Paris Morgue 1883.
A kind of dark tourism was commonplace in the nineteenth century, with a variety of different spectacles and events associated with violence, death and deformity often becoming framed or experienced as macabre and sensational forms of entertainment. Executions, the trials of infamous criminals, waxworks and anatomical museums, and even slums and opium dens could all be relied upon to draw fascinated viewers whose expressions of horror in response to what they saw most often equalled their curiosity and enjoyment. The newspapers played a crucial role in sensationalising the banal details of everyday life in the modern metropolis by embedding them within thrilling narratives of urban danger and excitement. Every fight or brawl, anonymous suicide, railway accident, murder or infanticide became not just an event to be reported in itself, but also a story of the community’s engagement with trauma, death and violence. News reports of the large crowds that flocked to the sites related to notorious crimes such as cemeteries, court houses, prisons and murder scenes confirmed the sensational nature of a case and, in turn, helped to draw increasing numbers of onlookers.
The Paris morgue was one of the most famous international sites for this kind of macabre voyeurism in the nineteenth century. From 1864 until 1921 the morgue was located on the quai de l’Archevêché near Notre Dame, nearly within jumping distance of the Seine (from the waters of which many of its subjects were retrieved). The bodies of the anonymous dead were displayed on black marble slabs behind a large glass window for members of the public to view, day or night, seven days a week. Green curtains were hung at either end so that authorities were able to obscure the public’s view when changing the exhibits, intensifying its resemblance to a stage show. Comparisons to waxworks, the theatre and even department store windows were made regularly in sensational newspaper commentaries, which always accompanied the appearance of a new corpse, while the morgue itself was included along with the city’s other tourist attractions in all the guidebooks of Paris.