La Voisin (?-1680)
La Voisin (?-1680)
La Voisin, the center of a black magic ring in the court of King Louis XIV of France, was a fortune-teller in Paris in the 1670s. She was the nexus of an international business dealing in poison that reached to Italy and Spain. Her given name was Catherine Deshayes, her common appellation being derived from the name of her late husband, M. Montvoisin. Before he died, she bore him a daughter. La Voisin described her specialties as chiromancy (palmistry ) and physiognomy.
In January of 1673, the Paris police began an investigation that grew out of the charges of several priests that some of the people they had encountered in the confessional booth had spoken to them of using poisons to deal with unfaithful (or unwanted) spouses. The investigation led to the discovery of the trade in poisons, the arrest of a number of dealers, and the discovery of a large cache of their stock. It also led to a fortune-teller named Marie Bosse who made the mistake of selling some poison to an undercover police officer. Under intense questioning, Bosse began to implicate members of the French nobility. Based on her accusations, the king authorized a star chambre court that was set in secret and from which there was no appeal. After the star chambre was established, La Voisin was among the first people detained. She was arrested as she left church services one morning in March of 1679.
As the story was revealed, for some years La Voisin had been a distributor of magical potions and poisons to a large clientele. She had an extensive network of associates and had been able to place young girls among the ladies-in-waiting at the royal court. She handled a wide variety of problems, including the abortion of unwanted fetuses. She also provided magical services for women having love problems.
The most extreme service provided by La Voisin was the facilitating contact with several priests who, for a fee, would perform a black mass (the first mention of such occurrences for which there is a substantial record). According to later testimony from Fr. Guibourg, one of La Voisin's associates, no less a personage than Mademoiselle des Oeillets, Louis' mistress, came to him to have a mass said for her to retain the king's favor. He also confessed to having killed several babies during masses for another high-ranking lady. Also implicated in the records was Madame de Montespan, a former mistress who appears to have tried to poison the king and his current mistress.
Following her arrest and that of several associates, La Voisin confessed to a variety of crimes, but to nothing that would have earned her the death penalty. Her accusers focused upon a number of illegal abortions she reputedly performed. After being held a year, she was subjected to three days of intense torture during which her legs were systematically crushed. Still she did not confess. However, in the end she was condemned to death and burned alive on February 22, 1680. At the time of her death, her involvement in the black masses had not yet been uncovered, but multiple accounts of these events, including the testimony of her daughter, were later attained.
After many years of stories circulating throughout Europe of witches, Satanists, and black masses, largely believed to have been created by the imaginations of Inquisitors, the case of La Voisin appears to have been the first real case of events that began to conform to the rumors. It would, of course, not be the last, though rumors of satanic activity continue to far exceed reliable reports.
Rhodes, Henry Taylor Fowkes. The Satanic Mass. New York: Citadel Press, 1955.
Robbins, Rossell Hope. The Encyclopedia of Witchcraft and Demonology. New York: Crown Publishers, 1970.