The Biggest Tourist Draw In Paris

by Tracy R. Walsh

L0042495 People visiting the morgue in Paris to view the cadavers.

It used to be the city morgue:

There aren’t many other ways to describe the Paris Morgue during the 19th century other than as a place of entertainment, for Parisians and tourists alike. Conveniently located behind the Notre Dame on the southern tip of the Ile de la Cité, built in 1864, the original purpose of the morgue was of course not to attract tourism but to identify unknown bodies found in the city; many that had been fished out of the Seine or suicides that no one had reported missing. Their unfortunate remains were displayed on slanted marble tables behind glass, inviting friends and families to claim the deceased. Word of the morbid (and free) exhibition of dead bodies quickly spread, and soon the morgue became a fixture on the Parisian social circuit, enticing the curiosity of men, women, even children from all social backgrounds, who would visit regularly, filing past the grisly display, providing themselves with at least a week’s worth of fresh gossip on the possible identities of the corpses and causes of death.

Update from a reader:

I want to point out that MessyNessy’s blog post to which you link today is drawn entirely from the scholarship of the historian Vanessa Schwartz, from her book Spectacular Realities: Early Mass Culture in Fin-de-Siecle Paris. Shouldn’t Dr. Schwartz be mentioned in your post? Historians work hard to dig this stuff up, and they deserve credit.

(Image: A crowd, including a mother and her young son, gathers to view the grisly sight of the bodies at the Paris Morgue circa 1820. Credit: Wellcome Images, Wellcome Library, London.)