The present square includes the chapel of the Saint-Lazare prison. It started as a leper colony run by monks in the 17th century and then as a special prison for the well-to-do. 165 prisoners were executed here over the three days before Robespierre’s arrest on 27 July 1794 at the height of the terror. It became a women’s prison later that year. After being rebuilt in 1834 and closed in 1935 to become a hospital, it was also closed in its turn in 1998.
Saint-Lazare had dual roles: medical treatment and jail. After the 1802 law requiring prostitutes to have regular medical check-ups, the Saint-Lazare prison became one of the first prison hospitals in France, with many women undergoing treatment. They would not be released until they were given a ‘clear card’. Those who didn’t have a card at all could simply be locked up in the prison side of the establishment. This law continued in force until 1946, when all women’s detention centres in France were finally closed.
Saint-Lazare was rebuilt by the architect Louis-Pierre Baltard as a special women’s hospital in 1834 after the old Saint-Lazare church collapsed.
In 1838 the Paris police chief made the Sisters of Marie-Joseph responsible for guarding the prisoners.
In 1857 Saint-Lazare had about 1,300 prisoners in three sections: those convicted or waiting trial; those undergoing treatment or refusing it; and girls between 7 and 16 or 20 who were deemed to be vulnerable.
Records show some 11,000 women and girls passed through the Hospital/Prison in the single year, 1885. This was two years after Louise Michel was imprisoned there.
In 1935 the old prison was demolished but the special hospital continued to treat women prostitutes until 1975, the international year of women.
The only remaining bits of the prison are the Chapel in the Square and the old hospital’s wings, now associated with the Françoise Sagan media centre.