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  • Gavin Whitehead

The Den of Illustrious Thieves (S3E1)

Updated: Apr 9

Born in 1761, Madame Tussaud studied the art of wax modeling under Philippe Curtius, owner of the most famous wax museum in pre-revolutionary Paris. Sometime around 1780, Curtius opened a special showroom in his establishment called The Den of Illustrious Thieves, in which he exhibited wax figures of notorious murderers. He had an early hit with a sculpture of double poisoner Antoine Francois Desrues, a struggling grocer who wanted to live the life of an aristocrat whether he could afford to or not. Show notes and full transcript below.

Above: This 1777 broadside engraving depicts the exhumation of Eduard de la Motte's body. The broadside was entitled Tableaux des forfaits commis par Antoine-François Desrues. Courtesy of the Bibliothèque nationale de France.



Jacques-Louis David's sketch of Marie Antoinette headed for the guillotine. David made this drawing while watching the former queen's procession to the place of execution.

A 1770 painting of Mozart giving a concert in the house of the Prince de Conti, the filthy rich patron of Philippe Curtius, painted by Frenchman Michel-Barthélémy Ollivier.

Vue générale des théâtres du boulevard du Temple, an 1862 painting by Adolphe Martial Potémont.

The Boulevard du Temple as the Boulevard du Crime. The street earned this nickname due to the high number of thefts and murders that took place there.

Portrait of Voltaire, after His Bust by Jean-Baptiste Lemoyne II by Augustin de Saint-Aubin. Tussaud made her debut at the wax museum with a model of Voltaire.

1777 engraving of Desrues in a cart, en route to his execution, by P.G. Tavenard. Courtesy of the Bibliothèque nationale de France (Shelf Mark: De Vinck, 1292).



---Berridge, Kate. Madame Tussaud: A Life in Wax. New York; London; Toronto; Sydney: Harper Perennial, 2006.

---Chapman, Pauline. Madame Tussaud’s Chamber of Horrors: Two Hundred Years of Crime. London: Constable, 1984.

---Dumas, Alexandre. “Derues.” In Celebrated Crimes. Full text online at Accessed on December 7, 2023.

---Duprat, Annie. “L’affaire Desrues ou le premier tombeau de l’Ancien Régime.” Sociétés et Représentations 2, no. 18 (2004): 123-34.

---Fraser, Antonia. Marie Antoinette: The Journey. London: Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 2001.

---Hervé, Frances, ed. Madame Tussaud’s Memoirs and Reminscences of France. ALondon: unders and Otley, 1838.

---Isherwood, Robert M. Fantasy and Farce: Popular Entertainment in Eighteenth-Century Paris. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986.

---Pilbeam, Pamela. Madame Tussaud and the History of Waxworks. London; New York: Humbledon and London, 2003.



Marie Antoinette sat quietly as the guillotine came into view. It was shortly before noon on October 16, 1793, a sunny day, slightly misty, with a chill in the air. Aged thirty-seven, the queen looked older than her years—prematurely gray-haired, visibly frail, perhaps afflicted with cancer of the womb. More than poor health had reduced her to this state. Over the last few days, Marie Antoinette had faced soul-killing, trumped-up charges, including high treason, in what many historians regard as a show trial. Most scandalous of all, the prosecution accused her of incest with her son, Louis Charles, just eight years old, a false and unexpected allegation that left the defendant momentarily speechless. When the proceedings ended, she left the tribunal at about four in the morning, condemned to death. In happier years, Marie Antoinette had dressed in lavish gowns and headgear. On the day of her execution, she could only make do with what she had in her prison cell: a plain white dress, a pair of black stockings, plum-colored shoes, and a makeshift widow’s bonnet. After she dressed, public executioner Charles Henri Samson cut off her hair with a pair of great shears. The gendarmes tied her hands behind her back, looped a leash around her neck, and led her to a cart that would convey her to the scaffold.

The procession commenced at eleven o’clock. Onlookers lined the road that snaked from the condemned woman’s cell in the Concierges prison to the Place du Carrousel, where the guillotine waited. “Make way for the Austrian woman!” cried an escort as the cavalcade approached the place of execution. Riding horseback a few yards ahead, a smalltime actor by the name of Grammont stood in his stirrups and brandished a blade, “Here is the infamous Antoinette!” Spectators cheered, and a woman outside the Church of Saint-Roch spat as the cortege passed. Aristocrats and other supporters of the queen watched in unspeaking sympathy, their sorrow betrayed by sealed lips and downcast eyes. The slow crawl to death lasted a little more than an hour.

When the horses halted in the shadow of the guillotine, Marie Antoinette dismounted “with bravado,” in the words of one witness, ascending the scaffold with a spring in her step, eager to put an end to her public humiliation. She paused only once to speak her last words when she stepped on her executioner’s shoe: “Pardon me, sir. I didn’t do it on purpose.” The blade fell at 12:15 p.m., before a large crowd, after which Samson placed Marie Antoinette’s head on a pike and held it aloft for the multitude to see. A man rushed forward, desperate to stain his handkerchief with her blood, a crimson memento of this historic occasion. Gendarmes seized him before he could claim his prize, however, dragging him away.

Given the significance of Marie Antoinette’s beheading, not to mention the horror of it, it comes as no surprise that numerous eyewitnesses recorded it for posterity, including several artists. For instance, the celebrated painter Jacques-Luis David sketched the monarch as she rode to the guillotine, seated upright against a blank, white background, evincing an air of conceited indifference. You can look at the drawing on the Art of Crime website.

According to legend, an even better-known artist copied the queen’s likeness after her execution. Later that day, her remains were taken to the Madelaine cemetery and dumped on the grass, where they lay, unattended, awaiting burial. Unobserved, a woman called Marie Grosholtz stole into the graveyard, knelt beside the corpse, and unpacked her supplies. The world would not learn what happened next until many years later. By then, Marie had married, bid adieu to France, and won international renown under the name of Madame Tussaud. When she passed away in London, in 1850, she was the proprietor of Britain’s most beloved wax museum. A few years later, her sons—and heirs—decided it was time to exhibit an item that their mother had kept hidden away for six decades, an item she had created after that trip to the Madelaine cemetery in 1793: a waxen replica of Marie Antoinette’s severed head.

The queen’s death head hung proudly in the Chamber of Horrors, a special showroom at Tussaud’s wax museum. Although the exhibit did not go by this name until the mid-1840s, some version of it had existed since the beginning of her career. From its inception, the Chamber of Horrors exhibited lifeless yet lifelike effigies of notorious murderers, capitalizing on customers’ fascination with true crime. Tussaud updated the collection every time a sensational homicide made national headlines. However, the Chamber also featured gruesome relics of the French Revolution—hence, the death head of Marie Antoinette.

This season of The Art of Crime tells two stories. First, it chronicles the long and distinguished career of Madame Tussaud. We begin in pre-revolutionary Paris and wrap up in Victorian London, with each episode covering a chapter in her biography. Along the way, we’ll learn how she became one of the most significant show-women of her generation and explore the vibrant world of popular entertainment to which she belonged. We’ll also bust a few myths that Tussaud and her descendants propagated about both her rise to fame as well as her personal role in historic events. Second, this season charts the evolution of the Chamber of Horrors. Just as each episode advances the storyline of Tussaud’s life, each also discusses at least one noteworthy crime or criminal depicted in the Chamber. In each episode, we’ll talk about who these offenders were and why their offenses mattered.

In this, our first episode, we’ll hear how a young Tussaud was plunged head-first into Paris’s dizzying entertainment industry, how she mastered the art of wax modeling, and how the earliest version of the Chamber of Horrors made a splash with a sculpture of notorious poisoner Antoine François Desrues. This is The Art of Crime, and I’m your host, Gavin Whitehead. Welcome to episode 1 of Queen of Crime . . .

The Den of Illustrious Thieves

From Strasbourg to Berne

The woman we know as Madame Tussaud was christened Anna Maria Grosholtz in Strasbourg, France, according to a baptismal record dated December 7, 1761.

Little is known about her family history. In her memoirs, dictated in 1838, Tussaud names her father as Joseph Grosholtz, a soldier who served in the Seven Years’ War (1756-63) and suffered grievous injuries in battle: “he was so mutilated with wounds that his face was laid bare, and his lower jaw shot away and supplied by a silver plate.” Tussaud would never see his facial disfigurement for herself. According to her, Joseph died two months before she was born. The only evidence we have to shed light on the penumbral Joseph comes from Tussaud. However, Tussaud’s biographer Kate Berrridge notes that members of the Grosholttz clan had distinguished themselves as public executioners in Strasbourg and Baden-Baden. “So,” Berridge quips, “perhaps Madame Tussaud’s predilection for horror was hereditary.”

Her mother is almost as much a mystery as her father. She was named Anna Maria like her daughter—that much we know—and to avoid confusion, she nicknamed her baby girl Marie. (I’ll refer to the wax modeler both as Marie and Tussaud in this episode.) Anna Maria supported herself and Marie as a domestic servant, and by all accounts she could work miracles in the kitchen.

The Anatomist-Turned-Artist

Shortly after Marie’s birth, she and her mother relocated to Berne, Switzerland. There, Anna Maria became a housekeeper for the Swiss physician, Phillippe Curtius. In a few years’ time, he would launch Marie’s career.

Surprisingly, perhaps, Curtius had honed his skills in wax modeling as part of his medical practice. Doctors needed to know the human anatomy inside and out, and they studied it partly by dissecting cadavers. In an age before modern refrigeration, however, it was impossible to preserve bodies for substantial periods of time, limiting the lessons that students could draw from any given specimen. Anatomical waxes were the best alternative, and many medical professionals learned how to make them. When it came to such models, the educational frequently verged on the erotic. Shapely, recumbent, feminine sculptures, often called “Venuses,” featured flip-open bellies, allowing a voyeuristic peak inside. Some modelers titillated viewers with more overtly pornographic tableaux. Curtius started sculpting in the name of medicine but eventually branched out to artistic creation, making portraits of men and women who would pay for his services. Like others who practiced his craft, Curtius dabbled in the naughtier species of waxwork, too. With time, he amassed a private collection of figures, which first attracted the burghers of Berne and then drew admirers from farther afield.

Circa 1863, a member of the French royal family called to inspect the creations of the anatomist-turned-artist. This was the Prince de Conti, cousin of King Louis XV, a free-wheeling playboy and patron of the arts. De Conti was so taken with what he saw of Curtius’s that he pledged his patronage right on the spot, under the condition that Curtius set up his shop in Paris. Hanging up his forceps, Curtius abandoned medicine and moved to the French capital, leaving behind his housekeeper, Anna Maria, and her daughter. In Paris, Curtius joined a colony of artists sponsored by de Conti, working side-by-side with playwrights and painters and occasionally dining at their benefactor’s palatial home. Over the next three years or so, Curtius made a name for himself, exhibiting his wares at fairground booths and elsewhere in the city. Customers particularly appreciated his risqué displays. According to one account, “The sale of little groups of women and licentious figures to the curious for their boudoirs brought him in more money than [the rest of his collection].”

In 1768, the Swiss expat took an unforeseen step: he invited his former housekeeper and her little girl, Marie, to leave Switzerland and live with him in Paris. Could Anna Maria whip up such a mean casserole that Curtius just had to have her in his kitchen? Seems unlikely, so it’s not surprising that this decision has fueled speculation among historians about a potential romantic entanglement between the wax man and his cook. Some have even suggested that Curtius may have fathered Marie, a theory that runs counter to both Tussaud’s memoirs and documentary evidence of her baptism in Strasbourg. Whatever the case, Curtius cared deeply about both mother and daughter, and Marie would forever reciprocate those feelings—she called him “Uncle” for the rest of her life, evoking family ties, if only in name.

The Most Happening Street in Paris

Going to live with Uncle Phillipe meant that Marie grew up at the heart of Paris’s entertainment industry. Sometime around 1770, a year or two after her relocation to France, Curtius opened a permanent exhibition with a house attached to it, where he, Anna Maria, and little Marie resided. The domicile doubled as a workshop and studio, perennially cluttered with half-finished mannequins and room-temperature beeswax. The property stood on the single most happening street in Paris, the Boulevard du Temple. Constructed between 1656-1705 and planted with tress on either side, it was part of a network of major thoroughfares that linked one side of the city to the other. By the mid-eighteenth century, the Boulevard du Temple was crammed daily with pedestrians and pleasure-seekers, peddlers and street performers. In the words of historian Robert M. Isherwood, “Certainly [the boulevards] were the greatest show in pre-Revolutionary France, the center of a renaissance of marketplace culture.” It is difficult to imagine a more booming pleasure bazaar than the Boulevard du Temple.

Dozens of businesses lined the avenue—cafés, brothels, gambling dens, pleasure gardens, and more. Most beloved of all were the theaters. Prohibited by law from staging drama with spoken dialogue—that privilege belonged to more august venues such as the Comédie Française—the boulevard theaters specialized in eye-popping pantomimes. Jean-Baptiste Nicolet ran one of the hottest venues in the city, home to Les Grands Danceurs, a troupe of acrobats, musicians, actors, and dancers. Many of his stars—both human and animal—loomed large in the business. A gymnast called Le Petit Diable, the Little Devil, could dance on a tightrope without cracking the eggs that were tied to his feet. Even more sensational was Turcot, the trained monkey. Like the Petit Diable, the simian marvel could walk a tightrope. He could also impersonate one of the period’s most acclaimed classical actors, perched on a balcony overlooking the entrance to Nicolet’s theater. For whatever reason, he did so with a nightcap on his head and a pair of slippers on his lower paws.

Theater managers served up their extravaganzas indoors. Yet hundreds of wonders were to be seen outside, too. Artists of every stripe plied their trade in the streets, often atop wooden-trestle stages. A theater troupe put on daily three-act puppet dramas, complete with songs and dance routines. A Portuguese ventriloquist well into his eighties conversed with an automaton that spoke with the voice of a three-year-old boy. A one-man band played violin with his hands while bowing a bass with his feet. The master conjurer known as Connus vanished into thin air, read minds, and created optical illusions with the help of mirrors.

Other performers were less artistic though equally engrossing, executing feats of physical daring and outright grotesquery. Step right up and prepare to be amazed by the Incombustible Spaniard, the Mediterranean daredevil who guzzles boiling oil and walks across burning-hot irons, bare-foot. Feast your eyes on Jaques de Falaise, the insatiable Frenchman who feasts on live frogs. Behold the Boy Who Could See Underground—you can probably work out what his superpower was. The wunderkind feigned his x-ray vision so ingeniously that academics praised his powers of perception in learned journals.

Animal-entertainment also flourished in the open air. Munito the dog told fortunes while a floppy-eared white rabbit solved algebra problems. Other diversions were crueler in nature. Fights pitted bear against bear, bull against bull, and dog against dog, raging until one of the contestants perished.

With so many sights, the Boulevard du Temple was aswarm with men, women, and children from sunup to sundown. An increasing number of boulevardiers, the French term for people who loved to explore the avenues, could stay after nightfall thanks to the installation of streetlights in 1781. Walkers and riders hailed from every strata of Parisian society; eyeballing your social superiors—or inferiors—was as much a pastime as watching the street performers. As a result, the boulevard combined the finest and grittiest facets of life in France. To quote Isherwood again, “There was glamour: Diamond-clad courtesans and courtiers, often indistinguishable to onlookers, wended their way under the trees in decorous coaches. There was filth: The clogged lanes were often turned into miniature dust bowls or muddy ravines, and an unwary stroller was doused with urine and feces hurled from upper-story windows.” There was also crime. In fact, murder and robbery were so rife that the Boulevard du Temple earned the seedy nickname of the Boulevard du Crime. You could practically call it Murder Boulevard.

All this unfolded right outside Marie’s front door. Every time she stepped out to fetch bread from the baker, she waded into this stream of glitter and grit. Throughout her childhood and adolescence, Marie would have doubtless enjoyed this wide, wild world as a paying customer. Indeed, she appears to have had a special fondness for one of the more bizarre animal spectacles: fights between fleas—you heard that right, fleas. Many years later, after taking control of her business and taking the show on the road, she treated customers to these miniscule duels. At the same time, the men and women who lived and worked on the boulevard were not just neighbors or familiar faces. They were Uncle Phillippe’s competition, and they were hustling day in, day out. For Marie, living on the Boulevard du Temple reinforced the importance of at least two keys to success in show business. You needed a talent that few could offer, and you needed to work if you wanted to make it big.

Marie’s Apprenticeship

Marie took these lessons to heart, and there’s little doubt as to why. She was destined for show business from an early age, and lucky for her, she had both the natural ability and work ethic to thrive as a wax modeler. She also happened to live with the astounding Curtius, giving her a unique opportunity to learn from the best.

Marie’s apprenticeship began in girlhood. Rather than start with human subjects, Curtius at first had her model fruits and flowers. These early exercises cultivated a meticulous attention to detail, requiring her to mind the distinctive shape, hue, and texture of leaves, petals, and skin.

In time, the neophyte graduated from apples and roses to human beings. As she would have learned, the most important part of every wax portrait was also the most difficult: the head. If the head is bungled, the model may not look like the person it is supposed to represent, nor may it possess the illusion of life that makes wax sculptures so beguiling and uncanny. By necessity, Marie went about the process of creating the head with the utmost care. After selecting a subject, she made a detailed sketch of that individual’s face, neck, and hair—draftsmanship was an essential skill for every wax modeler. Guided by this preliminary drawing, Marie constructed a clay model, judiciously sculpted in correct proportion to the life-sized subject. Next, the artist covered this mold with liquid plaster known as plaster-of-Paris. About an inch-and-a-half thick, this outer layer gradually assumed the shape of the clay underneath. Afterward, the modeler removed this outer layer in segments, ranging from eight to eighteen in number, depending on the shape of the subject’s head. Next, Marie joined these sections by means of a sophisticated peg-and-socket system. Then, she poured molten wax into the cast. This step needed to be carried out with finesse; an unsteady hand could produce bubbles, which in turn could crease, say, an unwanted wrinkle in the forehead of the unfinished model. After filling the plaster-of-Paris cranium to the brim, Marie set it aside to cool. As the temperature dropped, the wax hardened inside. The wax nearest the plaster cast solidified first. Before the rest rest of the liquid could harden, she dumped it out, leaving a hollow head about two inches thick. Then, disassembling the plaster exterior, Marie judged the fidelity of her wax simulacrum to the flesh-and-blood subject. Now, Marie and Curtius could make minor touchups as necessary. They could also color the wax, using Curtius’s secret pigment recipes, which were eerily evocative of human skin tones in all their diversity.

Yet there was still work to be done. Sticking her hand through a gaping hole at the bottom of the neck, Marie set glass eyes into the vacant sockets, positioning and repositioning them until she had achieved the proper angle and depth—if she labored with less than the highest precision, the sculpture could come out bug-eyed or squinty. It wasn’t always the case, but when Marie and her mentor depicted their subjects open-mouthed, they added real human teeth, possibly sourced from traveling tooth-pullers who worked in the neighborhood. Then there was the most exacting chore of all, the one most likely to drive me insane. Gently warming the scalp of the model, Marie inserted hundreds upon hundreds upon hundreds of strands of hair by hand, one at a time, the roots about a quarter of an inch beneath the surface. This patience-trying enterprise lasted until the model had a full head of hair, which could take anywhere from ten to fourteen days. It’s uncertain how Marie and her tutor obtained their hair supply, but they may have bought them from vendors who traded with wigmakers, in which case their effigies featured real human hair.

Infinitely less artistry went into legs and torsos—you could have propped them up in a corn field and used them as scarecrows. They typically consisted of wood or leather stuffed with straw or horsehair. Like mannequins in a modern-day shopping mall, these dummies existed to be covered in garments, the more eye-grabbing the better. Marie and Curtius dressed each wood-and-leather effigy in the kind of clothing the real-life counterpart liked to wear. As Berridge puts it, “Authenticity was sought down to the last button, buckle and lace ruffle.” In the waxworks, kings, queens, and aristocrats sported the richest finery. In some cases, the costumes proved as much of a draw as the wax statues themselves. Finally, there were the hands, molded much as the heads had been and mounted on the arms.


Tussaud improved quickly. In her own words, once she had completed her education, “it was impossible to distinguish as to the degrees of excellence between [her and Curtius’s] performances.” At the age of sixteen, she was ready to unveil her work at the exhibition. Her first subject was a man of tremendous cultural significance, and that Curtius trusted her with the task of modeling speaks to his confidence in her capabilities. Her inaugural portrait depicted Voltaire, that literary luminary who wielded his pen like a ten-foot skewer.

Judging from her memoirs, Tussaud was well-acquainted the sharp-witted novelist, playwright, and critic of the church and monarchy. Tussaud portrays Curtius’s house on the Boulevard du Temple as a jam-packed hangout for noted artists and thinkers. Voltaire popped by on a regular basis. Tall, slender, wrinkly, bewigged, and often attired in a brown coat with gold-laced buttons, the septuagenarian pecked Marie on the cheek and admired “what a pretty little dark-eyed girl she was.” He was nothing but smiles and kisses when greeting her, but the knives came out when he debated with others over dinner. On multiple occasions, Tussaud maintains, Voltaire and his rival, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, dined together at Curtius’s table, waging philosophical war against each other once the wine started flowing. Rousseau accused his enemy of plagiarizing his ideas, incensing Voltaire. Meanwhile, Tussaud writes (and I’m not even kidding here), American diplomat Benjamin Franklin listened in silence, the occasional smile lighting up his face. When Voltaire finally left, Rousseau erupted with a string of curses: “Oh the old monkey! The knave! The rascal!” Marie heard every last aphorism and insult, precocious enough to eat supper with the grown-ups.

There’s reason to question whether Tussaud witnessed such exchanges as often as claims. Curtius did have pull in the world of arts and ideas, as did his patron, the Prince de Conti, so he likely entertained high-profile guests. Yet as Berridge points out, Voltaire spent much of his life in exile from Paris. It’s improbable that he participated in multiple wine-soaked arguments with Rousseau in Curtius’s dining room. The entire scene comes across as staged, especially when you add Benjamin Franklin to the table. Curtius’s—and, later, Tussaud’s—exhibitions were renowned for tableaux that placed a gaggle of celebrities side-by-side—just as a tableau at a modern wax museum might combine Michael Jackson, David Bowie, and Elton John in a single installation. The artifice of the conceit is part of what makes it so delightful. Well, this dinner-table gathering of great Enlightenment minds sounds suspiciously similar to one of those supremely contrived tableaux, so far-fetched as to render it dubious.

That said, there’s little reason to doubt that a sculpture of Voltaire was the first that Marie put on public display. She depicted the saber-penned philosopher seated at a table, surrounded by books. Tussaud would later take the model with her to England, and it remains in the London museum’s collection to this day.

The Den of Illustrious Thieves

As Curtius and his protege collaborated, their collection became one of magnificent variety. Professor of French history Pamela Pilbeam calls it “an eclectic mixture of unreformed royalism and enlightenment combined with exoticism and violence.” Members of the extended French royal family were amply represented—we’ll hear more about that next episode. Yet foreign royalty was not forgotten. Particularly buzzworthy was a statue of King Frederick II of Prussia, attired in the monarch’s own clothing. Next to the effigy were three of Frederick’s uniforms, too, rather shabbier than expected, museumgoers opined. In addition to Voltaire, Rousseau and Franklin each had a place in the show-room. Plenty of artists were also on view. For example, a glammed-up replica of comic actress Louise-Françoise Contat reclined on a couch, suggestive of wax anatomical Venuses. Some displays weren’t waxen at all—case in point, the Egyptian mummy, supposedly dug up from a tomb in Memphis. Because why not?

And then there was the violence. Sometime around 1783, a few years after Voltaire first appeared in the waxworks, Curtius opened a new exhibition dedicated to true crime on the Boulevard du Temple, the Caverne des Grands Voleurs. The name literally translates to the Cave of Great Thieves, but I like to call it the Den of Illustrious Thieves. This attraction would one day morph into the Chamber of Horrors. From its beginning, the Den displayed likeness of infamous criminals, a striking counterpoint to more admirable politicians and artists elsewhere on the premises. As in the case of his other handiwork, Curtius marketed these models as accurate portrayals of the actual offenders. Partly for this reason and partly because you could look at each effigy up close, it felt like you were in the presence of cold-blooded killers. In the words of art historian Lela Graybill, the Den offered “a transgressive intimacy with those who were socially and politically reviled.” Curtius even dabbed the malefactors with fake blood, the better to chill his customers’.

Shortly after the Den’s grand opening, Curtius introduced an early hit, a sculpture of poisoner Antoine François Desrues, who committed his crimes and paid with his life in 1777. We’ll pick up with Desrues’s story after a quick break.

Old-Regime France and the Rise of New Money

Before we can understand why Desrues killed and why his transgressions struck such a nerve, we need to look at the socio-economics of pre-revolutionary France, sometime referred to as ancien-régime or old-regime France.

Pre-revolutionary French society was one of entrenched hierarchy and profound inequality. Hierarchy structured every centimeter of the country. The king ruled over his subjects, the clergy over laypeople, nobles over peasants, men over women, and the list goes on. These hierarchical relationships persisted because they were seen as natural and sanctioned by God. Everyone fell into one of the so-called Three Estates. The First Estate included clergymen, the Second the nobility, and the Third the commoners—everyone else, from the lowliest pauper to the swankiest merchant. The Third Estate was by far the largest group as, together, the First and Second Estates represented roughly two percent of the population. At the heart of this system was the notion of privilege. “Privilege” literally means “private law,” and various privileges entitled certain people to special status before the law. For example, thanks to a privilege enshrined in the legal code, glassmakers alone had the right to fashion stained glass windows. While people from all walks of life could lay claim to privileges of some sort, the First and Second Estates—the clergy and nobility—enjoyed more than anyone else. Maybe most vexingly to their Third-Estate compatriots, the clergy and nobility were largely exempt from taxes. This largest tax burden fell on the peasantry, about four-fifths of the populace. Peasants also owed dues to the local signeur or “lord”—usually a bishop or a nobleman. Within this setup, peasants paid to grind grain in their lord’s mill, to bake bread in his oven, or to press grapes in his wine-press. Unsurprisingly, the poorest members of the Third Estate often (though not always) resented the privileges of the clergy and nobility.

Yet not every member of the Third Estate was poor—far from it. In the mid-eighteenth century, old-regime France saw an economic boom and the rise of new money. Foreign trade and colonial commerce led to a full-blown consumer revolution, especially in cities, with the upper crust buying precious commodities from around the globe. Sugar came from Caribbean slave plantations, calicos from India, carpets from Persia, and porcelain from China. Slave traders and merchants made it rich as a result. At the same time, domestic artisans manufactured luxury goods—hardwood tables, golden watches, wigs for every conceivable occasion, and more. Financiers, lawyers, and other professionals also numbered among the burgeoning middle class.

Like any common farmer, wealthy members of the bourgeoisie typically hailed from the Third Estate. Nevertheless, many of them wished to live like nobility and could even afford to. It became common for merchants and the like to add an aristocratic “de” to their names. Others married into aristocratic families. Still others bought land and other status symbols like private carriages. According to Louis-Sébastien Mercier, a clear-eyed observer of old-regime France (not to mention a pioneer of the science fiction genre), “A [horse-drawn] carriage is the goal of any man that sets out on the unclean roads to riches: the first stroke of luck buys him a cabriolet, which he drives himself; the next a coupé; and the third step is marked by a carriage, and the final triumph is a second conveyance for his wife.” Some literally bought their way into the Second Estate. It was possible to purchase an office that ennobled the holder. You could buy a high judgeship or even pay to serve as secretary to the king, an office that came with zero responsibility and all the privileges of the Second Estate.

Meritocracy, capitalism, and the nouveau riche generated friction with the ancient institutions of privilege. Think about how wealthy, middle-class merchants could pay a nominal fee to become noblemen. According to tradition, nobility coursed through your veins as blue blood. You inherited your rank by birth—all you had to do was start breathing and keep at it. By the mid-to-late 1700s, however, any high-earning, red-blooded merchant could pay his way into the Second Estate. Such individuals often attained their hard-won status through industry and talent. (Of course, good fortune, social capital, and labor exploitation play a part in such victories, but you know what I mean.) The success of these businessmen highlighted the arbitrariness of the old regime, a system that bestowed privileges on nobles who did nothing to earn them. Such inequities would later provide fuel for the French Revolution, leading to the abolishment of hereditary peerages.

It was against this backdrop of economic prosperity and social climbing that Antoine François Desrues rose to notoriety.

The Épicier

Born in Chartres, in 1744, Desrues came from a humble household, his father a corn merchant and his mother a housewife. By the age of three, both his parents had passed away, whereupon the orphan went to live with his uncle.

As Desrues neared puberty, he and his family encountered uncertainty about his gender. Likely due to incomplete genital formation at birth, doctors were initially unable to determine his sex. Desrues’s contemporaries thought of him as a hermaphrodite, but today we would call him intersex. Considering him more effeminate than masculine, Desrues’s guardians raised him as a girl, but questions lingered about his femaleness. The matter remained unresolved until Desrues reached the age of twelve, at which time he underwent an operation. Afterward, physicians declared him male. Despite this revelation, Derues would always look feminine in appearance, thanks to a slender frame and beardless chin. Moreover, as an adult, he sported women’s clothing and was known for his trademark floral dressing gown along with a nightcap that resembled a bonnet.

When it came time to choose a profession, Desrues trained as an épicier, a grocer who specialized in the sale of spices. Yet there was more in his store than cinnamon and cardamom. In old-regime France, grocers in general and épiciers in particular doubled as druggists—their scales weighed anise and arsenic alike. As part of his job, Desrues handled lethal substances on a regular basis, and he knew how to use them if ever he needed to.

With patience and practice, apprentice became master. By 1770, he had opened his own shop in Paris, making him a member of the burgeoning bourgeoisie.

This poor orphan had come a long way, and in 1772, he entered another world altogether. That year, like other affluent, middle-class men who craved social advancement, he married into the nobility. His fiancée, Marie-Louise, hailed from the blue-blooded Nicolai clan, an honorable household. Within a year or two of their marriage, the couple welcomed a son and daughter into their family. Flush with cash and perhaps wary of rearing the kids in the city, the Desrues resolved to leave Paris for the countryside.

The Sweet Deal

In May 1775, Desrues hit upon his dream home. He and his wife had recently befriended the owner of the property, the aristocratic Saint-Faust de la Motte. Monsieur de la Motte had made up his mind to sell his country estate and move back to the big city. To that end, he granted his wife power of attorney and tasked her with finding a buyer for the house. When Desrues learned of the sale, he expressed interest and journeyed to the property with his wife and children so they could see it for themselves.

Known as Buison-Souef, the sumptuous manor house stood about a mile from the southern Parisian suburb of Villeneuve-le-Roi. One side of the dwelling overlooked the vineyards along the Yonne river while the other consisted of gardens and parkland. Here, the Desrues could rusticate in style. Invited by their hosts to stay for an extended period, Desrues passed the summer and autumn of 1775 at Buison-Souef, negotiating the sale and palling around with the de la Mottes. Desrues was pious and endlessly charming, qualities his hosts appreciated in him. According to contemporary accounts of this say, the épicier often played the entertainer, even dressing as a woman for after-dinner drag shows.

At last, in December, Desrues finalized the terms of the sale. He agreed to a price of 130,000 livres for Buison-Souef, to be paid in installments. The first—a payment of 12,000 livres—was due to de la Motte upon the signing of the contracts. As a show of good faith, Desrues handed over a promissory note for an additional 4,200 livres, due April 1, 1776.

Desrues is Through

Desrues gave Monsieur and Madame de la Motte his every assurance that he was good for the money. And why should they have doubted him? He was a prosperous business owner who had married well. There was just one problem: none of that was true.

In actual fact, Desrues was broke. He had opened his own grocery in Paris, but the enterprise had foundered since the beginning. Waist-deep in debt, he supplemented his income by becoming a moneylender. He fared little better in this line of work than he had as a grocer. It wasn’t for lack of clientele—men of noble rank who had gambled and drunk themselves halfway into debtors’ prison often came to Desrues for loans. The trouble is spendthrifts tend to forget or ignore their debts. Soon, Derues was borrowing money only to lend to borrowers who would never repay him.

But what about his wife? Wasn’t she a Nicolai? Yeah, that was a lie, too—there wasn’t a drop of noble blood in her body. In truth, Desrues’s spouse was not Marie-Louise Nicolai (spelled N-I-C-O-L-A-I) but rather Marie-Louise Nicolais (spelled N-I-C-O-L-A-I-S). That pesky “s” at the end of her name was all that separated this daughter of an ordinary artilleryman from a descendent of an exalted line, at least on paper. When Desrues married Marie-Louise Nicolais, he reportedly blotted out that make-or-break last letter on the marriage certificate, passing her off as a Nicolai.

By the time Desrues signed the dotted line for Buison-Souef, he couldn’t cross the street without bumping into a creditor. It was time to get out of Paris. But escaping moneylenders was only one of his goals—if that was all Desrues wanted, he could have lived anywhere outside the capital. The truth was that Desrues did not want to live just anywhere—he set his sights on Buison-Souef. He desired the life of a gentleman, whether he could afford to live it or not.

The Horrible Host

Spring turned to summer turned to fall turned to winter, without Derues’s paying so much as a sou. By December 1776, one full year after reaching their terms, Monsieur de la Motte puzzled over what might be afoot. Not yet suspicious though certainly perplexed, he sent his wife to Paris to check up on the buyer. Madame dela Motte packed her bags and rode to the capital, accompanied by the couple’s teenaged son, Edouard.

When Desrues became aware of her trip, he returned the de la Motte’s hospitality of the previous year and invited the lady to stay with him and his family. His guest arrived on December 16, and before long, she had settled in at chateau Desrues, catching up with friends and enjoying the city in the daytime while her generous host wined and dined her after sundown. Anticipating an extended stay, Edouard enrolled at a private school in a neighboring street.

Desrues perceived an opportunity. Madame de la Motte still had power of attorney over the estate, and he had easy access to her food. The spice merchant hatched a plan that would get him and his family into Buison-Souef gratis.

In early January 1777, Madame de la Motte fell ill. Hope that this was just a passing indisposition faded as weeks went by without signs of recovery. By the thirtieth of that month, she had bedridden. On January 31, Desrues dismissed his family and household staff for the day, leaving the house empty apart from him and the ailing aristocrat. Nevertheless, Desrues received an unwelcome visit. Young Edouard de la Motte came calling, worried about his mother’s persistent illness. Desrues assured him that Madame de la Motte would reover in no time and allowed him to look in on her as she rested. Peering through a cracked door into the shadowy sickroom, Edouard could just make out the contours of his mother’s body in bed, the sheets drawn around her. Thanking Monsieur Desrues, the youth took his leave. Without any fear of further interruptions, Desrues administered the fatal dose of a poison that he had been slipping in smaller quantities into Madame de la Motte’s meals.

The following day, Desrues hired a team of porters. They found him waiting outside his front door, a heavy trunk at his side. Per their client’s instructions, the laborers hoisted the luggage onto a carriage and unloaded the cargo at a nearby house. A few weeks earlier, Desrues had visited this very address, introducing himself as a wine merchant. He wished to rent the cellar, he explained, so that he could bury a premium vintage underground—a little-known method for aging wine, apparently. If the owner had any doubts, she clearly looked beyond them and rented him the basement. Within twenty-four hours, Desrues had entombed the trunk and its contents within the dank darkness of the cellar.

Poisoning Number Two

On February 12, a knock came at Desrues’s door. Edouard de la Motte was back, anxious for news about his mother’s condition. Surprised that Master de la Motte had not heard, Desrues filled him in: his mother had made a full recovery and sallied out to Versailles, intent on securing a position at court. Edouard was taken aback. Desrues then offered to drive him to Versailles so that he and his mother could reunite. Heaving a sigh of relief, he accepted. Yet the journey would take a half day at least, and Desrues inquired if Edouard would care for a snack before leaving—a cup of hot chocolate, perhaps? Again, he accepted. Smiling that winsome smile of his, Desrues disappeared into the kitchen and emerged a minute later, the confection in hand. Edouard gulped it down, and the two hit the road.

As the two travelers sat in their carriage, a faint malaise crept over Edouard. His unease worsened as they progressed, and by the time they reached the town of Versailles, he was exhausted and nearly delirious. Desrues brought the horse to a stop outside the Fleurs-de-lys inn and tried to book a room for the night. The innkeeper refused them shelter, however, concerned that the teenager might have smallpox, a malady that was currently ravaging the area. Leaving the boy to languish in an isolated apartment at the inn, Desrues sought lodgings elsewhere in town, leading him to the doorstep of a cooper with a furnished room to spare. Desrues identified himself as a doctor named Beaupre, come to Versailles with his beloved nephew. Dr. Beaupre had intended to accompany his kinsman to his new place of employment, but a sickness overcame him. This bout was sudden though not unexpected. Lowering his voice, the physician explained that his nephew suffered from venereal disease and contended with intermittent flare-ups like this one. Such afflictions were taboo at the time, and by sharing this information with the barrel-maker, Desrues ensured that he would be discrete if asked about the teenager’s ailment. Desrues collected Edouard from the inn and whisked him back to the cooper’s home, shutting himself and the sufferer up in their room. When the sun rose on Versailles the next morning, the boy was dead. A day or two later, Edouard de la Motte was buried under the name of Louis Beaupre, aged twenty-two, according to his gravestone. Before leaving Versailles, the grieving doctor paid a priest six livres to pray for his dearly departed nephew’s soul. We’ll hear about Desrues’s brazen attempts to get away with these homicides after a quick break.

Things Fall Apart

Near the end of February, Monsieur de la Motte received a pleasant surprise at Buison-Souef: it was Desrues. The country aristocrat had started to worry, having heard nothing from his wife or son for the better part of a month. Part of him had wanted to travel to Paris to seek them out, but ill health coupled with freezing temperatures had confined him to the house. He listened with interest and then disbelief as Desrues caught him up: Desrues and Madame de la Motte had completed the transaction, the merchant declared, having struck a new bargain. Per this arrangement, Desrues had paid 100,000 livres for the estate. He now had in his possession a deed of sale for Buison-Souef as well as a contract verifying payment of the aforesaid amount to Madame de la Motte.

A hundred questions raced through Monsieur de la Motte’s mind. Where had Desrues suddenly gotten this money? A friend loaned it to him, the épicier replied. Why hadn’t Madame de la Motte sent word about the renegotiations not to mention the sale? A look of embarrassment shadowed Desrues’s face. Finally, he came out with it: Madame de la Motte had left for Versailles, hoping to gain an appointment at court and without any intention of returning to her husband. Now or perhaps at a later date—it’s hard to tell given the sources I consulted—Desrues also stated that Madame de la Motte had run off with a lover, joined by her son.

Desrues told these lies with the poise and conviction of a master thespian. Compelling as his performance was, Monsieur de la Motte had his doubts. After years of happy marriage, it was unthinkable that his wife would leave his side for some position at court, let alone the bed of a paramour. That this explanation was coming from Desrues—not from her directly—only added to his skepticism. He would only believe it if he heard it from his wife. It dawned on Desrues: if he wanted to keep this ruse alive, Madame de lad Motte would have to rise from the grave. He took his leave of Buison-Souef and hastened to bring about this resurrection.

A week or two later, on March 12, a woman arrived in the Lyons office of a notary known as Master N——. Dressed in black silks and with a dark hood drawn low over her face, she called herself Madame de la Motte. It was her wish that the notary draw up a contract authorizing her husband—the pair had separated, she maintained—to collect interest on a sum of 30,000 livres. The unsuspecting Master N—— obliged.

Many sources from the period assert that this Madame de la Motte was Desrues himself, disguised as a woman, supposedly making use of his effeminate attributes. However, modern observers have argued that the poisoner could just as easily have sent a female accomplice—perhaps his wife—to Lyons.

Whatever the case, shortly after the Lyons affair, Desrues found himself under surveillance by the Parisian police. In early-to-mid March, Monsieur de la Motte had charged to the city and gone to a magistrate about this case. The police initially suspected fraud, but upon making inquiries, they entertained a more sinister possibility. Madame de la Motte’s prolonged illness, her unforeseen disappearance, plus the vanishing of her son from school all pointed to foul play. Further investigation led detectives to the wine cellar, where they exhumed the body of Madame de la Motte. Under interrogation, Desrues tried to talk his way out of trouble. Anybody could have buried that body there, he protested, only to change his story. Okay, fine, he had dug the grave and laid her to rest, but it wasn’t what it looked like. She had come down with a life-sapping sickness, and despite his best efforts to restore her to health, she succumbed to the ailment. Fearful that others would suspect him of murder, Desrues interred the body in secret. Things went from bad to worse for Desrues when police unearthed the body of Edouard, buried under a false name. Both mother and son were determined to have died of a corrosive poison, perhaps mercury chloride. Confronted with this evidence, Desrues nevertheless maintained his innocence.

A trial ensued, and Desrues was found guilty of murdering Madame de la Motte and her son. The sentence was death.

Desrues would die on the sixth of May. Before his execution, however, the authorities made one last attempt to extract a confession—this time by torture. The prisoner was subjected to a time-honored implement called the boot. First, his captors encased his legs in wooden casts with horizontal openings along the sides. Then, using mallets, they hammered wooden wedges through those openings, breaking his bones. Despite the agony, Desrues never confessed. Later, guards conveyed him to the Place de Grève, a square in central Paris, where a crowd had gathered to watch his punishment, much as one would sixteen years later when Marie Antoinette ascended the scaffold. Compared to the queen, Desrues died a more excruciating death. Invented in 1789, the guillotine was conceived—at least in theory—as a more humane means of capital punishment, with death instantaneous and virtually painless. In old-regime France, the execution of criminals was by no means intended to minimize suffering. Desrues’s executioners strapped him to a wheel and stretching his limbs until his arms, back, and legs broke. After this ordeal, they lifted his mangled frame and cast him into a fire burning on the platform. According to one witness, Desrues was still alive when the flames consumed him. The dead man’s ashes were thrown into the wind immediately after his public cremation. Children are said to have raced to the scaffold, eager to pocket a fragment of bone or dip a handkerchief in a pool of blood.

Sixty years after Desrues’s demise, one of France’s best-known novelists underscored the audacity of the poisoner’s misdeeds. From 1839-41, Alexandre Dumas père, author of such classics as The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers, compiled the eight-volume essay collection, Celebrated Crimes. (If you’re like me, you’re surprised to discover that Dumas was a prolific true-crime writer.) In a piece on Desrues, Dumas writes of him, “when one examines the low, crooked, and obscure life, one finds a fresh stain at every step, and perhaps no one has ever surpassed him in dissimulation, in profound hypocrisy, in indefatigable depravity.” His depravity was indefatigable—Desrues made it his full-time job to take possession of Buison-Souef. And nobody can doubt his gifts for dissimulation. In the course of his scheme, Desrues told who-can-say how many lies and impersonated a nobleman, a wine merchant, a doctor, an uncle, and perhaps even Madame de la Motte.

Despite the heinousness of Desrues’s crimes, scholars have suggested that the public sympathized with the murderer, at least to a degree. His desire to live as an aristocrat regardless of his means struck a chord at a time when the boundary between the Second and Third Estates seemed especially arbitrary. In her article on Desrues, Annie Duprat suggests that some admired the sheer effrontery of murdering aristocrats to appropriate their property. Duprat even contends that a police inspector, alarmed by public sympathy for the murderer, commissioned a series of handbills and prints to portray him as a monster.

At any rate, Desrues had lost none of his sensational appeal when his waxen likeness debuted inside the Den of Illustrious Thieves. No visual evidence exists of the sculpture, but we can make educated guesses about it. Probably based on an earlier engraving like the one featured on the Art of Crime website, the model may have worn the murderer’s dressing gown and nightcap. Curtius would have also applied fake blood, a grisly reminder of his execution. This figure and others went over well enough for the Den to become a permanent exhibit, updated on a semi-regular basis.

When Desrues first appeared at the Den, the French Revolution lay on the horizon. In the early days of this tumultuous period, Curtius and Tussaud not only became embroiled in revolutionary politics, but the Den took on political overtones. Next episode, we’ll hear the amazing true story of how the waxworks played a central role in one of the Revolution’s earliest protests. We’ll also talk about a popular exhibit that debuted in the Den after the outbreak of revolution: the wax likeness of a criminal who had been locked away for decades inside the Bastille, the iron-clad fortress and infamous symbol of old-regime oppression.


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