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The French Lucrezia Borgia

La Voisin. Engraving by unknown (c. 17th century). Author’s collection
La Voisin. Engraving by unknown (c. 17th century). Author’s collection

When I think of famous poisoners throughout history, Lucrezia Borgia (1480–1519) and her poison ring come to mind. However, Lucrezia was small potatoes to Catherine Deshayes Monvoisin (1640–1680). Known as La Voisin, Catherine was a fortuneteller, palm (and face) reader, astrologist, seer, herbalist, sorceress, a reader of Tarot, and accused of being a witch. She also practiced midwifery and performed abortions. However, her most lucrative enterprise was being the poisoner to “the stars.”

Portrait of Louis XIV. Oil on canvas by Charles Le Brun (1661). Palace of Versailles. PD-100+. PD-US. Wikimedia Commons.
Portrait of Louis XIV. Oil on canvas by Charles Le Brun (1661). Palace of Versailles. PD-100+. PD-US. Wikimedia Commons.

Catherine provided her services to many of the well-known aristocracy of Paris during a period of King Louis XIV’s reign (1643–1715). In fact, her clients were so well heeled that once Louis became aware of the situation, he had all the evidence sealed or destroyed so no one would ever know the true facts. You see, one of Catherine’s best customers was Louis’s mistress, Madame de Montespan (1640–1707) and he couldn’t afford to have a scandal of this magnitude.

Seven Famous Women Accused of Being Witches

During the fall of 1677 the Affaire des Poisons was exposed. It seems Madame de Montespan had been seeing Catherine since 1665 with the purpose of obtaining aphrodisiacs to ensure Louis would continue to love her. Eventually, she would be accused of planning the murder of the king as an act of revenge for his philandering.

La Voisin and Her Clients

Why did people of such high position go to La Voisin for her services? One was to obtain an aphrodisiac to ensure someone would fall in love with him or her. Another was to obtain poison to murder a spouse or perhaps parents and siblings for an inheritance. Counts and countesses, dukes and duchesses, princesses, marquis, and high-ranking officers were among her clients. They would all attend her nightly garden parties while being administered to during the day by Catherine and her accomplices (including Catholic priests).

Messe Noire (Black Mass). Engraving by Henry de Malvost (1895). Le Satanisme et la Magie. PD-mark 1.0. PD-US. Wikimedia Commons.
Messe Noire (Black Mass). Engraving by Henry de Malvost (1895). Le Satanisme et la Magie. PD-mark 1.0. PD-US. Wikimedia Commons.

At the height of her notoriety, La Voisin performed black masses with her clients praying to the Devil. During the mass, the client would lie naked on a slab and a baby would be sacrificed over their body. During the subsequent investigation, witnesses (and participants) came forward to confirm the various stories, including Madame de Montespan’s role in the black masses. It is estimated that more than 1,000 babies were sacrificed and buried in the garden area of Catherine’s home.

The Borgia Familia

Stakes, Prisons and Convents

On 22 February 1680, Catherine was hauled off to the Place de Grève and burned alive at the stake. She was the only ringleader executed by Louis. He signed a lettre de cachet whereby all others were thrown into the dungeons of various prisons never to see the light of day again. The fact that these crimes implicated so many high-ranking nobles, members of Louis’s court, and especially his long-time mistress probably saved the culprits from the same fate as Catherine.

Historical mixed media figure of Mme. Françoise Athénaïs Montespan. Photo by Peter d’Aprix (2007). George S. Stuart Gallery of Historical Figures® archive. PD-CCA-Share Alike 3.0 Unported. Wikimedia Commons.

As for Madame de Montespan, she “retired” to a convent. The king granted her an annual pension of a half million francs. Because she “played ball” and didn’t do or say anything to embarrass the king, Louis heaped rewards on her father, brother, and sisters. Did the aphrodisiacs really work?

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