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1x01 | The Paris Morgue

One of the most popular attractions in 19th-century Paris just so happened to be the morgue. On the busiest days up to 40,000 people filed through its doors to see the city’s unidentified bodies on display. It was a sensationalized show. You could read about a gruesome murder in the newspaper and then go see the victim in the flesh. There are stories of suspected killers being taken to the morgue to face their victims, where they would break down and confess in front of all the onlookers. In the 1880s, bright interrogation-style lights were installed in the exhibition room to enhance that effect. 

The morgue was open seven days a week from dawn to 6pm. Entrance was free and morbidly curious Parisians of all backgrounds gawked at the corpses together.

My name is Lenore, and I’m The Victorienne.

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The word morgue comes from the archaic French verb "morguer" which meant "to have a fixed and questioning gaze". This came to be associated with the people who spent time staring at unidentified corpses and transformed into the word "morgue", for the place where those corpses were stored.

In France, the practice of publicly displaying the unidentified dead was first established during the reign of Louis XIV, but the number of unidentified people rose as Paris became more industrialized. People moved to Paris in search of better-paying work, and they frequently knew no one when they arrived. If they died unexpectedly, there was a good chance nobody knew who they were.

To help identify them, an official Paris Morgue opened in 1804, then moved to a larger building behind the Notre Dame Cathedral in 1864. This building was conveniently close to the river Seine, where a majority of the bodies were found. Its central location in the city helped draw in more visitors, which meant faster identification of the corpses - and most of them were successfully identified. The new morgue building was also more advanced with an autopsy room, a lab for chemical analysis, and a designated room for police to inspect bodies.

What most people got to see was the exhibition room, separated from the public by large glass windows which were covered with green curtains if the display was being rearranged. The curtains were pulled apart to reveal two rows of bodies on slanted marble tables. Each body wore only a loincloth, and the clothing they died in was hung on pegs behind them. Cold water trickled over their heads to keep the bodies cool until a refrigeration system was installed in 1882. If a body wasn’t identified or claimed by a family member within three days, a photograph would be taken and displayed elsewhere in the morgue. After the fourth day, an unclaimed body would be sent to medical schools for dissection.

Some of the morgue’s visitors were well-meaning people hoping to recognize a body, thus saving that person from the terrible fate of dissection. But most people who came to see the display were there only for the morbid voyeurism. On days when there were no unclaimed bodies to identify, visitors would leave grumbling about how disappointing the show had been that day. The morgue was described as having a festival atmosphere. The gruesome entertainment was accompanied by street performers and people selling gingerbread, oranges, and coconut snacks. The morgue was listed in tourist guidebooks and both Robert Browning and Charles Dickens wrote about it. Dickens said "Whenever I am at Paris, I am dragged by an invisible force into the Morgue. I never want to go there, but am always pulled there." 

If a murder or horrific accident took place and the story was sensationalized by the press, then hordes of people would flock to the Morgue. If the case were especially famous, you might have to wait in line for hours to get a glimpse of a victim, and sometimes the police were brought in to control the crowds. The Morgue had a theatrical allure and sometimes the bodies were posed almost like mannequins. There’s one story of a man searching for work as a shop window dresser who was told to go by the Morgue to see if they had any work for him.

One of the more dramatically staged displays was that of the "Enfant de la Rue Vert-Bois". In 1886, a four-year-old girl was found dead at the foot of a staircase. Her cause of death was unclear, as her only apparent injury was a bruise on one hand. The press reported this mysterious finding and over 150,000 people went to the Morgue to see the poor little girl. Unlike most other bodies at the Morgue, she was put in a dress and propped up in a chair that was draped with red cloth. The shade of red contrasting with her skin made her look particularly pale and added to the theatricality of the staging. After a few days, an autopsy was performed and found that she died after choking on an earthworm, but the mystery still remains of who she was and why she was abandoned.

A similar event took place a few years later in 1895 when two young girls were found in the Seine just a day apart. One was 18 months old, the other three years old, and they were found near each other. 

A newspaper reported these facts and posed the question "Are these two sisters?" This led to scores of Parisians descending on the Morgue to decide for themselves if they saw a resemblance. Like the child described earlier, they were posed in chairs. Unfortunately, the two girls were misidentified and had to be put on display again, but by that time they had already decomposed quite a bit.

The most famous case of a body found in the Seine might not be a true story at all. L’inconnue de la Seine, or the unknown woman of the Seine, was supposedly pulled out of the river in the late 1880s. The story goes that a pathologist at the Morgue found her particularly beautiful and had a death mask of her face made. Death masks, which are still made today, are plaster molds of a person’s face that you can make before or after they’ve died. This young woman’s mask was notable because of her delicate features and mysterious smile, which led to the author Albert Camus calling her the "drowned Mona Lisa". The mask was reproduced in Paris, then all around Europe, and caught the attention of numerous bohemian artists and writers, who were able to project whatever story they wanted onto the pretty face. The girl was never identified, adding to the story’s intrigue. Her face happens to be the model for the CPR training doll, and as a result is called "the most kissed face of all time". Models of her face are also used by cosmetology students practicing makeup application. Chances are, you’ve seen this face.

Her mysterious story does have a catch. Experts have questioned the authenticity of the story because it’s unlikely a death mask as unblemished as hers could have belonged to any deceased person, especially one supposedly pulled out of a river. However, resculpting death masks was common practice at the time, so some cosmetic adjustments could have been made. Those experts who question the traditional story suspect that the mask was actually made from the face of a mask-maker’s daughter or from the face of an artist’s model, who would have been used to remaining still long enough for a mask to be made. There also aren’t any morgue, police, or burial records from that time which match up with most versions of this legend. And the girl’s hair is done in the style of the 1860s, not the 1880s when she was allegedly found.

The Paris Morgue was closed in 1907 out of concern for "moral hygiene" and the impact seeing corpses might have on the delicate women and the children who visited. Conveniently for them, that same year saw the opening of the Cinéma du Panthéon as the French film industry was growing, so they didn’t want for entertainment.

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