Who were the notorious women prisoners of Cell 12 at the famed Paris prison?
There was a time when many of Paris’s femme fatales would ultimately share the same address: Cell 12 at the Saint-Lazare – Prison for women. One was Marguerite Steinheil, infamous for her affair with the French Prime Minister Félix Faure, who in 1899 died in office – literally, collapsing from apoplexy mid-tryst with Steinheil atop the presidential desk. Her infamy rose again in 1908 when she was charged with murdering her mother and husband.
In 1914, socialite Henriette Caillaux murdered the editor of Le Figaro. Her crime was doubly shocking since she was the second wife of former French Prime Minister Joseph Caillaux. With a gun hidden beneath her furs, she shot the journalist point blank for publishing early love letters the couple had sent each other while still married to other people.
The exotic dancer Mata Hari was tasked by the French in the First World War to seduce Germany’s Crown Prince Wilhelm for military secrets. But before long, she was in Saint-Lazare, accused of passing on confidences from French military officials to the German administration.
These scandals piqued the morbid curiosity that Parisians had for the prison, located in the city’s 10th arrondissement where Boulevard Magenta and Rue du Faubourg-Saint-Denis meet (you can still see the remains of the prison chapel in Square Alban-Satragne). The jail was indeed horrid. Cold, damp, filthy and fetid, the black walls were festooned with spiders and vermin.
Adding to the tragic groans of the helpless prisoners were the hysterical screams of newcomers as scores of rats emerged at dusk.
Reserved for elite prisoners, Cell 12 housed first-time offenders awaiting trial, whose incarceration was marginally less cruel than that of the other inmates. In a room lit by two short candles, all correspondence was scrutinised by hovering nuns who spied on sleeping prisoners via overhead hatches. Small food rations brought from the outside served to taunt the other inmates who relentlessly pebble-dashed their windows, intimating to the rich girls of Cell 12 that small gifts of sugar and chocolate would not go amiss.
60 years in prison
Marguerite Steinheil was acquitted of murder, although the judge at her sensational trial thought her stories were a “tissue of lies”. Meanwhile, “uncontrollable female emotions” were cited as the reason behind Henriette Caillaux’s unexpected acquittal. Mata Hari was not as lucky. Her last days were spent in a filthy prison frock, writing letters of appeal. At her execution by firing squad in 1917, she turned to the nun escorting her and said: “May I ask you to say a short prayer for me each day?” Sister Léonide, who regularly features in the memoirs of these high-profile prisoners, vowed: “I have never failed to do so.”
Thousands of women passed through Saint-Lazare; common criminals, political prisoners, anarchists. But the woman who spent longest behind these notorious prison walls was the innocent Sister Léonide, spending more than 60 years there.
From France Today Magazine
Lead photo credit : © Guilhem Vellut/Wikimedia Commons
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