At about eleven o'clock in the evening of the 20th of February, 186--, which
chanced to be Shrove Sunday, a party of detectives left the police station near
the old Barriere d'Italie to the direct south of Paris. Their mission was to explore
the district extending on the one hand between the highroad to Fontainebleau
and the Seine, and on the other between the outer boulevards and the
This quarter of the city had at that time anything but an enviable reputation. To
venture there at night was considered so dangerous that the soldiers from the
outlying forts who came in to Paris with permission to go to the theatre, were
ordered to halt at the barriere, and not to pass through the perilous district
excepting in parties of three or four.
After midnight, these gloomy, narrow streets became the haunt of numerous
homeless vagabonds, and escaped criminals and malefactors, moreover, made
the quarter their rendezvous. If the day had been a lucky one, they made merry
over their spoils, and when sleep overtook them, hid in doorways or among the
rubbish in deserted houses. Every effort had been made to dislodge these
dangerous guests, but the most energetic measures had failed to prove
successful. Watched, hunted, and in imminent danger of arrest though they were,
they always returned with idiotic obstinacy, obeying, as one might suppose,
some mysterious law of attraction. Hence, the district was for the police an
immense trap, constantly baited, and to which the game came of their own
accord to be caught.
The result of a tour of inspection of this locality was so certain, that the officer in
charge of the police post called to the squad as they departed: "I will prepare
lodgings for our guests. Good luck to you and much pleasure!"