The Marquise of Brinvilliers

Bulgakov took notes from Brokgauz-Efron on the Marquise of Brinvilliers, a French poisoner who worked with her lover Jean-Batiste de Godin de St. Croix and who was beheaded in 1676. Brinvilliers poisoned her father, two brothers, and a sister for their inheritance.

Brinvilliers being tortured

Small, graceful, and pretty, Marquise de Brinvilliers was also corrupt, ruthless, and cold-blooded. Her beautiful blue eyes charmed those around her, making them easy prey for her poison. Early in her marriage to Antoine Gobelin de Brinvilliers, she became enamored with a certain cavalry officer who went by the name of Sainte-Croix. So blatant were they in their affair, that her father, in attempt to save the dignity of the family name, had Sainte-Croix imprisoned. Furious at this turn of events, the Madame de Brinvilliers began plotting the murder of her own father. In prison, Sainte-Croix had learned the poisonous trade from Exili, the well-known adventurer and professional poisoner in the employment of the ex-Queen Christina of Sweden.

Cartoon of Brinvillier's execution
As soon as Sainte-Croix was released, he made his way to Glazer's shop and shared his goods and knowledge with his lover. In order to perfect her new trade before attempting it on her family, she made the rounds of the city's hospitals, testing her concoctions on the patients. She then poisoned her father, and soon thereafter poisoned her two brothers, who had inherited her father's fortune. She attempted to poison her children's tutor, Briancourt, with whom she had shared romantic relations, but his quick wits saved him. His intelligence also saved the lives of Madame's sister-in-law and sister, cloistered in a convent, who she also tried to poison. She even went so far as to poison her own daughter, merely because she thought her stupid! She regretted it immediately afterward however, and made her drink a great quantity of milk, as an antidote.

Sainte-Croix finally betrayed her upon his death, with incriminating documents found among his belongings. After several years on the run in England and the Netherlands, Madame de Brinvilliers was tried and convicted on all charges of poisoning. She was forced to do public penance, was put to the torture, both ordinary and extraordinary, and was beheaded on the scaffold erected for the purpose on the Place de Grève. Thousands had gathered to watch the public execution, and it was said that the ashes of her burning body were breathed in by the masses, who continued to carry out deeds in her spirit. The painter Le Brun captured the look of horror and distortion on her face as she was carried to the scaffold in a dirty dung cart, in a painting entitled "Indignation."

Text and images from Melissa de Graaf's World of Lully and Molière