The crowd hovering around the entrance to the Hospital for the Incurable seemed slight at first. The hospital was the cornerstone of the city of Le Frères du Plume. Many of its citizens derived their livelihood from being directly employed by, or providing needed services to, the one hundred-twenty year-old institution.
Placards posted along the street proclaimed the hanging of Old Grimes. I thought that impossible. Old Grimes had been hung a month ago. Wasn’t he dead and forgotten? But there it was, a rare rehanging, and I hadn’t noticed the announcements at all.
I made my way through the gathering throng of curious, being careful to avoid the swords and daggers the citizenry wore daily, almost as part of their natural costume. The Rules of Decorum and Civility clearly stated that weapons of this kind could not be worn within a hundred meters of the hospital where breakouts were common, and some more opportunistic citizenry made a practice of waiting to pick off those who tried to escape.
I recognized at least a half-dozen rogues in the crowd who made a modest living out of tracking down the escapees who fled from the roof, windows, basement, and secret chambers deep within the hospital and then, selling their bloody carcasses—sometimes individual organs—back to the hospital where they were used to train the next generation of surgeons.
Vendors hawked croissants and baguettes, rich pastries, and little dolls in the images of previous patients who had met their fate at the hands of the hangman. They were carved from the rarest Brazilian Rosewood and inlaid with ivory and, in some circles, were considered highly collectable.
It was 1865. Napoleon III’s majestic vision to modernize Paris had been underway for over a decade. The economy was booming as overcrowded medieval buildings were demolished, hills were leveled, bridges were constructed, and narrow, tangled streets were replaced with straight and broad tree-lined avenues extending to the western suburbs where fields of cabbages once grew. This explosion of modernity exposed a vein of civil greed and moral corruption that even the populace considered reprehensible.
Old Grimes, or as he was known, Jonathan Grimes or Perciville Grimes, was brought to the hospital just a year ago where I understood he was being treated for acts of rage which the administrators quickly determined were cleverly disguised political acts proffering unrest and civil disobedience and, if left untreated, could easily foment anarchy and become a threat to the stability of the Second French Empire.
While in treatment, he was accused of attacking two guards and a delivery boy. Since his illnesses were diagnosed as pathologically incurable, the hospital pressed for and received an Obligatory Decree of Execution from the local courts.
Besides that dubious finding, the Hospital for The Incurable had a suspicious record for having more hangings than any other institution of its size in France. Even at a dozen kilometers from the festering and unrepentant heart of Paris, its record for hangings in the past year was uncommonly high. Speculation was that the administration was enriching themselves by pressing for such charges mostly during the high tourist season where spectacle could be justly rewarded by trainloads of the curious.
“What are you doing here?”
“I don’t know. I was just passing by,” I said to Le Cur, a fashionable enough physician.
“What a shame—a grand hospital, upholding the highest standards of medical practice, and humbly serving the community having to re-execute a patient. Just inexcusable. Would never have happened had I been the director.”
“But weren’t you in charge when Old Grimes was first executed?”
“A technicality, and an important one because it was known to all I was going to retire shortly and as such and from that moment henceforth I had no complicity or responsibility for the ineptitude of the staff.”
“But that was a few weeks ago and you were still the Director.”
“As I said, and as you apparently are unable to understand or refuse to accept, it was not my custom to preside over ineptitude and inappropriate professional behavior and, as such, I could not have been held responsible for whatever led up to the failure of his first hanging or the cause of his second.”
I knew Le Cur from Dale Gardens, a small community on the fringe of the 19th Arrondissement where we were both raised a quarter century ago. His family was distantly related to mine, though they were adverse to admit it. Le Cur became a famous surgeon—I drifted along taking work where I could get it until I met and became one of Andre Riggard’s apprentice street polishers. Not a skilled position in so small a town as Le Frères du Plume, but still considered respectable nonetheless.
Riggard’s reputation throughout France was unmatched and, after he died, allowed me an advantage over more experienced street polishers in obtaining lucrative contracts. Riggard was an artisan, a highly skilled and innovative craftsman who brought dignity to the trade.
Still, I question my legacy against his. Had I not attended to the minutest detail no matter the street, intersection, or neighborhood? Had I given back in craft what I had been paid in coin? Was I a model for those who would follow or a shallow pale of my mentor?
Physicians from the hospital paraded along the sidewalk directly in front of the noble institution—their starched white laboratory coats impeccably pressed, their names, specialty, and titles embroidered with great flourish in bright red stitching over their hearts.
The crowd thickened, doubled in a few minutes, and then doubled again. A rehanging was rare and, as I learned from Le Cur, the hospital had made every effort to honestly and openly communicate to the public and beyond local provinces its predicament, as though their regret was the greater victim than the injustice Old Grimes had received.
“Madness,” Le Cur insisted in Portuguese, his native tongue, which may have been why so many people misunderstood him. “Simple madness, and all the while taking up valuable time of the doctors and staff required to remain stone still until the completion of the ceremony.”
“Oui, je suis d’accord avec vous,” I finally admitted, and was bumped aside as a clutch of tourists pushed their way forward.
The tour guides insisted that each in their groups get the great physicians signatures, which they could then sell to neighbors and friends upon returning home. It was quickly obvious that the physicians and the tour guides had an arrangement where the physicians would split any fees paid by the tourists to their guide.
The crowd fed off its eagerness, culminating in screaming chants for justice of “death once, better twice,” sabers symbolically swung high overhead, and daggers at the theatrical ready.
The hangman, cloaked in a long black robe, his head covered in a shroud, brought out Old Grimes. He pressed the broken man up the stairs of the raised platform in front of the hospital. The crowd thundered its eager approval. The physicians continued to sign anything, programs of the afternoon rehanging, scraps of paper, a menu of services offered by the Hospital for the Incurable. Anything for which they could charge.
How hadn’t I noticed the placards posted along the boulevards and alleys announcing the rehanging? I could only begin to imagine what else of consequence had passed by me unnoticed.
I was tired, though from what I wasn’t certain. I hadn’t worked at all this week, though I had agreements that pledged my timely services. I backed into the small park across the street and found one of the few benches that were not in a state of disrepair.
I considered taking a holiday, a trip to Paris, maybe a grand meal and then a quick return to my small quarters not far from the park. Maybe visit the Arc de Triomphe. The great monument was completed in 1836—had thirty years passed so quickly?
Drums thundered in front of the hospital announcing the immediacy of the obvious. If I’d had the energy I would have quickly walked away so as not to become a part, or even an observer, of such an indignity.
A kit of young pigeons soon settled by my side as though I had something they wanted, when just the opposite was true. When they began to speak it was obvious they were also saddened by the state of the nation and, more importantly, how the streets were no longer being polished the way they were in the old days.
“Oui, je suis d’accord avec vous,” I pronounced, though with far less conviction than one might have expected.
Note: This piece was first published by The Copperfield Review in July 2015.