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L’Inconnue de La Seine, The Most Morbid Wall Fixture Ever

Mamerto Adan is a feature writer who is back in college once again. Science is one of his favorite topics.


If you ask me, I only want pleasant stuffs in my house. Anything nasty is out. I mean no one wants to share their spaces with nightmare inducing horrors. People I knew will decorate their homes with anything that will make it truly a home. Mine is a virtual sanctuary of knives and toy collections, though I never forget to stow them away when the nephews are here. Some people will take it too far and turn their living rooms into a virtual fantasy corner.

Whatever your living space is, the point here is to make it livable by eliminating all the negativities of the outside world. But let me ask you, would you like to live with a likeness of a dead body hanging on your wall?

I know that the cold and lifeless face of the deceased is not a welcoming sight in your living room, and I agree! I never become a doctor, because I hate seeing dead bodies for dissection. If someone played a joke and hanged a bloody mannequin head in my property, I will grab a bat and bludgeon the idiot.

But then, there is a certain time in history where it was fashionable to hang a dead girl’s face in your walls. In 1900 France, in the home of the artists, a so-called art piece adorned their living spaces. A morbid death mask of an unknown girl.

L’Inconnue De La Seine

L’Inconnue De La Seine literally means “The Unknown Woman of Seine.” And that’s exactly what it was. To start with, the thing is a death mask made during the 1900s. And anyone who knows a death mask will be raising eyebrows by now. If someone died and the relatives want an after-death memento, the cast of the deceased face will do. In this case, the death-mask in question belongs to an unknown woman of murky origins. If the retold lore of the L’Inconnue was to believe, the face belongs to a young teenage girl who died by drowning. We will have more of her history in a moment, but her serene beauty after death turned heads. So much so that a death mask was made, which became a hit.

Overall all at first glance, we could see here a creepy face of teenage girl, with short hair and delicate features. More intriguing is the enigmatic, and serene smile. As if the girl whom the mask was taken died a satisfying and peaceful death. The mysterious smile coming from a beautiful dead face of an anonymous character might be the reason behind the charm of the L’inconnue. The death mask conveys an aura of mystery, tragedy and charm.


Actress Elisabeth Bergner modelled herself from the L'inconnue.

Actress Elisabeth Bergner modelled herself from the L'inconnue.

Again, the intriguing features of the death mask attracted attention, resulting in its morbid popularity among many. As the French philosopher and author Albert Camus noted, the smile is comparable to Mona Lisa’s whereas the smile could inspire speculation on how the dead girl lived her life.

Numerous copies of the morbid object were produced, and it became a staple fixture of French homes in the 1900s. It became a fashion statement, where German girls modelled their looks from, including the German actress Elisabeth Bergner.

It inspired fictions and poetry, like the 1900 novella “Worshipper of the Image” by Richard Le Gallienne which tells of an English poet falling in love with a malevolent death mask. Then there is a Ballet version in 1963 of the L’inconnue, choreographed by Bentley Stone.


Body viewing in Paris.

Body viewing in Paris.

But with all those popularity of the morbid fixture, one might wonder where the hell it came from. It was mentioned how its lore was retold many times, until no accurate picture of its origin could be made. But it was said that around 1880s at the River Seine, Paris, a body of a young woman was pulled out. It showed no signs of violence or any forms of foul play, hence her death was dismissed as suicide. The woman was estimated to be around 16 years old, given the firmness of her skin. But with no way to identify her, she was moved from Seine to the Paris Mortuary for public display. Now, showing off dead bodies will surely freak out a lot of people today, but it was common practice back then. They hope that relatives, or anyone close to the anonymous bodies will pass by and recognize the corpses.

The woman was never identified, but being the prettiest among the cadavers around her, she attracted a lot of onlookers. One of them is a pathologist in the Paris Morgue, who was so taken by her beauty that he ordered a plaster cast of her face to be made.

And now, we have the famous death mask of an unknown girl, whose reproductions were displayed in homes.

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But there are problems with the story.

I often pointed out that it sounded overly romanticized for a dead body. And skeptics doubt that the face really belonged to a drowned girl. People who worked in morgues and coroners pointed out that the face is too perfect. Drown victims tend to be misshapen, bloated and even scarred, especially if a body was pulled out from a murky river. The L’inconnue is simply too flawless and too serene to be a drown victim. There are even other accounts that the L’inconnue was never a death mask, but simply a cast of a live model’s face. The mask was probably taken from the daughter of a mask maker in Germany.

Given that the drown victim theory was true, the fate of the anonymous girl’s remains were unclear, some say that she was disposed of in a pauper’s grave, unmarked and unidentified. While the police record of that year made no mention of that enigmatic girl.

And Now We Have A CPR Doll

Laerdal demonstrating the CPR on Resusci Anne.

Laerdal demonstrating the CPR on Resusci Anne.

And as a legacy to this bizarre fad, a CPR doll was modeled after her. Asmund Laerdal was a toy manufacturer from Norway. One day, his son nearly drowned, but dad was there to save him. The kid’s airways were cleared just in time. A group of anaesthesiologists then asked him if he could make a doll where someone could demonstrate CPR. With the help of Austrian physician Peter Safar, who pioneered CPR, a life size doll was made with collapsible chest for practicing compression and half-opened lips for resuscitation. The doll was made female, as Laerdal felt that men in the 1960s were reluctant to press their lips on a male face.

And Rescuci Anne was born!

And for a face, Laerdal based her from a fixture hanging on his in-laws’ house. The L’Inconnue.

The dead girl’s face is now immortalized in a rescue simulation doll. It’s amazing how someone dying from drowning now helped people save someone from drowning. The L’Inconnue is now the most kissed face in the world.

And we could say that she achieved more in death than in life.


Mamerto Adan (author) from Cabuyao on March 28, 2020:

Wow Dewie, people have strange fascinations back then.

Dewie Desimal on March 28, 2020:

People in the 1800s also drank mummie tea, snorted them too. Interesting times.

Mamerto Adan (author) from Cabuyao on January 12, 2020:

Thanks Don for stopping by!

Rex on January 12, 2020:

Very worthwhile and entertaining read. Also, a great antidote as to how we never know where an endeavor may take us.

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