The Lazy Historian

Interview with a Morgue Historian
October 16, 2020

This is how my exchange with Cat Byers began, like all great online friendships: through an Instagram DM.

When you see someone describe themselves as a “Morgue Historian,” you know I’m going to sit up and pay attention. I had to find out more about this extremely specialized (and a little bit spoooooky) area of expertise.

 

1. What exactly is a morgue historian? What type of work does that involve?

A morgue historian is essentially just someone who studies morgues, and everything associated with them! It’s a term I started using to define my research, as I found that a lot of historical categories – medical historian, cultural historian, even death historian – didn’t quite encompass everything I explore.

At the moment I’m looking specifically at the morgues of Paris and New York during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. These were important urban institutions that defined the concept of the modern morgue as we know it and played a key role in shaping the cities they were part of. Researching sites like these can be quite complicated because so many different organisations and people were involved in them, from the police to the medical community, and they’re also relatively understudied. In fact, as far as I know, the New York morgue has never been the subject of academic research until now!

That means that figuring out what went on in these morgues, and their social, cultural, medical and economic significance, involves digging through lots of different archives in search of a wide range of evidence. This could include original photographs, morgue registers, contemporary newspaper articles and even scientific studies.

 

2. How did you become interested in such a niche area of history?

I’ve always loved history, and grew up in a house filled with history books (largely because everyone in my family has studied history at some point – my Dad did Modern, my Mum did Egyptology, and my brother studied Ancient History!),  but I actually took quite a winding route to studying morgues.

Like many people, I started out being very into the Early Modern period, particularly Mary, Queen of Scots, the Tudors and the court of Louis XIV. Then towards the end of my undergraduate degree, I suddenly developed a keen interest in the relationship between spiritism and hysteria photography in late nineteenth-century Paris, particularly the power inherent in medical knowledge and how it could be used to support certain social and cultural ideologies. When I returned to university for my MA in Urban History after a few years away, I quickly fell back into this research area and found myself writing about cheerful things like hospital and prison architecture!

Then one fateful day while reading for a seminar, I stumbled across a chapter on the history of the Paris morgue in Vanessa Schwartz’ brilliant book Spectacular Realities: Early Mass Culture in Fin-de-Siècle Paris. From then on, I was totally hooked on the subject—and I couldn’t believe that I’d never heard of the public morgue where all of Paris (and plenty of tourists too!) used to come and see the anonymous dead on display for over a hundred years.

I ended up writing an essay on the morgue, comparing it to a human zoo at the 1907 Colonial Exhibition in the Bois de Vincennes, and was encouraged by my professors to continue on the topic for my MA thesis. Then, while researching in the archives, I discovered evidence that a morgue in New York had been built based on the Paris morgue, and where, according to a newspaper clipping, they’d been selling bodies for profit! I also found an invitation for a party at the Paris morgue and many other things that had never been discussed by morgue historians (granted, there aren’t many of them) so I decided to keep going with my research and start a Ph.D.

 

3. You recently lived in Paris and did some research there. and did research in Paris. Besides the Paris catacombs, what are some death-related travel destinations that history fans should check out in Paris?

When it comes to dark tourism in Paris, there are plenty of great places to check out! In fact, I actually took my friends on a little ‘ghost tour’ last Halloween to show them some of the spookiest (and potentially haunted) spots in the city. Some of my favourites include:

The Muséee d’histoire de la médecine (History of Medicine Museum), a little museum tucked away inside the old medical school. Not only is it full of gruesome old surgery equipment, it is also where all the anatomy classes happened back in the nineteenth-century. There were so many bodies available for dissection that Paris was actually known as the ‘city of cadavers’!

As well as being one of the prettiest parks in the city (and a great place for a picnic), Parc de Buttes Chaumont also has a rather dark and tragic history; the long bridge in the middle of the park used to be famous for suicides.

At the Musée de la préfecture de police (Police Museum), you’ll find loads of creepy artefacts including a guillotine and the wax head of Enrico Pranzini, who was executed for a notorious triple murder in the 1880s.

If you’re interested in the history of the French Revolution, make sure to check out Place de la Concorde. The obelisk is now in the exact spot where the guillotine stood during the Reign of Terror, and thousands of people were executed here including Marie Antoinette. It was said that at one point the smell of blood was so strong near the square that animals refused to cross it…

In the North-East of Paris, you’ll find a cool cultural centre called Le Cent Quatre, in an impressive building that was once home to the city undertakers! Everything from hearses to funeral ornaments was sold here, and it could store over 6,000 coffins.

Finally, cemeteries like Pere Lachaise and Montmartre are always worth exploring, not only are they full of famous former Parisians, they’re also rumoured to be extremely haunted.

 

4. What is a fascinating death-related tale from history that more people should know about?

The old practice of using dissection as a ‘post-mortem punishment’ for certain crimes is definitely one of the most fascinating—and grisly—things I’ve read about. For particularly notorious crimes, the dissections were popular public events and crowds would be packed in hoping to get a look at the body! There was also an unfortunate trend for using the skin to create souvenirs like pocketbooks afterwards, which famously happened to William Burke of the Burke and Hare murders in Edinburgh.

Learn more about graverobbers like Burke and Hare

I’m also obsessed with everything to do with the spiritism and spiritualism movements. Did you know that someone even tried to invent a phone they could use to call the dead?! If you’ve never seen them, I’d highly recommend looking at the early spirit photographs produced by photographers like Édouard Isidore Buguet and William H. Mulmer. Buguet was later tried for fraud for creating these images, but many of his clients stood by him and continued to maintain that the photographs showed genuine evidence of dearly departed loved ones. So, you’ll have to make up your own mind about whether you believe in ghosts or not!

Thanks Cat!

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Jillianne Hamilton is a history enthusiast, a hoarder of books, and the author of The Lazy Historian’s Guide to the Wives of Henry VIII. Jill launched The Lazy Historian in 2015. She lives in Charlottetown on Canada’s beautiful east coast. Learn more.
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Hi, I'm Jillianne.

I'm a lover of history, a hoarder of books, and the author of The Lazy Historian's Guide to the Wives of Henry VIII.

The Lazy Historian is a history blog featuring stories from the past with sass. With a focus on Western European and women's history, I delve into anything fascinating. Learn more.

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