The Surprising Origin of the Word Morgue

Jean Henry Marlet, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0
Jean Henry Marlet, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0

Today the word morgue conjures up images of an efficient, hygienic room overseen by professionals in lab coats and rubber gloves. Most of us are familiar with its inner workings only from cop shows and crime novels, never having had the desire—or need—to visit one in real life. However, our image of the modern, sterile morgue stands in stark contrast with the room that originally gave rise to the term.

In 18th century Paris, visitors to the Grand Châtelet—a combined court, police headquarters, and prison that served as the seat of common-law jurisdiction in pre-revolutionary France—could descend to the basement basse-geôle and peer in through the grille of the door. There, they would catch a glimpse of a small room where unidentified dead bodies were displayed to the public, strewn across the bare floor. The room became informally known as la morgue, an early definition of which appears in the 1718 Dictionnaire de l’Académie: "A place at the Châtelet, where dead bodies that have been found are open to the public view, in order that they be recognized."

Print of the Grand Châtelet of Paris by Allain Manesson-Mallet,1702
Bibliothèque de l'INHA via Europeana // Public Domain

The name for this gruesome room likely had its roots in the Archaic French verb morguer, which means "to look solemnly." Historians think that such rooms had existed in Parisian prisons since the 14th century, initially as a place where newly incarcerated prisoners would be held until identified, but later to deal with the many dead bodies found on the streets or pulled from the River Seine. (In fact, there were so many bodies in the river—both murder victims and suicides—that a huge net was stretched across the river at St. Cloud to catch the bodies as they washed downstream, from which they were transported to the Grand Châtelet.) But it was not until around the turn of the 18th century that the public were invited in and asked to try and identify the dead at la morgue.

The stench emanating from the corpses at the morgue must have been unbearable, and the public exposure to the "bad humors" was one of the reasons for the creation of a new, more hygienic morgue, at the place du Marché-Neuf on the Ile-de-la-Cité in 1804. This new morgue building (by now officially known as La Morgue) was housed in a building styled like a Greek temple that was close to the river, enabling bodies to be transported there by boat. The corpses were now displayed in a purpose-built exhibit room, with plate-glass windows and plenty of natural light, allowing crowds to gather and gawk at the corpses laid out on marble slabs. Refrigeration did not come until the 1880s, so the bodies were kept cool with a constant drip of cold water, lending the cadavers a bloated appearance. The clothes of the deceased were hung from pegs next to the dead as a further aide to their identification.

Drawing of the Paris morgue circa 1845
Hippolyte Destailleur, Bibliothèque nationale de France // Public Domain

The central location of the morgue ensured a healthy traffic of people of all classes, becoming a place to see and be seen, and to catch up on the latest gossip. Its popularity as a place of spectacle grew as the 19th century progressed, stoked by being included as a must-see location in most guidebooks to Paris. On the days after a big crime had been committed, as many as 40,000 people flocked through its doors.

The morgue was also written about by luminaries such as Charles Dickens, who touched on it a number of times in his journalism, confessing in The Uncommercial Traveller (a series of sketches written between 1860-9) that it held a gruesome draw: "Whenever I am at Paris, I am dragged by invisible force into the Morgue. I never want to go there, but am always pulled there. One Christmas Day, when I would rather have been anywhere else, I was attracted in, to see an old grey man lying all alone on his cold bed, with a tap of water turned on over his grey hair, and running, drip, drip, drip, down his wretched face until it got to the corner of his mouth, where it took a turn, and made him look sly." Dickens also described the crowds of people flocking to the morgue to gawk at the latest arrivals, idly swapping speculation on causes of death and potential identities: "It was strange to see so much heat and uproar seething about one poor spare white-haired old man, so quiet for evermore."

In 1864, the morgue at the Marché-Neuf was demolished to make way for Baron Haussmann's sweeping re-modeling of Paris. The new morgue building was situated just behind Notre Dame, again in a busy public space, re-affirming its purpose as a place to view and identify dead bodies. However, it was also in this new building that the morgue moved away from pure spectacle and began to be linked with the medical identification of bodies, as well as advances in forensics and the professionalization of policing. The new morgue had an autopsy room, a small laboratory for chemical analysis, and rooms where police and administrators could inspect the bodies and record any murders or suicides. The emphasis shifted—the morgue was no longer purely dependent on the public to identify the bodies; it now had medical, administrative, and investigative officers doing that work, moving it closer to our modern idea of what a morgue is.

By the 1880s the fame of the Paris morgue, and admiration of its now-efficient administrative structures, had spread across the world. The word morgue began to be used to describe places where the dead were kept in both Britain and America, replacing the older "dead house" and becoming synonymous with mortuary. Over time, the word morgue was also adopted in American English, perhaps slightly tongue-in-cheek, for rooms where newspaper or magazine archives are kept—for example, The New York Times morgue, a storehouse for historical clippings, photographs, and other reference materials related to the paper.

The Paris morgue closed its doors to the public in 1907. A combination of factors led to the decision: gradually changing public attitudes to the viewing of dead bodies, concerns over hygiene and the spread of disease, and the increasing professionalization of the police and coroners. Today, the city office that has replaced it is known as the Institut médico-légal de Paris. Meanwhile, the word morgue itself has come a long way—from its roots in a grim spectacle, it's now become a place of professionalism and respect.

Stan Lee Column Calling Out the Dangers of Racism Resurfaces 50 Years Later

Frazer Harrison, Getty Images
Frazer Harrison, Getty Images

Fans looking to celebrate the work of Stan Lee following his death on Monday, November 12 have a lot to choose from. In addition to his enormous impact in the worlds of comic books, movies, and television, Lee was also a vocal supporter of civil rights. Now, 50 years after it was originally published, a column by Lee denouncing the dangers of racism has resurfaced on the web.

The column, part of his recurring back-of-the-comic segment "Stan's Soap Box," first appeared in 1968, according to Mashable. In it, Lee wrote that "Bigotry and racism are among the deadliest social ills plaguing the world today," and "The only way to destroy them is to expose them—to reveal them for the insidious evils they really are."

The full piece was recently shared in a tweet by filmmaker and writer Siddhant Adlakha. You can read it below.

The column was published at the tail-end of the Civil Rights Movement and the same year Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. Lee's words have continued to hold their relevance throughout the decades, with Lee himself sharing the article in a since-deleted tweet following the racially-charged violence that erupted in Charlottesville, Virginia in August 2017.

Numerous Stan Lee stories and creations have reached icon status over his 95-year life, but there are many interesting tidbits from his life that are less well-known. Here are some facts about the late comic book legend.

[h/t Mashable]

The Anti-Spitting Campaigns Designed to Stop the Spread of Tuberculosis

A Dr. Dettweiler sputum flask, circa 1910
A Dr. Dettweiler sputum flask, circa 1910

In the 19th century, cities were grimy places, where thousands of people lived in overcrowded tenement buildings and walked streets polluted with trash, sewage, and the carcasses of dead animals. Unsurprisingly, these cities were also hotbeds of infectious disease.

One of the leading causes of death was tuberculosis, which spreads from person to person in the tiny droplets that spray through the air when an infected person coughs or sneezes. "In the 19th century, tuberculosis [was] the greatest single cause of death among New Yorkers," explains Anne Garner, the curator of rare books and manuscripts at the New York Academy of Medicine Library and the co-curator of the Museum of the City of New York’s new exhibition, "Germ City: Microbes and the Metropolis."

In the 19th century, tuberculosis killed one in every seven people in Europe and the U.S., and it was particularly deadly for city dwellers. Between 1810 and 1815, the disease—then commonly known as consumption, or the white plague—was to blame for more than a quarter of the recorded deaths in New York City. While New York wasn't alone among urban centers in having startlingly high rates of tuberculosis, its quest to eradicate the disease was pioneering: It became the first U.S. city to ban spitting.

"BEWARE THE CARELESS SPITTER"

Anti-tuberculosis pamphlets
Tuberculosis warnings from the Committee on Prevention of Tuberculosis that appeared on New York City streetcar transfers in 1908, reprinted by the Michigan Board of Health in 1909

In 1882, Robert Koch became the first to discover the cause of tuberculosis: a bacterium later named Mycobacterium tuberculosis, which he isolated from samples taken from infected animals. (Koch won the Nobel Prize in 1905 for his work.) He determined that the disease was spread through bacteria-infected sputum, the mix of phlegm and spit coughed up during a respiratory infection. That meant that rampant public spitting—often referred to as expectorating—was spreading the disease.

In 1896, in response to the growing understanding of the threat to public health, New York City became the first American metropolis to ban spitting on sidewalks, the floors in public buildings, and on public transit, giving officials the ability to slap wayward spitters with a fine or a jail sentence. Over the next 15 years, almost 150 other U.S. cities followed suit and banned public spitting [PDF].

The New York City health department and private groups like the National Tuberculosis Association, the Women’s Health Protective Association, and the Brooklyn Anti-Tuberculosis Committee generated anti-spitting slogans such as "Spitting Is Dangerous, Indecent, and Against the Law," "Beware the Careless Spitter," and "No Spit, No Consumption." They made posters decrying spitting (among other unhealthy habits) and reminding people of the ban. Members of the public were encouraged to confront defiant spitters, or, at the very least, give them the stink eye. While there were many other factors to blame for the spread of tuberculosis—like dangerously overcrowded, poorly ventilated tenement housing and widespread malnutrition—public spitters became the literal poster children of infection.

New York City officials followed through on the threat of punitive action for errant spitters. More than 2500 people were arrested under the statute between 1896 and 1910, though most only received a small fine—on average, less than $1 (in 1896, that was the equivalent of about $30 today). Few other cities were as committed to enforcing their sputum-related laws as New York was. In 1910, the National Tuberculosis Association reported that less than half of cities with anti-spitting regulations on the books had actually made any arrests.

Despite the law, the problem remained intractable in New York. Spitting in streetcars posed a particularly widespread, and disgusting, issue: Men would spit straight onto the floor of the enclosed car, where pools of phlegm would gather. Women wearing long dresses were at risk of picking up sputum on their hemlines wherever they went. And the law didn’t seem to stop most spitters. As one disgusted streetcar rider wrote in a letter to the editor of The New York Times in 1903, “That the law is ignored is evident to every passenger upon these public conveyances: that it is maliciously violated would not in some cases be too strong an assertion.”

The situation wasn’t much better two decades later, either. “Expectorating on the sidewalks and in public places is probably the greatest menace to health with which we have to contend,” New York City Mayor John Francis Hylan said in a 1920 appeal for citizens to help clean up the city streets.

THE BLUE HENRY

A blue sputum flask
New York Academy of Medicine Library

Spitting laws weren't the only way that health authorities tried to rein in the spread of TB at the turn of the century. Anti-tuberculosis campaigns of the time also featured their own accessory: the sputum bottle.

Faced with the fact that sick people would cough up sputum no matter what a poster in a streetcar told them, in the late 19th century, doctors and health authorities all over the world began instructing people with tuberculosis to spit into pocket-sized containers, then carry it around with them. “A person with tuberculosis must never spit on the floor or sidewalk or in street cars, but always into a cuspidor or into a paper cup, which he should have with him at all time, and which can be burned,” advised the New York City Department of Health’s 1908 publication Do Not Spit: Tuberculosis (Consumption) Catechism and Primer for School Children. These containers were known as cuspidors, spittoons, or simply sputum cups or sputum bottles.

Among the most well-known of these sputum-carrying receptacles was the “Blue Henry,” a pocket flask made of cobalt-blue glass that was originally manufactured by the German sanatorium pioneer Peter Dettweiler, who himself had suffered from tuberculosis.

“The sputum bottle was like a portable flask that could be used to collect this sticky phlegm that was produced by the irritated lungs of a person suffering from tuberculosis,” Garner says. While they came in various shapes, sizes, and materials, the fancier versions would have a spring-loaded lid and could be opened from both sides, so that you could spit into a funnel-like opening on one side and then unscrew the bottle to clean out the sputum receptacle later.

Dettweiler's device and the similar devices that followed became popular all over the world as doctors and governments sought to contain the spread of tuberculosis. These receptacles became a fixture in hospitals and at sanatoriums where tuberculosis patients went to recuperate, and were a common hand-out from anti-tuberculosis charities that worked with TB-afflicted patients.

In the early 1900s, the New York Charity Organization Society was one of them. Its Committee for the Prevention of Tuberculosis raised money to buy its New York City-based clients better food, new beds, and of course, sputum cups. (Likely the paper kind, rather than the glass Dettweiler flasks.) The generosity wasn't unconditional, though. The society would potentially pull its aid if charity workers showed up for a surprise home inspection to find unsanitary conditions, like overflowing sputum cups that were not being properly disinfected [PDF].

Eventually, the city itself began handing out sputum cups. In an effort to reduce the contagion, by 1916 a large number of cities—such as Los Angeles, Seattle, and Boston—dedicated part of their municipal budgets to paying for tuberculosis supplies like paper sputum cups that would be handed out to the public for free.

A ad for anti-TB supplies from the Journal of Outdoor Life
An advertisement that ran in the Journal of Outdoor Life—which billed itself as “the anti-tuberculosis magazine"—in 1915

Though paper sputum cups could be burned, glass or metal flasks had to be cleaned regularly. Doctors recommended that the sputum bottles contain a strong disinfectant that could kill off the tuberculosis bacilli, and that the receptacles be cleaned and disinfected every morning and evening by rinsing them with a lye solution and boiling them in water. As for the sputum itself, burning was the preferred method of sanitizing anything contaminated with TB at the time, and sputum was no exception—although rural consumptives were encouraged to bury it in the garden if burning wasn’t practical.

In an era where infectious disease was often associated with poor, immigrant communities, sputum bottles made it possible to go out in public without drawing the same attention to your condition that hacking up phlegm into the street would. “You could discreetly carry them around and then take them out and people wouldn’t necessarily know that you were suffering from the disease,” Garner explains. Or at least, somewhat discretely, since they soon became widely associated with consumptives. A Dr. Greeley, for one, argued that ordinary sputum bottles were “so conspicuous as to be objectionable," and suggested people spit into toilet paper and put that in a pouch instead. That idea didn't quite take off.

And while hiding your infectious status is not good for public health, the sputum flasks did lower the risk that you were infecting the people around you as you coughed and sneezed. “As long as you were doing it into the bottle, you probably were not infecting other people,” Garner says.

Not many of these sputum bottles have survived, in part because it was standard practice to burn everything in a tuberculosis patient’s room after they died to prevent germs from spreading. Those that remain are now collector's items, held in the archives of institutes like Australia's Museums Victoria; the Museum of Health Care in Kingston, Canada; and the New York Academy of Medicine Library.

TUBERCULOSIS TODAY

Unfortunately, neither anti-spitting propaganda nor sputum flasks managed to stop the spread of tuberculosis. Real relief from the disease didn’t come until 1943, when biochemist Selman Waksman discovered that streptomycin, isolated from a microbe found in soil, could be an effective antibiotic for tuberculosis. (He won the Nobel Prize for it, 47 years after Koch won his.)

And while carrying a cute flask to spit your disease-ridden phlegm into sounds quaint now, tuberculosis isn’t a relic of the past. Even with medical advances, it has never been eradicated. It remains one of the most devastating infectious agents in the world, and kills more than a million people worldwide every year—the exact number is debated, but could be as high as 1.8 million. And, like many infectious diseases, it is evolving to become antibiotic resistant.

Sputum flasks could come back into fashion yet.

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