Don’t believe it? Well, read her story.
Have you ever heard of L’Inconnue de la Seine (the Unknown Woman of the Seine)? Probably not. Nevertheless, there’s a good chance you’ve kissed her directly on the mouth. Yes, read my lips.
In the late 1880s, the corpse of a drowned young woman was discovered in the River Seine in Paris. To this day, nobody knows what happened to her, although back then it was speculated she had committed suicide. What is more, nobody at the time knew who she was either.
Unlike today, when it’s much easier to identify a face using the Internet or even newspapers, in 1881 France officials would often take a corpse and place it in the window of a chilled room for people to gawp at like an item in any shop window. Often, this was the only way to get an identification. And if anyone recognized a given corpse, they could then say something along the lines of “I’ll take that one to go.”
The viewing windows were particularly popular with people at the time. “There is not a single window in Paris that attracts more onlookers than this,” a volume of engravings from Unknown Paris (1893) noted, suggesting it wasn’t only people with missing friends and family that would go and have a look, but passersby as well. Entertainment was thin on the ground back them, so the spooky spectacle was definitely attractive.
That said, nobody claimed the unknown girl, thought to be about 16 years old. She was placed in a pauper’s grave, but before that moment someone took something from her that would endure for centuries after her death: her face.
We don’t know why the pathologist at the mortuary decided to make a death mask of her. According to the popular story, he was so enchanted by her beauty that he couldn’t help but make it.
Anyway, when the cast was made, it became bizarrely popular. When it was taken out of the mortuary, copies of it went on general sale. Apparently, people just could not get enough of this dead girl’s face (not unlike that of Evelyn McHale, who jumped from the observation deck of the Empire State Building in 1947). It was popular among artists and writers, with stories being written based around L’Inconnue de la Seine, inventing backstories and how she was murdered, or how she came to commit suicide by drowning herself in the river. Soon, the mask became something everybody needed to have, even if it was a corpse’s face.
There was even a horror story based around the death mask where it goes on to kill a bunch of people. But fate eventually had the opposite in store for it.
After her face enduring for decades, in the 1950s a toy manufacturer called Asmind S. Laerdal used the model for the face of a soft plastic doll named Anne.
As a twist of life’s irony, Laerdal’s own son had nearly drowned when he was 2 years old. Then, in the mid-50s, Dr Peter Safar came up with a method of resuscitation involving mouth-to-mouth and chest compressions (CPR), and he went to Laerdal for help with how to teach it around the globe. Laerdal leaped at the chance, and together they worked on a lifelike(ish) CPR doll. If you’ve ever done any kind of first aid training, you’ve probably pressed your lips against hers. She is called “Resusci Anne.”
And that’s how a drowned girl from over a hundred years ago became “the most kissed person” of all time. It’s estimated that the dolls with her face have saved over 2.5 million lives around the world.
What a story.