History Of Madame Tussaud's
( Originally Published 1920 )
Heads of the Revolution—Madame's terrible experiences—The guillotine in pawn—Madame acquires the knife, lunette, and chopper.
IT is no part of our concern to trace the course of the Revolution throughout, or to dwell too long upon its horrors. Nevertheless before Madame Tussaud passed into tranquil days she had to suffer the severest ordeal of her life, the memory of which she could never wholly efface.
We can hardly imagine her bitter experience when compelled to employ her young hands in taking impressions of heads immediately after decapitation, and this, strange to say, by the very same knife which may be seen at this day among the relics of the Revolution at Tussaud's.
Thus she was compelled to reproduce the lineaments of Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette, Hébert, Danton, Robespierre, Carrier, Fouquier-Tinville—the best and fairest, and also the worst and vilest—who met their death on the scaffold. Unthinkable were the gruesome tasks of faithfully recording their features imposed upon the young woman who was destined to bring to England that Exhibition the annals of which we now relate.
No wonder many a heated controversy has waged around these works, for it is hard to realise that they are the actual impressions of those heads that fell under the knife of the guillotine. Yet they are the selfsame impressions that were shown at Christopher Curtius's Museum in Paris.
That Madame Tussaud's uncle would have had the temerity to exhibit spurious heads to a crowd by no means in a humour to be trifled with, and far too familiar with the features the casts portrayed to be deceived, is more than unlikely; and we know such an imposition in his case would have been quite unnecessary. The casts were undoubtedly taken under compulsion, either with the object of pandering to the temper of the people, or of serving as confirmatory evidence of execution having taken place—perhaps both.
The idea of exhibiting the heads of those who had been done to death as enemies of the people had asserted itself during the very earlist days of the Revolution. Within a fortnight of the taking of the Bastille, Foulon's head had been severed from its body and paraded through the streets of Paris at the end of a pike.
Later the noble features of the Princess de Lamballe had suffered the same brutal degradation, with the added inhumanity of having been thrust between the window-bars of the Temple Prison, wherein the unfortunate Louis XVI and his wife were incarcerated.
On that terrible day, the 10th of August, 1792, when the Swiss Guard was cut to pieces in defending the Tuileries, several of these brave soldiers had their heads stuck upon pikes and exhibited to the mob. The Royalist writer, Suleau, suffered the same fate.
How far had Madame Tussaud been implicated in the accomplishment of the dreadful work of taking casts from decapitated heads'?
It was during the autumn of 1789 that Christopher Curtius (who had by this time adopted Marie as his daughter) insisted upon her withdrawing from the service of Madame Elizabeth, to whom she had, with every reason, become devotedly attached. For Curtius had, at the outset of the disturbances in Paris, espoused the cause of the people, and, as an adroit and far-seeing man, had become anxious for his adopted daughter's safety.
He, without doubt, desired she should return under his own roof to derive the benefit of his protection. So it is that we find Marie in her uncle's studio adjoining his Exhibition, and where that gruesome work was so soon to be undertaken.
Now during the year 1793 Curtius had been drawn into the service of the National Convention, and on several occasions had to quit Paris for many days at a time, leaving Marie and her mother to do the best they could with the Exhibition during his absence. He was at this time "Envoy Extraordinary of the Re-public and War Commissary at Mayence." On the last occasion of his quitting the capital his absence ex-tended over a period of fully eighteen months.
Meanwhile heads were falling fast, and no one knew how long his own would repose upon his shoulders. Then it was that Marie suffered the terrible experience of having to take the impressions of so many heads that were brought to her from the guillotine. We have it from her own mouth that it was a task with which she dared not hesitate to comply.
It must have been known to many that only a few years back she had been a member of the household of the King's sister, Madame Elizabeth, at Versailles, and not a few of those who were near and dear to her had suffered death for a far less offence than that. But at last, as the days wore on, the Jacobins them-selves fell, and the Reign of Terror gave way to the Directorate. Then easier times came, though still far from tranquil. Nevertheless heads had ceased to fall, and Sanson, the executioner, finding his occupation gone, pawned his guillotine, and got into woful trouble for alleged trafficking in municipal property.
Years after Madame came to this country she sent her son. to Paris to search out this terrible instrument of death, and, with the help of the executioner, who was still living, and who solemnly vouched for its authenticity, she secured the knife, the lunette, and also the chopper that was used as a standby, lest the great knife should fail.
It was only after much negotiation and the pay-ment of a very considerable sum of money that her object was attained. And now the dread knife harmlessly reposes by the side of the impressions of those heads it so ruthlessly struck off a century and a quarter ago—that of Louis XVI and his Queen, Marie Antoinette, as well as those of Robespierre, Danton, Fouquier-Tinville, Hébert, and the miscreant of Nantes,
Carrier. From the time they were first shown in Paris until the present day they have been viewed by an ever-increasing throng, though the sight of them can never have been pleasing, and those who gaze upon them shudder and pass on.
Though Madame Tussaud did not witness the execution of Marie Antoinette, yet she remembered seeing the Queen pass on a tumbril through the jeering crowds to the scaffold. The once gay and light-hearted Queen was dressed in white for her last pageant on earth, her hands tied behind her. The spectacle brought back to Madame memories of the royal palace where she had frequently attended to give lessons in modelling, and she was so overcome that she fainted. Perhaps the most horrifying experience undergone by Madame Tussaud during this terrible period was when the mangled head of the greatly beloved Princess de Lamballe was brought to her that a cast might be made. In vain did she protest that she could not endure the ordeal. The brutal murderers compelled her to comply.