On May 4th 1897 a fire tore through the Bazar de la Charité, held in a large wooden shed, in Paris. The bazaar was built like a fantasy medieval street and one of its attractions, which used equipment with a system of ether and oxygen, rather than electricity, caught fire. Unfortunately, exits were not properly marked, and the resulting blaze and panic claimed the lives of 126 people, mostly aristocratic women. Another 200 people were injured from the blaze.
Over 1200 people were at the Bazar at the time of the fire, including Duchess Sophie Charlotte in Bavaria, a sister of Elisabeth of Bavaria, the Empress of Austria. Sophie Charlotte was ten years younger than her famous sister. She was once engaged to her cousin King Ludwig II of Bavaria, but he continually postponed the wedding date until it was finally cancelled altogether. Further candidates for her hand came forward, but she refused all of them. She married the Ferdinand d’Orléans, the Duke of Alençon on 28 September 1868 at Possenhofen Castle. They had met while she was staying with her aunt, Amalie Auguste of Bavaria, who was the Queen of Saxony. She had a good relationship with her husband and their first child Louise d’Orléans was born a year after their marriage. A son was born on 18 January 1872.
Sophie Charlotte was among the victims of the fire. She had refused aid until others had been helped, telling them, “Leave quickly. Do not mind me. I leave the last.” Reportedly her last words were, “Yes, but in a few minutes, think that we will see God!” We do not know for certain if she died of asphyxiation or from the fire. Her body was burned beyond recognition and was identified by the teeth. The entire Bazar was consumed by the fire in just 15 minutes.
In a biography of another Elisabeth of Bavaria, the future Queen of Belgium, Sophie Charlotte’s death is described as,
“She died as nobly as she lived. She perished, burnt alive in the terrible catastrophe of the Bazar de la Charité in Paris, in May 1897. The cinematography was at that time a novel institution, and the operator, with inconceivable clumsiness, set fire to a room above the one in which the bazaar was held. The ceiling was all in flames before any attempt was made to clear the hall. There was a horrible struggle, in which the strongest had the advantage.
However, among the men whose brutal selfishness seems to have stifled all chivalrous feeling, there were a few who thought of the Duchess. They hastened to her help, imploring her to escape, even trying to drag her away by force; but she refused. “I shall stay to the last,” she replied. “Save the others first.” Some Sisters of the Order of S. Vincent de Paul would not leave her, determined to sacrifice their lives also, if need be. The Duchess remained standing; the Sisters knelt around her, praying. As the fire drew close to her, she loosened her magnificent hair, which covered her like a cloak. And it was so that those who survived the disaster saw her for the last time.” 1
The funeral mass was held on 14 May at the Church of Saint-Philippe du Roule, and she was buried in the Royal Chapel at Dreux. On the grounds of the Bazar, a chapel now stands in memory of the victims.