Identification of the Son of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette

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Identification of the Son of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette

For more than two centuries, one of the most mysterious questions in history concerned the fate of the son of Marie-Antoinette and Louis XVI of France. Known as the "Lost Dauphin," official records claimed that ten-year-old Louis Charles, the heir to the throne of France, died in prison in 1795. Rumors, however, suggested that the child had escaped and the body found in prison was that of a double. In 2000 forensic techniques were applied to DNA from the remains of the heart of the purported Louis Charles as well as to locks of hair from Marie-Antoinette, her two sisters, and samples of DNA from two of the sisters' living relatives. These analyses confirmed that the heart was from a child with maternal relations to Marie-Antoinette.

During the French Revolution at the end of the eighteenth century, Louis XVI and his wife, Marie-Antoinette, were unseated from the throne. Louis XVI was killed at the guillotine and his wife and son were imprisoned in the Temple prison in Paris. Eventually, Marie-Antoinette, too, was beheaded and the son, named Louis Charles, was left in prison for two more years. He was treated poorly, left alone in a windowless room most of the time, and at the time of his death on June 8, 1795, his body was covered in scabies and tumors.

Official records show that Louis Charles died of tuberculosis, but many historians did not accept the official reports. Popular rumor supported the idea that the boy was taken from the jail cell and that another boy was left in his place. Others believed that members of the French Revolution had murdered him. Eventually, the idea that Louis Charles had escaped and was still alive found favor with the public. In 1814, the monarchy was restored to France and at this point many people came forward, claiming to be the lost dauphin.

Although he never claimed it himself, John James Audubon, the naturalist, was rumored to have been the escaped Louis Charles. He was born the same year as Louis Charles and lived in Paris as a child. He was adopted around the same time that Louis Charles was said to have escaped from prison. However, it was later shown that Audubon was born in Haiti, the illegitimate son of a French father. One Louis Charles impersonator was a man from Wisconsin named Eleazar Williams. Native American Mohawks kidnapped Williams at the age of seven. He went on to become an Episcopal minister in Green Bay and claimed to be the lost dauphin. He never presented evidence to prove his claim, and was eventually shown to have Mohawk genetic traits, proving that he could not have been descended from the French monarchy. A German clockmaker named Karl Wilhelm Naundorff also claimed to be Louis Charles. He convinced Louis Charles' childhood caretaker that his memories coincided with memories she had of the Louis Charles' youth. Naundorff moved to the Netherlands and there he convinced the government that he deserved the royal name of Burbon, which his descendents still use. In 1950, one of Naundorff's bones was exhumed and compared to DNA from Marie Antoinette. The DNA did not match, discrediting Naundorff's claim.

At the time of Louis Charles' death, a physician named Philippe-Jean Pelletan performed an autopsy on the boy who had died in the prison. As was custom for royalty, the doctor removed the heart so that it would not be buried with the body. The doctor then hid it in a handkerchief, brought it home and put it in a jar of alcohol where he kept it as a curiosity. Later, one of Pelletan's students was intrigued by the heart and stole it for himself. On his deathbed, the student admitted his theft to his wife, who returned the heart to Pelletan. Pelletan's wife then sent the heart to the Archbishop of Paris. In 1830, the palace where the heart was stored in a crystal urn was sacked and the urn was smashed. Pelletan's son, however, went to the palace and retrieved it from where it lay in a pile of glass. The heart was then sent to the arm of the Bourbon family that was in Spain. Later, the heart returned to Paris once again and was placed in a crystal vase in the royal crypt at the Saint Denis Basilica.

In April 2000, the Duc de Bauffremont requested that samples from the heart be removed for genetic testing. Two samples were taken: one from the aorta and one from the heart muscle. The samples were then split, and half was sent to the Center for Human Genetics of Leuven in Belgium. The other part was sent to the laboratory of Professor Ernst Brinkman in Münster, Germany.

The study focused on DNA from the mitochondria, the organelle responsible for providing energy to the cell. Each cell contains many mitochondria, and thus many copies of mitochondrial DNA. In contrast, each cell only contains one nucleus, and therefore only one copy of nuclear DNA. In addition, mitochondrial DNA is shorter and more likely to have survived intact over the centuries. Mitochondrial DNA originates from the egg, so the study could only determine the maternal relationships. The part of the mitochondrial DNA used in the study is called the D-loop, or displacement loop. It contains two regions that have considerable variability between people called HVR 1 and HVR 2. These two regions have been studied in a variety of cases involving very old tissue, including Neanderthal skeletons.

Mitochondrial DNA data from Marie-Antionette's family had already been collected from the Naundorff study in the Netherlands. These sequences were from hair from Marie-Antoinette and her two sisters, Johanna Gabriela and Mada-Josepha, and two living relatives, the Queen of Romania and her brother, Andre. The Center for Human Genetics found that the mitochondrial DNA from the heart of the putative Louis Charles varied from a standard in five nucleotide locations and these variations are identical to the variations found in the mitochondrial DNA sequences of Marie-Antoinette and all of her relatives. The laboratory in Germany found the same variations at four of the locations, but could not retrieve data from the fifth location because the DNA was degraded. The conclusion of both laboratories was that the boy who died in prison in 1795 was related to Marie-Antoinette and most likely was Louis Charles.

In June 2004 the heart of Charles Louis was removed from the crystal vase and buried alongside the bodies of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette and a funeral was held for the boy who would have been King Louis XVII of France.

see also DNA fingerprint; DNA recognition instruments; DNA typing systems; Genetic code; Mitochondrial DNA analysis.