Affair of the Poisons

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Catherine Deshayes, "La Voisin", 17th-century print of her portrait held by a winged devil.
Gabriel-Nicolas de la Reynie (1625–1709), 17th century print by Mignard.
Marie Madeleine Marguerite d'Aubray, Marquise of Brinvilliers, 1676, after her imprisonment, portrait by Charles LeBrun.

The Affair of the Poisons (l'affaire des poisons) was a major murder scandal in France during the reign of King Louis XIV. Between 1677 and 1682, a number of prominent members of the aristocracy were implicated and sentenced on charges of poisoning and witchcraft. The scandal reached into the inner circle of the king. It led to the execution of 36 people.

Context and origin[edit]

The case began in 1675 after the trial of Madame de Brinvilliers, who was accused of having conspired with her lover, army captain Godin de Sainte-Croix, to poison her father Antonine Dreux d'Aubray in 1666 and two of her brothers, Antoine d'Aubray and François d'Aubray, in 1670, in order to inherit their estates. There were also rumours that she had poisoned poor people during her visits in hospitals.

After being accused, she fled but was arrested in Liège. Madame de Brinvilliers was tortured and confessed, was sentenced to death, and on 17 July was tortured with the water cure (forced to drink sixteen pints of water), beheaded, and her body burned at the stake. Her alleged accomplice Sainte-Croix did not face charges because he had died of natural causes in 1672.

The sensational trial drew attention to a number of other mysterious deaths, starting a number of rumours. Prominent people, including Louis XIV, became alarmed that they might be poisoned.

Implications and investigation[edit]

The affair proper opened in February 1677 after the arrest of Magdelaine de La Grange on charges of forgery and murder. La Grange appealed to François Michel Le Tellier, Marquis of Louvois, claiming that she had information about other crimes of high importance. Louvois reported to the king, who told Gabriel Nicolas de la Reynie, who, among other things, was the chief of the Paris police, to root out the poisoners. La Reynie sought to calm the king. The subsequent investigation of potential poisoners led to accusations of witchcraft, murder and more.

Authorities rounded up a number of fortune tellers and alchemists who were suspected of selling not only divinations, séances and aphrodisiacs, but also "inheritance powders" (a euphemism for poison). Some of them confessed under torture and gave authorities lists of their clients, who had allegedly bought poison to get rid of their spouses or rivals in the royal court.

The most famous case was that of the midwife Catherine Deshayes Monvoisin or La Voisin, who was arrested in 1679 after she was incriminated by the poisoner Marie Bosse. La Voisin implicated a number of important individuals in the French court. These included Olympia Mancini, the Countess of Soissons, her sister, the Duchess of Bouillon, François Henri de Montmorency, Duke of Luxembourg and, most importantly, the king's mistress, Madame de Montespan.

Questioned while intoxicated,[1] La Voisin claimed that Montespan had bought aphrodisiacs and performed black masses with her in order to gain and keep the king's favour over rival lovers. She had worked with a priest named Étienne Guibourg. There was no evidence beyond her confessions, but bad reputations followed these people afterwards. Eleanor Herman, in her book Sex with Kings, claims that the police, given reports of "babies' bones", uncovered the remains of 2,500 infants in La Voisin's garden.[2] However, Anne Somerset disputes this in her book The Affair of the Poisons and states there is no mention of the garden being searched for human remains.[3]

Also involved in the scandal was Eustache Dauger de Cavoye, the eldest living scion of a prominent noble family. Cavoye was disinherited by his family when, in an act of debauchery, he chose to celebrate Good Friday with a black mass. Upon his disinheritance, he opened a lucrative trade in "inheritance powders" and aphrodisiacs. He mysteriously disappeared after the abrupt ending of Louis's official investigation in 1678. Because of this and his name, he was once suspected of being the Man in the Iron Mask. However, this theory has fallen out of favour because it is now known that he was imprisoned by his family in 1679 in the Prison Saint-Lazare.

The end of the trial[edit]

La Voisin was sentenced to death for witchcraft and poisoning, and burned at the stake on 22 February 1680. Marshal Montmorency-Bouteville was briefly jailed in 1680, but was later released and became a captain of the guard. Minister Jean-Baptiste Colbert helped to hush things up.

De La Reynie re-established the special court, the Chambre Ardente ("burning court"), to judge cases of poisoning and witchcraft. It investigated a number of cases, including many connected to nobles and courtiers in the king's court. Over the years, the court sentenced 34 people to death for poisoning or witchcraft. Two died under torture and several courtiers were exiled. The court was abolished in 1682, because the king could not risk the publicity of such scandal. To this, Police Chief Reynie said "the enormity of their crimes proved their safeguard."

Aftermath[edit]

Perhaps the most important effect of the scandal and subsequent persecutions was the expulsion from France of the Countess of Soissons. Her son remained in France, only to find that his mother's high-profile disgrace prevented him from realising his personal ambitions, as he was effectively barred from pursuing a military career. He would eventually leave France, nurturing a profound grudge against Louis XIV, and enter the service of France's sworn enemies, the Habsburgs. Prince Eugene of Savoy, or Prinz Eugen, would, in time, come to be known as one of the greatest generals of the age and one of the factors behind the failure of Louis's bid for hegemony in Europe.

Condemned in the Poison Affair[edit]

The Poison Affair implicated 442 suspects: 367 orders of arrests were issued, of which 218 were carried out. Of the condemned, 36 were executed; five were sentenced to the galleys; and 23 to exile. This excludes those who died in custody by torture or suicide. Additionally, many accused were never brought to trial, but placed outside of the justice system and imprisoned for life by a lettre de cachet.

Of the people who were condemned to perpetual imprisonment by lettre de cachet, six women were imprisoned at Château de Villefranche; 18 men at Château de Salces; 12 women at Belle-Île-en-Mer; ten men at Château de Besançon; 14 women at St Andre de Salins; and five women at Fort de Bains.

Professionals[edit]

This lists people involved in the Poison Affair by being professionally involved in criminal activity. Their punishment is mentioned after their name and role.

Name Role Punishment
Roger, Siegneur de Bachimont alchemist, associate of Louis de Vanens perpetual imprisonment by lettre de cachet at St. Andre de Salins
Marie de Bachimont alchemist, associate of Louis de Vanens, spouse of Roger de Bachimont perpetual imprisonment by lettre de cachet at St. Andre de Salins.
Mathurin Barenton poisoner executed in September 1681
La Belliére fortune teller perpetual imprisonment by lettre de cachet
François Belot associate of La Voisin executed in June 1679
Martine Bergerot fortune teller  
Betrand poisoner, associate of La Voisin perpetual imprisonment by lettre de cachet at Château de Salces
Denis Poculot, Sieur de Blessis alchemist, lover of La Voisin condemned to the galleys
Marie Bosse fortune teller, poisoner burned at the stake 8 May 1679
Marie Bouffet abortionist, associate of Marguerite Joly hanged in December 1681
Pierre Cadelan associate of Vanens perpetual imprisonment by lettre de cachet (d. September 1684)
Jeanne Chanfrain lover of Guibourg
Magdelaine Chapelain fortune teller, associate of Filastre perpetual imprisonment by lettre de cachet at Belle-Île-en-Mer (1658-d. June 1724); the last condemned to die, of those whose date of death is known
Anne Cheron (fruit seller) provider of objects for magic rituals executed in June 1679
Jacques Cotton officiate at the black masses, associate of La Voisin executed by burning in 1680
P. Dalmas associate of La Chaboissiere sent to a workhouse.
Giles Davot officiate at the black masses, associate of La Voisin executed in 1681
Etienne Debray associate of Deschault executed in September 1681
Marguerite Delaporte poisoner, associate of La Voisin perpetual imprisonment by lettre de cachet at Belle-Île-en-Mer
Jacques Deschault (shepherd) magician executed in 1681
Louison Desloges associate of Marguerite Joly hanged in December 1681
La Dodée poisoner committed suicide in prison
Louise Duscoulcye lover of Dalmas, poisoner  
Françoise Filastre poisoner executed in 1680
Louis Galet poisoner perpetual imprisonment by lettre de cachet at Château de Besançon
Mme Guesdon poisoner perpetual imprisonment by lettre de cachet (1640–d. August 1717)
Étienne Guibourg officiate at the black masses, associate of La Voisin perpetual imprisonment by lettre de cachet at Château de Besançon
Marguerite Joly fortune teller, poisoner executed by burning in December 1681
Latour (stonemason) associate of la Voisin perpetual imprisonment by lettre de cachet at Château de Salces
Catherine Lepère abortionist executed in June 1679
Adam Lesage magician, officiate at black masses, associate of La Voisin perpetual imprisonment by lettre de cachet at Château de Besançon
Catherine Leroy associate of La Voisin and la Chaboissiere perpetual imprisonment by lettre de cachet at Belle-Île-en-Mer
Jeanne Leroux associate of la Voisin executed in April 1680
Margot (servant of la Voisin) perpetual imprisonment by lettre de cachet at St. Andre de Salins
François Mariotte (abbe) associate of la Voisin and Lesage died in prison in 1682
Anne Meline poisoner, associate of Marguerite Joly hanged in December 1681
François Boucher, Vitomte de Montmayor astrologer from Luxembourg perpetual imprisonment by lettre de cachet at Château de Salces
Marguerite Monvoisin daughter of La Voisin perpetual imprisonment by lettre de cachet at Belle-Île-en-Mer
Christophe Moreau (shepherd) magician, poisoner executed in September 1681
Romani poisoner, associate of La Voisin perpetual imprisonment by lettre de cachet at Château de Besançon
La Pelletière fortune teller, provider of children for black masses, associate of La Voisin perpetual imprisonment by lettre de cachet at Belle-Île-en-Mer
Maitre Pierre poisoner perpetual imprisonment by lettre de cachet
Anne Poligny poisoner executed in July 1681
La Poignard participated in arranging black masses perpetual imprisonment by lettre de cachet
La Poulain associate of La Voisin perpetual imprisonment by lettre de cachet at Belle-Île-en-Mer
Catherine Trianon poisoner, associate of La Voisin committed suicide in prison in early 1681
La Salomond poisoner perpetual imprisonment by lettre de cachet
Denise Sandosme poisoner executed by hanging in July 1681
Louis de Vanens alchemist perpetual imprisonment by lettre de cachet at St. Andre de Salins, (d. December 1691)
Vautier poisoner and associate of la Voisin perpetual imprisonment by lettre de cachet
Marie Vigoreaux associate of La Bosse died under torture in May 1679
La Voisin fortune teller, poisoner burned at the stake 22 February 1680
Jean Bartholominat La Chaboissiere valet of Louis de Vanens the last executed in the Affair of the Poisons 16 July 1682

Clients[edit]

This lists people involved in the Poison Affair by being clients of the professionals above. Their punishment is mentioned after their name and role.

Name Client of ... Punishment
Benigne, Marquise de Alluye La Voisin fled country to avoid trial; was later allowed to return
Pierre Bonnard, secretary of duc de Luxembourg Lesage condemned to the galleys in May 1680
Marie Brissart La Voisin and Lesage fined and exiled
Marie de Broglio, Marquise de Canilhac La Voisin never brought to trial
Anne Carada Deschault and Debray executed 25 June 1681
Louis de Guilhem de Castelnau, marquis de Cessac Lesage fled country to avoid trial; returned in 1691
Mme Cottard Lesage admonished and fined
Mme Desmaretz Lesage fined
Françoise de Dreux La Voisin exiled from the capital, but the exile was never enforced
Madeleine de la Ferte, Marechale (d. 1720) La Voisin discharged
Antoine de Pas, Marquis de Feuquieres (d. 1711) La Voisin never brought to trial
Madame Ferry La Voisin executed in May 1679
Marguerite Leféron La Voisin exiled from the capital and fined
Mme Lescalopier Poligny and Sandosme left country to avoid trial
Jean Maillard Moreau executed in February 1682
Olympe Mancini, Comtesse de Soissons La Voisin exiled
Marie Anne Mancini, Duchesse de Bouillon La Voisin banishment to the provinces
François Henri de Montmorency-Bouteville, duc de Luxembourg La Voisin freed
Marquise de Montespan La Voisin never tried
Madame Philbert, earlier Brunet (wife of Philippe Rebille Philbert) La Voisin hanged
Jaqqueline du Roure, vicomtesse de Polignac (d. 1720) La Voisin and Lesage fled country to avoid trial; returned 1686 but banished from the capital
Marguerite de Poulaillon Marie Bosse imprisoned in a convent
Claude Marie du Roure La Voisin and Lesage discharged in March 1680, but banished from the capital
Marie Louise Charlotte, Princesse de Tingry La Voisin discharged
Marie Vertemart La Voisin sentenced to a workhouse
Antoinette, Duchess de Vivonne La Voisin and Filastre never brought to trial

Similar incidents[edit]

In October 1702 Marie-Anne de La Ville was arrested for having created a new organisation similar to the one of la Voisin, but because of Affair of the Poisons, she and her colleagues were never brought to trial, but imprisoned without trial on a lettre de cachet.

In fiction[edit]

The organisation of La Voisin and the Affair of the Poisons is portrayed in a novel by Judith Merkle Riley: The Oracle Glass (1994).

The Affair of the Poisons is the leading thread throughout the second season of the French-Canadian TV series Versailles. The series shows the courtiers being intoxicated with the powders and potions; even Madame de Montespan is portrayed as having a major role in the poisonings. In the fictionalization, La Voisin was altered to the character Agathe.

References[edit]

  1. ^ Ravaisson 1870–1874, Volume VI 1679–1681
  2. ^ Herman, Eleanor (2009). Sex with Kings: 500 Years of Adultery, Power, Rivalry, and Revenge. HarperCollins. p. 113. ISBN 978-0-06-175155-4.
  3. ^ Somerset 2003, p. 162

Text[edit]

Video[edit]

  • Madmen / Murderers / Sorcery / Warmongers. Royal Secrets. 2. Discovery Channel. 1996. ASIN B000CNT8MQ.