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  • Writer's pictureMacabre Emporium Pod

Episode 35 - Blanche Monnier and the Necropolis Railway

SARAH:

Blanche Monnier

Blanche Monnier, held captive by her mother and brother because of who she loved.
Blanche Monnier after being found alive...barely.

Marie Leonide Pauline Monnier, or more known as Blanche Monnier, was a 25 year old socialite in 1876. She was daughter to the late Charles Monnier and Louise Monnier, who had become the head of household after Charles’ death, and sister to Marcel Monnier, a lawyer. Madame Louise had been recognized for numerous charitable things and even received recognition for them.. The Monnier’s lived in a mansion in Paris and were considered conservative, rich and influential members of society.


Blanche was beautiful, and described as “very gentle and good natured”. Being the socialite she was, caught the eye of many men. Even with all of the glances in her direction, she was unmarried. Back then it was highly frowned upon to be that age and be without a husband, so she and her family had no choice but to find her a suitable husband before she seemingly ran out of time. To her mother’s peril, Blanche fell in love with an older man. He was a broke lawyer, and that went against everything her mother Louise wanted for her daughter.


Louise had begged Blanche to leave the man and tried everything she could to persuade Blanche to leave him, even forbidding her from seeing him again, but Blanche refused. She loved this man, and it was as simple as that.. In a hasty act to get Blanche to leave this older man, Lousie locked her daughter in a room until she decided she would break ties with the man she loved.


Then all of a sudden, Blanche was gone. Many people suspected that she ran off to be with the older man she had fallen head over heels in love with. Or that she simply died of a broken heart. Louise and Marcel were seemingly in “mourning” at this time. Louise had said her daughter was sent to England and married a Scotsman. They went about their daily lives after the disappearance of Blanche.


In May of 1901, The Attorney General in Paris received a letter about a house in Poitiers, France. It read that there was a woman being held captive, that her living conditions were horrid, and that this had been going on for 25 years. The letter said:

“Monsieur Attorney General: I have the honor to inform you of an exceptionally serious occurrence. I speak of a spinster who is locked up in Madame Monnier’s house, half starved, and living on a putrid litter for the past twenty-five years - in a word, in her own filth.”


This was the house that the Monnier’s lived in. Skepticism played a huge factor when it came to the police, due to the affluent neighborhood and charitable donations that Louise was constantly giving. The police didn’t know what to do. They had known that 25 years before this letter, that Louise’s daughter, Blanche, had disappeared without a trace. They assumed it was a hoax, but as police officers, they had no choice but to investigate the accusation they had received in the mail.


The authorities arrived at 21 rue de la Visitation and knocked, and were greeted by Louise and Marcel. Upon entry into the home, they were smacked in the face by a gut-wrenching smell. In the need to find the source of this smell, they followed it to a padlocked room upstairs in the attic. When they broke open the door, they saw that there was a window covered by shutters, thick, heavy curtains and on top of that, a thick layer of dust. They weren’t able to open the shutters without removing the hinges, so they set out to do that.


Once the shutters were open, and the light was coming in through the small window, shock and horror filled the faces of those in the room.


In a corner of the room, covered in a horrifyingly dirty blanket, an eerily emaciated, skeletal figure emerged. It was that of the barely-but-still-living, Blanche Monnier. She was naked and laying on a mattress of rotten straw, which had also been soaked by her urine and feces. You have to imagine, if that’s where she was for the last 25 years, how soiled that area was, and she was forced to lay in it. I can only imagine the skin breakdown this poor woman suffered.


Blanche was clearly malnourished, having been fed only table scraps by her mother and brother for the last 25 years. She only weighed 55 pounds when she was found and rescued from the hell she had been living in.


There were jars all over the place in the room. Jars with rotten food in them, jars with pieces of cloth covered in Blanches feces - that was also covered in enough insects to fill another jar. There were gashes in the walls that allowed rats free entry and exit as they wished. And the window - after it was inspected, it was noted that it was sealed up perfectly to make sure no smell escaped it.


Blanche had also scribbled on the wall. One of the things she had written was:


“Make beauty, nothing of love or freedom, always solitude. One must live and die in jail all one’s life.”


The officers got a good look at her face, and the conditions around her and had to leave the room due to the stench. The officers went and alerted those in office above them. The examining magistrate, Judge du Fresnel, arrived soon thereafter and ordered that Blanche be transferred to a hospital immediately.


At this time, both Louise and Marcel were arrested.


Once at the Poitiers hospital, many of the doctors felt as though she would not survive the night. Being as emaciated as she was, the matting in her hair that was full of excrement and food waste was some of that weight. Once that was all cut off, it was weighed and it was almost 4.5 pounds on its own. Which would have meant her poor body was closer to 50 pounds and not 55.


Hospital workers had asked their superiors if they could smoke inside of the room to help with the smell coming from Blanche. Once they were finally able to bathe her, it is said that Blanche looked up to them with a warm and sincere smile and thanked them for her first bath in 26 years.


Louise and Marcel stuck to a story that Blanche CHOSE to stay in that room in the dark. That she refused to see anyone, refused to eat properly and refused to wear clothing of any kind. Louise claimed that she had tried to get Blanche to come to the window to get some fresh air, but with the findings from the officers, that would have been impossible because of how it had been sealed.


The judge didn’t care to listen to her anymore and on May 24th, 1901, Louise Monnier was immediately arrested and died in prison 15 days later - AFTER confessing to everything. It’s been said that a few seconds before her death she cried out “My poor Blanche!”


Blanche’s brother Marcel went to trial for helping his mother the entire time and was sentenced to 15 months in prison. Later on though, he was acquitted on the claim that Blanche was never a prisoner and could have left at any time, but had chosen not to. He literally used his lawyer experience and loopholes to get himself out of trouble. And keep in mind that the officers found the room in the attic padlocked…how could she leave at any time if she is literally padlocked into a room?


When the news broke out about Blanche and the vile conditions she was living in, she was nicknamed “Le Sequestree de Poitiers” in France, which translates to “The Confined Woman of Poitiers”.


While recovering at the hospital, Blanche opened the windows in her room and was able to see and take in everything she had been denied for the previous 26 years. She repeatedly remarked “Oh how lovely it is” while looking outside.


After two and half decades of imprisonment, you can imagine that her mental health wasn’t the greatest. She was diagnosed with Schizophrenia, Anorexia Nervosa and Coprophilia (which is abnormal interest in feces and defecation. All of this stemming from what she was forced to live in at the hands of her family.


Despite this, Blanche was never angry and kept her calm demeanor throughout. She had to relearn basic daily living skills such as using the bathroom and eating with utensils. On the day her mother Louise died, Blanche refused to meet with her brother who came to tell her the news in person. Instead, she stated “I want a party” when the hospital staff told her that her mother died.


Blanche had never been well enough after her capture due to her mental status to be let back into society safely, even though she had shown improvements, her damage was far too extensive. Blanche Monnier passed away on October 13th in 1913 at the age of 64, while she was being taken care of at a mental health facility.


*SIDE NOTE*

If you Google Blanche Monnier, there are 2 beautiful women that show up. One of them is American actress, Maude Fealy, and not Blanche Monnier. The other beauty (curly up-do hair) is also NOT Blanche. These two women are often used to represent the beauty that Blanche had in her socialite days. The only pictures that exist of Blanche are the one of her laying down on a bed with her hip bones sticking out (that I used above), as well as another picture of her sleeping/crouching beside a chair with a shaved haircut.


 

DAVID:

Necropolis Railway

London Railway of the Dead, Necropolis Railway
Casket being prepared to be loaded onto the Necropolis Railway.

In episode nine I went over the origins of how cemeteries were created and the subtle differences between the types we see here in the United States. During my research on all this, I came across one of the most interesting company logos I have ever seen. A shield with a skull and crossbones with an hourglass beneath it. A scroll with the Latin phrase “Mortus Quies Vivis Salus” which roughly translates into “Peace to the dead, peace to the living” and encircled by a snake eating its own tail. This would be the logo and slogan for the London Necropolis & National Mausoleum Company. After reading about this company and what it set out to do this turned out that it could be its own episode. So some of this might seem repetitive from that episode but it's still important for this week’s episode.


Between the 1830s and 1850 London would see a huge population growth due to the industrial revolution. London’s population would go from 1 million residents to 2.3 by 1851 giving a population density of 4,266 residents per square mile.


Along with this population growth and epidemics of cholera, smallpox, measles, and typhoid. One of the biggest culprits of these epidemics was the decaying matter seeping into the water supply; these outbreaks were due to poor sanitation conditions of the times as well. Three out of every 20 children born would die before turning 1 and the average life expectancy was only 42 years old. With 25 percent of the population living in poverty by the 1890s and the life expectancy for men working in factories to the ripe old age of 22. With all these factors the dead would outnumber the living quickly. If your family could not afford to have your remains or bones to be placed in ossuaries sent north to be ground into fertilizer. Some graves would be reused with bodies already interred, and stacked on top of each other with a layer of earth between them. As it was difficult to dig a new grave without disturbing nearby graves as most of these were left unmarked. In more crowded areas bodies would be exhumed to free up space for new burials as well. With these exhumations, if the coffin was in good shape it would find its way to second-hand markets or be reused or it would be broken down to be used as firewood stoves and fireplaces.


It was common for those living in poverty to skip meals and save what they could from their low wages, to avoid shame being brought on to their family for allowing themselves or a family member to be buried in a pauper's grave.


A paupers grave or potters field grave as they are known as well are for those that cannot afford a proper burial. These graves would be left open until about 20 bodies would be interred in them before they were closed. Along with being buried in a paupers grave your rights of having a headstone or marker was given up. One of these more infamous pauper’s graves was located under Enon Chapel.


First opening in 1822 as a place of worship and teachings on the first floor but the basement was assigned to burials, in 59 by 29 feet about the same size as a volleyball court. Enon Chapel became a popular burial spot for the poor as the Bishop of the chapel charged well below what other churches' prices for burials.


Those attending worship in Enon Chapel would complain of the putrid stench wafting up from the floor and permeating their Sunday best that has to be washed or air out to get rid of the rancid smell. Sunday school children and worshipers complained of “body bugs” (lice, fleas, mosquitoes, bot flies, etc.…) blighted classrooms and swarmed their hair and hats. Many other people had witnessed members of the chapel passing out due to the noxious fumes rising up through the floor as well.


With the dead outnumbering the living, and making the living sick, along with sewer rats infiltrating graveyards and defiling bodies, this would bring parliament to close off all urban graveyards (a cemetery on church grounds for those that might not remember) and build the seven cemeteries of London known as the Magnificent Seven in 1832.


The Magnificent Seven is named Kensal Green, West Norwood, Highgate, Abney Park, Brompton, Nunhead, and Tower Hamlets. All but one of the Magnificent Seven are still active today as it was closed in 1966 and is now a local nature reserve, Tower Hamlets is the one that is closed. West Norwood is partially open to cremations and family burial plots and West Norwood would become the first cemetery in the world to use the Gothic style of architecture in this type of setting for angsty Goth teens to take pictures in for generations to come. Kessel Green is the first one of these cemeteries to open and is still very active today.


Even with the magnificent seven either opened or still being constructed outside the city limits of London the city's dead still can’t be buried fast enough with a second epidemic hitting London in 1848 and 49 killing or un-aliving 14,601 residents and completely overwhelming the cemeteries leaving bodies stacked awaiting burial.


Parliament sought a means to prevent the constantly increasing number of deaths in the city from overwhelming the new cemeteries like the church graveyards in the past were. One of the proposed plans was to close all existing burial grounds inside London, except for Kensal Green. They were skeptical of this plan being financially viable and it was an unpopular proposal.


In 1840 an alternative idea drawn up by Sir Richard Broun and Richard Spyre proposal was to use new emerging technology of the time to transport and resolve the crisis. Their proposal entailed buying 500 acres outside of London in Brookwood and using trains to get the dead and mourners there. Brookwood is approximately 23 miles away from London and, at this distance it was believed it be far enough beyond the projected city growth.


Broun calculated that 1500 acres could accommodate a total of 5.8 million graves in a single layer but if the practice of single layer burials was abandoned and started using paupers graves of ten burials per grave they could fit up to 28.5 million. In his calculations it would take 350 years to fill a single layer. Even though Brookwood was a much farther distance away from London than the Magnificent seven were it would still be cheaper and quicker since the seven cemeteries required a expensive horse drawn hearse to carry the body to the cemetery.


The London and South Western Railway was already connected to nearby Working in 1838 so the track work was already laid out. Broun’s idea was that a train would carry 50-60 bodies once a day to the cemetery in the early morning hours or late at night, and the coffins would be held at the site until it was time for the funeral whereas the mourners would be brought the next day to Brookwood.

Shareholders of the LSWR had concerns of the impact the necropolis railway would have on operations of the regular trains. Charles Blomfield the Bishop of London at the time wasn’t in favor of the train; the noise and speed of the railways would be incompatible with the solemnity of a Christian burial service. He also considered it inappropriate that the families of different backgrounds would have to share a train, and it would demean the dignity of the deceased respectable member of the community, if their bodies had to be carried alongside those of who had less moral lives.


In June of 1852 Parliament would give consent to proceed with the London Necropolis and National Mausoleum Company. Not only did Richard Broun envision this necropolis for London he wanted to have separate stops for each religion and a chapel for each. The engineer in charge of this construction rejected this idea and recommended one separate rail line and a private branch off the mainline running through the cemetery. This branch line would actually have two separate stations on it. The south station would be for those aligned with the Church of England and the North Station for nonconformists to the COE. On November 7, 1854 the cemetery would open, its first interment would be still born twins from Southwark, a burrow from London. The first service trains from London to Brookwood would be disinterred corpses for relocation to Brookwood.


The regular trains the NCR did run were divided by three classes of funerals which also determined the type of ticket you were sold as well.


First class tickets would allow those who could afford them to select a grave site of their choice anywhere in the cemetery. The going price for basic 9x4 plot without coffin specifications is 2 pounds (2.57 dollars) coming out to 182 pounds today or 234 dollars. Second class was approximately 100 dollars less than first class and were allowed some control of the burial location. But the LNC had the rights to re-use the grave in the future if a head stone was not erected. Third class was generally where funerals were paid for by the parish or church and had a designated section for this in Brookwood and not granted the rights to a permanent memorial even though they could upgrade to second class but it was rare.


This classing of passengers even carried over to the dead loaded into coffin wagons or rail cars as we know them here in our country, along with religion as well. They did this to prevent mourners becoming distraught with mixing with those of different social backgrounds. This practice went as far with the deceased as well. Even the carriages showed the status of people in which they rode in. First class would be very ornate or if they were wealthy enough to have their own carriage or if they did own their own put into the consist. Whereas third class had to ride with the dead said by one source as another never mentioned third class having to ride the train in this manner.


The LNC didn’t own any of the locomotives or carriages for passenger service they used; they belonged to the LCWR but they did own the special coffin rail cars. These railcars were segregated by class as well and in their first design could carry up to six coffins eventually being large enough to carry 14. LSWR employees would joke about the LNC trains calling it the stiff express or the dead meat train.


At the stations in London the LNC provided waiting rooms and chapels for each of its classes along with food and refreshments and at the cemetery as well. First and second class would have private rooms and third class was a much smaller space with opaque glass to be kept seen from the upper classes. The platforms were on the second story and the coffins would be lifted by an elevator to the second floor.


Before the train's departure, First class and second class were given the opportunity to see their loved ones loaded onto the train and escorted to their assigned carriages whereas third class did not.


The LSWR would run one train a day to Brookwood, leaving at 11:35am from the London terminal which can still be seen today, and arriving at the cemetery at 12:25 pm. Some sources did say that it was run daily but most said it only ran as needed. If there was only a single second or third class coffin that day it would be held over until the next service was to take place.


After arriving the trains would be pulled into the cemetery by teams of black horses. With the few photos that are available on line the hearse van or railcar would be at the end of the train since the trains would cross over on the main line and back into the necropolis siding no matter which way it was placed in the train. Now to slightly tie in our Victorian episode Sarah has brought up professional mourners. Since weekends were a popular choice for the working classes most of the time you would find professional mourners on Sundays due to laws prohibiting theater performances on Sunday, my guess this restriction was for whatever loony religious belief about theater acts being sinful like Ice Cream sodas were when I went over ice cream.


Over time the necropolis railway would decline with more cemeteries opening closer to London and the invention of motorized coaches IE cars and trucks. The LNC and its funeral trains would run up until 1941 when the Westminster Bridge Rd., a terminal in London, was severely damaging the workshops and third class waiting room during the Blitz of London with several of their hearse vans. This building can still be seen today and I couldn’t find what the building is currently being used for except at one point it was used for offices and at one point as well as a autonomous winter shelter for London residents facing poverty. The North station in Brookwood is slowly being taken by nature as the South station is now a monastery owned by the Russian Orthodox Church housing a shrine and relic of St Edward the Martyr, and the angelic chapel was converted to living quarters for the monastery, and visitor center for Brookwood cemetery.


In its 80 years of service the necropolis railway ran with almost a perfect record until the train hit a truck in 1938 leaving the masonry works of the cemetery due to tall plants. The truck driver couldn’t see the oncoming train and struck one of the hearse cars and the truck was crushed under it. Incredibly the driver of the truck was uninjured while the occupants of the hearse van were still found to be dead.


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