On February 25, 1877 a letter was sent to the Prefect of the Seine (then Ferdinand Duval) from an employee of the reconstituted civil status archives, Monsieur Legendre. Legendre had one simple request of the Prefect: that the expiring tombs of his two children be granted perpetual status free of charge. Legendre’s heart-wrenching letter currently resides in a cardboard box in the annex of the Paris Archives. Tucked between requests for free cemetery plots for accomplished military heroes, sandwiched between stacks of cemetery maps and lists of abandoned tombs that had been removed in the 1920s, this brief letter could easily be overlooked. But it is an exciting document for a couple of reasons, and I am delighted to have stumbled upon it.
In September of 1870 Prussian forces encircled the city of Paris. Not wanting to harm civilians (and in doing so turn third-party opinions against the German cause), bombardment was ruled out, and a siege of the city was begun. By November, following the French surrender at Metz on October 27th, morale in Paris was running low and the people of the city were beginning to feel the negative effects of the Prussian blockade. In response, the French government called upon provincial troops to march towards Paris and armed civilians within Paris as a guerrilla force. In the face of these and other threats (supply shortages and disease) Prussian forces decided to bombard the city in a final attempt to put an end to the conflict in a Prussian victory. For 23 nights in January 1871, the Prussians unloaded some 12,000 shells on Paris, killing hundreds. Paris would ultimately surrender on January 28th, having suffered the most damage to the city of any conflict before or since.
It was during the Siege of Paris, on January 8th, that a shell destroyed Jules Legendre’s home in the 5th Arrondissement on rue Victor Cousin and killed his two children. His daughters, Alice and Clémence, aged 3 and 8 respectively, had been sleeping in the room next to him and his wife when the two girls were crushed by the Prussian shell (Lehautcourt, 212; Souvenirs d’un garde national, 194-195).
Because of the misfortune Legendre and his wife had suffered, he was granted a free burial concession for his children in the Cemetery of Montparnasse. This concession, however, did not guarantee the permanent resting place of his children in the cemetery. The Imperial Decree of 23 Prairial an XII (June 12, 1804) had stipulated that non-perpetual burial plots remain untouched for a minimum of 5 years, after which they could either be renewed or else recuperated by the state and conceded to a new concession holder. This law put Legendre in a tight position. Both grateful for having been granted a free concession in the face of great suffering and distressed by the prospect of his children’s bodies being exhumed, he makes a passionate appeal to Prefect:
To Monsieur le Préfet of the Department of the Seine:
Legendre, employed at the Archives of the Reconstitution of the Civil Status, 188 Rue Faubourg Saint Martin
Monsieur le Préfet,
On the 8th of January 1871, I was occupying a lodging at  Rue Victor Cousin; there, two of my children were killed by a bombshell and my belongings were completely destroyed. Facing such a great misfortune, I obtained, free of charge, a concession in the Cemetery of Montparnasse; today, the five years have expired…I come then, Monsieur le Préfet, to make a supreme appeal to your infinite goodness in the hope that it will grant me the concession free for perpetuity.
Consent, I implore you Monsieur le Préfet, to welcome my prayer favorably…not to do so is to deprive me the tomb of my children…it is to wrest them from the tenderness of their mother…it is to kill them a second time!! …
…but all tells me that you will be glad to sympathize with my great pain.
In the meantime, please, I beg you.
Monsieur le Préfet, my eternal gratitude and the respectful praise of your most devoted servant.
Paris, 25 February 1877
Two marginal notes in support of Legendre’s plea appear on the second page of the letter. The first, made by René Dubail, a former mayor of the 10th Arrondissement, which was where Legendre was living at the time he wrote this letter. In his brief notation he praises Legendre’s dedication to his family and community, suggesting that the request be advanced at least to renew the temporary concession for the next five years if a plot in perpetuity could not be granted.
There is no further indication of what became of Legendre’s request. Truthfully we may never know what the fate of this concession was, but I’d like to think that this letter bought him at least another five years with his children in Montparnasse.
Souvenirs d’un garde national pendant le siège de Paris et pendant la commune (Neuchâtel: Sandoz, 1871).
Victor Debuchy, La vie à Paris pendant le siège 1870-1871 (Paris: L’Harmattan, 1999).
Lorédan Larchey, Memorial illustré des deux Sièges de Paris, 1870-1871 (Paris: Libr. de Moniteur Universel, 1874).
Pierre Lehautcourt, Histoire de la guerre de 1870-1871 (Paris: Berger-Levrault, 1898).