It was a strange end to the life of someone whose outward appearance seemed relatively normal in the 17th century. Catherine was the wife of a jeweler and silk merchant. She lived comfortably in the very lively Villeneuve Sur Gravois, a district at the heart of Parisian society. She was a mother, an entrepreneur, a philanthropist, a lover of the arts.
But she was also a witch, who almost overthrew the French aristocracy and almost succeeded in killing a king.
You won’t find much about Catherine’s early days in any history book. Born Catherine Deshayes in 1640, it was thought that she had had a difficult education. Poverty was undoubtedly involved. The term street urchin might be appropriate. How else to explain a 9-year-old girl who knew how to sell fortunes to nobles for a few pounds?
She married a merchant by the name of Antoine Montvoisin at the age of 20 and quickly discovered the incompetence and unreliability of her new husband. His business was failing, he was deeply in debt and Catherine refused to resume a life on the streets. So she did what any enterprising young lady with a knack for palm reading and a basic understanding of the dark arts did in that time: she became a poison mistress.
Not at first, of course. No, Catherine began her witchcraft studies by addressing the elite circles of the French aristocracy. She practiced palmistry and facial reading, telling depressed and dissatisfied housewives how to improve their marriages (or escape them) by simply reading the lines on their hands and face. She was an herbalist, so sometimes the occasional cure for aches and pains came into play, as did her midwifery services — she had learned to abort women, a procedure that was rampant at a time when strict Catholicism and desire for debauchery did not mix.
The Church disapproved – women of strong will with a touch of black magic about them terrified those red-robed hypocrites at the time – but Catherine was smart and uncompromising. She convinced the vicars and theology professors at the Sorbonne University who refused her profession that all the divination skills she possessed were conferred on her by God. She simply used psychology and her faith to help those in need.
They bought it, and Catherine’s business, now apparently approved by the Church, began to flourish.
Of course, being the savvy businesswoman that she was, Catherine began to notice a trend among her clients. Most of them, if not all, wanted something from the men in their lives. Some wanted men to become their husbands, some wanted their husbands dead, some wanted to inherit their family fortune, etc. So Catherine started to make potions to help these desires. She crushed toad bones with Spanish Fly, human blood, and iron shavings to help some of the noblest women in Parisian society bewitch lovers and future husbands.
But it wasn’t the love spells or the crystal ball readings that drove Catherine, known as La Voisin, to the stake… it was murder and black masses and, yes, poison.
Once her reputation began to grow, La Voisin decided to capitalize on the desperation and deep pockets of her clientele. One of his most expensive services would become a searing burden in his eventual trial. La Voisin employed the help of priests – some of whom were her lovers, others who had debts to settle in order to keep their own mistresses at ease – to perform satanic rituals in the catacombs under her house. These blasphemous black masses were dark inversions of a traditional Catholic ritual in which a naked woman would act as an altar, lying down while holding black candles in each hand with a chalice resting on her stomach. A priest performed satanic rites on her body before pouring the blood of a newborn baby into the cup while the woman prayed to the Dark Lord.
Whether the baby needs to be alive or not, we’re not sure, but securing a child for services hasn’t been difficult for La Voisin. She had opened a home for single mothers years ago, helping unwanted pregnant women get abortions or helping lower-class women get rid of their babies after childbirth. She did not charge her peasant clientele for these services, but instead billed the aristocratic women who came to see her for additional help to pay for her charity. These were women who couldn’t afford the scandal of an out-of-wedlock child, or women who simply couldn’t afford to raise a child on the ruthless streets of 17th century Paris. The Neighbor might have told them that she would find houses for the children, or she wouldn’t have told them anything at all. Either way, she had a constant supply of sacrifice thanks to her philanthropy and the ruthless standards of Catholicism of the day.
And of course, black masses, human sacrifices, the killing of infants – it all sounds bad. But it was the poisoning, in which La Voisin was not even directly involved, that really put our DIY high priestess in trouble.
The poisons affair is a scandal that shook the French nobility in the 17th century.
It started with the trial of Mme de Brinvilliers who was accused of working with her lover to murder her father and brothers so that she inherits his estate. The Sun King himself, King Louis XIV, became terrified that he might also become a victim of poisoning (he began to taste his meals to his servants) and therefore gave the chef de the Parisian police authorized to conduct what amounted to a witch hunt after the arrest of Magdelaine de La Grange, another fortune teller in Paris linked to the Brinvilliers affair.
It was La Grange who pointed the finger at another woman, Marie Bosse, a famous French poisoner who was part of an elaborate network of fortune tellers, alchemists and divination masters that La Voisin had built in over the years. (Catherine couldn’t handle the mountain of demands from the ladies of the court, so she contracted with other women with special talents in the dark arts.) Bosse and La Voisin were rivals – Catherine enjoyed a better clientele paid because of other things, she displayed a lavish lifestyle and spent money on things like gold-trimmed velvet dresses to convince educated and uneducated women that she was, in fact, the ” real deal ”. Bosse was better at poisoning than La Voisin, however, and their grudge was the only fuel she needed to involve Catherine in the poisons affair.
Thus, Catherine was arrested, but probably not tortured, which one would expect for a woman accused of witchcraft at the time. No, the police chief knew that La Voisin was a woman of certain indulgences – she often had multiple lovers and a great love of wine – so he kept her drunk while in detention, probing her to find out who she was serving and what those services involved while keeping her, well, drunk.
And the truth finally came out.
The Neighbor has not only fueled some of the darkest fantasies of the city’s elite, but she has also been very close to the balance of the king himself. Her most prominent client was Madame Montespan, the official mistress of King Louis XIV who is believed to first enlist the services of La Voisin to procure love potions to make the king obsessed with her instead. of her formal mistress at the time who was also pregnant with her child. Everything La Voisin did for her worked because Madame Montespan was the King’s reigning mistress for over a decade. But, his eye began to stray on the Duchess of Fontanges, forcing Montespan to ask for more of La Voisin, including the rituals of the Black Mass and, according to some, a powder to poison either the king’s new lover – deceased shortly after the start of their romance – either the king himself.
With this new information revealed, La Voisin was destined to burn at the stake for witchcraft, her death to set an example for court women and necromancers and fortune tellers doing business in Paris. She is believed to have helped poison over 1,000 people and some believe she killed more than 2,500 infants during her ceremonies. She died in early 1680 after the Chambre Ardente – the “ardent court” – found her guilty and deserved one of the harshest punishments the court could inflict. But she did not go quietly. Some say she begged the mob for mercy, some say she cried out her innocence, and others say she cursed the families of each of the men responsible for her verdict.
In total, more than 300 people were arrested as part of the investigation, including 36, including La Voisin, executed for their crimes. Most of the French nobility, including Montespan, escaped punishment thanks to King Louis XIV, who worried if people learned the truth – that his court was crawling with liars, murderers and practitioners of witchcraft – the peasant class would rebel or worse, England would. use the scandal as a reason to invade.
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And so, for a time, Catherine Montvoisin — murderer, fortune-teller, street rat, entrepreneur, high priestess, prisoner, and yes, witch — was perhaps even more powerful than the Sun King himself.