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Genre et classes populaires, in situ

Angel Makers (Faiseuses d’Anges) of the Quartier Notre-Dame des Champs: Community and Personal Networks in 1870s Paris

Rachel G. Fuchs


Cet article explore quelques unes des questions soulevées par une approche micro-historique des archives judiciaires. Il s’intéresse à une affaire judiciaire d’avortement qui concerne des gens ordinaires, aux vies difficiles, et fournit un aperçu sur un aspect de la vie intime des femmes au sein du terrain liminal du quartier, révélant par ailleurs des relations de pouvoir dans la vie quotidienne des hommes et des femmes, même si leurs histoires sont presque toujours médiatisées par des membres masculins de la magistrature. Les voix des femmes étaient essentielles dans la mesure où elles exerçaient un pouvoir limité quand elles prirent les choses en main, utilisèrent leurs réseaux de voisinage, et agirent pour leur propre compte, afin d’essayer d’avoir un certain contrôle sur leur vie intime. L’analyse révèle la hiérarchie et la dispersion du pouvoir dans une relation complexe de genre, de besoins personnels, de normes communautaires, des organismes d’État et du discours culturel de la république morale des années 1870 à Paris.

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1Historians, often voyeurs into the past, long for precious documentary evidence of the lives of the multitudes who never wrote diaries or left letters for us to decipher. We endeavor to visualize and understand just how people lived. In our quest for insight into the past, judicial records, whether civil or criminal, provide one of the richest sources for understanding the daily lives of ordinary people. Although they open a window only on the exceptional aspects of daily lives, those situations that involved a judicial procedure or a criminal trial and leave in the dark the lives of the multitudes who never were part of any judicial proceedings, judicial archives often provide the only visibility onto the lives of the working people.

  • 1 Rachel G. Fuchs, Contested Paternity: Constructing Families in Modern France, (Baltimore, MD: Johns (...)

2In Contested Paternity: Constructing Families in Modern France I mined a variety of judicial records to analyze paternity suits (recherche de paternité), themes of seduction, women’s exercise of citizenship, varying interpretations of morality and immorality over two centuries, and how concepts of the family changed from the dominant norm of the heterosexual patriarchal conjugal family to acceptance of single-parent families of a mother-child and then consensual union1.

3These records, primarily those of the civil tribunals, provide a lens through which historians can glimpse how people used the Civil Code and the tribunals to negotiate their intimate personal lives. They are also disappointing because they contain no letters and no verbatim depositions or interrogations in cases of recherche de la paternité. But, they do contain the judges’ reasoning behind their decisions and also their narratives about the intimate situations of plaintiffs and defendants. The judges formulaically began the documents with the attendu que :” followed by the woman’s story of love, seduction, false promises of marriage, or forced sex. The judges then followed with another “attendu que :” with the man’s story of the woman’s consensual sex, his denial of the woman’s argument, and his story that she had other lovers and therefore he could not definitively be the father or owe her dommages-intérêt or any support for having wronged her. The jugements might also include summations of witnesses’ testimonies and quotations from the woman plaintiff, the man defendant, or the witnesses. They conclude with the judge’s decision whether to declare the man the father of the child, ask the man to pay une pension alimentaire for the child, provide the woman with dommages-intérêts, or exonerate him completely. With all the caveats that come with generalizing from hundreds of cases in the civil courts, I found patterns that allowed me to use these cases to discuss family constructions in nineteenth- and twentieth-century France. I used them collectively to help form an argument, and individually as illustrative examples of women’s use of the law to manage their intimate lives. But, these records were frustrating because they do not contain a wealth of detail.

  • 2 For three exemplary works of private lives in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries based on the j (...)

4The dossiers of the Cour d’Assises, (criminal courts with juries that considered major crimes such as murder, armed robbery, infanticide, and abortion) are much richer than the judgments of the Civil Tribunals; they provide intimate details of people’s lives in interrogations, depositions, transcriptions of the interactions between witnesses and the accused, between the accused themselves, and sometimes even in letters between the accused and others in their personal networks. As rich as these dossiers may be, they are almost as frustrating as the civil jugements; everything is mediated by the ears and then the finely honed pens of the male magistrates—from the local interrogators to the examining magistrate (juge d’instruction)—even the private letters of the accused that they have chosen to include in the dossier. Nevertheless, historians can comb the judicial archives to gain access into people’s daily lives that other evidence cannot supply2. Those judicial archives reveal the lived experiences of people, albeit it via the words of the officials, and allow us to glimpse the values and social mores of the investigators, of the accused, and of the witnesses.

  • 3 This article forms one aspect of my forthcoming book, The Angel Makers of Mission Street : Abortion (...)

5A story of abortion in Paris in 1873 originates in a dossier of the Cour d’Assises3. This large folder includes material pertaining to the midwife who was the prime suspect, Joséphine Cornu, including all her contacts over several years, ranging from patients, to acquaintances, to present and former lovers, to another midwife accused of performing an abortion, to the male doctor who helped in emergencies. Others in the drama include people of the neighborhood: two teenage girls and several married and single women who sought the services of either of the two midwives. Outside the neighborhood, a young banker and his wealthy mistress who each lived in private houses across the river Seine in the ninth arrondissement came to consult the midwife Cornu.

  • 4 The neighborhood extended to the rue Bonaparte, to rue du Cherche-Midi, and the passage d’Enfer. In (...)

6This dossier allows a rare glimpse of neighborhood life and personal networks surrounding women’s reproductive lives. From reading Cornu’s testimony under interrogation, as well as what witnesses and others said, including some vilification of her, we can reconstruct how the midwife Cornu spent her days and conducted her business. We even get to know her patients, her alleged values, and her community network consisting of other midwives, local businessmen, and friendly doctors—all in the neighborhood of Notre-Dame des Champs in the sixth arrondissement, centering on the rue des Missions, (currently rue L’Abbé Grégoire)4. We see a community with spatial boundaries as well as a community of shared interests and shared practices. In this community we can also see gendered power relations of everyday life, including their intimate lives, where information empowers. Except for the outsiders, the banker and his mistress, all the players in this community drama, except for Cornu, were relatively poor.

7Culling precise residential and business addresses of all the midwives, doctors, patients, and witnesses allows for mapping the spatial community based on social, personal, and business relationships to discover relationships among all the players in this drama. Using nineteenth-century maps of the quartier, the Paris assessment records (calepins du cadastre), modern search engines (e.g. Google) to estimate walking distances, and by walking the quartier myself, it is possible to draw the spatial boundaries of neighborhood networks predicated upon: locational proximity and building structures; professional networks among midwives and doctors; reproductive networks of midwives and doctors; and social networks of family and lovers. All were within several blocks of one another.

8The story begins on 3 July 1873, when one community member turned against another. Sixteen-year-old Rebecca Larue, living with her father on the fourth floor of an apartment building at 35 rue des Missions carefully used her best handwriting in a note on lined pale blue paper and dropped it in the box at the police station on her street. In it, she denounced Joséphine Cornu, a midwife who was living in the same building on the entresol—a short flight of stairs up from the rez-de-chaussée. No police official followed up on this original denunciation. Larue wrote two others, the last one in August, about six weeks later. Her friend, Célina Bouningue, who lived in the neighborhood and worked as a seamstress for Cornu, also wrote a note, on the same type of paper that Rebecca used; the content of the notes are all similar :

“Monsieur le Préfet de Police

  • 5 Spelling and grammar in this and other French quotations are the same as in the original, according (...)

J’ai l’honneur de vous informer d’un fait qui se passe chez une dame nommée Melle Cornu dite Planchais sage-femme 35 rue des Missions elle à [sic] fait avorter deux fois la même personne à raison de 500 francs chaque fois et elle fait tout les avortements qui se présentent à quel prix qu’ils soient. Monsieur le préfet voudra bien donner suite à ses révélations [sic] car elles sont l’exacte vérité. J’ai bien l’honneur Monsieur de vous saluer5”.

In the later letter, Larue added:

“Au nom de l’humanité je viens vous faire savoir qu’il y a rue des missions no 35 une sage-femme qui fait des avortements, vous pouvez vous en convaincre en envoyant chez une personne dame ou homme qui aurait l’air riche, demander combien elle prendrait pour faire avorter, elle fera la difficile pour commencer, puis elle dira pour vous rendre service je le ferai mais vont cinq cents francs, ces révélations sont vraie, j’espère Monsieur le Commissaire pue vous y donnerez suite.”

  • 6 Le Figaro, 10 and 12 sept., 12 oct. 1873.

9After three denunciations the police took notice in September 1873 and began the investigation of Joséphine Cornu leading to the criminal case in the Cour d’Assises in December 1873 against the “la faiseuse d’anges du rue des Missions”— as Le Figaro referred to her in three faits divers published during the investigation6.

  • 7 Archives de Paris, Acte de décès, 1860 and Archives de l’Assistance publique, La Charité, 1Q2/133, (...)

10Joséphine Cornu, the primary person accused of abortion was a thirty-year-old licensed midwife, the daughter of an unwed mother but whose father had legally recognized her. Cornu never married, but had lived with Théophile Planchais, a writer (homme de lettres) who was roughly twenty years older, until he died in 1860 of a liver disease at age thirty seven in La Charité7. She preferred that people call her “la veuve Planchais”, although the investigating police refused and always referred to her as “la fille Cornu”. Police investigators searched Cornu’s apartment, took her into custody and incarcerated her in the detention wing of the women’s prison in Paris, Saint-Lazare. They carefully went through the papers in her home and began to reconstruct her personal and professional network. Cornu moved several times since 1870, but always stayed within the same quartier. Police interrogated residents of her building and her past concierges at 33 rue des Missions and around the corner on rue du Cherche-Midi. The juge d’instruction also interrogated several others for abortion or complicity in abortion: her domestic servant, a local doctor, and a host of men and women in the neighborhood who had requested her services or whose names they discovered in their investigation. Some were suspects; others served as character witnesses.

  • 8 Pièce 52. 4 octobre 1873. Interrogation de la femme Fermis, Pièce 51, Josse, Zephirin, concierge ru (...)

11The second major suspect was an impoverished thirty-year-old midwife, a close friend of Cornu, Euphémie Fermis, who lived in the extended neighborhood about a fifteen or twenty minute walk away. For several years previously, Fermis had lived with Cornu at 84 rue du Cherche-Midi but finished her training with another midwife who lived in that same apartment building. After her marriage, Fermis moved from Cherche-Midi to 41 rue des Missions, still close to Cornu, and then to rue Campagne Première. After the concierge at that building asked Fermis and her husband to leave in January 1872 because they could not pay the rent, they moved directly across the street to Passage d’Enfer8. Fermis and Cornu remained close friends, and Cornu even purchased a raincoat for Fermis at the nearby department store, Le Bon Marché. Fermis accepted some poor clients, such as Emélie Debisschop, whom Cornu refused to treat.

  • 9 Archives de Paris, Calepins du cadastre DP4 (1852) 737, 1852 described apartments at 33 rue des Mis (...)
  • 10 Pièce 40 ; Pièces 56, 64, and 65. Interrogation of Emélie Debisschop and her sister, Louise Debissc (...)
  • 11 Pièce 69. Second interrogation of Emélie Debisschop.

12Thirty-seven-year-old Emélie Debisschop was the third major suspect. A seamstress, she lived with her sister and brother-in-law on rue du Cherche-Midi. Debisschop previously had one child, whom she abandoned and whose fate is unknown. As Cornu’s domestique, Louise Brouté, reported, Debisschop climbed the stairs to see Cornu for her midwife services. The walk from rue du Cherche-Midi to 35 rue des Missions around or through the market could take from three to ten minutes9. According to Bouningue, who condemned Cornu for her greed, Cornu refused to see Debisschop because there was so little profit in it and sent her to Fermis, who later summoned Cornu who came to help because the procedure took a dangerous turn10. Cornu escorted Debisschop back home in a fiacre and called for Dr. Léon Calvo, who lived close by and was always supportive of Cornu, to come and help stop the hemorrhaging. Unfortunately, the records do not indicate how one person knew the other or how Debisschop came to find Cornu. Debisschop claimed that she saw the midwife’s sign on the building where Cornu lived; it is also possible that the midwife on rue du Cherche-Midi in the building where Cornu had lived (and where Fermis had trained) referred Debisschop to Cornu or Fermis since Louise Debisschop, Emélie’s sister, admitted consulting that particular midwife. Although specific details are absent from the dossier, witnesses referred to neighborhood gossip about Cornu and her expertise. No one mentioned precisely that she was known as a midwife who would perform abortions. As Debisschop recounted: It was “vers le mois d’août de l’année dernière que j’ai vu pour la première fois la fille Cornu. Personne ne me l’avait indiquée, mais elle habitait le même quartier que moi, et j’avais été attirée par le tableau de sage-femme qui était accroché à sa maison, 35 rue des Missions. J’étais enceinte alors environ deux mois11.” Debisschop was not the only person claiming they found Cornu from the plaque on her house; Marie Legrand made the same discovery.

13Based on details that Larue and Brouté provided and by a promissory note for 500 francs police found on Cornu’s desk, the police investigated the twenty-four-year-old banker, Armand Saint-Vel, and his wealthy mistress, a married thirty-one-year-old mother of three, Marie Legrand, as primary suspects for abortion and complicity in abortion. Letters between Legrand and Saint-Vel, and from each of them to Cornu, provide details of their intimacy and her gynecological problems. This couple could not get their story straight. Saint-Vel testified that he found Cornu for his mistress through a friend, a merchant of religious objects whose shop was on rue Bonaparte, several blocks from Cornu’s residence. Saint-Vel insisted that he sought the midwife because he feared that he had given Marie Legrand a venereal disease; he wanted Cornu to cure it and also maintain secrecy. Marie Legrand, however, said she came upon Cornu when she was in the neighborhood with one of her children and saw the plaque on the door of the building stating that Cornu was a licensed midwife. Legrand claimed that she was suffering from symptoms that we might associate with endometriosis; her story never changed. Through their confiscated letters we read of the couple’s clandestine meetings, their social contacts, his fear of giving her a venereal disease, her distress over excessive monthly bleeding and fatigue, and the various treatments resembling cauterizations that Cornu administered. Their stories of why and how they contacted Cornu diverge, so the historian is left to figure out the complex connections and networks.

14Mélanie Eulalie Ravizza’s connection to Cornu is equally obscure. As a twenty-four-year-old married mother of one seven-year-old girl, living a ten-minute walk away at 70 rue d’Assas, she used Cornu’s midwifery services since that tumultuous year of 1871 when Cornu delivered her second child, a baby boy in September of that year, who died shortly after birth. Ravizza paid Cornu 70 francs (the customary cost) for that childbirth delivery. In July 1872 Ravizza again consulted Cornu and both women agreed that Ravizza had a miscarriage, but differed as to whether it was at six weeks or three months. As Ravizza insisted, “Mon mari et toutes les personnes qui me connaissait [sic], ont su que j’avais fait cette fausse couche.” Cornu’s domestique Brouté, testified that Fermis and Cornu performed an abortion on Ravizza, which Fermis admitted, but Ravizza retorted that Fermis “peut dire ce qu’elle veut, mais je soutiens qu’elle ment.” Ravizza fervently and unwaveringly denied having an abortion, insisting she had a miscarriage. She further testified:

  • 12 Pièce 82, 21 octobre 1873 first Interrogation of Ravizza.

“Je connais aussi la sage-femme Fermis, mais jamais elle ne m’a donnée de soins. Je la connais pour l’avoir rencontrée chez la fille Cornu. Elle n’est jamais venue chez moi. Je n’ai jamais été chez elle, j’en suis sûre… Je nie formellement avoir consenti à laisser pratiquer sur ma personne des manœuvres abortives, soit par la fille Cornu, soit par la femme Fermis, soit par toute autre sage-femme. La fausse couche que j’ai faite a été naturelle12.”

  • 13 Pièces 82, 88 and 89. Interrogations of Cornu and Ravizza. Contact with her daughter who had the me (...)
  • 14 I treat this spatial neighborhood community as a space according to Michel de Certeau’s concept of (...)

15Ravizza further stated, “Je n’ai donné à la fille Cornu pour ses soins dans cette dernière circonstance aucune rémunération pécuniaire. Seulement je lui ai fait cadeau d’un obus que mon [mari] possédait depuis la guerre et qu’elle paraissait désirer.” She added that Cornu wanted the largest one but her husband would give her only the smallest and there was some disagreement about which one Cornu would accept as payment13. Cornu added that she gave that artillery shell to one of her former lovers, a professor at l’Ecole Polytechnique who lived on rue du Cherche-Midi, near her former residence and part of this spatial neighborhood community14.

16The precise role of Dr. Léon Calvo, other than as a medical back-up for Cornu, is an important, but missing, piece of the story. Calvo may have been a center of communication in this spatially bound community of common interests. He features prominently in Ravizza’s story since she declared that he was her family doctor currently caring for her daughter who had the measles and he had also cared for her infant before he died. As a neighborhood doctor, he may have referred patients, such as Ravizza, to Cornu. He always came to help resolve some of Cornu’s cases and he may have known of her as not only a licensed midwife, but as one who would perform abortions.

  • 15 This infant was one of the 30 percent of all abandoned infants who survived, defying all odds and d (...)

17All the dramatis personae emerge during the investigation with dozens of people interrogated or deposed, revealing many minor players in this drama. These included one of Cornu’s former lovers who left her for another woman with whom he had a baby who died in infancy. The police accused Cornu of poisoning the baby out of jealousy. Evidence led them to drop that accusation since it indicated that the infant died of bronchitis while in the countryside with a wet nurse. Cornu’s domestique, Brouté, herself a suspect at one point, provided convincing testimony about Cornu’s immorality, accusing her of having several lovers. Brouté also stated that she had been pregnant and that Cornu tried to perform an abortion on her, but she refused and carried her baby to term. Cornu delivered the baby in 1872, swaddled him and immediately took the newborn to the Hospice des Enfants Assistés where she abandoned him15. After an investigation that lasted four months, six people were accused: Cornu and the other midwife, Fermis; Legrand and Saint Vel; Emélie Debisschop, and Eulalie Ravizza. Only Debisschop confessed to having had an abortion; all the others insisted they sought the services of Cornu for gynecological problems.

18The key players in this case, Joséphine Cornu and Rebecca Larue were at the center of the social, spatial, midwifery and reproductive networks. Their relationship was once close, with Cornu employing Larue and inviting her to her home to play the piano; she may even have been a mother figure. Young Larue lived with her father, an “honest worker” in Paris; her parents were separated (divorce was unavailable) and her mother lived in Lyon. Larue neither attended school nor worked except when she, like Nana in Zola’s L’Assommoir, had a brief apprenticeship with a flower-maker who praised Larue’s behavior when called on to testify about her character. had invited Larue to her apartment and used Larue to run neighborhood errands for her, such as fetching Dr. Calvo, going to the pharmacist, making purchases at the market, and delivering messages to patients. Larue met Cornu’s patients and clients on the stairs and escorted them in and out of Cornu’s apartment. After Cornu dismissed Brouté, Larue served as her receptionist, where she witnessed much of what went on, and which she duly reported, or made up, upon interrogation. Eventually, as Larue told the story, Cornu initiated young Larue into a sexual relationship with one of her own lovers who frequently dropped by to visit. According to Larue, Cornu promised her that “S’il t’arrive quelque chose avec Henri, si tu es embarrassée, n’en parle pas à ton père, ne le dis qu’à moi, et je te débarrasserai.” At the trial, however, Cornu shouted that Larue needed no initiation since by the age sixteen she already had her own clients. Eventually, their relationship soured and Larue heard gossip about herself on the street corners with Cornu accusing her of immorality and having several lovers. Finally, Larue, equipped with information about Cornu’s practices, reversed the power hierarchy and denounced Cornu for immorality and for performing abortions for an exorbitant fee. The juge d’instruction attached great importance to Larue’s testimony, but sought substantiation.

  • 16 Pièce 51. Josse, Zephirin, 42 years, concierge rue Campagne Première, 8 bis. Déposé sur interpellat (...)

19Concierges, ever a source of police interrogations to discover the morality and character of a suspect, were keepers of neighborhood gossip. Police relied on their testimonies, and the huissiers from the examining magistrate gave the summonses to the concierges, whether the summons was for a doctor or any person who may have been in Cornu’s network. Therefore, the concierges knew much and told their stories. Fermis’s former concierge, for example, was a fount of information about Fermis and Cornu, testifying that Fermis did not practise her profession as a midwife very much, but he did remember Cornu and Debisschop. His testimony, which the interrogators recorded in great detail and believed, was damning: “Je me rappelle très bien la personne que vous me designer sous le nom de fille Cornu. Seulement je l’entendais toujours appeler Madame Planchais. Elle venait voir très souvent la femme Fermis… Je me souviens parfaitement de cette affaire de voiture dont vous me parlez.” He related how Debisschop, whom he described as “une femme vêtue en ouvrière, assez grande, blonde, âgée d’une trentaine d’années”, visited Fermis, “4, 5, 6 fois, peut-être plus.” One day, she came around noon when he was “à table”. After about an hour or two, Cornu arrived at Fermis’s place and “vers 4 ou 5 heures de l’après-midi, la femme Fermis descendit à ma loge et me pria d’aller chercher de suite une voiture”. He described how Cornu and Fermis supported Debisschop down the stairs, “chacune d’un côté l’ouvrière” because Debisschop was so weak, and Cornu held Debisschop’s skirts between her legs in an unusual manner. Throughout subsequent interrogations and confrontations with Fermis, he never wavered from his story16.

  • 17 « Pièces 24 and 25 of 12 septembre 1873 interrogations of concierges at 71 rue de Sèvres, 84 rue du (...)
  • 18 Ibid. The police commissioner who took the interrogation underscored those words in the original do (...)

20Cornu’s many concierges from the late 1860s were particularly important. All testified about her immorality, also mentioning that she had never married although she had lived with Planchais and that she insisted on calling herself “la veuve Planchais”.The concierge at 84 rue du Cherche-Midi, reported that Cornu was “kept” (entretenue) by doctor Anger, but he did not know if Cornu had other men, reporting only that “c’était une méchante femme”17. Dame Brunet, the concierge at 33 rue des Missions told the police interrogator that Cornu had lived there for six months but then she told her to leave “a raison de sa mauvaise conduite et de son immoralité; que cette femme [Cornu] recevait chez elle quantité d’hommes et de jeunes filles.” Another concierge reported that her behavior was disruptive because she had men and women visiting her day and night. Yet another, Monsieur Carant, reported that she had lived in his building only fifteen months, and “elle a en une conduite scandaleuse, qu’elle avait une grande quantité d’amants et qu’elle a été‚ envoyée de cette maison à raison de son immoralité et parce qu’elle ne payait pas son terme18.”

  • 19 Archives de Paris, D1P4 180, Carton 380, calepins du cadastre.

21According to the concierges, Cornu moved around the neighborhood in part because of her alleged immorality, but also because she could not pay the rent. Parisian communities involved a spatial clustering of people of similar socio-economic level and status; as people’s income declined, they were forced to move. The poorest was Fermis, who moved to the less expensive Passage d’Enfer when she could not pay the rent at rue Campagne Première. In 1876 Passage d’Enfer consisted of logements d’ouvriers aisés and the rent was less than half of what it was on rue des Missions19. On the other hand, apartments on rue du Cherche-Midi and rue des Missions were described as “bourgeois”, and Cornu struggled to maintain an income to enable her to afford to live in one of the “bourgeois” buildings. Brouté and Larue both mentioned that Cornu charged clients what they thought was excessive and that she made clients come back for several visits so she could charge more and remain in her neighborhood.

22The liminal terrain of the neighborhood, such as the local market and apartment stairwells, served as loci for chance encounters, community exchanges, information sharing, and policing of one another. Larue and Brouté both testified that they talked with Cornu’s clients and male visitors on the stair landings and in the entrance hall of the immeuble. They also talked to clients in Cornu’s front room, while they waited for the midwife. Cornu’s apartment was relatively spacious with a front room and two back rooms. Larue testified that she saw men coming and going to Cornu’s apartment, but we do not know if it was from the window of the upper-story apartment where she lived, or from her having a lot of free time to observe her downstairs neighbor from another location. The large market at 14 rue des Missions, which had 198 stalls for merchants and was situated across the street from Cornu’s apartments and between them and her former address and the home of Debisschop on rue du Cherche-Midi undoubtedly served as a place of rendezvous and gossip, as markets tended to be. In running errands for Cornu, Larue frequented the market, as well as the neighborhood pharmacy and herbalist as she went for the medicines that Cornu requested. All these places served for an exchange of information and as des lieux de rencontre (localities where people just got together naturally).

  • 20 Susan Cotts Watkins and Angela D. Danzi, « Women’s Gossip and Social Change : Childbirth and Fertil (...)

23Chance encounters saturated the urban experience in the nineteenth century as they do now. Information about informal encounters is best gained in oral interviews, so historians of the nineteenth century must rely on the work of contemporary sociologists. As a woman who had an abortion in the United States in 1909 reported “My sister-in-law had an abortion… She went to somebody a woman in her building knew of20.” Historians can speculate about oral transmission of information in the 1870s based upon contemporary sociology and on their knowledge of the social and spatial history of the time. Although few in this case specified where they encountered one another, knowing how social networks functioned allows for some speculation. Urban Paris, with apartment buildings that had stairwells and common spaces, with bustling streets and markets, and with small parks as sites of chance meetings where women consulted with each other when they needed information abounded. They were also sites where women gossiped.

  • 21 Mark Granovetter, «The Strength of Weak Ties », American Journal of Sociology 73, 1978, pp. 136-180

24Since gossip could be menacing as well as helpful and involve deliberate spying, these encounters could result in harm as well as help. Sociologists refer to these as “gossip networks” or “diffusion through social interaction”. The women who came together may have been close acquaintances or strangers. The neighborhood community surrounding Cornu reveals several loose personal networks where chance encounters could lead to life-altering decisions and situations, what sociologist Mark Granovetter might label “the strength of weak ties21”.

25People may have come to Cornu by means of a chance encounter with someone who knew her, or knew of her. She may have had accomplices on the lookout for desperate pregnant women. Connections by word of mouth helped women negotiate their most intimate lives, although this archive reveals no direct evidence about the transmission of information and connections leading from each client to Cornu. Was it the local pharmacist or herbalist who provided Cornu with drugs of her trade who informed other women? Or was it gossip in the market as women discussed their reproductive issues and needs with one another as they purchased herbs? Or was it Dr. Calvo who did not perform abortions but may have referred women to Cornu? Cornu was not the only midwife in the area since several testimonies refer to another one nearby on rue du Cherche-Midi.

26This dossier of the Cour d’Assises reveals a community of common interests of married and single women in desperate situations. All lived within the spatial limits of a radius of a few blocks of Cornu, separated by a short walking distance varying from three to twenty minutes. We know little about the men—the authors of the pregnancies. The world of women’s reproductive lives was female. Even Dr. Calvo, Ravizza’s family doctor, was not the person she sought for her reproductive issues, although he may have sent her to Cornu. He helped Cornu when she needed him, but the magistrate never charged him with complicity in abortion.

27Women’s social networks within this urban neighborhood community functioned as a social glue, holding groups together where women could come to the aid of one another. Individual communities established some degree of normative behavior and solidarity, and the communication networks of information-sharing among women in the Paris neighborhood where these midwives and their clients lived contributed to their set of practices or culture. Women, however, could also turn on one another, isolating pariahs who violated community norms. Exchange of information, or gossip, could control the lives of women by ostracizing them from the community or protecting them within it. Gossip could just as easily inform the police about which woman had, or performed, an abortion as it could help a woman get one.

  • 22 Rachel G. Fuchs, Poor and Pregnant in Paris : Strategies for Survival in the Nineteenth Century, (N (...)

28The interactive community relationships of this judicial case illustrate how poor women negotiated power with a complex web of personal needs, community interests, state agencies, and cultural discourses. As this story shows, Cornu and Larue at first had a mutual dependency—until Cornu gossiped about Larue having lovers and then Larue denounced Cornu to the police as an abortionist. At the time, the standard price for the abortions of poor women ranged from ten to 200 francs, often on a sliding scale according to a person’s ability to pay, with an average of less than 100 francs at the end of the century, which was about three months’ salary for the poorest of needle workers and domestic servants in Paris. Yet, many scraped together the necessary money to take some control over their reproductive lives22. Cornu had violated community norms not by her midwifery nor by providing abortions, but because of her alleged immorality and by charging more for those abortions than community norms.

  • 23 The prominent feminist writer and physician, Madeleine Pelletier, witness to women’s solidarity in (...)

29Poor women exercised agency in a climate of calamities. They used their community connections, engaging in relationships of exchange and reciprocity and fashioning their culture of expediencies within the overlapping private and public spaces that circumscribed their lives. They sought creative and expedient ways to manage a situation, making up behavior as they went along, sometimes violating the larger cultural parameters of ethics, morality, economics, and the law when the need arose23. Judicial records illuminate the dynamics of personal and professional relationships, allowing historians to see how community social networks were also sites of individual agency and power. Abortion was illegal, and if these women sought to terminate a pregnancy, which only one admitted to having done in this case, they were taking some control over their reproductive lives. They did not have complete control, however.

  • 24 Célina Bouninque was part of these personal networks. She met Cornu in 1872 through her friend Euph (...)

30Joséphine Cornu held power within this community of common interests; she had the expertise they sought and relied upon. Cornu had the power to demand frequent visits, whether necessary, as it often was, or in order to gain more money, as some accused her of doing. She even held power over the banker and his mistress who needed her help and confidence. She certainly had power and authority over the other midwife, Fermis, who suffered financially and depended on Cornu for patients. Cornu held power over Rebecca Larue, befriending her, inviting her into her home, and giving her odd jobs. However, the tables turned in the summer of 1873 with Larue holding power over Cornu by virtue of her denunciation and testimony, which the magistrates believed24.

  • 25 James M. Donovan, Juries and the Transformation of Criminal Justice in France in the Nineteenth & T (...)

31Final power and authority, however, starting with the investigation, rested with the police, magistrates, judges and male juries, although their power did not affect most women who had or performed abortions, since the vast majority went undetected and never entered the judicial system25. All prosecutions of women suspected or accused of abortion proceeded in a similar manner. They began with the police arresting and placing the suspects in detention, which would follow a denunciation, or a woman’s entry to a hospital hemorrhaging, or her death. Usually within one day of the arrest, the pretrial investigation began, which typically lasted several months. Women suspects under investigation were incarcerated in the prison Saint-Lazare unless the juge d’instruction decided that they could remain at home. Cornu and Fermis were the only two incarcerated in Saint-Lazare, where they both spent the four months prior to sentencing. They sometimes traveled in the same carriage to Saint-Lazare and back to the offices of the investigating magistrate. Ravizza was allowed to remain free because she had a sick daughter. Debisschop, Saint-Vel and Legrand also remained at liberty. The juge d’instruction conducted the investigation where the defendants were without counsel, although they could choose their attorney or have a court-appointed one for the actual trial. Only in 1897 was the law modified to allow the defendant the right to have her lawyer present at the interrogations.

  • 26 Fuchs, Poor and Pregnant in Paris, op. cit., p. 191.

32Cross examination was not allowed and suspects had no protection against self-incrimination. A court secretary recorded each question and response. Forensic doctors, whom the juge d’instruction designated, played pivotal roles in the examination of women suspected of having had an abortion, of the instruments and other objects seized from Cornu’s apartment, and in evaluating the midwives’ testimonies. Thus, power rested with the juge d’instruction who exercised it in choosing the questions and conducting search and seizure of the premises. He could also read the suspects’ mail and determine whom to question as witnesses. He tried, often successfully, to uncover the entire past life of the accused to ascertain her economic and moral circumstances. Hearsay testimony was admitted and rules of evidence were lax26.

33In all the interrogations surrounding the culpability of Cornu, Fermis, Legrand, Saint-Vel, Debisschop and Ravizza the investigators did not ask about the midwives’ medical practice or inquire about how many pregnant women came to them or how many babies they delivered. Their questions shaped the dominant prosecuting narrative, which was one of Cornu’s alleged immorality and greed. Searching Cornu’s apartment, they confiscated instruments that midwives and doctors could have used in delivering babies, but they saw them as tools of abortion, which they also were. Their methods of questioning also perpetuated confrontation. The interrogators questioned all suspects and witnesses individually many times, with second and subsequent interrogations based on testimony from others. The investigating magistrates would also put two people in the same room, posing question that elicited arguments between them. Most questions involved Cornu’s alleged activities as an abortionist and her immorality; Fermis and the others were of secondary interest.

34The work of Michel Foucault offers a framework for interpreting judicial sources and helps historians evaluate the nature of legal proof, the evidence, and the magistrates’ techniques of interrogation. Foucault underscores how hierarchies of power and dispersal of power exist throughout the entire investigatory and social apparatus. In analyzing minute power relationships, this story becomes an example of Foucault’s “punitive city”—in the stairwells, on the streets, and in apartment buildings. In the investigations, not only is the crime judged, but so is the individual. The magistrates brought out many factors about a person’s life and her “will” and her “soul”. Focusing on how many repeat visits Cornu required of her patients to extract more money, on her refusing to treat Debisschop because she could not pay enough, on her charging Saint-Vel and Legrand 500 francs, not once but twice, magistrates emphasized her greed. In asking repeated questions and calling witnesses to testify about Cornu’s many past and current lovers they focused on her corrupt soul. According to Foucault, not only is the crime judged, but so is the “soul”of the criminal. Another damning indication of Cornu’s immorality was the testimony from Larue and her father that Cornu gave Larue one of her former lovers. Larue’s father wanted Cornu charged with corruption of the morals of a minor, but that particular charge never materialized. Although the line of questioning suggested it, no one accused Cornu openly of prostitution. Cornu came to trial based on her acts in performing abortions, complicated by her personal history and demeanor.

35Although the Penal Code set forth punishment for a particular crime, in this case as in others concerning abortion the punishment fit the criminal more than the crime. The sentence for the offense remained within the limits of the Code but could vary according to how the magistrates and juries perceived the character of the accused. As Foucault assessed:

  • 27 Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York : Vintage (...)

“it is these shadows lurking behind the case itself that are judged and punished. They are judged indirectly as ‘attenuating circumstances’ that introduce into the verdict not only ‘circumstantial’ evidence, but something quite different, which is not juridically codifiable: the knowledge of the criminal, one’s estimation of him, what is known about the relations between him, his past and his crime, and what might be expected of him in the future27

  • 28 Fuchs, Poor and Pregnant in Paris, op. cit., pp. 180-199 ; James M. Donovan, «Abortion, the Law, an (...)
  • 29 L’article 317 du Code Pénal spitulates : « Quiconque, par aliments, breuvages, médicaments, violenc (...)

36During the nineteenth century, most women brought to trial for having had an abortion would be acquitted or receive a sentence with attenuating circumstances. Midwives accused of performing abortions usually received a conviction, but with attenuating circumstances; in the rare instances of her patient dying, she would receive the full sentence28. In this abortion case, the jury did not find in Cornu’s favor and the judges pronounced the maximum sentence29. The jury and judges gave the others lighter sentences with attenuating circumstances. Fermis and Debisschop admitted to performing or having an abortion. As Foucault reminds us, confession had priority over other kinds of evidence and even had priority over their good “soul”. Since they confessed but had no evidence of their bad “soul” or past life they were sentenced with attenuating circumstances. There was insufficient evidence to bring Saint-Vel and Legrand to trial.

  • 30 Fuchs, Poor and Pregnant, op. cit., pp. 180-199 ; Donovan, « Abortion, the Law, and the Juries in F (...)

37The judicial records also provide some clues about female deportment and normative roles for women. They portrayed Cornu as an outspoken, independent, mercenary woman—all traits antithetical to the female norms of the day. Cornu continued to behave powerfully throughout the criminal proceedings, raising her voice, speaking forcefully and never behaving as a docile passive woman. Perhaps that contributed to the unusually severe sentence meted out to Cornu in comparison to all others tried for abortion during the nineteenth century30. At the public spectacle of the trial, and in a packed house, Larue sat demurely and accused Cornu of having streams of men and women of all ages visit her at all hours of the day and night. “Mais qui ? Qui ? C’est un mensonge” Cornu shouted. The trial then shifted to Larue’s morality and Cornu’s counter-accusation that Larue “n’avait pas besoin de moi pour se mal conduire.” In another instance when Debisschop was testifying, Cornu interrupted: “C’est une lâcheté insigne. (S’adressant à sa co-accusée:) … Ces mensonges ne vous sauveront pas, madame.” Debisschop replied, “Je ne sais pas, mais ce que je sais, c’est que c’est vous qui m’avez perdue.” Turning away from Cornu, she added:

“La dernière fois qui j’ai été traitée par la femme Fermis, la fille Cornu est venue, et elles ont exercé ensemble leur manœuvres. Je perdis connaissance… Elles avaient peur que je mourusse et elle me fit mettre dans une voiture et reconduire chez moi. Je lui remis encore, sur ses instances un billet de 20 francs. C’était le seul et dernier argent que je possédasse.”

  • 31 « Justice Criminelle, Cour d’Assises de la Seine, Audience du 29 décembre, Avortement. – Quatre Acc (...)

38At that point Debisschop burst into tears31. This report of the Gazette des Tribunaux could have been an exaggeration, and Debisschop’s testimony did not save her from a two-year prison sentence, but it does illustrate Cornu’s outspoken nature and behavior outside cultural feminine norms. Other women appeared in traditional feminine roles as vulnerable, meek, demure and non-confrontational. Although they committed a “fault” for which the authorities had to punish them, they received lighter sentences.


39This particular abortion case in the Cour d’Assises reveals a community of common interests within the liminal terrain of the quartier: when a local doctor worked as backup to the midwives; when the local pharmacist gave Larue the abortifacient or drug that Cornu requested to stop the hemorrhaging; when the merchant of religious objects signed a promissory note on behalf of Saint Vel who was short of cash; when Cornu’s lovers (an engineer and professor) living within the neighborhood testified; and when we hear the gossip of the concierges. The judicial process also indicated the power of prestige and money; of all those accused, the judges found insufficient evidence to bring to trial only the rich married woman and her banker-lover. Witnesses appeared by the dozens, most of them women. Thus women’s voices were critical in the judicial proceedings, and they exercised power as they turned against Cornu. They initially denounced Cornu to the police and through their own interrogations and depositions they asserted themselves, denied accusations, and justified their own behavior. The Civil and Penal Codes denied women many aspects of citizenship and made abortion illegal. However, women often took matters into their own hands, used their neighborhood networks, and acted on their own behalf in order to try to have some control over their intimate lives. They lived in a community, sometimes covering several blocks of a neighborhood, and operated within distinctive hierarchical relationships. In the end, however, the state had the power once someone broke those neighborhood ties and denounced another. This criminal investigation of the angel makers (faiseuses d’anges) of the quartier Notre Dame des Champs reveals the hierarchy and dispersion of power within a complex relationship of personal needs, community standards, state organizations and the cultural discourse of the moral republic of 1870s Paris.

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1 Rachel G. Fuchs, Contested Paternity: Constructing Families in Modern France, (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008).

2 For three exemplary works of private lives in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries based on the judicial archives, specifically on those of the Cour d’Assises, see : Anne-Marie Sohn, Chrysalides : Femmes dans la vie privée (XIXe-XXe Siècles), 2 vols, (Paris : Publications de la Sorbonne, 1996), especially, pp. 828–908 ; Annick Tillier, Des criminelles au village : Femmes infanticides en Bretagne (1825-1865), (Rennes : Presses Universitaires de Rennes, 2001 ) ; and especially idem, Marie Vaillant : Histoire tragique d’une infanticide en Bretagne, (Paris : Larousse, 2011). For the best understanding of private lives in the eighteenth century based largely on judicial archives see the works of Arlette Farge ; especially relevant for this article is Fragile Lives : Violence, Power and Solidarity in Eighteenth-Century Paris, trans. Carol Shelton, (Cambridge, MA : Harvard University Press, 1993).

3 This article forms one aspect of my forthcoming book, The Angel Makers of Mission Street : Abortion and Community in Late-Nineteenth-Century Paris. All material for this article, unless otherwise specified, is drawn from Archives de Paris, Dossiers Cour d’Assises, D2 U8 (24) 29 December 1873. Dossier Cornu. Avortement et complicité et tentative d’avortement. The most famous nineteenth-century abortion case was that of Constance Thomas and Abélard Floury in 1892 Paris, however the Cour d’Assises dossier for that case has disappeared. That case differed from this 1873 case in several ways : neither the press nor the public were as interested in tales of abortion in the 1870s as they were in the 1890s ; in the 1870s depopulation and pronatalism lacked the political intensity it had in the 1890s and abortion was less of a scourge ; a patient of Thomas died. My planned book will contain a chapter on the Thomas-Floury case. See also René Le Mée, « Une affaire de ‘faiseuses d’anges’ à la fin du XIXe siècle » in Communications : Dénatalité l’antériorité française 1800-1914, (Paris : Seuil, 1986), pp. 137-174.

4 The neighborhood extended to the rue Bonaparte, to rue du Cherche-Midi, and the passage d’Enfer. In 1876 or 1880 (date varies by source) rue des Missions became rue de l’Abbé Grégoire. Jacques Hillairet, Dictionnaire historique des rues de Paris, (Paris : Éditions de Minuit, 1963) vol. 1, p. 62 puts the name change in 1880. For an area map, see See also Jean-Luc Pinol and Maurice Garden, Atlas des Parisiens de la Révolution à nos jours, (Paris : Parigramme, 2009), p. 106 (mentions the area as « confortable »).

5 Spelling and grammar in this and other French quotations are the same as in the original, according to my deciphering of handwriting.

6 Le Figaro, 10 and 12 sept., 12 oct. 1873.

7 Archives de Paris, Acte de décès, 1860 and Archives de l’Assistance publique, La Charité, 1Q2/133, Registre d’entrées, Registres 13 août 1860 à 31 décembre 1860. The hospital La Charité was located in the 6th arrondissement on rue Jacob. Cornu’s community was the 6th arrondissement.

8 Pièce 52. 4 octobre 1873. Interrogation de la femme Fermis, Pièce 51, Josse, Zephirin, concierge rue Campagne Première, 8 bis. Déposé sur interpellation.

9 Archives de Paris, Calepins du cadastre DP4 (1852) 737, 1852 described apartments at 33 rue des Missions as « appartements bourgeois ». See also D1P4(2) 1877. The market Marché des Missions established in 1866 was there in 1873. None of the major players in this drama were living at their same addresses in 1877 ; only Debisschop’s sister was at the same address in 1873 and 1877. Google maps is helpful for determining walking time between various buildings, but tends to underestimate if a person walks slowly.

10 Pièce 40 ; Pièces 56, 64, and 65. Interrogation of Emélie Debisschop and her sister, Louise Debisschop.

11 Pièce 69. Second interrogation of Emélie Debisschop.

12 Pièce 82, 21 octobre 1873 first Interrogation of Ravizza.

13 Pièces 82, 88 and 89. Interrogations of Cornu and Ravizza. Contact with her daughter who had the measles would not have caused Ravizza to miscarry, but if Ravizza herself became ill, the consequences might have been a spontaneous miscarriage.

14 I treat this spatial neighborhood community as a space according to Michel de Certeau’s concept of a space. To de Certeau, a place designates a location, but when individuals act and exert agency or engage in everyday practices in that place in pursuit of a particular goal it may also become a dedicated space ; a space is a practiced place. Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, trans by Steven Rendell (Berkeley, CA : University of California Press, [1984] 1988), XIX, pp. 35-36, p. 117. In this space, the goal was obtaining critical reproductive and gynecological care. The neighborhood encompassing the rue de Cherche-Midi, rue des Missions, rue d’Assas and the neighboring streets functioned as a neighborhood community with a market, a pharmacy, and people who walked by and seemed to know one another. This dossier provides no evidence that Haussmannization disrupted life in this particular quartier in the early 1870s although it was quite disruptive in others, and the street widening in 1866 might have raised rents and forced some people to move, such as Fermis.

15 This infant was one of the 30 percent of all abandoned infants who survived, defying all odds and dying at the age of 86 in the same town where he was sent en nourrice. Archives de Paris, Dossiers d’Admission D5X4266.

16 Pièce 51. Josse, Zephirin, 42 years, concierge rue Campagne Première, 8 bis. Déposé sur interpellation 4 octobre 1873.

17 « Pièces 24 and 25 of 12 septembre 1873 interrogations of concierges at 71 rue de Sèvres, 84 rue du Cherche-Midi and 33 rue des Missions about Cornu’s morality and occupation as a midwife. »

18 Ibid. The police commissioner who took the interrogation underscored those words in the original document.

19 Archives de Paris, D1P4 180, Carton 380, calepins du cadastre.

20 Susan Cotts Watkins and Angela D. Danzi, « Women’s Gossip and Social Change : Childbirth and Fertility Control among Italian and Jewish Women in the United States, 1920-1940 », Gender and Society 9, No.4, Aug 1995, pp. 469-490. Quotations from p. 471 and 481. For other sources on urban networks see Eliza Cubitt, « The Screaming Streets » Interdisciplinary Studies in the Long Nineteenth Century, 18, 2014, pp. 1-21 and Sharon Marcus, Apartment Stories, City and Home in Nineteenth-Century Paris and London, (Berkeley, CA : University of California Press, 1999), p. 60.

21 Mark Granovetter, «The Strength of Weak Ties », American Journal of Sociology 73, 1978, pp. 136-180.

22 Rachel G. Fuchs, Poor and Pregnant in Paris : Strategies for Survival in the Nineteenth Century, (New Brunswick, NJ : Rutgers University Press, 1992), p. 189.

23 The prominent feminist writer and physician, Madeleine Pelletier, witness to women’s solidarity in the face of unwanted pregnancies, observed in 1913 that women « do not make a mystery of these [abortive] practices. On the landings of the working-class tenements, at the bakers, the butchers, the grocers, the housewives advise neighbors…» Madeleine Pelletier, Le droit à l’avortement, (Paris : Ed. du Malthusien, 1913), pp. 6-7.

24 Célina Bouninque was part of these personal networks. She met Cornu in 1872 through her friend Euphémie Fermis, who had recommended Bouningue to her as a seamstress. There, Bouninque met Louise Brouté and Rebecca Larue.

25 James M. Donovan, Juries and the Transformation of Criminal Justice in France in the Nineteenth & Twentieth Centuries, (Chapel Hill, NC : University of North Carolina Press, 2010) chap. 4, especially pp. 134-138 ; Jacques Dupâquier, « Combien d’avortements en France avant 1914 ? » in Communications : Dénatalité, op. cit., pp. 87-106 ; Fuchs, Poor and Pregnant in Paris, op. cit., pp. 180-199.

26 Fuchs, Poor and Pregnant in Paris, op. cit., p. 191.

27 Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York : Vintage Books, 1979), p.17.

28 Fuchs, Poor and Pregnant in Paris, op. cit., pp. 180-199 ; James M. Donovan, «Abortion, the Law, and the Juries in France, 1825-1923 », Criminal Justice History 9, (Fall 1988 ); Donovan, Juries and the Transformation of Criminal Justice, op. cit., pp. 17-18.

29 L’article 317 du Code Pénal spitulates : « Quiconque, par aliments, breuvages, médicaments, violences, ou par tout autre moyen, aura procuré l’avortement d’une femme enceinte, soit qu’elle y ait consenti ou non, sera puni de la réclusion. La même peine sera prononcée contre la femme qui se sera procuré l’avortement à elle-même, ou qui aura consenti à faire usage des moyens à elle indiqués ou administrés à cet effet, si l’avortement s’en est suivi. Les médecins, chirurgiens et autres officiers de santé ainsi que les pharmaciens qui auront indiqué ou administré ces moyens, seront condamnés à la peine des travaux forcés à temps, dans le cas où l’avortement aurait eu lieu. » The prison term was up to the presiding judges.

30 Fuchs, Poor and Pregnant, op. cit., pp. 180-199 ; Donovan, « Abortion, the Law, and the Juries in France, 1825-1923 », art. cit.

31 « Justice Criminelle, Cour d’Assises de la Seine, Audience du 29 décembre, Avortement. – Quatre Accusées », Gazette des Tribunaux : Journal de jurisprudence et des débats judiciaires, 30 December 1873.

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Rachel G. Fuchs, « Angel Makers (Faiseuses d’Anges) of the Quartier Notre-Dame des Champs: Community and Personal Networks in 1870s Paris »Genre & Histoire [En ligne], 17 | Printemps 2016, mis en ligne le 06 juin 2016, consulté le 22 septembre 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Rachel G. Fuchs

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