The 1889 Paris Exposition Urban Legend

The 1889 Paris Exposition Urban Legend

Urban legends are definitely not new – and some of the older ones are much better than the ones we have today. Here’s a good one that I encountered via an old time radio play. The story goes like this:

The year was May and the fabulous 1889 Paris Exposition was about to get started. A girl arrived with her mother via ocean liner from India. They checked into the Hotel Crillon but the mother fell sick upon arrival. A doctor was called to help. Shortly after, the daughter was sent on an errand to get some critical medicine, but the coachman and everyone took forever to get her the medicine and get her back to the hotel. When she arrived, she asked for the room key to get the medicine to her mother. At this point the desk clerk, all the hotel staff, and even the doctor claimed the girl arrived alone and there was no mother. Nobody had been sick and other lodgers had been checked into the supposed mother’s room for days. The girl became hysterical and demanded they take her to her mother’s room. They showed her the room her mother was in but it was completely different – with different furniture, window coverings, and a stack of luggage from another set of travelers. The girl ran to the British Embassy who, upon investigation and being given the same story/shown around by the hotel staff, concluded that the girl was probably crazy. She was sent onwards to Britain to an asylum.

What happened to the mother? The legend goes to explain the hotel doctor discovered the mother had bubonic plague. The doctor, hotel staff, and officials quickly realized the gravity of such a diagnosis. With so much riding on the success of the Paris Exposition – fortunes would be lost overnight if panic spread about a plague in the city.

They decided to sent the girl away and told everyone to delay her as much as possible. They then moved the mother to a hidden facility where she died shortly after. They re-decorated the room, destroyed the records, put new people in the room who were in on the plot, and basically did everything possible to cover up the infection and discredit the girl’s story.

Was it true? People have tried to prove it but there’s been no concrete evidence. Still, the story appears to have circulated around the world for years after the 1889 Paris Exposition.

As evidence of this early urban legend’s widespread telling, John Dickson Carr wrote a wildly popular story called Cabin B-13 as a radio play that aired in 1943. Very tame by today’s standards, it takes a twist on the old Paris tale – with the characters even mentioning the tale in their dialog. It’s a great little thriller that was broadcast in the US and then used as the opening set piece for a new thriller series on the BBC. Give it a listen – if you dare!


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