Even though it was invented in 1839 by Louis Daguerre, modern photography was only made available to French police investigators in the 1870s, and it wasn’t until 1887 that criminologist Alphonse Bertillon introduced the method to criminal identification practices.
Thanks to his foresight,the photographic archive of the Paris Police Prefecture is now one of the richest in the world—a collection of millions of images that date back to the beginning of the 19th century.
After spending quite a long time investigating murders that have made history—which earned him the nickname “the Indiana Jones of the graveyards”—medical examiner Philippe Charlier focused on 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 everyday lives of those who came before us.”
The knife held by the victim suggests a suicide, but the investigation and fingerprints indicated that Mademoiselle Ferrari was stabbed in the heart by her lover, Monsieur Garnier.
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. In this technique the camera is 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. His legs are 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,” writes Charlier. “How long ago was the crime committed?” He says that it’s possible such a scene was the result of a violent struggle.
Valentine Botelin following her autopsy on September 14, 1904. After her head and hair were cleaned, the police were able to observe wounds made by three projectiles from a firearm on the woman’s temple and left cheek.
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 the autopsy table.
Jules Jacques Schoenën, age six, 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 was one of the first to be photographed.
A man whose identity the police were unable to confirm. He was discovered tied and bound in the Lac Daumesnil in the Bois de Vincennes in November, 1912.