‘A difficult arrest’ is the understated subtitle of this slightly farcical cover of Le Petit Parisien‘s literary illustrated supplement from 25 February 1900. Despite the seven snakes crawling out of her bed, the woman seems more preoccupied with adjusting her hair and striking a pose. She also doesn’t really seem to notice the people standing in her bedroom door. Was the illustrator just not very good at drawing people’s expressions? What is going on here?
The weekly, Sunday illustrated supplements of Le Petit Parisien – and other popular newspapers – were known for their sensational, visual representations of currents events and fait divers. These were the days before photography became widely used in newspapers so illustrators could let their imaginations run wild. And they did. The covers had to be eye-catching and action packed to draw the attention of potential buyers. The articles inside were often a lot less sensational and more balanced, but the cover drawings were basically the 1900 version of click-bait. Obviously it worked, because they managed to catch my attention 114 years later. Check out the covers from 1900 and other years here on Gallica.
Even though there is some gruesome violence pictured in many of them, there is a very odd, emotionless distance in these drawings as well as in the expressions of the people pictured. Even when an individual is in the midst of being murdered. Is this due to poor artistic skills or was this done to avoid too much realism? Dehumanised violence for sensitive viewers? In any case, some truly horrible events end up looking very staged and artificial, if not unintentionally comical. At least I hope it was unintentional.
In between all these horrors, when there were no freak events to report, other things happened as well in 1900: a horse getting ready for some parade, the fire brigade getting an electric car, another horse at a race with a lot of flag waving, the president at a very important ceremony, 6 officers with bicycles protecting 3 French citizens, a laboratory being opened. The underlying message of these rather boring events is clear. Look how wonderful the French Republic is: just waving some flags, having fun parades, making scientific discoveries, with non-threatening officers taking care of citizens.
And then there were actual historical events happening in far away places: the Boer war, a bit of French colonial expansion and fighting in Africa, Europeans being attacked by angry Chinese rebels, friendly foreign imperial rulers who were supportive of France.
Back to the most important event of the year though: the female snake charmer. I was of course curious to find out who she was. Medusa reincarnated? Just a woman with an unfortunate choice of pets? Well, neither really. Her name was, depending on the newspaper, either Zalemma Keardy or Neardy. But who cares about futile facts when there is a juicy story to be told. Apparently this 24 year old Swedish woman claimed to be a snake charmer, but was in reality a swindler with an international arrest warrant. The police visited her at her Paris hotel room where they found her asleep in between her snakes. She threatened the officers, but of course the courageous French detective was not afraid of her snakes. A brave man. According to newspaper articles Zalemma ended up in the Saint-Lazare prison. I have no idea what happened to the poor snakes or what happened to her, but the story was picked up by newspapers everywhere. Below you can see how the same story was represented in the illustrated Sunday edition of regional newspaper L’Express de Lyon (Source: BM de Lyon). Le Petit Dauphinois used the same cover illustration as you can see here.
So what is the overall sentiment in 1900 according to these covers? Mostly a bit of scare-mongering mixed with some human interest, foreign news and a dose of chauvinism. Not just in Le Petit Parisien, but also in the regional papers. Dangers are obviously everywhere: criminals, scary foreigners, nature. Luckily brave police officers, soldiers and other heroes are busy trying to protect French citizens from harm everywhere in the world. And it’s probably best to buy illustrated supplements to read all about it.