Reminiscences of the Siege of Paris
By Prof. L. Moimier
A Resident of Vineland Since 1894
Things grew from bad to worse - all except the rich felt the pinch of privation more keenly every day. Food grew scarcer by degrees. In November, eggs reached the price of 60 cents a piece and onions 25 cents, while bread was getting blacker and fouler. Gas being no longer made, the streets were as dark as those of the smallest village, and oil lamps and candles were used in homes and public places. Still, nothing was done (except in the way of charity) to apportion rations for everybody. Business had ceased; people had stopped paying their rents as early as October 8. Fuel was very scarce, and cold weather was setting in. Women who had declared they would rather die than eat horse flesh, were now buying it at exhorbitant prices. Those first horses of early November were the worst, being the livery cab horses, half starved or diseased. Those of the rich had been put into requisition for the army.
Two months passed and nothing worth mentioning done! The Parisians were clamoring for a chance to fight - clamoring in vain! What were the leaders doing? Did they not see that intense suffering was now beginning? That the mortality among the children and the very old was alarmingly high?
At last they perceived that wasteful methods must be stopped. What should have been done from the start was now inaugurated in a limited measure - food was apportioned, but not among all, only for those who had no longer the means to buy, which, practically meant everybody except the wealthy people who continued to eat more than their share, thus wasting the general stock of food.
People of means paid fabulous prices for the meat of elephants, bears, monkeys, antelopes, from the Zoological gardens. It became a fad among them to eat outlandish, rare animals - this while the masses got their two-ounce ration of sickly horse and began hunting also outlandish, though by no means exotic, food - viz., cats, (the days of rats and mice had not yet dawned upon us).
I was among the fortunate ones. By working for the army far from home, I had one ration of meat at noon, and for supper I was privileged to another ration; this did not strike me then as unfair - Paris had rice and wine in immense quantities, but the former was insipid when simply boiled in water. My mother tried every conceivable thing to make it palatable - lamp oil (not kerosene) and vinegar proving a favorite sauce. Rice and chocolate also went well for awhile, but it soon became a luxury by far too expensive.
In December and January rat eating was indulged in, at first cautiously and with much nausea; but famished stomachs do not pout long in the presence of a delicacy that seemed to have the fine aroma of choice venison; it was not necessary to think of the tail and not very profitable to eat it! Our record of rats was not kept, but we did away at home with seven felines. At the time of rat and cat eating, horse flesh had become much better, in fact very good but very scanty. As for bread, it was then as black as the blackest ' ' Pumpernicken, ' ' but its color was nothing as compared with its composition and taste. We used to find in its mysterious crumb, grit, straw, oat hulls, even mice droppings. My sister was so often nauseated that she could retain but a very insufficient amount of food; she became emaciated and contracted a gastric disease from which she died years afterward, never having regained her normal health after that terrible ordeal.
The situation, tragic as it was, was not without its humorous side. A famous grocery firm, Potin, advertised cheese, natural, L6 frcs. per pound; artificial, 5 frcs.! One day my father brought home a large leg of something he had bought dearly - "a real bargain," he said, "at about $2.00 a pound - a leg o' goat! My mother confidently prepared and cooked it though she thought it had a rather peculiar shape for a goat leg. While cooking, its odor was exactly that which a dog emits when coming in near the fire from the rain.
Father then admitted that it was a leg o' dog! We tasted. Horrors! our stomachs, though willing to try almost anything, would not receive Mr. Dog within its portals. We presented it to a Jewish family, our neighbors, who had eight famished children. They found the dog exquisitely delicious, though it was far from being "Kosher" meat!
We discovered a great delicacy, low of price, in decent quantities, molasses. We ate it in, on, and with everything. It had a way of getting tangled in father's and Flouren's beards, but in spite of that it soon became a luxury beyond reach when the neighbors discovered we were growing fat on treacle.
Speaking of Flourens prompts me to say that some time after the 31st of October and before cat hunting began in earnest, while coming home at night, I saw a wee kitten mewing piteously in front of a closed door. It was too tiny to be stewed into a "civet de chat," still there were possibilities of growth in its frail physique, so I sprang forward to grab it. At the same instant, however, another Nimrod of about my age and strength forestalled my move and successfully bagged the infant game. "Mine' 'tis mine!" we both cried at once, and a tussle began for the possession of that wailing unfortunate. I saw that only poor results would follow such a duel, the escape of the prize, or its dismemberment, or possible scratches. "I'll give you 50 centimes for it; it's no good to eat anyway and I saw it first," I said, bargaining, arguing and claiming at once. "All right, keep it, ' ' and thus I got a cat to which I and my folks became much attached. She proved to be such a beautiful "tortoise-shell and of such astounding intelligence that all thoughts of a gastronomic nature in relation to her catship would have been regarded as sacriligious. Gustave Flourens was then, fairly secure in our house from arrest and execution, writing his famous book "Paris Livre," ("Paris Given Away.") Built like a giant, brave as a lion, dashing hero of past and future battles and profoundly learned as he was, he had, nevertheless, an unconquerable aversion to cats. He would cry beseechingly, "Take her away! keep her off! Madame Mounier," when Bouffette jumped on his lap or climbed his titanic shoulders. His fright was a source of merriment for us all and for my sister a means of teasing him. Four months later he was killed. Bouff ette 's marvelous intelligence, her dog like devotion and her many curious actions, the recounting of which would fill a volume, caused her to be kidnapped in New York six years later. Gustave, Louise, Bouff ette and the countless others who passed through that siege into the great unknown domain, ye are admiringly, reverently, fondly, faithfully remembered!!
But, with Boileau, Passons de l'aigre au doux, du plaisant au severe, from the bitter to the sweet.
We tried vetch, a pigeon feed. This did not stick and tangle like molasses - it was adamantine. It would not cook! The job of crushing those refractory peas with a pestle when I came home from work, was mine. My elbow grease was the only kind we could put in them and even with a generous amount of it, they were far from mellow under our teeth.
But the great question beside food, was how to keep warm. No fuel! We had by the end of December burned a valuable stock of fine veneers and mahogany, English walnut, old furniture, all of my father's cabinet-making shop. We must now buy a new article spoken of as an ideal fuel, namely, coal briquettes. Thk is an invention dating from the siege of Paris. They were good, and are good to this day. But they continued to be made and sold even when there was no more coal dust to be had; still they burned as far as the tar would burn; the coal had been replaced by gravel! How we made our stove travel from one end of the room to the other thinking it would draw better! It so happened, unfortunately, that that winter of 1870-71 was one of the coldest known in France. The river Seine became a solid sheet of ice in spite of its rather rapid flow.
Oh! the pitiful sight it was, those long files of famished women waiting for hours in the cold, in the snow, in the sleet, the slush and the rain for an ounce of meat and a chunk of that mixture we called bread! These heroic Parisians were willing to starve if only they would be permitted to fight! But our inept generals of the Empire dallied, procrastinated, all the while promising plans of attack, sorties, junctions, and so forth, swearing they would never capitulate, which renewed the patience of those poor unfortunates and made them only too willing to endure every privation and the sight around them of their own dying of hunger!
The majority, nevertheless, entertained hopes of a final victory. We would, in spite of all, unite with the armies of France of which we knew but little. We would break that circle of Krupp guns at any cost - if we died, we would die like heroes. Each battalion of National Guards contributed one bronze cannon, some two hundred in all. These were cast and made by private industry. It is an astonishing fact to me yet that such quantities of bronze could be found in Paris. Each gun bore a name - our's was the " Victor Hugo.
These guns were never allowed to be used, and this fact was the main reason why the incensed people, later on, jealously retained them and guarded them, which proved the precipitating cause of the Commune. The infuriated people would not relinquish them and it was while reconnoitering in civilian disguise to recover them that Generals Thomas and Leconte were shot on March 18th, 1871; but let us not anticipate.