The Unknown Woman of the Seine

Updated: Dec 19, 2020



Most of the John and Jane Doe cases I cover here and on my corresponding YouTube channel are people who died recently, at least in the past few decades. In most of these cases, police are desperately trying to identify these people so their loved ones — and the public — can have answers. Today’s Jane Doe doesn’t really fall into that category. She’s been dead for over 100 years and, while it might be nice to identify her, her legacy goes in a bit of a different direction. Let’s talk about the woman only known as L'Inconnue de la Seine, or The Unknown Woman of the Seine.


In the late 1800’s, the body of a young woman was pulled from the Quai du Louvre, a wharf along the Seine River in Paris. The woman was young — possibly even a teenager, early twenties at the most. Since there were no visible wounds or other signs of trauma on her body, it was suspected that she took her own life. In the 1800’s and even today, pulling corpses out of the Seine wasn’t and isn’t too uncommon — in fact, about 90 people a year commit suicide by jumping into the river.



The woman was taken to the Paris Morgue and her body was displayed to the public. This also wasn’t too uncommon; bodies at the morgue were often publically shown as a grim tourist attraction. But in the case of the Woman of the Seine and other unidentified corpses, this was also done in the hopes that someone could identify her. As the story goes, the pathologist found the woman so beautiful that he ordered a death mask done of her face — though death masks for unidentified bodies, again, were pretty common at the time.


The morgue pathologist might have been the first person to become entranced by this unknown woman, but he wouldn’t be the last. Not long after her body was found, copies of her death mask was sold in shops all over Paris. The first shop to sell these masks was reportedly one owned by the Lorenzi family, a shop that still operates in a Paris suburb today.


At the time, most death masks being sold were of older, well known and wealthy men, so the mask of a beautiful young woman got people’s attention. Before long, copies of the mask were being sold all over Europe. They were often marketed to tourists, but plenty of customers were also wealthy people who hung the masks in their drawing rooms.

And artists of all kinds — visual, literary and even musicians — were drawn to the mask. The woman’s earliest appearance in literature was in The Worshipper of the Image by Richard Galliene, published in 1898. The book follows a poet named Antony who finds a death mask of a drowned girl in a shop. At first, he’s drawn to the face on the mask because it reminds him of his wife. But it doesn’t take him long to begin a strange emotional affair with the mask, even envisioning her talking to him. Needless to say, things do not end well for Antony or his loved ones.



Much of the speculation about this woman’s identity came from literature. Writers portrayed her in all sorts of ways, though most of them had her committing suicide after a love affair gone wrong. Fictional speculation ranged from her being a nomadic peasant girl to an actress or musician, a witch, a seductress or even a robber. Other authors said she was abandoned by a lover when she became pregnant — though there was no mention of pregnancy with the original Woman of the Seine.


And the fascination continued into the late 1900’s. In the 1970’s, models of the mask were being used for training by beauticians. At some point, an artist named John Goto wrote an account of a man named Dr. Harry Battley discovering the identity of the woman. After finding her mask and doing some research, Dr. Battley found that she was a Hungarian musician named Ewa Lazlo who was possibly killed by her lover. Gato later said his account was meant to be fictional and that he didn’t think people would take it seriously — though some clearly did.


Another story related to the woman has even less basis in fact, but I thought it was worth sharing. As it goes, a girl in Liverpool fell in love with a rich French man. They eloped, moved to Paris and her family never saw her again. Years later, the girl’s identical twin sister visited Paris on vacation and saw the Woman of the Seine’s death mask. The woman was her twin sister, who she didn’t realize was dead. Even if this story is fiction (which it almost certainly is), can you imagine seeing the death mask of a younger version of you? That’s got to be terrifying.


In 1955, a Norwegian toymaker named Åsmund Lærdal saved his two-year-old son from drowning. After that, he grew increasingly interested in resuscitation. When he was approached by an Austrian doctor named Peter Safar to make a lifelike doll for people to practice CPR on, he jumped at the chance. (Another source said he was approached by Sten Florelius from the Norwegian Civil Defense.)


For inspiration, Lærdal thought back to the Woman of the Seine’s death mask hanging on the wall at his grandparents’ home (or his in-laws — again, different sources said different things). Because the woman had apparently died so tragically, Lærdal wanted her image to be used for good. According to an article in The Guardian, Lærdal turning the woman into a CPR doll was “a way to give her a happy ending over and over again.”



Rescue Annie debuted in Norway in 1960. After the invention, the Lærdal company shifted away from toy making and began moving more toward helping others through CPR and emergency care. Rescue Annie is still around today and, though the model has been changed a bit, it’s been used to teach CPR to over 500 million people, saving an estimated two and a half million lives.


Today, the Woman of the Seine’s original death mask is in the Lorenzi’s workshop, still owned by the family’s descendants. They still sell multiple different versions of the mask if you’d like one for yourself. The least expensive one I could find sells for 78 euros, about 88 U.S. dollars as of me writing this. The most expensive if 348 euros. But if you don’t feel like dropping that much cash on a death mask, cheaper versions are sold by other shops in the area.


But what really happened to the Woman of the Seine? We know basically nothing about her. Did she really take her own life, as was originally speculated? Was she murdered, as some sources have suggested? The most prominent theory I could find on the woman is one I didn’t expect when I started researching. According to many sources, the woman couldn’t possibly have been dead when her “death mask” was made.


According to Claire Forestier, a descendant of the Lorenzi family, the mask couldn’t have come from a corpse because her skin and cheeks were too smooth. She believes the mask was actually made from a living teenage girl who was never publically identified.


And others agree. As pointed out by the folks on the science section of howstuffworks.com, the woman’s face would be bloated and much more decomposed if she’d actually drowned. Chief Brigadier Pascal Jacquin says he didn’t think she was initially dead either because her death mask looked so peaceful and that drowned bodies are usually much more swollen and decomposed. I’ve also read in other places that the woman’s hairstyle wasn’t popular at the time the mask was made, though I can’t confirm this. In his book The Savage God: A Study of Suicide, author Al Alvarez claimed he met the very much alive woman who modeled for the cast.


I know this theory sounds a bit strange, maybe even contradictory, but it does hold some water. There’s no confirmation of any of the details of the woman’s alleged discovery. No records of her death or burial have been found in the Paris archives, and we have no idea where her body is. In all my research, I was never even able to find an exact year of when her body was found. Even in the late 1800’s, surely some sort of records of this kind of thing had to be kept.


Some sources speculated that the man who created the mask used his teenage daughter as the model and she, for whatever reason, never came forward. Others have suggested that the woman was dead but the mask was made to look more appealing. Some also believe the woman was alive when the mask was made but later drowned, and somehow the truth grew into rumors.


So why do people find this woman so fascinating? How has an ordinary, unidentified young woman — possibly even a teenager — capture the imaginations of so many people for so long?


In the early days, it might have been because of her apparent suicide. In The Savage God, Alvarez also wrote about the romanticism of suicide that was prominent at the time. But most people have suggested something that’s still true even today.



Does the Woman of the Seine really resemble the Mona Lisa? I"ll let you decide.

We know very little about this woman. We don’t know her name, where she came from, how she died or even if she was dead when the mask of her face was made. She’s a blank slate, literally and metaphorically.


Author Anne-Gaëlle Saliot put it this way in her book The Drowned Muse: “The initial encounter with the mask seems always to generate emotional reactions from writers, artists, and critics. The cast triggers fascination, intrigue, and curiosity. Like a puzzle awaiting decipherment, it prompts a series of resemblances and recognitions. Yet the mystery remains intractable, since it is through her very anonymity that the Innocue maintains her fame.”


And the mystery is part of the appeal. Because we know nothing about the Woman, she can basically be whoever we want her to be. As the Laerdal company said: “Because she has no name and remains an enigma, we can never reach her and taint her…we project our own dreams on to her.” And author Louise Welch would say of the Woman: "The moment we have a name, a life story, that mystery is dead.”


So that’s all I have for you today on the Woman of the Seine. In a way, it kind of reminds me of the Poe Toaster, who I talked about awhile back, just in the sense that the mystery is a large part of its appeal. Obviously, though, this case is a bit more sad. I’d like to think the Woman was alive when the mask was made, went on to live a long, productive life and that all the stories of her drowning are just rumors. But, of course, we’ll probably never know for sure.

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