I did but deceive your eyes
with antic gesture, when one news
straight came huddling on another
of death and death and death,
Still I danced forward.
She was called “the wickedest woman in the world” by one of her doomed lovers, an opinion shared by the Marquise de Sevigne, her near neighbor, who commented: “Medea has not done worse.” Yet, to all appearances, she began life under the most favorable circumstances, the very pampered daughter of the nobility of the robe, those skilled counsellors who governed France and administered the law. As the marquise also said: “She is related to half the lawyers in Paris.” A very useful relationship, one imagines, in case of trouble. As the lady herself must have thought.
Not only was her d’Aubray family influential, it was rich; a town house in Paris, a chateau in Picardie, a splendid carriage and a retinue of servants to cater to every whim. Born on the 22nd of July, the day of the Magdalene, 1630, Marie-Madeleine d’Aubray was endowed as well with considerable beauty.
Even in her most desperate time, a priest assigned to comfort her, and expecting perhaps to encounter a depraved wretch, found instead “a very little woman, with beautiful dark-gold hair, a round lovely face, gentle and quite beautiful blue eyes, a skin extraordinarily white and a nose well-formed.”
Nonplussed at first, the Abbé Pirot later discovered that this angelic vision could be abruptly transformed.”However sweet her face normally appeared, when some remembered chagrin struck her imagination she had such a grimace as to frighten and from time to time I perceived spasms of disdain, indignation and defiance.”
The observant priest had summed up in a few lines the best impression of this fascinating contradictory woman. In her own time, she bewildered people, her family first, her lovers and peers, the judges of the high court who passed sentence upon her. No one could understand how such a lovely little person, from such a privileged background, had turned into a creature of horror and death. It was enough to make the angels weep as in fact it did her judges.
One man, however, was not bemused. It would be Marie-Madeleine’s misfortune to fall into the time of Nicholas Gabriel de La Reynie, the criminal lieutenant or police commissioner of Paris. The first great French policeman whose skills would not have disgraced a modern C.I.D., La Reynie introduced street lanterns, reformed the Watch, cleaned the streets, and suppressed the Court of Miracles (a motley array of beggars and thieves who preyed upon the Parisians). By means of his blue-clad police of the Chatelet, La Reynie tracked Marie-Madeleine relentlessly, in all her devious movements.
At first, nothing marred the serene horizon. No one had peeped into the d’Aubray nursery where some very strange games were going on between a little girl of seven years and her two younger brothers, Antoine and André. Only much later would the fatal effect of these vicious games transpire. For the present, she was daddy’s girl, the pride and joy of Antoine Dreux d’Aubray, civil lieutenant and prévôt of Paris, counsellor of state, Master of the Requêtes. Short of being born a Bourbon, few were more highly placed than Dreux d’Aubray.
Marie-Madeleine was very eligible. Not only would she bring a substantial dowry but with her connections her man could expect a good impetus to his ambitions. While the marriage she did make at 21 would have pleased many girls, it would never prove equal to her own vaulting pride. Antoine Gobelin, Marquis de Brinvilliers, who had served as a commandant of the army in Normandie, came from the noted family of the Gobelins, the King’s tapestry makers. With his capital of 800,000 livres and Marie-Madeleine’s dowry of 200,000 livres, one million should give a comfortable income of 30,000 livres.
In addition, Dreux d’Aubray had presented his favorite child title to a grand hòtel or town house at 12 rue Neuve St. -Paul in the Marais, the fashionable quarter. He had also bestowed upon her a fine carriage with the blason of Brinvilliers embossed on the gilded doors. She had as well a country house at Sains, a village in Picardie, 30 leagues from Paris. She was able to furnish her hotel with the gorgeous tapestries of Gobelin.
With all this, she was easily bored and had not enough to occupy her lively darting imagination. She turned to gambling. Born under the Sign of the Lion, dominating, venturesome, acquisitive, she played for high stakes at the green baize tables.
Always calculating, she could not stomach that, though she was the elder, her two brothers outranked her. Being men, they would succeed to Dreux d’Aubray’s power and prestige, while Marie-Madeleine, a woman, must be content to keep a salon, to drive out in her carriage and—to produce children. They would arrive in regular progression, two girls and a boy whom she named Antoine after his grandfather. Antoine, she vowed, would fulfill her own frustrated ambition and would one day have the position which should have been rightfully hers.
To divert his wife and leave him free to pursue his own distractions, the marquis invited an army friend, Godin de Sainte-Croix, a former captain in the cavalry regiment of Tracy, to pass a few days in the Marais. No one seemed to know much about this man. It was said that he was a bastard of Gascony and indeed he had in full measure the Gascon swagger and gift of gab.
Maitre Vautier, a lawyer who had some acquaintance with Sainte-Croix and had few illusions about him, offered a shrewd analysis.”He was endowed with all the spirit and charm which never fails to enchant a woman. He had his pleasure from the pleasure of others. He accepted proposals of piety as eagerly as those of crimes. Sensitive to affronts, he was jealous, spendthrift, with no employment. He would speak eloquently of God and with this mask of piety appeared a model of good deeds.”
Once Sainte-Croix was encrusted in Brinvilliers household, he was not to be dislodged. For the bored dissatisfied marquise fell violently in love with the charming Gascon, her first serious affair after eight years of marriage. Concerning this familiar French triangle, Vautier commented: “The marquise had waited so long to be had, the marquis minded so little to be horned.”
If the marquis didn’t mind, others definitely did mind, notably the father of Marie-Madeleine. Dreux d’Aubray found his daughter’s behavior quite shocking. Contrary to good manners and decent reticence, she was given to flaunting her passion.”The lady did not hide her love but made honour to it publicly, which created a great deal of talk.”
Admonitions had little effect. Marie-Madeleine was not one to take kindly family interference. She continued to go joy-riding about Paris with her disreputable cavalier and to frequent gambling salons. On the fete of St.-Jean, June 21st, Sainte-Croix and she appeared at the annual celebration on the Place de Grève, before the H6tel de Ville, both drunk and waving champagne bottles. When the faggots, piled up to fifty feet, and topped by a large sack filled with furious cats, were lit, the pair danced about the flames to the agonized wailing of 30 cats, roasted to death. No one knew the origin of this horrible practice on the eve of summer.
Marie-Madeleine was not aware that her public exhibition had been witnessed in consternation by Dreux d’Aubray at a window of the Hotel de Ville. As prévôt or maire of Paris, he would observe this fete of the Parisiens, which, cats and all, went back to medieval times. At first, it had been attended by the Court and the monarch himself had torched the faggots, but now it had become a fete for the people and the eruption of the marquise, with Sainte-Croix in tow, was a most startling breach of good taste, sure to create scandalized talk.
Yet she exceeded this performance by her next move. With the aid of a shyster lawyer, she brought suit to separate her marriage portion and expectations from the dwindling capital of her husband. Such an action was the next thing to a divorce, which the church would usually grant only for consanguinity between the couple or by annulment for non-consummation of the marriage. Neither case applied to the Marquise de Brinvilliers.
This legal suit aroused Marie-Madeleine’s family to action. As civil lieutenant and prèvôt of Paris, Dreux d’Aubray was able to make use of the lettre de cachet.This was a sealed warrant to arrest and to detain a person at the king’s pleasure. A sojourn in the massive royal fortress of the Bastille at the Porte St. -Antoine would cool off the trouble-makers or those suspected of crimes.
On a white windy morning in March, the lovers were driving back to Paris after an outing in the country. They were chatting over a few relaxing drinks, when the carriage was abruptly waved down by a patrol of archers. They were on the Pont-Neuf, one of the busiest arteries of the city and an officer stood beside the carriage.
It was Marie-Madeleine’s first experience with Captain-exempt Francois Desgrez, who was destined to play such a crucial role in her lurid career.”What do you want, sir?” she demanded.
“The Chevalier Godin de Sainte-Croix, with you, madame,” he replied. Over her furious protests, Sainte-Croix was extracted from the carriage.”I have an order to detain you,” Desgrez told him.
As they took her lover away, Marie-Madeleine was torn by rage and humiliation. In that dire moment on the Pont-Neuf, when Desgrez had intervened, may have been born Marie-Madeleine’s ruthless resolve to finish with her meddling family.
The Gascon spent only three months in the Bastille, but the warning appeared to have had its effect. On his release, he seemed a changed man. He took rooms in the rue des Bernardins and fixed up a small laboratory at the Impasse Maubert, where he said that he was experimenting with elements to discover the Philosopher’s Stone, the alchemist’s supreme quest, by means of which base metals were changed into gold. As a sideline, he was concocting remedies for various ailments, which he sold to afflicted clients. His powders, potions, and serums were in demand; ladies in excellent health bought them as insurance against illness.
Pleading pressure of work, Sainte-Croix was slipping away from Marie-Madeleine. He cultivated a veneer of gentility, wearing drab costumes, attending Mass, missal in hand, avoiding loose companions. To the marquise’s astonishment, he even married a respectable Breton girl, Madeleine Bertrand de Breuil.
He had as well other close-kept plans. In the Bastille, he had met a clever Italian, an expert in poison, who confided his secrets to the eager Gascon. The Italian also provided an introduction to a Swiss master chemist, Christopher Glaser, apothecary to the king’s own brother. Glaser was the last word in compounding mysterious ingredients which did their fatal work but left no trace.
He began in a modest way, a box of certain “succession powders” to administer to a wealthy relative, taking an unconscionable time dying. After a few “treatments,” the old man at length obliged and his impecunious heir, often deeply in debt, would now succeed to a good sum. Or a fine lady, unlucky at cards but languishing in love, had a jealous nuisance as a husband. She too the wizard of the Impasse Maubert accommodated.
While Sainte-Croix, the soul of discretion, dealt only with a few select clients, a secret miasma of death spread over the city of the Sun King, Louis XIV.The confessors at Notre Dame warned the Parliament that “most of the penitents since sometime had confessed to poisoning someone.” But no priest saw fit to break the seal of confession to reveal to La Reynie the identity of those penitents.
When Marie-Madeleine was growing up and already deep in depravity, there occurred at Loudun, a small town in the Limousin, a remarkable case of possession by the devil. Urbain Grandier, a tall handsome priest, was accused by Sister Jeanne of the Angels, prioress of St. Ursula’s Convent, of sending demons to enter and possess her as well as her nuns. Great roars and growls thereupon issued from the sisters as they thrashed about, exposing themselves and calling on Grandier. He was brought to trial but refused to confess despite the horrible torture of the brodequins and was burned alive.
Sister Jeanne was a little hunchback, who had conceived an unholy passion for the imposing priest, but when he proved indifferent, the devil took a hand and destroyed Grandier. Though he had supporters, he had ruined his case by seducing the virgin daughter of the public prosecutor of Loudun.
This invasion by the fiend was a notorious episode in the great witchcraft craze that had seized France. The hunt was initiated by Dominican bigots from the Swiss mountains; their treatise, Malleus Malificarum, the Hammer of Witches, was the bible of those who had conceived it a duty to ferret out and burn witches.
In this frenzied atmosphere, no one was safe. Above all, it was fatal to cast doubt. Indeed, many practitioners did truly believe in their horned master and his demonic court. The so-called “devineress” responsible for this confession of havoc, often began humbly, a small shopkeeper, a fishmonger, a midwife, who advanced herself by playing upon the credulity of the times. Like Sainte-Croix, she would set up as an alchemist, vowing to solidify the “green lion” of mercury and turn it into silver, then into gold. Also, like the wizard of the Impasse, she offered to cure various ailments.
As she prospered, she added skills: a voyante, a sorceress, an expert at secret compounds. To show her power as a sorceress, she staged Black Masses in which a new-born infant’s throat was cut, the blood poured into a black chalice and the Satanic Host, a mess of blood of bats and moles, mixed with flour, consecrated on the naked belly of the client. As the latter drank the blood and consumed the Host, a hellish formula, used for centuries, was intoned to summon demons. If this horrible Mass did not produce the desired result, poison usually did.
Though the work of Sainte-Croix engendered a similar result, he was not yet part of this league of witchcraft, show-casing his methods. He had still the guise of a chevalier, god-fearing and doctoring the sick. Marie-Madeleine was determined to win him back. In addition to her ardent past favors, she felt that it was high time Sainte-Croix recognized his responsibility for his son, her youngest, conceived during those long prodigal afternoons of passion, when he was living on her bounty.
Writing to him from Sains, she adopted a light sophisticated tone, while not forgetting to stress her virtue, a pose which he too had now assumed.”Faith, integrity, honour, conduct are the infallible means which engage my esteem in the degree to which misconduct annuls it. In the past months, my passion overcame my complaisance and I betrayed myself by my debauchery, as I confess, but today years, reason and experience have led me to distinguish Sainte-Croix from other men.
“You insist that I show for him a very sincere friendship. The few friends that remain to me having a particular character, I do not think offensive in those whom I consider in this category to use me and you to live, which I have hardly to reiterate to you, as witnessed by my efforts to speak the truth.”
With deft strokes, she wooed him but to no avail. He came not to Sains. Desperate, she considered how to get his attention. What if she should become a client of Sainte-Croix? She knew what really went on in his laboratory. Once, she had visited him unannounced and found him working over a kiln, wearing a glass mask as noxious vapors almost suffocated her.
She, poor soul, could not afford the lavish fees of a devineress, but she had pressing needs. She required money, much money, for the demands of her station in life: the stately mansion in the Marais, the 30 servants, her gowns and hats, her splendid carriage and horses, her country house at Sains—there was no end to the calls upon a woman alone and struggling to survive.
By her rash act in separating her patrimony from that of her husband for the benefit of Sainte-Croix, she had forfeited the possibility of turning to the marquis.
Marie-Madeleine stood on the brink of a great divide. Thus far, she had been reckless and wanton, but she had done nothing criminal. Adultery by a lady, while a complaisant spouse looked the other way, was tolerated as long as she observed the rules of decorum. This, Marie-Madeleine had scorned to do. She had heard that the king—that exalted arbiter of good conduct—had taken a flamboyant mistress, Madame de Montespon. And this young woman had been able to attract the royal eye through sorcery. She was a client of the worst devineress and witch of the Black Mass, La Voisin, a frog-faced hag in crimson velvet and fine gold, who was said to have burned hundreds of infant bodies in her oven.
Her mind made up, the marquise cornered Sainte-Croix in his laboratory and insisted on purchasing from her reluctant former lover several boxes of powders and phials of red and clear liquid. The red was the more potent, he advised her. For this service, he charged her 3000 livres.
To try out her elixirs, she brought gifts of confiture to the Hôtel-Dieu, the charity hospital for the destitute, a favorite largess of the rich. “With what solicitude did she inquire the day after concerning the health of those poor wretches whom she had comforted the evening before! All were either dead or on the point of dying and the doctors could find no explanation for their inexplicable agony” (Armand Fouquier, Causes Célèbres, Livraison IV, 1867).
When Dreux d’Aubray fell ill at his château of Offément in Picardie, his daughter came and nursed her father during several months. Still, the old man did not improve. Indeed, the very day after her arrival, “He had great vomiting which continued always very violent up to his death” (Fouquier, opus cit.).
Dreux d’Aubray’s mysterious gastric onslaught baffled his physicians. Marie-Madeleine decided to move her father to her house in the Marais, where she could be in constant attendance.”Never had Marie-Madeleine been more alert to anticipate the least desires of her father; never had her expression better hid the storms which shook this tormented spirit.” He finally died in September 1666.To quell unpleasant rumours, Marie-Madeleine had an autopsy performed, but nothing suspicious was found, as she had been assured that it would not be.
She was once more in funds, but the inheritance, divided four ways, did not go as far as she had hoped. Antoine, elder son and heir, would receive the lion’s share, including Offément, while Marie-Madeleine had to be content with the modest country house at Sains. Antoine would also succeed his father as civil lieutenant and had recently married a lady with the imposing name of Marie-Thérèse Mangot de Villarceau, who brought a handsome dowry. This lady cast a cold eye on her sister-in-law.
Word of the d’Aubray inheritance galvanized creditors, as the marquise’s inability to keep to a budget also caused her affairs to deteriorate rapidly. Monsieur Cruelbois, an hussier or officer of the court, empowered to seize a debtor’s goods, became a frequent visitor. Large bald patches appeared on the marquise’s walls which gorgeous Gobelin tapestries had adorned; upholstered chairs, marquetry tables, ormolu clocks vanished; finally, the cruelest blow, the superb carriage went.
It was time for action before Marie-Madeleine was out in the street. Sainte-Croix had about him an entourage of biddable rogues. Jean Hamelin, another Gascon, called “La Chaussee,” had certain skills which might be usefully employed. Why not place him in Antoine d’Aubray’s household?
This scheme almost came to grief when Sergeant Clouet of the Châtelet police, who took a growing interest in the marquise’s tangled affairs, informed her that he knew La Chaussée was Sainte-Croix’ man.”Lord God!” she exclaimed.”Don’t tell my brothers. They will have him beaten and it is better he earn something than another.”
The sergeant knew Antoine’s household well, for he was stepping out with Marie-Thérèse’s maid and called regularly. However, he remained quiet about La Chaussée. As yet, the Gascon knave had done nothing incriminating since his arrival in Paris and Clouet was after bigger game—the marquise herself. Her conduct was notorious and Clouet hoped that La Chaussée might lead the police to exposure of both the marquise and Sainte-Croix.
Sergeant Clouet, like Captain-exempt François Desgrez, up to the chief himself, La Reynie, was an example of a characteristic of the French police, which has always been true. As any other police, the French prefer to solve crimes when they occur, but, lacking hard evidence that will stand up in court, they are quite capable of nursing along important cases, even for years, until the break comes and they can pounce. Inspector Javert in Les Misérables may have been an invention of Victor Hugo, but he fits admirably in the French tradition.
Clouet, however, could scarcely have foreseen the dire consequence of his silence. For the wily Gascon quickly implanted himself in the d’Aubray menage and the younger brother, André, took a shine to the eager factotum.
Maître Vautier would sum up La Chaussée as acutely as he did the slippery devil’s master.”He is barber, valet-de-chambre, lackey, cook by turns. And what makes one tremble with horror, a thousand deaths are no more trouble to him than one alone.”
One afternoon, Antoine asked for wine and La Chaussée went to fetch it. When Antoine took a sip, he spat it out and cried: “Wretch! what have you done? Are you trying to poison me?” Thinking fast, the scélérat explained that the glass must have contained dregs of medicine taken by another servant and not properly rinsed.
At Easter 1670, a family event transpired in Villequoy, near Chartres, where Marie-Théèse had a house. The dinner was prepared by madame’s cook, while La Chaussèe, at André’s request, went along “to help out in the kitchen.” Seven sat down to the feast.
All went well until the “subtletie,” a dish of small game baked in a pie with an angel in spun sugar on the crust. All partook of the pie and none more heartily than Antoine to whom La Chaussée gave two large helpings. The effect was almost immediate. Antoine was seized by violent pangs; a guest staggered outside to vomit; the ladies suffered alternate sensations of chills and fire. Taking command, Marie-Thérese, who had eaten very sparingly, ordered La Chaussèe to return to Paris.
If Marie-Therèse had her way, the Gascon would be dismissed forthwith, but André strongly protested, while even Antoine, sick as he was, agreed that as everyone at the fete had been taken ill, it must have been an accident and no one was responsible. As in the incident of the wine, La Chaussée just managed to wriggle out.
Shortly afterward, on April 20th, Marie-Madeleine gave Sainte-Croix a note of hand for 30,000 livres, falling due on January 1st, “for services rendered.” The services, to be sure, were those of La Chaussée. Sainte-Croix also asked for a guarantor.
Gasping at the sum demanded by her former lover, she could think of only one possible guarantor: Reich de Pennautier, receiver-general of the Clergy, a vastly profitable office, and the confidant of Colbert, the king’s first minister. Saint-Simon describes Pennautier as “a tall well-made man, with a gallant and dignified air, courteous and very obliging; he had much intelligence and many connections in society.”
The marquise believed that all Pennautier’s splendor concealed a black secret. She knew that he was a friend and very likely a client of Sainte-Croix and that Pennautier’s predecessor as receiver-general had died quite suddenly—another case of acute gastritis! An autopsy, performed at the widow’s insistence, had revealed nothing suspicious, as with Dreux d’Aubray; the surgeons ascribed the ravages of the intestines to a bad fall sustained while horseback riding.
Marie-Madeleine called on Pennautier at his palatial residence, but she quickly discovered that the big soft-spoken man from the Midi did not respond to her veiled threats of revelations. He knew all about the importunate marquise’s disastrous affairs and he refused to put his name on her note. To be rid of her, he gave her a loan of 10,000 livres, payable on demand.
Meantime, La Chaussée continued his ministrations with Antoine, changing the sheets and rushing in and out with bedpans. Despite all the attention, the civil lieutenant grew ever worse. His anxious sister called at her brother’s house on the rue de Bouloi, near the Louvre, and found him much wasted. He could scarcely keep anything on his stomach.”I have a blazing hearth in my breast,” he told Marie-Madeleine. “It is a fire that consumes me by day and by night.” Under the icy stare of Marie-Thérèse, the little sister departed.
On the morning of June 17th, La Chaussée burst into the marquise’s boudoir and announced to her: “Madame, the bugger is dead! I have turned him over and wrapped him in a shroud. If he were not dead, I should not have done it.”
She immediately put in a claim for a share of Antoine’s estate. But Antoine’s secretary informed her that any settlement was deferred until such time as the estate could be found to cover Marie-Thérèse’s dower right, which might take a year or more. Marie-Madeleine knew she had a formidable enemy in Antoine’s widow.
She was back to square one. However, La Chaussée would be caring for André, who had been ailing since the Easter fete and he, fortunately, was not married. While pondering the possibilities, the marquise decided to engage a tutor for her sons, Antoine and Dreux.
Jean-Baptiste Briancourt, 32, bachelor of theology from the Sorbonne, arrived at Sains for an interview. Immersed in his books, Briancourt knew little of the ways of mondaine ladies. While he had heard scandalous rumors about the marquise—as who had not?—he thought of his future and when she hired him on the spot, he was well pleased.
At first, all went well. Briancourt was treated like one of the marquise’s family—not realizing what it might mean to belong to this particular family!—and the marquise made him her confidant. She needed support and money and as the marquis was nowhere to be seen, the whole burden of the household fell on her.
Briancourt had been at Sains barely a fortnight, when the marquise received a letter from Paris. She informed the tutor that André, her younger brother, had passed away after much suffering. She would hire a carriage and they must go at once to Paris. After a hard all-day drive, they reached the Porte St.-Denis, the gateway to the north, as night fell. In a state of excitement, Marie-Madeleine spoke of the Chevalier Godin de Sainte-Croix, who was helping her in her distress.
At the marquise’s house, barren of furnishings, the first caller was Sainte-Croix, whom Briancourt distrusted at once. Then came the sly Gascon, La Chaussée, who brought leather bags clinking with coin. He had a cordial reception and afterward the marquise remarked to the tutor, “He is a good boy, who has done us good service.”
He discovered the nature of the services on the return trip to Sains in the marquise’s elegant carriage, now redeemed. During an overnight stop at Louvres, she used all her wiles to seduce the young man. Sure of him, she confided that André, her brother, had been poisoned by La Chaussée, at the direction of Sainte-Croix.”My brother was no good,” she said.”He was a person of no value, who never had any love for me.”
Briancourt was stunned; finally, he asked her about the poisons. She explained: “There is a water that one can make from elixir of toad, distilled in an alembic. Sainte-Croix made clear water and red water, but the red is more violent. And there is a powder that one grinds in a mortar, so subtle and deadly that one must wear a mask of glass while working.” She added: “But it took some time to take effect, for André had great care for his health.”
Briancourt was appalled. The lady had just made him her lover and now she confessed knowledge of her brother’s murder, which had enriched her. Though he trembled, she knew her prey was hers. In the past, she had collected men as she had acquired new hats. She warned: “But I am confiding much in you. I think you are a discreet and wise young man, who will keep a secret as precious as that.”
Caught in her toils, he remained with her, while trying to get her to abandon this wickedness. He was forced to believe the rumors that she was guilty of the mysterious gastritis, which had killed her father and elder brother as it had André When he denounced Sainte-Croix as supplying the means to destroy her family, she only remarked, “Monsieur, why have they treated him as they did?”
She elaborated new projects. Her devout sister Thérèse, with a share of the d’Aubray fortune, intended to enter the cloister and Marie-Madeleine wanted to speed her sister on the way to Heaven. And Marie-Thérèse, widow of Antoine, had an income of 10,000 livres that was “worth trying for.” Sainte-Croix had a friend whose daughter might be placed in the widow’s household to “help out in the kitchen.”
Briancourt shuddered at her schemes. He told her that she was a cruel and vicious woman and vowed that she must kill him first before she should attempt more murders. To this outburst, she coolly replied: “How could I love my brothers? They despised me. As for my sister and Madame d’Aubray, they will ruin you as well as me. Why do you wish to prevent the advancement of my sons?”
Still, he was found in that house of horror, a victim of his passion. Early one morning, after an ardent night, he was surprised in that evil bed by the housekeeper, Madame Grangemont.”I am in despair because you have found me in the bed of the wickedest woman in the world!” he cried.
The marquise did not scruple to experiment on her servants. After a lunch of cold ham and gooseberries, one maid, Françoise Roussel, became deathly ill, but another, Edmée Huet, who had abstained from the lunch, gave Roussel a large bowl of warm milk, which relieved her. Roussel said that she felt as if she had “needles in the heart.”
Briancourt wondered why anyone would remain with the marquise. He remarked to Grangemont, “I do not understand how an honest woman like you can continue here.” Grangemont explained that the staff hung on, hoping one day to receive their wages, unpaid for months.
The marquis himself was a wreck. When Briancourt at last met him at Sains, he discovered a tall spindly man on shaky legs. Sainte-Croix soon arrived and they had supper with the marquise. The marquis hovered at the buffet and Briancourt heard him say to his valet, “Do not change my glass and rinse it thoroughly every time you give me something to drink.” The valet also tasted each dish as it was offered to the marquis.
Brinvilliers, then, was on his wife’s short list! Previously poisoned, his health ruined, ironically he had been saved from death by an antidote supplied by Sainte-Croix, who had no wish to marry a widowed marquise.
What finally made Briancourt leave the marquise was the episode of the midnight tryst, to which she invited the young man to try out her new bed. His small room above the stables opened onto a gallery with a balcony offering a view of the marquise’s bedroom.
Briancourt, from the balcony, looked across the courtyard into the marquise’s bedroom and saw her pass in her negligee. A man in ragged clothes, a broad-brimmed hat concealing his face, also came into view and embraced the marquise. Sainte-Croix, disguised and setting a trap! He was furious over the marquise’s revelations and at Briancourt’s threats to expose their deadly schemes.
As a church bell struck midnight, a resolute Briancourt entered the bedroom. Naked on the bed, Marie-Madeleine held out her arms. Turning away, he lifted the large fire screen. Out popped Sainte-Croix, dagger in hand. Marie-Madeleine shrieked as the two men struggled. Breaking away, Sainte-Croix rushed out, while the marquise dissolved in tears. She implored Briancourt to have pity on her and vowed to kill herself if he departed. But the young man took refuge in a religious house at Aubervilliers.
Sainte-Croix himself decided to drop the marquise. Frantic, she wrote to him: “I have resolved to put an end to my days and to do this, I have taken this evening that which you have given me at such cost—Glaser’s recipe. You will see by that I willingly sacrifice my life. But I promise you that before dying, I will await you for our last farewell.”
Sainte-Croix never received this anguished plea. The master of elixir of toad fell victim to his own poisonous vapors, when a lethal brew exploded, shattering his glass mask and killing him.
In the blackened ruins of the laboratory, the police discovered a casket bound in red leather, with a note from Sainte-Crois, stating that the contents belonged to the Marquise de Brinvilliers. On opening it, Sergeant Clouet found 37 passionate letters to SainteCroix from the marquise, with her notes of hand for services rendered. It also contained phials of potions and packets of powders. The police gave two dogs drinking water with a few drops of potion and the dogs died in a few minutes. They fed a cat meat with a little powder, which vomited and survived until the next day.
The forensic laboratory report by the pharmacist Guy Simon found only a slight coagulation of blood in the heart ventricle of the dead animals but no trace of poison. On analysis, the various compounds were found to contain calcinated vitriol, potassium sulphate, a discovery of Glaser, and a comparatively unknown element called arsenic.”The presence of these poisons is concealed with such clever art that it cannot be detected. Although the stream of death has been set in motion, the indications left behind are those which accompany vigourous life.”
La Chaussée was seized and put on trial before the Criminal Court of the Chatelet. The prosecution had a capital witness in Edmée Huet, who testified that she had heard the accused say to the marquise concerning Antoine, her brother, “This bugger gives us a great deal of trouble. He lingers on. I don’t know when we shall be rid of him.”
Huet also related an occasion when the marquise, imbibing freely, had staggered about with a small box and announced: “I have something here to take care of my enemies. This little box contains successions!”
Grangemont testified that after André’s death, Sainte-Croix had said to the marquise, “Madame, with what eye will you regard me at this hour or with what eye shall I look upon you? Are you satisfied this time?”
La Chaussée was subjected to the fearful torture of the brodequins, also suffered by Father Grandier, by which the leg bones were crushed by wedges driven into an iron boot binding the leg. In his agony, the poisoner confessed all, implicating the marquise. He was broken on the wheel.
It remained to track down Marie-Madeleine. Warned of the fatal accident to Sainte-Croix by Pennautier, she fled to London. One jump ahead of La Reynie’s agents, she went from London to Valenciennes, thence to Antwerp, and finally like a hunted animal she went to earth at the Convent of the Canonesses of St.-Augustine in Liege. Known as Marie-Ange, only the Mother Superior was aware of her identity.
When the French Army, while campaigning in the Spanish Netherlands, occupied Liege in March 1676, Desgrez came posthaste from Paris to arrest the marquise. But she could not simply be dragged out of sanctuary.
Desgrez solved the problem by a ruse. Disguised as an abbe, he gained admittance to the convent and persuaded Marie-Madeleine to go for a promenade. Once outside, the “abbe” thrust her into a carriage to convey her to prison in the citadel.
Furious, she tried to commit suicide during her removal to Paris. Desgrez reproved her: “You are an evil woman. After putting your hands in the blood of your family, you try to do the same to yourself.”
“Ah, if only I had received good advice!” she exclaimed. “One often has bad moments.” Bitterly, she lamented the loss of her “confession,” confiscated by Desgrez. This astonishing document detailed all her crimes and sinful acts with her brothers from the age of seven.
It would evoke from her upright neighbor the scathing comment: “The greatest crimes are a mere bagatelle in comparison with taking eight months to kill her father and receiving all his caresses and endearments to which she responded only by doubling the dose!”
By modern standards, the marquise was allowed no proper defense, no counsel to advise her, no presumption of innocence. The Law decreed: “The accused of whatever rank will be held to answer by his own mouth, without counsel, which will be permitted only after the confrontation.”
The prosecution, however, did not have an airtight case, no direct evidence that the marquise had poisoned anyone, no “smoking gun” without her confession. She insisted that it had been made to God alone, but La Reynie was adamant.”God has willed that this miserable creature, who fled from realm to realm, has had the care to write down and carry about with her the proofs necessary for her conviction.”
At the trial before the High Court at the Palais de Justice, Briancourt was a star witness for the prosecution. He confessed his degrading passion for the marquise and related the crimes she had confided. Confronted by Marie-Madeleine, he broke down, sobbing; she had only scorn for her chicken-hearted lover.
He then told the Court how he had saved the lives of the marquise’s sister and of Marie-Thérèse d’Aubray. Acting for the Partie Civile, Marie-Thérèse, Maître Vautier confirmed the accusation that the defendant had tried to poison her (in French law, the victim or relatives participate in the trial as the Partie Civile).
The marquise tried to involve Pennautier. “If it sprinkles on me, it will rain on Pennautier!” she had vowed. The financier was arrested, but nothing serious was proved against him, and he was eventually released. He lived to a ripe old age and died full of honors.
Marie-Madeleine was imprisoned in the Conciergerie, where Father Pirot had charge of her soul which, as she owned, was in a grievous state. Yet she clung to her fantasies.”I am still attached to the glory of this world. I have an ambitious spirit which seeks only honour . . .at certain times, I do not regret having known the one who has been my ruin.”
If she could not have glory, infamy remained; her name would live. She told the priest: “My death is certain. I shall confess the story of my life to you. I imagine quite well that they talk about me a great deal and that I have become a seven days’ wonder.” And her eyes shone.
Father Pirot and she wept as they prayed together for her salvation. She forgave everyone, even Briancourt, who had witnessed against her, and the judges who had condemned her to the scaffold.
Wearing only a long white chemise, the marquise rode to her doom in a garbage cart. In a final humiliation, François Desgrez, her Nemesis, commanded the guard escorting her past windows and rooftops crowded with spectators. At the Place de Grève, Father Pirot helped her up the scaffold and the executioner cut her hair and bandaged her eyes. The priest prayed as the great sword flashed and severed her head. “Sir, was not that a fine stroke?” the executioner said.
Madame de Sevigné had a last word. “Finally, it is finished. Brinvilliers is in the air. Her little body was thrown into a big fire and her ashes scattered to the wind. Now we breathe her and may catch a contagion of her, which would astonish us.”