouche:



English Translation: " DO YOU LIKE THIS LEG OF MUTTON?"

This phrase was addressed to the turnkey (guard) to find out if the amount offered for an escape satisfied him.

Victor Hugo and the Chain Gang

"Sitting on the ground like the rest, he seemed to comprehend nothing of his position, except in its horror: probably there was also mingled with the vague ideas of a poor ignorant man a notion that there was something excessive in the penalty. While they were with heavy-hammer strokes bihind his head riveting the bolt of his iron collar, he was weeping. The tears choked his words and he only suceeded in saying from time to time: " I was a pruner at Favrolles." Then sobbing as he was, he raised his right hand and lowered it seven times, as if he was touching seven heads of unequal height and at this gesture could guess that whatever he had done, had been to feed and clothe seven little children." Les Miserables Book I Pt.VI

Les Malheureux Cloquemin Sous les Verroux Aquarelle Vers 1830, Paris.


Hugo was probably one of the first French writers to realize that belonging to the chain gang in 18th and 19th century France was the worst place to be. One could even satisfy the notion that starving on the streets was better than the stories that came from men on chain gangs. At least if one was starving on the streets they were starving as a free woman/ man. Hugo recounts a story of the cellar of Chatelet de Paris-a cellar 8 feet deep below the level of the Seine:

"Men condemned to the galleys were put into this cellar...They were riveted, and they were left there. The chain being too short, they could not lie down. They remained motionless in this cave, in this blackness...almost hung, forced to monstrous exertions to reach thier bread or thier pitcher...thier legs collapsing with fatigue, thier hips and knees giving way...unable to sleep except by standing, and awakened every moment by the strangling of the collar...How long did they continue thus? A month, two months, six months sometimes; one remained a year. Men were put there for stealing a hare from the king."

--Les Miserables Book VII Pt.2

This monstrous scene depicted by Hugo could be taken as purposely written in a sympathetic tone to the average convict. But historically, we can deduce that Hugo was not far off as the same treatments were going on iin other parts of the world. The maintenance of the chain gang in the 18th and 19th centuries is proof that a socially and techonogically advanced country can still resort back to the practices of the middle ages.