Witch. That title became an accusation throughout history, as it was used to execute almost half a million people in Europe and the United States alone since the year 1200. In reality, most of these victims - mainly women - were victims of fear-based conspiracies. They weren't agents of the devil, merely social outcasts or healers with unusual knowledge.
But in 17th century France, whispers of witches threatened the very reign of King Louis XIV himself. In a case that came to be known as the Affair of the Poisons, authorities uncovered a network of women with tremendous influence. They could seemingly employ dark magic and subtle poisons to control life at the French court. During a time when greedy, elaborately dressed nobles were accustomed to having their own way at any cost, there lived a legendary witch named La Voisin, whose dark talents threatened the most powerful figures in Versailles and French society at large.
Read on to learn more about this mysterious figure and her scandalous story.
The Affair of the Poisons lasted from 1677-1682. This major scandal started fairly small, when the aristocratic Madame de Brinvilliers was arrested in 1675 for poisoning members of her family for personal gain. She was tortured and executed, but questions lingered. What about other suspicious deaths that had occurred? And what if other nobles were at risk of being poisoned?
An inquiry into these crimes was opened at the request of King Louis XIV. The authorities soon discovered that common people and the bourgeois alike had been secretly seeking out spells, black masses, drugs, and poisons to further their own aspirations. Accusations of sorcery and poisoning soon erupted, rocking the foundations of French society.
In the late 17th century, any a fine Parisian woman hoping to get rid of her enemy or pique her lover's interest could turn to a woman named Catherine Deshayes to help them with their predicament. Her husband had fallen on hard times, and it was up to her to provide for her family. She had no real skills other than her light medical knowledge and ability to read palms, but she was savvy. Her work soon expanded to include midwifery services and even illegal abortions. The ability to tell fortunes she had learned as a child also became useful when advising young women on what to do next.
Soon dubbed "La Voisin" by her admirers, this woman soon began marketing herself as an agent of the dark arts. She was even rumored to have spent a small fortune on a custom-made ermine-lined velvet robe embroidered with 200 eagles in gold thread. Her loyal following began to grow as her name became synonymous with making dreams come true.
La Voisin began entertaining clients by reading omens and astrological charts, and performing other mystical services. She quickly departed from the medical world and entered the occult, and was rumored to use ingredients like animal bones, metal shavings, and blood in her powders and potions.
Paris's upper crust had a need for such witchy skills, as most influential people were looking to push their own romantic, political, or social agenda. Everyone wanted power, love, and beauty, and La Voisin promised them all of the above. Her practice began to take off, becoming quite lucrative in the process - until it all began to unravel.
When Madame de Brinvilliers was brought to trial, the shadowy network of La Voisin began to fall apart. De Brinvilliers had apparently used a poison appropriately known as "inheritance powder" to rid herself of her father and two brothers, and even though her plan was successful, it drew the scrutiny of the law. Her crime was eventually uncovered and with it, a secret stash of incriminating letters and diary entries. After sustaining the dreaded water cure torture - being forced to drink huge quantities of water - she confessed to her dark deeds and was beheaded and burned at the stake.
Her death shocked France and horrified King Louis XIV, who was always slightly fearful of being "offed" himself by jealous courtesans or scorned mistresses. The resulting tribunal he ordered seemed certain to uncover La Voisin's business. All the practitioners in La Voisin's dark underworld knew each other, and it wouldn't be long before someone else was exposed. But La Voisin was far from ready to give up her dark arts.