Human Remains: Medicine, Death, and Desire in Nineteenth-Century Paris

By Jonathan Strauss | Go to book overview

Introduction: The Toxic Imagination

The celebrated Mèry used to say, as Fontenelle reports in his eulogy, that
anatomists resemble the porters [crocheteurs] of Paris, who know all the
streets, down to the smallest and most remote, but do not know what
happens inside the houses. Still, it has occurred to me, if I might pursue
this ingenious comparison, that in the present state of things, anatomists
might try to find a way to penetrate into these houses and to discover a few
of the secrets within them.

—JEAN JOSEPH SUE1

On the night of April 7, 1786, a tumbrel-load of corpses left the SaintsInnocents cemetery in the heart of the French capital for catacombs outside the city’s walls. With it, began the first in a long series of torch-lit processions that would trouble Parisians’ sleep for nearly two years. The Saints-Innocents, which had accommodated the dead for nearly five centuries, was now choked with them. Its soil had grown so depleted that it could no longer decompose bodies. Its grounds were strewn with bones and heaved by the gases of putrefaction. Strange forces emanating from the graveyard were deteriorating nearby houses, and neighbors were falling sick. Newly discovered chemical agents, it was determined, had been leaching from the site, polluting the air with miasmas, tainting water sources, and poisoning the city as a whole. After half a millennium, the dead had become intolerable.

In order to be removed, however, the bodies had first to be disturbed and carried through the city, denuded of the earth that had previously covered and to some extent tempered the effects of their putrefaction. The cartloads of corpses moving through the nighttime streets of Paris must have created

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