Behind a plate-glass window, framed by grand Doric columns, repose three bodies. Except for their leather loincloths, they are naked. From a pipe above each bed, a trickle of cold water runs down their faces. Their eyes are closed. They bear the marks of their deaths: one is swollen by drowning, one gashed by an industrial accident, another stabbed. A crowd of people gathers outside the window, staring at the bodies. This is the Paris Morgue, circa 1850.
Theoretically, the purpose of the display was to enlist public help in identifying unnamed corpses. But around the turn of the century, the morgue developed a reputation as a gruesome public spectacle, drawing huge crowds daily. The morgue was even listed in tourist guidebooks as one of the city’s unmissable attractions: Le Musée de la Mort. The crowds that attended the morgue attracted snack peddlers and street performers, creating an almost festival atmosphere.
The Paris Morgue was a product of its time. With the advent of industrialization, more and more people were drawn from the countryside to the city to work in the factories. At the same time, accidental deaths—machine explosions, train accidents, suffocations by coal smoke—became more and more common. The industrial workers who perished in these accidents were likely to die far from home. Away from the people who knew them, they were more likely to suffer the fate of an anonymous body behind the morgue’s plate-glass window.
With its huge windows framing the corpses on display, the morgue bore an uncomfortable resemblance to a department store. The French playwright Léon Gozlan remarked that: “You go there to see the drowned as elsewhere you go to see the latest fashion.” Indeed, the clothes of the deceased were hung above the bodies on the slabs, like outfits in a shop window. As Émile Zola observed: “The morgue is a spectacle within the reach of every purse and which poor and rich passersby alike can get for free. The door is open, whoever wants to can come in.”
When the bodies were taken out, curtains were drawn over the windows, and then pulled back to reveal the new set of bodies. The writer and photographer Maxime Du Camp wrote that “the kids, who go there as they would to a theatrical representation, call the exhibited corpses the artists, if the exhibition room happens to be empty, they say: The theater is temporarily closed today.”
The morgue served as a visual accompaniment to the popular press, which reported in lurid detail on the latest crimes in the city. It satisfied a certain desire to see horror in the flesh. One could read about a murder in the paper and then pop over to the morgue to view the victim’s body. These accounts of crimes and scandals were tremendously popular. In the same era, Paris’ wax museum, the Musée Grevin, was known for staging waxen recreations of recent murders. The stated aim of the museum was to “create… a ‘living newspaper.’” If the Musée Grevin was a simulated “living newspaper,” the morgue was a real dead one.
What did people feel when they were gathered in front of the plate-glass window to stare at anonymous corpses? To us, their curiosity seems ghoulish. But the newspapers painted a different picture of their scandal-loving audience. In their accounts, those who flocked to the morgue were not morbid gawkers, but concerned individuals driven by empathy and a strong moral sense. The equivalent of a crowd rubber-necking at an accident was seen as an expression of solidarity borne out of tragedy. As the Supplement illustre de petit journal argued, in response to such a public tragedy, “We all loved each other for a few hours because we cried together: why can we not continue to do so?”