You don’t hear much about this tragic event in French history, but it was just one of the many incidents that turned the tide of public opinion, marking the beginning of the end of the French monarchy.
After a decade of France’s peace negotiations with the Austrian Empire, the deal was sealed with the marriage of the Dauphin Louis (future Louis XVI) and the Austrian Archduchess Marie-Antoinette on May 16th, 1770. The wedding festivities culminated with a fireworks show in Paris near the Seine at the Place Louis XV (now known as the Place de la Concorde) on May 30th.
At the opposite end of the Rue Royale was the huge construction site of the future Eglise de la Madeleine and a large fair set up along the boulevard. According to an account by Louis-Sébastien Mercier, a chronicler of the time who attended the event, the square and surrounding streets were packed tightly full of hundreds of thousands of Parisians hoping to get their first glimpse of the fireworks, since these were usually only seen by royalty and their guests at Versailles. What could possibly go wrong?
The fireworks were being launched from a wooden structure in the shape of a temple set up in the square by King Louis XV’s official pyrotechnicians, the Ruggieri brothers*. After a promising start, the final rockets actually ended up setting the launch structure itself on fire. At first the Parisians thought it was part of the show. But when they finally caught on, the immense crowd panicked and a stampede ensued, pushing towards the narrow Rue Royale where nobles in their carriages – along with Louis and Marie-Antoinette – were also trying to escape. Witness accounts at the time recount how people screamed as they were crushed beneath feet while others were jostled into the Seine and drowned. The official death toll was put at 132 with hundreds more injured, but Mercier recounts a much different story:
“I know many persons who thirty months after these frightful scenes still bore the marks of objects which had been crushed into them. Some lingered on for ten years and then died. I may say without exaggeration that in the general panic and crush more than twelve hundred unfortunate persons lost their lives. One entire family disappeared; and there was scarcely a household which had not to lament the death of a relative or friend.”
Other historians have similar figures. “Galignani’s New Paris Guide: Or, Stranger’s Companion Through the French Metropolis” (1839), puts the death toll as 3,000, a number repeated in the 1917 “New International Encyclopaedia” entry for the Place de la Concorde. Regardless, even at 132 it remains the deadliest fireworks accident of all time.
Louis and Marie-Antoinette were reportedly horrified at the tragedy that took so many lives at what was supposed to be a rapprochement of royalty with their subjects in a time of great distrust (the lavish spending for the wedding angered many who were still feeling the effects of the famine during Louis XV’s reign). According to royalist historians, the couple immediately turned over their personal allowances for that month to Lieutenant General of the Paris Police, Antoine de Sartine, to distribute to the victims and their families.
The dead were buried in the cemetery of the La Ville-L’Evêque, a hamlet just outside the city not far from the Madeleine, where, ironically, the decapitated bodies of Marie-Antoinette and Louis XVI would be dumped 23 years later during the French Revolution.
*As an interesting aside, the Ruggieris, who emigrated to France from Italy in 1739, not only developed almost all of the fireworks techniques still used today – different colors, movements, and “quick match” fuses to be able to light several at once – but their company is still in business today, organizing pyrotechnical shows around the world including the Bastille Day fireworks at the Eiffel Tower. Talk about overcoming a PR disaster!