01 August 2013

The Affair of the Poisons

by Eve Fisher

Scandal!  Murder!  Secret poisons!  Death in high places!  Welcome to the 17th century, specifically the reign of King Louis XIV, the Sun King, or, as one of my students once put it, the first king to live as a rock star.

Marquise de Brinvilliers
(after torture, on her way to execution)

The year was 1676, and a middle-aged woman, the Marquise de Brinvilliers, mousy, quiet, of minor nobility and married to same, was arrested for trying to kill her husband.  The investigation concluded that she had poisoned her father, her two brothers, and various strangers in hospitals upon whom she'd experimented with various types of poisons.  She tried to flee the country, but she was arrested in Liege, and tried and tortured.  She was executed (beheaded, and then her body was burnt).  During her trial, supposedly, she talked about how unfair her execution was since everybody did it.

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Gabriel-Nicolas de la Reynie
And maybe they did.  The chief of police in Paris at the time was Gabriel-Nicolas La Reynie, rich, smart, urbane.  He cleaned up Paris, protected Protestants, and did a better job than most, or at least more of what we'd recognize as a police chief's job.  He'd been warned by a priest that a lot of people were confessing to poisoning their relatives.  The break came, however, at a party when a Madame Bosse got drunk and started talking about selling poison to the quality trade.  Someone reported it, and an undercover officer went to her later, bought a bottle of poison, and then arrested her.  She started squealing, and soon the authorities were arresting every fortuneteller, alchemist, and self-proclaimed witch or seer they could find.  And there were a lot of them.  Interrogations followed, and this is where it gets dicey, because the standard criminal justice procedures of the day called for questioning prisoners under torture.  Subjected to the water torture (16 pints poured down a funnel in the throat for starters), the boot, the rack, thumbscrews, pincers (sometimes red-hot) and other "standard methods", they named names galore.  And one of them was Madame Voison, self-proclaimed witch and fortuneteller to the stars.  (Think Nancy Reagan's astrologer; or Elizabeth I's Dr. Dee...)

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Madame Voison
At this point, La Reynie knew he was playing with very dangerous people, who quite literally could have HIM arrested for investigating them, so he went to Louvois, the Foreign Minister, who in turn went to the King, who agreed to a very private investigation so that they could hush up what needed to be hushed up and arrest those who needed to be arrested.  They created the "chambre ardente" ("burning court" - burning being the punishment for witches and witchcraft) to be the central investigation/court.   And names came tumbling out:  countesses, duchesses, counts and dukes.  Even people in the royal family.  The only one not named was Athenais de Mortemart, Madame de Montespan, either because Athenais didn't do more than have a few spells cast or because Voisin was scared of being charged with treason. 


Why treason?  Simple:  Madame de Montespan, daughter of one of the oldest families in France, was the then official mistress of Louis XIV, by whom she'd had 7 children.  Supposedly, it was La Voison who got M. de Montespan her place in the King's bed, because, despite her undoubted beauty, tremendous lineage, acknowledged wit, and extreme willingness, at first Louis just wasn't that into her.  It might have been that Louis was still besotted with Louise de la Valliere, it might have been that Louis didn't appreciate Athenais' incredibly sharp tongue, it might have been that he liked blondes better (who are we kidding, Louis liked everybody), but in any case, until La Voison (supposedly) arranged a Black Mass for Athenais, complete with blood, blasphemy, and spells - all performed on Athenais' nude body or so the rumor went - Louis didn't look her way.  After that, he was hooked on Athenais for years.

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Madame de Montespan
Now the truth is, there was never any proof of all the poisonings, spells, and witchcraft but the word of a group of tortured prisoners who all claimed to be witches.  (Yes, there were deaths - but people died suddenly and quickly all the time, from bad food, infections, blood poisoning, aneurisms, and everything else under the sun.  Remember, this is a world without antibiotics or vaccinations.)  But at the same time, Athenais did admit to buying love spells for Louis (he was not amused).  And even a love spell could be harmful, because no one was checking out the ingredient list - Louis remembered that he'd had terrible headaches during the time in question, although that could have been a retroactive reaction.  And poison of all sorts was widely available (as late as 1892 our own Lizzie Borden could walk into a store and expect to buy prussic acid over the counter), easy to manufacture, and widely used (arsenic and antimony and belladonna were all used for cosmetic as well as homicidal reasons).  And poison was instantly suspected in any sudden death.  When Louis' brother's wife, Madame (who, incidentally was another of the King's lovers - the man got around) died suddenly at the age of 26 in 1670, even she, as she was dying, believed she'd been poisoned and said so.  (Suspects included two of her husband's lovers; the primitive CSI team of the day performed an autopsy and concluded cholera morbus, a/k/a gastroenteritis; the dispute continues to this day.) 

The results of the Affair of Poisons were:  36 people burned to death after torture, 4 sent to the galleys, 36 banished or fined, 81 imprisoned by lettres de cachet.  A lettre de cachet was an unappealable, unexplained order signed by the king, locking someone away for life - it was frequently used by the nobility to imprison difficult relatives.  One of the ones who vanished was Eustache Dauger de Cavoye, who (like Athenais) had played around with Black Masses (on Good Friday, no less!) and other debauchery.  For a long time, he was believed to be the Man in the Iron Mask - but it's been proved that his family had him locked up in the Prison Saint-Lazare in Paris.   One of the most interesting trials was that of the Duchesse de Bouillon, who arrived in court surrounded by relations and fans, hand in hand with her husband and the lover for whom she was accused of trying to murder the Duc.  She was tart, saucy, pert, and laughed her way through the whole trial.  She was acquitted, but the King banished her anyway.   And there was the Marechal de Luxembourg, who was tried (for 14 months) for using spells to get rid of people, including his wife.  He was also acquitted but his secretary was sent to the galleys.  (More on the galleys next blog.)  The King banished Luxembourg for only a week before recalling him to command the King's armies. 

Basically, all the society people were acquitted, despite admitting that they'd been customers of La Voison - but only, they swore, for spells and love potions.  And then, under torture and threat of burning, Madame de Montespan's name was finally said - all the stuff about the Black Mass and love potions came out - and Louis XIV shut the chambre ardente down.  All those who had even whispered Montespan's name were put, by lettre de cachet, in solitary confinement for life, where they were whipped if they even spoke to their jailers, to prevent the mention even of her name.  Faced with a King who was determined to cover up everything (Louis XIV even burned all the records in his possession), La Reynie implied that he believed the worst when he said "the enormity of their crimes proved their safeguard."  We know as much as we do because La Reynie kept his copies of the records safely locked away until they were rediscovered a few centuries later.

Madame de Montespan - well, Louis forgave her.  At least to the point where he kept her at Versailles for 11 more years, until she finally left in 1691 for the Convent of St. Joseph, with a half a million francs annual pension. 

I'm also happy to tell you that the sale of poison was strictly controlled from then on (official date August 31, 1682).  Private laboratories were abolished, and all occult arts forbidden. 

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Olympe Mancini
But perhaps the most important result of the Affair of the Poisons is linked to another major society woman under suspicion, Comtesse de Soissons, Olympe Mancini.  A warrant was issued for her arrest in 1680, but the King warned her ahead of time that they were coming for her and she fled the country.  He said, later, that he would have to answer to God for that, but she was an old lover of his, and if she wasn't, her sister definitely was (there is no end to former lovers of King Louis XIV), and he had his own notions of gallantry.  She was suspected of killing her husband, and since she fled, people assumed she was guilty.  

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Prince Eugene
Anyway, her son, Prince Eugene of Savoy, never believed that she was guilty, and was so furious at his mother's exile that he renounced his French citizenship and joined the Austrian army under the Holy Roman Emperor Leopold I.  This was a disaster for Louis XIV, because the Hapsburgs and the Bourbons were mortal enemies, and Eugene was a military genius.  He served 3 successive HREs, and beat Louis like a gong in every battle in the War of the Spanish Succession.  Even more importantly in terms of European history as a whole, Eugene was a major player in the war to take back Vienna and Eastern Europe from the Ottoman Turks.  His most spectacular victory was the 1691 Battle of Zenta, where his casualties were 2,000 to the Turks' 25,000, as well as capturing the sultan's harem, treasure chest, and Imperial seal.  The peace treaty after that Battle restored Transylvania, Bosnia, and Hungary to the Austrian Empire and, thus, to Europe, and put an end to Ottoman expansion in Europe. 

So.  Poison.  Murder.  Scandal.  And we end up with a free Eastern Europe.   You figure it out.

NOTE:  For further reading, while there are an infinite number of books on Louis XIV, and a variety on the Affair of the Poisons, I recommend Nancy Mitford's, "The Sun King", which captures perfectly the breathless, "Entertainment Tonight!", celebrity-obsessed world of 17th century France. 

8 comments:

Fran Rizer said...

Great way to start the day - a good cup of coffee and a dose of history made palatable by Eve's style. Poison is an interesting subject and you have the ability to make those years sound like an ancient Peyton Place!

Eve Fisher said...

They were, Fran, they were.

David Dean said...

Another wonderful article, Eve--absolutely fascinating stuff! The wrap-up reminds me of the famous line from "The Third Man" reference the Borgias producing the Renaissance.

Anonymous said...

My favorite poison has always been digitalis and its derivatives. Unless the coroner is looking for it, it never shows up, leaving the death looking like a heart attack.

R.T. Lawton said...

Eve, loved the article. Thanks for a veritable gold mine of people and incidents I can now research for my 1660's Paris Underworld series in AHMM. Can hardly wait for the following blogs on that era.

Eve Fisher said...

Thank you, thank you. One more blog for sure is coming on the galleys; and I'm thinking we have to revisit my least favorite queen in history, Mary Queen of Scots, and her exploding husband. The nice thing (?) about history is that it's just so full of murder, gossip, violence, sex, power grabs, and every other criminal activity. The possibilities are endless!

Robert Lopresti said...

Great piece. Reminded me of I Claudius and the lovely scene of Empress Livia amiably comparing notes about poisons with a peasant who is an expert in the field.

Leigh Lundin said...

Eve, I love your historical pieces. Keep them coming!