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A little visit to Paris:
the Police Headquarters Museum

by Murielle Wenger

original French

During my latest visit to Paris this past weekend, I had the chance to visit the Police Headquarters Museum, a must for anyone who wants to know more about Maigret's métier.

Located at 4 Rue de la Montagne Sainte-Geneviève, the museum is on the same premises as the 5th Arrondissement Police Station. To get in, you have to show your ID papers, for this building, like all official buildings, is monitored by armed police. The day of our visit, we were greeted by a charming police officer who met us at the entrance to the building. She asked to be shown the contents of our backpack, and once she had determined that it contained no knives, or anything else that could be used as a weapon, she let us into the courtyard, to reception, from which we were sent to the fourth floor.

The museum, admission free, has five sections: the history of the Paris police, crimes and punishments, Paris during the war, occupations of police headquarters, and forensics. Each of these is richly documented, with explanatory texts and various objects.

  • In the section about history, there's a wealth of information about the formation of the Paris Police, since its origins in the 17th century, when Louis XIV named Gabriel Nicolas, Lord of Reynie, Police Lieutenant, passing through all the changes of the following centuries, until the latest developments of the 2000s. I won't take you through all the details of these events, but I'll mention here certain elements which will be of particular interest to Maigret fans...

    In 1790 the Paris police stations were created, one for each of the 48 sections of the capital. The function of Chief of Police was established in 1800, and in 1811 the Sûreté, the Security Brigade, in charge of repression of crime. The brigade was entrusted to Vidoq, a former convict, who served as the model for Balzac's Vautrin. In 1871, during the Commune, the site of headquarters, on Rue de Jerusalem (near the current location of Quai des Orfèvres) was reduced to ashes. Services were then housed in the firemen's barracks on the Île de la Cité, where they remain today (a renovation project is currently underway). In 1887 a service was created which became today's Forensic Identification, under Alphonse Bertillon, inventor of the system of anthropometric measurement called the "Bertillon system", in use throughout the world. In 1893, Louis Lépine was named Chief of Police, and in 1900, he established a brigade of police patrolling on bicycles, who rode "Swallows" bicycles, after which name these patrolmen are now called. In 1907, the Director of Sûreté, Célestin Hennion, founded, at the request of Clemenceau, then President of the Council, the mobile brigades, called "Tiger Brigades", after the nickname given to this politician, who referred to himself as "the number one cop of France". In 1909, Lépine proposed the creation of a Police Headquarters Museum, whose first collections were pieces collected for the Exposition Universelle, the Paris World's Fair of 1900. In 1913, Hennion became Chief of Police, and he established the Security Branch and the Judicial Police (PJ).

    We also find in this section of the museum, information about Marcel Guillaume, one of the policemen who inspired Simenon to create Maigret. Marcel Guillaume began as a Police Inspector in the Chapelle district in 1900, then entered the Sûreté in 1909. In 1912, the Chief of Sûreté, Xavier Guichard, took him by his side, permitting him to work on the Bonnot case. In 1913, he became Chief Inspector. In 1919, he took charge of the "active brigades of Police Headquarters", in 1928 was promoted to Chief Superintendent, and in 1930, Guichard, who had just been named Director of the PJ, put him at the head of the "special brigade", the homicide squad. It was during this period that he met Simenon. Guillaume would have been leading his famous investigations, like those of Landru, Violette Nozières, Mestorino, and Stavisky. In 1937, having reached the mandatory retirement age, he left the Quai des Orfèvres, and Simenon paid him homage in the magazine Confessions. Several weeks later, the daily Paris-Soir began publication of Guillaume's Memoirs. These texts were eventually published in book form, in various editions, the latest appearing in 2010. This is a very interesting book, not only because it recounts the great investigations led by Guillaume, but also because it is scattered with reflections on the policeman's métier, which remind us more than once of what Maigret would have said. For example, these few phrases... "As for me, I've always tried not to lose sight of the fact that, while doing my duty, I was not forbidden from remaining human."; "I was always bound to find, in the most hardened or cynical of murderers, an emotional chord – if I can say that – which you just had to know how to vibrate, to get, without brutality or bullying, not only confessions, but also confidences, which quite often contained the explanation of a murder, which, without excusing it, could sometimes diminish the horror."

  • In the section about crimes, we find information, along with exhibits about famous criminal cases, such as Landru, or that of Petiot, anarchistic attempts and assassinations. And there are numerous murder weapons, knives or firearms, part of the collection donated by Gustave Macé, chief of Sûreté from 1879 to 1884 (mentioned by Maigret at the beginning of Ch. 2 of his Memoirs). But we also learn what a police investigation consisted of, and who was empowered to lead such an investigation.

  • The section "Paris in the war" reminds us of the work of the police during the major conflicts, but also during the revolutions which shook the capital in 1830 and May, 1968.

  • In the section about the occupations of Police Headquarters, we find information about the police of the markets, police stations, firemen, women in the police, and also equipment and vehicles. We can see, for example, one of the call boxes which allowed people to call for help from the police, installed from 1928 in the streets of the capital, and which are often referred to in the Maigrets, and in the non-Maigret, Seven little crosses in a notebook.

  • Finally, in the section about forensics, technical and scientific aspects, we learn about Bertillon and his system... identification of criminals by full-face and profile photographs, diverse bodily measurements (length of the left forearm, length of the right ear, etc.), a "verbal portrait" describing facial morphology (see the beginning of the first chapter of Pietr le Letton [LET]), or special marks, like scars or tattoos. And we learn there about the use of fingerprints, precise grid photographs of crime scenes, the organization of criminal files, the morgue and the Forensic Institute.

In short, this museum provides us with a mass of information on the diverse facets of the police and shows us the harsh realities and risks of police work.

And for those who which to go deeper into the subject, you simply have to go a few steps away, to the Bilipo (Crime Literature Library), offering many works on the subject of concern, from encyclopedias on the history of crime fiction, to works on major criminal cases, not to mention a large section of publications devoted to Simenon.

And, because the visit cannot be concluded without making a detour to the mythical "36", I offer a few images of the Quai des Orfèvres, taken at various times during my stay in Paris:

QdO seen from Pont Saint-Michel; we can see at right the lighter part has already been renovated; in the background, Pont-Neuf
two views of the QdO from the other bank

the QdO seen from the shore on the other side of the Seine

the QdO seen from the same area, at right the Pont Saint-Michel



translation: S. Trussel
Honolulu - September 2015

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