A visit to the morgue

By Loïc Artiaga (translation Daniel Magennis)


Caption: [Postcard ‘Visite de Mimi à Paris’ (‘Mimi’s trip to Paris’), G. Gervais – editor]

The  ‘Forensics’ exhibition, which  has been showing in London in the Wellcome Library since February, is closing tomorrow. It presents what was one of the most popular attractions of the Belle Époque in Paris: the visit to the morgue. One hundred years ago, corpses which had been put on display in order to aid in their identification found themselves surrounded by curious onlookers seeking to satisfy macabre appetites. The current exhibition documents this historical attraction to the morbid. Its principal goal, however, lies elsewhere. It aims to show the progress of the understanding of death and, entering the modern era, the science applied to the process of solving crimes. A wealth of new knowledge, fed by the illusion that rationality could triumph over the basest of criminals and crimes, would be applied to the corpses laid out on mortuary slabs and, before long, would also be arrayed against what, or whom, put them there.

A beauty in death. Five sombre rooms chart the five steps in the process of solving crime: the scene of the crime, the morgue, the laboratory, the investigation process, and the courtroom. Cadavers feature among the objects on display, as was the case at the time of these visits to the morgue. Or to be more exact, replicas are displayed here. For a society more used to encountering artefacts in exhibitions, the sight of the anonymous dead causes the flow of visitors to stop in its tracks. Indeed, the conditions under which death is normally portrayed in the media are fixed, and limited principally to the context of armed conflicts, past and present. One can, nevertheless, also find corpses in museums. They are even sometimes at the centre of exhibitions. This was the case during the 2000s for ‘Body Worlds’ which, while touring the world, shocked many visitors with its use of human bodies preserved by infusing them with polymer. But the real scandal which was relayed by the press was the origin of these specimens – as they were thought to have been executed Chinese prisoners.


[Caption: Body Worlds ©]

The Wellcome Library, who are hosting the ‘Forensics’ exhibition, have not created a new ‘Body Worlds’. It offers something different – a fusion of both contemporary artworks and objects from scientific collections. The art can serve as a political indictment, such as the installation by Šejla Kamerić on the war in Bosnia (1992 – 1995), which temporarily detains the visitor in a mortuary fridge. Other pieces are more ambiguous however, and one can catch oneself appreciating the aesthetic qualities of photos by Weegee, the photographer who patrolled New York at night to beat police to crime scenes; or marvelling at an eighteenth century collection of Japanese ‘Kusozo’; coloured engravings of decomposing bodies.

This assertion might sound unpleasant, but there can be beauty in death. A plaster copy of the death mask of ‘L’inconnue de la Seine’ (‘the unknown woman in the Seine’) could be found in many Parisian houses of the 1900s. It is rumoured that, after the body had been taken from the river Seine, the young suicide’s beauty made such an impression on a worker at the morgue that he preserved it in a wax plaster.


[Caption: ‘Plaster cast of ‘Inconnue de la Seine’, beginning of 20th century’]

Only later would it surface that the cast was likely that of a victim of tuberculosis. The search for her identity would have been a case for a Dupin, a Sherlock Holmes, a Juve or a Lecoq. But none came forward on this occasion, despite the fact that at the time such characters, detective and investigators seemed to be multiplying, and not only in novels.

Applying science to the detection of crime, in particular anthropometry, and photographic identification, all of which involved some forms of state control of the populations, gave rise to the first identity documents. Following on from William Herschel who, in India during the 1850s, first used fingerprints in the signing of contracts, Francis Galton adopted the process of taking fingerprints. A system of classification would then allow them to be used by the police. Failed physician, Alphonse Bertillon, who began his career as a lowly clerk in the Paris Prefecture of Police, systematized the forms and characteristics of fingerprints. His system would then, combined with the use of statistics, be employed on a large scale. As a testament to his notoriety, he would become, in 1911, a character in the Fantômas series.

Alongside this raft of new techniques, Dr Edmond Locard brought a new philosophy of investigation, which aimed to dispense with eyewitnesses. According to Locard, each interaction between two bodies – that of the criminal and of his victim – left a trace. A crime scene would necessarily host footprints, handprints, traces of hair, skin, blood, bodily fluid, pieces of clothing, etc. In 1912, during the Latelle case, he managed to confound the victim’s boyfriend by removing traces of the victim’s makeup from underneath his fingernails.

The limits of this new criminology and legal medicine soon became apparent however. Bertillon, an anti-semite, constructed a barely credible scientific theory in support of the prosecution against Alfred Dreyfus, trying to prove that he had forged his own handwriting. Doubts surrounding the conclusions of Bernard Spilsbury, famous in the UK for having exposed Dr Crippen in 1910, were never dispelled. Experts, however, quite literally electrified the course of justice, presenting the press with a science, complete with defined principles, to oppose crime. Archival examination has, in fact, shown that these experts often relied on instinct rather than on a strictly evidence-based approach. The remains used by Spilsbury to shore up the accusation against Crippen of having murdered his wife have, in fact, been recently identified as those of a man.


[Image: Bernard Spilsbury]

The figure of the murder expert rose to prominence very suddenly at the beginning of the twentieth century. The criminal thus produced, as Marx put it, not just his crime, but also the laws under which he was prosecuted and, with it, the professors who taught it.

In this scheme of things, the expert provides the framework of a rational explanation, constructs the criminal ‘profile’ and even – as in the dystopian “Minority Report” of Philip K. Dick – finishes by anticipating their next acts. Yet, the social sciences are conspicuously absent from the history of criminal detection. What’s more, their proponents appeared to be victims of their own stereotypes, of their own social prejudices, or, as in the case of Bertillon, their own anti-semitism. They, like the majority of the judiciary, were in the service of an entrenched class system.

The social reality of crime and its imaginary counterpart are worlds apart. One of the exposition’s merits is that it depicts the impact of the scientific world on the construction of its fictionalised equivalent. To these fictional representations, science provided all sorts of props. Crime fiction seized them for its own representations which relied on a concern both for realism and for the spectacular ; scientific toolkits, post-mortem tables, mouldings, and various reconstructions all found their way into fiction. There, they were used by largely heroic investigators, whose reasoning was invariably flawless. The illusion of rationality was reinforced by the use of such tools. Precisely because they were so sophisticated and in the hands of men of science, whose white coats and microscopes were ostensible markers of impartiality, they could simply never possibly err, or lie.

The exhibition finishes on a positive note with a collection of photographs by Taryn Simon. Working with beneficiaries of the ‘Innocence Project’, Simon’s pictures are of former death row inmates, who were exonerated, thanks to DNA testing. In total some 300 individuals have since 1992, benefitted from what forensics can do best – casting doubt on the techniques used in the first place.

See the full version of this article in French on Loïc’s Artiaga’s blog :  http://blogs.mediapart.fr/blog/loic-artiaga


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