Poison Affair

Poison Affair, in French history, scandal implicating a number of prominent persons at the court of King Louis XIV. It began with the trial of Marie Madeleine d'Aubray, marquise de Brinvilliers (c.1630–76). She conspired with her lover, Godin de Sainte-Croix, an army captain, to poison her father and two brothers in order to secure the family fortune and to end interference in her adulterous relationship. Her husband escaped the same fate by his complaisance. An investigation was made, and the marquise fled abroad, but in 1676 she was arrested at Liège. The affair greatly worked on the popular imagination, and there were rumors that she had tried out her poisons on hospital patients. She was beheaded and then burned. The Brinvilliers trial attracted attention to other mysterious deaths. Parisian society had been seized by a fad for spiritualist séances, fortune-telling, and the use of love potions. Some of the quack practitioners undoubtedly also sold poison (called “inheritance powders” at the time); after their arrest they furnished the police with lists of their clients, who often were guilty merely of having their palms read or of buying an aphrodisiac, and accused them of complicity in their crimes. The most celebrated case was that of La Voisin, a midwife and fortune-teller whose real name was Catherine Deshayes Monvoisin and whose clientele included the marquise de Montespan, Olympe Mancini (niece of Cardinal Mazarin and mother of Prince Eugene of Savoy), her sister Marie Anne Mancini, and Marshal Luxembourg (duke and peer of France and one of the military heroes of the time). No formal charges were made against any of these, and there is no evidence that they were seriously implicated, yet a permanent stain was left on their names. La Voisin was burned as a poisoner and a sorceress in 1680. A special court, the chambre ardente [burning court], was instituted to judge cases of poisoning and witchcraft, and the poison epidemic came to an end in France. The affair was symptomatic of the witchcraft trials of the period throughout Europe and in New England; however, the judicial investigation was conducted generally with far more regularity and far less hysteria than elsewhere.

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