The Dangerous Classes

The Bad Boys Of Paris

Fixated on Crime


Jean-Joseph Clemens, "Souvenirs du bagne"1840
   Bourgeois Parisians were drawn to the subject of crime and prison reform in the early nineteenth century. Was this the product of some change in the incidence of crime - a rapid rise in the crime rate that focused French minds on the problem and intensified the social fear? Louis Chevalier's Classes laborieuses et classes dangereuses makes a case for this social-fear hypothesis. Paris in the early nineteenth century became a city "menaced by crime and haunted by fear"(Chevalier, 14); the influx of workers into Paris, the physical conditions of the slums, and the tensions that resulted produced a neurosis that was combined with the bourgeois' morbid fascination with the criminal underworld. (Wright, 48)

  •  Once convicted of a crime, men and women were at the mercy of their guards. Many writers including Hugo described the terrifying conditions of the prisons and the hardships of life on a chain gang. While these descriptions may have been romanticized, life as a convict wasn't easy.
  • One of the most famous bandits in nineteenth century France was the bandit-turned-policeman, Vidocq. After escaping countless times from prison, Vidocq was employed by the Parisian police force and used his knowledge of the underworld to infiltrate the slums and subsequently inform the police of crimes in the making.
  • The writer-murderer, Lacenaire, lived, killed, and died at the height of the romantic era in France when the "mood of the times" helped to arouse public interest in the criminal underworld. This climate of romanticism inspired talk of "the art of murder" among the bourgeois.


"The Golden Mean Between the Guillotine and Liberty", a forgotten 19th century artist's stylized conception of prison life at the time