Captured by the police, this scene shows the methodology used to photograph a cadaver as part of its anthropometric identification prior to the autopsy. Here, the body, lifted into an upright position with the head held by a wooden head rest, is laid out on a stretcher at the doctors' guard room. The photographer is preparing to take the picture of the patient's right-side profile, while another man holds a ruler so as to measure the proper distance between the corpse and the camera lens. The third person, the "autopsy assistant", in formal uniform (a black cap and a white apron), awaits the signal to "mobilise the cadaver".
Even though it was invented in the 1830s, modern photography was only made available to French police investigators in the 1870s. A few years later, in 1887, criminologist Alphonse Bertillon introduced the method to criminal identification practices. It was thanks to Bertillon's foresight, that the photographic archive of the Paris Police Prefecture is now one of the richest in the world – counting 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 cemeteries" – medical examiner Philippe Charlier became interested in these first pieces of forensic evidence. In his book Seine de crimes, he compiles and attempts to analyse 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 every-day lives of those who came before us," he adds.
The knife held by the victim suggests a suicide, but the investigation and fingerprints have shown that Mademoiselle Ferrari was killed by her lover, Monsieur Garnier, who stabbed her in the heart.
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 persons, often assassinated in the most horrible ways. For instance, we learn about the death of a certain Julien Delahieff: "...wrapped in cloth and locked inside a piece of luggage" in 1896; that of Madame Candal, "who loved cats" and was seemingly punched to death in 1914; or that of Suzanne Lavollée, a prostitute, savagely strangled and mutilated in 1924.
Because of the difficult nature of certain photographs in the book, Philippe Charlier questioned the legitimacy of his work. "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," he 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 others]?"
In response to these questions, the medical examiner puts forth the "concept of a 'science pudique', that manages to be respectful of others without preventing itself from advancing towards progress and knowledge." All the more reason to look for an understanding of the century-old methods of Parisian criminology – methods that according to Charlier have hardly evolved at all.
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. The camera, which allows for the realisation of this practice, must be 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. While his legs are still 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... How long ago was the crime committed?", wonders Philippe Charlier, before judging that it's possible that such a scene was the result of a struggle with violent blows.
Valentine Botelin, following her autopsy on September 14, 1904. After her head and hair were cleaned, the police were able to observe 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 processionwas driving on L'avenue de l'Opéra, which was very brightly lit. 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," narrated the Petit Journal dated June 11, 1905. Although the two heads of state made it out without a scratch, twenty people were injured and one horse was killed.
This crime dating from September 5, 1910 was committed using vitriol, in the bedroom of 23 Passage de Thionville. The bed, the sheets and the floor 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? Unless the body had already been taken to the morgue," reflects Philippe Charlier.
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 her 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, the man would be executed on June 18, 1898, at Place de la Roquette in Paris. Anatole Deibler, considered to be the best French executioner at the time would take on the task and make the most of it by keeping a button featuring a horse's head from the jacket of the condemned killer.
Jules Jacques Schoenën, age 6, 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 is one of the first that were photographed.
A man whose identity the police was unable to be identified. He was discovered tied and bound in the Lac Daumesnil in the Bois de Vincennes in November 1912. Photos courtesy of the Prefecture of Police of Paris.
An anthropometric record of Raoul Villain – assassin of Jean Jaurès. The man was acquitted in 1919. His record is characteristic of the criminological system that Bertillon put in place. This includes fingerprinting, precise measurements and some of the assassin's biographical data.