Throughout the darkest halls of history, there have always been tales of witches—lawless, brazen women who used their knowledge of the occult to change the tides of fate using any means necessary. Sadly, many of these accused women throughout Europe and America were really just victims of fear-based conspiracies meant to round up and burn that which they did not understand. But a powerful female is a daunting thing, especially to a certain nature of man, and witches have forever brought those fears to fruition through a wicked combination of intelligence, guile, and treachery.
In some cases, these enchantresses were not unfortunate victims but real women with tremendous influence who could summon deep, dark intentions and give them the capacity to invite death and suffering. They were savvy, they were political, and they relied on the discretion of their own authority and morality. One such woman, popularly known as La Voisin, lived in the florid era of 17th-century Paris when influential and well-coiffed people were accustomed to having their own way—at any expense.
It was during this time of voracious greed and lust that La Voisin brought aristocratic France to its knees, revealing a shady life as one of history’s greatest sorceresses in a murderous scandal that would threaten the very reign of King Louis XIV himself. This wicked unraveling of a deep and nefarious web would reach into the inner circle of Versaille, lead to many shocking executions, and uncover a hidden network of the occult like no other, a case later known as the “Affair of the Poisons.”
Catherine Deshayes, who later became La Voisin, was born and raised in France in the mid 17th century and went on to marry a jeweler, Antoine Monvoisin, who owned a shop at Pont-Marie in Paris. Unlike Catherine, her husband did not possess a head for business and eventually lost his shop, soon falling into financial ruin. During this trying time, Catherine knew she needed to support her family—and so began using her knowledge of medicine to provide physiognomical readings to the locals; offering midwifery services and even performing abortions. She had learned the art of fortune-telling at a young age and soon discovered Paris offered ample opportunity for someone who could tamper with the uncertainties of the future and navigate the waters of the mystical.
Soon dubbed La Voisin by a growing populace of admirers, the fortune-teller not only practiced chiromancy through reading a person’s palms but began to study the modern methods of physiology as well, learning how the functions of the body were affected by different variables. She was bright, curious, a raucous troublemaker, and always engaged in furthering her understanding of dark enterprise. And La Voisin was crafty—she knew how to market herself as a true woman of the occult, spending considerable cash on a custom-made floor length robe emblazoned with a golden two-headed eagle and creating an overall atmosphere of mystery and possibility.
It’s easy to imagine her—respelendent in crimson velvet, sitting by candlelight and whispering in a conspiratorial manner to a fashionable client in the small rooms of her crumbling house on the outskirts of the most libertine city on earth—Paris. Indeed, she had found her own dark niche for which there was soon to be a great deal of interest.
La Voisin’s work quickly deviated from the medicinal to straight-up witchcraft—reading omens, astrological charts, and such—and she created powders, potions, and poisons using foul ingredients like animal bones, Spanish fly (also used by the Marquis de Sade), metal filings, animal teeth, dust from human remains, and (many say) the blood of babies.
In fact, some historians suggest up to 2500 corpses of children were eventually discovered in her backyard, although it a notion disputed by others—certainly not out of the realm of possibility given the nature of her preoccupations. She buried menstrual blood to promote love spells and used the urine of unwanted husbands to secure their disappearance.
In her work, she discovered many of the great Madames of Paris all wanted the same thing—love, influence, money—and she sought to provide it through her exploitation of the occult.
She sold amulets for protection, aphrodisiacs, lethal potions, and designed methods for secret revenge, often arranging monstrous religious rites where clients could worship evil spirits to press their ugly agendas. She was the darkest and greatest wish-granter in all of Paris, and she began to profit immensely.
The women who visited her were not just any ladies; they were rich and powerful figures in society who had titles like Comtesse, Duchess, Princesse, and Marquis—and one in particular, Madame de Montespan, even warmed the bed of the king. She discreetly received her austere clientele both day and night at her home in the Villeneuve-sur-Gravois district of Paris where it is said she often held late-night garden parties filled with low-profile aristocrats on the prowl.
But the ambiance of La Voisin’s abode was not always mystical; it was also depraved—said to have secret furnaces where the bodies of dead babies would be burned after having served their part in her black rites.
Through her cryptic musings, La Voisin supported a family of six, including her children, her husband (whom she hated), and her elderly mother. She found her husband to be so disagreeable, she had taken to greeting him with the phrase “have you dropped dead yet?” And she had lovers—many lovers—on whom she also spent considerable money, always entertaining them in comfortable style.
Among them were colorful men like the executioner André Guillaume (who was almost forced to behead her himself after her arrest), the Viscount de Cousserans, Fauchet the architect, the author Latour, the Count de Labatie, an alchemist called Blessis, and the notable magician Adam Lesage, who at one point even tried to convince her to kill her own husband. But these men did not make La Voisin particularly happy, and she was known to be constantly drunk, engaging in riotous shouting matches with Lesage and receiving harsh beatings by Latour.
One of the vilest practices employed by La Voisin and her assistant, the terrible priest Abbé Guibourg, was the “black mass” they sometimes secretly held in a nearby church, St. Marcel. In keeping with proper rites, the priest would say mass in full robed regalia while presiding over the fully outstretched naked bodies of various women, who held lit tapers in each hand. A chalice was then placed on her bare belly, and at the moment of the offering, a child’s throat would be punctured, allowing the blood to pour into the ceremonial cup. The blood would then be mixed with some other foul ingredients and a bit of flour so it resembled something of a Host to serve as a “consecration” of the moment.
It is said La Voisin often sacrificed children—ones who were orphaned or purchased through despicable means—and that her own daughter once fled the house with her new infant out of fear at what her mother’s evil brethren might do. It was a frightful scene straight from a dark fairy tale, as marauding witches roamed the gloomy Parisian streets, snatching stray children and ferrying them off to various seditious gatherings. It became so bad at one point, the king even ordered an inquiry into what was happening in the city.
The unraveling of La Voisin’s shadowy kingdom began with an incident in 1675 when an aristocratic woman, Madame de Brinvilliers, was accused of having conspired with her lover to use “inheritance powder” on her father and two brothers in order to receive their estates. After the men in her family died suddenly, suspicion turned to her and was soon confirmed when a cache of letters and diary entries relating to the plot were discovered in her possession. Once arrested, Brinvilliers was tortured with the dreaded water cure, whereby she was forced to drink sixteen pints of liquid and forced to confess. She was then beheaded and her body burned at the stake.
Although La Voisin had not assisted Brinvilliers in the murders, the woman’s plot soon exposed a network of poisoners, all of whom were somehow connected to La Voisin in the underworld. The sensational trial began to draw attention to a number of mysterious deaths, some of which La Voisin knew nothing about and started up a frightful rumor mill that even grabbed the attention of Louis XIV who had become increasingly concerned for his own safety.
And rightfully so. One of La Voisin’s most auspicious clients was a woman by the name of Madame de Montespan who was the chief mistress of the king at the time. Although often communicating through a separate contact, Montespan had hired La Voisin to arrange a black mass to win the king’s love, an action that seemed to have procured the desired effect. Indeed, Louis XIV had fallen in love with her that same year, and as a result, Montespan trusted in La Voisin implicitly, employing her expertise on several separate occasions.
In 1679, when the mercurial king’s love began to fade, Montespan had again sought the help of La Voisin who provided aphrodisiacs for her reticent lover. When the elixirs did not seem to help, Montespan threatened the king outright if he ever left her. He paid her no mind and began his affair with Angélique de Fontanges anyway, at which time his troubled ex-mistress demanded La Voisin seek the death of both the king and his new lover. La Voisin was hesitant, but she finally relented and created a special poison just for him which she delivered to his court personally. The plan was thwarted, however, when she was not able to get close to him and was forced to abort the mission. But La Voisin did not give up.
Because the Affair of the Poisons had begun in earnest and had already led to several witch burnings, the mood in Paris was extremely guarded. A fortune-teller named Magdelaine de La Grange was the most recent sorceress to be arrested, and she offered incriminating evidence against her cohorts in an attempt to save herself. This began a chain of confessions, leading to another arrest of La Voisin’s arch-enemy, Marie Bosse, who quickly offered up the name of her nemesis.
So, before La Voisin had the chance to perfect her murderous plot against the Louis XIV, she was arrested outside Notre-dame and imprisoned at Vincennes where she was subjected to intense questioning—but even though the interrogators had permission to torture her, they dared not risk her revelation of other influential people close to the king.
La Voisin never confessed—she did not offer her list of clients; details of the black masses; the name of Montespan with whom she had conspired so brazenly; or the attempt on the king’s life. These truths did not come to light until after her death when her daughter was finally interrogated and broke down under the pressure. But La Voisin had been condemned to death nonetheless and was burned at the stake on February 22, 1680.
Her death was the crescendo in the Affair of the Poisons, an incident that would ultimately implicate 442 men and women—218 of whom were arrested—and 36 of whom were tortured and burned. The official execution count would surely have been higher if not for the lethal modes of torture employed back then. The investigative court was finally abolished by the king in 1682 who could not risk any further scandal or negative publicity. And the life of La Voisin, Europe’s most glamorous witch, became a dark legend of France.
And the rest is history.