Death as Entertainment at the Paris Morgue

Entertainment took some strange forms before movie theaters and television. There were circuses, sing-alongs, and running down to the morgue to see the dead bodies. At least they did that in France in the 19th century, when the Paris Morgue had picture windows set up for the public to peer through.

The Morgue may have existed so that friends and family of the dead could identify anonymous bodies, but few visitors came with any intention of looking for a missing person. They had a single goal: to see the dead up-close. The more gruesome or mysterious a person’s death, the more tourists showed up to see their body.

As USC history professor Vanessa R. Schwartz writes, “The Morgue served as a visual auxiliary to the newspaper, staging the recently dead who had been sensationally detailed by the printed word.” Whenever newspapers reported on an unknown decapitated person or a bloodied trunk on display, tens of thousands of people flocked to the Morgue to see it.

Not only did the visitors augment the news stories with a visual inspection that photography would later fill, but they imagined themselves as amateur sleuths, speculating on the cause of death. Read about the crowds who flocked to the Paris Morgue, and some spectacular cases they witnessed, at Atlas Obscura.

(Image credit: G.Garitan)


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