In 1676, the macabre case of the poisoner the Marquise de Brinvilliers was the exclusive topic of conversation in Paris. It is often related as the prologue of the Affair of the Poisons in France during the reign of Louis XIV. This case became particularly sordid and striking due to the fact that Madame de Brinvilliers was a very beautiful and rich aristocratic lady, related to the most influential people in the country, her father, Antoine Dreux d'Aubray, was the Civil Lieutenant of Paris, a very powerful official in France - few were more highly placed than Dreux d'Aubray.
Marie Madeleine Gobelin, Marquise de Brinvilliers was born in 1630, she was the eldest of five children in the family. She married Antoine Gobelin in 1651; his family, the King's tapestry makers, made fortune from their Gobelin tapestry business. The young Antoine had annual income of 30000 livres a year (which would be more than $160000 nowadays). The bride's dowry was 150000 livres and her grandmother left her another 50000 livres.
7 years later, the Marquise de Brinvilliers fell in love with a cavalry captain Gaudin de Sainte-Croix.
M. de Brinvilliers was an colonel in the French army where he met Sainte-Croix and liked him so much that invited him to his house. Madame de Brinvilliers already knew that her husband wasn't faithful to her and felt free to start the relationship. Her husband didn't care much, but her father and brothers demanded to end up the relationship. She refused, and her father placed Sainte-Croix in the Bastille for 6 weeks. There Sainte-Croix befriended an Italian, Egidio Exili, who knew a lot about poisons. The Marquise de Brinvilliers gave a large sum to Sainte-Croix to buy Exili's poison formula.
Out of jail, Sainte-Croix reinstated his relashionship with Marquise de Brinvilliers, rented a house and set up a laboratory in it. At the time Europeans enthusiastically conducted alchemical research trying to discover the Philosopher's Stone, a substance allegedly turning some metals into gold. As for Sainte-Croix, he could simply experiment with poisons. As later it was suspected that he started in a modest way selling "succession powders" to his few select clients to administer to a wealthy relative.
By then Marquise de Brinvilliers had money problems as her husband was quite prodigal and incompetent in business, as well as her splendid mansion in the Marais, her magnificent carriage with gilded doors and horses, her gowns and hats, thirty servants, her country house at Sains were to be maintained. Also she had to support her lover's luxury lifestyle and extensive gambling. She prepared to poison her father expecting him to leave his fortune to her, she prepared to poison him. But before she tried out her elixirs on the destitute bringing gifts of confiture to the charity hospitalto the Hotel-Dieu, and became very pleased with the results.
In 1666, she arranged to place a servant, found by Sainte-Croix, in her father's home, who started poisoning d'Aubray. Later that year Marquise de Brinvilliers traveled with her father to his country estate where she kept giving him poison steadily (as she later confessed she had given him poison 28 or 30 times). From that trip M.d'Aubray returned terminally sick and died the same year at the age of 66. The doctors attributed the symptoms - stomach pain, vomiting, burning in bowels - to the goat attack; nobody suspected anything.
Four years later the money left to the Marquise de Brinvilliers by her father was spent, the creditors had been exhausting her - even her carriage was repossessed - it was her brothers' turn. Both of them were wealthy men, but they didn't include her in their wills. Still she was mad at them for confronting her for her liaison with Sainte-Croix. Once again Sainte-Croix found a man by the name La Chausee to insert in the household of the two brothers - the younger one wasn't married and lived with the elder brother and his wife.
The elder brother was the first to be taken care of. Once he even complained that the servant was poisoning him - the drink served by La Chausee had a metallic taste. Somehow the servant found a good explanation. During the Easter feast, 1670, after a pie filled with cocks kidneys, crests and sweetbreads in cream sauce was served, seven people got sick, most dangerously the brother d'Aubray. In the summer of 1670 he died, having the same symptoms as his father. The younger brother followed him in several months the same year.
By this time the suspicions arose that both brothers died of poisoning. The autopsy on the body of the elder brother had been conducted. The blackened entrails and the decayed intestines confirmed the suspicion. But nobody thought La Chausee could be the murderer as his master in appreciation of his care left him some money in the will.
Marquise de Brinvilliers moved to the next targets - her sister, who being a pious old maid had been donating too much money which Mme considered hers, and her brother's widow who inherited after her husband his wealth.
Her plans were interrupted by a sudden death of Sainte-Croix in 1672. The legend has it that he died having inhaled poisonous fumes while preparing toxic potion. In reality he died after an illness having exercised his last religious rites.
After his death the creditors started going through his possessions and found a casket with packets filled with some substances and a note that the casket should be sent to the Marquise de Brinvilliers. It was kept with the commissary. Now La Chausee appeared in the commissary office claiming some money Sainte-Croix owed him. But when he learned that a casket was found among Sainte-Croix' things, La Chausee briskly left. Soon the Marquise de Brinvilliers visited the commissary to claim the casket, but in vain.
The casket was finally open and various poisons were found there along with a note from Madame de Brinvilliers to Sainte-Croix promising him 30000 livres. Also some liquid was discovered in the casket, which doctors couldn't identify, but tested on animals. They died within a few hours, but their examined insides seemed intact.
The widow of the elder brother d'Aubray filed a complain against La Chausee, and the Marquise de Brinvilliers left the country. La Chausee was caught and put in jail. In 1673 he was found guilty and sentenced first to brodequins (the legs of a man were kept between planks which were increasingly tightened crushing the limbs) and then to be broken alive upon a wheel (the wheel was typically a large wooden wagon wheel with many radial spokes, but a wheel was not always used. In some cases the condemned were lashed to the wheel and beaten with a club or iron cudgel, with the gaps in the wheel allowing the cudgel to break through).
La Chausee confessed that he had murdered both brothers on the orders of Sainte-Croix.
Mme de Brinvilliers, who had fled from the country, traveled in Europe for several years, living on a small allowance sent by her sister.
She was captured in Liege, in 1676. After the search, the authorities found a document "My confession" where she admitted she had killed her father and her brothers, and had tried to poison her daughter and her husband, but had changed her mind. Also she confessed that M. de Brinvilliers was the father of only 2 of her 5 children. Two were fathered by Sainte-Croix and one by a cousin. She stated she had continuously committed incest and had lost her virginity at the age of 7.
On the way to France she made a few suicide attempts by eating glass and swallowing pins.
During the investigation, the former maidservants of the marquise testified about odd things they witnessed in her household - one of them told that the marquise had tried to poison her, the other one saw arsenic powder and paste in Mme de Brinvilliers' casket. But the most important witness was the former tutor to the marquise's children and her ex-lover Jean-Baptiste Briancourt, who testified that she had confessed to him about poisoning her father and brothers and asked his assistance in murdering her sister and sister-in-law.
On July 17th, Mme de Brinvilliers was sentenced to the water torture (8 vessels of 2 and half pints each were forced into her throat through a cow's horn), then she was beheaded, her body burned ans her ashes thrown to the wind. She confessed to Attorney General in all her crimes before the torture.
The windows of the houses on the Place de Greve were booked at high prices by spectators in order to observe the execution from a superior spot.
This extraordinary case became the prelude of the Affair of the Poisons during the reign of Louis XIV and and led the great poison craze that had seized France. It gave rise to the fears that poisoning became widespread even among individuals of the highest ranks of society. The King himself felt at risk of poisoning which resulted in a large number of arrests and executions.