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.
Vanessa R. Schwartz has written extensively on the Paris morgue in Spectacular Realities: Early Mass Culture in Fin-de-Siècle Paris (1998), and describes the way that ‘behind each corpse’s mysterious identity lay an untold story that readers searched out in a press that offered them up for wide-scale consumption’. As Schwartz points out, the thousands of people who visited the morgue every day were able to justify their desire to view the dead in the name of civic duty—on the remote chance that they may assist in identifying one of the bodies—all the while satisfying (or at least titillating) a range of darker sensibilities.
The morbid sense of theatricality and enjoyment that attended the Paris Morgue as well as its role in seeking to identify unknown corpses were sometimes viewed in radically different ways. From the distant perspective of colonial Australia, responses ranged between a kind of self-consciously cosmopolitan appreciation, a practical interest in the morgue’s usefulness, and a sense of outrage about its perceived immorality and its cultivation of prurient tendencies. Amusing and satirical writings on happenings there were sometimes reprinted in colonial newspapers from overseas sources, such as a short article titled ‘Travestying death’ from a Paris correspondent of London’s Daily News, which appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald in 1867. It describes a mass gathering of onlookers who arrive at the morgue on a day when there is no new body to display. The disappointed crowd resorts to throwing snowballs for entertainment, until an entrepreneur produces a waxwork corpse as a stand-in, which he displays to the delighted audience for a fee.
By the middle of the century the very idea of a morgue was still relatively new in colonial Melbourne, at least. The traditional practice for dealing with bodies of the unknown dead had been to place them in public houses until an inquest could be carried out. Calls for the erection of a morgue began in the early 1850s following a series of unfortunate events. In one of these, during the summer of 1852, a corpse was refused entry to a number of inner-city hotels before finally being accepted by the publican at the Queen’s Arms. It remained there, decomposing rapidly, in the crowded lodging house for more than two days before an inquest was performed. An article in the Argus described the need for ‘a species of morgue, as used in France’ to be erected in Melbourne, but it was not until much later in that decade that a dedicated morgue—albeit ‘temporary and dilapidated’—was established.
The conditions and placement of the Melbourne morgue long remained a regular topic of public debate. Its various incarnations at the Australian Wharf, at Prince’s Bridge, at Cole’s Wharf and finally in Batman Avenue were viewed, at different times, as horrifying, unsanitary and inadequate. Reports of rats mutilating the corpses so that they had to be covered with wire mesh, of the building surrounded by a deep layer of mud in wet weather inhibiting the approach of visitors, of stifling heat in summer and miserable cold in winter, a lack of ventilation and adequate light and an unbearable stench all made the news over the years.
The Paris morgue was often invoked as a point of comparison in the cases both for and against the relocation and redevelopment of the Melbourne morgue. A letter to the Age in 1870 described the very idea of a morgue as ‘a gloomy emanation from the morbid sentimentality of the French mind’ and suggested ‘that forms the very reverse of a recommendation for its adoption among us’. Others argued that, despite its visibility and potential sensationalism, a purpose-built morgue offered a greater sense of decency in its management of the dead, as in a letter to the editor of the Argus published in May 1868: ‘You have, no doubt, seen the morgue in Paris and other continental cities. There the unhappy dead are treated with the utmost consideration, although, for the purposes of identification, they are properly exposed to public view. Here the accompaniments of their exposure are only filthy and disgusting.’ There seems to be no question here that sightseers will always be around when there is a corpse to be viewed. The concern is not to prevent people looking at dead bodies, but to control the nature of the spectacle by locating it within a clean and properly institutional setting.
A similar argument was made two years later in an Argus editorial, which moves between a knowing indulgence of the Paris morgue’s sensationalism and an argument for its importance as a social institution. The writer notes that ‘everyone has heard of the Paris Morgue … We have no doubt, indeed, that there are many worthy colonists among us who are accustomed to relate with some gusto their experiences among the crowd at the wooden window, and how shocked were their Anglo-Australian eyes at the sight of an exposed corpse.’ While the Melbourne morgue ‘equals the Paris prototype in sensationalism’, the writer continues, ‘it goes far beyond it in matters of dirt, inconvenience and ill-odour’. The scandal here, once again, is not to present a dead body as a spectacle to be viewed by the public, but to fail to provide it with an appropriately clinical context.
Furtive and recreational viewings of corpses by members of the public seem to have been commonplace in Melbourne in the second half of the nineteenth century, regardless of complaints about the uninviting exhibition spaces. One article describes the use of lime chloride on the dissecting slab when the morgue was located at the Australian Wharf, to ‘remove all unpleasant traces when the “relatives” and idlers come to view the body’. Gaps in the building walls, meanwhile, would ‘make peepholes through which the blackguards of the wharves could criticise the operating surgeon at his work, coarsely jesting with each other on the appearance of the corpse’. Another article mentions that it was a ‘common thing for the children of the neighbourhood to go and open the window when bodies are lying there, and to regard the loathsome exhibition as an amusement’. Such allusions to tourists and thrillseekers illicitly viewing dead bodies appear regularly in the press. But it was not until early 1899 during a sensation surrounding a mysterious murder that the Melbourne morgue drew crowds to rival those of its Parisian counterpart.
On 17 December 1898 three boys reported having seen a wooden trunk bobbing in the Yarra River near the Church Street bridge. The Richmond police soon managed to retrieve it—still floating though wired to a heavy stone. As they raised it from the water, the side of the box broke away, revealing a human leg, so they prised it open on the spot and found the naked body of a young woman. An autopsy revealed that she had been suffocated with chloroform and that she was pregnant, and so the coroner concluded that she had died in the preparations for ‘malpractice’ (that is, before having an abortion). There was nothing to identify the woman’s body and so it was put on display in the hope that she would be recognised. Those who hurried to view it were described as ‘sensation-hunters eager to describe the appearance of the body to their acquaintances’. Parties of clairvoyants joined the throngs, offering their services to help unravel the mystery.
By 22 December, due to warm weather accelerating the deterioration of the corpse, authorities undertook to bury the body after first removing the jaws, which were missing several teeth, with a view to a future identification. But this was not to be. Two days after Christmas it was announced instead that the whole head had been severed from the body, plunged into a glass cylinder of methylated spirits, and placed on exhibition. The head alone continued to draw unparalleled public interest, but no useful information, so on 5 January 1899 two police detectives carried it to the General Post Office inside a cedar box. There it was removed from the spirits by cords that had been fixed to it for the purpose and mounted on a wire mesh partition in the letter carrier’s room where it was shown to all the city’s postmen that evening.
Despite the thousands of people who attended the morgue to view the head every day, not to mention the increasing rewards offered by police, no progress was made in solving the mystery until 12 January, when 21-year-old Thelke Dubberke came forward and confessed to being an accessory to the murder. Dubberke had been residing in Osbourne Street, South Yarra, at the home of palmist and fortune-teller Madame Olga Radalyski. A young real-estate agent named Travers Alexander Todd had brought the victim, a seamstress named Mabel Ambrose, to the house so that she could have the pregnancy for which he was responsible terminated, and she died—screaming and foaming at the mouth—in the course of treatment several weeks later. Todd, Radalyski and Dubberke then collaborated to dispose of her body. The inquest and trial drew fascinated crowds, while the newspapers lingered over every sensational detail of the case, making sure to mention that Todd himself had lined up with the other sightseers to view the head at the morgue.
On 12 January the satirical weekly newspaper the Melbourne Punch published a photograph of the head, along with a comical short story about the investigation, titled ‘The head and the shade’. After all the macabre details published over the weeks in which the case had unfolded, the Sydney Bulletin deemed the publication of the image to have exceeded the limits of good taste, commenting that ‘nothing has ever been published in a family paper to equal the hideous process-blocks of the head of Mabel Ambrose, the victim of the boot-box tragedy’. Viewing the gruesome spectacles of reality in the flesh was one thing, the criticism seemed to suggest, but to reproduce them for even broader consumption introduced a whole new set of concerns. Perhaps improving technologies for the mass dissemination of photographic images of the missing and the dead were a factor in the decline of such reality spectacles. There was never another sensation at the Melbourne morgue to rival that of the Yarra tragedy, and it was less than a decade later, in 1907, following a public campaign against such ‘immoral’ displays that the Paris morgue closed its doors to the viewing public for good.
- Vanessa Schwartz, Spectacular Realities: Early Mass Culture in Fin-de-Siècle Paris, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1998, p. 68. My description of the Paris morgue here uses some details from Schwartz’s book, as well as information from contemporary newspaper reports.
- Andrew Brown-May and Simon Cooke, ‘Death, Decency and the Dead-House: The City Morgue in Colonial Melbourne’, Journal of the Public Record Office of Victoria, November 2004, p. 3. This essay gives a detailed history of the Melbourne morgue and I have drawn some details from it.