La Voisin : Famous Impostors by Bram Stoker

Famous Impostors : Witchcraft and Clairvoyance La Voisin


Bram Stoker

Famous Impostors by Bram Stoker

La Voisin

In Paris a woman named Des Hayes Voisin, a widow who had taken up the business of a midwife, towards the end of the seventeenth century made herself notorious by the telling of fortunes. Such at least was the manifest occupation of the worthy lady, and as she did not flaunt herself unduly, her existence was rather a retired one. Few who did not seek her services knew of her existence, fewer still of her residence. The life of a professor of such mysteries as the doings of Fate—so-called—is prolonged and sweetened by seclusion. But there is always an “underground” way of obtaining information for such as really desire it; and Madame Voisin, for all her evasive retirement, was always to be found when wanted—which means when she herself wanted to be found. She was certainly a marvellous prophet, within a certain range of that occult art. Like all clever people she fixed limitations for herself; which was wise of her, for to prophesy on behalf of every one who may yearn for a raising of the curtain, be it of never so small a corner, on all possible subjects, is to usurp the general functions of the Almighty. Wisely therefore, Madame Voisin became a specialist. Her subject was husbands; her chief theme their longevity. Naturally such women as were unsatisfied with the personality, circumstances, or fortunes of their partners, joined the mass of her clientèle, a mass which taking it “bye and large” maintained a strange exactness of dimensions. This did not much trouble the public, or even the body of her clients, for no one except Madame herself knew their numbers. It was certainly a strange thing how accurately Madame guessed, for she had seemingly no data to go on—the longevity of the husbands were never taken into the confidence of the prophet. She took care to keep almost to herself the rare good fortune, in a sense, which attended her divination; for ever since the misfortune which had attended the late Marquise de Brinvilliers became public, the powers of the law had taken a quite unnecessary interest in the proceedings of all of her cult. Longevity is quite a one-sided arrangement of nature; we can only be sure of its accuracy when it is too late to help in its accomplishment. In such a game there is only one throw of the dice, so that it behoves anyone who would wager successfully to be very sure that the chances are in his—or her—favour.

Madame Voisin’s clients were generally in a hurry, and so were willing to take any little trouble or responsibility necessary to ensure success. They had two qualities which endear customers to those of La Voisin’s trade; they were grateful and they were silent. That they were of cheery and hopeful spirit was shown by the fact that as a rule they married again soon after the dark cloud of bereavement had fallen on them. When the funeral baked meats have coldly furnished forth the marriage tables, it is better to remain as inconspicuous as possible; friends and onlookers will take notice, and, when they notice, they will talk. Moreover the new partner is often suspicious and apt to be a little jealous of his predecessor in title. Thus, Madame Voisin being clever and discreet, and her clients being—or at any rate appearing to be—happy in their new relations and silent to the world at large, all went prosperously with the kindly-hearted prophet. No trouble rose as to testamentary dispositions. Men who are the subjects of prophecy have usually excellently-drawn wills. This is especially the case with husbands who are no longer young. Young husbands are as a rule not made the subjects of prophecy.

Madame Voisin’s great accuracy of prediction did not excite at the time so much public admiration as it might have done if she or her clients had taken the public more into their confidence; but it was noted afterwards that in most cases the male individual who retired early from the scene was the senior partner in that congeries of three which has come to be known as “the eternal triangle.” In later conversations, following in the wake of the completed prophecy, confidences were exchanged as to the studies in certain matters of science in which Madame Voisin seemed to have attained a rare proficiency.

The late Mr. Charles Peace, an adventurous if acquisitive spirit, who gave up his life in the same manner as the deceased Mr. Haman, worked alone during the long period of his professional existence, and with misleading safety. The illustrious French lady-prophet unwisely did not value this form of security, and so multiplied opportunities of failure. She followed an entirely opposite policy, one which though it doubtless stood by her on many occasions had a fatal weakness. In some ways it may facilitate matters if one is one’s own Providence; such a course avoids temporarily errors of miscalculation or deduction of probable results. And just as the roulette table has certain chances in favour of Zero, there is for the practical prophet a large hazard in that the dead are unable to speak or to renew effort on a more favourable basis. La Voisin, probably through some unfavourable or threatening experiences, saw the wisdom of associating the forces of prediction and accomplishment, and with the readiness of an active personality effected the junction. For this she was already fairly well equipped with experiences. Both as a wife and a lover of warm and voluptuous nature she understood something of the passions of humanity, on both the female and the male side; and being a woman she knew perhaps better of the two the potency of feminine longing. This did not act so strongly in the lesser and more directly commercial, if less uncertain, phases of her art, such as finding lost property, divining the result of hazards, effecting immunity from danger, or the preserving indefinitely the more pleasing qualities of youth. But in sterner matters, when the issue was of life or death, the masculine tendency towards recklessness kicked the beam. As a nurse in active touch with both medical and surgical wants, aims, and achievements, she was at ease in the larger risks of daily life. And after all, her own ambitions, aided by the compelling of her own natural demands for physical luxury, were quite independent, only seeking through exiguous means a way of achievement. In secret she studied the mystery of a toxicologist; and, probably by cautious experiment, satisfied herself of her proficiency in that little-known science. That she had other aims, more or less dependent on this or the feelings which its knowledge superinduced, can be satisfactorily guessed from some of her attendant labours which declared themselves later.

After a time La Voisin’s vogue as a sorceress brought her into certain high society where freedom of action was unhampered by moral restraints. The very rich, the leaders of society and fashion of the time, the unscrupulous whose ambitious efforts had been crowned with success of a kind, leaders of Court life, those in high military command, mistresses of royalty and high aristocracy—all became companions and clients in one or more of her mysterious arts. Amongst them were the Duchesse de Bouillon, the Comtesse de Soissons, Madame de Montespan, Olympe de Mancini, Marshal de Luxembourg, the Duc de Vendôme, Prince de Clermont-Lodeve. It was not altogether fashionable not to be in touch with Madame Voisin. Undeterred by the lessons of history, La Voisin went on her way, forced as is usual in such cases by the circumstances which grow around the criminal and prove infinitely the stronger. She was at the height of her success when the public suspicion, followed by action, revealed the terrible crimes of the Marquise de Brinvilliers; and she was caught in the tail of the tempest thus created.

This case of Madame de Brinvilliers is a typical one of how a human being, goaded by passion and lured by opportunity, may fall swiftly from any estate. It is so closely in touch with that of Madame Voisin that the two have almost to be considered together. They began with the desire for dabbling in forbidden mysteries. Three men—two Italians and one German, all men of some ability—were violent searchers for the mythical “philosopher’s stone” which was to fulfil the dream of the mediæval alchemist by turning at will all things into gold. In the search they all gravitated to Paris. There the usual thing happened. Money ran short and foolish hoping had to be supplemented by crime. In the whirling world of the time there was always a ready sale for means to an end, however nefarious either might be. The easy morality of the time allowed opportunity for all means, with the result that there was an almost open dealing in poisons. The soubriquet which stole into existence—it dared not proclaim itself—is a self-explanatory historical lesson. The poudre de succession marks an epoch which, for sheer, regardless, remorseless, profligate wickedness is almost without peer in history, and this is said without forgetting the time of the Borgias. Not even natural affection or family life or individual relationship or friendliness was afforded any consideration. This phase of crime, which was one almost confined to the upper and wealthier classes, depended on wealth and laws of heredity and entail. Those who benefited by it salved what remnants of conscience still remained to them with the thought that they were but helping the natural process of waste and recuperation. The old and feeble were removed, with as little coil as might be necessary, in order that the young and lusty might benefit. As the change was a form of plunder, which had to be paid for in a degree in some way approximate to results, prices ran high. Poisoning on a successful scale requires skilful and daring agents, whose after secrecy as well as whose present aid has to be secured. Exili and Glasser—one of the Italians and the German—did a thriving trade. As usual in such illicit traffic, the possibility of purchase under effective conditions made a market. There is every reason to believe from after results that La Voisin was one such agent. The cause of La Brinvilliers entering the market was the purely personal one of an affair of sensual passion. Death is an informative circumstance. Suspicion began to leak out that the polyglot firm of needy foreigners had dark dealings. Two of them—the Italians—were arrested and sent to the Bastille where one of them died. By unhappy chance the other was given as cell-companion Captain Sainte-Croix, who was a lover of the Marquise de Brinvilliers. Sainte-Croix as a Captain in the regiment of the Marquis had become intimate in his house. Brinvilliers was a fatuous person and of imperfect moral vision. The Captain was handsome, and Madame la Marquise amorous. Behold then all the usual personnel of a tragedy of three. After a while the intrigue became a matter of family concern. The lady’s father,—the Civil Lieutenant d’Aulroy, procured a lettre de cachet, and had the erring lover immured in the Bastille as the easiest and least public way out of the difficulty. “Evil communications corrupt good manners,” says the proverb. The proverbial philosopher understated the danger of such juxtaposition. Evil manners added corruption even to their kind. In the Bastille the exasperated lover listened to the wiles of Exili; and another stage of misdoing began. The Marquise determined on revenge, and be sure that in such a case in such a period even the massive walls of the Bastille could not prevent the secret whisper of a means of effecting it. D’Aulroy, his two sons, and another sister perished. Brinvilliers himself was spared through some bizarre freak of his wife’s conscience. Then the secret began to be whispered—first, it was said, through the confessional; and the Chambre Ardente, analogous to the British Star Chamber, instituted for such purposes, took the case in hand. The result might have been doubtful, for great social forces were at work to hush up such a scandal, but that, with a truly seventeenth century candour, the prisoner had written an elaborate confession of her guilt, which if it did not directly assure condemnation at least put justice on the right track.

The trial was a celebrated one, and involved incidentally many illustrious persons as well as others of lesser note. In the end, in 1676, Madame la Marquise de Brinvilliers was burned—that is, what was left of her was burned after her head had been cut off, a matter of grace in consideration of her rank. It is soothing to the feelings of many relatives and friends—not to mention those of the principal—in such a case when “great command o’ersways the order” of purgation by fire.

Before the eddy of the Brinvilliers’ criminal scandal reached to the lower level of Madame Voisin, a good many scandals were aired; though again “great command” seems to have been operative, so far as human power availed, in minimising both scandals and punishments. Amongst those cited to the Chambre Ardente were two nieces of Cardinal Mazarin, the Duchesse de Bouillon, the Comtesse de Soissons, and Marshal de Luxembourg. In some of these cases that which in theatrical parlance is called “comic relief” was not wanting. It was a witty if impertinent answer of the Duchesse de Bouillon to one of her judges, La Reyne, an ill-favoured man, who asked, apropos of a statement made at the trial that she had taken part in an alleged invocation of Beelzebub, “and did you ever see the Devil?”—

“Yes, I am looking at him now. He is ugly, and is disguised as a Councillor of State!”

The King, Louis XIV, took much interest in the trial and even tried now and again to smooth matters. He even went so far as to advise the Comtesse de Soissons who was treated by the Court rather as a foolish than a guilty woman, to keep out of the way if she were really guilty. In answer she said with the haughtiness of her time that though she was innocent she did not care to appear in a Law Court. She withdrew to Brussels where she died some twenty years later. Marshal de Luxembourg—François Henri de Montmorenci-Boutteville, duke, peer, Marshal of France to give his full titles—was shown to have engaged in an attempt to recover lost property by occult means. On which basis and for having once asked Madame Voisin to produce his Satanic Majesty, he was alleged to have sold himself to the Devil. But his occult adventures did not stand in the way of his promotion as a soldier though he had to stand a trial of over a year long; he was made Captain of the Guard and finally given command of the Army.

La Voisin with her accomplices—a woman named Vigoureux and Le Sage, a priest—were with a couple of score of others arrested in 1679, and were, after a spell of imprisonment in the Bastille, tried. As a result Voisin, Vigoureux and her brother, and Le Sage were burned early in 1680. In Voisin’s case the mercy of previous decapitation, which had been accorded to her guilty sister Brinvilliers, was not extended to her. Perhaps this was partly because of the attitude which she had taken up with regard to religious matters. Amongst other unforgivable acts she had repelled the Crucifix—a terrible thing to do according to the ideas of that superstitious age.

Famous Impostors

Chapter I. Pretenders
A. Perkin Warbeck
B. The Hidden King
C. Stephan Mali
D. The False Dauphins
E. Princess Olive

Chapter II. Practitioners of Magic
A. Paracelsus
B. Cagliostro
C. Mesmer

Chapter III.
The Wandering Jew

Chapter IV.
John Law

Chapter V. Witchcraft and Clairvoyance
A. Witches
B. Doctor Dee
C. La Voisin
D. Sir Edward Kelley
E. Mother Damnable
F. Matthew Hopkins

Chapter VI.
Arthur Orton (Tichborne claimant)

Chapter VII. Women as Men
A. The Motive for Disguise
B. Hannah Snell
C. La Maupin
D. Mary East

Chapter VIII. Hoaxes, etc.
A. Two London Hoaxes
B. The Cat Hoax
C. The Military Review
D. The Toll-Gate
E. The Marriage Hoax
F. Buried Treasure
G. Dean Swift’s Hoax
H. Hoaxed Burglars
I. Bogus Sausages
J. The Moon Hoax

Chapter IX.
Chevalier d’Eon

Chapter X.
The Bisley Boy