Hanging Out at La Morgue in 19th Century Paris

Morgue, Author's Collection
Visitors to the Morgue, Author’s Collection

Seeing dead bodies for free became an entertaining fad in Paris in the nineteenth century, but before it was a fad, one grammarian of the seventeenth century, defined morgue as an old French word that meant “face.” With that in mind, it was claimed that prisons formerly had small rooms near the entrance where “prisoners were first locked up in order that the goalers might take a good look at their morgues or faces, and recognize them in case of escape.”  In addition, supposedly the word morgue came from the French word morguer, which meant to stare, have a fixed gaze, or look at solemnly, and, thus, the word morgue came to have its more modern meaning as a place to store corpses and as a place where the living identified the dead.

In 1804, according to one nineteenth century book, Paris’s La Morgue became an entertaining spot after it was established to help the living identify the dead bodies of accident victims or “assassination, or … [those] induced, by despair, to put an end to their own lives.” It all began when word spread among Parisians that they could see dead bodies for free. Visitors came by the thousands, with as many as 40,000 visitors a day during its heyday, and they came despite La Morgue being nothing more than a gloomy building situated on the left bank of the Seine by the Orfevres quay.

It was up to the living to examine the corpses and identify their lost relatives or loved ones. There were also claims that the “morgue is a very favourite resort of the Parisian idlers. Every Frenchman has an innate love of the horrible, the mysterious, and the romantic, and here he finds plenty of all three.” However, it must have been a rather gruesome task for the living as most of the corpses they viewed perished from a violent death and needed to be identified within four days. When identified, the corpse was turned over to the appropriate person or family for burial. If the corpse was not recognized, it was publicly dissected and buried.

It was not just the curious or relatives that came to see the corpses. “Medical men frequently visit[ed] the place, not out of mere curiosity, but for the purpose of medical observation, for wounds, fractures, and injuries of every description … as the effect of accident or murder.” The morgue was also a place of learning. Medical men, scientists, and anatomists could observe every stage of decomposition in corpses. Writers found it interesting too. For instance, Charles Dickens was a visitor to the Paris morgue, although it is unclear how many times he visited. His visits resulted in “Railway Dreaming” where he wrote about visiting a morgue and claimed it was “a strange sight, which I have contemplated many a time during the last dozen years.”

Each day new batches of corpses were brought to the morgue. Because the turnover of corpses was consistent and ongoing, some people visited the morgue regularly. According to one writer:

“Scarcely a day passes without the arrival of fresh bodies, chiefly found in the Seine, and very probably murdered, by being flung either out of the windows which overhang the Seine river or off the bridges, or out of the wine and wood-barges, by which the men who sell the cargoes generally return with money in their pockets.”

"The Morgue at Paris. The Last Scene of a Tragedy." From Harper's Weekly, July 18, 1874, Author's Collection.
“The Morgue at Paris. The Last Scene of a Tragedy.” From Harper’s Weekly, July 18, 1874, Author’s Collection.

When the dead were brought to the morgue, corpses were striped of their clothes. To control odors, even when bodies were far advanced in putrefaction, “the affusion of a solution of chleruret of lime in water, [was said to] … immediately remove the putrid odour.” In fact, it was said corpses washed in such a solution remained fresher longer. The naked corpses were then exposed in rows on a marble slab or in large trays, inside a partition in a public inspection room behind a glass window. One newspaper wrote about the experience stating:

“You pass at once from the street into a small square apartment, white-washed and well lighted; having on one side of an open grating, behind which are three broad planks, supported by trestles, each forming an inclined plane, in order that the countenance of the corpse would be fully exposed; while along the wall the garments in which the unhappy victims or suicide were clad on their reception are exhibited for the purpose of identification. The apartment or cell is scrupulously clean, and even cheerful.”

In addition, one newspaper described at length the victim’s clothes, which could be found on the wall:

“[Clothes] of all forms, kinds, and dimensions, hideously coupled together; a spatterdash joined by a pin to a sleeve, or a shawl resting upon the collar of a man’s coat; dresses of gentlemen, ladies, workmen, and in short, of every class mingled together, all dirty and defaced, and exciting the most painful impressions in the mind. One could even mark the aprons of the workmen still rolled up, and showing that death had surprised them at the end of a day’s common toil.”

Living at La Morgue and responsible for receiving the bodies was a man named François, and a recorder, a little old man named Monsieur Perrin, who coughed incessantly. The two men dwelt with their families in the upper floors of the La Morgue and had sole charge for the morgue and its corpses. A La Morgue visitor in 1838 asked Perrin to see the records of those who had been brought in. He reported the record included such entries as:

“Brought at three in the morning; skull fractured; unknown — Brought at midnight; drowned under the Bridge of Arts; a pack of cards in the pocket; unknown — Child newly born; fund dead from cold at the door of a hotel; unknown.”

La Morgue in 1840, Author's Collection
La Morgue in 1840, Author’s Collection

Sometimes word spread about the arrival of certain corpses and encouraged large crowds to appear at La Morgue. For instance, in 1836, the corpse of an unfortunate wretch, “an individual of a certain age, and of a handsome and noble face, who had his throat cut [was brought to the morgue].” Speculation as to the cause of his death resulted in people believing he had been murdered. However, when his body was claimed, it was discovered he was “an English physician of the name of Sherlock, who, in a fit of insanity brought about by an immoderate use of spirituous liquors, had cut his own throat with a razor.”

By the late 1800s, there was much discussion about public showings of corpses and whether or not they should occur. There were also complaints that some visitors viewed corpses solely for morbid curiosity and that such visits were heartbreaking for relatives. In addition, there were concerns about securing bodies. Critics also began to argue that not everyone needed to see the corpses. They believed inquirers should only see bodies that corresponded in sex, age, etc. to the individual with whom the inquirers were attempting to identify. These objections and that idea that viewing corpses was a scandalous thing, soon ended the once popular La Morgue corpse exhibitions.

(Emile Zola wrote about visiting La Morgue, and you can read about his visit at VictorianParis by clicking here. Liz Loveland also has a post about her relative visiting La Morgue. You can read it by clicking here.)

References:

  • —, in Dublin Morning Register, 17 September 1836
  • Household Words, Volume 13, 1856
  • Fenwick, George Edgeworth, etal., The Montreal Medical Journal, Volume 23, 1895
  • Fisk, Wilbur, Travels in Europe, viz., in England, Ireland, Scotland, France, Italy, Switzerland, Germany, and the Netherlands, 1838
  • “La Morgue at Paris,” in Morning Advertiser, 07 April 1838
  • “Putrefaction in Corpses Previous to Internment,” in Morning Chronicle, 21 September 1827
  • Sanderson, Robert Louis, Through France the French Syntax, 1907
  • Scenes and Sketches in Continent Europe, 1847
  • The Academy and Literature, Volume 43, 1893
  • “The Dead-House of Paris,” in Belfast Commercial Chronicle, 22 October 1838

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