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  • Gavin Whitehead

Tussaud and the Terror (S3E3)

Updated: Feb 24

As the French Revolution ran its course, the monarchy crumbled, and the nation descended into political violence. During the Reign of Terror, thousands of citizens went to the guillotine, and Tussaud made replicas of important revolutionaries’ severed heads, including that of radical politician Maximilien Robespierre. In 1793, she created a wax tableau inspired by one of the revolution’s most divisive crimes: the assassination of Jean-Paul Marat. Show ntoes and full transcript below.

Above: An undated photograph showing Tussaud's tableau of Jean-Paul Marat, stabbed in his bath, plus an assortment of death heads associated with the Reign of Terror.



1778 portrait of Scottish-born writer, spy, and royal courtesan Grace Elliott by Thomas Gainsborough. The oil painting, commissioned by one of Elliott’s illicit lovers, is held by New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art (Accession Number: 20.155.1).

Anonymous illustration of the Women's March on Versailles. Image held by the Bibliothèque nationale de France.

The Last Parting of Marie Antoinette and Her Son by Edward Matthew Ward (1856). Ward specialized in historical paintings and depicted sorrowful chapters from the lives of figures such as Marie Antoinette and Charlotte Corday. In this painting, he shows the tearful goodbye that heralded the execution of the deposed French queen.

Portrait of Charlotte Corday, painted at her request by Jean-Jacques Hauer, a few hours before her execution on July 17, 1793.

Marat Assassinated by Jacques-Louis David, painted in 1793. Today, David’s painting is perhaps the most instantly recognizable image related to the death of Marat. Tussaud would claim that David modeled his painting after her famous wax tableau of Marat’s last bath, a claim that has proved impossible to verify or refute. David’s painting can be viewed in Brussels’ Oldmasters Museum, part of the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium.

Charlotte Corday by Paul Baudry. This historical painting was produced around 1860, almost 100 years after Corday’s death. As mentioned in the episode, many observers—including Madame Tussaud—viewed Corday as a martyr. Baudry suggests her heroic stature through the dramatic lighting and resolute expression on Corday’s face (not to mention his literal marginalization of Marat). The map of France in the background furthermore hints that the assassination was a patriotic duty undertaken for the good of the country. This oil painting is held by Fine Arts Museum of Nantes, in France (Inventory # 802).



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

---Brookner, Anita. Jacques-Louis David. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1997.

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

---Conner, Clifford D. Jean-Paul Marat: Tribune of the French Revolution. London: Pluto Press, 2012.

---Elliott, Grace. Journal of My Life During the French Revolution. London: Rodale Press, 1955.

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

---Tussaud, John Theodore. The Romance of Madame Tussaud’s. New York: George H. Doran Company, 1890.



Grace Elliott had just about the best seat in the house. It was summer 1791, and this Scottish-born writer, spy, and royal courtesan, now living in Paris, had come to watch a light opera at the Comédie-Italienne. The evening’s entertainment was titled The Unexpected Events and starred the celestial actress and dancer, Madame Dugazon, in the role of the soubrette, a tart young housemaid with a taste for intrigue.

The benefits of Elliott’s seating arrangement had little to do with her view of the stage. Her box faced that of Marie Antoinette, a more engrossing spectacle than the professional dramatics. Recent catastrophes had turned much of France against the monarchy, and as a result royal advisors had encouraged the queen to make public appearances as a show of solidarity with the nation at large. Her Majesty had brought her little boy and girl to the performance this evening, along with Madame Elizabeth, the wax-modeling sister of Louis XVI, and Madame Tourzelle, the children’s governess. Though watching from a distance, Elliott discerned the queen’s unhappiness almost as soon as entered the venue. After the players took the stage, Marie Antoinette wiped one tear after another from her eye, alarming her son, Louis Charles, who was perched on her knee.

The opera’s title promised unexpected events, and midway through an unspecified act, an incident unfolded that nobody had anticipated. During a duet, Madame Dugazon sang, “Oh, how I love my mistress!” At that moment, the starlet cast a glance upward, in the direction of the queen. To anti-monarchical eyes in the crowd, this looked like unrestrained royalist fervor. The performance ground to a halt as a swarm of outraged rabblerousers leapt onto the stage. Elliott identified these upstarts as card-carrying Jacobins, radical revolutionaries who vehemently demanded the demise of the monarchy and the birth of a republic. In her memoirs, one of the most important English-language accounts of the French Revolution’s bloody excesses, Elliott writes, “[I]f the actors had not hid Madame Dugazon, [the Jacobins] would have murdered her. They hurried the poor Queen and family out of the house, and it was all the Guards could do to get them safe into their carriages.” This outing so traumatized Marie Antoinette that she would never make another public appearance until her trial and execution.

Madame Dugazon’s brush with death at the hands of an anti-monarchical mob never would have happened amid the first stirrings of the French Revolution. In late summer and early autumn of 1789, the general public still revered Louis XVI (though they were never in love with Marie Antoinette), and politicians were seeking to remake France as a constitutional monarchy, in which a body of elected officials would share power with the king. By late September 1792, however, France had abolished the monarchy entirely and reshaped itself as a republic.

Not long after the crumbling of the monarchy, wanton violence became increasingly common in Paris and elsewhere across the country, with thousands of alleged enemies of the revolution killed by private citizens or executed by the state. Historians often refer to this series of massacres as the Reign of Terror, though they disagree as to when precisely this chapter of the revolution began and ended.

Broadly speaking, several of Madame Tussaud’s most talked-about exhibits in the Chamber of Horrors date from the Reign of Terror. These include waxen death heads of guillotined royals and revolutionaries alike as well as a tableau of perhaps the most iconic crime of the French Revolution: the assassination of politician and journalist Jean-Paul Marat. Today, we’ll hear the story of how the French monarchy disintegrated, how Tussaud recorded the ensuing bloodshed in wax, and how she herself only narrowly evaded the block and blade of the guillotine. This is The Art of Crime, and I’m your host, Gavin Whitehead. Welcome to episode 3 of Queen of Crime . . .

Tussaud and the Terror

August Transformations

To understand why the monarchy collapsed, we need to start with the early friction between Louis XVI and the National Assembly.

As we discussed in the previous episode, in spring 1789, deputies from all Three Estates of France—the clergy, the nobility, and the commoners—convened for the Estates General to resolve the country’s economic woes. Deputies came together in the town of Versailles, not far from the royal palace. By summertime, the Estates General had reconstituted itself as the National Assembly, and members were at work on recreating France as a constitutional monarchy.

Yet the National Assembly had more to contend with than the daunting task of drafting a constitution. In July 1789, unrest exploded across France. After Louis fired the trusted finance minister, Jacque Necker, on the twelfth of that month, bloody altercations broke out in Paris, culminating in the storming of the Bastille. At around this time, the National Assembly formed a National Guard, a people’s army that sprang into action overnight. The Marquis de Lafayette, a veteran of the American Revolutionary War and devout proponent of a constitutional monarchy, served as commander in chief. The National Guard’s duties were twofold: first, to preserve order much like a police force and second, to act as a military reserve. By the last week or so of July, the situation had simmered down in Paris. The same could not be said of the countryside. Spurred by famine and paranoid fears about aristocratic plots to horde grain, peasants had risen up in revolt, taking out their anger on local lords. In some cases, rioters looted noblemen’s chateaus, casting furniture out of the windows and tearing down weathervanes decorated with their coat of arms. In others, they trashed the pew reserved for the local lord at the parish church.

These rebellions had the country on edge, including deputies of the National Assembly in Versailles. A small group of liberal deputies from the Second Estate—that is, the nobility—met to brainstorm conciliatory measures that would quell the riots. They agreed on a proposal to renounce a handful of much-resented aristocratic privileges. For example, peasants were required by law to pay feudal dues to their lords for the right to use ovens, wine presses, and more. These few deputies introduced their idea to the rest of the Assembly on the night of August 4, 1789. At first, all went to plan. One or two deputies who had helped come up with this show of aristocratic good will declared their intentions to forfeit certain privileges. But then, quite unexpectedly, these scripted statements prompted a spontaneous outpouring of pro-peasant sentiments and heartfelt generosity from other Assemblymen who had had no part in cooking this all up. One noble fumed about the rank exploitation of peasants, how they were “forced to spend whole nights beating the swamps to prevent bullfrogs from disturbing the slumber of voluptuous seigneurs.” In an earthshaking development, the National Assembly did more than scrap a few privileges that evening; it abolished feudalism. Gone were obligatory feudal dues, noble hunting rights, along with longstanding forms of unpaid peasant labor, among other practices. The initiative achieved its short-term goal; the peasantry quieted down in the countryside. The abolition of feudalism had not erased inequality from France by any stretch of the imagination, and some noblemen would later regret the decision to sign away their privileges, but it did foreshadow future social progress. August 4, 1789, has since become known as the night the Old Regime died.

With the peasant revolts resolved, the National Assembly resumed its work on drawing up a constitution. Just two weeks after the abolition of feudalism, on August 26, they certified “The Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen,” the foundational document of the French Revolution. Partly inspired by the American Declaration of Independence, this text asserted the inalienability of fundamental human rights. It guaranteed freedom of speech, freedom of press, and freedom from arbitrary arrest, among other liberties. Rooted in the principle of popular sovereignty, it treated the French people as citizens who would participate in government, no longer merely subjects to an almighty king. “The Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen” left pressing social issues unresolved, to be sure, but thanks to this document, France had taken a meaningful step toward a more egalitarian society.

With so much accomplished in so little time, waves of optimism rushed through the National Assembly. Louis XVI looked on in indignation. Upon receiving news of the abolition of feudalism, he wrote in private, “I shall never consent to the despoiling of my clergy and my nobility.” He was even more appalled by “The Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen.” It chipped away at his power as monarch, and he refused to recognize its certification. This resistance did not bode well for the revolution.

The French Command Their King

Throughout the month of September 1789, the National Assembly made further strides toward delineating a new political system. To their great dismay, however, Frenchmen and -women sensed Louis’s opposition. Troops were amassing outside Paris, just as they had before the storming of the Bastille. Worst of all, after a fleeting drop-off, the price of bread had crept back up, breeding misery and fueling rumors of grain-hording conspiracies.

Then, on October 2, Parisians woke up to scandalous news. The previous evening, Versailles had played host to a wine-soaked banquet, attended by royal bodyguards and foreign soldiers. During the festivities, revelers hailed the monarchy and trampled the tri-color cockade, the red-white-and-blue emblem of the revolution. Louis and Marie Antoinette had allegedly caroused along with them, condoning their behavior.

The city seethed in anger for the next three days. Finally, on the fifth of October, furious about this rumored display of contempt for the revolution along with the unaffordable price of bread, the market-women of Paris spearheaded a march on Versailles. Collectively known as the poissardes, or “fishwives,” this social group enjoyed privileged access to the king and queen. In a time-honored tradition, they trekked out to the palace each year to bless the monarch on August 25, St. Louis’s Day. The poissardes also visited when the queen gave birth, bringing flowers and hearty benedictions. The market-women often used these occasions to relay the general opinions of the French directly to the monarch, and they were known to be brutal in their criticism of his failings—Marie Antoinette biographer Antonia Fraser refers to them as “mouthy battleaxes.” Partly because of this relationship, the poissardes felt entitled to confront Louis about the deplorable state of affairs. They marshalled a small army of between six and eight thousand women and hoofed it to Versailles, equipped with brooms, kitchen utensils, pikes, and two cannons. (They lacked ammunition for these artillery pieces, true, but the sight of them alone would have made it clear they meant business.) After a rainy, twelve-mile journey out to Versailles, the marchers first crashed the National Assembly, tracking mud into the august halls of state. They insulted the most conservative deputies, hung wet garments to dry on the furniture, and raided the refreshment stall for wine and meat. When word of the disturbance reached Louis, he considered the undesirable option of fleeing. It would look weak for a monarch to run away from his subjects. “A fugitive king,” he muttered under his breath as he paced up and down. In the end, he resolved to stay.

An hour or two after the market-women had busted in on the Assembly, many had clustered in a courtyard outside royal palace. At around seven o’clock, Louis admitted a small delegation of demonstrators to hear their grievances. In the course of their convocation, a seventeen-year-old girl reportedly breathed a single syllable, “Bread,” before falling into a faint at the king’s feet. Genuinely moved, Louis promised to kick up the grain supply, to the relief of the protestors. The sovereign would not stop there, however. At about ten o’clock, he appeared before the National Assembly and announced that he accepted the August decrees—the abolition of feudalism and “The Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen.” Not only had the maket-women won a guarantee of affordable bread, but they had secured Louis’s formal backing of the National Assembly’s revolutionary policies.

Yet some were unconvinced of Louis’s abrupt U-turn and remained outside the royal palace. When the Marquis de Lafayette, commander in chief of the National Guard, caught wind of the women’s march, he worried that trouble was brewing. In a bid to keep the peace, he marched his troops from Paris to Versailles, reaching the palace around midnight. Upon arrival, Lafayette met with Louis and made a proposal that was gaining support: what if the royal family left Versailles and took up residence in Paris? Lafayette could better protect them there, the marquis argued, and Louis could better serve his people. Later that night, after a skirmish had erupted and subsided, Louis stepped out onto a balcony overlooking the demonstrators in the courtyard, joined by his queen, their children, and Lafayette. “The love of my good and faithful subjects is most precious to me,” he proclaimed with paternalistic ardor, adding that he and the royal family would relocate to Paris. The announcement elicited a volley of cheers.

The next day, the king and his family rode to Paris, where they moved into the Tuileries, a rundown palace from the seventeenth century. They completed the journey with a column of more than ten thousand marchers, men and women. Some of them had skewered loaves of bread on pikes and chanted, “We have brought back the baker, the baker’s wife, and the baker’s boy.” A few days later, the National Assembly followed Louis’s lead and transferred to Paris, setting up headquarters in a sometime riding stable.

Louis had changed addresses, but he hadn’t changed his mind about the revolution. In mid-October, he sent a letter to this cousin, King Charles IV of Spain, in which he voiced “his solemn protest against all those acts contrary to royal authority that have been extorted from me by intimidation since the fifteenth of July of this year.” From here on out, he would play a Janus-like role, showing one face to the public and another to his confidantes regarding the revolution.

For a time, Louis played this double game convincingly. His support of the revolutionary agenda seemed perhaps most authentic on July 14, 1790, the one-year anniversary of the fall of the Bastille. That day witnessed the highly anticipated Festival of Federation. Thousands of professional and volunteer construction workers helped build the Champ de Mars, a gargantuan stadium outside Paris. (As she relates in her memoirs, Madame Tussaud participated in the manual labor, trundling a wheelbarrow full of building materials.) The motley labor force erected earthen stands that could seat approximately 100,000 spectators. A stately tent where the king would sit sprang up at one end of the field, a magnificent triumphal arch on the other. In the middle was the glorious Altar of Liberty. It poured on the day of the festival, but no amount of rainfall could dampen the mood—audience members danced in exuberant groups. After a procession passed through the triumphal arch, a high-ranking bishop, Abbé Tallyrand, conducted a mass at the Altar of Liberty. Most significantly, Louis ascended the altar and swore a solemn oath to uphold the constitution, not yet finished but pretty far along: “I, King of the French, swear to use the power given to me by the constitutional act of the State, to maintain the Constitution as decreed by the National Assembly and accepted by myself.” Seated on a balcony, Marie Antoinette stood and held high her little boy, who everyone believed would one day rule as Louis XVII. “Long live the king!” exploded the crowd. Harmony reigned—or seemed to reign—between sovereign and subjects.

The Runaway Royals

But this apparent concord would only last so long. The royal family grew increasingly incensed over their diminished power, especially their ability to travel as they pleased. Back when the market-women marched on Versailles, Louis had rejected the notion of becoming a fugitive king. A little less than two years later, he had cottoned onto the idea.

On the morning of Tuesday, June 21, 1791, two servants entered the king’s sleeping quarters and parted the bedcurtains. Much to their surprise, they found his bed empty. At 7:45, the ritual awakening of the queen began, at which point her maidservants likewise discovered her bed unoccupied. Had somebody abducted the royal family? Or had they left of their own volition? Paranoia and anger variously gripped the population.

Meanwhile, a merry band of travelers were rolling through northern France in the comfort of a berlin, a covered, four-wheeled, horse-drawn carriage. If you had asked the head of their party, he would have told you that he worked as a valet and went by the name of Monsieur Durand. Yet if you were like several peasants and soldiers who encountered Monsieur Durand that day, you would have questioned whether this humble valet were telling the truth. Maybe you would have had a sneaking suspicion that you knew him from somewhere, had even seen his flabby face with that aquiline nose on the new paper currency, the assignat. Or maybe you would have done a double take when one of Monsieur Durand’s companions casually rewarded a solicitous official with a set of silver dishes probably worth more than his annual salary. That’s because Monsieur Durand’s real name was Louis XVI, and he was accompanied by Marie Antoinette, his wax-modeling sister, Madame Elizabeth, a handful of servants, and his two small children, including the six-year-old dauphin, Louis Charles, disguised as a little girl named Amélie. Nobody had kidnapped the royal family. Instead, they were bound for the town of Montmédy, six kilometers from the French border, where the king intended to launch a counter-revolution, aided by royalist troops.

The fugitive king never made it to Montmédy. Outside the town of Sainte-Menehould, a postmaster called Jean-Baptiste Drouet recognized Louis when the king poked his head out the berlin’s window. A half hour later, suspecting treachery, Drouet set off in pursuit of the carriage and learned that it was destined for Varennes-en-Argonne, a speck on the map about thirty or forty miles from the border. The horseman rode into Verennes around midnight, stopping by the inn, where he announced the likely presence of the king and queen in their midst. The runaway royals were in their midst, but they weren’t going anywhere. Delayed by setbacks on the road and ill-prepared for this final stretch of the journey, they were dithering around town, unable to locate a team of fresh horses. Perfectly aware of who the outsiders were, local official Monsieur Sauce invited them to overnight at his home, supposedly due to an issue with their passports. Inside one of his second-story rooms, the children sank into a profound slumber while the adults quaffed wine, exhausted after twenty-two hours of travel. At about six o’clock the following morning, emissaries of the National Assembly knocked at the door, demanding the immediate return of the king. Louis and his companions had little choice but to comply. Now, this monarch was taking orders from his subjects.

That day, they commenced the shamefaced trip back to Paris. By now, it was known that the king had turned his back on the people and fled like a coward. While it had taken just under twenty-four hours to reach Varennes, the return dragged on for four interminable days, the cavalcade’s progress constantly slowed by the press of rubberneckers who hurled abuse at the king and queen. When the carriage finally skittered into Paris, the royal family met with a disquieting silence as crowds watched them drive past. An order had been issued: “Whoever applauds the king will be flogged; whoever insults him will be hanged.”

More than any other single act up until this point, Louis’s failed attempt to flee damned him in the eyes of the general public. Even as the National Assembly was gradually eroding his powers as monarch, many—maybe most—French citizens held a deeply engrained reverence for the king. Now, his critics mushroomed in number, minting cruel nicknames like Louis the Hated and Louis the Fat Pig. Writer Grace Elliott had this to say about the sea change in public opinion: “Even those who some months before would have lain in dust to make a footstool for the Queen passed her and splashed her all over.” Over the next twelve months or so, talk of ending the monarchy and founding a republic became commonplace, especially among grassroots activists.

The Monarchy Crumbles

France had more to worry about than the conduct of its king. Numerous European monarchies watched the revolution in alarm, concerned that it could inspire their own subjects to stage revolts. As international relations deteriorated, France declared war on Austria in 1792. Three months later, in July, Prussia joined the fray, allied with Austria. Starting now, France would be at war almost continuously for the next twenty-three years. While we will check in on this series of conflicts from time to time this season, this isn’t a podcast about military history, so we won’t spend more than a minute or two on the frontlines when we do. What’s important to know for now is this: the threat of foreign invasion created an air of hysteria in Paris, thickening it whenever enemy troops gained ground.

It was fear of such an invasion that ultimately toppled the monarchy. By June 1792, the National Assembly had been replaced by a new body known as the Legislative Assembly. That month, Louis angered many of his subjects by exercising his right to veto three of the Legislative Assembly’s decrees. As the war intensified over the summer, grassroots agitators clamored ever louder for the formation of a republic. Things grew dire at the end of July. On the twenty-fifth, the Duke of Brunswick, a Prussian commander, issued his apocalyptic “Brunswick Manifesto.” In it, he declared his intention to invade Paris and warned that he would eradicate any who resisted. If any harm whatever came to the royal family, he would subject the city and its inhabitants “to military execution and total destruction.”

The Brunswick Manifesto had the desired effect of scaring the holy hell out of Paris. But it also had the undesired effect of touching off an armed insurrection. On the morning of August 10, frenzied with rage, volunteer soldiers and hardcore activists marched along both banks of the Seine toward the Tuileries, the current residence of the royal family. The palace defenses consisted of 800 Swiss Guards, 200 royalist volunteers, and 1,250 National Guardsmen. Louis and Marie Antoinette beat a hasty retreat, hiding out at the Legislative Assembly. Back at the Tuileries, the attackers poured into the courtyard and came face to face with a contingent of Swiss Guards. Ordered to join the revolutionary cause, the soldiers refused. An invader asked, “Then you all want to die?” “Yes,” came the reply. “We shall all die rather than abandon our posts without an order from the king.” The Swiss opened fire, and the Tuileries transformed into a royal slaughterhouse. The rioters vastly outnumbered the Swiss Guardsmen and overwhelmed them. By three o’clock in the afternoon, they had taken the palace, the bodies of more than 800 Swiss Guardsmen and royalist volunteers littering the halls and stairways of the estate. Lusting for blood, the victors castrated corpses and exalted outdoors, gory trophies in hand.

That afternoon, the municipal government voted to suspend the monarchy. Three days later, on August 13, the authorities arrested Louis, transferring him and the rest of his family to the Temple, a medieval prison in Eastern Paris. Other former courtiers were imprisoned elsewhere. Six weeks later, on September 22, 1792, France abolished the monarchy and declared itself to be a republic. Yet another legislative body cropped up—the National Convention. This is the last one you’ll have to keep track of, I promise.

In the meantime, savage violence resurged less than a month after the Tuileries siege. This time, fresh gales of panic ripped through Paris as Prussian forces advanced on the city.

A paranoid terror took root that massive numbers of Parisian prisoners would aid the invaders if freed. This wrongheaded conviction led to the wanton slaughter known as the September massacres, identified by some historians as the start of the Reign of Terror. Beginning on September 2, vicious killers—perhaps hired assassins—butchered prison inmates indiscriminately. Within twenty hours, more than 1,000 prisoners had already perished. The bloodshed raged until the sixth of September, claiming the lives of several hundred more. Two-thirds of the dead were ordinary criminals without any military ties to speak of.

The fate of one victim embodied the brutality of the September Massacres more than any other, that of the Princess de Lamballe. She had married into the Bourbon line and became a confidante of Marie Antoinette. After the siege of the Tuileries, she was confined at La Force, one of the most dreaded prisons in Paris. Dragged before an ad hoc prison tribunal on September 2, the Princess de Lamballe refused to denounce the queen, even if doing so would save her life. The tribunal promptly condemned her to death. In the courtyard of La Force, a witness reported, the princess’s murderers first hit her with hammers. Then, they decapitated and eviscerated her, brandishing her head and entrails on pikes. The fiends paraded these, along with the poor woman’s naked body, throughout the streets. Knowing that the princess had been close with the queen, the brutes decided to terrorize her with the sight of their mangled victim. They descended on the Temple, where Louis and Marie Antoinette were being held captive. When the crowd of berserkers turned up outside, the royal couple were playing backgammon upstairs and were thus unable to see the princess’s head bobbing up and down below. Attendants speedily drew the curtains, shielding them from the horror show.

Before long, it was Louis who lost his head. From December 1792 to January 1793, he stood trial for high treason, his case argued before the recently formed National Convention.

The prosecutors mounted an airtight case. Shortly after the king’s arrest in August, investigators had recovered incriminating correspondence from an iron safe of Louis’s, making it clearer than ever before that he had endeavored to undermine the revolution. After handing down a guilty verdict, the Convention voted on the means of punishment. In a jaw-dropping outcome to these already-unprecedented proceedings, the former king was condemned to death by a slim majority. (The Duke of Orléans, Louis’s own cousin, the owner of the bustling Palais Royal, and the nobleman whose bust was fetched from the wax museum two days before the storming of the Bastille, voted for the prisoner’s execution, a source of endless bitterness for monarchists.) On January 21, aged thirty-eight, Louis mounted the scaffold at the Place de la Révolution, his valedictory speech cut short by a drum roll that segued swiftly to his beheading.

Other royals we’ve talked about died in like fashion—Marie Antoinette on October 16, 1793, the Duke of Orléans on November 6 of the same year, and even wax modeler Madame Elisabeth on May 10, 1794. After a quick break, we’ll hear how the fall of the monarchy and the escalating violence affected business at the wax museum.

The Dangers of Running a Wax Museum

With the outbreak of the revolution, Madame Tussaud inherited greater responsibilities in the management of the wax museum. This came about because her mentor and nominal uncle, Phillippe Curtius, became increasingly engaged in revolutionary activities and therefore less able to help out around the shop. Recruited by Lafayette’s National Guard shorty after its genesis in 1789, Curtius served as captain of his district. Just days after he assumed this position, his regiment prevent would-be arsonists from burning down the Opéra along with other properties: “their torches were all prepared,” he gloats in a 1790 pamphlet, “and without my vigilance, they would have destroyed one of the finest quarters in Paris.” A year or two later, the wax modeler began to participate in the Jacobin Club, where radical revolutionaries met to talk politics.

Soon, Curtius was hosting their get-togethers at his home on the Boulevard du Temple. In her memoirs, Tussaud recalls, “Many members of the Jacobins began about this period to frequent the house of M. Curtius and began to speak boldly as to the formation of a republic, and the destruction of royalty; and soon the cry of “No king!” was heard throughout the streets and was even disseminated through the medium of the public papers.” After France declared war, Curtius joined the military, and his service would take him to foreign territories.

Ever alive to public opinion, Tussaud and Curtius kept pace with the rapidly evolving politics of the revolution. Doing so, they realized, would not only protect them as the streets grew more dangerous but would also bolster business. These chameleonic shifts were visible before patrons even entered the establishment. Tussaud and Curtius hired barkers to advertise their waxen handiwork to passersby, and these employees’ costumes changed with the mood of the populace, especially as it turned against the aristocracy and favored the commoners. Prior to the storming of the Bastille, the criers had looked vaguely aristocratic, dressed in frock coats and holding a cane; starting in the summer of 1789, they adopted the uniform of the National Guard, the mostly middle-class watchmen of revolutionary France; circa June 1792, they plied their trade in working men’s trousers, with a conical red cap supposedly worn by freed Roman slaves on their heads. This getup was a go-to for the so-called sans-coulottes, the ordinary workers of Paris who backed the revolution with unwavering and battle-ready zeal. The term “sans-coulottes” literally translate to “without breeches” and is one to hold onto because we’ll hear it a lot. These modest artisans and tradesmen earned this moniker by donning long pants instead of the breeches associated with noblemen.

The fall of the monarchy had major ramifications for the wax museum. As we noted last time, effigies of the royal family held pride of place in the years prior to the storming of the Bastille, especially a tableau of Louis, Marie Antoinette, and others at the dinner table. When it became risky to celebrate the monarchy openly in public, Tussaud and Curtius quietly retired this display.

In addition to negotiating the fraught political situation, Tussaud confronted economic challenges. The war caused a shortage of animal tallow, a necessity for the business, as candlelight illuminated the wax statues, enhancing their illusion of uncanny life. Customers were also in short supply. To Tussaud, the neighborhood “appeared almost cleared of men,” many of them serving on the battlefield in France and abroad. It became necessary in the summer of 1792 to lower the cost of admission to draw in patrons.

Documenting the Reign of Terror

As the revolution grew bloodier from early autumn 1792 to spring 1794, so did the waxworks. Starting during the September massacres, Tussaud documented key executions by making replicas of severed heads.

Judging from her memoirs, Tussaud first assumed this hideous role on September 2, 1792, following the murder of the Princess de Lamballe. Referring to herself in the third person, she relates, “[The victim’s] head was immediately taken to Madame Tussaud, whose feelings can be easier conceived than described.” The princess’s killers commanded Tussaud to fashion a death head, a simulacrum of her severed head. “Eager to retain a memento of the hapless princess,” she continues in her memoirs, “Madame Tussaud proceeded to perform her melancholy task, whilst surrounded by the brutal monsters, whose hands were bathed in the blood of the innocent.”

More death heads were to follow, reportedly just minutes after each victim had gone to the guillotine. Perhaps the most famous of these macabre showpieces were death heads of Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette, and the diehard Jacobin Maximilien Robespierre, all of which would eventually hang inside the Chamber of Horrors in London.

There are differing explanations as to how—and why—Tussaud fashioned these death heads. For her part, she maintained that she made these gruesome replicas not because she wanted to but rather “by order of the National Assembly.” The intimation is that the government would have punished her—maybe even sentenced her to death—if she refused to comply. In 1919, the wax modeler’s great-grandson, John Theodore Tussaud, parroted this claim in a compilation of family lore entitled The Romance of Tussaud’s. In this tome, John writes of the waxwork severed heads, “The casts were undoubtedly taken under compulsion, with the object of pandering to the temper of the people, or of serving as confirmatory evidence of executions having taken place—perhaps both.”

However, other sources suggest that Curtius struck a bargain with the executioner, Samson. The guillotine operator had long turned a profit on capital punishment. In the early days of his tenure, he reportedly sold the fat of cadavers as a remedy for “rheumatic pains.” For a nominal fee, Samson is said to have loaned Curtius the heads of noteworthy capital offenders. Then, once he or Tussaud had made casts of these body parts, Cutius returned them for burial along with the rest of the remains. Some of the death heads are strikingly realistic, and there may be some truth to this account.

Notably, however, Tussaud biographer Kate Berridge has raised questions about the authenticity of the king and queen’s death heads. In the context of Louis’s, Berridge points out that the revolutionary government were making every effort to eradicate the memory of the monarchy at the time of the former monarch’s beheading. Orders were given to pull down statues depicting him, for instance. Why, amid such a hostile atmosphere, would a governing body demand the creation of a death head for the king, an act that could be seen to reinforce his high status? More compelling still, Berridge reveals that there is no evidence to suggest that either Louis or Marie Antoinette’s death head was ever exhibited in Tussaud’s lifetime. Only in 1865, fifteen years after the wax modeler had passed away, did they first appear in the Chamber of Horrors. Given this information, it’s possible that Tussaud’s nineteenth-century descendants manufactured these replicas by working from historical images of the king and queen as a way of making bank on Tussaud’s association with the French Revolution.

The People’s Friend

Though displayed prominently, these morbid curiosities were hardly the most discussed relics of the French Revolution in the Chamber of Horrors. That distinction belonged to a tableau depicting one of the most notorious crimes committed during the Terror: the assassination of Jean-Paul Marat.

Born in Germany on May 24, 1743, Marat never cut an imposing figure. Diminutive even by eighteenth-century standards, he stood five feet tall and weighed just under 120 pounds. He was in poor health for much of his adult life, largely due to a debilitating skin disease, perhaps dermatitis herpetiformis, which caused him to break out in boils. Marat took to wrapping his head in a malodorous, vinegar-soaked bandana to treat the ailment.

Despite his small stature, Marat looms large in histories of the revolution. After pursuing a successful career as a doctor and scientist, he went into journalism. On September 12, 1789, aged forty-six, he brought out the first issue of his own publication, soon christened L’Ami de Peuple, (The People’s Friend). Serving as editor-in-chief from the outset, Marat began signing addresses to his readers, “Marat, the People’s Friend.” The paper came out daily, with approximately 2,000 copies printed each day toward the start of its existence and as many as 6,000 at the height of Marat’s influence. Yet these figures misrepresent the actual size of his audience. More than one reader could thumb through each issue, after all, and it was also common for individuals to read newspapers aloud to groups of listeners at this time, partly because literacy was not yet universal.

The People’s Friend won unflagging support among his largely sans-coulottes fanbase. He gave voice to what he called “the just anger” of ordinary French people, constantly railing against persistent inequality. When Paris faced dire food shortages, he insisted on taxing the rich to feed the poor. He also made it his mission to root out enemies of the revolution and possessed an almost sibylline gift for predicting betrayals of high-ranking officials before they came to pass. Among other scandals, he foresaw Louis’s attempted flight.

Though friendly to the people, Marat was decidedly unfriendly to his adversaries, who were legion. He infuriated his detractors by fusing revolutionary ideas with violent rhetoric. In one issue of The People’s Friend, he declared, “Five or six hundred [aristocratic] heads lopped off would have secured you repose and happiness; a false humanity has restrained your arm and suspended your blows; it will cost the lives of millions of your brothers.” He routinely turned his shafts on elected officials. As hunger racked Paris, he attacked the municipal government for allegedly hoarding grain and jacking up bread prices. When the targets of his accusations demanded that he retract them, Marat merely taunted them: “I am the eye of the people, and you at the most are its little finger.”

Marat’s incendiary, let-heads-roll rhetoric more than once landed him on the wrong side of the law, forcing him into hiding. In the best-case scenario, he could lay low at an ally’s house in Paris. When his luck was at its most rotten, though, he had no choice but to shelter in the sewers or even flee to London.

On one occasion, a fugitive Marat supposedly sought shelter in the home of Paris’s pre-eminent wax modeler, Phillippe Curtius. Curtius was a prominent Jacobin, so it’s possible that he harbored the firebrand during one of his binds. In her memoirs, Tussaud tells us that Marat showed up with nothing but a carpet bag and crashed at their house on the Boulevard du Temple for a week. He mostly occupied himself with writing, she recalls, “almost the whole day in a corner with a small lamp.” One day, however, he lectured the pretty young Tussaud on the long-game strategy of radical revolutionaries. He tapped her on the shoulder “with such roughness as caused her to shudder, saying, ‘There, Mademoiselle, it is not for ourselves that I and our fellow labourers are working, but it is for you, your children, and your children’s children.’” Yet doing it for the kids would call for bloodshed, he added, at which point the topic of conversation switched to the relative merits of mass killing. According to Tussaud, the homicidal zealot estimated that the state could decapitate as many as 260,000 enemies of the revolution in twenty-four hours.

Scourge of the Girondins

In September 1792, shortly after the republic’s inception, Marat was elected to political office, becoming one of twenty-six deputies to represent Paris at the National Convention. Pre-existing political divisions quickly deepened. The two key opponents were the radical Jacobins and the more moderate Girondins. These factions both supported the revolution but disagreed vehemently on a number of issues. These included how to punish Louis after the fall of the monarchy as well as how to manage economic crises like sky-high bread prices. Strictly speaking, Marat lacked party affiliation, but he allied himself with the hardest of the hardcore Jacobins. While many Girondins agonized over whether to execute the king, Marat, like plenty of Jacobin hardliners, slept just fine after condemning him to death. Marat defended his decision like this: “In the firm conviction that Louis was the principal author of the crimes that led to so much bloodshed on August 10, and of all the massacres that have soiled France since the Revolution, I vote that the tyrant be put to death within twenty-four hours.”

The Girondins despised Marat more than just about any other deputy at the Convention. To their minds, his inflammatory rhetoric fueled the mob violence that had become increasingly common since the taking of the Bastille in 1789. His critics considered him partly to blame for the September massacres of 1792 and feared that his writing could lead to further butchery. Marat kept publishing after getting elected to the Convention, though he changed the title of his periodical from The People’s Friend to Journal of the French Republic. Time and again, Marat warned his readers that the revolution’s greatest foes were making laws at the Convention, intimating that nothing short of armed insurrection could purge them from the assembly. In other words, Marat was inciting rebellion against the very government he was serving as deputy. Little wonder, then, that a group of Girondins based in Marseilles protested of the journalist, “He was put on earth to preach murder, pillage, civil war, and every kind of excess.”

The bad blood between the Girondins and Marat came to a deadly boil in the spring of 1793. On March 9 of that year, after much deliberation, the Convention established the so-called Revolutionary Tribunal for the purpose of trying alleged counterrevolutionaries. This institution wielded the extraordinary power of sentencing convicted offenders to death without appeal. The following month, the Girondins persuaded a majority of deputies to try Marat for sedition, making him the first member of the Convention to go before the Revolutionary Tribunal.

The Girondins’ effort to silence this agent provocateur backfired spectacularly. On April 23, the day of the trial, scores of Marat’s supporters packed the courtroom. When the defendant walked in, women accompanied him, throwing flowers. He acted as his own attorney and did so with equal parts audacity and aplomb, swatting down one accusation after another and addressing the judges without even bothering to ask for the floor. To make matters worse for the Girondins, they had slapped together their case in, like, two seconds, bringing baseless charges against their nemesis that he could easily disprove, to devastating effect. Most humiliatingly, one of his accusers maintained that fear of Marat’s becoming a dictator had compelled the young Englishman William Johnson to take his own life. In response, Marat called a witness to the stand whose testimony gravely undercut this claim: the supposedly dead but very much alive William Johnson. Victories like this one met with raucous applause from Marat’s partisans. Though doubtless appreciative of their full-throated endorsement, the People’s Friend twice told his fan club to keep it down. Marat ended his defense with an acid takedown of the Girondins, accusing them of participating in a conspiracy to overthrow the republic. The jury unanimously voted to acquit this “fearless protector of the people’s rights,” giving way to a joyous celebration. Marat’s devotees hoisted him onto their shoulders, crowned him with laurels, and conveyed him into the streets, where thousands of Parisians joined the party. Numerous paintings and prints immortalized this episode, and you can see one of them on the Art of Crime website.

Marat’s triumph was followed by the Girondins’ rout. A little over a month later, on June 2, an estimated 20,000 sans-coulottes militants equipped with 150 cannon surrounded the Convention, demanding the ouster of all Girondins. Under enormous pressure, the legislature dismissed twenty-nine of them, placing them under house arrest. Not only were the Girondins booted from the convention, but they had set a dangerous precedent by prosecuting a deputy before the Revolutionary Tribunal. In the months to come, other politicians would face the same fate, including noteworthy Girondins. Yet, unlike Marat, many would not escape with their lives.

Girondin hatred would soon pave the way to Marat’s assassination. We’ll hear what happened after a quick break.

The Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat

It was shortly before noon on July 13, 1793, when Simone Everard, wife of the journalist Jean-Paul Marat, heard a knock at the door. She opened it to find a twenty-four-year-old woman, a dark-eyed beauty with chestnut hair, on the other side. Simone had never seen this stranger before, nor had just about anyone in Paris. But within a few days, most of the city and much of the country would know her name: Charlotte Corday.

Corday hailed from a minor aristocratic household. (As it happens, she counted among her ancestors Pierre Corneille, the most venerated tragic playwright of seventeenth-century France.) The Revolution had opened fissures within plenty of noble families, and Corday’s was no exception. While two of her brothers had emigrated, worried about where the nation was headed, Charlotte had wholeheartedly embraced the republic, throwing her support behind the moderate Girondins.

By 1793, she was living in the northwestern town of Caen in Normandy, a Girondin stronghold. As the revolution ran its course, local officials recoiled at the anarchic violence in Paris and condemned its instigators in the harshest terms, especially Marat. One politician even called for his death: “Let Marat’s head fall, and the Republic is saved. Purge France of this man of blood.” It’s unclear whether these words ever reached Corday, but she likewise believed that a single act of bloodshed could save thousands of her countrymen.

On July 9, she left her cousin in Caean and set out for Paris with murder in her heart. Arriving in the metropolis, she went shopping at the Palais Royal, and came away dressed for the role of femme fatale. In addition to buying a six-inch kitchen knife with an ebony blade, she picked up a jaunty black hat with flowing green ribbons. Eyewitnesses later described her as a flash of emerald, speeding through the streets as she hunted Marat. The assassin had planned to cut him down inside the Convention, to make an example of the demagogue in public. However, she discovered that Marat had recently resigned, partly because his health had taken a downward turn. Not only had he contracted a respiratory bug, but his skin condition had worsened, necessitating intensive treatment.

Marat spent most of his waking hours in a medical bath at home, where he edited new issues of his journal, now primarily reprints of earlier articles. Marat received visitors while bathing now and again, wearing a robe in his tub for the sake of modesty. If Corday could secure an audience with the journalist, he would be a sitting duck.

On the morning of July 13, she walked to his apartment on the left bank of the Seine. Turned away by Simone, Corday withdrew and formulated a new plan. That afternoon, she sent a message to Marat, claiming to have knowledge of a Girondin conspiracy taking shape in Caen. Then, Corday returned and asked to see Marat again. Simone was in the process of shooing her a second time when Marat discerned Corday’s voice from down the hall. Calling out to Simone, he instructed his wife to admit the visitor, inviting his own murderer into his home.

Their interview was brief, no longer than a quarter hour. Alone with Marat, Corday found him as expected, soaking in his bath, editing an issue of The People’s Friend. Corday began by listing the names of supposed Girondin conspirators. Thankful for the intelligence, Marat took them down. Just as he was vowing to have them all guillotined, the story goes, Corday leapt forward and plunged her knife into his chest, piercing a lung, his aorta, and left ventricle. Neighbors could hear the scream that followed, “Help me, dear friend.” But there was no helping him. He died almost immediately after the blow. Simone burst in, followed by police who restrained the assassin. As word of the attack spread, Marat’s disciples gathered at his apartment, demanding the summary execution of the killer. It was only with great effort that the authorities managed to keep them at bay.

One Murder, Two Martyrs

In the curious case of this assassination, a single murder created two martyrs.

A cult of Marat sprang up as large swaths of the populace mourned his assassination. On July 14, the day after his death and four years to the day after the fall of the Bastille, sans-coulottes flooded the streets outside his domicile, giving full vent to their grief. One woman was heard to lament, “We’ve lost our watchdog. We’ll just have to be on the lookout for ourselves.” The following evening, thousands of Parisians paid their respects at the Cordeliers church, where the fallen revolutionary’s body lay in state. Though covering most of Marat’s meager frame, a white sheet left his chest wound exposed. For many observers, his body symbolized the wounded republic, imperiled by warring political factions. Also on view was the tub where Marat had breathed his last along with his portable writing desk. Two days later, his funeral took place. As if to commemorate the passing of a saint, Marat’s embalmer extracted his heart and placed it in an urn in the Cordeliers Club, a Jacobin hotspot.

Meanwhile, back on the Boulevard du Temple, the wax museum was capitalizing on the people’s bereavement. Shortly after the assassination, Curtius and Tussaud unveiled a tableau of Marat, stabbed to death in his bath, his head wrapped in his trademark vinegar-drenched bandana. Tussaud always claimed to have taken a cast of the homicide victim’s face at the crime scene, and as per usual, she claims to have done so under duress. In her telling, a phalanx of gendarmes fetched her and escorted her to Marat’s apartment, ordering her to make a death mask. “He was still warm,” her memoirs relate, “and his bleeding body and the cadaverous aspect of his almost diabolical features presented a picture replete with horror, and Madame Tussaud performed her task under the influence of the most painful emotions.” Sorry to sound like a broken record, but it’s hard to know whether Tussaud truly completed this grisly assignment at the murder scene. As Berridge notes, however, she may well have taken a cast—or at least made sketches—after viewing Marat’s body at the Cordeliers church. Regardless of how Tussaud created this likeness, droves of mourners made the heavy-hearted pilgrimage to take in the tableau at the wax museum, “loud in their lamentations,” Tussaud recalls. Maximilien Robespierre made time for a visit, and upon leaving, he exhorted passersby, “see the image of our departed friend, snatched from us by an assassin’s hand.”

As you may know, Tussaud was not alone in depicting the assassination of Jean-Paul Marat. His death became an indelible episode in the revolution thanks to the efforts of neoclassical painter and Jacobin politician Jacques-Louis David. Four months after Corday carried out her murderous mission, David unveiled his painting, which shows Marat dead in his bath, his right arm hanging over the edge of the tub. (Intriguingly, Tussaud maintained that her tableau served as the model for his picture, a claim that historians can neither prove nor disprove.) In any event, David imbues his subject with a beatific aura. His is an idealized version of Marat, a younger man in much better health than he was in reality, whose facial features have come to a rest in a look of tranquility. As several art historians have observed, moreover, David invokes Michelangelo’s marble masterpiece, the Pietà, now located in the Basilica of St. Peter in Rome. Michelangelo’s sculpture shows the Virgin Mary cradling a lifeless Christ in her lap, in the moments following the savior’s crucifixion. In David’s painting, Marat has a noticeably elongated right arm that dangles onto the ground, as does Jesus in the Pietà. David thus draws on Christian iconography to make a secular martyr of Marat.

Yet Corday had her celebrants, too. Before her trial and execution, she took steps to disseminate her image among the public. She arranged for an artist to paint her portrait in prison, which you can find on the Art of Crime website. “Just as one cherishes the images of good citizens,” she explained of her actions, “curiosity sometimes seeks out those of great criminals, which serves to perpetuate horror of their crimes.” She went to trial just four days after the assassination, never for an instant denying her guilt. That afternoon, she ascended the scaffold. After the guillotine had done its office, the executioner lifted her head and slapped it on the cheek in a fierce condemnation of her crime. Others were more in awe of the offender. A woman in the crowd murmured of Corday’s composure, “What calm, what courage. She walks to the guillotine as if she was going to the alter.” Another young man scribbled in his diary, “For at least eight days I was in love with Charlotte Corday.”

Since her execution, numerous poets, playwrights, and novelists have glorified Corday, who for them gave her life in an attempt to curtail the out-of-control violence in France. French artist Paul Baudry painted a well-known example of such heroine worship circa 1860, also viewable on the podcast website. The picture represents the moment immediately after the stabbing. Corday stands to the right, her steely gaze directed upward. To the left, Marat lies dead in his bath, the tub turned away from the viewer and the victim’s head tilted backward to reveal his pained face. Corday’s kitchen knife protrudes from his chest as blood seeps downward and reddens the bathwater. Behind Corday, a map of France adorns the back wall. Whereas David’s painting places Marat in the center of the frame without depicting Corday at all, Baudry draws attention to the assassin. By positioning Corday in front the map, moreover, Baudry perhaps implies that she shed blood for the good of the nation. To my knowledge, Tussaud never depicted Corday in wax (though she claims to have had a lovely chat with her in prison), but she appears to have shared Baudry’s approval of her crime. In her memoirs, Tussaud applauds the assassin’s patriotism: “A heroic girl named Charlotte Corday, traveled from Normandy to rid her country of the monster Marat.”

In the decades to come, the Marat tableau became a mainstay at the Chamber of Horrors, singled out by journalists as a prime illustration of Tussaud’s talents. On December 1, 1819, a writer for the Derby Mercury lauds “the very finely modelled figure of the noted French Revolutionary Character Marat.” The same reporter added, “this subject is considered the chef d’oeuvre of the ingenious artiste.” Bizarrely, at least one customer found the sculpture best appreciated with a snack. For Charles Dickens, the most horrible sight he saw in the Chamber of Horrors was a gentleman gawking at the murdered Marat “while eating an underdone pork pie.”

Tussaud in Trouble

After Marat’s assassination, the French Revolution careered toward catastrophic bloodbath. In early August, the die-hard Jacobin Maximilien Robespierre was elected to the Committee of Public Safety, which would oversee the war effort while also clamping down on dissidents at home. Within a few months, the government would temporarily suspend democracy and grant the Committee emergency executive powers. By this time, France was facing foreign invasion on three fronts as well as civil war with various counterrevolutionary forces. As the Committee of Public Safety implemented more severe policies and ever more citizens appeared before the Revolutionary Tribunal, the French people lived in a climate of hypervigilance, alert to even the slightest possible threat to the republic. This stage of the republic proved every bit as repressive as the old regime, and one ill-judged comment could land you in prison or beneath the blade of the guillotine. From late summer and early autumn 1793 to summer 1794, which many historians view as the beginning and endpoints of the Reign of Terror, 16,594 official death sentences were passed throughout France, 2,639 of them in Paris alone. It’s furthermore estimated that between 10,000-12,000 French citizens were executed without trial while an additional 10,000 or so perished in prison.

At this time, countless artists faced legal repercussions for presenting anti-republican work, at least as far as the authorities were concerned. An accomplished actor at the Comédie Française called Dazincourt, got locked up along with a few of his fellow thespians. He understood why some of them had been thrown in the slammer; they had played dukes, kings, and emperors onstage, embodying characters who had no place in an egalitarian republic. But he had never appeared before his public as anything other than footmen, valets, butlers, and the like—sturdy, workaday sans-coulottes, all of them. Many creators suffered more drastic punishments. One puppeteer was decapitated for representing Corday as a marionette.

Madame Tussaud numbered among these endangered artists. In the middle of the night, a squad of gendarmes arrested her, her mother, and an unnamed aunt at their home on the Boulevard du Temple. A neighbor who danced and acted for a living had denounced them all as royalist sympathizers, thereby hostile to the revolution. It’s unclear why the accuser lodged this complaint, but the wax museum had certainly given the royal family plenty of real estate prior to the summer of 1789. If we believe Tussaud’s memoirs, moreover, she had tutored Madame Elizabeth, Louis XVI’s sister, even taking up residence at Versailles. Whatever motivated this denunciation, Curtius could do nothing to save his family; his military service had currently taken him to the Rhineland. The arresting officers escorted Tussaud and her relatives to a hackney coach outside, which then conveyed them to La Force, that much-feared prison. There, the wax modeler and her companions were crammed into a cell with about twenty other women. Among the captives, Tussaud claims, was Joséphine Beauharnais, later to reign as empress of France alongside Napoleon,

accompanied by her young daughter.

Tussaud remained in captivity for three long months. Like everybody else in her cell, she slept on straw, there being no bedsteads or bedding available. Meals consisted mostly of nearly inedible bread, though inmates could pay to have more appetizing victuals delivered. The prisoners lived in constant fear of execution. According to Tussaud, they had their hair cut short each week, “in order that their heads might be in fit trim” for the guillotine. Through it all, Joséphine took it upon herself to keep morale high: “She did all in her power to infuse life and spirit into her suffering companions, exhorting them to patience and endeavouring to cheer them. When the great bolts were unthrown, a general shuddering was excited amongst all the prisoners; but Josephine would rally them, by bidding them have courage; and it often happened, that the alarm was merely caused by the doors being opened for persons to bring in food for the prisoners.”

In something of an anti-climax, Tussaud says nothing of her salvation other than to relate that one day a jailer informed her and her family members that they were free to go. They never learned who had secured their release or how, but they suspected the intervention of an influential general by the name of Kleber.

As in several other cases, Tussaud’s more skeptical biographers, Pamela Pilbeam and Kate Berridge, have questioned the veracity of this episode. Contrary to Tussaud’s account, Berridge notes, Joséphine was never imprisoned at La Force. Instead, she was confined at another institution, La Carmes, an erstwhile convent. Her incarceration there started on March 19, 1794. While we can say with certainty when the future empress was admitted to La Carmes, it’s hard to determine whether Tussaud spent even a night in La Force. She never pops up in prison records, but then such documents are incomplete, partly because prisoners could bribe officials to omit their names. It’s possible though perhaps not altogether probable that Tussaud was jailed at La Force and later embellished the story by adding Joséphine into the mix.

At any rate, Tussaud outlived the Terror. Just as it’s hard to pinpoint the start of this nightmarish chapter of the revolution, it’s difficult to nail down when it concluded. Many historians name Maximilien Robespierre’s execution on July 28, 1794, as a convenient end date, though state-sanctioned violence continued beyond that.

The Lies and the Legacy

Before wrapping things up, it’s worth dwelling on what Tussaud would have us believe about her relics of the Reign of Terror and why they mattered.

First, Tussaud crafted these objects from life—or, rather, from death. It’s not just that her waxen head of, say, the Princess de Lamballe resembled her subject. Instead, Tussaud claims, she held the bleeding body part in her own hands as she cast it in wax. Likewise, in the aftermath of Marat’s assassination, she was rushed to the murder scene so that she could take a cast of the slain revolutionary.

Second, Tussaud made this artwork against her will. Remember, the way she tells it, the National Assembly commanded her to perform this grisly labor over and over again. Amid the bloodfest of state-sanctioned savagery, to refuse would have been to risk life and limb.

Whether or not Tussaud was 100% truthful in making these assertions (she probably wasn’t), both were good for business. Tussaud’s death heads and the Marat tableau possessed a unique aura of authenticity that nobody could match—she alone was in a position to model, say, Robespierre on the heels of his execution. Of all Tussaud’s biographers, Berridge offers the most compelling explanation as to why the wax modeler claimed to have done this against her will. If customers believed that she had performed this work voluntarily and without remorse, she could come across as a ghoulish profiteer, prepared to exploit the tragic ends of others for the sake of ticket sales. Ever the savvy self-promoter, however, Tussaud instead casts herself as a victim of the revolution, menaced by the coercive National Assembly. Of course, this image was nicely enhanced by her tale of getting imprisoned as a royalist and coming within a hair’s breadth of the guillotine. That Tussaud was supposedly compelled to produce this handiwork preserves her moral character and adds another layer of horror to the exhibits. Still, this strategy would not save Tussaud entirely from criticism over the years.

Even if many of Tussaud’s claims about the waxworks she crafted during the revolution are dubious, what is beyond question—and what might come as a surprise to modern audiences—is that the figures displayed in the Chamber of Horrors assumed enormous cultural and historical significance to her contemporaries, especially after she had settled in London toward the end of her career. The models of the Bastille before and after its fall, the effigy of the fantastical Comte de Lorges, the death heads of Louis, his queen, and Robespierre, the Marat tableau, not to mention a scale replica of a guillotine—all these objects helped Tussaud’s patrons imagine the unimaginable terrors of revolutionary France. Nobody encapsulated this sentiment more directly than Arthur Conan Doyle. In a 1904 speech commemorating Tussaud’s arrival in England, Doyle declared, “If you could conceive the position of a person living in the year 1792—or thereabouts—if you could put yourself back in the streets of Paris in those days; if you could see the King and Queen with the shadow of their dark fate upon their foreheads, see the austere Robespierre looking at them; the murderous Danton muttering. If you could see these historical scenes and this woman taking the heads of these people out of the guillotine basket to frame them in waxwork from the skill which she had gained, if you can imagine that—and probably you cannot because few of us can imagine scenes apart from our own period—I say if you can imagine that, it would be a most extraordinary and unique and curious thing. Madame Tussaud is responsible for a definite image of one of the most terrible periods of life.”

But I’ve gotten ahead of myself. Tussaud hasn’t even left France yet. Well, next episode, she will. And not only will she try to make it as a show-woman in London, but she will arrive in the British capital just in time for the trial and execution of an Irish-born ex-serviceman who plotted to assassinate King George III and overthrow the government.


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