Cabaret du Neant

Although Curie-osities is primarily about radium in popular culture, I often come across references to other things that are quite closely linked to this.

One of the most recent of these was a small advert in the New York Times dated 28th February 1896, which advertised a public exhibition of the “cathode, or X, ray.”

Firstly it was the date that intrigued, February 1896, exactly two months after Roentgen published his first paper “On a new kind of ray” after the discovery of X-rays and about 6 weeks after this announcement had begun to be reported in the press. 

But what really grabbed my intention was the information that this exhibition was at the Cabaret du Neant at the Casino Chambers, New York. The Parisian Cabaret du Néant was a familiar place and it only took a little digging to find out that there had, indeed, been a US incarnation of this popular nightclub in 1896. So far so interesting but it got me thinking about a little bit of X-ray popular history I had seen repeated time and time again that hadn’t ever quite added up.

So today’s post will start with the story of a Parisian nightclub (don’t worry it is amazing) before we take a small detour to the US and a large circle back to X-ray popular history.

Cabaret du Néant

We will begin by taking you back even further back into the early 1890s a good few years before Roentgen began messing around with photographic plates on a rainy day.

Paris nightlife was buzzing with a thriving cabaret scene including (my new obsession) the Cabaret du Néant. Less well known than its neighbours the Moulin Rouge, the Cabaret du Ciel and the Cabaret de L’Enfer (Heaven and Hell respectively), the Néant could also be found in the Montmartre area of Paris, specifically at 34 Boulevard de Clincy.

The outside of the Cabaret du Néant was the first clear indication of what was inside. In contrast to the nearby Ciel and de l’Enfer which featured elaborately ornate entrance doorways,  the Cabaret du Néant was painted entirely in black and must have been a rather forbidding place to enter. Hovering outside to “greet” you and to sweep aside the thick black curtains would be the clubs’ doorman, dressed as if on duty at a funeral.

On entry, you would be met by another man dressed as a cleric who would lead you down a blackened hall to the first of a series of rooms.

New York Times, 1896

Salle d’Intoxication
As you entered the first room dozens of voices would greet you in a quiet monotone “Welcome Enter, mortals of this sinful world, enter into the mists and shadows of eternity.”

As your eyes adjusted to your dimly lit surroundings, there would be a few things that, I am sure, would catch them immediately – that the tables were coffins on biers, the chandelier was made from human skulls and arms with candles in their fingers for instance.

On the walls were scenes of everyday Parisian life which, at the flick of a switch of light concealed behind the canvas, dissolved before the customer’s eyes into horrific skeleton figures.

Even the drinks, ordered from waiters dressed as funeral directors, echoed the theme of the cabaret with “cholera” standing in for vermouth, and “pestilence” the code for that popular drink of the fin de siècle – absinthe. A simple plate of sandwiches could be summoned by asking for the “sighs of the dying.”

And your ever cheerful waiter would bring these over to your coffin with the enticing commanding wail to “drink these noxious potions which contain the vilest and deadliest poisons.”

Before long a bell tolled, the funeral march played, and it was time to gulp down your cholera and go to your next destination. The Room of Disintegration, was down another long dark corridor, eerily punctuated with more skulls and bodies (the rumour was these were genuine from the catacombs of Paris). At the end of this corridor your guide, another black-garbed Monk, would stand in front of a massive, solid door, embedded with spikes and produced the key to let you in.

Room of Disintegration

This was the first of a series of rooms that were part of the magic show of the night.  After a demonstration of the fate that they were signing up for a  volunteer would be called from the audience and they were wrapped in a shroud and were asked to stand inside the casket already on the stage. Before the eyes of the attendees this person, someone they either knew or were drinking with only a few moments ago, would be dissolved into a skeleton and then reappear as if by magic. They would disintegrate in front of their eyes simulating decomposition. This was described in the 1899 book Bohemian Paris of To-day as:

“Her face slowly became white and rigid; her eyes sank; her lips tightened across her teeth; her cheeks took on the hollowness of death – she was dead. But it did not end with that. From white the face slowly grew livid…then purplish black… The eyes visibly shrank into their greenish-yellow sockets…. Slowly the hair fell away.. The nose melted away into a purple putrid spot. The whole face became a semi-liquid mass of corruption. Presently all this had disappeared, and a gleaming skull shone where so recently had been the handsome face of a woman; naked teeth grinned inanely and savagely where rosy lips had so recently smiled. Even the shroud had gradually disappeared, and an entire skeleton stood revealed in the coffin.”

Of course, this was all done with a strategically placed piece of glass and a hidden room, but it must have been quite scary to witness not least after you were primed with all the other spooky stuff going on.

And it is the activity in this particular room in Paris that had been bothering me as I had seen it described in several different books as a display of X-rays. Clearly, with an original opening date of 1892, this could not be the case and I could find no evidence that the trick (remember it is always described as a disintegration) had even been updated to simulate an X-ray effect.

Suddenly with the advertisement in the New York Times, the link became clear. 

CABARET DU NEANT – New York City

The original Cabaret du Néant had been incredibly popular so it isn’t much of a surprise that an enterprising businessman, in this case, a Charles F Gall, had decided to copy it. However, the key thing to note is that not only was it a replica of the Parisian one the opening date of it also slightly predates the announcement of X-rays in the US press.

With the advertisement of an ‘X-Ray display’ in the New York Times it is clear that Nall was changing the marketing of the already open Cabaret du Neant to take advantage of this new popular ‘magic’ trick but the regularly seen claim that the Cabaret du Neant illusion was prompted by the discovery of X-rays cannot possibly be true either in Paris or New York. Leapt upon, yes, updated, yes, but the illusion cannot have been influenced by this new scientific discovery as it had already found worldwide popularity before X-rays had reached the public conscious (or indeed actually been discovered). 

References and Further Reading

W.C Morrow, Bohemian Paris of To-day (1900) READ HERE

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