LA VOISIN – THE POISONER OF PARIS
Posted February 7, 2012on:
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La Voisin, real name Catherine Deshayes, was the woman who exposed the sordid heart at the centre of the most glamorous royal court in Europe, that of the dazzling Sun King, Louis XIV. She was a woman from the back streets of Paris, who numbered some of the most powerful of French high society amongst her clients. Her downfall very nearly threatened even the august figure of the King himself.
Catherine was born around 1640. She married a jeweller called Monvoisin. When her husband’s business took a nosedive, Catherine decided to supplement their income by taking up fortune-telling. She liked to boast that she had inherited her powers from her mother, who had practised as a sorceress. Certainly she was said to show some cpnsiderable skill at many aspects of fortune-telling, including Tarot, palm-reading, and crystal-gazing. Her own favourite was physiognomy, the art of reading faces. “Passion and anxiety are difficult to conceal”, she said. It’s probably fair to say that, like many who make a good living in this kind of field, La Voisin was skilled at reading people generally.
From there she progressed to midwifery, and backstreet abortions. She set up a furnace in her back yard, in which she disposed of the pathetic little corpses. She was assisted by Etienne Guibourg, a maverick priest, who regularly performed Black Masses, and her lover, Adam Coueuret, who practised as a magician under the name La Sage. La Sage seems like a 17th century version of Aleister Crowley. He was reputedly pretty repulsive in appearance, but had a fatal charisma, which lured many a woman into his bed.
To her growing repertoire of skills La Voisin added a nice little line in love potions and poisons. La Voisin became somewhat of a dark mistress at the art of poisoning. She was canny enough to vary the ingredients each time, so that it was difficult to trace back to her. She was said to have used some positively Shakespearian ingredients in her concoctions, such as bones of toads, teeth of moles, and dust of human remains.
Voisin made several attempts to finish off her own husband in this way, and this is where things get truly farcical. La Sage clearly had no desire to find a widowed La Voisin, now freely available, on his hands, so – with the help of Voisin’s maid, Margot – he would find ingenious ways to scupper the poisoning attempts, such as getting Margot jog the old man’s elbow when he was about to take his soup!
It seemed entirely natural really that La Voisin should suddenly take to living the entire witch existence. She set up a Black Mass temple in the family home, and liked to dress up in a dramatic crimson cloak, embroidered with a golden eagle.
She soon found herself numbering some of the most wealthy and influential ladies in Parisienne society amongst her clients. One of her customers was Olympe Mancini, the Comtesse de Soissons, who wanted King Louis XIV’s mistress, Louise de la Valliere, to meet an untimely death. (Louise survived, and later joined a convent, where she was famed for her hard-line spiritual devotion).
The (literally) poisonous network operated by La Voisin and La Sage soon began to encompass the whole of Parisienne high society. Madame de Montespan, another mistress of the King’s, was said to have hired La Voisin to poison His Majesty. De Montespan had been a good mistress to the King, and had borne him 7 children, but she was now past her prime, and was getting increasingly desperate to hold onto her place at the glittering Versailles court. The accusations that she had tried to poison him were never proven though, either at the time or since. The King himself insisted that all documents pertaining to de Montespan’s guilt were to be handed direct to him, so that he could burn them himself.
Eventually the sinister whisperings about La Voisin’s activities reached the ears of the King, who ordered an enquiry into what was going on, under the supervision of chief of police, Nicolas de lay Reynie, who was quite exhaustive in his urge to get to the bottom of it all. At its height The Affair Of The Poisons became quite farcical, with (it would seem) half of Paris trying to poison the other half!
La Voisin was betrayed by her unscupulous former lover, La Sage, who was a bit miffed at finding himself supplanted in Voisin’s bed by a man called Latour. La Sage was happy to gabble about all their dark secrets, but stubbornly refused to comment on Madame de Montespan’s involvement in the whole sordid affair. He only divulged her name when put under torture. He then let loose that Montespan had also taken part in Voisin’s Black Masses, alledging that her naked body had been used as an altar.
La Voisin tried to declare herself innocent of all charges, even claiming that the furnace in her back yard had been used to bake pates. It was no good though. When the police raided her house they found incriminating evidence galore, including a neat little store of wax figurines complete with pins and needles.
La Voisin was eventually found guilty of witchcraft and was publicly burnt alive on the Place de Greve in Paris on 22 February 1680. It was said that when the crucifix was held up in front of her, she repelled it.