This article originally appeared on VICE France.
Note: Some of the below images are disturbing.
Even though it was invented in the 1830s, modern photography was only made available to French police investigators in the 1870s, and it wasn't until 1887 that criminologist Alphonse Bertillon introduced the method to criminal identification practices. Thanks to his foresight, the photographic archive of the Paris Police Prefecture is now one of the richest in the world—a collection of millions of images that date back to the beginning of the 20th century.
After spending quite a long time investigating murders that have made history—which earned him the nickname "the Indiana Jones of the graveyards"—medical examiner Philippe Charlier focused on these first pieces of forensic evidence. In his book Seine de crimes, he compiles and attempts to analyze nearly 100 shots illustrating murders, assassinations, suicides, and fatal accidents that took place in Paris between 1871 and 1937.
"Looking through several decades' worth of photographs from crime scenes in Paris is, above all, a way of revealing the evolution of the police methods used to investigate and deal with crime," explains the author in the book's preface. "Aside from their obvious medical interest, these snapshots testify just as much to the savagery of humans as to the everyday lives of those who came before us."
If a couple of famous scenes make their way into the book—like the attack on the Louvre of 1905 and the assassination of Jean Jaurès in 1914—the majority of the shots concern anonymous people, often assassinated in the most horrible ways. For instance, we learn about the death of a certain Julien Delahieff, who was "wrapped in cloth and locked inside a piece of luggage" in 1896; the killing of Madame Candal, "who loved cats" and was seemingly punched to death in 1914; and the murder of Suzanne Lavollée, a prostitute who was savagely strangled and mutilated in 1924.
Unsurprisingly, publishing photos like these raises some questions. "These photographs are historical, the cases are classified, and their age is well beyond the 30 years required in order for something this sensitive to be made available to the public," Charlier explains. "The problem is not so much legal but more of an ethical one. Even if it is legal to publish pictures like this, is it acceptable to overstep medical confidentiality and the respect for the privacy [of the victims]?"
In response to these questions, the medical examiner puts forth the "concept of a ' science pudique' [modest science] that manages to be respectful of others without preventing itself from advancing towards progress and knowledge."