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.

Find Love With These 18 Old Halloween Fortune-Telling Tricks

Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Before trick-or-treat, the sugar lobby, and mass-produced David S. Pumpkins costumes took over Halloween celebrations, fortune-telling games were one of the most popular ways to enjoy our spookiest holiday.

This was especially true in Ireland, Scotland, and Wales. Halloween is rooted in the festival of Samhain, the Celtic New Year, in which worshippers believed the gates between our present reality and the netherworld briefly shut down. It was a night for consulting the spirit realm for advice—especially on love and marriage. In fact, Halloween was just as romantic as our modern Valentine’s Day, if not more so.

With Lisa Morton’s exhaustive book The Halloween Encyclopedia as our guide, we’ve cobbled together some of the best romantic divination techniques from the Celtic New Year celebrations. Keep in mind that as far-fetched as some of these fortune-telling games may seem, they were largely viewed as playful parlor games—opportunities for friends to set potential suitors up, or for a bashful lad or lass to spark a courtship. When playing a game, “a clever hostess will send two unsuspecting lovers by different doors;” Martha Orne suggests in Hallowe’en And How to Celebrate It, “they are sure to meet, and not infrequently settle matters then and there.”

Perhaps it's time to bring a few of these back?

1. Acquire a newborn baby. Encourage it to sip from a bowl. Afterward, return the baby. Retain the bowl and fill it with water, then cut all 26 letters of the alphabet from a newspaper or magazine—or write the letters on 26 slips of paper—and place the papers into the bowl. Leave it to sit overnight. The next morning blindfold yourself, dip your hand into the bowl, and pull out the same number of slips as letters that are in your name. Using those slips, you should be able to spell the name of your future spouse. (You can thank the people of Newfoundland for this custom.)

2. Eat an entire salted herring, bones and all, in three bites. Do not drink water. Go to bed. In your dreams, prophetic visions of your future spouse shall appear. (Also possible: indigestion.)

3. Find a blackberry bush. Crawl underneath the branches. In the moonlight, you may find the shadow of your future beloved. (Also possible: blackberries.)

4. Procure two apple seeds. Wet the seeds. Designate one seed for “Love Interest A,” and the second seed for “Love Interest B.” Press the seeds against your forehead or eyelids. Wait. The first apple seed to fall will indicate the least faithful of the two suitors.

Cabbage
Lisa Morton

5. Trespass on your neighbor’s garden. Strap on a blindfold, and began searching for kale. Upon finding the vegetable, attempt to pull the kale from the dirt. The shape of the kale's root shall foretell your future: “A straight stalk foretold a tall straight handsome mate, and dirt clinging to the kale promised money,” Morton writes. (Don’t snicker: This divination was once a popular matchmaking tool in Scotland, and, if you’re of Scottish descent, there’s a chance that you owe your entire existence to a stalk of kale.)

6. Step outside and pluck a hair from your head. (If balding, skip to the next divination.) At nightfall, toss the hair into the wind. The direction the hair flies will indicate the direction from which your future spouse will come. In 1714, the English dramatist John Gay mentioned this custom in this poem:

I pluck this lock of hair from off my head
to tell whence comes the one that I shall wed.
Fly, silken hair, fly all the world around,
Until you reach the spot where my true love is found.

7. Spread a fine layer of cornmeal near your bed. (People with carpet can probably skip this one.) Sleep. In the morning, the name of your future spouse will be scribbled in the powder. (This bit of divination was supposedly practiced by children in the American South.)

8. Grab an egg, prepare a glass of water, and school yourself in oomancy! Crack the egg and carefully drip the whites into the water three times: The goop will contort to form the initials of your future beloved. (But be careful: Morton writes of a young man who was so disturbed by his eggy divination, he “drank heavily and became a beggar who committed suicide by downing laudanum.” The girls of Salem also attempted to read egg whites, and, well, we know how that turned out.)

9. Book a ticket to the Scottish Highlands, specifically to Ross-shire where this trick supposedly originated. Find a field in which the furrows run north to south. Wait for dark. Enter the field from the west, and gently walk over 11 furrows. Stop at the 12th, wait, and listen for your fortune: If you hear sobbing, you may die early; if you hear music, your future will be joyful. (And if you hear a man or woman grumbling about getting off their lawn, your future likely holds a trespassing charge.)

10. Find a snail. Go to the hearth, scoop up ashes, and scatter them across a plate. (Hearthless? Use flour!) Place the snail on the plate and go to sleep. In the morning, check the snail’s slime trail: It will have spelled the initials of your true love.

Limekiln
Lisa Morton

11. Locate the nearest lime-kiln. Then locate the nearest arts and crafts store and buy blue yarn. Throw the ball of yarn into the kiln while grasping the opposite end. Reel in the yarn. When you feel a tug from the other end, ask for the name of your future beloved, and a disembodied voice will belch his or her name. (This tradition originates in lower Scotland, where it was believed that mythical household goblins called “Brownies” lived in the kilns—and, well, everywhere else.)

12. Buy a knife and find a field of leeks. At night, walk backwards through the field, and stab one of the leeks with the knife. Hide, then watch. According to Celtic lore, your future spouse will walk through the field, pick up the knife, and chuck it to the middle of the garden.

13. Visit a farm and pull up a stalk of oats. If the stalk is missing the tiny seeds at the top—what the Scots called the pickle—then you’ll lose your virginity before marriage. (For people who have already sowed their oats, pulling up a stalk of oats is probably unnecessary.) The Scottish poet Robert Burns refers to this custom, alluding to a woman’s virginity as the “tap-pickle":

But her tap-pickle maist [nearly] was lost,
What kiutlin [fondling] in the ‘fause-house’
Wi’ him that night.

14. Attain a willow branch or wand. While holding it in the left or right hand, run around your house three times. Meanwhile, whisper, “He that is to be my goodman, come to grip the end of it.” During the third lap, the fetch—that is, the living spirit—of your future spouse will appear and grab it. (Willow is a interesting choice of wand, since it used to be a symbol of curmudgeonry. In the Scottish Highlands, placing a peeled willow wand on your door was a sign that you wished nobody to enter your house.)

Backwards
Lisa Morton

15. At midnight, scoop up a heaping spoonful of salt and insert it into your mouth. Do not swallow. Then light a candle, grab a mirror, and, while holding both candle and mirror in your hands, begin walking backward into the cellar. Watch the mirror. As you reach the bottom, you’ll see the face of your future spouse staring back at you. (According to the aptly titled Book of Entertainments and Frolics for All Occasions, “This is most easily accomplished if there be a tacit agreement that some cavalier shall be in waiting for the inquiring maid.”)

16. Place two nuts on a fire and recite these words: If you hate me spit and fly; if you love me burn away. If the nuts roll apart, you may separate soon from your spouse. If both burn, your relationship is secure. A similar divination involves placing two peas on a red-hot shovel.

17. It’s time to break out the Luggie Bowls! Place three bowls side by side: Fill the first with clear water, the second with dirty water, and the third with no water at all. Blindfold yourself and ask a friend to rearrange the bowls. Dunk your left forefinger into one of the bowls. If you choose the clear bowl, you’ll enjoy a happy marriage. The dirty water, on the other hand, indicates an unhappy marriage, and the empty bowl means no marriage at all. Robert Burns describes Luggie Bowls in a poem:

In order, on the clean hearth-stane
The luggies three are ranged,
And every time great care is ta’en
To see them duly changed:
Auld uncle John, wah wedlock’s joys
Sin Mar’s year did desire,
Because he gat the toom-dish [empty] thrice
He heaved them on the fire
In wrath that night.

18. Pour half a pint of high-proof brandy in a dish. Ignite it. Throw a handful of raisins, nuts, candied figs, and other tiny fruits into the blaze. Then gather a group of friends and attempt to remove as many items as possible, trying your best to toss them into your mouth without getting burnt. Whoever retrieves the most fruits and nuts is destined to meet their true love in one year. (In Britain, this game, known as Snap-Dragon, was mostly a Christmas Eve parlor game—Charles Dickens wrote about it in The Pickwick Papers—but, in the United States, it supposedly became a Halloween pastime.)

This list was first published in 2017 and republished in 2019.

6 Puzzling Anachronisms That Made It Into Shakespeare’s Plays

iofoto/iStock via Getty Images
iofoto/iStock via Getty Images

William Shakespeare was known for writing with a fabulous disregard for the rules of language. Not only did he regularly coin his own phrases, he also literally made up words—many of which are now in our discourse and dictionaries. And, considering how influential his work has been for the last five centuries, you’d be hard-pressed to find a scholar who thinks that the prolific playwright’s penchant for literary invention was anything but genius.

Having said that, the Bard did actually get a few things wrong. Because many of Shakespeare’s plays include historical figures like Julius Caesar and events like the Trojan War, we know they were set during pretty specific time periods. And while Shakespeare is certainly allowed to mention Niccolò Machiavelli in a play that takes place before Machiavelli was even born, it’s not exactly historically accurate.

What we don’t know for sure are the reasons behind the Bard’s occasional anachronisms. Did he include them intentionally to provide context and clarity for his audience? Or were they legitimate mistakes, because fact-checking was a lot more labor-intensive in the pre-internet era?

Since we’re now just a Google search away from knowing Machiavelli’s birth year and more, here are the details behind six of Shakespeare’s most surprising anachronisms.

1. The clock in Julius Caesar

In Act 2, Scene 1 of Julius Caesar, after the stage directions say “Clock strikes,” Brutus tells Cassius to “count the clock,” and Cassius says it “hath stricken three.” Though humans have been measuring time for thousands of years, clocks definitely didn’t "strike" while Caesar was alive. The first weight-driven mechanical clock was recorded in England in 1283, more than 1300 years after Caesar’s death. Before that, people used sundials or devices called clepsydras, which counted time by measuring water that slowly dripped in or out of a container. Given the late hour, a sundial wouldn’t have sufficed for this scene, and maybe Shakespeare felt that “Check how much water is in the bowl!” would bewilder his modern audience.

2. The doublet in Julius Caesar

doublet from 1580
A doublet, circa 1580.
Catherine Breyer Van Bomel Foundation Fund, Metropolitan Museum of Art // Public Domain

The clock might be Shakespeare’s most famous anachronism in Julius Caesar, but it’s not the only one. Earlier in the play (Act 1, Scene 2), Casca recounts to Cassius and Brutus how, after refusing the crown three times, Caesar pulls aside his clothing to offer the crowd his throat to cut. The clothing, however, isn’t the Roman military finery you’re probably imagining. Casca calls it a doublet, which is a type of fancy jacket popular between the 15th and 17th centuries—Shakespeare himself is sometimes pictured wearing one. Caesar may have been ahead of his time in some ways, but he certainly wasn’t fashion-forward enough to have predicted a trend that occurred more than 1500 years after he died in 44 BCE.

3. The billiards game in Antony and Cleopatra

In Act 2, Scene 5 of Antony and Cleopatra, Cleopatra invites her servant Charmain to play billiards. Considering that Cleopatra was born around 69 BCE in Egypt, and the earliest known mention of billiards wasn’t until 15th-century Europe, an apt response from Charmain would’ve been “Madam, what are billiards?” Instead, she declines the game due to a sore arm, and a mercurial Cleopatra declares that she’s lost interest and would rather go fishing (which, of course, has been around for much longer than billiards).

4. The mentions of Machiavelli in Henry VI

the prince by niccolo machiavelli
dcerbino/iStock via Getty Images

Niccolò Machiavelli made such an impact on society with his treatise The Prince that Shakespeare mentioned him in Henry VI not once, but twice—both with negative connotations. In Act 5, Scene 4 of Part 1, Joan of Arc tells Warwick and York that she’s pregnant with Alençon’s child to convince them not to burn her at the stake. At this, York exclaims “Alençon! That notorious Machiavel!” meaning that Alençon is essentially an immoral person. As you might remember from a high school history class, Joan of Arc eventually did end up burning at the stake in 1431.

Shakespeare’s next reference to Machiavelli occurs in Act 3, Scene 2 of Part 3, right after Henry VI is captured and imprisoned in the Tower of London in 1465. Richard, whose brother Edward currently sits on the throne, delivers a lengthy monologue in which he vows to commit whatever heinous crimes are necessary to steal the crown for himself, “[setting] the murderous Machiavel to school.” In other words, he plans to take Machiavelli’s “The ends justify the means” mantra to such a high level that he’ll basically be showing its founder how it’s done. However, in 1465, Machiavelli was definitely not yet “murderous.” In fact, he wasn’t even born until four years later (and decades after Joan of Arc's death), in 1469.

5. The mention of Aristotle in Troilus and Cressida

In Troilus and Cressida, Shakespeare spins a tale of love and loss during the Trojan War, which is thought to have occurred in either the 12th or 13th century BCE. Aristotle, on the other hand, was definitely born in 384 BCE. So when Hector likens Paris and Troilus to the young men “whom Aristotle thought unfit to hear moral philosophy” in Act 2, Scene 2, he showed wisdom beyond his years … by several hundred years.

6. The gun in A Midsummer Night’s Dream

titiana and nick bottom from a midsummer night's dream
Edwin Henry Landseer, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

What we now call gunpowder exploded onto the scene in China as early as 850 CE, and guns themselves were developed over the following centuries. Ancient as that may seem, it’s not nearly as old as ancient Greece, the setting for Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In Act 3, Scene 2, the jester Puck tells the fairy king Oberon how, when Nick Bottom’s friends see him with a donkey’s head, they act like wild geese “rising and cawing at the gun’s report.” In other words, they scatter in fear, much like geese do when a hunter fires his gun. Having said that, it’s hard to begrudge Shakespeare one measly anachronism in a play with fairies, love potions, and roguish sprites who can transform humans into donkeys.

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