Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Mysterious muse

Juliet Hubbell
Littleton, Colorado, United States

L’inconnue de la Seine

Few muses are both beautiful and dead, but one such modern muse is L’inconnue de la Seine, a young woman whose drowned corpse so inspired the Parisian morgue personnel who received her body in 1902 that a death mask or masque mortuaire was made of her serenely smiling face. In fact, France’s Jane Doe has inspired not only the nation’s Resuscitation Annie doll (who has now been “kissed” by millions of CPR trainees), but her secret Mona Lisa-esque smile (this comparison from Albert Camus) caused Rainier Rilke to pass by a copy of her death mask which was displayed in a local shop at least once a day.1 Likewise, her mysterious loveliness in death fascinated Vladimir Nabokov—who immortalized her again in his eponymous poem which drew eerie parallels between this French water waif and the Russian rusalki, mermaid-like demons that inhabited water weirs and lured handsome men to drowning deaths. These water ghosts or “fish-women” were almost always alluring girls who had been spurned or abandoned by their lovers and subsequently crafted their own untimely deaths, usually suicide by drowning.

This romantic and sentimental cause of death was also attributed to l’inconnue. The remarkable literary response to this rather eccentric muse is both famous and numerous: Maurice Blanchot wrote a novella based on the mask; Louis Aragon’s novel Aurelien is entirely plotted around the mask.1 German authors who became transfixed by her morbid splendor are almost too plentiful to list. According to some sources, an entire generation of pre-World War Two German women aspired to developing the dead girl’s smile and expression. Even into the 1960’s, artists such as Man Ray were moved to fashion her mask into various sculptures and photos.1 But what puzzles today’s admirers of France’s most famous Jane Doe is how she could have drowned and not suffered from the scientifically documented effects of drowning such as bloating and immersion deformation. It is surprising that even today with the diatom test, which measures the type and amount of diatomic flora present in the blood stream of a supposed drowning victim, death by drowning is stubbornly difficult to prove.2 As the Department of Forensic Medicine at the University of Dundee points out, “There are no universally accepted diagnostic laboratory tests for drownings.”3 If the adolescent Jane Doe did not drown, there is the possibility that she suffered from a disastrous vagal response. Cardiovascular researchers at King’s College London recently documented their theory that “[c]old water submersion can induce a high incidence of cardiac arrhythmias in healthy volunteers. Submersion and the release of breath holding can activate two powerful and antagonistic responses: the cold shock response and the diving response. The former involves the activation of a sympathetically driven tachycardia while the latter promotes a parasympathetically mediated bradycardia. We propose that the strong and simultaneous activation of the two limbs of the autonomic nervous system (autonomic conflict) may account for these arrhythmias and may, in some vulnerable individuals, be responsible for deaths that have previously wrongly been ascribed to drowning or hypothermia.”4

John Adams is often credited with saying that “facts are stubborn things,” and facts seem to unfortunately indicate that the inconnue did not even suffer from the effects of immersion. According to the experts at Dundee, “Immersion artifacts occur in any corpse immersed in water, irrespective of whether death was from drowning or the person was dead on entering the water. Therefore, immersion artifacts do not contribute to proof of death by drowning.”3 Yet, most forensic scientists, even those still wet behind the ears, understand that the artifacts referred to by the University of Dundee are universally present in bodies retrieved after being immersed: “goose skin or anserina cutis [roughening] . . . skin maceration [swelling] or washer woman’s skin [and] adipocere which [transforms] the fatty layer beneath the skin into a soap like material.”3

The mystery thus seems to be not whether this beautiful young girl drowned, but was she ever even immersed? Worse, and not much farther down the forensic trail: is this a life mask being masqueraded as a death mask? To be sure, Hélène Pinet, whose synopsis of the lyrical and questionable story was used as the text for the Orsay museum exhibit showing the death mask, related to viewers that Jean Ducourneau had visited the very studio of the mouleur who had supposedly made the first casts of the mask. Ducourneau maintained that a relative of the cast maker revealed it to be the life mask of a beautiful model of the era. The original mouleur also supposedly pointed out that it would have been technically impossible to have such a face molded from a corpse.5 After all she has inspired in both poets and artists, the mask of l’inconnue is perhaps the very embodiment of those original Greek masks which often portrayed both the tragic and comic muses, Thalia and Melpomene. The masks prevented the audience from identifying a character as simply an actor or in this case, a beautiful victim from a mysterious muse.


  1. Zeidler, Anja. “Influence and Authenticity of L’Inconnue de la Seine.” www.williamgaddis.org. 2005. http://www.williamgaddis.org/recognitions/inconnue/.
  2. Piette, M.H, and E.A. De Letter. “Drowning: still a difficult autopsy diagnosis.” U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Institues of Health. November 10, 2006. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16378701.
  3. Pounder, Derrick J. “Department of Forensic Medicine Lecture Notes.” University of Dundee. 1992. http://www.dundee.ac.uk/forensicmedicine/notes/water.pdf.
  4. Shattuck, M.J., and M.J Tipton. “Autonomic Conflict: A Different Way to Die During Cold Water Immersion?” U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health. July 15, 2012. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22547634.
  5. Pinet, Helene. “L’eau, la femme, la mort: Le Mythe de l’Inconnue de la Seine.” Portraits/Visages. March 5, 2002. http://expositions.bnf.fr/portraits/grosplan/inconnue/index.htm.

JULIET BECKMAN HUBBELL, MA, teaches English literature and humanities at Arapahoe Community College and studied in France. Her work has appeared in Workers Write, JAMA: Journal of American Medical Association, Pure Slush, ACM: Another Chicago Magazine, Progenitor, and Midwest Quarterly. Her rendition of a medieval Black Forest fairy tale, “Saarbrucken Witch”, won this year’s British Fantasy Society’s Short Story Contest. Finding new subject matter with which to inspire students has the fortunate result of vignettes such as these.

Highlighted in Frontispiece Volume 7, Issue 2 – Spring 2015

Spring 2015



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