Monday, July 28, 2014

The Paris Morgue

In working on my article on Zola, I came across a really interesting chapter in a really interesting book by Vanessa Schwartz called Spectacular Realities: Early Mass Culture in Fin-de-Siècle Paris (Berkely, Los Angeles & London: University of California Press, 1998).

In 19th-century Paris, the public could visit the morgue--as a guest, not a "client."  In fact, it became an extremely popular tourist attraction.

Historians estimate that, at the height of its popularity, thousands of people visited the morgue daily--as Schwartz points out, street vendors sold fruit and pastries outside (in case you felt a bit peckish before or after looking at a series of decaying corpses) and one guy actually sold homemade ointment (63).

When the morgue finally closed its doors to the public in 1907, "forty merchants from the quartier Notre-Dame petitioned the second commission of the municipal council, claiming the closure had damaged their business" (64).

Inside the morgue itself, corpses were displayed on slabs in front of a large window.

Morgue interior, from Leopold Flameng, Paris qui s'en va et qui vient (1860).  Musee Carnavalet, copyright Phototheque des musees de la Ville de Paris.
(Source: Theodor Hoffbauer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

And crowds just... walked on by.  And stared.

During particularly busy times--when a particularly gruesome crime had been played up by the Parisian press, for example--guards had to ensure that people kept moving.  Women and children visited; it was free and open to the public.  (In Zola's novel, Thérèse Raquin, the protagonist Laurent drops in on his way to work every morning for several weeks--and he is by no means the only one to do so.)


The victim's clothing was hung up on display behind the corpse itself, and the corpses were naked, except for a cloth that covered their genitals.  Zola makes it clear that quite a few people--men and women alike--came to stare at the naked bodies (he depicts men and young boys gaping at the breasts of naked female corpses in particular).

Image: A crowd, including a mother and her young son, gathers to view the grisly sight of the bodies at the Paris Morgue circa 1820. Credit: Wellcome Images, Wellcome Library, London. (Source:

In the first half of the nineteenth century, there was no refrigeration, so the longest a body could be displayed was about 3 days.  The clothing--or a picture of the victim--was often displayed for longer.
in 1877 the morgue staff began photographing all its inhabitants and posted the photos of the corpses that had been buried but remained unidentified on the wooden barrier at the entrance, thus prolonging the display of any unidentified corpse long after the usual three days of display. (58)
They also began making wax replicas of particularly famous cases, so that people could then view the wax reproduction, once the corpse itself had decayed beyond the point of being "presentable."

In the case that became known as "the woman cut in two pieces"--her corpse had been cut in two, packaged separately and dumped into the Seine--authorities estimated that "in the afternoon between five and six thousand people filed through in one hour" to view the body, which had been placed "one one of the slabs closest to the glass ... a cloth smock of the material in which the body had been wrapped was thrown over it so that only the head and feet were exposed" (72).  The morgue stayed open late so that viewers could see the body, and when they could no longer display the body itself, they commissioned a "wax reproduction of the head" which was "then placed on a mannequin covered with a white sheet" (73).

Crowds now gathered to see how accurate the wax reproduction was.

The morgue was, in essence, free theater.  The press would speculate about the story behind a particular corpse, and lines would form at the morgue.

Over the course of the nineteenth century, this trend was fueled by the morgue administrators themselves: believing that a murderer confronted with the sight of his victim's corpse would confess freely, they often staged a "confrontation."  Crowds "knew to go to the morgue to witness the criminal on the day of the 'confrontation,' because they anticipated its enactment as part of the newspaper crime narrative with which they were quite familiar" (81).

In short, they went to see the story associated with the corpse in the Paris Morgue play out in "real" life.

In case you're wondering--and really, I kinda hope you are--why on earth anyone would open the Paris morgue to the public, there were several reasons.  As both Schwartz and historian Alan Mitchell point out, the nineteenth century witnessed the dawning of modern medicine, the rise of positivism, and a general belief in the virtues of science.

So in effect, the opening of the Paris Morgue to the public was a way to put science on display.  Sort of.

The other cover story was, of course, that the display of unidentified corpses would lead to their eventual identification.  As Schwartz points out, however, this was probably not all that effective as an investigative strategy.

The fact that thousands of people were filing by the bodies on a daily basis--many of them tourists from out of town--suggests that people didn't really visit the Paris Morgue because they thought that maybe they could help identify a victim.

As Schwartz points out, an August 29, 1892 article in L'Eclair indicated that
the random visit rarely provided a positive identification.  Of the 750 adults admitted the year before, 680 had been identified.  405 had been made through the special investigation by the morgue.  165 had been "recognized on admission" (forensic autopsy, etc.), "55 by their clothing after the corpse's burial, 10 through photographs, 5 by l'anthropométrie and 40 through display.  Of these 40, the paper argued that it was likely that they were all 'intentional viewer identifications and not the product of chance.' (84)
When the Paris Morgue finally closed its doors to the public in 1907, a one-hundred-year-old spectacle came to an end.  As Schwartz notes, "[t]he morgue transformed anonymous corpses into Parisian sensation, and a large public gathered to consume this spectacularized reality" (87).

Ultimately, the Paris Morgue was a spectacle fed by other contemporary forms of spectacle and sensationalism--the popular press, police memoirs, and wax museums--and as such, it was a fascinating historical phenomenon that marked the transition to modern popular culture.

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