On this date in 1673, a footman named La Chaussee paid the forfeit for acting the agent of fugitive poisoner.
The malevolent concoctions of the Marquise de Brinvilliers have already been detailed in these pages. The sudden death of her lover and accomplice St. Croix in the summer of 1672 had exposed his incriminating effects to unwelcome scrutiny, as a consequence of which said Marquise was at this moment on the lam.
A mere valet might very much aspire to melt into the scenery when an accusing gaze is cast; indeed, La Chaussee — Jean Amelin was his real name — had been the vehicle for delivering the fatal draught* to that lady’s two brothers via a giblet pie which the servant poisoned. Although the widowed Madame d’Aubray became greatly and rightly suspicious of her sister-in-law — who by the murder of her brothers now stood to inherit a good deal of money — it seems never to have occurred to anyone that the help was in on the plot.
That is, until La Chaussee most unwisely emerged from the background at the sensitive moment of St. Croix’s death, daring to assert his rights as the former servant of that man to a bag of money whose position in the late poisoner’s apartment he could precisely describe. Having volunteered and (by his accurate description) substantiated this eyebrow-raising intimacy, La Chaussee promptly received not the 1,700 livres aspired after but a speedy arrest.
Hours before he underwent his sentence on March 24, 1673, he was put to torture to discover his accomplices, and as intended the pain loosened his previously reluctant tongue. From the public domain Madame de Brinvilliers and her times, 1630-1676:
“I am guilty. Madame de Brinvilliers gave poison to Sainte-Croix. He told me about it.”
“What did he tell you?”
“Sainte-Croix told me that she gave it in order that her brothers might be poisoned.”
“Was it a powder, or a liquid?”
“A liquid. It was administered in wine and in soup.”
“What did you put in the dish at Villequoy?”
“A clear liquid, taken from Sainte-Croix’s casket. I gave poison to both the brothers. Sainte-Croix promised me one hundred pistoles.”
“Did you report to Sainte-Croix the effect of the poison on Monsieur d’Aubray?”
“Yes, and he gave me some more poison.”
“You are exhorted to tell the truth. Who were your accomplices?”
“Sainte-Croix always told me that Madame de Brinvilliers knew nothing about the matter. But I believe that she knew everything.”
“What makes you think so?”
“Because she often used to speak about poisons.”
“Was it ever suggested that Madame d’Aubray [the widow of the eldest brother -ed.] should be poisoned?”
“Sainte-Croix was not able to get me into her household. Some days before the death of Sainte-Croix, Belleguise took from his lodgings two boxes, but I do not know what was inside. I knew Belleguise ever since I was in the service of Sainte-Croix. Madame de Brinvilliers asked me to tell her where the casket had been placed, and if I knew what was inside. I did not think it was in Sainte-Croix’s rooms, because for a long while it had been placed in the care of a woman called Guedon, who had been working with me in the Rue de Grenelle. I do not know whether Guedon was acquainted with its contents.”
La Chaussee was again asked if Sainte-Croix had given poison to Madame Villarceau d’Aubray.
“No,” he replied. “But if he could have introduced anyone into her household he would have done so.”
The lackey was then taken to the prison chapel to rest for an hour before being carried to the place of execution. Upon being asked if he had anything further to add, he made some rambling observations about a certain Lapierre who had been living with Belleguise, and who was sent away. The sense is difficult to arrive at, and after his torture he may have been slightly delirious and light-headed.
He was then taken in a cart to the Place de Greve, and his limbs broken with an iron bar, a singularly atrocious punishment which was not abolished until the age of the great revolution. Like all cruelties of this nature, it never prevented a single crime. Indeed the brigands and thieves, for whom it was chiefly intended, were in the habit of hardening their flesh against its agonies, and in their moments of recreation used to carry out mock but painful tortures of the wheel, which enabled them to suffer on the public scaffold with fortitude and resignation.
The Marquise de Brinvilliers was eventually captured, and faced torture and execution in 1676.
* The dark arts of chemistry required for this affair were said to have been learned by St. Croix when he was imprisoned in the Bastille and there chanced to meet the Italian poisoner Exili.