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."
The knife held by the victim suggests a suicide, but the investigation and fingerprints indicated that Mademoiselle Ferrari was stabbed in the heart by her lover, Monsieur Garnier.
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."
Even though photographs from crime scenes were often accompanied by sketches and hand-drawn maps of the surroundings in order to recreate the precise dimensions, when it came to human bodies, another method of measuring was used: perspectometric framing. In this technique the camera is placed above and perpendicular to the body. Once the image is printed, its center will pass exactly between the eyes of the cadaver—at the root of the nose. This shot was taken by the police to demonstrate the ideal position of the camera.
Perspectometric framing of Monsieur Falla, murdered in his sleep, in the corridor of his apartment at 160 Rue du Temple in Paris on August 27, 1905. His legs are raised due to rigor mortis; the fabric around his neck would seem to indicate death by strangulation.
Madame Debeinche was found lying dead on the floor of her apartment on 9 Rue Chalgrin, on May 8, 1903. "The brownish color of the hands and feet correspond to a putrefaction of the body," writes Charlier. "How long ago was the crime committed?" He says that it's possible such a scene was the result of a violent struggle.
Valentine Botelin following her autopsy on September 14, 1904. After her head and hair were cleaned, the police were able to observe wounds made by three projectiles from a firearm on the woman's temple and left cheek.
On May 31, 1905, in the middle of the night, King of Spain Alphonse XIII and President of France Émile Loubet fell victims to an attempted bombing at the colonnade of the Louvre, while they were passing by car. "The royal procession was driving on L'avenue de l'Opéra, which was very brightly lit," wrote the Petit Journal later. "Just as they were turning at the corner of Rue de Rohan and Rue de Rivoli, a detonation went off like a shot from a cannon; a yellow flame shone to the left of the King's car. A horse was lifted off the ground, then fell—heavily, dead, disemboweled. Another horse bolted and ran into the masses of onlookers along the sidewalks of Rue de Rivoli. A dreadful panic overtook the crowd who fled into a frenzy. Cries of pain resounded." Although the two heads of state made it out without a scratch, 20 people were injured and one horse died.
The bed, the sheets, and the floor of this room are covered in blood and the fabric was partially burned by acid. "No cadaver. Did the victim have the time to flee and get treated at a hospital?" asks Charlier. "Unless the body had already been taken to the morgue."
On August 9, 1913, an elderly woman was found lying face-down at 31 Rue des Rosiers in Saint-Ouen. The birds seen in their cages in the background seem to have been the only witnesses to the crime.
Murder victim Clémentine Pichon on the autopsy table.
On November 30, 1897, Xavier-Ange Carrara, a 34-year-old mushroom farmer from Kremlin-Bicêtre, killed Augustin Lamarre, a collection clerk, and then burned the body. After being declared guilty, Carrara would be executed in Paris on June 18, 1898. Anatole Deibler, considered to be the best French executioner at the time, would take on the task and take a button featuring a horse's head from the jacket of the condemned killer as a keepsake.
Jules Jacques Schoenën, age six, lived with his parents at 7 Rue Caillé before being murdered by a 16-year-old on February 25, 1881. He was found with his hands tied, his jacket pierced, and his shirt stained with dried blood. This case was one of the first to be photographed.
A man whose identity the police were unable to confirm. He was discovered tied and bound in the Lac Daumesnil in the Bois de Vincennes in November, 1912.
An anthropometric record of Raoul Villain, who was accused of killing Jean Jaurès before being acquitted in 1919. His record is characteristic of the criminological system that Bertillon put in place. This includes fingerprinting, precise measurements, and some of his biographical data.