Dear hearts and darlings — I found a mistake in the Guinness World Book of Records.
You read that correctly. And like you, I didn’t think it could happen. I must have been wrong. What must I be missing?
The record in question was the ‘world’s worst fireworks disaster.’ And you can likely guess the reason why I happened upon such a thing to begin with — a Marie Antoinette connection.
I knew, as you might, that on the occasion of our girl’s marriage, there was a grand fireworks celebration in Paris — in the Place Louis XV, now the Place de Concorde. The famed Ruggieri brothers were commissioned and they worked to impress. They erected a temple in honor of Hymen, the goddess of marriage, one decorated with tree from which a thick branch rose, covered in leaves, with a thick knot for a nest and small birds making a home.
Of course, the Place Louis XV is not as it is today. It’s the product of decades of design and building and at the time of our girl’s wedding is still not completely finished and pocked with holes for new buildings to come.
Regardless, it’s a fine stage for a celebration and folks came from miles around. That’s a problem, because Paris is really still a Medieval city in so many ways and not designed for rows and rows of carriages parking for a show. Just to get to the square means navigating knots of tight shoulderless streets that are improbably dark, thanks to the shadow of too-tall buildings.
Houses and shops open rudely into these roads without warning. Jumbles of workers and passersby try in vain to stay whole and unspattered while hackney coaches, chariots and cabriolets travel at mischievous rates. To travel these on a quiet day is to embrace both danger and hope and hold tight with both hands. So imagine a day when the city is preparing for a special once-in-a-lifetime event, when a newly married teenage princess will arrive in Paris for the first time. Bring her cortege and bring even more carriages and looky-loos to these streets already lousy and crowded.
The coaches arrive — and arrive. They snake three rows thick and despite the protestations of the fancy people they drive — they cannot get any closer to the festivities. So some get out and join the scum.
And then a rocket goes off.
Here’s where I’m not entirely sure what happened. Did the wind blow a spark into the crowd? Or into the temple of Hymen? Regardless, the panic is unmistakable. Those trying to leave the square are stopped by police and carriages that are slow if they are not fully blocked. Some reports say 40,000 people push mindlessly, anywhere. Some push against scaffolding. Some find themselves into ditches dug into preparation for the square’s new buildings and find themselves trapped. Others flow onto the Rue St. Florentines and the Rue de la Bonne-Morue, streets too narrow for such a throng. They push against a new wave of festival-goers unaware of the crisis. Some faint. Some are crunched under crowds or overturned carriages. Some reports say bodies are piled so high, carriage doors can’t open. Officially, 133 people are killed, though others place that number at 7 times that.
In reading about this day, I was surprised to find that it remained the worst fireworks disaster. And if I’m being honest — a little relieved. Still, the date on the record was May 16. You know, as I do, that that just wasn’t possible. Our girl hadn’t been to Paris yet. She was still in Versailles by that time and while fireworks were planned for Versailles, it famously rained and the display was postponed.
I emailed the good folks at the Guinness World Book hoping to learn more. Perhaps there was something I didn’t understand. Something more to this story.
To my great surprise, they wrote back. They told me that the original record, for The “Worst firework disaster – death toll” was first published in the 1972. They couldn’t find the original sourcing for this edition and set about fresh research, sending me this excerpt from the Nouveau dictionnaire de police.
They even posted another account, putting the death count higher, at 800.
They noted, of course, that other reports said the counts were even higher. Regardless, the folks at the Guinness World Book were just as you’d want them to be — smart, lovely and serious about getting things straight. They’ve temporarily pulled the record as they do more research, but I can’t say enough about how impressed I was at how they approached this.
For me, as an amateur researcher, it’s heartening to know that my research isn’t for naught. And as an amateur researcher, it’s a delight to know how much the pros care and how so many still believe in pushing to get big and little things right.
Do you know more about the fireworks disaster? If you know more about what your blogmistress should be reading on this — to learn more about how it started — she’d love to know.