Tuesday, July 08, 2014

The London of Sebastian St. Cyr: Dealing with the Unknown Dead

Sebastian's London didn't have a morgue, but it did have "dead houses" scattered about the city. Intendedly mainly to receive the bodies of drowning victims pulled from the Thames (there were a surprising number of them) or unidentified corpses found in the streets, the dead houses were actually an innovation. Most British towns and cities (even those in hot climes such as colonial Australia) simply sent their bodies to the mortuaries attached to workhouses (necessary because a lot of people died in workhouses), or to the nearest inn; publicans who refused to accept them could be fined, even when the corpses were in such an advanced state of decomposition that they drove away all living--and paying--customers.

But not Paris. Dating back to at least 1804, the Paris Morgue was quite a clever concept: one centralized, dedicated building for receiving the unidentified dead. No longer were bereaved relatives forced to scour the city, searching the various taverns and work houses for a missing loved one; they could go to one place and look. Of course, so could anyone, which is how the Paris Morgue came to be a tourist attraction. The root word of morgue is actually morguer, to stare. And stare people did.

At the Paris Morgue, the naked bodies of the unclaimed dead--many, but not all, suicide victims pulled from the Seine--were put on display behind a glass window, with their clothes hanging nearby. A particularly gruesome corpse, or a very comely young one, could attract literally thousands a day. So great were the crowds that, after the Revolution of 1830, the city constructed a new, grand edifice. The show was open seven days a week from dawn till six o'clock, and it was free. Visitors to Paris were told to be certain not to miss the morgue, located conveniently right behind Notre Dame; it was even featured in guide books. Men, women, and children jostled one another for the opportunity to leer, or gasp, or sigh in pity at the spectacle.

Despite its popularity, the Morgue did have its critics and eventually, by the late 19th century, the authorities finally stopped displaying the bodies naked. By 1907, public morality had shifted to the extent that one of the longest running public spectacles ended, and the morgue closed its doors. But by then the concept of a centralized repository for the unclaimed dead had spread around the world.

22 comments:

Lynne said...

While this is very interesting and as usual, well researched, I'm thinking you have a creepy streak in you, Candy:)! This article reminds me of all the people in Medieval times who turned out en masse to view hangings and the drawing and quartering of the criminals. People down through the ages certainly have a yearning to see the gruesome....too weird!

Suzanne said...

You are right Lynne, I think there has always been something in humans which draws them to anything gruesome. Public executions stopped in the mid 19th century, but think of the popularity of horror movies for the past 100 years!

Anonymous said...

C- if I've said it once - i will say it again and again. i find this information so fascinating. We are still such a voyeuristic society - hello reality TV-which I despise but at least we come by it honestly. Think about all the people who stop to look at car wrecks, etc. The one thing that crossed my mind when reading was - what about the smell, demcomp, bugs,etc. yuck - but still great info! thanks, Ali

cs harris said...

Lynne, I must admit I'd go see it, although that's mainly because I'm always describing dead bodies and have actually seen very few. Research!

Suzanne, yes, these are the same Parisians--or their children and grandchildren--who thought it was great fun to watch the guillotine. And think about the popularity today of that traveling exhibit of bodies preserved with plastic.

Ali, at the end they would freeze the bodies, but before that they dripped water on them to try to preserve them. Some of the descriptions of what dripping water does to an already decomposing corpse were stomach churning!

Charles Gramlich said...

Makes me rather glad for how we deal with it today.

JustWingingIt said...

Wow, that's seems pretty macabre. Very interesting though! I love getting historical tidbits like this. It just makes Sebastian's world that much more alive, no pun intended.

Veronica

Lynne said...

Suzanne and Ali - right on the nose! Why do humans like what is creepy and gruesome? I can't say I'd turn out for any public executions but I suppose when doing research, it would be necessary to know some of this stuff...all in the name of accuracy:)!

cs harris said...

Charles, yes!

Veronica, it is so bizarre--especially when you consider the prudery of the times. They also displayed the corpse at English inquests--even if it was six weeks old!

Lynne, I have a feeling if this existed today it would be a HUGE tourist attraction. One wonders what the authorities were thinking.

paz said...

I remember that during the mid 80's the Smithsonian exhibited the body of a Peruvian girl who was mummified during pre-columbian times. (Others have been found since, and are popularly known as Ice Maidens). She was sorta seated, resting her head on her hands, still wearing items of clothing.

Granted, the body was very old, not newly harvested so to speak. And yet, the fact that a human being was so exposed in the midst of one of our grandest institutions tells me we still enjoy the macabre. (I suspect she would still be on exhibit where it not for the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.)

AS a pre-teen, identified with this girl and was horrified by the fact she was on exhibit. I absolutely refuse to go to the bodies exhibit -- several years back there were questions as to how the bodies were obtained.

paz said...

I forgot to say that I loved the post! In a debate about tourism and death, a panelist once compared the morgue to catacombs, and I scoffed. Little did I know....

cs harris said...

Paz, yes, I get uncomfortable seeing mummies or even skeletons in museums, too. As a historian I appreciate that it's educational, but I also think, "I wouldn't want that to be me." It was the experience of digging up skeletons and putting their bones in paper bags (Native American burials being moved before they were disturbed by dams or highway and park improvements) that made me decide to be cremated.

Susan J. said...

When you said "I wouldn't want that to be me", it made me think of those awful photographs of those poor women killed by Jack The Ripper that keep getting shown over and over again in books and on TV programmes. As if those poor women didn't suffer enough in life, they should be allowed some dignity in death.

cs harris said...

Susan, I know. It's just voyeurism. Horror porn.

Dulali said...

Candy -- I hate to digress but something is driving me crazy. I read some of the Sebastian series and some I listen to on tape. I am wondering if I got them out of order or something. What is driving me nuts is why, when we learn Kat is Hendon's daughter, Sebastian is all tore up, bc Sebastian already knows he is illegitimate bc his mom fooled around. Thanks! I just can't figure it out. Thank you, Dulali

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