Episode 5: The Morgue

Hello, your listening to Paname, the podcast where we discover some of the less savoury stories from Paris’s long history. Come with me today to find out about a very curious window display and the most kissed woman of Paris or maybe the world.

I’ve come to the ile de la cite if you find yourself here its probably because  you have probably come to visit Notre dame. But if you were visiting Paris in the late 1800s is more than likely you were here for a very different attraction. On the tip of the island just behind the cathedral, there used to stand the public morgue stood, between 1864 and 1907. It replaced the previous morgue from 1805 which had also been public but had been destroyed by Haussmann’s remodelling of the city. They took advantage to renovate and make it larger the morgue was incredibly popular. They chose this location as it was ideal, central and easy to get to and close to the seine; lots of bodies they found had drowned. It was public and that means it was open 7 days a week from morning through to night free of charge and anyone at all could enter and indeed it became one of the ‘must sees’ in Paris and drew huge crowds, sometimes thousand per day would file through to examine the unclaimed dead. Now what exactly would they see when they went in?

When they entered into the morgue, they would look through a huge window and laid out neatly on inclined slabs, all the better to see them, would be two rows of 6 corpses displayed. Now adding an extra thrill to these already murky proceedings they were displayed naked just a cloth draped over their private parts, their clothes hung on a peg beside them.  The idea was that these poor unfortunates victims of accident, suicide, or even sometimes, thrillingly murder, would be recognised and claimed and thus the public were helping the police. Or perhaps that’s what they told themselves.

In all of Europe, it was only in Paris that this type of public display took place, but it was not only Parisians who enjoyed it. Tourists and locals came in their droves to gawp, The very word morgue comes from an old word meaning ‘to stare’ which is exactly what they did. It was written about in guide books alongside the Eiffel tower and other typical Parisian attractions. And what was so delightful, especially to the English Victorian traveller, was not only the rather obscene display behind the windows but the possibility of rubbing shoulders with the working classes and slumming it as they’d call it. Dickens was a regular visitor, he described the morgue as “old acquaintance”, and “a strange sight, which I have contemplated many times during the last dozen years”. As is the way vendors sprung up to cater for their needs of the people waiting in line, supplying refreshments, food and even toys for the children.

People were particularly keen to visit the morgue if an unusual or thrilling body to be found. Children drew especially large crowds, in 1895 the display of two very unfortunate drown little girls brought around10 thousand people through the doors within the first 4 days of them going on display. They were so popular that were kept on show and when they started to rot makeup was added so that they could be shown a little bit longer.

A security guard even had to be brought in to control the crowds lining up to see the infamous and unlucky “woman cut into two pieces” who, as you have probably already worked out had been killed and cut in half, the two parts dumped in the seine river. Yet, despite the crowds, an estimated 3 hundred thousand after 2 weeks, non were able to identify her. Instead a song was even written about her giving advice to any would-be future murders to burn the body rather than dump it in the seine if they wanted to get away with and not become Paris’ next most popular attraction. I feel this makes it clear that the morgue was purely entertainment, a sort of tragic museum rather than a place that people went to identify ones missing friends, relatives or victims. 

Speaking of victims, in Zola’s story ‘Therese Raquin’, Laurent murders Camille, drowning him, in order to facilitate his affair which he is having with Thérèse. The guilt makes him a daily visitor to the morgue searching for the body in order , well I suppose, to bring a conclusion to this terrible event.  Maybe for this reason the description is particularly gruesome but nonetheless I thought you might enjoy it so here goes:

“For over a week he went and examined the countenance of all the drowned persons extended on the slabs. While some retained their natural condition in the rigidity of death others seemed like lumps of bleeding and decaying meat. At the back against the wall, hung some lamentable rags, petticoats and trousers, puckered against the bare plaster. A melodious sound of running water broke the silence. Little by little he distinguished the bodies and went from one to the other. It was only the drowned that interest him. When several human forms were there, swollen and blued by the water, he looked at them eagerly, seeking to recognise Camille. Frequently, the flesh on the faces had gone away by strips, the bones had burst through the mellow skins, the visages were like lumps of boned, boiled beef.

That is a pretty gruesome description but I think it gives you a little idea, maybe, of what it might have been like.

The morgue was not refrigerated until 1882, before then cold water, as just described by Zola was dripped onto the bodies in an attempt to preserve them. For this reason they could only be displayed for about 3 days and then a wax model or photograph would be substituted.

Interestingly then most famous person to have ever been displayed was actually a model. It was a death mask of a young woman who became known as ‘l’inconnue de la seine’  ‘unknown woman of the seine’ . Camus described her as the drown Mona Lisa, which is very fitting as hers story is both mysterious and her smile enigmatic. She was a young woman whose body was found in 1880 and  who was believed to have committed suicide by throwing herself into the river. The story goes that her beauty and peaceful expression resulted in the death mask being made and displayed outside the modellers shop.  It became immensely popular with the public who speculated about her story and identity; at one time – it was said that no drawing room in France was complete in late 19th France without a model of her. Her popularity in turn inspired writers, poets and photographers, we can include Nabokov, Rilke and Man Ray in this. 

Her death mask makes us think of the tragic drowned women from literature,  like Ophelia rather than anything Zola might describe. She looks so alive, like she’s just about to open her eyes and like she is thinking about something beautiful.  Experts agree however that most victims of drowning are not so composed and it is for this reason that doubt has been cast onto weather the model was indeed a drown woman or rather a living one.  No one really knows, but as is the case with most good stories we want to believe the story.

Then In 1955 a Norwegian toy maker was approached to make a CPR dummy. He was inspired to use her face for the model having seen one at his grandparent’s house. The model remains in use to this day.  The woman be unknown and drown many years ago but since then thousands have tried to resuscitate her.

So what happened to the morgue? Well in 1907 it closed down and moved from the ile de la cite.  Today behind Notre Dame you will find a memorial to the victims of the Second World War. At the time of its closing however the merchants were furious and petitioned the municipal council claiming that closure had hurt their business and demanding tax breaks. But there had been increasing in demand for it to shut from both the press and the public who were claiming it was corrupting morals while others rightly pointed out that it was not very useful as only a very small number of bodies were ever identified at the morgue.

From now on Parisians and tourists would have to get there thrills elsewhere. Luckily Paris had plenty to keep them entertained.

Today Parisian window displays are a lot less macabre. Indeed they are their own art form. During the Christmas holidays the department stores, like Galeries Lafayette and Printemps really go to town making magical, and I suppose costly displays in order to entice and entertain. People will go to ‘faire les vitrines’ or ‘do the windows’ and see what they have come up with this year, brining their children with them to enjoy the show, with no intention of necessarily of even going in.  There is another expression which I particularly enjoy ‘leches-vitrine’ window licking for what I would call window shopping and which evokes the idea of people literally panting, their tongues hanging out before the fabulous the goods on show.  Thankfully, these days, it’s rather shoes than corpses.