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The Weird Aryan History Series

Lesson #40: The Affair of the Poisons (1679)

Louis XIV, France's Sun King, had the longest reign in European history, from 1643 to 1715—72 years. During this time he brought absolute monarchy to its height, established a glittering court at Versailles, and fought most of the other European countries in four wars. He added more territory permanently to France than did Napoleon.

The early personal reign of Louis was highly successful in both internal and foreign affairs. Breaking with tradition, Louis excluded from his council members of his immediate family, great princes, and others of the old military nobility (noblesse d'epee); his reliance on the newer judicial nobility (noblesse de robe). Local government was increasingly placed under removable intendants. At home Louis created what we would call today a dictatorship, replacing the old feudal order. The parliaments lost their traditional power to obstruct legislation; the judicial structure was reformed by the codes of civil procedure (1667) and criminal procedure (1669), although the overlapping and confusing laws were left untouched. Urban law enforcement was improved by creation (1667) of the office of lieutenant general of police for Paris, later imitated in other towns.

This becomes important when the Affair of the Poisons is discussed; France was the only country in Europe in the seventeenth century that had anything we would recognize today as a police force.

Money was lavished on buildings. In Paris the Louvre was essentially completed with the classical colonnade by Claude Perrault. At Versailles, Louis XIII's hunting lodge was transformed into a remarkable palace and park, which were copied by Louis's fellow monarchs across Europe. When the king moved permanently to Versailles in 1682, an elaborate court etiquette was established that had the aristocracy, including former rebel princes, vying to participate in Louis's rising (leve) and retiring (couche). These ceremonies led to the saying that, at a distance, one could tell what was happening at the palace merely by glancing at an almanac and a watch.

The turning point in Louis's reign between the earlier grandeur and the later disasters came after Colbert's death (1683). In 1685 the king took the disastrous step of revoking the Protestant minority's right to worship by revoking the Edict of Nantes. Many Huguenots—who constituted an industrious segment of French society—left the country, taking with them considerable capital as well as skills. In addition Louis's display of religious intolerance helped unite the Protestant powers of Europe against the Sun King.

For a time in the third quarter of the seventeenth century, Louis's France reigned supreme, all the world reflecting the Sun King's glory. But at the heart, Louis's empire was rotten. The Affair of the Poisons, as it was known, was a scandal at which all France trembled and which horrified the whole of Europe as it implicated a number of prominent persons at the court of Louis XIV in wild orgies, murder by poison, abortion and the sacrifice of infants in Satanic rituals, and black magic directed against the King himself.

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It began with the trial of Marie Madeleine d'Aubray, Marquise de Brinvilliers, who conspired with her lover, Godin de Sainte-Croix, an army captain, to poison her father and two brothers in order to secure the family fortune and to end interference in her adulterous relationship.

Sainte-Croix was a rake, a spendthrift, an occultist and alchemist, a kind of seventeenth-century mad scientist who whipped up his own poisons in his own fully equipped laboratory, where he wore a special mask of leather and glass rather like a modern gas mask while he brewed his lethal concoctions. The beautiful Marquise developed a reputation for charity by visiting hospitals for the poor and bringing them dainty delicacies to eat; no one seems to have noticed that most of her patients died soon after her visits. What she was doing was testing Sainte-Croix's poisons out on live subjects.

The two murderous lovers were finally discovered when Sainte-Croix's mask slipped off one day while he was doing some kind of experiment that produced poison gas, and he collapsed and perished before he could get out of the room. The police found all kinds of incriminating documents and letters from Marie in his rooms; apparently the charming fellow was blackmailing his paramour to make sure he got his share of the family loot.

The marquise fled abroad, but in 1676 was located at Liège. She had gone to ground in a convent on the Austrian Netherlands side of the border. Not only was she out of French jurisdiction, but she was on holy ground and good Catholic that he was, Louis XIV refused to countenance any forcible raid to snatch her out of her sanctified lair. The commander of the Paris police, Lieutenant General Nicholas de la Reynie, therefore sent one of his boldest detectives—Captain Desgrez—with orders to somehow or other get the murdering Marquise in custody on French soil.

The captain disguised himself as a priest, gained entry to the convent, and managed to become the Marquise's confessor. Apparently the Paris cop was a handsome young man and Marie still had a yen for such; he declared himself madly and passionately in love with her, but what with him allegedly being a priest and all, he could not possibly defile the sacred precincts of the convent with his carnal lust. He managed to lure Marie out of the convent, with her expecting a one-night stand of priestly passion. He then threw her into a sealed carriage which pelted pell-mell for the border, and by morning she was back in France and on her way to Paris under arrest.

The affair greatly worked on the popular imagination, and there were rumors that she had tried out her poisons on hospital patients. At her trial she was scornful and insolent, which did her no good. She was subjected to the agonizing water torture to make her confess, then sentenced to death. Being a noblewoman she was not hanged on a gallows along with the peasantry, but she was beheaded with a sword by a black-masked executioner in best theatrical style, and her body was then burned.

The Brinvilliers trial attracted attention to other mysterious deaths. Parisian society had long been seized by a fad for spiritualist séances, fortune-telling, and the use of love potions, and the mortality rate among wealthy older men in the capital was becoming truly alarming, producing a bevy of wealthy young widows beyond the statistical norm. In 1679 things got so bad that the Catholic Church unofficially contacted the Paris police to inform them that, although they could not violate the secrets of the confessional in specific cases, a frightening number of women were confessing to their priests that they had poisoned their husbands, fathers, brothers, and other relatives for their inheritances.

The most celebrated case was that of La Voisin, a midwife and fortune-teller whose real name was Catherine Deshayes Monvoisin. Among her clients were Olympe Mancini, Comtesse de Soissons, who sought the death of the king's mistress, Louise de la Valliere; Mme. de Montespan, Mme de Gramont (la belle Hamilton), the Marechal de Luxembourg, and others. Her husband, Monvoisin, was an unsuccessful jeweler, and she practiced chiromancy and palm-reading to retrieve their fortunes. She gradually added the practice of witchcraft, in which she had the help of a renegade priest, Etienne Guibourg, whose part was the celebration of the Black Mass, an abominable parody in which the host was compounded of the blood of a little child mixed with horrible ingredients. She practiced medicine, especially midwifery, procured abortion and provided love powders and poisons.

Her chief accomplice was one of her lovers, the magician Lesage, whose real name was Adam Coeuret. The great ladies of Paris flocked to La Voisin, who accumulated enormous wealth. The bones of toads, the teeth of moles, cantharides, iron filings, human blood and human dust were among the ingredients of the love powders concocted by La Voisin. The art of poisoning had become a regular science. The death of Henrietta, duchess of Orleans, was attributed to poison, and it is unknown how many people of lesser rank were murdered in this manner.

The Paris police chief de la Reynie was extremely concerned about the rumors of mass poisoning, which by now were floating all over Europe and worse yet, had reached the ear of the King, who was asking pointed questions. But he was working in the dark. All he had to go on were wild and unsubstantiated tales and a few whispered names, among them that of La Voisin. Once again he called upon the expertise of Desgrez—only this time it was the talented police captain's equally intrepid, beautiful young wife, Solange.

Solange Desgrez became the first undercover policewoman known to history. She went to La Voisin's shop, ostensibly selling soaps and perfumes, and managed to worm her way into the poisoner's confidence. Solange played the part of a giddy young married woman with a secret lover and a rich, elderly husband she wanted to get rid of, and she succeeded in making "buys" of several lethal quantities of potent poisons from Catherine Deshayes, who by now seems to have become overconfident in her immunity and the protection of her powerful patrons.

In April of 1679 de la Reynie swooped in history's first organized crime raid. A small army of police and soldiers kicked in doors all over Paris and arrested dozens of people in connection with crimes ranging from fraud, fortune-telling, and keeping illegal drinking and gambling houses all the way up to murder, blasphemy, witchcraft, and treason. A special court, the Chambre Ardente [Burning Chamber], was instituted to judge cases of poisoning and witchcraft. Some of the sessions were held in secret, but others were public, and despite the lack of Court TV, Greta Van Susteren and Nancy Grace, the world watched in fascination as the gilded denizens of Versailles and the highest nobles in the land were hauled into court alongside the most sordid dregs of the Paris underworld.

In an even further similarity to present times, none of the celebrity accused or witnesses was punished, although some like the Comtesse de Soissons endured one session of grilling questions from de la Reynie and the stern judges and fled the country, never to return. It was said that at night the cobbled streets of Paris rang with the horses' hooves and wheels of the carriages of noble ladies fleeing the city and heading for their country estates, or for the frontiers of the kingdom to get beyond the Chambre Ardente's reach. No serious effort was ever made to arrest or try them, but the thrifty King Louis fined many of his nobles huge sums and in some cases confiscated all their property due to their wives' indiscretions.

The wretched criminal element was left holding the bag, and they got it in the neck. La Voisin was burned alive after excruciating torture, after watching her husband hanged before her eyes. Her lover Lesage died in prison from maltreatment. Her daughter was dropped into a hole in the floor of the Bastille and never seen alive again. Dozens of other suspected witches and poisoners were burned at the stake or broken on the wheel. The Abbe Guiborg and other satanic priests were all made off with, either immured in dungeons for the rest of their lives or in Guiborg's case sent to the galleys where he died under the lash chained to an oar.

The immunity which noble ladies enjoyed who had bought poison from the witches, who had attended Black Masses, or given up their illegitimate infants for sacrifice by the devilish priests did not extend to those of lesser social status, the wives and daughters of tradesmen or merchants or artisans who had done the same thing. Throughout the early 1680s the Place de la Grève sometimes almost presaged the events of a hundred years later, only in place of a guillotine there were blackened stakes and the swaying bodies of women and girls hanged in rows on gallows around the square. It is not known how many people were executed in the Chambre Ardente purge, but it is believed to be several hundred.

The proceedings lasted for three years, and finally ended when they got too close to the throne itself. During a number of secret sessions, some under torture, it became clear that the King's reigning mistress, Madame de Montespan, when she felt her beauty fading and her power over the monarch slipping, had plotted to recover his affections by black magic, up to and including arranging for Black Masses wherein a baby was sacrificed and her own naked body served as the infernal altar. When this didn't keep the King's eye from wandering, in her increasingly frantic jealous rage, she hatched a conspiracy to poison Louis XIV, apparently being willing to administer the poison with her own hand.

This scandal was too much for Louis to bear, and on July 21st, 1682 he closed down the Chambre Ardente and ordered de la Reynie to seal all of its most sensitive documents up in a black mahogany chest, which the King then took personal possession of and sealed with his own seal. Madame de Montespan was quietly but firmly banished from court. Supposedly, after one terrible confrontation in Versailles between Montespan, the King, and de la Reynie, Louis swore that he would never again be alone in her presence, and he kept the vow for the rest of his life.

Twenty years afterward, in 1712, after everyone involved but himself was dead, an aging and dying Louis XIV summoned his ministers and ordered a fire lit in the conference chamber, even though it was mid-summer. In their presence opened the black casket containing the damning documents and testimony which had revealed the rottenness in his most glorious hour. Then he fed all the papers one by one into the flames.