Part 2: The Affair of the Poisons

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What the Scheffer account fails to disclose, however, is the fact that Pierre Cadelan, Marie Crommelin's second husband, was arrested and sent to the Bastille for some unknown reason in late 1677, or early 1678. This incident was mentioned in a letter written by Catherine Crommelin to her son, Frederic de Coninck, dated 2 February 1678.

A sordid scandal that became known as the 'Affair of the Poisons' involved hundreds of upper-class people in the Parisian aristocracy during the reign of Louis XIV. The use of poison had become popular amongst the upper class to make way for lovers by dispatching inconvenient spouses and rivals at court, or to hasten the inheritance of coveted estates and property by eliminating rival siblings. Thus poisons were euphemistically called 'inheritance powders', and there was a lively trade in these deadly substances which reaped handsome rewards.

The king's court (government) was powerless to do anything about suspected poison victims because the forensic science didn't exist yet to prove that a poisoning had, in fact, occurred. Laboratories that concocted toxic substances were in the hands of the occultic underworld which involved alchemists, duplicitous Catholic priests, and witches. When two sorceresses, Madame de Brinvilliers and Catherine Monvoisin (aka 'La Voisin'), were arrested in succession for practicing the black arts (a capital offence), a sophisticated network of poisoners was uncovered in which Pierre Cadelan played a role as financier and exporter of toxic substances.

La Voisin being questioned in her cell

The subsequent police dragnet implicated over 400 professionals and clients. This led to a 3-year court case which was the buzz of Parisian society. It even spawned a popular play called "La Devineresse" [Fortune-Teller] which ran for 47 successive performances. The comedy was a parody of what was actually happening in the news. The Mercure Galant, a monthly tabloid, also covered the issue occasionally (e.g. May 1679 edition, pp185-206).

In the course of the interrogation of those implicated in the Affair of the Poisons, the name of Madame de Montespan arose as an active client of 'La Voisin', the witch whose testimony sparked the whole investigation. Madame Athenais de Montespan happened to be the official royal mistress to king Louis XIV who had borne him seven children over a period of 17 years. She was alleged to have engaged in black mass sorcery in order to win the love of the king. When Madame de Montespan became implicated in the scandal, the king ordered a sudden halt to any further criminal investigation.

Francois-Athenais de Rochechouart, marquise de Montespan, the king's mistress
who figured prominently in the Affair of the Poisons

The chief of police, Gabriel Nicolas de la Reynie, viewed this sudden suspension as a corruption of justice and opposed the king on these grounds. The king's wishes, however, prevailed and the trial came to an abrupt end after operating for 3 years. Many accused were never brought to trial, but placed outside of the justice system and imprisoned for life by a 'lettre de cachet' - a warrant for arrest and imprisonment issued by the king which carried no right of appeal. Cadelan was interrogated. He was found to be an accomplice of Louis de Vanens, an alchemist and poisoner, and imprisoned for life.

Thus we see two distinct issues taking place concurrently which occupied the Parisian justice system at this time. The growing strength of the Huguenot population in France was perceived by the court to be a threat that had to be suppressed with the help of the chief of police, de la Reynie, who was responsible for the execution of royal lettres de cachets. Thus we are inclined to view him as a villain for carrying out his duty to pursue Protestant 'heretics', albeit reluctantly. La Reynie was merely carrying out the orders of his superior, Louvois, who conceived and instituted the dreaded 'dragonnades' which tormented the Huguenots in France.

The other issue involved getting to the bottom of a heinous network of sorcerers and poisoners that was creating havoc amongst the upper class of Parisian society. For this, and for opposing the king on matters of principle when Louis XIV summarily suspended the Poison Affair trials, we must view de la Reynie as a hero. History shows him to be a very honourable man despite the role he had to play in apprehending Huguenots.

Gabriel-Nicolas de la Reynie, chief of police [L], and
Louvois, Secretary of War, who gave de la Reynie his orders.

Implicated in the Affair of the Poisons were 442 suspects: 367 orders of arrests were issued, of which 218 were carried out. Of the condemned, 36 were executed; five were sentenced to the galleys; and 23 to exile. This excludes those who died in custody by torture or suicide. Of the people who were condemned to perpetual imprisonment by lettre de cachet [including Pierre Cadelan], six women were imprisoned at Château de Villefranche; 18 men at Château de Salces; 12 women at Belle-Île-en-Mer; ten men at Citadel de Besançon; 14 women at St Andre de Salins; and five women at Fort de Bains.

Books on this subject include "The Affair of the Poisons" by Anne Somerset; and also one with the same title by Frances Mossiker; "Princes and Poisoners" by Frantz Funck-Brentano; and "La Marquise Des Ombres (Brinvilliers)" by Catherine Hermary-Vieille. Documentaries and movies include: L'Affaire des Poisons (Louis XIV) and L'Affaire des poisons (1955).

In the aftermath of the Poisons Affair, Madame de Montespan was replaced by Madame de Maintenon as the official royal mistress, and it was Madame de Maintenon's zeal to 'stamp out heresy' that contributed to the king's decision to persecute the Huguenots and revoke the Edict of Nantes in 1685.

Françoise d'Aubigné, Marquise de Maintenon, the king's mistress
who figured prominently in the persecution of Protestants

Part 1: The Family
Part 2: The Affair
Part 3: The Secret
Part 4: The Street
Part 5: La Voisin