Madame Tussaud, the wax sculptor, was christened in Strasbourg, France on 1 December of 1761 as Anne-Marie Grosholtz. To differentiate her from her mother who had the same name, the young Anne-Marie was called Marie, and her mother served as a housekeeper to a doctor named Philippe Mathé Curtius. He began to create anatomical wax models and Marie learned her wax skills from him. She grew to be feisty, determined woman who founded the famous wax museum originally known as “Madame Tussaud’s.”*
Besides having a mother with the same name, Curtius as her mentor, and being the founder of a wax museum, there are more interesting facts about this interesting woman who you may not know.
Madame Tussaud’s great-grandson, John Theodore, never met his great-grandmother because she died eight years before he was born. However, despite never meeting her, he paid tribute to her writing:
“In figure she was small and slight, and her manner was vivacious. Her complexion was fresh, her hair dark brown with never more than a sprinkling of grey, and her soft brown eyes were keen and alert when her interest was aroused. She was a great talker, her conversation was replete with reminiscences, and, moreover, she was blessed with a faultless memory. Austere in her habits of life, exacting in her likes and dislikes, she showed a ready sympathy with those in distress, and, above all, she was generous to a fault.”
Madame Tussaud described Curtius’ Paris house as the “resort of many of the most talented men in France.” These men convened there regularly to debate the serious issues of the times. According to her, Curtius was a brilliant conversationalist, which was part of the draw for visitors who reputedly included such illustrious guests as the Enlightenment writer Voltaire, the philosopher Rousseau, the French Revolutionary writer and orator who excelled at the Estates General known as the Count of Mirabeau, and Maximilien Robespierre, who later became one of the best known and most influential figures associated with the French Revolution and the Reign of Terror.
Jean-Paul Marat was a French political theorist, physician, and scientist who became best known for his role as a radical journalist and politician during the French Revolution. Because of his radical leanings he was assassinated while in his bathtub on 13 July 1793 by Charlotte Corday. Madame Tussaud claims that after Marat’s murder she was beckoned to his house to take his death mask and arrived just before his body was taken away.
The famous painter Jacques-Louis David, who became the minister of propaganda for the revolutionary government, was ordered by the Convention to preserve Marat’s murder on canvas. David’s bath-tub murder scene, known as “The Death of Marat,” became one of his most famous paintings. However, he apparently did not capture the scene from real life but rather from the wax model created by Curtius and Madame Tussaud, which was on display at Curtius’ wax salon.
Madame Tussaud’s grandfather was an executioner and it was customary for sons to follow the occupation of their fathers. However, her father, Johann Joseph Grosholtz, chose not to follow in his father’s footsteps. Instead he served as an aide-de-camp to Austrian field marshal General Wurmser during the Seven Years’ Wa and was killed in battle when his lower jaw was shot away. Being from a family of executioners may also help explain why Madame Tussaud was willing to handle severed heads and create death masks. It was also customary for the daughters of executioners to marry executioners, which meant Madame Tussaud’s marriage prospects may have been limited and that may have also been why she remained unmarried for so long. Nonetheless, on 19 October 1795 she wed François Tussaud. He was twenty-eight and she thirty-three at the time.
Madame Tussaud moved to England in 1801 and began her own exhibit. She wanted to encourage a higher-class clientele and so began employing a band or orchestra to accompany those who visited and promenaded. An ad taken out by her in the Bristol Mercury in August of 1823 read:
“There will be a PROMENADE every Evening, from 6 till 10, accompanied by a full MILITARY BAND, of acknowledged merit. No improper Persons will be admitted.”
Interestingly, this idea of promenading from room to room to study the wax figures accompanied by music, seems to have been Madame Tussaud’s invention. Visitors could spend the entire evening in leisurely fashion at her exhibition, and apparently, they loved it, because the Liverpool Observer noted, “The promenade among the illustrious dead and illustrious living is truly delightful.”
People were often amazed when they visited Madame Tussaud’s exhibition. One interesting visitor was Naser al-Din Shah, the King of Persia. When he visited England he was taken to Madame Tussaud’s museum and was astounded. Of his visit he wrote:
“It is hardly possible to distinguish which are living figures and which are wax. I tried to distinguish between real living figures and those of wax, but could not succeed till the women got up, walked and laughed, and then I knew that they were living human beings.”
Madame Tussaud also created many wax portraits of famous people. Among them was one of Princesse de Lamballe, friend to Marie Antoinette and her Superintendent of the Household. This portrait, shown below in an oval frame, is thought to have been created by Madame Tussaud when the princess was imprisoned at La Force.
Madame Tussaud created her Napoleon Rooms in 1843. It was there she displayed a wide variety of relics she had purchased related to the Emperor. Among the most interesting was his military carriage that he had used on many of his military campaigns and while he was exiled on Elba. Supposedly, Madame Tussaud’s oldest son Joseph was the person who discovered the carriage. It occurred one day as he was leaning over London Bridge watching a carriage being hoisted from a barge. He began a conversation with a gentleman, who revealed, “I can take you to a place where you can see Napoleon’s carriage which he used at Waterloo.” Of course, Joseph was interested and accompanied the man to a carriage shop in Gray’s Inn Road. There he discovered the carriage, complete with “a sleeping bunk, a writing-desk, and stowage for a quantity of baggage.”
The forerunner to Madame Tussaud’s Chamber of Horrors was La Caverne des Grands Voleurs (The Cavern of the Great Thieves), founded by Curtius in the late 1700s. Besides the wax figure and death masks of notorious murders and the infamous from the French Revolution, the Chamber of Horrors also contained a working model of a guillotine. In fact, in 1846, Madame Tussaud’s sons tracked down an actual blade used to decapitate the condemned in France in 1793 and 1794 and purchased it from the grandson of the Paris’ royal executioner at the time.
After Madame Tussaud died on 16 April 1850, she was originally buried in the Catholic Chapel at Fulham Road, but when it was demolished, she was moved to the catacombs of St. Mary’s Church, Cadogan Place, Chelsea. Shown is a plaque that honors today at that church.
*In the late 1800s, after Madame Tussaud had died, Madame Tussaud’s museum was sold. Today, it is owned by Merlin Entertainment Group, and they decided that because Madame Tussaud no longer owned the company, there was no need for a possessive apostrophe in the name, and renamed it “Madame Tussauds” with no apostrophe.
-  Tussaud, John T. The Romance of Madame Tussaud’s. New York: George H. Doran Company, 1920. p. 356-357.
-  Hervé, Francis. Madame Tussaud’s Memoirs and Reminiscences of France, Forming an Abridged History of the French Revolution. London: Saunders and Otley, 1838, p. 7.
-  Bristol Mercury, “Splendid Promenade,” August 18, 1823, p. 2.
-  Roy A. Church and Andrew Godley. The Emergency of Modern Marketing. London: F. Cass, 2003, p. 16.
-  Littell’s Living Age. Volume 123, Boston: Little and Gay, 1874, p. 693.
-  J. T. Tussaud, p. 359.
-  New Zealand Herald, “Relics of Buonaparte,” May 9, 1925, p. 5.