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The Most Terrifying Things to Be Pulled Out of France’s Rivers

You won't want to get a pinky near France's rivers after reading this.

A kayaking holiday down the Dordogne in western France sounds idyllic. The Seine, which flows from northwest of Dijon through Paris to meet the English Channel in Normandy, has inspired many a song and formed the backdrop for some of the most famous romantic films in the world. And it’s difficult to think of a holiday more perfect than sipping a chilled glass of Sancerre alongside the Loire with the crystal clear reflection of châteaux mirrored in the river. But what if we told you that the scariest sights in France weren’t to be found among the grinning skulls of Paris’s catacombs, but in the country’s waterways? You won’t believe what has been fished out of the rivers.

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Bodies, Bodies, Bodies

In the days before freezers, dead bodies kicked up a stink. The Grand Hôtel-Dieu in Lyon, a vast hospital dating from the 12th century, could accommodate a thousand patients by the 19th century, and needless to say, not all made it out alive. City authorities decided to create a floating morgue on a peniche on the Rhône, which, as well as storing bodies offshore, offered an alternative to the local art gallery for family days out (nothing screams bonding time like going to see a boatload of decaying bodies oozing bodily fluids into the river). The morgue-peniche was short-lived, and a huge flood in 1852 sent the cadavers to a watery grave. A new peniche was built, which deposited a second cargo of rotting corpses into the Rhône during a flood in 1910, which finally forced the Lyonnais authorities to admit that a floating morgue wasn’t a great idea.

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Eleanor may be the sort of cute and cuddly name you’d give to a fluffy kitten, but it’s also the name of a Nile crocodile who lived in the sewers of Paris during the 1980s, feasting on rats. Although she was effective in controlling Paris’s rat population, it was decided that a crocodile in the belly of Paris was a health and safety risk, so Eleanor was transferred to an aquarium in Vannes, Brittany, where she lived out her retirement in an enclosure decorated like a Parisian sewer to help her to feel at home, before transferring to a crocodile farm in Pierrelatte. Tourists were able to visit her right up until her death in June 2021.

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Weil’s Disease

An illness caused by rats (maybe they should have introduced a rat-eating crocodile), the early stages of Weil’s Disease are difficult to detect and produces flu-like symptoms. As it progresses it becomes much more serious and can cause meningitis, jaundice, and kidney failure. A campsite manager was hospitalized after catching the disease on the Céou River in the popular tourist region of the Dordogne, cleaning the creek by his campsite. The river was temporarily closed for swimming.


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Enemies of the Republic

After the creation of the First Republic during the French Revolution came the Reign of Terror (September 1793—July 1794). Over the course of just 10 months, more than 16,000 people were accused of being Royalist sympathizers, or not supporting the Revolution, including a large number of Catholic monks and nuns. They were sentenced to death, largely by guillotine, but Jean-Baptiste Carrier, the representative-on-mission in Nantes, Brittany, preferred a different method. He was responsible for drowning some 4,000 men, women, and children in the Loire at Nantes, a mass killing that led Carrier himself to refer to the Loire as “the national bathtub.”

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A Python

It would seem that Parisians have much in common with Tiger King star Joe Exotic when it comes to their penchant for exotic pets. In 2016, the Paris River Patrol fished out an immense, headless python from the current. Even without the head it was 10 feet long and weighed a whopping 84 pounds. They believed that the snake had been a domestic pet that had grown too big, and so its owners had unceremoniously disposed of it in the river.

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Toxic Waste

Sadly, there have been several instances of toxic waste in French waterways, from uranium leaks to fluoride pollution. In southwest France, in the Orbiel Valley, the problem is ongoing. The town of Salsigne was home to several gold and arsenic mines, and when the mines closed, some 12 million tonnes of arsenic were buried under two of the hills in the valley. Government funding allowed for a protective waterproof membrane to be built around one of the hills to contain the waste, but on the other, no membrane exists so the water is collected and treated instead. It’s not such an efficient method: only approximately 20% of the arsenic is collected and the other 80% is left to run straight back into the river.

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World War II Bullet Casings

Every 10 to 15 years, the municipality of Paris drains the city’s Canal-Saint-Martin. With each drainage, a considerable amount of trash and a few treasures are found. Since the draining is semi-regular, much of the items found are general household waste, and a considerable number of bicycles and shopping trolleys, but in 2001 the team engaged in draining the water found a car, a bathtub, several gold coins, and…two shells dating from the First World War.


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A Corpse That Inspired Art

Now this one is decidedly creepy. L’Inconnue de la Seine, or The Unknown Woman of the Seine, was the body of a young woman pulled out of the River Seine in the 1880s. A pathologist at the Paris Morgue was so struck by her beauty that he decided to make a wax plaster cast of her face (imagine the awkwardness explaining that wall decor to dinner guests). Many artists recreated the plaster cast and it became a fashionable home feature. Writer Albert Camus likened the girl’s enigmatic smile to the Mona Lisa, and in the late 1950s, the woman’s face was used to model the head of the CPR mannequin Resusci Anne, meaning that L’Inconnue de la Seine is now often referred to as the most kissed face of all time.


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The Victims of “The Swamp Killer”  

David Lefèvre, a 20th-century serial killer, liked to dispose of his victims in a nearby swamp, earning him the name “The Swamp Killer.” Born in an unstable family in 1980 and subjected to physical and psychological abuse, Lefèvre was placed with a foster family when he was 8 years old. At 19, he committed his first murder. He was arrested but released just three years later. In 2011, he attacked his friend with a baseball bat and disposed of his body in a swamp. The body wasn’t discovered until a month later when the cause of death was difficult to determine. A few months later, Lefèvre shot the boyfriend of one of his friends, and once again disposed of the body in the swamp. It was to be his undoing. When the police discovered the body, they realized the two cases might be connected. Lefèvre was sentenced to life imprisonment.

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A Testicle-Eating Fish

In 2013, a Parisian fisherman caught what he believed to be a carp or a catfish, but on closer inspection of how it had mangled his fishing tackle, he spotted a row of extremely sharp-looking teeth. Upon contacting the river police, the fish was identified as a pacu, a type of piranha that usually lives in fresh water in South America.  

Generally the pacu feasts on a diet of nuts and fruits that have fallen into the water, but when hungry, they’ve been known to bite through a man’s testicles, and fishermen in Papua New Guinea have even been reported to have bled to death following a testicular bite. It’s thought that the pacu had been kept as a domestic pet, because who would want a gerbil when you could have a fish that likes to chow down on genitalia?