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Friday, January 28, 2011

THE MAN NOT IN THE IRON MASK

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, just think this thing through. The first time you drool in your sleep in an iron mask, you would be rusted in 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 the French 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 pixie-doll of a woman with sparkling blue eyes who seems to have committed no major public sins until she was about thirty.
That was when her husband (above) 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, but he left Marie behind,  as a sort of payment on account for Sainte-Croix. Marie didn’t seem to mind the 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 to get him or her to confess.
This is why torture was so popular for so long. It never failed. No matter whom you arrested, ten minutes with the prisoner strapped to a rack and you could get them to admit almost anything.
Of course, if your suspect was too connected to be tortured, the only alternative was to lock him up while you slowly collected evidence. That might take decades. And during that time witnesses could be bought off, killed off, or just die of natural causes. People dropped dead all the time in 17th century France. The staggering death toll made for the convoluted plots of some very popular French novels and plays.
So when poor people started dropping dead at the hospital where Marie had volunteered as a nurse, nobody took notice. They were poor people. In 17th century France the streets were littered with dead poor people. It was the perfect time and place for little Marie to practice her new trade.
When Marie had perfected the formula she had gotten from Sainte-Croix, which she did in 1666, she had no compuction about slipping the poison into her father’s lunch. He died suddenly. And his little darling inherited a little money, which she and Saint-Croix quickly burned through.
Then in 1670 Marie shed more tears when her two brothers suddenly dropped dead. Marie inherited a little more money. By now, all the heirs in the Brinvillers family were getting nervous. But still nobody suspected the little elf, the little pixie, Marie Brinvillers. 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 for another load of cash, Gordin Sainte-Croix, the greedy mastermind of the entire slaughter, unexpectedly fell ill and 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 become authors?). And it seems Sainte- Croix even left a list of names of his satisfied customers, everyone he had directed to the mysterious chemist, Msr. Auger.
The list included 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 (above), and...Marie Brinviller. Marie panicked. The cops were not going to torture the King’s mistress, but they would have no hesitation about putting a lower level nobility cutie like Marie on the rack. She ran off to seek protection with her husband in exile. But she was now infamous and hubby 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 and who sought forgivness for their sins, 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? How do you keep your convent running when you are short of money? 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.
It is not a happy ending for our little heroine. Marie was brought back to Paris in chains, tortured for a confession (i.e. waterboarded), tried in secret, and on July 16, 1676 she was forced to drink eight pints of water (more waterboarding)… 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. The cops had Marie's confession and Sainte-Croix's list, and just before the case broke wide open...Louis XIV (above) ordered all further investigations to cease. And being the King, his orders were obeyed. 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”. Or if they had ever used them.
And shutting down the investigation also left unanswered another set of unpleasant questions: who was Msr. Auger, really? And what did he know? And more importantly, did he have any plans to write his biography or maybe a 'how to' book? Was he the man in the Iron Mask? 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 the Velvet Mask” and velvet just sounds too fey for a novel plot. And in any case, the Auger was not the guy, I don't think. But if you are of a novel mind set you might ask yourself a few questions.
Why would the King of France keep someone locked up in one prison after another -for decades? Why not just kill him and get it over with? And what secret could be so big that the prisoner was required to wear a mask at all times in front of strangers? What secret could be kept secure by ordering a prisoner to never speak to anyone, not even with his jailers? Could such a convoluted plan even hope to work? James Bond villains have simpler plans than that. 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 it was for me. Was it good for you?
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