“The best that we can do is to be kindly and helpful toward our friends and fellow passengers who are clinging to the same speck of dirt while we are drifting side by side to our common doom” – Clarence Darrow
Humans have been personifying our sense of impending doom ever since we learned how to write. The Mesopotamians were busy talking about the minor plague-demon Namtar, responsible for doom and destiny. The Greeks had Moros, the offspring of Nyx (night) and brother to Moirai (Fate), one of the nasties released from Pandora’s Box (turns out it was technically a big jar), and responsible for ushering us to our untimely ends. As a species we have an overdeveloped sense that we are inevitably barreling towards a gruesome fate, and consequently, Fate is rarely a benign personage. When some supernatural critter arrives to announce your fate, it’s unlikely that he’s telling you that you are holding the winning lottery numbers. Harbingers and portents, when they are dressed up and embodied, tend to signify your imminent failure or death. While bipolar disorder, depression, and panic attacks can manifest in feelings of impending doom, apparently the sense that the world is ending can also accompany physical ailments such as coronary heart disease, myocardial infarction, and aortic dissection, which makes a lot of sense, since at that point you’re likely fixing to shuffle off the mortal coil in short order unless you have a good health care plan (a mythological entity unto itself). It’s no wonder the alcohol, tobacco, and drug industries have historically been a good investment, since we spend most of our time waiting for the other shoe to fall, as observed by Edgar Allen Poe when he remarked, “I have absolutely no pleasure in the stimulants in which I sometimes so madly indulge. It has not been in the pursuit of pleasure that I have periled life and reputation and reason. It has been the desperate attempt to escape from torturing memories, from a sense of insupportable loneliness and a dread of some strange impending doom”. Thus, it should come as only a mild surprise that Paris, La Ville-Lumière (“The City of Light”), where love is always in the air, has for four hundred years hosted a resident harbinger of death and destruction, known affectionately as “Le Petit Homme Rouge” or The Red Man of the Tuileries.
Little red men telling us the sky is falling are not as uncommon as you would think in French-influenced folklore, as a common figure in Normandy is the subclass of faerie-like Lutin (a sort of house-spirit) called the Nain Rouge (French for “Red Dwarf”). But the Norman Nain Rouge is more of a helping hand to fisherman when treated with respect, in many ways like the Irish leprechaun. The Nain Rouge hitched a ride to North America during the French colonization of Quebec, and filtered down to Detroit, where he took on many of the traits that are also associated with The Red Man of the Tuileries from the very founding of Fort Pontchartrain du Détroit by Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac in 1701 in so far as whenever he was reported by the local populace, things started to go epically wrong (for more on Detroit’s Le Nain Rouge see my article “Le Nain Rouge: The Historical Harbinger of Detroit’s Doom”). The Red Man of the Tuileries, a close cousin of Le Nain Rouge began making appearances in Paris as early as the 16th Century, said to have revealed himself to Queen Catherine de’ Medici (1519-1589 A.D.), and has been spotted in the company of royalty ever since.
Popular tradition asserts that the palace of the Tuileries has been for centuries the resort of a demon, familiarly known by the name of ” L’Homme Rouge,” or the Red man; who is seen wandering in all parts of the chateau whenever some great misfortune menaces its royal inhabitants; but who retreats at other periods to a small niche in the Tour de V’Horloge, the central tower built by Catherine de Medici, for the use of her royal astrologers (Gore, 1839, p323).
There are two separate origin stories regarding the debut of the Red Man of the Tuilieries. In one version, the construction of the Tuileries Palace was commissioned in 1564 by the widowed Catherine de’ Medici after the death of her husband King Henry II of France, into which, in her impatience she moved before the building had been completed. Before the architects could put the finishing touches on the palace, Catherine is said to have abandoned the premises, having repeatedly encountered an already resident and decidedly creepy “Le Petit Homme Rouge” that told her she would die near “Saint-Germain”.
In her haste to have her new palace, Catherine came to occupy some of the salles while they were yet unfinished, and was preparing to celebrate their completion with a series of splendid fetes, when it was suddenly announced that she had taken a strong aversion to her new residence and was about to abandon it forever. This was because a certain being, clothed in a red pour-point and red hose, which appeared in the evenings in the upper stories of the building, had prophesied that she should die near to Saint-Germain. As the Tuileries were in the parish of Saint-Germain-l’Auxerrois, the queen forsook the palace in which she had been so greatly interested; she refused to visit again Saint-Germain-en-Laye, and she even declined to cross the bridges lest she should find herself in the vicinity of the abbey of Saint-Germain, then situated just outside the Porte Bucy. It is impossible to cheat Destiny,—after having avoided for the rest of her life, with the greatest care, anything suggestive of this dreaded name, she fell dangerously ill in the Hotel de Soissons, which she had constructed near the parish Saint-Eustache; feeling herself at the point of death, she asked the name of the Benedictine monk who was administering to her the last sacraments, and learned that it was Laurent de Saint-Germain! The little red man of the Tuileries remained; and he continued always a prophet of evil for the royal masters of this palace. He was seen for the three nights which preceded the assassination of Henri IV; he announced to the young Louis XIV the approaching troubles of the Fronde; during the Revolution, he wandered through the attics of the palace on the nights before the 20th of June and the 10th of August, and on the night of the king’s flight to Varennes he even slept in the royal bed; but he avenged his royal proteges when the insults to their memory became too flagrant before their very palace. On the day after the 14th of July, 1793, there was set up in front of the Tuileries a grotesque monument to the Manes de Marat, consisting of a sort of niche in which were piled up indiscriminately various household articles having belonged to that sanguinary dictator,—his bath-tub, still stained with his blood, his lamp, his bath-robe, his inkstand, and—crowning all—his bust, the whole intermingled and adorned with appropriate descriptions, devices, and emblems. One morning, the sentry, placed before this commemorative monument to protect it from wandering and sacrilegious dogs, was found dead at his post,—of cold, according to the official report, in the month of July! The real cause was much more terrible,—though as to the means by which this cause became known, history is silent. As the great clock of the deserted palace struck midnight, the sentry suddenly saw through the windows a light passing from room to room of the upper stories; then it descended the grand staircase, the great door of the central pavilion opened, and closed with a dull report behind a little man clothed all in red and carrying a lantern which flashed mysterious lights around him. This strange being approached the terrified soldier, leaping lightly over the disjointed stones of the pavement, turned the light of his lantern on all the various objects of the monument as if to examine them, and then gave utterance in the silence of the night to such a burst of laughter and infernal scorn (not unnaturally) that the sentry fell dead with horror (Walton, 1899, p34-35).
Yet another version of the history of the Red Man of the Tuileries is similarly associated with Catherine de’ Medici. After the death of King Henry II, Catherine acted as regent for her underage son Francis II (who died in 1560), and then for her other son Charles IX (died in 1574), and then wielded great influence in the court of her third son, Henry III. This was a time of almost continuous civil war and religious conflict in France, and Catherine established a reputation as a ruthless (her own letters seem to support this characterization) and powerful woman. Obviously, like any good political operator, Catherine needed some muscle for intimidation purposes, and reportedly found a reliable henchman to commit the occasional murder of her political opponents in a former butcher who went by the name Jean l’écorcheur (“John the Skinner”). Jean ended up knowing way too much about where all the metaphorical and literal bodies were buried, so Catherine had him wacked, as it just so happens, in the Garden of the Tuileries. Unfortunately, his body vanished and the Queen’s astrologer mentioned that he subsequently had a vision of a “red man” who said he would haunt the Tuileries until their destruction. The Tuileries would become the official Parisian residence of every French monarch from Henry IV (1553-1610) to Napoleon III (1808-1873). Living in the Tuileries appears to entail putting up with the presence of Le Petit Homme Rouge, even when you have a fancy title like Emperor. He continued to make appearances among ill-fated French royalty on and off for a number of years. “On the eve of May 14, 1610, the date of Henry IV’s assassination, the Red Spectre made his appearance in the Tuileries. He foretold the troubles of the Fronde to Louis XIV when that monarch was a mere child” (Walsh, 1914, p257). Of course, in that bloody epoch we call the French Revolution, generally a bad time to be an aristocrat, the Red Man of the Tuileries put in more frequent appearances. Marie Antoinette was guillotined on October 16, 1793, and our tiny red friend was sighted just prior to that.
This goblin, known also as the Little Red Man of the Tuileries, is said to haunt the palace and its adjacent building, showing himself on the eve of disaster. His first recorded appearance was a few days before the 10th of August 1793. Marie Antoinette’s women were sitting in the Salle des Gardes when they became suddenly aware of the presence of a small man, clothed from crown to heel in scarlet, who looked at them with such unearthly eyes that they were frozen with terror. They rushed to the apartment of Madame la Dauphine and related their adventure (Walsh, 1888, p121).
Napoleon Bonaparte seems to have had a complex relationship with the Little Red Man of the Tuileries. “But who was he—this crimson ghost? Evidently ‘Le Petit Homme Rouge ‘—the Little Red Man of the Tuileries, the familiar demon of the place, the eidolon of the First Napoleon, to whom it is said he appeared in Egypt, on the eve of the Battle of the Pyramids, muttering the word ‘ Moscow.’ He was seen again, according to the testimony of a grenadier of unimpeachable veracity, coming out of the Emperor’s tent on the night before the Battle of Austerlitz. When challenged and bidden to give the countersign, he screamed ‘St. Helena,’ and vanished with an unmelodious twang” (Sala, 1880, p343). Other reports of Napoleon Bonapartes’ encounters with the Le Petit Homme Rouge suggest a working relationship in his rule of the French Empire from 1804-1814, and again in 1815.
He visited Napoleon I at Cairo, shortly after the battle of the Pyramids, and predicted to the Little Corporal his brilliant destiny. Chamberlain’s Anecdotes of Napoleon and his Court tells this story: In the month of January, 1812 (the winter preceding the Russian campaign), the Red Man asked a sentinel if he might speak to the emperor. The soldier replying in the negative, the demon brushed him aside, and ran quickly up the steps. He said to a chamberlain, “Tell the Emperor that a little Red Man whom he saw in Egypt wishes to see him again.” Napoleon admitted the petit homme; a long conversation followed in the private cabinet; from a few words that were overheard Napoleon seemed to be pleading for something which was refused. Finally the door was opened. The Red Man came out, passed quickly through the corridors, and disappeared on the ‘grand staircase which nobody saw him descend. Beranger celebrates this spectre in a poem entitled Le Petit Rouge, Homme, supposed to be spoken by a charwoman who had done duty in the Tuileries for forty years (Walsh, 1914, p257).
The little Red Man is also credited with predicting Napolean’s failures at Waterloo, Fontainebleau, and the scrapped invasion of England. Apparently he also visited Josephine to let her know that she would be Empress of the French.
He also visited the cliffs of Boulogne to foretell the failure of the projected invasion of England; and, again, in the last years of the First Empire, he showed himself both at Fontainebleau and at Waterloo. Madame Lenormand, the so-called Sibyl of the early years of the nineteenth century, who is said to have predicted to Josephine Beauharnais that she would some day be Empress of the French, wrote an imaginative book on the subject of the Little Red Man, in which she blundered sadly by asserting that he was the “good genius” of Napoleon, whereas he was at the most merely his “candid friend” (Vizetelly, 1912, pV).
Le Petit Homme Rouge shows up yet again in the overthrow of the restored monarchy and recall of Napoleon. By this time, his existence gets complicated by the juvenile pranks of a gang of French art students, keeping in mind that Jerry Lewis has long been considered a comic genius in France.
The next apparition of the Red Man was in 1814, in the presence of the little King of Rome and his attendants, and he was again seen, according to the report, a little before the death of Louis XVIII.—this time in the Galerie du Louvre. In 1815, however, much discredit was thrown upon the ghost’s existence by the practical joking of some art students attached to Gros’s studio at the Louvre. Some of the Louvre apartments had been placed at the disposal of ruined emigrants who had returned to France and found a protectress in the Duchesse d’Angouleme. Among these were two old maiden ladies and a Knight of St. Louis who were dining together one evening when a “grand diable rogue” came down the chimney and, snatching a leg of mutton from the table, disappeared with it by the way he came. The incident was reported to the Duchesse, who sought the presence of the King and with tears pouring down her face declared her conviction that some great misfortune was impending. The King laughed at his niece’s fears and sent for a chimney-sweeper. A boy who went up the chimney to look for the “diable rogue” did not return. A man was then sent up, but nothing more was seen or heard of him. The greatest excitement reigned in the palace, and at length a fireman undertook to explore the haunted chimney. He returned and explained the mystery. It appeared that the chimney passed by Gros’s studio, and that his pupils by making a hole in the wall, were enabled to play these pranks upon illustrious personages. They had made the two sweeps their confederates. But the fireman was not to be bribed (Walsh, 1888, p121-122).
The Paris Commune was a revolutionary and socialist government that briefly ruled Paris for a few months in 1871, and during this time of upheaval, the Red Man of the Tuileries made yet another appearance before the Tuileries Palace was burned to the ground.
He was last seen during the Commune. The old watchman who had charge of the building was going his rounds one night, when he became aware of a scarlet-clad ﬁgure in the gloom, skulking behind one of the pillars. He made for it, but it seemed to pass round the pillar and disappear. He looked about everywhere, but there was nothing. The old man had his own reasons for thinking that he might have been deceived on this occasion, so he took nothing but coffee after dinner next night before making his rounds; yet there was the Red Man again. This time he was leaning meditatively on his arm, and looking down on Paris. The watchman shouted at him; he turned round, faced him with the same look of icy woe, and disappeared. The old man ran for help, late as it was, and they made a thorough search of the place. They did find something red; their search ended in a sauve qui peut, as they saw the first glare of the incendiary ﬁre that was to reduce the Palace of the Tuileries to a heap of ruins (London Daily News, 1883, p153-154).
It is said that the Red Man did not vanish, rather simply moved his headquarters to the Elysee Palace, and while he’s been less active in the 19th-21st Century, he still pokes his head out to let us know when we are charging headlong towards our doom.
Beranger, whom the Red Man favoured with a visit about the time when the restored French Monarchy was collapsing, was better inspired when he composed a ballad warning King Charles X of impending calamity. The years passed, and still the Little Red Man haunted the Tuileries, seeing and hearing many strange things as he flitted, invisible, from room to room, as well as giving due notice, by occasional appearances, of some startling changes of regime. He saw the Orleans Monarchy collapse, the ensuing Republic expire, the Second Empire swept away by foreign invasion and national wrath. But, at last, the day came when the Tuileries itself perished, annihilated by incendiaries. Of course the Little Red Man had known what would happen, and had already decided to transfer his quarters to the Elysee Palace, which is still his address for national business purposes. But during the last five-and-thirty years he has led a less active life than formerly. True, he found it necessary to warn Marshal MacMahon that he would have to give in or go out, and President Grevy that no good would come of a certain great decorations scandal. He had to appear, too, at the time when Le brave General Boulanger threatened the Republic; he paid a flying visit to Lyons when President Carnot was unhappily assassinated; and at the critical period of the great Dreyfus case, he gave a private warning to President Faure, who was shocked to such a degree by so unexpected an apparition that he was seized with a fit which unfortunately proved fatal. Of more recent times the Little Red Man has enjoyed plenty of leisure (Vizetelly, 1912, pV-VI).
Certain calamities are avoidable. I tried explaining this to my 5 year old son, who currently believes “accidents happen” is an explanation for absolutely anything that goes wrong. I pointed out that while accidents do indeed happen, we can sometimes take preventative measures to lessen the probability of disaster. But I find myself wondering if this is entirely accurate. Luckily, I am neither French, nor royalty, and therefore think nothing of my occasional encounters with little red men. Perhaps humanity has clawed its way to the top of the food chain through an innate pessimism, always planning for the worst, for as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe said, “It is the strange fate of man, that even in the greatest of evils the fear of the worst continues to haunt him”.
Gore, Mrs. 1799-1861. The Courtier of the Days of Charles II: With Other Tales. Paris: Baudry’s European Library, 1839.
Hazelrigg, John. Hazelrigg’s Astrological Almanac. New York: Gilbert Print. Co., 1901.
Sala, George Augustus, 1828-1895. Paris Herself Again In 1878-9. 4th ed. London: Remington and co. , 1880.
Vizetelly, Ernest Alfred, 1853-1922. The Court of the Tuileries, 1852-1870: Its Organization, Chief Personages, Splendour, Frivolity, And Downfall. A new impression, with a frontispiece. London: Chatto & Windus, 1912.
Walsh, William Shepard, 1854-1919. Heroes And Heroines of Fiction: Classical, Mediæval, Legendary; Famous Characters And Famous Names In Novels, Romances, Poems And Dramas, Classified, Analyzed And Criticised, With Suplementary Citations From the Best Authorities. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott company, 1914.
Walsh, William. “Red Spectre of the Tuileries”. American Notes And Queries 1:11 (Saturday, July 14). Philadelphia: W.S. and H.C. Walsh, 1888.
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London, Daily News. “An Old Curiosity Shop – The Tuileries”. The American Architect and Building News XII:379. March 31, 1883.