The Affair of the Poisons

The Affair of the Poisons (L’affaire des poisons) was a major murder scandal in France during the reign of King Louis XIV. During it, a number of prominent members of the aristocracy were implicated and sentenced on charges of poisoning and witchcraft. The scandal reached into the inner circle of the king.

The furor began in 1675 after the trial of Marie-Madeleine-Marguerite d’Aubray, Marquise de Brinvilliers, who had conspired with her lover, army captain Godin de Sainte-Croix, to poison her father Antonine Dreux d’Aubray in 1666 and two of her brothers, Antoine d’Aubray and Francois d’Aubray, in 1670, in order to inherit their estates. There were also rumors that she had poisoned poor people during her visits in hospitals. She fled but was arrested in Liège. She was forced to confess, sentenced to death and on July 17 was tortured with the water cure (forced to drink sixteen pints of water), beheaded and burned at the stake. Her accomplice Sainte-Croix had died of natural causes in 1672.

The sensational trial drew attention to a number of other mysterious deaths, starting a number of rumours. Prominent people, including Louis XIV, became alarmed that they also might be poisoned. The King forced some of his servants to become his foretasters.

The affair proper opened in February 1677 after the arrest of Magdelaine de La Grange on charges of forgery and murder. She appealed to François-Michel le Tellier, Marquis de Louvois claiming that she had information about other crimes of high importance. Louvois reported to the King, who told Gabriel Nicolas de la Reynie, who, among other things, was the chief of the Paris police, to root out the poisoners. La Reynie sought to calm the King. The subsequent investigation of potential poisoners led to accusations of witchcraft, murder and more.

Authorities rounded up a number of fortune-tellers and alchemists that were suspected of selling not only divinations, séances and aphrodisiacs, but also “inheritance powders” (aka: poison). Some of them under torture confessed and gave the authorities lists of their clients, who had allegedly bought poison to either get rid of their husbands or rivals in the court.

The most famous case was a witch and midwife Catherine Deshayes Monvoisin or La Voisin, who implicated a number of important individuals in the French court. These included Olympe Mancini, the Comtesse de Soissons, her sister Marie Anne Mancini Duchesse de Bouillon, François Henri de Montmorency-Bouteville, duc de Luxembourg and, most importantly, the King’s mistress, the Marquise de Montespan.

Being questioned while she was kept intoxicated, La Voisin claimed that de Montespan had bought aphrodisiacs and performed black masses with her in order to gain and keep the King’s favor over other rival lovers. She had worked with a priest named Etienne Guibourg. There was no evidence beyond her confessions, but the bad reputation followed these people afterwards.

La Voisin was sentenced to death for witchcraft and poisoning, and burned at the stake on February 22, 1680. Marshal Montmorency-Bouteville was briefly jailed in 1680, but was later released and became a captain of the guard. Minister Jean-Baptiste Colbert helped to hush things up.

De La Reynie re-established the special court, the Chambre Ardente (“burning court”) to judge cases of poisoning and witchcraft. The trial lasted three years and culminated with the Great Ordonnance of 1682, which made a clear distinction between witches and people that are using poisons and plants with evil purposes. 36 persons were condemned to death. The court was abolished in 1682, because the King could not risk publicity of such scandal. To this, Police Chief Reynie said, “the enormity of their crimes proved their safeguard.”