Today, Parisians and tourists from around the world flock to visit the dozens of magnificent monuments and museums housed by the capital, in search of the legend of the Eiffel Tower, the richness of the collections of the Musée d’Orsay, or the art of living of covered passages. But there are more than a century, it was a different kind of tour that attracted thousands of tourists: the Morgue of Paris.
The Paris Morgue was built in 1864 on the Île de la Cité, one of the two islands in the Seine, just behind the Notre Dame de Paris, where the bodies of unidentified dead–most of them suicide cases–were displayed on marble slabs for friends or family to identify.
When arriving at the morgue, the bodies were first stripped, inspected, frozen and then wheeled out on black marble slabs for public display. As the morgue was not refrigerated until 1882, cold water would drip from the ceiling constantly, giving the skin of the dead a bloated and puffy appearance. Up to 50 visitors at a time would crowd around great windows overlooking the slabs, to gawk and gossip over the bodies. The dead would usually have to be removed after three days due to decomposition, at which point a photograph or a wax cast would take their place.
The spectacle continued beyond the walls of the morgue. Parisian newspapers often speculated on the identities of the dead; every guide book directed visitors to the morgue; and some of the bodies became famous, drawing up to 40,000 people in a day. Deceased young women lying naked on dissection tables became a common theme on canvas and the police would even stage public ‘confrontations’ between a suspected murderer and a corpse, drawing much of the intrigue that reality programs do today.
The morgue was finally closed to the public in March 1907 over moral concerns, drawing complaints from local businesses, street vendors and journalists.