I have some shocking news for you. The man in the Iron Mask was not Leonardo DiCaprio. And anyway, he didn’t wear an iron mask. I mean, the first time you drool in your sleep an iron mask would rust shut. It was a velvet mask. And he was not the twin of King Louis XIV or any other Louie. Who he was seems to have been mixed up in what is called “The Affair of the Poisons” which is a morality tale of a cute little love-sick tramp with the affinity for “inheritance powders”, and her amoral boyfriend. Throw in the King’s mistress for a little spice, and you have a recipe for what Alexis de Tocqueville called “L’Ancien Regime”, and what in modern terms we would call a soap opera of the rich and infamous. It leaves me wondering why they waited so long to start chopping off heads.We begin in 1659, with a little tramp named Marie Madeleine Margherite D’Aubray Brinvillers. We’ll call her Maire for short. I don’t think she’ll mind. Marie was a tiny doll of a woman who seems to have committed no major public sins until she was about thirty when her husband introduced her to a handsome cavalryman named Godin de Sainte-Croix, to whom the husband owed a whole bunch of money. Hubby had to move out of the country to avoid his other creditors, and he left Marie behind as a sort of payment on account for Sainte-Croix. Marie didn’t seem to mind this arrangement, and neither did Sainte-Croix. Except, as much fun as Sainte-Croix had with little Marie, she wasn’t making him any richer. Where, oh, where was Sainte-Croix going to find enough money to live in the style to which he wanted to grow accustomed to? Sainte-Croix developed a multi-step plan. Step one was to encourage Marie to do some charity work. Step two was for Sainte-Croix to make the acquaintance of certain people with a knowledge of chemistry, such as a man known only to history by the name of “Auguer”.Now, in the days before CSI the only way to prove poisoning - as opposed to just an unhygienic cook - was to catch the suspect pouring poison on the food, or get him to confess. This is why torture was so popular for so long. It never failed. No matter who you arrested, ten minutes with them on the rack and your case would be solved. But if your suspect was too connected to be tortured the only alternative was to lock him up while you slowly collected evidence. It might take decades. And during that time witnesses could be bought off, killed off, or just die of natural causes. It all made for the convoluted plots of some very popular French novels.
So when poor people started dropping dead at the hospital where Marie volunteered, nobody took notice. They were poor people. In 17th century France the streets were littered with dead poor people. So when Marie had perfected the formula she had gotten from Sainte-Croix, which she did in 1666, she had no trouble slipping the poison into her father’s lunch. He died suddenly and his little darling inherited a little money, which she and Saint-Croix eventually burned through. So in 1670 Marie poisoned her two brothers. She inherited a little more money. By now, the heirs in the Brinvillers family were getting nervous. But still nobody suspected the little elf Marie. She was too cute. Cute people can’t be serial murderers. And just when the homicidal little pixie was about to knock off her own mother, Gordin Sainte-Croix unexpectedly dropped dead himself. Mon Dieu! Cele semble suspecte?!The cops were brought in. They uncovered a hand written confession by Sainte-Croix (Why do upper crust muderers always feel the need to write it down?). And they also found a list of names of satisfied customers who had been directed by Sainte-Croix to Msr. Auger. The list included little Marie, but it also included Madame de Montespan, who was Louis XIV’s mistress – which in pre-revolutionary France was almost a cabinet position - and the Duchesse of Orleans, Louis’s sister-in-law. Marie panicked. The cops were not going to torture the King’s mistress, but they would have no hesitation about putting a cutie like Marie on the rack. She ran off to her husband in exile. But she was now infamous and he wanted nothing to do with her. So Marie signed herself into a convent in Liege, Belgium.This placed the pious nuns running the convent in a moral bind. They were sworn to provide sanctuary to all who asked for it, but on the other hand, how do you solve a problem like Marie? How do you catch a cloud of suspicion and pin it down? The good sisters consulted scripture and after due deliberations decided to rat out their guest. They allowed a cop disguised as a priest to enter the convent and while offering solace to the trouble little lady he escorted Marie right out the front gate, where she was immediately arrested. Marie was brought back to Paris in chains, tortured for a confession, tried in secret, and on July 16, 1676 she was forced to drink eight pints of water… and then mercifully she was beheaded. And just to be sure, they then burned her corpse. And that is how you solve a problem like Marie.It looked like all hell was about to break loose in France, but just before it did...Louis XIV ordered all further investigations to cease. He shut it down. Nobody ever asked Madame Montespan or the Duchesse of Orleans how their names came to be on a list of people who had bought “inheritance powders”. But there was still one big problem oustanding: Msr. Auger. Who was he, and what did he know? And more importantly, did he have any plans to write his memories? And what does any of this have to do with Leonardo DiCaprio?Nothing: like I said, the “Man in the Iron Mask” was really the “Man in a Velvet Mask” and that just sounds too fey for a novel. Ask yourself - why would the King of France keep someone locked in one prison after another for decades, required to wear a mask at all times in front of strangers and not allowed to converse with anyone, even with his jailers? It’s too complicated. James Bond villains have simpler plans than that. Why not just kill him? You don’t even need a trial, let alone a secret trial. By the middle of the 17th century the one thing France had a surfeit of besides starving peasants, was nobility with no morality. Louis could have knocked off every royal mass murderer from “Auger” to the Marquis de Sade and nobody would have said “Boo”. If you ask me this story is mostly a fantasy invented by Alexande Dumas. And wasn’t the truth just as entertaining as the myth? Not to Marie's relatives, of course, but for you? It was for me.
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