The 39 Clues


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Paris Catacombs

Underneath the streets of Paris lies a second city, a city of the dead. Known as the Catacombs of Paris, this twisting network of passages and chambers is stacked high with thousands upon thousands of human bones.

The estimated 186 miles of underground tunnels date from Roman times but stood empty for hundreds of years. However, by the end of the eighteenth century, the city's cemeteries had begun to overflow with rotting human remains. As the piles of bodies grew and disease began to spread, the Inspection générale des Carrières (or Inspector General of Quarries) decided along with Police Lieutenant General Alexandre Lenoir that the abandoned quarries should be used as an underground graveyard.

In some places the bones are laid in careful patterns. Leg bones are stacked high in rows topped by skulls staring blankly. In other chambers, however, fragments of legs, arms, ribs, and heads litter the floor. There are rooms where you must walk across a sea of skeletons in order to pass through. There is no way to tell how deep these piles go or how many layers of bones lie beneath your feet.

The Catacombs have always fascinated Parisians. King Charles X threw wild parties in them. The French Resistance used them to hide from Nazis. Some have noted that Benjamin Franklin was intrigued by the Catacombs and may have visited them in his final days in Paris. FALSE! There is absolutely NO scholarship supporting these rumors! I found a letter that suggests otherwise. Check out my article on "The Other Side of the Story".

Since the early nineteenth century, small portions of the Catacombs have been open to tourists. Because of the danger of the Catacombs—many have lost their way and died in this pitch-black underground maze—a special division of the Paris police department was created to patrol them. Still, today many foolish "urban explorers" sneak down into the unmapped sections of the Catacombs to see what they can discover. This is not safe. THAT'S RIGHT! Nosy busybodies could be seriously hurt, or lost forever!