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The Kiss of Death by Nigel Roth

Dernière mise à jour : 18 nov. 2021

It’s 1880, and we’re in Paris again, this time in the very middle of the Belle Époque.

Van Gogh, who only has ten years left to be tormented, and such luminaires as Gustave Moreau, Maurice Denis, Pierre Bonnard, Paul Gauguin, Emile Bernard, Pablo Picasso, Auguste Rodin, Paul Cézanne, Jules Renard, Anna de Noailles, Charles Baudelaire, Stéphane Mallarmé, Guillaume Apollinaire, and Henri’s Matisse, Rousseau, and Toulouse-Lautrec would all be celebrated as catalysts of this monumental era of optimism, peace, prosperity, expansion, technology, science, and culture.

And, while Guy de Maupassant, Anatole France, Maurice Maeterlinck, and Marcel Proust poured over their drafts and discussed the perfect word or phrase and the meaning of everything, while the absinthe and candlelight mixed to produce alchemical enlightenment, a girl, just sixteen years of age, began her journey to become the most kissed woman in the history of the world.

One cold evening during that year, a couple were strolling the banks of the Seine, hand-in-hand, and very much in lust, when they happened upon an object floating toward them in the dark river. They paused their inebriated frisson long enough to identify the flotsam as a body, and raised the alarm as best they could, given the cognac that flowed in their veins in place of blood, and the effect it had on their ability to be sentient.

The gendarmerie were alerted, and, throwing their expressos gently down on the table, came right away, to haul the corpse from its liquid grave to the cobbled towpath alongside the Quai du Louvre, which they did, without much fuss, or respect for the dead girl.

The body was taken to the Paris Morgue, where it was examined by the coroner and officially pronounced dead, and without struggle or any sign of violence recorded as a suicide, one of the many that Paris and every other city experienced during that period on a daily basis.

But this was the Belle Epoque, the beautiful age, and the pathologist at the morgue was a single man, and lonely with it. When he tired of Émile Zola’s latest addition to the Rougon-Macquart series, and the Pernod had dried up like the author’s love for Éléonore-Alexandrine Meley, his wife, he pulled out the icy drawer that held the body of The Unknown Woman of the Seine, and stared, for far too long some might say, at the corpse before him, until he determined, you’ll be relieved to know, to simply make a cast of her face, in wax, to symbolize the melting of his heart.

Or, because that's what people made death masks from in 1880.

Anyway, her face, like the future, was cast, and in death she captured the world.

While every attempt was made to identify the girl, and her body was displayed in the mortuary in the vain hope that someone would come forward to recognize her, no-one ever did, and she remained an unknown drowning victim of the dark and forbidding waters of the seven-hundred-and-seventy-five-kilometre-long river.

Her smile, serene and tranquil, had an effect on everyone who saw it, and it encouraged much speculation about her life and status in a French society obsessed with class. And as well as debating the girl's provenance, they also made copies of the mask, which became a popular symbolic and decorative fixture around the city, particularly among the Bohemian set, that artistic, literary, and often spiritual group of Parisian freedom-seekers, who warmed to the face of this enigmatic waif.

Let’s leave nineteenth century France now and travel, just briefly, to fifteen century Persia. There, as the Black Sheep Turkmen were being conquered by the White Sheep Turkmen, the exact history of which is a gray area, a physician named Burhan-ud-din Kermani was describing a method that may have helped L'Inconnue de la Seine had she been found much earlier in the river. The process for helping a drowning person, Kermani wrote, involved a combination of ‘strong movements and massive chest expansion’, and ‘compression of the left side of the chest’.

Whether Kermani’s method traveled to the western side of the planet isn't clear, but by the late eighteenth century, the Dutch Society for the Recovery of Drowned Persons, which, other than the Dutch bit, sounds a little morbid, had laid out, if that’s the right word, a technique for resuscitation.

It went something like this:

  • warm the victim;

  • remove swallowed or aspirated water by positioning the victim's head at a lower position than their feet;

  • apply manual pressure to the abdomen;

  • release air into the victim's mouth, using either a bellow or with the mouth-to-mouth method;

  • tickle the victim's throat;

  • stimulate the victim by means such as rectal and oral fumigation with tobacco smoke; and

  • bloodlet, if required.

Notwithstanding the rectal fumigation, from which we have been blessed with the phrase to ‘blow smoke up one’s ass’, patients that recovered were delighted to be able to throw themselves once more into the IJ or the Amstel on a cold November night, and by the Society’s own unbiased account, more than one-hundred-and-fifty people got a second chance at death.