Holly Tucker's City of Light, City of Poison: Murder, Magic, and the First Police Chief of Paris tells a story so outlandish, one would be forgiven for thinking the book was historical fiction. But this tale of Parisian witches and possibly murderous noblewomen really did happen, and it rocked the foundation of one of the most powerful monarchies the world has ever seen—the court of Louis XIV at Versailles.
The Affair of the Poisons was a panic and, depending on who you believe, crime wave that swept through the French aristocracy. A group of prominent and powerful noblewomen, including some former mistresses of the king, were accused of buying poisons to kill their husbands or female rivals for the king's affections. In order to do so, they would have had to make contact with the infamous women of the Parisian criminal underworld. Tucker, a professor of French, Italian and Biomedical Ethics at Vanderbilt University, answered our questions about her riveting account of the affair.
As a French professor, you no doubt had read about this scandal many times. What made you decide to write a book about it yourself?
The Affair of the Poisons has long fascinated me as a specialist of early French history. Yet the story seemed initially just too murky and, frankly, too dark to let myself get sucked into it. I decided instead to write Blood Work: A Tale of Medicine & Murder in the Scientific Revolution, which tells the story of the first blood transfusions and the murder of the first blood transfusion patient by poisoning. Although this poisoning was not directly related to the Affair of the Poisons, I realize now that I was using my last book as an entrée into my next book. By the time I was finished with Blood Work, I just knew that I had to face my fears and dive in. Poison, magic, Paris and Louis XIV—the story was too extraordinary, the characters were too fascinating and their crimes too stunning.
The Affair of the Poisons was a notoriously wide-reaching scandal and given the state of police work at the time, it is difficult to draw conclusions about the culpability of those involved. Nevertheless, are there any people who you think you can say with confidence were either innocent or guilty?
While we can’t determine with absolute precision everything about the events that took place in the 1670s and 1680s in Paris and in the Sun King’s palaces, there is plenty that we can know for sure. The first was that poison was everywhere, even in the Cathedral of Notre Dame, where poisoners often met their clients and made sales. Second, there is also no doubt that at least one of Louis XIV’s most cherished mistresses visited the midwife/poisoner/witch, Catherine Voisin, on multiple occasions to buy love potions and to request spells. (I won’t say which one. No spoilers!)
Holly Tucker and Madame Savelli at Fromagerie Savelli in Aix-en-Provence.
Now for what we can’t be so sure of. Louis’s mistress was also accused of other unspeakable crimes—including rituals involving child sacrifices. Personally, I want to believe they are untrue. However, there is too much testimony from people who claimed to witness these ceremonies first-hand to dismiss the accusations entirely. The accounts generally line up with one another and some are told by people who willingly incriminate themselves, despite knowing that they’ll be executed for it. It’s up to my readers to decide for themselves, based on the evidence we have, what they believe happened. I’m really eager to hear what they say.
Despite the involvement of several famous mistresses of Louis XIV and some legendary criminals, you were drawn to Paris Police Chief Nicolas de la Reynie and made him the central character of your book. What is it about Reynie that fascinates you so much? And were there any individuals you found yourself repelled by?
As soon as I discovered La Reynie’s personal notes in the archives, I knew that I had to anchor the book around him. He was a highly principled man of great character and dedication, but becomes ethically—and I’d say morally—challenged as the true depths of the Affair are revealed. How far is La Reynie willing to go to learn the truth?
How long did the research process take for this book? Was there a source that was particularly helpful?
The book took four years to research. It would have been impossible without Les Archives de la Bastille, now housed at the Arsenal Library in Paris. After La Reynie’s death, all police and prisoner records were stored in rooms just off the interior courtyard of the Bastille. By 1775, the archive had outgrown the available space, and records began to clutter the public areas of the prison. Plans were underway to enclose the courtyard to create a large library, but the French Revolution got in the way. Hubert-Pascal Ameilhon, a prominent librarian and bibliophile, went to survey the damage once the violence died down. Fortunately, all the records before 1775 remained intact. He transferred them to the basement of a nearby church, where they stayed until finally finding their home at the Arsenal. Without this massive collection of manuscripts, City of Light, City of Poison would have been impossible to write. In fact, we probably wouldn’t know much about the Affair of the Poisons at all.
What most shocked you in your research into this scandal?
Where to begin! I think, like La Reynie, I was stunned at just how deep poisoning went in French society at the time. There were even stories and songs circulating about “inheritance powders” and “Saint-Denis soup,” which references the area of Paris where many poisoners worked. And again, like La Reynie, it also surprised me just how much commerce there was between Paris’s most notorious criminals and the nobility of Louis XIV’s court. That, and of course, the wild concoctions that poisoners cooked up. One type of poison alone had over 20 ingredients!
If you could travel back in time to one event or conversation to do with the Affair of the Poisons, which one would you choose to witness?
I wouldn’t be able to simply witness it. I’d want to help La Reynie out! In the fall of 1678, a noblewoman delivered a mysterious letter to a priest at the Eglise Saint-Paul, which still stands in the Marais neighborhood of Paris. The letter contained a reference to a “powder” intended for the king. The woman, whose identity will remain forever unknown, claimed she found it on the ground in one of the city’s premier shopping areas. She fled before the priest could ask her any more questions. If I could travel back in time, I would wait for her in one of the church pews and stop her from leaving so I could question her. La Reynie and I have some strong suspicions about who wrote that letter, and I think she might be able to help confirm it. Or at least, she might be able to lead us to someone who can.
You live in Nashville and Aix-en-Provence. What do you like best about living in France?
I love being part of the community there. Over time, I’ve gotten to develop a tight network of friends and to become friendly with many of the shopkeepers and market vendors. Aix is large enough for there to always be something interesting going on, but small enough where it’s not at all unusual to run into a friend and spontaneously grab a coffee at one of the many nearby cafés. It feels like everyone in my adopted town knows that I’m a writer and always asks about what I’m working on. It was so much fun to show off the cover of City of Light, City of Poison to Madame Savelli, owner of Fromagerie Savelli). We’ve known each other for 15 years now and I’m as fond of her as I am of all the cheese she sells—maybe even more. If you ever go to Aix, be sure to say hello for me!
Are there any other stories from history that you want to investigate?
I am working on a proposal for the next book as we speak, but have to keep topic under wraps for now!