In the spring of 1750, children began to disappear from the streets of Paris. Some were big boys of 14 or 15, others were mites of five or six years old. When beggar children vanished, no one much noticed, but when the children of tradespeople and craftworkers were missed panic spread through working-class districts and into the city at large. Schoolmasters put up notices asking parents to escort their children to and from school, as they could not be responsible for their safety. 'Stranger-danger' was in everyone's mind - casual passers-by were chased and beaten up. The parents and their neighbours believed that the authorities were not only uncaring and inactive, but in some sinister way complicit. After a few days of unease, street-fighting broke out in various locations. You could tell it was serious, one commentator said, because the rioters didn't break for lunch. In fact they stayed out far into the night, and women were prominent among them. Public buildings were stoned and a group of young people tried to break into armourers' premises on the Pont Saint-Michel, saying that they must have guns to use against the police. The authorities deployed bayonets and firearms. At least twenty rioters were killed, and an unknown number injured on both sides. Three young men were hanged for public order offences. The police, speculating wildly to draw attention from themselves, blamed the riots on organised crime, or on persons unknown - men in black - who mingled with the crowds and offered them cash to start trouble.
LRB 17 April 2003 | PDF Download