Charles Lindbergh's 1927 flight aboard the Spirit of St. Louis from Long Island to Paris stands as one of the most celebrated events in the history of flight. Historians have tackled it extensively, including a wonderful study by Thomas Kessner, The Flight of the Century: Charles Lindbergh and the Rise of American Aviation (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), which addresses the epic flight itself and offers a cultural portrait of the era that created "Lucky Lindy's" celebrity.
But it can be easy sometimes to lose sight of how momentous certain events in history were to those who experienced them. Lindbergh's flight represented more than just a triumph of human ingenuity; it united France and the United States—the "Sister Republics"—in a much-needed moment of cosmopolitan celebration less than a decade after the carnage in Europe. The flight itself was a way to bolster Franco-American relations. It also acknowledged the central role France (and particularly Paris) played in aeronautical culture at the time.
While working in the Archives de la Préfecture de Police de Paris (Paris's police archives), I came across a source that vividly illustrates the exhilarating moments leading up to Lindbergh's arrival at Le Bourget. The two-page document is a report from the Director of Police to the Prefect two days after Lindbergh’s arrival describing the escalating need for police presence as crowds waiting for him to land grew bigger and bigger. It is evidence of just how unprepared the police were for such craziness. Aesthetically, it is not a very attractive document (although I do find the summary statements on the left amusing in their simplicity given the circumstances).
As you can read in the transcription I offer below the images of the report, authorities severely underestimated the crowds who would come to greet Lindbergh. At first, 130 guards and officers were dispatched after the Le Bourget administration requested help—by the end of the day, all of Paris's available police force had been assigned to control the crowds and traffic associated with Lindbergh's arrival. Luckily, only about a dozen people seemed to have gotten injured during the commotion, including seven people who hurt themselves after the veranda they scaled at Le Bourget collapsed. As Xavier Guichard, the Director of the Police, put it, "we have never seen a crowd gather this fast before and whose enthusiasm knew no bounds."
POLICE PREFECTURE Municipal Police Directorship
NOTE ON LENDBERG'S [sic] ARRIVAL
23 May 1927
From the Director of the Municipal Police to Monsieur the Prefect of Police
The Le Bourget aviation camp responds in part to military authority and, in part, to civil management.
Policing presence requested by Le Bourget:
Police presence doubled by the Municipal Police:
[Police presence] quadrupled upon of arrival:
All available men employed:
On the military side, policing is usually provided by military authority itself — on the other side, policing is only provided upon request by civil management and within the limits it sets, since in that case we find ourselves within a facility in which entry is only allowed upon request.
On Saturday, the 21, Le Bourget’s civilian management requested a police presence of 100 men for the evening in anticipation of the public that might come wait for the aviator LINDBERGH.
The public was only allowed in with tickets issued issued by the management.
The municipal police sent 130 guards and officers.
At about 7 pm, fearing that too many tickets had been issued and considering that Lindbergh’s arrival might happen during the night, the Municipal Police was compelled to send another 60 men without having been requested. With that, the service reached about 200 men.
Once Lindbergh was reported to have reached France, a very important police presence was established on the road in order to control traffic. Yet the number of cars that had made their way to Le Bourget made any amount of police presence insufficient; it was an incessant flow of bumper-to-bumper cars clogging traffic, none of them wanting to go beyond Le Bourget and those arriving preventing others from passing. Thus, we should have anticipated an alternative route for official cars rather than the usual one on which they circulated.
In the evening, as soon as the arrival at Le Bourget was confirmed, police presence was increased by a new dispatch of 210 men, including 100 foot guards and 110 guards and officers plus 15 infantrymen from the 34th Aviation Division, made available by the officer-in-charge.
Not all of these units were employed at the interior of the Le Bourget field. Many were employed outside to prevent the public from entering, the Chief of Police having judged it necessary to close the doors because of the large number of guests who came and whose presence in the grounds was now becoming dangerous.
A stronger police presence would only have been possible if it had been requested earlier in advance, seeing that all peacekeepers available in Paris were deployed either to Le Bourget, the road, the Porte de La Villette where, without them, traffic would have become impossible, and, finally, in Paris, in particular in front of the “Matin” and the Place de l’Opéra where the electrified advertisements had drawn a large crowd.
At around 10 pm, 700 men were engaged at these various policing services.
It must be recognized that we have never seen a crowd gather this fast before and whose enthusiasm knew no bounds.
In a case like this, the institution concerned, in this case Le Bourget, would need to request in advance forces appropriate to the circumstances and that would, moreover, require support from the troops.
What seems to have especially moved public opinion is the news of 10 injured taken to the hospital. Furthermore, a rumor spread this afternoon that one of these injured had died and that another was in a coma.
No injuries were reported to the police but, upon inspection, 7 people were treated at the ambulance inside Le Bourget. Of these 7 people, three were taken to the St. Louis Hospital; one left the hospital the same night and two are still in treatment: one for a wrist wound and the the other for a fractured leg. These spectateurs had foolishly scaled onto a veranda that broke under their weight.
None of the patients’ lives are at risk.
The Director of the Municipal Police