In 19th-century Paris, the Morgue Was the Best Show in Town

By: Dave Roos  | 
Paris morgue
This drawing shows how gawkers would peer into the Paris morgue at unidentified corpses in the mid-19th century. Before refrigeration, cold water would slowly drip on the bodies to curb decomposition. Bibliothèque nationale de France/Public Domain

In 1864, a wildly popular new type of "theater" opened in Paris. It was free and open seven days a week. Street vendors sold fruit and nuts to the long line of curious tourists and passersby that waited outside to see the show. Once inside the darkened and hushed exhibition hall, attendants drew back the curtains to display a remarkable scene: corpses.

This was just another day at the Paris morgue.


As macabre and downright creepy as it sounds, the morgue was one of the most popular sights in Paris in the late 19th century. As many as 40,000 people a day would file through the morgue's salle d'exposition to gawk at the half-naked, decaying corpses — many of them freshly fished from the nearby river Seine — laid out on marble slabs behind a plate glass viewing window. It was even listed in British tour books as Le Musée de la Mort.

The official purpose of the Paris morgue's exhibition hall was to recruit the public in the somber task of identifying the city's unclaimed and unnamed dead. "But of course it was also a show," says Vanessa Schwartz, a professor at the University of Southern California and author of "Spectacular Realities: Early Mass Culture in Fin-de-Siecle Paris."

Schwartz makes a convincing argument that the Paris morgue — along with the city's wax museums and sensationalist newspapers — combined to create a type of Gilded Age "reality TV" or "true crime" show, and the audience couldn't get enough of it.


Paris, the First Modern City and the 'Culture of Looking'

In the 1850s, Emperor Napoleon III (nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte) started an ambitious construction project that transformed Paris from a medieval city of narrow, labyrinthine streets into a modern metropolis featuring wide boulevards, spacious parks and engineering marvels like underground sewers.

Presented with this open, walkable new city, 19th-century Parisians invented a new word: flânerie, the enjoyable urban pastime of aimlessly strolling about. Schwartz says that the first department stores were also built in Paris, which provided a completely new type of shopping experience.


"It was the first time you could walk into a store and just look," says Schwartz. "In Paris, there was this 'culture of looking,' this sense of the city as something to be consumed visually."

The Paris morgue was part of the city's redesign, a thoroughly modern building constructed behind the famous Notre Dame Cathedral where unclaimed dead bodies could be carefully processed, cleaned, inspected and displayed to the public for identification.

But it didn't take long for the morgue, with its theatrical curtained windows and ever-changing cast of "characters," to become just another curious sight to be "consumed" by strolling flâneurs. In her book, Schwartz quotes a commentator from 1869, who described the crowds at the morgue:

"They came to see, just to see, just as they read a serial novel or go to the Ambigu [a comic theater]; at the door, calling out to each other and demanding the program: 'What have they got in there?'"

Paris morgue
This sketch shows the Paris morgue before the city's redesign and its relocation near the Notre Dame Cathedral.
Wellcome Library, London/(CC BY 4.0)


A Real-life Wax Museum

Wax museums, another 19th-century invention, shared some interesting similarities with the morgue. They were both trying to create, in Schwartz's words, "a spectacle of the real."

The early wax museums in Paris didn't just depict famous historical figures, but also current events "ripped from the headlines." The Musée Grévin (which is still open for business) was founded by a newspaperman named Arthur Meyer, who wanted to create a kind of "plastic newspaper" in which his paper's stories came to life. The more lurid the scandal or gruesome the murder, the more Meyer's readers flocked to the wax museum to "see" the story.


The same phenomenon happened at the morgue. The corpses that drew the biggest crowds, sadly, were women or children who had met an untimely or mysterious end. When a child or a young woman arrived at the morgue, the newspapers would run breathless stories speculating on the cause of their death, drawing tens of thousands of visitors to the morgue to see the story for themselves.

Even morgue administrators and city officials got in on the act, says Schwartz. Children would be dressed in nice clothes and propped in a chair close to the glass. If the police apprehended a suspect, they would march the alleged murderer down to the morgue and stage a public confrontation with the corpse, hoping the sight of the victim would force a confession.

In 1882, the morgue installed a state-of-the-art refrigeration system that preserved corpses for weeks at a time. Before that, if a particularly popular corpse decayed too quickly, morgue officials would sometimes replace the body with a realistic wax replica to satisfy curious onlookers and keep the story in the papers.

One such "celebrity" corpse was the so-called "woman cut into two pieces," a woman's body retrieved from the Seine in 1876 in two distinct halves. As Schwartz wrote in the article The Morgue and the Musée Grévin: Understanding the Public Taste for Reality in Fin-de-Siecle Paris, throngs of visitors pressed into the morgue's exhibition hall to see the unfortunate soul. Two weeks into her "performance," her body was replaced with a wax bust, which only upped the entertainment value.

Between 300,000 and 400,000 people came to see "two spectacles in one," wrote Schwartz, "the corpse of the victim of a crime, and the wax bust, which 'seemed so real.'"

Paris morgue
By 1882, the Paris morgue installed a state-of-the-art refrigeration system that could preserve corpses for weeks at a time.
Universal Images Group via Getty


19th-century Descriptions of the Morgue

To get a better idea of what it felt like to visit the Paris morgue, here's a colorful description from the 1867 novel "Thérèse Raquin" by the French author Émile Zola (via Morbid Anatomy):

The morgue is a sight within reach of everybody, and one to which passers-by, rich and poor alike, treat themselves. The door stands open, and all are free to enter. There are admirers of the scene who go out of their way so as not to miss one of these performances of death. If the slabs have nothing on them, visitors leave the building disappointed, feeling as if they had been cheated, and murmuring between their teeth; but when they are fairly well occupied, people crowd in front of them and treat themselves to cheap emotions; they express horror, they joke, they applaud or whistle, as at the theater, and withdraw satisfied, declaring the Morgue a success on that particular day.

Not everyone was a fan. A visiting Harvard University student left horrified and wrote this unflattering description of his visit to the Paris morgue in 1885:


An eager throng is surging to and for in front of a long, low window; 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. The objects of Interest are four corpses, which are lying upon iron frameworks behind the glass, their heads propped high, their jaws agape, and their eyes staring in all the grim majesty of Death, as they gaze unflinchingly upon the guests who are thronging to this grisly reception.

The public exhibition hall of the morgue was closed in 1907 over moral concerns, much to the chagrin of the journalists who covered the "corpse beat" and to the street vendors and neighborhood merchants that profited from the tourist traffic.

As Schwartz notes in her book, one local writer cheekily 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. The show being always free, there were no subscribers, only regulars. 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."

Paris morgue
A horse-drawn hearse stands outside the Paris morgue, circa 1910. By 1907, the lurid exhibition hall was fully closed.
Topical Press Agency/Getty Images

For more on the Paris morgue, check out Vanessa Schwartz's book "Spectacular Realities: Early Mass Culture in Fin-de-Siecle Paris."