The Mystery of Louis XVII


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The Mystery of the Lost Dauphin, Louis XVII


portrait of Louis XVII (unattributed but possibly by Jacques Louis David, the famous revolutionary painter)


The fate of the “lost dauphin,” Louis XVII, has been a subject of mystery for over 200 years. Did he die in prison? Did he escape and become a famous American naturalist, or a German clockmaker, or an Episcopal minister raised by Native Americans? All of these solutions, and more, still have loyal supporters. The issue was laid to rest by DNA testing in 2000. But this is a mystery that just won’t die.

There is no question that Louis XVI and his wife Marie Antoinette died under the guillotine during the French Revolution. It is the fate of their 10 year old son, Louis Charles, who disappeared in 1795, that is the mystery.

After the death of his father, Louis Charles was the uncrowned King of France, Louis XVII. He and his sister were imprisoned with their mother until July 3, 1793 when guards came in the dead of night to remove the 8-year-old Louis from her arms. Marie Antoinette resisted, clutching the child for nearly an hour, arguing and pleading. Finally she bowed to the inevitable and gave him up. As Marie Therese (Louis' sister) later recalled, "they threatened the lives of both him and me, and my mother's maternal tenderness at length forced her to this sacrifice." Louis was imprisoned alone in a small windowless room. What happened next is at the heart of the mystery.

The official record states that Louis died in the Temple prison at the age of 10 on June 8, 1795 from tuberculosis. But few accepted the official verdict. Some said that he died of neglect, some that he was murdered, and others that he did not die at all, but was spirited away to safety and another child put in his place. A doctor who had been summoned to treat the dauphin died mysteriously the week before the boy's death. His widow hinted that he had refused to take part in some irregular practice on the patient.

Rumors flew. At first, it was widely believed both in France and Britain that the Committee of Public Safety (the radical governing body of the revolution) had murdered the child. Later public opinion came to favor the escape theory. In 1814 the historian of the newly restored French monarchy announced that Louis Charles had escaped and was still alive. He would not reveal his location however. The most common rumor was that royalists substituted another child in his place and spirited him to America where he would be safe.

The rumors did not fade with the passage of time. In 1846 authorities exhumed the mass grave where the child was buried. Only one showed evidence of tuberculosis. But he wasn't a perfect fit. The body appeared to be that of a slightly older child, in his middle to late teens. Of particular interest was the fact that the boy had already cut a wisdom tooth. In the years that followed, at least a hundred men claimed to be the ill-fated prince.

The most intriguing candidate was famous naturalist John James Audubon. Although he never publicly claimed it himself, Audubon was thought by many to be the real Louis. He was adopted at about the right time, if indeed Louis had escaped, and was the same age. On a visit to France in 1828, Audubon wrote an intriguing letter home to his wife. In it he said that, "patient, silent, bashful, and yet powerful of physique and of mind, dressed as a common man, I walk the streets! I bow! I ask permission to do this or that! I… who should command all!"

A most colorful claimant was perhaps Eleazer Williams. Williams was the descendant of a Mohawk Native American and a white woman who had been kidnapped by the Mohawks at the age of 7. Though raised with the Mohawks, as a teenager he left the tribe, and went on to become an Episcopal minister and a pioneer of Greenbay, Wisconsin. He told his story, The Lost Prince, and became a national celebrity for a few years. He may have been the object of Mark Twain’s satire in Wild Man and Huckleberry Finn. Williams claimed until his death that he was Louis Charles, though there was never any evidence to support his story. His skull was exhumed in 1947 for anthropological study. The conclusion was that Williams probably did have Native American ancestry and so could not have been Louis Charles.

The most successful of the claimants was a German clockmaker named Karl Wilhelm Naundorff. He had some evidence to back his claim and had widespread support. He managed to convince the dauphin's childhood nurse, who questioned him at great length about childhood memories. He spent his final years in The Netherlands and was even recognized as Louis Charles by that government, which allowed him to take the family name Bourbon. In 1950 a bone was taken from his grave and later tested for DNA. His DNA did not match any of the DNA available from Marie Antoinette and other members of her family. It appeared that he was an imposter.

As the years passed, the speculation continued. Thousands of articles and 600 books have been written about this mystery. The most authoritative are by a French historian and an American journalist. Philippe Delorme, the recognized expert on this story, tells a fascinating tale of mystery and conspiracy and pretenders. Recently Delorme has updated his book (originally L’affaire Louis XVII), Louis XVII: the Truth, now available in English. A new American book by journalist Deborah Cadbury also tells the story (the Lost King of France: How DNA Solved the Mystery of the Murder of the Son of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette).

In early 2000, scientists did DNA tests on the putative heart of the boy who died of tuberculosis in his prison, and who was presumed to be the prince. A sample from the heart was compared with a lock of hair taken from Marie Antoinette as a child. There was no doubt. The owner of the heart and the queen shared DNA.

Delorme organized the tests to finally end the debate. To avoid all question, tests were conducted independently by two different scientists. Jean-Jacques Cassiman, a professor of genetics at Belgium's Louvian University, conducted one test; Ernst Brinkmann of Germany's Muenster University conducted the other.

Was it the heart of Louis Charles? The heart has an interesting history of it’s own. It has been shuffling around for over 200 years. The doctor who did the autopsy, Philippe-Jean Pelletan, hid the heart in his handkerchief, stole the heart, and pickled it in alcohol. Later one of his students took it, but on his deathbed, full of remorse, the student asked that it be returned to the doctor. His wife sent it to the Archbishop of Paris where it stayed until the Palace was attacked in the Revolution of 1830. The crystal urn holding the heart was smashed, and the doctor’s son retrieved it from a pile of broken glass. The heart had moved again.

After the restoration of the monarchy in 1814, the heart was sent to the Spanish branch of the Bourbon family where it found a new home. Soon, the heart was on the move again - the family returned the heart to Paris. There Louis Charles finally received his due. His heart was placed in a crystal vase in the royal crypt at Saint Denis Basilica, where it stayed until 1999. A piece was removed for DNA tests, and dramatically transported to the lab in a hearse.

Is the mystery really solved? The DNA tests did not end the speculation about “the lost dauphin.” Cassiman himself said that this test only established that the boy in the crypt was a relative of Marie Antoinette’s. It is true that the test did not specifically show that the heart they tested was that of the boy, or that the owner of the heart and Marie Antoinette were mother and son. Cassiman said he would leave it to historians to determine whether the boy was in fact the son of Marie Antoinette.

Delorme and most historians have accepted the tests as sufficient evidence, but others such as Philippe Boiry (author of Naundorff-Louis XVII), have questioned the conclusion because the heart itself was shuffled around so much. By the time it was tested it was mummified, hard as wood. Is it even the heart of the boy who died in prison? No one can be absolutely sure. Because the tests were not absolutely certain, there is continued speculation from the loyal followers of Eleazer Williams, John James Audubon, and Karl Naundorff.

Naundorff’s descendants, who still carry the name Bourbon, have rejected the DNA evidence, and they have asked to have Naundorff’s grave reopened so that there can be more tests.

And in Lawrence, Wisconsin, there is still a Lost Dauphin Road, in De Pere the state of Wisconsin still has a Lost Dauphin State Park, and there is still a restaurant named Lost Louie’s. Owner John Nick has no plans to change the name.

The French Revolution

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