The Diamond Guide and the Unknown Woman

The Diamond Guide for the Stranger in Paris is 384 pages in length, but there is one entry that makes me wonder if there wasn’t anything to preoccupy people in Paris in the 1850s. The Paris Morgue (or Dead House) was a gristly attraction that brought in tourists and natives alike and, if the morgue had not shut down, it would likely still be a hub of activity for what we’ve come to know today as dark tourism.

The Paris Morgue was located behind Notre Dame Cathedral and facilitated a real need. Many bodies were being found in the river and could not be identified. The bodies were fished out and set upon slanted marble slabs so that the public might identify the remains. Often, the clothes of the deceased would be hung on pegs next to the body just in case it might make identification easier for onlookers. The spectacle was designed to bring an end to the many unknowns being fished out of the river daily, but unfortunately, the morgue quickly became an attraction. You see, visiting the morgue was free and many took advantage of this fact given that a lot of attractions in Paris were not. I often check out the free events happening in Milwaukee on the weekend and it’s likely that if I’d lived in Paris during the operation of the Death House, I would have made regular visits. So, the crowds would file into the Paris Morgue, a cold room containing bodies kept behind glass and kept cool with a constant, thin stream of water flowing from the ceiling. This was the only cooling system until 1882 when the morgue was refrigerated. The front of the building had 3 doors, the centermost door was always closed, and the two outer doors were opened to allow visitors to filter in, make the rounds, and filter out. Bodies would arrive both clothed and naked, with and without heads, with and without arms and legs, with and without feet. The practice of displaying bodies pulled from the river also extended to random unidentified persons found dead on the streets and in the alleys of gay old Paris. Nice to know the morgue didn’t discriminate.

In an issue of the Harvard Crimson, a Sophomore named Arthur Mark Cummings gave this apt description of morgue gawkers.

“Men are crowding and elbowing each other; old hags are pointing toward the glass, and croaking to one another; pretty women are gazing with white faces of pity, but with none the less thirsty greediness, upon some fascinating spectacle; little children are being held aloft in strong arms, that they too may see the dreadful thing, and they do see, and they toss their tiny, wavering arms aloft and crow right gleefully.”

Cummings goes on to write, “Brutal, gashed, and swollen faces; wide gaping mouths, which opened for the last time to utter the death-shriek, dead, sodden eyes, ghastly smiles, faces of men and faces of women, faces of the young and faces of the old; faces which Dante, groping among the damned, might have dragged from hideous, steaming depths of Lethean mud, and flung forth to front the unwilling eye of day– such is the sight which greets the visitor upon his entrance to the Paris Morgue. Some of the corpses had been in the water a day, some a week, some-nobody knew how long.”

In 1907, the Paris Morgue closed its doors for good, citing moral reasons as the cause. Newspapers at the time were quite disheartened to hear the news given that they could simply pop in and get a visual account of every grotesque happening for their columns.

One journalist complained, “The Morgue has been the first this year among theaters to announce its closing. As for the spectators, they have no right to say anything because they didn’t pay. There were no subscribers, only regulars because the show was always free. It was the first free theater for the people. And they tell us it’s being canceled. People, the hour of social justice has not yet arrived.”

l'inconnue_de_la_seine_(masque_mortuaire)

Many unknown faces came through the morgue, both young and old, but there was none more memorable than L’Inconnue de la Seine (The Unknown Woman of the Seine.) She was identified as a young woman of around 16 years of age suspected of committing suicide due to the lack of physical injury or violence to her corpse. As the story goes (and I would take this with a grain of salt) the pathologist who first inspected L’Inconnue de la Seine was so taken by her visage that he made a mask of her face, a death mask that would forever capture and preserve her beauty for eternity. The mask became so popular that by the 1900s, copies had made their way into the homes of many Parisians.

“In the following years, numerous copies were produced. The copies quickly became a fashionable morbid fixture in Parisian Bohemian society. Albert Camus…” (a French philosopher, author, and journalist. His views contributed to the rise of the philosophy known as absurdism) “…and others compared her enigmatic smile to that of the Mona Lisa, inviting numerous speculations as to what clues the eerily happy expression in her face could offer about her life, her death, and her place in society.

The popularity of the figure is also of interest to the history of artistic media, relating to its widespread reproduction. The original cast had been photographed, and new casts were created from the film negatives. These new casts displayed details that are usually lost in bodies taken from the water, but the apparent preservation of these details in the visage of the cast seemed to only reinforce its authenticity.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/L%27Inconnue_de_la_Seine

 

So Parisians hung her likeness upon her walls as a sort of morbid curiosity, but the story of L’Inconnue de la Seine doesn’t end there. In fact, her legacy continues. To this day, people gaze into the face of L’Inconnue de la Seine. In fact, an average of 12 million people per year. You see, the death mask of L’Inconnue de la Seine lives on as the face of Resusci Anne, also known as Rescue Anne, Resusci Annie, or CPR Annie. If you’ve ever taken a CPR course, you’ve worked to “revive” Annie. Isn’t it poetic that a young woman, a woman who supposedly took her own life, is still very much a part of the world of the living and that training with Annie can teach others how to save a life? I think so. It is also profoundly sad when you consider how many CPR students have shaken the likeness and asked, “Annie, Annie, are you okay?” And before you ask, yes the lyrics of Micheal Jackson’s “Smooth Criminal” stems from American CPR training.

Skeptics believe that the face of a woman pulled from a river would be bloated and scarred beyond recognition depending on the amount of time she spent in the water and instead think that the popular mask from the 1900s was actually created on a living model. Others believe that the mask is indeed a likeness of the drowned woman, but that the mask was molded into a more aesthetically pleasing visage after it had been cast. Or perhaps the drowned woman posed for a sculptor in life and then drowned in the Seine. As Chief Brigadier Pascal Jacquin of the Paris river police told the BBC in 2013: “She looks like she’s just asleep and waiting for Prince Charming.” What do you think?

Your Fellow Haunt Head,

Janine

hauntheadscast@gmail.com

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