L'Inconnue de la Seine

The discovery of the body of a young woman in the Seine was in itself unremarkable, and yet her identity and the circumstances surrounding her death haunted the popular imagination for nearly a century, until this photograph came to light in Latin America.

Moved by her beauty and serenity, an attendant at the city morgue had taken a death mask from her face and later mass-produced, it became a curio to be seen in houses across France. A number of writers fabricated fictions around her life and Man Ray even attempted a photographic resurrection, but to no avail, the puzzle remained intractable.

It was whilst in Buenos Aires, attending a conference dedicated to Jorge Luis Borges on The Myth of the Gaucho, that Dr. Harry Battley found this carte-de-visite in a junk shop. The face seemed familiar and on returning to London he referred to his copy of Das ewige Antlitz and confirmed that this was indeed the young woman found in the Seine. His curiosity roused, Battley determined to solve the mystery of her untimely death.

Two clues within the picture proved vital to his enquiry - the brooch worn by the woman and a contaminating fingerprint in the fabric of the photograph that had become more visible with time. Battley's researches led him to the discovery that the setting had been designed by society jeweller Marcus Villard for a wealthy bon viveur named Roland Vittes. Battley visited Vittes' elderly daughter, who rather naively permitted him access to her parents papers, amongst which he found a note from husband to wife, vehemently denying acquaintance with 'the Hungarian woman Ewa Lazlo'. Further enquiries confirmed that a music-hall artist of that name, whose description fitted the photograph, had performed at the Theatre de Funambules during the summer in question. Although the identity of L'inconnue seemed now to be established, the circumstances of her death were not.

Battley naturally began his investigations into the fingerprint at the records office of the Prefecture de Police in Paris but was disappointed to learn that they had not started taking prints until 1913. An unexpected piece of good fortune awaited his return to Argentina; records went back to 1894 and the print was matched to that of a convicted blackmailer, Louis Argon. It was Argon's bad fortune that on fleeing France he should pick Buenos Aires, where the Croatian immigrant Juan Vucetich was already operating his comparative fingerprinting system within the police department. Dr. Battley asserts that Argon escaped the country after a failed attempt to blackmail Vittes about his liaison with the actress. The long held belief that L'Inconnue committed suicide now appears less likely than that she met her end at the hands of Louis Argon.

The records in Buenos Aires also reveal that Argon was murdered in the last year of the century, knifed in a bar-room brawl by a gaucho.


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