Archive for February, 2011


Things start to worsen with the arrest of the Voisin, on 12 March 1679, after Mass, outside the church of Notre-Dame de Bonne-Nouvelle.  A very singular character this Catherine Deshayes, married to Montvoisin, and known as the Voisin.  Over forty, she is not precisely beautiful.  Still, she has had all the lovers that she has wanted, including several gentlemen.  Two of them, however, must retain our attention more particularly:  the inevitable Lesage, who will be arrested a few days after her, and a certain Denis Poculot, Sieur de Blessis.  Very knowledgeable in alchemy, but also knowing how to manufacture remedies and poisons, Blessis has been connected to Vanens and his gang, without, however, being a member of it.  He is a little more than a simple charlatan:  not because he claims to have succeeded in making silver, but because of the efficiency of his remedies, to which he owes his excellent reputation at Court, where he has even been presented to the King.  As for his poisons, it is said that it is enough just to breathe some of them, to expire instantly.  It can be seen how precious he is to his mistress:  so, when Blessis is sequestered by the Marquis de Termes, who has been ruined by the trial of the former surintendant des Finances, Fouquet, who was close to him, and who dreams of recovering his fortune by forcing the secrets of the “great work” out of Blessis – or perhaps, failing that, making him forge money… – la Voisin does not hesitate to go to Saint-Germain to try to place a request with the King, to obtain his liberation.  Such is, at least, the version that she gives for this trip, which takes place a few days before her arrest.

Unlike the Bosse, the Voisin is not discrete.  She spends without counting, passes her nights in feasting, has a gown costing fifteen thousand pounds made for herself, which has the whole of Paris talking, is robbed by her lovers or by her female friends, sometimes knows a few difficult days, but always finds a way to climb back.  It must be said that this true Empress of the Paris slums has all the talents:  divination, magic, abortions, fake money and, of course, poisons.  She is also extraordinarily talkative, and gives the lieutenant general de police, Gabriel Nicolas de La Reynie, an earful of revelations.  And as her colleague, Lesage, is also not backward on this chapter, the glass will soon be full.  For the Voisin has a select clientele, as well as the one that Lesage generously lends her, when he is before the judge preparing the case…  Three illustrious names emerge:  the Countess de Soissons, Field-Marshal de Luxembourg and Jean Racine.  More will follow.

***

Born Olympe Mancini and the niece of Mazarin, the Countess de Soissons is one of Louis XIV’s first loves.  He soon leaves her for the beautiful Louise de La Valliere.  From that time on, she never ceases to try to reconquer the King’s heart and get rid of her rival.  She even finds her some competition in the person of one of the Queen’s ladies-in-waiting, Anne-Lucie de la Motte-Houdancourt.  As her hopes are not making much progress, the Countess goes to consult the Voisin in February 1665.  It is a rather particular consultation because she asks the “devineresse” for the wherewithal to make Louise de La Valliere disappear.  She is not, by the way, the only lady to have such a project.  There are many pretty Court ladies whose ambition is to replace the favourite…  Prudently, the Voisin invokes the difficulty of the operation, which brings this astounding reply from her client:

“I will find a way to do it, and if I am unable to venge myself on her, I will take my vengeance farther and will spare no-one.”

Grandiose methods appear to be common in her family because ten years earlier, in 1675, her younger sister, the Duchess de Bouillon, had come to the Voisin, accompanied by her lover, to ask her to relieve her of her husband.

On 22 Janvier 1680, a Decree for the Seizing of the Body of the Countess de Soissons is ordered.  This time, the scandal reaches the Court.  But the King, because of some sort of old amorous fidelity, makes it known to her that he leaves her a few hours to flee to another country.  She doesn’t have to be told twice.  We find her, ten years later, at the Court of Spain, plotting with an agent of the Emperor against the Queen, a niece of Louis XIV, who is detested by the anti-French Party.  This lady will succumb at the age of twenty-seven, following a brief indisposition that no-one guesses could be the result of a poisoning.  Nothing proves, of course, that the vindictive Olympe had anything to do with it…

The case of Field-Marshal de Luxembourg is purely and simply all just manipulation.  Perhaps this brilliant captain, the hero of the Dutch campaigns, was naive enough to believe that the charms of the witches and wizards of the parish of Notre-Dame de Bonne-Nouvelle could open the paths of victory more easily for him.  At worst, this can only be a cause for smiles.  But the awful Lesage coldly accuses him of having wanted to poison his spouse, and well-intentioned gossip-mongers spread, throughout Paris, the rumour that he has also looked to make the children, whom he is supposed to have had with his sister-in-law, disappear, and even to take the King’s life.  Does Lesage speak at the instigation of Louvois, over whom the prestige of the Field-Marshal casts a shadow?  It is quite probable.  This tissue of calumnies still results in a Decree for the Seizing of Luxembourg’s Body, and Louis XIV, shaken, advises him to leave the country.  But the man who vanquished William of Orange is not a man to allow himself to be discredited.  To the stupefaction of the great lords, he goes to the Bastille to give himself up, which leads Madame de Sevigne to say, on 30 January 1680:

“Monsieur de Luxembourg is entirely undone;  he is not a man, nor a little man, he is not even a woman, he’s a weak little girl.”

A nasty and perfectly inconsequential statement.  Before his judges, Field-Marshal de Luxembourg will innocent himself with hautiness, and will be acquitted unanimously by the Chambre de l’Arsenal.  He will leave the Bastille on 15 May, will retire for a while to the country, at the King’s request, then, having recovered all of his responsiblities, will attract the magnificent nickname of “tapissier de Notre-Dame” after his brilliant victories of Fleurus (1690), Steinkerque (1692) and Neerwinden (1693).

To be continued.

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There is no proof of Vanen’s culpability in Duke Charles-Emmanuel II de Savoie’s death in Turino, on 12 June 1675.  However, there is no lack of presumptions.  A very redoubtable “magician” called Lesage, whose real name is Adam Coeuret, and who is a former lover of la Voisin, is arrested on 22 March 1679.  With the laudable aim of “doing his duty, above all with regard to the King”, the scoundrel affirms that Vanens, Bachimont and Sainte-Colombe were benefiting at the time from “grand correspondances”, that is to say from protections, and had “made big trips to Italy”.  More seriously, in the correspondance discovered after the gang had been removed from circulation, Sainte-Colombe, shortly after the death of Charles-Emmanuel II, imprudently evokes “the fruit of the operation that we did”.

Was the Duke de Savoie the Cabal’s only high-ranking victim?  The historian, Jean-Christian Petitfils, does not think so.  In his work on the Poisons Case, he recounts that two weeks before his arrest, upon his return from a mysterious trip to Avignon with Vanens, Lachaboissiere proclaims to his “fiancee”, Catherine Leroy, while triumphantly showing her some gold coins:

“There’s a big head who has gone to carry his spoon into the next world.  We’ll take out many others.”

Who is this “big head”?  We still don’t know.  And to whom is Valens’ valet referring when he says “many others”?  In any case, for the lieutenant general de police, Gabriel Nicolas de La Reynie, there is hardly any doubt:  the network of poisoners resembles a spider’s web, spun to trap the kingdom’s highest head.

***

The Piemont business is too serious, and too dangerous for the kingdom’s diplomacy, for the Cabal case to continue.  On 28 April 1682, Louis de Vanens is condemned to the galleys for perpetuity, a sentence which is not executed, because he is taken directly to Fort Saint-Andre in Salins, where he dies in 1691.  A death sentence would have automatically included the Ordinary and Extraordinary Questions [interrogations with tortures, in presence of the judge] and consequently a risk of revelations which the Court probably did not want known.  Only Lachaboissiere is hanged in Place de Greve, perhaps because he had not been directly mixed up in the presumed assassination of the Duke de Savoie, and was only an executant.  Cadelan and the Bachimont couple are not judged and finish their days behind the walls of the Besancon Citadelle.  Chasteuil meets his death at the beginning of 1678 in the Turino region, in circumstances which remain obscure.

It is true that La Reynie’s task is facilitated by the fact that, during the preparation of the case, the poisoners practically fall over themselves in their hurry to denounce each other.  Their declarations are added to those of the professional informers, the “flies” [mouches] as they are called at the epoch.  Although the lieutenant de police has to separate the true from the false, criminals always having a tendency to heap blame on their friends, to minimize their own guilt…  This does not prevent the lieutenant de police from making a choice catch, on 4 January 1679, by arresting Marie Bosse, a redoubtable “devineresse” of whom one of her good friends will say “she’s been mixed up in it for twenty years” and that “she has broken fifty marriages”, and of whom Lesage, never at a loss for information, will affirm:  “She’s the worst, that one!”  Passing naturally from divination with charms and money forgery to the manufacturing of poisons, the Bosse is linked to a certain Voisin whose arrest is also imminent and who, despite their “friendship”, willingly calls her a “whore”.  Like the others, Marie Bosse denies everything, but the white powders and the mercury found in her hovel leave no doubt about her sombre activities, and the confessions of a Lady Ferry, who assassinated her husband with the arsenic-coated shirts that she had supplied her, largely suffice to send her to the stake on 10 May the same year 1679.  However, La Reynie, who has discovered, among others, links between the Bosse and Mademoiselle de la Grange, is stupefied by her declarations.  She does not hesitate to evoke plots against the King in his presence, to cite names and to implicate “considerable people”, in particular a lady very close to Louis XIV, whom La Reynie is given to understand is the Marquise de Montespan.  Is Marie Bosse hoping to escape her fate?  In her eagerness to innocent herself, she who claims to have only indulged in a few innocent chemical experiments, displays moral indignation, and invites La Reynie to employ great rigour against the “devineresses”:

“You will never do better than to exterminate all these people who read palms, because it leads to the fall of women, women of quality as much as others, because you soon know what their weakness is, and it is through it that you usually take them.”

Marie Bosse is not lying to her judges, and we owe it to the truth to say that she suffers her appalling death with a lot of courage, and even with a certain dignity.

***

The slowness of the justice exercised by the Paris Parliament, as well as the publicity around its debates, push Louis XIV to quickly end this case, which is poisoning public opinion and risks throwing discredit on the Court, because of the singular relations which seem to exist between the world of poisoners and that of high-ranking people.  So, on 7 April 1679, he institutes an extraordinary jurisdiction, the famous “Chambre ardente”, named for the Middle Ages tribunals which, for similar cases, held their sittings in rooms lined with black cloth and lit by torches.  But this new jurisdiction is also called the “Chambre de l’Arsenal”, for it is installed in the former arsenal, situated near the Bastille.  The presidency is given to Louis Boucharat, a magistrate reputed for his integrity;  La Reynie and Bazin de Bezons, Ordinary Counseller to the King and Member of the French Academy, being named Reporters in charge of the preparation of the case; two doctors, Fresquieres and Dugue, and two apothicaries, Simon and Geoffroy, being named as Experts.  The sentences pronounced by the Chambre de l’Arsenal are not to be appealed, the condemned to death having to suffer the Ordinary and Extraordinary Questions, either by the brodequins, or by water torture, so as to denounce their accomplices.  It is to be noted that the Question tended not to be applied since 1670, or often in a purely symbolic way.  It will be systematically used in the Poisons Case, and Marie Vigoureux, an accomplice of the Bosse and of the Voisin, will die from it on 9 May 1679.  Officially, she dies of an “abcess in the head”…

However, it will not be long before the King will regret having wanted everything to be revealed in full light, and that Justice be done in complete impartiality.

***

To be continued.

Let us return to what everyone in Paris will call only l’affaire des poisons, from now on.  In December 1677, following a denunciation which names Louis de Vanens, a “dangerous alchemist” suspected of “so perfectly making gold and silver that he had been able to amass more than one million, eight hundred thousand pounds in one year”, the Paris police arrest a gang which forges money and makes poisons, under cover of alchemy.  The principal members of this association of evildoers are Vanens himself, his valet Jean Barthominat, known as Lachaboissiere, the banker Pierre Cadelan and Count de Bachimont.  All say that they belong to a “cabal” whose chief, Marc-Antoine Galaup de Chasteuil, has succeeded in conserving anonymity, being designated by the mysterious pseudonym of “the Unknown Man”.  The personalities of Vanens and Chasteuil merit that we take a closer look at them.

Coming from the little Provencal nobility, Vanens had firstly served in the Army and in the Navy before being captured by Barbary pirates and reduced to slavery in Algiers.  This is at least what he recounts in Marseille, where he reappears after a while, and where he makes Chasteuil’s acquaintance.  But Chasteuil is of a completely different calibre.  The son of a magistrate, and himself a Doctor in Law, he enters the Order of Malta in 1644, and covers himself in glory by combating the Barbary pirates, which wins him the Gold Cross of Saint-Jean-de-Jerusalem.  An adventurer without scrupules, but not without panache, he serves Conde during the Fronde, then goes back to chasing pirates in the Mediterranean, before being taken prisoner by them and carried off to Algiers, where his mother has him released from their gaols, against payment of a ransom.  Shortly before his capture, he had drawn attention to himself by participating, in 1659, in a sedition directed against the First President of the Provence Parliament, a sedition sanctioned by a death sentence;  he had only escaped decapitation by a hurried flight to Malta…

It is therefore upon his return from his Algiers captivity that Chasteuil makes the acquaintance of Vanens.  It could be thought that he had calmed down by then, since he had worn the robes of Prior of the Carmelites of Marseille.  This however is not the case.  One night, without knowing that he is being watched by a pilgrim hidden in the convent predicator’s pulpit, he buries the cadaver of a young girl in the chapel.  He has just strangled her in his cell.  The unfortunate girl had made the mistake of becoming pregnant by him.  Immediately arrested and condemned to death, he is led to the gallows.  But at the moment when the executioner is preparing to put the cord around his neck, a group of gangsters, led by his friend Vanens, attacks the gibbet and snatches him from death.  He will never be heard of again outside the Cabal circle, and then only under the name of “the Unknown Man”.

This last peripeteia of his adventurous life has of course tightened his ties with Vanens, to whom he has taught the secrets of alchemy, and those of much more dangerous preparations…  Having left Provence for Paris, Vanens is then associated with a Count de Bachimont whose wife, a cousin of Superintendant Fouquet, had, in the past, been accused of nothing less than having poisoned her first husband, her mother-in-law and her sister-in-law.  Further, the Countess has the daughter of a Lyon chemist as her chambermaid.  This chemist knows all about “succession powders”, and can procure all the products necessary for their manufacture, for his daughter’s masters.

The lieutenant general de police, Gabriel Nicolas de La Reynie’s investigation rapidly uncovers numerous murders of talkative gang members or of cumbersome witnesses, as well as the multiple relations of the gang with all the female poisoners of the Parisian slums, which would be largely enough to send all of these lovely people to the stake.  But what is worrying the lieutenant general de police, is the enormity of the sums of money that have passed through the hands of the banker Cadelan, on behalf of Vanens, and that no-one, neither Louvois, nor Colbert, nor, of course, La Reynie, seriously thinks to attribute to the miraculous alchemical recipes of “the Unknown Man”.  So?  So an hypothesis begins to seep from this skein of crimes, an hypothesis which takes us back two years, to the 12 June 1675.

***

On this day, Duke Charles-Emmanuel II de Savoie succumbs in Turino “from a continuous double tertiary fever with redoublings”.  One week beforehand, bathed in perspiration, he had to change his shirt while returning from hunting.  Shortly afterward, he is taken with vomitting and violent stomach pains, symptoms which irresistably evoke arsenic poisoning.  The disappearance of this sovereign, reputed for his good health and his robustness, has surprised everyone, starting with Madame de Sevigne who observes to her daughter:

“Aren’t you very astonished by this death of the Duke de Savoie, so prompt and so little expected, at forty years old?”

It is in fact so astonishing, that no-one really believes that the death is natural, especially as his widow, married it is true against her wishes, does not display very great sadness, and straight away consoles herself in the arms of her lover, an attractive Marquis de Saint-Maurice, whom she immediately makes her Extraordinary Ambassador to Paris.  Had the shirt, donned by the Duke, been previously “prepared” with arsenic?  This is even more easily believable, when it is found that the said shirt has conveniently disappeared.  Who are the guilty parties, and who has employed them?  On this second point, the mystery remains total.  La Reynie has his suspicions about the first.

At this time, Vanens, Bachimont and a few other members of the Cabal, including an Irish gentleman with the nickname of Sainte-Colombe, just happen to be in Piemont, where the inevitable Chasteuil resides.  Between “the Unknown Man” and his faithful helpers, it seems that there might be a few tensions.  In any case, four days before the Duke’s death, Vanens and the others leave Turino in a hurry.  Mission accomplished, we could be tempted to think.

To be continued.

The lieutenant general de police, Gabriel Nicolas de La Reynie, obviously suspects Mademoiselle de la Grange of having had the letter, which intimates that there is a plot to kill the King, forged.  Her aim being to support her “revelations”, while innocenting herself.  She denies it, but four handwriting experts declare that the anonymous letter is definitely in Abbot Nail’s hand.  The two ciminals’ manipulations have fooled no-one, and do not save them from the death penalty:  they are executed on 8 February 1679.

***

Meanwhile, the Poisons Case has taken on considerable amplitude.  La Reynie senses that it risks leading onto very perilous terrain, and that the “revelations” made to Louvois by the false Widow Faurie are perhaps not entirely fabulations.

But, before coming to these developments, which will permit the tenacious La Reynie to discover an inextricable network of relations and complicities among a few hundred “devineresses” and alchemists who, to the manufacture and sale of poisons, willingly add the professions of money-forger and abortionist, the moment has come for us to take a closer look at the famous “succession powder”, and how it is used.

***

Arsenic is one of the most used ingredients in the composition of poisons, as its total absence of taste makes it particularly suited to favorising criminal designs.  Whatever its method of introduction into the organism, the same symptoms are always to be seen, and they arrive always in the same order:  gastro-intestinal troubles, laryngic and bronchial catarrhs, rashes, troubling of the senses, motor troubles.  In the case of “most severe” intoxication, vomitting occurs half an hour after the poison’s absorption, followed by a burning thirst with dryness of the mouth and numerous alvine evacuations.  Death can come at the end of twenty-four hours, under the effect of a cardiac syncope, after the victim has given clinical signs close to those of cholera:  weak pulse, tendency to lipothymias, cyanosis of the face, cramps, anuria.  In the forms of intoxication said to be “severe”, death comes later, after six to ten days.  It can then be no longer due to the toxic action of the arsenic, but to the result of problems with the renal and hepatic functions engendered by the poison.

Rarer, but no less redoubtable, sublimate (or mercurical chloride) is also very much in favour, its mortal effect being produced between twenty-four and thirty-six hours after absorption, sometimes in only a few hours, and in certain cases in less than an hour.  Upon ingestion of the poison, a burning sensation spreads through the throat, rapidly reaching the oesophagus and the stomach.  Immediately followed by bilious and bloody vomitting, accompanied by dysentery-type phenomena.  The buccal cavity tumefies, the mucous becomes red and shiny, the breath fetid, while the very abundant salivation sometimes attains several litres, the pulse accelerates and the breathing becomes oppressed.  After a short remission, the extremities of the body become cold and a syncope finishes by leading to death.  In the form of intoxication called “common”, death only occurs after six to ten days.  The symptoms are the same, although of less intensity.  On the other hand, at the end of five or six days, rashes appear, essentially polymorphous, with papulous, squamous, blistering or vesiculous lesions, which are mainly on the internal part of the thighs, on the face or on the wrists.  These symptoms can be fairly easily thought to be from a venereal disease, which is an advantage for wives anxious to rid themselves of their cumbersome husbands, while at the same time ruining their reputations…

Another popular poison:  cantharide powder.  Since Antiquity, this beetle has been known and used for its aphrodisiac properties, but also for its mortal effects.  In his famous Precis de medecine legale, Professor Balthazard has furnished a definitive and truly frightening description of the symptoms of poisoning by cantharides:

“In general, immediately after the ingestion of the poison, the patients feel a sensation of burning in the mouth and throat;  then, after a time, which varies from one to three hours, a sharp pain at the level of the epigastric depression appears.  The patients vomit glairous matters, streaked with blood;  their faces become congested, and they suffer from a violent headache.  At the same time an extreme congestion of the genito-urinary organs is seen, which handicaps the secretion of urine, which provokes, at meatus level, a burning comparable to that of a red-hot iron introduced inside the urethra.  The need to urinate is continual, and leads to the emission of a few drops of urine, rich in albumine and bloody, at the price of very sharp pains.  Diarrhoea is usual, and is accompanied by an anal tenesmus, as painful for the patients as the vesical tenesmus.  At this moment, the agitation is extreme;  sometimes delirious phenomena occur, followed by an attack of contractures similar to those of tetanus;  sometimes an erotic delirium appears which pushes the patients to deliver themselves up to obscene actions.  Nothing can then restrain the venerean desires, nothing can satisfy them;  the priapism is incessant.  Soon, the patients fall exhausted, until another paroxysm shakes them from their torpor and re-ignites their desires.  After a few hours, the attacks cease and the patients fall into a coma, which ends in death after twenty-four to thirty-six hours.”

In the composition of poisons – composition obviously empiric and sometimes even just guesswork, in spite of “trials” effected on animals, or on patients, as in the case of the Marquise de Brinvilliers – there can enter all sorts of other dangerous ingredients such as antimony, vitriol [sulphuric acid], verdigris or diamond powder, venoms from animals or vegetal substances like mandragora, belladonna, rye grass, hemlock or nightshade.  Curiously, the contemporary witnesses seem hardly to mention poisonings by mushrooms.  On the other hand, opium renders such “services” that Antoine Furetiere, in his precious Dictionnaire universel which appears in Holland in 1690, is able to give this precision:

“It is commonly held that only three grains of opium are needed to kill the most robust people.”

Poisoning by opium can effectively take a lightning-fast form, the victim being then plunged into a comatose state right from its absorption, with dilation of the pupils and sometimes convulsions.  Death comes at the end of an agony of at least one hour.

***

To be continued.

The escapades of the Marquise de Brinvilliers, who spends her nights gambling, are very expensive.  She has hardly any trouble convincing her lover, Jean-Baptiste Gudin de Sainte-Croix, to furnish her with some “succession powder”, as poison will soon be called – by a witty euphemism, which is quite in the spirit of the times.  We do not know exactly what was contained in the terrible mixtures of Sainte-Croix.  Probably poisonous herbs, viper and toad powders, Cyprus vitriol [sulphuric acid] and arsenic.  Anyway, the Marquise, having metamorphosed herself into a benevolent nurse, to experiment on the poor inmates of Hotel-Dieu, sends her spouse into a better world in 1666, then her two brothers in 1670, so as to inherit from them.  For good measure, she also tries to assassinate her sister, Therese d’Aubray, a bigot, whose remonstrances exasperate her, and even her own daughter, of whom she will say, to justify herself, that she was “stupid”.  It is true that there is nothing to stop the lady poisoner from pursuing her career.  Medicine is, at this time, incapable of detecting the traces of poison in internal organs, and although the surgeons have some doubts about the origin of her second brother’s death, not the slightest breath of suspicion touches the Marquise.  Catastrophe strikes at the death, this one natural, of her lover, on 31 July 1672.

***

At Sainte-Croix’ home, the police find a box containing his more than compromising correspondance with his mistress.  Knowing herself to be lost, the Marquise de Brinvilliers flees to England, then to the Netherlands, and finally to a convent near Liege, from whence she is brought back to Paris manu militari on 26 April 1676 by the lieutenant du chevalier du guet, Francois Desgrez.

The Marquise de Brinvilliers.

Her trial is astonishing.  With a brazenness which, however, is not enough to shake her judges, she starts by denying everything.  Then, under the influence of an eminent theologian called to assist her, Abbot Edmond Pirot, she confesses all her crimes and prepares for death with a contrition, a dignity and a courage which impresses the most hardened hearts.  And on 17 July, after having stoically suffered the Ordinary and Extraordinary Questions (interrogation with tortures in presence of the judge) she is led on a tumbril to the Place de Greve, where she is beheaded.  After which, her body is carried to the stake and her ashes scattered.  Madame de Sevigne, who saw the sinister cortege pass by from the window of a house built on the Notre-Dame Bridge, does not deprive herself of the pleasure of making a witty remark in the letter which, that same evening, she writes to her daughter:

“At last it is done, the Brinvilliers is in the air.  Her poor body was thrown, after execution, into a very big fire, and the ashes to the wind, so that we shall breathe her, and by communication with some little minds, we shall catch some poisoning humour which shall astonish us.”

In her happy unconcern, Mme de Sevigne cannot, of course, guess that she is pronouncing prophetic words there.  This aristocratic gossip-monger is, however, well enough informed to know that, on the very day of her execution, the Marquise de Brinvilliers had a private conversation with the procureur general du parlement de Paris, Achille de Harlay.  She writes:

“The subject of this conversation is not yet known.”

But its content is sufficiently important for Colbert, once told about it, to inform Harlay that Louis XIV is asking him to come to relate to him “all that is happening in the follow-up to the case of Lady de Brinvilliers”.

What did Harlay learn?  Today, we are reduced to conjectures.  It is not difficult, however, to imagine that the Marquise knew more than she had wanted to say at her trial about the world of poisoners, and that, as Arlette Lebigre observes, she had perhaps tried in extremis to warn “that danger still prowled and that no-one was safe from it”.  The events which follow will support this hypothesis…

***

While the Marquise de Brinvilliers is mounting the scaffold, another case, sadly banal in appearance, is occupying the lieutenant general de police, Gabriel Nicolas de La Reynie.  He is preparing the trial of a certain Madeleine Gueniveau, known as Mademoiselle de la Grange, who is accused of having poisoned her lover, Maitre Faurie, an elderly and very rich lawyer whom she despairs of marrying.  At the man of Law’s sudden death, she immediately takes possession of his goods, to the disagreeable surprise of the dead man’s nephews.  Madeleine then exhibits a marriage certificate established by a certain Abbot Nail and a contract established before the marriage in front of a notary, instituting her as the only heir.  The nephews, smelling fraud, have filed a complaint, and the two accomplices have rapidly found themselves in prison.  During the investigation, Me Faurie’s domestics are not slow in voicing their suspicions, to such a degree that an inculpation for poisoning is added to those of supposition of marriage and misappropriation of succession.  Playing her last card, in January 1677, Mlle de la Grange asks to speak to Louvois, himself, to make revelations to him which could, perhaps, merit her being given clemency by her judges.  These revelations are serious enough for the great Minister, convinced that “we need to be very careful about the business of which she spoke”, to entrust the case to La Reynie with this precision:

“His Majesty has commanded me to tell you that he expects you to follow this case with application and that you will forget nothing in clarifying it.”

This time, it is not a simple family problem about which Mlle de la Grange has talked to Louvois, but a plot against the King’s person.  True or false, the lady poisoner’s confession is reinforced in September by a strange letter, with no signature and without the name of the addressee, which finds its way to Colbert who immediately transmits it to La Reynie.  In it, these two sibylline sentences are noteworthy:

“This white powder, that you want to put on the towel of you know who, can it be recognized as having the effect to which it is destined?  I leave you to judge what would happen about it!

Further on, two other sentences leave hardly any doubt about the identity of “you know who”:

“I fear extremely that our letters might be seen and that I am believed to be guilty, even though I am very innocent [in the feminine].  For in all the other crimes one must be an accomplice to be punished, but for this one, one only has to have known of it.”

Only the crime of lese-majeste automatically results in the death sentence of whomever had knowledge of it without immediately telling the authorities.

To be continued.

On the evening of 19 November 1679, the theatre in Rue Guenegaud is packed.  The King’s Actors are giving the first performance of a most awaited play, La Devineresse, whose authors are Thomas Corneille and the journalist Jean Donneau de Vise, the founder of the Mercure galant.  The plot of this comedy in five acts and in prose is however very simple.  A woman of the world, credulous and infatuated with magic, consults a “devineresse” [fortune teller], to her lover’s despair, and without realizing that she is in reality the victim of the manipulations of a rival who is seeking to prevent their marriage.  Luckily, the lover manages to foil the manoeuvre and, in the last act, confound the trickery of the “devineresse”.  This causes the devil to appear in person to his customer, to definitively dissuade her to marry her lover.  But when the lover is about to kill the said devil (in reality a good bourgeois who has been kind enough to take part in this pretence) with his sword, the devil throws himself at his feet and exclaims:

“Oh! Sir, I’m only a poor fiscal procurer!  What would you gain by killing me?”

The extraordinary success of La Devineresse, with forty-seven successive performances – a considerable figure for the epoch – is not only due to the play’s uncontestable qualities, nor to the perfection of its spectacular sound and visual effects.  If the Parisian public rushes to see it, it is because the play is a direct copy of the news.  Of the judiciary news which will soon become an affair of State and touch so near to the King’s person that Louis XIV will be obliged to personally intervene in the course of justice and impose secrecy on its most serious developments.

In Thomas Corneille’s and Donneau de Vise’s comedy, the famous “devineresse” is called Madame Jobin.  But the spectators are able to recognize under this theatrical name, that of one of the most redoubtable female poisoners in France’s history, Catherine Montvoisin, known as “the Voisin”, whose arrest, on 12 March 1679, sets off such a series of revelations, that no-one is yet able to forsee just where they will go.  Only the lieutenant general de police, the very honest and very prudent Gabriel Nicolas de La Reynie, realizes that he holds the thread of an exceptionally serious case.  And he is the one who, using his power over the theatres of Paris, and his friendship for Donneau de Vise, is the instigator of the play.  In his mind, the aim is to de-mystify “magical” or “alchemical” practices which are very widespread in the capital.  He is well-placed to know that they very often hide appalling criminal activities.  For example, in Act II, Scene ii, Mme Jobin explains to her brother:

“This is how most men are.  They believe in all the stupidities they are told, and, when once they have made up their minds, nothing is then capable of making them change their opinion.  You see, Brother, Paris is the place in the world where there are the most dupes.  The witchcraft of which I’m accused and other things which would appear even more supernatural, need only a lively imagination to invent them and cleverness to use them.  It is through them that people believe in us.  However, magic and devils have nothing to do with it.  Fear blinds those to whom we show these sorts of things, enough to stop them from seeing that we are tricking them.”

***

But if the Voisin and her ilk are effectively able to mystify everyone by accomplishing rites that are supposed to awaken the heart of a weakening lover or hasten the end of a cumbersome husband, they also possess much less illusionary, and infinitely more redoubtable, means for pleasing the duchesses who do not hesitate to go into the most ill-famed neighbourhoods of Paris to consult them and implore their help…

***

Cases of poisoning are common occurrences at this epoch.  In the absence of any controls, which will only be instituted in 1682, anybody can very legally obtain all the ingredients entering into the composition of poisons.  Amateur chemists and alchemists are not lacking – all, however, are thankfully not poisoners.  Further, the state of medical knowledge does not allow a really scientific recognition of the symptoms, whether it is a natural or provoked illness, a real or supposed poisoning.  From these confusions issuing from early medicine and chemistry, as they emerge with difficulty from occultism, the Poisons Case, in all its repercussions, is born.

This criminal industry is also favorised by the fact that a whole new quarter of Paris, situated inside the quadrilateral formed by today’s Rues du Temple and de Montmartre, practically escapes police and corporation control.  The “devineresses” exercise their practices there in great numbers, more than four hundred of them, according to the Voisin…  And La Reynie, disabused by the amplitude of the phenomenon, admits:

“Man’s life is publicly put on sale.  It is almost the sole remedy used for all family problems.”

***

Assisted by Abbot Edmond Pirot, the Marquise de Brinvilliers prepares for death, having confessed all of her crimes.

The interminable criminal serial of the Poisons Case finds its prologue in the not very edifying story of the Marquise de Brinvilliers.  The daughter of a conseiller d’Etat et maitre des requetes, Marie-Madeleine d’Aubray marries, in 1651, Antoine Gobelin, a rich bourgeois from the famous family to whom we owe the manufacture which bears his name.  His fortune is the reason that he is made Marquis de Brinvilliers.  Marie-Madeleine is flighty and leads an exorbitant life-style.  Her bad genie will be an attractive officer of the little Gascony nobility, Jean-Baptiste Gudin de Sainte-Croix, who becomes her lover.  A contemporary will say of him:

“He spoke beautifully of God, in whom he did not believe, and under cover of this pious mask […] he appeared to participate in good deeds and was involved in all the crimes.”

This accomplished rake, as he would have been called in the following century, is, among other things, passionate about chemistry and alchemy.  The making of poisons, however, can sometimes prove to be more expedient than the transmutation of metals…  And Sainte-Croix assuredly does not lack capability in these matters.  A short stay in the Bastille, in 1663, allows him to become acquainted with an “artist in poisons” of Italian origin, Eggidio Exili, and to acquire a knowledge that is usefully completed by the frequentation of Christoph Glaser, an authentic scholar, to whom we owe, in particular, the discovery of potassium sulphate and arsenic chloride.

To be continued.

Louis Michel.

Louis Michel ages, still conserving his stupefying faculties, however, as this anecdote proves.  It is reported by his biographer, Louis Honore:

“In 1883, a certain Joseph Honore, an agriculturist, was accomplishing his military service in the 15th Section des commis et ouvriers d’administration in Algiers.  The Tonkin expedition had started.  There was a rumour that numerous soldiers, stationed in the colonies, were going to be sent to this faraway country.  Joseph Honore’s mother was upset.  She went to see Michel to find out if her son’s name figured on the embarkment list for the Tonkin.  Michel went to sleep and his mind was transported to Algiers.  There, at the local storehouse, he saw Joseph Honore in the process of kneading bread, right beside another soldier, also from Figanieres, called Marius Maisse.  He questioned both of them and learned that Honore would remain in Algiers, while Maisse would leave two days later for Hai-phong.  This new case of vision was entirely corroborated by Joseph Honore who soon returned to France, while his fellow soldier was killed in the Tonkin.”

This was Louis Michel’s last “dream trip”.  He died a few days later, on 19 August 1883, at the age of sixty-seven, and was buried in Figanieres.

His case remains an absolute enigma.

***

Guy Breton, whose work I have translated, found most of this story in the Annales de la Societe scientifique et litteraire de Cannes where the historian, Louis Honore, himself a native of Figanieres, published an eighty-page study on Louis Michel, in 1931.  But he also consulted the press of the epoch.

***

The witnesses cited are very firm about the visions.  Except of course when it concerns voyages to the centre of the Earth or in interstellar space, and even more so when it is a question of the Holy Virgin or the Supreme Being…

***

To go to sleep, he usually sat in an armchair and passed without transition from the state of wakefulness to the state of sleep.  In certain (very rare) cases he had to make a slight effort.  Then he said:

“My dear and good friends, I am going to try, of my own will, to go into my quarter… into my third… into my half… and into my full ecstasy”…

He had hardly pronounced this last word than he was sleeping soundly…  After that, having pronounced his ritual li siou [Provencal for “I’m there”, “j’y suis” in French], he described aloud the people that he was seeing, sometimes pointing to them with his index finger, as if they were in the room where he was sleeping.  During these visions, his face, we are told, “was illuminated”.

***

His visions lasted from ten minutes to an hour.

***

He mostly woke up on his own.  But sometimes he was heard to say:

“I ask to come out of my clairvoyance;  I need you to help me with your will;  all give me your hands.”

His friends immediately obeyed and he reintegrated what he called, either “his mediocre condition”, or “his compact envelope”.  After which, he embraced everyone.

***

It was his wish that “Humanity live in a climate of universal love”.  With this aim, he had started to constitute some “spiritual families” in Provence and Paris.  Regularly, these people had to meet, lunch together, and sing and say prayers that he had composed.

***

He married a young adept named Anna Monier who took the title of “Mother” or of “Great Messenger of Love”.  The wedding ring that he gave her was baptised “harmonious ring of humanitarian concord”.  Alas, despite these beautiful titles, the union was not happy.  After eight years, Anna went away.  She claimed that she had never ceased to be “Mademoiselle Monier”…

***

Louis Michel left no writings on his dream travelling.  On the other hand, he published four rather singular works:  Cle de la Vie, of which the literary critic of Siecle, Louis Jourdan, was able to say:

“It is the strangest, the deepest, the most extraordinary, the most curious, the most naive and the most scholarly book that has ever been published”;

Vie universelle, Le Reveil des Peuples, and Plus de mysteres! which was dedicated to Victor Hugo…

***

Parapsychologists tell us that our minds, whose possibilities are infinite, can, during sleep, travel in time and in space.  Very serious research has been done in this domain by scientists.  During one experiment, Doctor Charles Richet, for example, ordered a young girl who had been put into a state of hypnosis, to go in her mind to Chartres, a town that she did not know.  After a few minutes, the young girl declared that she was in Chartres, described houses, shops, people, a seller of newspapers accompanied by a dog the colour of whose fur she indicated, etc. All of this was verified and recognized as true…

***

Today, scientists – at least those who don’t wear blinkers – are careful to refrain from denying the possibility of such peregrinations in dreams.  But they give no explanation for it, prudently awaiting a discovery which will suddenly shed light on the nature of the human mind…  that unknown part of us.

***

Louis Michel.

We continue with the article published in Revue britannique on 30 December 1838.

“This is assuredly the most unheard-of mental exaltation ever mentioned in the annals of human psychology.

“Although, according to Monsieur Garcin, this navigation tired the somnambulist a lot because of the variations in temperature which he felt as if he had really changed places, he was sent on other trips, in the same seance, with the same exactitude, and thanks to the simple power of imagination.  For the rest, he lived the seige of Constantine, at the epoch when this military operation was undertaken, with General Damremont receiving the fatal blow, on the very day of the catastrophe.  Finally, to return to his instinct for remedies, questioned about the illness of a local lady, Michel prescribed a plant to which he gave a particular name, the Mila Donna, which was unknown in Botany, and locally.  This plant had to be found;  Michel declared that it was growing inside a forest, at the foot of a green oak, 400 metres from a cabin whose owner he even designated.  The somnambulist was led on a search for this unknown plant;  not finding it, in spite of all his efforts, Michel lay down on the ground in the forest, went to sleep and, in the magnetic sleep, he indicated the same tree, North-East of the cabin and still at a distance of 400 metres;  the distance was measured and the plant was discovered at the foot of a green oak.

“It appears, on top of that, that the subjects of the questions addressed to the Figanieres somnambulist, make a sort of revolution around his body and that, if Michel does not seize them the first time around, he rarely misses them on the following turns.  Awake, the somnambulist remembers only a vast scene, which forms a circular panorama, from which he takes the facts, the ideas and the words of which his answers are composed.”

This article, taken up by the world’s press, makes a lot of noise, and Louis Michel’s renown extends to the United States.

From then on, there is a continual parade at the home of the “Figanieres clairvoyant”.  People come to ask him the strangest things:  the style of the furniture of a cousin who has retired to Limoges;  the state of health of a family member living in Switzerland;  the colour of the dress worn by a young girl from Aubagne on the day of her engagement;  details on the comportment of a husband travelling in the diligence from Marseille to Lyon, etc.  His consultants – of whom he never asks for payment – find him always disposed to help them.  It is true that, since he is living from the revenue of the vines inherited at the death of his father, he has abandoned any kind of activity and can consecrate himself entirely to sleep.

This curious existence lasts a certain number of years.  Then Louis Michel gradually transforms;  He holds edifying discourses, speaks of saving suffering Humanity, says that he is inspired by the Spirit, heals a few sick people and draws up texts of meditation of an elevation and a style which would have very much astonished his former teachers at the Lorgues College…  Naturally, it isn’t long before he is surrounded by fervent zealots and austere priestesses, among whom there are writers, poetesses, philosophers, lawyers, scholars, politicians and a quantity of Free Masons imbued with Deist theories and humanitarian sentiments.  All of them consider him as the new Messiah, with the task of renewing morality…

In spite of his new responsibilities, the former chair- and cabinet-maker, whom some call respectfully “Beloved” or “Redeemer”, still continues his “dream travels” whenever any worried person comes to knock on his door.

But his mind now visits regions that it hadn’t yet explored.  Under the influence of the mystical climate in which he lives, his “travels” sometimes take him to the moon, to the stars, and even to the feet of the Supreme Being…  The extraordinary Journal which is religiously kept by an adept, gives us an idea of the overflowing activity which he deploys – in dreams – for the last thirty years of his life.  Here is an extract:

“Le Muy, 4 September 1850, afternoon.  By the mind, Michel is transported to Paris, into a grocery shop managed by a man named Bluis.  He finds this man compulsing old papers, then reads, aloud, one of the documents that the man has in his hand.

“Le Muy, same day, evening.  He goes to Frankfurt where he sees a seance given by the famous somnambulist Mademoiselle Josephine, sent formerly to the Saint-Ange Castle, in Rome.

“Figanieres, 9 September 1850, 9 o’clock in the morning.  The Virgin appears to him.

“Figanieres, 12 September 1850.  He has a conversation with the Supreme Being of whom he asks to go to relieve, over the waters, his uncle Jean Geraud, who is ill in Corsica;  The Supreme Being refuses this favour.

“Figanieres, 19 September 1850.  He goes “to the centre of the fire of the planet Earth, there where the motor is”.

“Draguignan, 9 February 1851.  He contemplates a dove, a parrot, a chariot harnessed with four pigeons, etc., then goes to Lyon, on the Place Bellecour, where he sees only hens, ducks and teal.

“Bourigaille, 15 December 1851.  The Spirit says to him:  ‘Michel, you shall be the precursor and, when it is time, I will give you the key that you see and we will open the great box of Truth.’

“Draguignan, 9 March 1852.  He goes to London, to Brussels, to Geneva, to Nice, to Rome, to Timbuktu, to Algiers, to Madrid, to Paris, towns on which he formulates political remarks.

“Marseille, 11 October 1852.  He travels ‘in the immensity of space’.

“Marseille, 5 February 1853.  He goes to Spain, searching for a treasure, wrestles with the Spirit of Evil, then goes to England, to Paris, on the Tiber.

“Marseille, 23 October 1853, 9:15 in the evening.  He gives political advice to the young King of Piemont.

“Marseille, 4 December 1853.  He goes to Spain, to Italy which, with France, constitute ‘the trinity of nations’.

“Marseille, 20 May 1854.  He converses with the Holy Spirit.

“Marseille, 1 June 1854.  He visits the planet Uranus.

“Marseille, 4 June 1854.  He goes ‘on reconnaissance to the four (sic) parts of the world’.

“Marseille, 11 June 1854.  He traces the history of the creation of the world.

“Figanieres, 15 August 1854.  He is carried ‘into high regions’ by ‘the enchanting, regenerating and luminous wind, ;  he arrives at the centre of all the perfections of the worlds which still hold material worlds, but which are neighbours to the spiritual worlds;  he sees the clock of clocks and its great pendulum…’

“Paris, 26 March 1857.  He travels ‘the distant infinity’.

“Marseille, 25 June 1858, 10 o’clock in the evening.  He travels among the planets which he implores to throw a little of their ‘pure rays onto the Earth’.”

***

To be continued.

Louis Michel.

Naturally, these phenomena meet with enormous incredulity.  One morning, while Michel is resting in his room, a few sneering teenagers knock at his door.  He opens.  His visitors, without any explanation, ask him to go to sleep, which he immediately does.  One of them asks him what he sees at the market.  He answers, without waking:

“I see busy men and women, merchants of cantaloups and watermelons, of general items…  I see a red dog carrying away a piece of cod that was soaking in a basin of water, in front of the Gravier grocery…”

One of the visitors goes straight away to the market and questions Monsieur Gravier who confirms that a dog has just stolen a piece of cod from him…

This story having been repeated, Louis Michel sees his reputation of “somnambulist-clairvoyant” (that’s the label given to him by his fellow apprentices) grow even more in the region.  People come to ask for “consultations”.  The young man receives them with kindness, goes to sleep with docility and describes events which are happening in places often very far away from Draguignan, with stupefying precision.

In 1836, he settles in Marseille where, although he is very discrete, his curious faculty is soon known and used by those around him.  Here is what is later certified by one of his friends, Baron Louis de Bulow, former Minister of the Spanish Police:

“I swear on my honour to have seen Monsieur Louis Michel in natural magnetic sleep, many times during the two years that I have known him.  Even though, in principle, I was not able to believe such an extraordinary faculty, I later became convinced, after a scrupulous examination, of the uncontestable existence of this precious faculty.  And in support of this belief, may I be permitted to state one fact:  I once sent him in magnetic sleep to Madrid where my spouse was then.  He saw her.  Having asked him what she was doing, he answered that she was in the company of another lady and that she was reading a brochure.  Later, my spouse answered me in a letter that, at the moment when Mr Michel saw her, she really was reading a brochure in the company of one of her lady friends.”

This “vision” incites foreigners to come to ask the “clairvoyant” to go to their country during his sleep.  It is then noticed that Louis Michel can make his mind travel to all parts of the world, and watch events unfolding just as well in Canada as in Moscow or Rio de Janeiro…

Such feats soon draw the attention of a few doctors who are curious about supernatural phenomena.  Doctor Garcin of Draguignan, having studied the clairvoyant’s case, writes several articles for medical reviews.  Which leads the very serious Revue britannique to publish, in its number of 30 December 1838, a text which is interesting to cite in its entirety:

The house in Figanieres (Var) where Louis Michel was born. The dream traveller was often sitting on the stone bench while on a trip.

“Monsieur Garcin, a French doctor in Draguignan, has noted, by multiple experiments, the gift of magnetic sleep provoked naturally in a young man of twenty-two, in circumstances that do not permit the suspicion and doubts in which the adversaries of the intimate sense too often shroud them.  This individual, named Michel, a native of Figanieres, goes to sleep positively whenever he wants, and at any time of day or night;  he has no other education than that acquired in village primary schools.  It is enough to look fixedly at Michel to put him to sleep at once within the minute, whether he be lying in his bed or sitting on a chair in the middle of a numerous society.  As soon as sleep comes, gunshots, or the pulling of Michel’s ears, do not trouble his rest.  In this state, he soon passes, without the least difficulty, to a series of intellectual feats, of which we are going to make a rapid sketch, while confessing our deep humility toward the superior power who has placed such a mechanism in the animated frame of the man.

“Michel’s mind travels, according to the questioners, to the stars, to the antipodes, under the Earth’s crust;  he describes, with a frightening rectitude of judgement, the places which he is made to visit in this diabolical way.  He attaches himself firstly to the masses, the details depending on the fantasy of his questioners.  Indicate to him a person who is absent whom he has never seen:  in the instant, he describes his physical and moral portrait;  he gives his horoscope, penetrates inside him, looks for the ill or infected part, indicates the most efficient remedy and prescribes the treatment.  Michel is made to travel to places that he assuredly does not know, and his answers have given proof of a lucidity that the natural powers of Man’s organism do not seem to permit.

“He has perfectly recounted that the little town of Martigues was long and in three parts;  that, near Saint-Chamas and on the Touloubre, the river which flows into the Carmargue lakes, there was a bridge and, on this bridge, a triumphal arch of Roman construction.  In a castle situated above Salon, some people were playing cards at ten o’clock at night:  he saw them.  The arenas of Roman construction and the new canal at Arles were also indicated with surpising precision.  But here is something even more marvellous which Mr Garcin delivers to the meditation of scholars and philosophers.

“Michel possesses the faculty of retrospection.  He sees events which happened a long time ago, and that he could not have known.  He was made to descend to the year 1833, and sent in search of the “Lilloise”.  Michel discovers the corvette at the moment of her departure from Cherbourg;  he stops her, 103 leagues from the French coast, because of bad weather;  he arrives in Iceland with her in May 1835, leaves again on 13 June;  he loses sight of her and only finds her again in May 1836, completely up North where there reigns an excessive cold, which prevents the inhabitants from showing themselves and telling him the name of the country in which he is travelling.  The corvette leaves again;  he only sees it again at the end of December 1837, in the most glacial country that he has crossed.  An event, that he cannot define because of the cold that he is, himself, feeling in all his members, threatens the French ship with the greatest danger;  he hears the cries of distress of the crew; the ship sinks;  all disappear, all perish, not one man escapes, not even three cats who are on board!!!  This accident happens 1,165 leagues from London.”

To be continued.

Louis Michel, photographed in 1878.

The first public manifestation of the strangeness of young Louis Michel occurs one Autumn day in 1828, at Lorgues College, in the Var.  On this particular morning, Monsieur Ricord, a French teacher, is doing his course on Athalie.  He has arrived at Act II, and the famous speech where Athalie recounts to Mathan the horrible dream that had troubled his night…  Mr Ricord is confidant that all of his pupils are capable of reciting the sixteen lines which, according to him, are among the most beautiful in French literature.  He invites Louis Michel to recite them for the class.

Louis, who is around twelve, rises and begins, in a strong Provencal accent:

“C’etait pendant l’horreur…”

Then he stops.  Mr Ricord encourages him to continue.  As the young boy remains mute, the teacher starts to become impatient.  He remarks that he does not want to believe that “Monsieur Michel” can have forgotten the second hemistiche of this universally known line.

Then, another pupil raises his hand and explains that Louis is asleep.

Young Louis Michel has, in fact, suddenly gone to sleep in the middle of a line from Racine and remains standing, his eyes closed, swaying slightly between his desk and his bench.

Mr Ricord shouts his name.  But the pupil continues his nap with a peaceful air, in spite of his neighbours who are pulling his sleeve, and calling to him to wake up.

Finally, the teacher, his eyes smouldering behind his glasses, descends from the estrade and comes to plant himself in front of the guilty boy.  He demands that he immediately cease this ridiculous joke…

Louis Michel then lets out a gentle snore, which makes the whole class roar with laughter.  The teacher gives him a mighty slap which makes the boy fall seated onto his bench, with his head hanging.

There is a silence.  All the pupils are fearfully asking themselves if their fellow pupil isn’t dead.  A second snore reassures them.

Then, Mr Ricord, finally understanding that this isn’t a joke, but an incomprehensible phenomenon, considers the sleeper with a stupid air.

Louis Michel will awake only one hour later.

This strange scene was to be followed by many more just as inexplicable.  Louis Honore, who consecrated an important study to this curious person, writes:

“The slightest lecture, the simple gaze of one of the other pupils, the arrival of a ray of sunshine into the classroom, were sufficient to plunge Louis Michel into an irresistible sleep.”

Who is this bizarre adolescent?  He is born on 26 January 1816 at Figanieres, a village situated a few kilometres from Draguignan, into a problem-free family.  His father, Antoine Michel, is a small landowner who lives peacefully from the revenue of his vines, tormented only by the arrival of a cloud of hail, or by the Spring frosts.  His mother is a simple soul who is never troubled by the great mysteries of life, and whose relations with the supernatural are limited to the sign of the cross on stormy days.

Placed first of all in the Figanieres Communal School, young Louis Michel quickly gets himself noticed by the teacher for his total indifference toward the subjects being taught.  Nothing appears to extract him from a sort of torpor, into which he settles, his eyes half-closed, as soon as he sits down on his bench.  His parents enter him as a boarder in the Lorgues College, where his teachers, with superhuman efforts, manage to teach him the “rudiments”.  He is considered by everyone, at this time, as a not-very-bright pupil, transparent and completely denuded of interest, until that morning in Autumn 1828 when, in Mr  Ricord’s class, he shows one aspect of his bizarreness, for the first time.

He will later reveal others.

One day, as he is strolling, solitary and thoughtful, in the College’s little courtyard (he has not been out of the College for the last two months), he approaches one of his fellow pupils named Pradel, from Claviers (Var), and abruptly says to him :

“Listen, I have some good news for you.  Your father is coming tomorrow to see you in the parlor.  He will arrive at eleven o’clock, and will bring you half a kilo of roast pork, the same in caillettes and the same in dried figs.”

Pradel shrugs his shoulders and replies that his father will not be coming for another week.  Louis insists that he will be there the next day.  Pradel wants to know who told him.  Louis replies:

“No-one.  But I know it.  I saw him come tomorrow…”

Pradel tells him that he’s mad, then runs to tell the other pupils what Louis Michel has just said.  Immediately, they all surround Louis, jeering and calling him crazy.

They don’t laugh at all when, the next day, at exactly eleven o’clock, Monsieur Pradel, coming from Claviers, arrives carrying all the announced food…

During the following months, ten times, fifty times, the young Michel, emerging from his habitual sleepiness, announces events which then happen.

People start to become rather worried about this college boy, who not only falls into a deep sleep, without any warning, but can also give stupefying information about the future.

At fifteen, he leaves College and returns to Figanieres.  He doesn’t remain there long.  His parents send him to Draguignan to learn the trade of chair- and cabinet-maker.  His biographer tells us:

“Very serious, timid, loving solitude and silence, he never goes out in the evening with his workshop companions.  He remains in his room, rented in common, and goes to bed early.  Asleep very quickly, he often dreams aloud, sometimes adding incomprehensible or significant gestures to his words.  On their return, his companions, disturbed by him, try to wake him.  It isn’t possible.  Then they talk to him.  What interests them the most is to know if Michel knew where they had spent the evening.  To their questions, his answers are so circumstanced and so precise that they are disconcerted by it.  Soon, word spreads around the villages that Michel is somnambulist and clairvoyant.”

To be continued.

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