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  • Gavin Whitehead

The Phantom of the Bastille (S3E2)

Updated: Feb 24

On July 12, 1789, a crowd of protestors furious over King Louis XVI’s policies swarmed Madame Tussaud and Philippe Curitus’s wax museum, demanding busts of prominent political figures. This episode led to bloodshed that same afternoon. Two days later, a mob stormed the Bastille, a medieval prison, marking the outbreak of the French Revolution. Soon after, the Den of Illustrious Thieves exhibited objects associated with the Bastille, including an effigy of the notorious Comte de Lorges, a prisoner who supposedly languished there for three decades. Show notes and full transcript below.

Above: The freeing of a prisoner, almost certainly the Comte de Lorges, who was usually depicted as a confused old man with a long beard. Held by the Wellcome Collection, London (Catalogue # 43706i). Public Domain.



“The Palais Royal: A Walk in the Gardens / Promenade du Jardin du Palais Royal, 1787” by Louis Le Coeur. From the Widener Collection, National Gallery of Art, Washington DC (Accession # 1942.9.2265). Public Domain.

Portrait of Madame Elizabeth, sister of King Louis XVI and Tussaud’s reputed patron, painted in 1787. While it seems unlikely that Tussaud lived for years with Elizabeth at Versailles, the Princess is known to have practiced wax modeling, so it’s not inconceivable that she learned the craft from Tussaud. Interestingly, the painting is by Adélaïde Labille-Guiard, one of only four women artists admitted into the prestigious French Royal Academy. She specialized in portraits and is known to have trained a younger generation of female apprentices to become painters. Held by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (Accession #2007.41). Public Domain.

Caricature of the relationship among the Three Estates (1789). A peasant, representing the Third Estate, bears the burden of a clergyman and a noble, representing the First and Second Estates, respectively. Held by the Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris (Catalogue # Hennin, 10568). Public Domain.

“Première scène de la Révolution française à Paris” by Jean-Baptiste Lesufur. Created between 1789-94. Held by the Musée Carnavalet, Paris (Inventory number RF 36572, Recto). Public Domain.

The Bastille before its destruction. Line engraving made in 1789 by J.F. Borgnet. Held by the Wellcome Collection, London (Catalogue # 21512i). Public Domain.

Madame Tussaud effigy of the Comte de Lorges. Notice the long gray bird and the missing front teeth.



---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.

---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.

---Lüsenbrink, Hans-Jürgen. The Bastille: A History of a Symbol of Despotism and Freedom. Translated by Norbert Schürer. Durham; London: Duke University Press, 1997.

---McCallam, David. “Waxing Revolutionary: Reflections on a Raid on a Waxworks at the Outbreak of the French Revolution.” French History 16, no. 2 (2002): 153-72.

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



It was after midday on July 12, 1789, when Camille Desmoulins leapt onto a table in the center of Paris. He harangued an angry crowd that had gathered and would soon reach between five and six thousand in number. A trained lawyer and sharp orator, Desmoulins held forth outside the Café Foy, one of several such establishments at the Palais Royal, a shopping and entertainment complex with public gardens that had recently transformed into a hotbed of political dissidence. The impassioned speaker reminded his audience that the people of France had suffered immense hardship over the last twelve months. An abysmal harvest in the summer of 1788 had given way to one of the harshest winters in living memory, leading to shortages of two necessities: bread and firewood. By April 1789, the price of a four-pound loaf of bread had risen to record highs, and it was feared widely that hunger would breed crime. Military convoys were called upon to protect grain shipments while armed watchmen guarded bakeries. Nobody could count on the king to bail them out. The monarchy sagged beneath a mountain of debt, accumulated in part through royal extravagance along with involvement in costly wars, including the American Revolution. Amid these dire straits, the French could find at least a modicum of solace in knowing that finance minister Jacques Necker had their interests at heart. In previous years, this Swiss-born banker had earned their support by pushing for fiscal transparency and advocating for tax and electoral reforms. They trusted Necker to manage the budget and keep bread prices down. Then, on July 11, King Louis XVI fired Necker without warning. In so doing, Louis lit a fuse to a bomb that would explode into a mushroom cloud. When news of Necker’s dismissal made its way to the Palais Royal the following day, Desmoulins snapped. This latest outrage would not stand, he insisted to the masses.

As Desmoulins’s rhetoric intensified, the likelihood of violence grew. He called upon his audience to take up arms and don cockades, a ribbon or badge worn on military headgear. Meanwhile, rumors spread among the multitude that the police were descending on the Palais Royal to stamp out the hubbub. When one of his listeners voiced concern about an impending crackdown, Desmoulins struck a defiant tone. In a flash of inspiration, he plucked a leaf from a tree and urged the assembly to follow suit so that collectively they could march beneath a banner of green—a color associated with hope at the time. The masses swarmed around trees in the vicinity and ripped whatever foliage they could from the branches, littering the ground with broken twigs. Gradually, the crowd emptied out of the Palais and took to the streets. There was hell to be raised.

The keyed-up rabble had two main objectives: first, the procurement of weapons. Yet just as urgent was the need to underline the seriousness of Necker’s sacking. Demonstrators hurried to as many theaters as possible and demanded the immediate suspension of performances in recognition of Necker’s fall. Playhouses typically halted operations during times of public mourning, so this act was meant to cast Necker’s dismissal as a symbolic death. Many well-attended theater venues stood on the Boulev ard du Temple. While demonstrators stopped performances, others split off and headed for another business on the same avenue. And so it was that a throng of rabblerousers descended on the business at Number 20, Boulevard du Temple: the wax museum.

Inside, Madame Tussaud heard cries of “Vive Necker!” issuing from the streets. Clueless as to the cause, she no doubt grew concerned as the commotion drew closer. When the owner of the wax museum, Phillippe Curtius, Tussaud’s mentor and nominal uncle, glanced outside and saw the crowds, he speedily signaled for the gate to be lowered, worried the agitators might storm the establishment. Yet it soon became clear that the horde had come in peace. In her memoirs, Tussaud describes them as “very civil, their general bearing so orderly, that she [that is, Tussaud] felt no alarm whatever.” The protestors had come for two of Curtius’s figures, both wax busts: the first of their fallen champion, Jacques Necker, and the second of the Duke of Orléans. The Duke of Orléans owned the Palais Royal, where the uprising had started, and styled himself as a friend of the people. Curtius handed over the bust of the former finance minister, quipping, “Necker, my friends, is ever in my heart, and if he were indeed there I would cut open my breast to give him to you. I have only his likeness. It is yours.” Newly equipped with the heads of their heroes, the demonstrators took off, bearing the waxen effigies aloft. Little did Curtius and Tussaud know, but their busts were about to play a role in the first bloody skirmish of the French Revolution in Paris.

This incident and the bloodshed that followed altered the trajectory of Tussaud’s career. Starting in 1789, the Den of Illustrious Thieves shifted its focus away from notorious murderers, concentrating instead on the political violence of the early revolution and the subsequent Reign of Terror. Tussaud’s firsthand experience of these historic events would become fundamental to her public image later in life, especially in England. But just as important to her reputation was her to have worked for the French royal family in the 1780s, during the twilight of the old regime. Today, we’ll hear the story of how Tussaud found favor with the royal family, how the nation careened toward revolt in the summer of 1789, and how the Den of Illustrious Thieves treated what most historians pinpoint as the outbreak of the French Revolution: the storming of the Bastille, a notorious prison where inmates reportedly suffered untold atrocities. This is The Art of Crime, and I’m your host, Gavin Whitehead. Welcome to episode 2 of Queen of Crime . . .

The Phantom of the Bastille

The Palais Royal

At the end of the previous episode, Curtius and Tussaud had just opened the Den of Illustrious Thieves on the Boulevard du Temple in the early 1780s. Thanks in large part to this exhibit, business was booming, and Curtius considered expanding his enterprise. He soon found a spot that he deemed perfect for a second location: the Palais Royal.

Constructed between 1633-39, the Palais Royal belonged to the Duke of Orléans, cousing of Louis XVI. When the duke took possession of the Palais Royal, he wanted to remodel but didn’t have money for renovations. Then he alighted on a brilliant idea: he would raise the funds by leasing apartments inside the Palais to local businesses. As he envisioned it, shops and entertainment venues would line the arcades that wrapped around the residence. He lost no time in realizing his plans. Leases lasted nine years and went for an average of 37,500 livres, with tenants expected to cover building expenses as well as the cost of lighting their section of the arcade. Ready for occupancy by April 1, 1784, the Palais soon became the commercial and cultural center of Paris.

The palace attracted scores of tenants, emerging as the eighteenth-century equivalent of a modern-day mega mall. The panoply of merchants included jewelers, art dealers, tobacconists, painters, engravers, drapers, grocers, florists, hairdressers, dressmakers, hatters, and more. Food and drink were also for sale, with numerous restaurants and cafés in the vicinity. If you could name it, chances were you could buy it at the Palais Royal.

Much like the Boulevard du Temple, moreover, the Palais Royal became a stage on which entertainers of every variety competed for business, inside and outside. The complex contained no fewer than three theaters, where audiences could watch everything from larger-than-life opera to miniature marionette plays. Scientist-showman Sieur Belon exhibited mechanized models of the solar system, simulating planetary movements around the sun. Sightseers gawked at Paul Butterbrodt, who weighed an impressive 525 pounds. Sieur Ensten presented another wonder of enormous proportions, a nine-foot horse that weighed no more than twenty-eight ounces. “How?” you ask. The towering beast was made of balloons.

The Palais gardens became central to this cross between a shopping mall and amusement park. They measured about 900 feet long by 325 feet wide, spacious enough for vendors, performers, and promenading visitors to enjoy the open air. The grounds were dotted with splendid fountains and planted with clusters of thirty-year-old chestnut trees, each arranged to form a letter “X.” The garden was also home to one of the most talked-about sights on the property: a little canon mounted in a basin. Fitted with a powerful, convex lens, the canon discharged daily at noon on the dot, triggered by the rays of the midday sun.

The Wax Salon 

Circa 1784, Curtius opened up shop at arcade Number 7 of the Palais Royal, christening his new business the salon de cire—the wax salon. In certain respects, he modeled this enterprise on the earlier one. Like its counterpart on the Boulevard du Temple, the wax salon combined elements of the wax museum, art gallery, fairground booth, and cabinet of curiosities.

The collection featured full-length portraits as well as busts of French and foreign notables, sometimes arranged in elaborate tableaux. Curtius mounted the busts on short columns and often interspersed them with what one observer described as “rare, precious and unusual paintings and sculptures.” A mezzanine exhibited natural wonders, including an assortment of exotic plants, while a ventriloquist gave twice-daily performances.

With the wax salon, however, Curtius catered to a classier clientele. The venue’s very name endowed the salon with an air of exclusivity, evoking the drawing rooms of wealthy women who regularly hosted the social, political, and cultural elite. If the name sounds snobbish, the fee structure was even more so. Curtius devised a system that would highlight class distinctions. The cheapest ticket cost two sous. Customers who opted for this deal were only allowed to look at the collection from a roped-off section at the rear of the room. Better-off patrons could shell out twelve sous, entitling them to wander among the sculptures and inspect them up-close. Not unlike a snooty salonier, Curtius put in appearances to hobnob with his most distinguished patrons. His social pretensions would certainly rub off on Tussaud, more on which in later episodes.

Effigies of the royal family took pride of place in Curtius’s salon. The most popular tableau recreated the so-called grand couvert, a weekly ceremony during which the king, his queen, and their satellites threw open the doors to Versailles and invited the public to watch them eat. The grand couvert was not dinner and a show; it was dinner as a show. Anyone could attend this mealtime spectacle as long as they followed the dress code. It was mandatory, for instance, for men to wear wigs and carry swords. (Blades were available for rental if you couldn’t bring one.) Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette were the stars of the show—the king chowed down with dependable gusto whereas his queen hardly touched her food. Yet there was more to this performance than the banqueters themselves. There was the magnificent, horseshoe-shaped table where they ate, laden with china and gilded cutlery. Then there was the staff. The Mistress of the Household presented Marie Antoinette’s supper kneeling on a stool with a serviette on one arm, aided by an additional four Dames du Palais. Finally, a corps of elite Swiss bodyguards formed a ring around the family. The grand couvert attracted sight-seers partly because it made the private activity of dining public, treating onlookers to the pomp of everyday life at Versailles. It may have also drawn visitors because it humanized the monarch, reminding spectators that a king of France, who ruled by divine right, needed to eat like everyone else.

At the salon de cire, Curtius marketed his grand couvert as true to life. He even hired a barker who cried, “Come this way, ladies and gentleman! Come and see the royal family at dinner! Exactly as at Versailles.” The tableau was convenient. Seeing it at Curtius’s saved you the hassle of a trip to Versailles. It was also extravagant. The effigies wore costumes supplied by Rose Bertin, high fashion designer and personal dressmaker to Marie Antoinette.

Dream palace

Members of the royal family were not merely on display at the wax museum—they became customers at both the Palais Royal and the Boulevard du Temple. During their visits, they made the acquaintance of only the owner as well as his promising, young protégé, then Marie Grosholtz, later Madame Tussaud. The frontispiece of her 1838 memoirs depicts the young artist at the age of seventeen, giving a sense of what she may have looked like at this time. She seems the epitome of feminine grace, slender and fresh-faced, her dark wavy hair adorned with flowers as she sports a stylish, tight-waisted dress with flowing lace sleeves. If this portrait is accurate, then Tussaud had many physical charms, and it’s easy to imagine that Curtius assigned her front-of-house duties when she wasn’t toiling away over a model, making it easy for patrons to appreciate her. Later in life, Tussaud would greet customers and take their money at the door, and it’s conceivable that she did so earlier in her career, too.

Whatever role she may have played in view of the public in the 1780s, Tussaud claims to have won the affections of a royal visitor. This was, Madame Elizabeth, the willowy, blue-eyed younger sister of Louis XVI. Madame Elizabeth practiced wax modeling—so perhaps it was only natural for her to feel an affinity for Curtius’s apprentice. However, that affinity blossomed into a friendship that resembled sisterhood. At the age of eleven, Madame Elizabeth had parted with her beloved older sister, Marie Clotilde, married off to the Prince of Piedmont in 1775, leaving her bereft. Three years older than Madame Elizabeth, Tussaud was the right age to fill that lacuna. Madame Elizabeth became so attached to Curtius’s niece, that sometime around 1780, she made a proposal that Tussaud could not refuse: the monarch’s sister invited her to live with her at Versailles and tutor her in wax modeling. Referring to herself in the third person, as she does frequently in her memoirs, Tussaud relates that the adolescent royal desired “the constant enjoyment of Madame Tussaud’s society.”

For Tussaud, taking up residence at Versailles would have been a bit like moving to an alien planet and being asked to learn its language and customs overnight. In some respects, the palace was surprisingly accessible to the public. Think of the grand couvert, where anyone could roam the dining halls if they wore the right attire. In other respects, however, Versailles was an almost hermetically sealed enclave, designed to keep outsiders out and insiders in. It was perennially difficult for newcomers like Tussaud to find acceptance among longtime residents. Success depended on both looking and acting the part of courtier. For example, you could not be taken seriously unless you powdered your hair. Indeed, the ubiquitous scent of powder, along with that of the pomade used with it, became an essential aspect of Versailles in the 1700s, so much so that those who lived there distinctly remembered it decades later. Also de rigeur was the abundant application of rouge to the cheeks. By the 1780s, Frenchwomen were supposedly going through two million pots of rouge each year. Movement and bearing also required attention. Female courtiers were expected to master a series of three curtsies performed after entering a room. To perfect their technique, many booked private lessons with a Parisian dance instructor. In her Dictionary of Courtly Etiquette, Madame de Genlis explained that these “reverences” must be at once “modest, gracious and noble,” adding that if the clothes made the man, “the curtsy had to express the whole women.” Finally, any lady who wished a favorable standing at court would need to become adept at the “Versailles glide,” whereby her feet conveyed her about the palace without ever seeming to touch the floor, all without scuffing her satin slippers. Needless to say, Versailles was a world away from the rougher and more raucous Boulevard du Temple, where Tussaud had grown up.

Nevertheless, as her memoirs would have it, Tussaud fit in splendidly, so splendidly in fact that she earned the trust of Louis XVI. At the very least, he felt comfortable holding private conversations in her presence. One day, Tussaud and Madame Elizabeth were enjoying each other’s company when the monarch entered and asked to speak with his sister. Sensing that he wished to discuss a matter of great importance, Tussaud excused herself. “Restez, restez mademoiselle,” Louis replied. She remained at a discrete distance while His Majesty conversed in hushed tones with his sister, he apparently requesting her assistance and she apparently unable to help. “So, I’m disappointed on all sides,” he lamented before leaving. Neither the king nor Madame Elizabeth revealed the source of his frustrations, and Tussaud was much too polite to pry.

Yet it was not every day that Tussaud bore witness to the king in distress. Most of her time was spent in comfort, alongside the adoring Madame Elizabeth. Tussaud even slept in an adjacent bedroom. If the pair’s schedules were as intimately intwined as Tussaud implies, then the professional wax modeler would have risen most days at six in the morning, along with Madame Elizabeth. An ordinary day would have consisted primarily of reading, writing, horseback riding, and harpsichord playing. On fine summer evenings, Tussaud recalls, the palace played host to extravagant fetes, the fountains lit up by colored lanterns and the air full of music. Religious observance also laid claim to much of Madame Elizabeth’s time. She was known for her piety, and according to Tussaud, she confessed every Saturday and then took the sacrament every Sunday.

The God-fearing princess certainly channeled her devotion into her waxwork. Under Tussaud’s tutelage, she modeled Christ, the Virgin Mary, and other biblical figures. She also deployed her talents in an effort to heal the sick. In keeping with a centuries-old tradition, when a friend or acquaintance suffered an injury to the arm or leg, Madame Elizabeth fashioned a simulacrum of that limb and dedicated it to a nearby church, usually Saint-Geneviève or Saint-Sulpice, as a votive offering, praying for the patron saint to cure the afflicted body part.

Tussaud claims to have lived at Versailles for eight years, from about 1780-88. Her extended stay came to a sorrowful end as the financial crisis worsened, and the monarchy plummeted into debt. Toward the close of her time at Versailles, she comforted Madame Elizabeth as the king’s sister wept over the miserable state of affairs. With a heavy heart, Tussaud left the dream palace and returned to the house on the Boulevard du Temple.

Now that I’ve told you about the joys and sorrows of Tussaud’s life at Versailles, it’s time to raise an awkward question: how much of it actually happened? Tussaud’s biographers are divided on the issue. As she often does, Pauline Chapman takes the wax modeler at her word. In contrast, Kate Berridge and Pamela Pilbeam are much more skeptical.

There’s nothing overtly dubious about Tussaud’s claim to have tutored Madame Elizabeth. We know for a fact that Louis’s sister modeled in wax. What’s more, it wasn’t uncommon for royals to seek the tutelage of celebrated artists at the time. (Unless I’m mistaken, none of Tussaud’s biographers have pointed this out.) In the previous episode, I alluded to a performer called Le Petit Diable. This little devil made a name for himself by dancing on a tightrope with eggs tied to his feet. He aroused the interest of the Conte d’Artois, Louis’s little brother, who hired the Diable to train him in the art of tight-rope walking, inspiring “a vogue at court,” according to historian Robert M. Isherwood. After rejecting an unappealing appointment as organist at Versailles, Mozart gave lessons to the talentless daughter of the Duke of Guines. An amateur artist no less eminent than Marie Antoinette received instruction from leading luminaries in the Parisian theater scene, including the actor Joseph Dazincourt and the singer Louis Michu. Joined by a cast of other royals, Marie Antoinette took the stage at Versailles’s private theaters, playing shepherdesses and chambermaids, among other roles. If Madame Elizabeth wanted to improve as a wax modeler, it would make perfect sense for her to engage Tussaud, a master of her craft and assistant to the owner of a famous wax museum.

What is dubious is the idea that Tussaud lived at Versailles for eight years. For starters, she’s missing from contemporary eyewitness accounts of life at the palace. To give an example, Marie Antoinette’s First Woman of the Bedchamber, Madame Campan, wrote a book about the queen and the author’s experiences at the palace, The Private Life of Marie Antoinette, published one year after Madame Campan’s death in 1823. In her own memoir, Tussaud remembers Madame Campan as “her most intimate friend.” That’s strange, because Madame Campan never once mentions Tussaud, casting doubt on their bestie status. More compellingly, Tussaud is absent from the reams of staff records kept at the residence. The roughly 200-page Almanac de Versailles lists every servant who filled a wine glass, emptied a commode, and did everything in between, and it makes no reference whatsoever to Tussaud. Nor is she to be found in administrative records pertaining specifically to Madame Elizabeth. These include no fewer than sixty-six named employees, among them the renowned hairdresser, Léonard.

All things considered, it seems possible that Tussaud tutored Madame Elizabeth. If indeed these lessons happened, they may have taken place at Versailles. That said, it’s highly doubtworthy that Tussaud spent an extended period of time in residence there, let alone eight years.

As will become evident over the course of this season, Madame Tussaud excelled at self-promotion, never hesitating to tell a fib or three if it would burnish her public image. Claiming to have won the companionship and patronage of a royal family member would have added to her prestige, both in France and later in England, so there’s no question as to why she would have done it.

The Political Awakening of 1789

Throughout the mid-to-late 1780s, Tussaud was most likely dividing her time between the wax museum on the Boulevard du Temple and the salon de cire at the Palais Royal. She claims to have left Versailles around 1788, and as it happens, this supposed departure roughly coincides with Curtius’s decision to give up the salon and consolidate his collection on the Boulevard du Temple. According to both Tussaud’s memoirs and a pamphlet by Crutius, they had made this move by July 1789. It’s uncertain why the two shuttered the salon, but it may have had to do with the growing number of political agitators who congregated  at the Palais Royal. A hunger for change was certainly in the air.

Toward the end of 1788, King Louis XVI agreed to convene the Estates General, an assembly of elected deputies who would voice the opinions of the people of France. Each of France’s Three Estates would be represented. As we discussed in the previous episode, the First Estate encompassed the clergy, the Second the nobility, and the Third the commoners—approximately ninety-eight percent of the population. The First and Second Estates enjoyed far more privileges than the Third, including but not limited to exemption from most taxes. The king’s announcement met with tremendous excitement—175 years had passed since the last time a monarch called an Estates General.

In the spring of 1789, members of each Estate congregated in monasteries, guild halls, and other venues first to elect deputies and then to draft grievance lists that deputies would take with them to the Estates General. All three Estates drew up grievance lists, and complaints varied widely. However, at least one common theme shone through: the days of absolute monarchy were numbered. This is not to say that the French demanded the abolition of monarchy altogether. Centuries of deference to the king would not evaporate overnight, and they addressed their sovereign with reverence as they wrote their lists. Instead of absolute monarchy, many envisioned a constitutional monarchy, in which the king would share power with a representative body. In their grievance list, members of the Third Estate furthermore called for an end to privileges that favored the nobility and clergy.

The Estates General commenced on May 5, 1789, inside a resplendent assembly hall near Versailles. Nothing of note transpired for several weeks as deputies squabbled over procedural issues. One noble deputy complained to his wife, “Our Estates General does nothing. We spend the whole day in useless chatter and shouting.” By June 17, Third-Estate deputies had started meeting separately, and on that day they took revolutionary action. Fed up with pushback from the First and Second Estates, the commoners declared themselves the true representatives of the nation of France. They rebranded their group the National Assembly, vowing not to disband until they had written a new constitution.

Louis XVI balked at the National Assembly, laughing off the name as “just as phrase.” On June 23, the monarch convened a special session, during which he refused to recognize the National Assembly, nor would he entertain changes to the longstanding institutions of privilege. Louis’s resistance incensed the commoners. When the master of ceremonies adjourned the session and dismissed the deputies, the Assemblymen went berserk. The firebrand Mirabeau bellowed, “We are here by the will of the people! We will not leave except at the point of bayonets!” Over the next few days, however, a majority of First-Estate deputies and a meaningful minority of their Second-Estate counterparts defected from their orders and threw in with the National Assembly. The Duke of Orléans was among the nobles who switched camps. On June 27, Louis capitulated, instructing all First- and Second-Estate deputies to follow suit. That night, the skies over Paris exploded with fireworks as citizens celebrated.

Yet all was not well. Louis had recognized the National Assembly, yes, but it remained uncertain how much power he would cede to the body. Furthermore, to the alarm of many, the king was amassing an army of some 30,000 soldiers outside Paris, as if in preparation for a fight. Meanwhile, bread prices soared. Then, on July 12, Louis sacked Necker, touching off protests that brought some participants to the wax museum. We’ll hear how the demonstration turned violent after a quick break.

Waxing Revolutionary

After leaving Curtius’s wax museum on July 12, 1789, the crowd morphed into a curious hybrid, part funeral cortege and part ragtag militia. As if in mourning for their beloved finance minister, they draped Necker’s bust in black fabric. By now, rumors had circulated that the Duke of Orléans had been imprisoned or exiled, so they decorated his effigy in like fashion to lament his fate. Bearing both figureheads on shallow pedestals and brandishing sable banners trimmed with white, the masses marched through the streets to the rumble of drums. Though somber, this pseudo-funeral procession could turn violent in an instant. According to an eyewitness, the demonstrators carried improvised weapons and threatened to set fire to theaters that refused to shut down, “saying that French people should not be enjoying themselves at such a moment of misfortune.” So they processed, through the artisanal hub of the Rue Saint-Denis, the ritzy district of Rue Saint-Honoré, and finally the Place Vendome, increasing in size as bystanders joined in.

Only when they marched into the Place Louis XV (today’s Place de Concorde) did they come to a stop, face to face with an armed contingent of the Royal Allemand, a cavalry in service to the Prince de Lambac. Refusing to salute the busts of Necker and Orléans, the dragoons commanded the crowd to disperse. The protestors stayed put, and minutes ticked by as the stand-off escalated. First, the protestors hurled insults at the soldiers. Then, they pelted them with stones. Pushed beyond his breaking point, a guardsman opened fire on the crowd and charged into the thick of it. In the first few seconds of the bloodshed that ensued, the civilians may have harbored at least some hope of victory—they vastly outnumbered their adversaries, after all. Yet it fast became clear that they were outmatched—they lacked both training and military firepower.

Details are scant about the experience of those who fought—and fell—in the Place Louis XV. However, we have some information about what happened to the waxen busts that were borrowed from Curtius and the men who were carrying them. Described as “a hawker of articles of drapery,” a merchant called Francois Pepin was in charge of Orléans’s effigy. A bullet struck him in the ankle, and the tip of a saber found his chest, resulting in a flesh wound. Pepin survived, but the unnamed marcher entrusted with Necker’s bust was not so lucky. He was shot dead as the brawl spilled over into the adjacent Tuileries gardens. In a pamphlet published later, Curtius claimed that the bust of Orléans was restored to him six days after the fracas. In her memoirs, however, Tussaud suggests that the nobleman’s likeness was destroyed, “having in all probability been trodden to atoms in the hurry and disorder.” The model of Necker did make it back to its creator, mostly intact, though with the hair singed black and the face cut up.

By taking to the streets with the effigies of Necker and Orléans, the protestors had launched a symbolic assault on their king. In his brilliant article, “Waxing Revolutionary: Reflections on a Raid on a Waxworks at the Outbreak of the French Revolution,” David McCallam offers several interpretations of this incident. For the sake of time, I want to highlight just one. As McCallam points out, there’s a long history to the public display of waxen busts in times of loss. When a king passed away in fifteenth- and sixteenth-century France, royal authorities commissioned the creation of a wax bust of the deceased monarch. One or more officials bore this effigy aloft during the late sovereign’s funeral procession—before his successor had ascended the throne. This ritual stems from the curious idea that kings have two bodies. Kings are mortal; they grow old and die like the rest of us. At the same time, the office of king is everlasting (at least in theory). There will always be an heir who inherits the powers and responsibilities of the monarch. As McCallam implies, the waxen busts of dead kings celebrated the survival of the monarchy even as the most recent monarch was no more. In the words of the historian, “the funeral processions of monarchs accompanied by their wax effigies assumed a dual aspect, being both funereal and triumphant, presenting to the crowds the king’s personal mortality in the shape of his corpse and his immortal office in the form of his wax effigy.” McCallan sees a similar dynamic at play in the demonstrations of July 12, 1789. In protest of Necker’s firing and Orléans’s rumored imprisonment or exile, the crowds displayed their busts in public to show that the revolutionary spirit these men embodied carried on even in their absence. This gesture was nothing short of audacious. By holding high these waxen figureheads, the masses were appropriating a ritual traditionally reserved for kings. Not only that—they appropriated that ritual to condemn the behavior of the reigning king. They might as well have stolen Louis’s XVI’s scepter right out of his hands and whacked him over the head with it.

Whichever way you look at the events of July 12, 1789, the wax museum played a crucial role on the eve of the revolution, which both Curtius and Tussaud understood. After reconstructing Necker’s bust and perhaps entirely recreating Orléans’s, Curtius and Tussaud placed them both on display, aware that customers would pay to see the effigies that had figured so prominently in the recent demonstration. In his pamphlet, Curtius puffed out his chest about the distinction: “I can therefore say, to my credit, that the first act of the Revolution happened because of me.” For her part, Tussaud refers to the skirmish at Place Louis XV as the “sanguinary commencement” of the revolution.

The Storming of the Bastille

The bloodshed of July 12 did little to quell the uprising. Quite the contrary, the number of protestors swelled over the next two days as fear and desperation took hold of the city. Hungry enough to steal, rioters ransacked a monastery for bread. Meanwhile, rumors of an imminent military occupation of Paris spread, fueled by the 30,000 troops in the area. The city’s inhabitants would need firepower to protect themselves. On the morning of July 14, they raided the armory at the Invalides, a veterans’ hospital, plundering twelve cannons and some 40,000 guns for use by the National Guard, a people’s army that had sprung up almost instantaneously. Yet gunpowder was missing from the Invalides’s arsenal, and the marauders soon discovered why. Leery of an armed revolt, the authorities had transferred approximately 20,000 pounds of gunpowder to what they hoped would be a secure location: the Bastille.

In your typical episode of The Art of Crime, this is where we would start talking about a single crime or criminal and the significance thereof. But this episode is different. Today, we’re focusing not on an individual offense or offender but rather on a prison.

The prospect of storming the Bastille would have been daunting. Dating back to the fourteenth century, this stone-wrought fortress featured eight towers and eighty-foot walls.

It eventually became a state penitentiary, and beginning under the reign of Louis XIV (1643-1715), the Bastille became a prison for members of the middle- and upper-classes who had offended the king. By the mid-to-late eighteenth century, the Bastille had come to embody the tyranny of the old regime. It bore this reputation for at least two reasons.

First, a veil of secrecy shrouded the fortress. In many cases, it was known who went there and why. For example, Voltaire was twice imprisoned there for running afoul of the monarch. (As an aside, the state did not stop at incarcerating the writer—they literally locked up his writing, too. Copies of eighteen of his works were confiscated and confined in the Bastille. Other incarcerated books included Rousseau’s The Social Contract and Diderot’s Encyclopedia.) In other cases, however, the king—or those close to him—were thought to imprison their enemies arbitrarily, without formal charges and without a public trial. In these instances, the punishable offense remained a mystery. The most famous victim is one of legend: the man in the iron mask. As it happens, Voltaire wrote about this figure: “The prisoner wore . . .  a masque, of which the lower part had springs, contriv’d so that he could eat without taking it off. Orders were given, that if he shewed any inclination to discover [i.e. unmask] himself, he should be immediately killed.” Despite this punishment, the man in the iron mask enjoyed special privileges, including linen bedsheets. The story goes that this convict was the illegitimate brother and rival of Louis XIV.

Whatever landed them in the Bastille, prisoners were reputed to live under abominable conditions. More than one detainee wrote about his horrible confinement after getting out. Constantin de Reneville, a middle-class tax official turned international spy, became the first to publish such an account in 1715. Toward the end of the seventeenth century, Reneville traveled to the Netherlands, where he worked for the French secret service. At the same time, he was spying on France on behalf of the Dutch. After the French authorities learned of the double agent’s treachery, they threw him in the Bastille. In his book, Reneville describes the common cells as filthy and foul-smelling beyond belief. “[T]he entire room was swarming with fleas;” he adds, “in a minute I was covered with them.” He slept on a thin mattress with a motheaten blanket. Yet this cell was a luxury suite compared to the notorious underground dungeons, to which inmates were consigned for attempting to escape along with other infractions. Apart from a chain in the middle of the room, one dungeon was furnished with a straw bed, rotten from dampness, where Reneville slept “naked, only in a shirt and sleeping pants.” The floor was crawling with rats that swarmed around him in his sleep. More horrendous still, Reneville uncovered the skeletal remains of a former captive, buried in a well. Other eyewitness testimony of the Bastille fed nightmares about the institution, and the 1770s and ’80s saw a profusion of pamphlets with sensational tales about it, solidifying its dreadfulness in the mind of the public.

By the armed uprising of July 1789, military governor Bernard-René Jourdan, the Marquis de Launay, presided over the fortress. The son of a previous governor, de Launay was born inside the Bastille and purchased his governorship in 1776.

After the fighting on July 12, de Launay had agreed to safeguard the 20,000 pounds of gunpowder at the Bastille, storing the dangerous, ammonia-based explosive in the cellars. De Launay did so with a sense of trepidation. If rioters found out about this subterranean trove, they might attack, and as far as fortresses went, the Bastille was not particularly well-fortified. The governor had somewhere between 112 and 147 soldiers in his command. While some belonged to a crack corps of Swiss guardsmen, most were so-called “invalides,” ex-servicemen who had not seen combat a while. The Bastille was equipped with fifteen cannons, but only four could fire deadly ammunition—the rest were ceremonial and simply used for salutes. The garrison stocked two days’ worth of bread and just one day’s worth of meat. De Launay’s domain could not withstand a prolonged siege—his only shot at victory in that scenario would depend on military backup. Bracing for a fight, his men moved artillery pieces into the courtyards and lined the battlements with paving stones that could be thrown at attackers.

Around mid-morning of July 14, a crowd assembled outside the Bastille, armed with muskets, knives, pikes, and axes. The majority of those present had little to no combat experience. Most were artisans—locksmiths, shoemakers, cabinetmakers, and the like—along with small merchants, especially wine sellers. At about noon, representatives of the citizenry approached the front gate and requested a parlay with de Launay. Fruitless negotiations ensued, the governor refusing to hand over the gunpowder. Outside, the masses grew increasingly impatient as the talks dragged on.

In the end, they abandoned diplomacy entirely. At about 1:30, the crowd rushed through the front gates and into an unguarded courtyard, where they found a raised drawbridge blocking their path. Unwilling to turn back, a small party scaled an edifice adjacent to the Bastille and hacked away at the drawbridge’s ropes. These soon frayed, and the bridge slammed down, crushing one of the insurgents. The crowd streamed into a second courtyard, meeting with yet another raised drawbridge. De Launay was standing on top of the roof, flanked by some thirty defenders with muskets loaded and trained on the attackers. Steeling himself, the governor demanded what they wanted. “Lower the drawbridge!” they roared in response. De Launay refused, warning that his troops would fire on the multitude unless it dispersed.

Undeterred, the intruders charged, and the bloodletting began. Smoke jetted upward as musket balls rained down from the roof. Simultaneously, defenders at ground level fired a fusillade through holes on either side of the drawbridge. Insurrectionists fell, wounded or dying, screaming in pain. As the free-for-all continued, many revolutionaries beat a retreat, leaving the inner courtyard strewn with bodies and regrouping, demoralized, at the Place de Gréve. De Launay took heart. The battle had gone his way thus far. None of his men had fallen, and thanks to their weaponry, they had the upper hand.

Little did he know the siege was about to take a decisive turn against him. An insurgent convinced about seventy members of the French Guard, the royal troops, to join their cause. In doing so, they displayed their loyalty not to the king but to the revolutionaries. These new-won allies contributed heavy firepower, hauling five cannons to the Bastille. Further reinforcements, somewhere between 300 and 600 armed civilians, also materialized. As this part-civilian, part-military horde prepared for another offensive, one Second Lieutenant Elie emerged as their de facto commander. Since the crowd’s initial retreat, their forces had become better-armed and better-organized. Still, fears pervaded that royalist forces could arrive at any minute to quash the rebellion. Victory depended on boldness and speed.

The besiegers stormed back in to the second courtyard, lighting a cartful of hay on fire to create a smoke screen. Using this cover, they maneuvered a cannon into the courtyard and leveled it at the drawbridge. When de Launay finally caught sight of the artillery piece, he knew there was no winning. The aggressors dwarfed his unit in number, and once they made it past the drawbridge, they would overwhelm them. Over objections from inferior officers, de Launay made up his mind to surrender, provided he could negotiate favorable terms. One of his fighters waved a handkerchief through a gap in the outer wall before offering a letter. Second Lieutenant Elie stepped forward to read and share its contents with the crowd. De Launay’s heart must have sunk with the response: “Down with the drawbridges! No capitulation!”

Not long after, four of the defenders disobeyed orders and lowered the drawbridge, realizing that resistance was futile. The horde surged forward and over the drawbridge like a human tsunami. Desperate, de Launay hatched a last-ditch plan. Grabbing a torch, he headed for the cellars, intent on setting the gunpowder alight. The resulting explosion would almost certainly kill everyone in the Bastille and seriously damage the houses and businesses next to it. This captain was prepared to sink his own ship—and take his passengers down to the deep with him. Two of his officers intervened, however, restraining de Launay and turning him over to the victors.

The takeover was swift and less bloody than many might have expected. The primary objective was to secure the gunpowder. Yet the vainqueurs de la Bastille, as the conquerors would become known, had another goal as well: the liberation of any and all prisoners. As they set the captives free, French Guardsmen saw to it that the defenders’ lives were spared. Most either joined the revolutionaries or handed over their weapons and left the premises.

Yet several were not so fortunate. At least three defenders were murdered by the mob. As for de Launay, Second Lieutenant Elie attempted to escort him to the Hotel de Ville, where a committee would decide his fate. On the way, men bum-rushed the governor and threw him to the ground, kicking and beating him. As de Launay writhed in agony, his assailants debated how they would lynch him, proposing that they tie him to a horse and drag him. “Let me die!” de Launay cried. In a suicidal act of defiance, he kicked a pastry cook squarely in the groin. Bystanders fell on him like so many assassins, stabbing him with swords, knives, and bayonets. De Launay crumpled into a gutter, still alive though grievously wounded. Finally, gunmen finished him off. According to legend, the injured pastry cook kneeled beside the corpse and severed the head with a blunt knife, pausing for brandy mixed with gunpowder midway through. The vainqueurs stuck their victim’s head on top of a pike and paraded it around outside the Bastille.  As historian Simon Schama has noted, this spectacle acted as a grisly bookend to the brandishing of Necker and Orléans’s busts two days earlier: “The Revolution in Paris had begun with heads hoisted aloft over the crowd. They had been the heads of heroes, made in wax, carried as proxy commanders. It reached a symmetrical ending: more heads, this time serving as trophies of battle.”

The conquerors had suffered heavy losses. Whereas only one defender perished in the siege, ninety-eight of the insurrectionists had died. Nevertheless, they had clinched a historic victory. Even though they had stormed the Bastille for the pragmatic purpose of obtaining gunpowder, observers quickly downplayed the unremarkable impetus of the raid and focused instead on the freeing of prisoners. Seizing the fortress symbolized the overthrow of tyranny itself. As one commentator put it: “The dungeons are open; liberty is given to innocent men, and to venerable old men surprised to see the light. For the first time, august and sacred liberty finally entered this abode of horrors, this dreadful asylum for despotism, monsters and crimes.” After a quick break, we’ll hear how various entrepreneurs, including Curtius and Tussaud, profited on this momentous event.

Revolution: Cha-Ching!

In the coming days and weeks, thousands of people flocked to the Bastille for the frisson of touring its infamous dungeons. Guides even led small groups from room to room, providing information about what they claimed were torture devices and human remains. Madame Tussaud numbered among the morbid sightseers. She recounts the outing in her memoirs, which includes a cameo that hits you like a cannon ball. Descending a narrow stairway, Tussaud loses her footing. Just as she’s about to fall, a hand reaches out and steadies her from behind.

It belongs to none other than Maximilien Robespierre, radical revolutionary and soon-to-be proponent of the Reign of Terror. Having averted a nasty spill, the politician declares “that it would have been a great pity that so young and pretty a patriot should have broken her neck in such a horrid place.”

Tourists would not have long to walk the Bastille. Shortly after the fortress fell, construction worker Pierre-François Palloy gained permission to demolish the prison. Demolition commenced even as day-trippers were still visiting the Bastille. What Palloy ended up with was not a heap of rubble but a veritable gold mine. He made a small fortune selling the detritus, stone by stone. Fragments could be turned into patriotic doorsteps, busts of revolutionaries, or pieces of jewelry. In one case, a polished stone was emblazoned with the word “Liberté,” spelled with gems and surrounded by a tricolor motif in rubies, sapphires, and diamonds.

There was money to be made on the memory of the Bastille, and neither Curtius nor Tussaud ever missed an opportunity to boost profits. In the summer of 1789, the wax modelers unveiled an eye-grabbing tableau representing the siege itself. Hanging above it were the waxen busts of three unhappy souls who lost their heads after the onslaught, including de Launay.

Representations of the Bastille remained a mainstay in the collection—first in the Den of Illustrious Thieves and later in the Chamber of Horrors—for the rest of Tussaud’s career. Eventually, she and Curtius retired the tableau and exhibited not one but two models of the fortress. The first showed the Bastille prior to the rebellion while the second depicted it in ruins. Representing both the before and the after of the storming, this pair of exhibits invited customers to fill in the gap by imagining the siege that connected them.


The Phantom Prisoner

These models were not the most controversial—or even the most compelling—displays related to the Bastille. That honor belonged to an effigy of the Comte de Lorges, “the most remarkable” of the prisoners freed by the conquerors, according to Tussaud.

After the muskets had fallen silent on July 14, the vainqueurs were exploring the Bastille when they came upon de Lorges, chained up in one of the deepest dungeons. He was a haunted, haggard, and gaunt old man with missing teeth and a beard of white that stretched to his waist. As became evident, de Lorges had languished in captivity for thirty-two years, having committed the heinous offense of criticizing the royal court for its corruption. At the urging of Madame du Pompadour, malevolent mistress to Louis XV, the Comte was sentenced to prison indefinitely.

Journalist Jean-Louis Carra claimed to have heard this account from the prisoner himself, publishing a short book about it in September 1789. In Carra’s pamphlet, the Conte laments, “The years flew by and brought no change at all in my fate; sad and in low spirits I let my days pass in bitterness and cursed Despotism and its accomplices.”

The Comte’s woeful tale struck a chord with the public—he had suffered the full force of old-regime tyranny. It was deemed imperative to record his fate for future generations, and before long, somebody had taken him to the wax museum. Tussaud recalls the encounter in her memoirs, referring to herself once again in the third person: “he was brought to her that she might take a cast from his face, which she completed. It is a whole length resemblance taken from life.” (In addition to meeting de Lorges, Tussaud saw his dungeon during her tour of the Bastille. The sight of it elicited an anti-monarchical diatribe from fellow tourist Robespierre.)

The count’s unhappy life came to an unhappy conclusion. After more than three decades of ceaseless confinement, he reentered a world he could no longer recognize, paralyzed by his own freedom. Tussaud described his plight in museum catalogues that she started publishing later in her career. According to one of them, “frequently with tears [the Conte] would beg to be restored to his dungeon.” The Ancienn Régime had not just robbed this old man of liberty. It had robbed him of the desire for liberty. The Comte died, alone, a few weeks after the storming of the Bastille.

The nobleman’s wax likeness stuck around a lot longer. In fact, it became one of Tussaud’s most talked-about works, praised for its artistry decades after its debut. (There’s an engraving of the figure on the Art of Crime website, so make sure to check it out.) It even caught the attention of Charles Dickens, a fan of Tussaud’s. Indeed, The Comte appears to have inspired a character in his timeless novel about the French Revolution, A Tale of Two Cities. Like the Comte de Lorges, Dr. Alexandre Manette serves a long and life-sapping sentence in the Bastille (eighteen years in the doctor’s case) and emerges traumatized—frail, fearful, and nearly incapable of carrying on a conversation.

The Meaning of a Myth

Here’s the thing about the Conte de Lorges. He never went to the Bastille. He never met Tussaud. He never even existed. On July 14, 1789, the fortress was holding a mere seven prisoners. Their names and the reason for their imprisonment were known. Four had committed forgery. One had attempted to assassinate Louis XV. Another was incarcerated on charges of incest. The seventh was a “lunatic,” suspected of espionage and afflicted with delusions of being both Julius Caesar and Jesus Christ. None of them bore the title of Conte de Lorges, and none had wasted away in a dungeon simply for griping about corruption at court. It was all a hoax.

To understand why someone—maybe even journalist Jean-Louis Carra—invented this nonexistent noble, you need to understand the truth about the Bastille. Former inmates and pamphleteers had wildly misrepresented the fortress. As historian Hans-Jürgen Lüsebrink notes in his book, The Bastille: A History of a Symbol of Despotism and Freedom, “Measured by the standard of what was common in the judicial and penal system of the ancien régime, the Bastille did not stand out for unusual brutality and mismanagement, rather to the contrary.” By the time of the siege in 1789, prisoners lived better than many free people in Paris. Most cells were spacious and furnished according to the inhabitant’s preferences. One detainee requested the construction of an enormous bookcase to store a private library of more than six hundred volumes. Denizens wore clothing made of fabric they had personally chosen. They could also receive visitors and even bring servants to live with them. There was no shortage of recreational activities—billiards, bowling, chess, and the occasional rooftop stroll were favorite pastimes. Hygiene and health care were exceptional, too, with warm baths, medicine cabinets, and medical professionals readily available. As for the dungeons, they had fallen out of use—not one prisoner had spent time in these hellholes since Louis XVI had taken the throne. The torture implements and human remains that tour guides exhibited after the assault were 100% bogus. What some visitors were told was a medieval torture device was actually an antiquated printing press. As Lüsebrink points out, Bastille governors had likely improved living conditions to bolster the fortress’s abhorrent reputation.

The reality of the prison fell short of the horror stories, and the same could be said about the prisoners. Various writers had led the public to believe that the Bastille was overflowing with inmates. In fact, the number of captives had shrunk by half between the reigns of Louis XIV and XVI. Meanwhile, the average sentence dropped from three years to between one and two months. When the conquerors threw open the Bastille’s cells, they discovered a disappointing total of seven prisoners, most of whom had committed legitimate offenses. Where were all the men in iron masks, subject to cruelty for enigmatic reasons?

Simply put, the facts did not square with the Bastille’s reputation as the ultimate embodiment of old-regime despotism. But facing those facts in the heady aftermath of the prison’s fall would have been a downer. Most simply clung to the conventional wisdom about the horrors of the fortress. In addition, propagandists spread falsehoods that strengthened a narrative about the triumph over tyranny. Some may have wanted to supercharge the revolutionary zeal of the moment. Others may have wanted simply to capitalize on it. The Conte de Lorges was one of the propagandistic fictions. If the Bastille had actually housed hundreds of chained-up wretches locked away on the whims of a courtier, commentators could have pointed to them as evidence of the state’s abuse of power. But it didn’t, so they couldn’t. Instead, some fabulist created the Conte, an imaginary character who belonged in the Bastille as imagined by the public.

Tussaud knowingly participated in the Bastille bunkum. Not wanting her sculpture of the Conte de Lorges to lose its aura of authenticity, she doubled, tripled, and quadrupled down on her flagrant lies, trumpeting her firsthand knowledge of the count’s sufferings. One of her catalogues addresses skepticism about de Lorges head-on: “Existence of this unfortunate man in the Bastille has by some been doubted, but Madame Tussaud is herself a witness of his being taken out of that prison July 14, 1789.”

With the models of the Bastille and her effigy of de Lorgees, Curtius and Tussaud were already recording the events of the French Revolution in wax, even if some of those events were what you might call "completely made up." As we’ll hear next episode, Tussaud would stay on this path as heads started rolling in the shadow of the guillotine. She would even come close to losing her own.



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