Catherine La Voisin

Catherine Monvoisin, known as “La Voisin”, a French sorceress whose maiden name was Catherine Deshayes, was one of the chief personages in the famous affaire des poisons, which disgraced the reign of Louis XIV. Her husband, Monvoisin, was an unsuccessful jeweller, and she practised chiromancy and face-reading to retrieve their fortunes. She gradually added the practice of witchcraft, in which she had the help of a renegade priest, Étienne 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. Among her clients were Olympe Mancini, comtesse de Soissons, who sought the death of the king’s mistress, Louise de la Vallière; Mme. de Montespan, Mme de Gramont (la belle Hamilton) and others. 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. Her knowledge of poisons was not apparently so thorough as that of less well-known sorcerers, or it would be difficult to account for La Valliéres immunity. The art of poisoning had become a regular science. The death of Henrietta, duchess of Orleans, was attributed, falsely it is true, to poison, and the crimes of Marie Madeleine de Brinvilliers (executed in 1676) and her accomplices were still fresh in the public mind. In April 1679 a commission appointed to inquire into the subject and to prosecute the offenders met for the first time. Its proceedings, including some suppressed in the official records, are preserved in the notes of one of the official rapporteurs, Gabriel Nicolas de la Reynie. The revelation of the treacherous intention of Mme. de Montespan to poison Louis XIV and of other crimes, planned by personages who could not be attacked without scandal which touched the throne, caused Louis XIV to close the chambre ardente, as the court was called, on the 1st of October 1680. It was reopened on the 19th of May 1681 and sat until the 21st of July 1682. Many of the culprits escaped through private influence. Among these were Marie Anne Mancini, duchesse de Bouillon, who had sought to get rid of her husband in order to marry the Duke of Vendôme, though Louis XIV banished her to Nérac. Mme. de Montespan was not openly disgraced, because the preservation of Louis’s own dignity was essential, and some hundred prisoners, among them the infamous Guibourg and Lesage, escaped the scaffold through the suppression of evidence insisted on by Louis XIV and Louvois. Some of these were imprisoned in various fortresses, with instructions from Louvois to the respective commandants to flog them if they sought to impart what they knew. Some innocent persons were imprisoned for life because they had knowledge of the facts. La Voisin herself was executed at an early stage of the proceedings, on the 20th of February 1680, after a perfunctory application of torture. The authorities had every reason to avoid further revelations. Thirty-five other prisoners were executed; five were sent to the galleys and twenty-three were banished. Their crimes had furnished one of the most extraordinary trials known to history.

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