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When bubonic plague threatened to cause panic at the 1889 Paris Exposition

Posted in Historical articles, History, Medicine, Mystery on Friday, 15 June 2012

This edited article about the Paris Exposition of 1889 originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 727 published on 20 December 1975.

Paris Exposition 1889, picture, image, illustration

Exhibit buildings and grounds seen through the lower part of the Eiffel Tower at the Paris Exposition of 1889

Why was the coachman taking so long? She had the medicine at last, but there was no doubt every minute counted if her mother was to be saved. Yet nearly four hours had elapsed since the doctors at the hotel had sent her off across Paris to his surgery to get the all-important drug and there was nothing she could do to get the coachman to hurry. She was becoming very frightened.

Mrs. Randolph and her daughter had only arrived in the French capital that day, bound for London after disembarking at Marseilles from the ship that had brought them from India. It was quicker to take a train across France to Calais than sail round Spain and Portugal and, besides, there was the Great Exposition of 1889 to be visited in Paris. All the latest inventions and mechanical marvels from every corner of the earth could be enjoyed along with a festival of the arts and a carnival atmosphere.

Mrs. Randolph had wired the Hotel Crillon and, despite the huge crowds in the capital, they had managed to get two single rooms, one on the third floor, the other on the fourth.

They had signed the register on arrival at the hotel and were escorted up to Room 342, which turned out to be superbly furnished. The girl took in, amongst other things, rose-covered wallpaper, velvet curtains, a gilded bronze clock and a satinwood table.

Then she noticed that her mother was far from well and obviously needed a rest after the long journey. Persuading her to lie down, she went to the manager, who summoned a doctor.

As he examined the mother, he asked her and her daughter some questions in stumbling English, pricking up his ears when he learnt that they had come from India; then he drew the manager to one side and started talking very rapidly. He then turned to the girl and told her that she must cross Paris to his surgery at once, while he stayed with the patient. He would give her a note to take to his wife, who would prepare the medicine that might save her mother. The girl could use his own carriage.

And now she was back at the Hotel Crillon, into which she ran, clutching the medicine bottle tightly. There was the manager at the reception desk.

“How is my mother?” she asked him. A look of surprise crossed his face.

“To whom are you referring, Miss?” he asked to the astonishment of the girl.

“To my mother, of course!” said the girl, reminding the foolish man how they had arrived from Marseilles that very afternoon, then that her mother has been taken ill and that she had been sent across Paris to get the medicine.

“I know nothing of your mother,” was the manager’s reply. “You arrived here alone.”

With a chill of fear, the girl reminded him that it was only six hours since they had signed the register and told him to look up their names. He opened the book and she saw her own signature – but not her mother’s!

“But we both signed,” said the girl frantically, “then we went up to Room 342. Take me there at once.”

“Room 342 has been occupied for some days by a French family,” said the manager politely, giving her a strange look.

“I insist that you take me to it,” said the girl, half-screaming, and the manager said he would, humouring the poor English girl, who was clearly mad.

They reached Room 342 to find it empty, the manager explaining that the French family had gone out to see the sights. The girl looked round and saw a pile of someone else’s belongings. But with mounting horror she saw something else. All the furniture was different. Even the velvet curtains she had so admired were of a different colour. The wallpaper was different, too.

The manager led the now panic-stricken girl down to the foyer, where the doctor was standing. Now the nightmare would end, thought the girl, as she began to talk to him. But to her horror he politely informed her that he had never seen her or her mother in his life.

So she ran from the hotel and went straight to the British Embassy, where she told her extraordinary tale to a sympathetic official. But after the Embassy had investigated the matter and the police had been called in, and still no trace of her mother appeared, it became clear that the girl was demented.

In the end she went out of her mind and the Embassy had her sent back to Britain where she was placed in a lunatic asylum.

What was the truth behind the mystery of the vanishing mother? What happened was that the doctor immediately realised that Mrs. Randolph had bubonic plague – and had no doubts when he heard that she had come from India, where it was a regular scourge. He and the equally appalled manager were horrified at the effect the news would have if it leaked out, not only on the hotel but on the city and the all-important Exposition. So the unfortunate girl was deliberately sent on a false errand, with a message telling the doctor’s wife the real truth.

Meanwhile, her mother died and when the local authorities appeared on the scene it was agreed that the whole affair should be covered up. Otherwise fortunes would be lost and, more honourably, Paris would be overtaken by dangerous and extreme panic.

Everyone worked with the utmost speed and so it came about that the tragic figure of the story, the daughter, was met in the way that has been described when she returned.

Yet there is another mystery about the case which it seems will never be solved. Did it happen or didn’t it? The story was going right round the world soon after the Paris Exposition of 1889 and it has inspired many books and some films; besides it has a strange ring of truth about it.

Many investigators later tried to authenticate it and some were satisfied that it was true, but no one has ever produced documentary proof, which must exist somewhere if it is true. For a start, the mother was clearly a well-to-do woman or she would not have been making such a trip. It has been pointed out that she must have caught the plague on board a ship, not in India, because the incubation period is only twelve days – but there were several ports where the disease could come aboard.

If the story is an invented one, it is sad that we do not know who started it, for he or she deserves the credit of hatching one of the greatest plots in the annals of storytelling. The thought of the wretched daughter’s plight has stirred the imagination and pity of millions.

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