Monday, April 30, 2012

From the Annual Reports of the Navy Surgeon General: A Visit to the Paris Morgue

The Paris morgue was more than its name implies. In her book, Spectacular Realities: Early Mass Culture in Fin-De-Siècle Paris, Vanessa Schwartz writes, “At the Paris morgue city and state officials, in conjunction with the popular press, turned the allegedly serious business of identifying anonymous corpses into a spectacle—one eagerly attended by a large diverse crowd. The popularity of public visits to the Paris morgue during the nineteenth century was part of a spectacular ‘real life’ that chroniclers, visitors and inhabitants alike had come to associate with Parisian culture.” In 1874, Navy Surgeon Michael Bradley, USS Alaska, European Squadron, visited this peculiar destination when it was approaching the zenith of its popularity. The following is an excerpted account of his visit, orginal published in The Annual Reports of the Surgeon General of the U.S. Navy (1875). ABS

I never fully comprehended the full weight, terrible truth and awful grandeur of the sentence, “In the midst of life we are in death,” so often uttered over the remains of the departed, until I paid my first and only visit to the gay, cheerful, and frolicsome capital of France. The revelation was made by mingling with the lively Parisians as they thoughtlessly laughed, chatted, sat, and walked on the brilliant streets that spread over
the catacombs, the subterranean vaults and passages, containing the bones of thousands of human beings; entering and leaving omnibuses with them at the Place de la Bastille, where so much blood washed during the civil wars; promenading with them on the Place de la Concorde, where Louis XVI and his consort Marie Antoinette, were executed; transacting business with them in the Quarter Latin, where shops and dissecting rooms adjoin each other; and, lastly, attending service with them in the church of St. German l’Auxerrois, whose bell tolled the signal for the commencement of the massacre of the Huguenots on the eve of St. Bartholomew, 1572.

Wherever I turned or went with the active, bustling throng, I was sure to meet monuments commemorative of departed greatness, as the Pantheon, Hôtel des Invalides, and the cemetery of Père la Chaise will attest.

Having finished the preliminary remarks, I will now take up the subject of this paper, the morgue of Paris.

The first morgue erected in Paris was in the year 1542; the second in 1804, on the Ile de la Cité, at the end of the bridge of St. Michel, within a short distance of he portals of the cathedral of Notre Dame. The structure was 60 feet wide, 45 feet deep, and contained but one room. The present morgue was erected about ten years ago, and, like the old one, is located on the Ile de la Cité, behind and within a stone’s throw of Notre Dame. It is substantially built of yellow sandstone, one story high, and presents a front of 150 feet, with a depth of 30 feet. In the middle of the building is the exposition hall, where the bodies of unknown persons are deposited for four days; if the state of the body permits, five days. They are placed behind a glass partition, on inclined black marble slabs, twelve in number, arranged in two rows. The bodies are nude, kept moist and at low temperature by small streams of water playing on them. The clothes are also exposed, and often lead to the identification of the late wearers. Bodies badly decomposed are not placed on exhibition; are kept in an adjoining room (sale des morts) for three days, and if not recognized sent to the public cemetery, the transportation taking place at 6 a.m. from 1st April to 30th September, and at 7 a.m. from 1st October to 31st March.

The morgue is open daily to the public from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. in summer, and from 8 a.m. to sundown in winter. Adjoining the exposition hall is the office. The registrar (greffier) and his clerk are on duty from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Here everything that is known of the deceased is carefully registered—the name, age, description vocation, when and where found, cause and kind of death, and if delivered to friends or sent to the potter’s field.

The registrar is in constant correspondence with the chief of police, who has control of the morgue. La sale des morts contains fourteen marble slabs, with arched zinc covers. Bodies too much decomposed for the exposition hall are kept here three days, and are subjected to the irrigating process. La sale d’autopsie is used by the medical inspector and his assistant when there is a suspicion the deceased has been murdered or poisoned.

One of the two attendants (garcons de service) is always on duty. They cannot have their wives or children, within the inclosure [sic]; in other words they are not permitted to make a home of the morgue. The annual average for the last ten years of the number of dead bodies exposed at the morgue is 340, including men, women, and children found in all parts of the great city of Paris.

*Not long after Surgeon Bradley’s visit, Parisian authorities decided that the morgue had wrongly become a Parisian tourist attraction. In March 1907, it was officially closed to the public.

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