In large cities the world over, the sight of a body floating down a river is not all that uncommon. People could end up in a watery grave for any number of reasons, accidental or otherwise. Many times, they are unfortunate souls who see no other way out of the torments of life than to end it all by their own hand. One such unfortunate soul, or so the legend goes, went on to lend her face to a medical tool that would save thousands of lives. This is the strange story of L’Inconnue, also known as the Mona Lisa of the Seine.
A haunting beauty
The body of a young woman was found floating down the Seine River in Paris, France during the waning years of the 19th century. The corpse was duly fished out of the waters and taken to the morgue. She was put on display, as was the custom at the time, in the hopes that someone may be able to identify her. The story would have ended there if the pathologist examining the girl hadn’t been taken by her unmarred beauty, which in and of itself was surprising because water is not known to be kind to corpses.. He found no signs of foul play, and ruled her death a probable suicide. He took a plaster cast of her pretty, serene face and its secretive smile.
Soon enough, the death mask became a fad. Hundreds of copies were made, and the more fashion conscious among Parisian Bohemian society clambered to own a copy. Folks of the day compared the anonymous girl’s smile to the famously secretive smile gracing the Mona Lisa’s lips. People speculated as to why the dead girl looked so oddly happy, despite being found dead and floating down a river. The fad grew to the point where young women copied the dead girl’s look, seeing her as the epitome of beauty. She was the Marilyn Monroe of her day. The unknown woman’s notoriety and status as an ideal representation of beauty lasted up until the 1920’s, when more lively women took her place.
However, that is not the end of the unknown woman’s cultural life. Her face was used as the model for Resusci Anne, a mannequin used to teach CPR. Resusci Anne was designed by Peter Safar and Asmund Laerdal in 1958. In 1960, the dolls were used in the first round of CPR courses. The fact that the unknown woman’s face has been reproduced hundreds if not thousands of times and been used the world over in CPR training has led people to give the death mask the nickname “the most kissed face in history.”
Doubts don’t stop the legend from living on
However, not everyone buys into the story, thinking that it was more folklore than fact. They point to the fact that the woman in the mask looks too peaceful to have suffered a horrific death by drowning. While fiction would like to portray drowning as a peaceful, beautiful way to die, the reality is far from it. It’s an ugly, hard way to die that leaves behind a bloated, rapidly decaying corpse. Not to mention, if the victim jumped (or was pushed) to their death, impact with the water could cause tremendous physical injury, depending on the height of the fall. Even if the corpse had been pulled from the river only moments after death, the corpse would not be a pretty one. It seems more likely that the mask was made using a model, and the story was concocted in order to sell masks.
But perhaps not. We simply don’t know. It isn’t likely a corpse could be so pleasant to behold after floating in a river for no one knows how long, but it’s possible that happenstance conspired to to produce a beautiful corpse. The mystery lives on, and it’s that lack of knowledge that keeps people returning. The Mona Lisa of the Seine smiles on, her secrets her own.
Grange, Jeremy. “Resusci Anne and L’Inconnue: The Mona Lisa of the Seine.” BBC.com. October 15, 2013. BBC News Magazine. May 11, 2014. <http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-24534069>