Marie Antoinette’s Breguet Pocket Watch No. 160

Reproduction (No. 1160) of Marie Antoinette’s Pocket Watch. Courtesy of Breguet.

The story of Marie Antoinette’s Breguet pocket watch begins when Abraham-Louis Breguet, arrived from his native Switzerland in Paris. Breguet’s father had died and his mother remarried a watchmaker named Joseph Tattet. Tattet had a showroom in Paris and tried to get Breguet to take up watchmaking, but he resisted.

Eventually, however, Breguet decided to try watchmaking, and when he did, he astonished Tattet. Breguet’s watchmaking abilities also captured the attention of his mathematics teacher, Abbot Joseph-François Marie, who was also a tutor to the Count of Artois’ sons, the Dukes of Angoulême and Duke of Berry. In fact, it was through Abbot Marie that Breguet was introduced to King Louis XVI and eventually became a leading horologist and watchmaker of his time. Continue reading

Francis Tussaud: Madame Tussaud’s Son

Francis Tussaud, from his great-grandson’s book of 1920, “The Romance of Madame Tussaud’s.”

Francis (François in French) Tussaud was Madame Tussaud‘s son. He was born to her and her husband François on a Saturday, 2 August 1800. Two years later, Madame Tussaud decided to promote her waxworks in England, and she left her son Francis behind in the care of her husband, mother, and aunt, and took her 4-year-old son, Joseph, with her. Madame Tussaud eventually broke it off with her husband but continued to write to Francis, her mother, and her aunt from England.

Francis grew into a young man who had a strong desire to be an architect. However, his father must have thought otherwise because he obtained an apprenticeship for him with a grocer. The apprenticeship proved costly, and once François discovered this, he then found an apprenticeship for his son with a billiard table builder. For a time, Francis unhappily pursued that career, and, perhaps, that is why he finally joined his mother and brother in England. Continue reading

The French Feral Boy Victor of Aveyron and a Visit with Madame Récamier

French feral boy Victor of Aveyron
Lithograph from 1800 of Victor of Aveyron. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

One famous French beauty and socialite was Juliette Récamier or Madame Récamier. She was known to hobnob regularly with aristocrats and the elite, and one day, in 1803, when she was hosting and mingling, a rather interesting incident occurred. It involved Jean March Gaspard Itard. He was a French physician at the National Institution for the Deaf and Dumb and he had been accompanied to Madame Récamier’s by a feral boy* whose case he had taken up and whom he named Victor of Aveyron.

The story of Victor begins when he was first spotted by woodsmen near Saint-Sernin-sur-Rance in the commune of Aveyron as early as 1794. Periodically, between 1797 and 1798, Victor was again seen. Stories differ as to whether he emerged from the forest on his own or whether woodsmen captured him with their nets. However, once he emerged from the woods, he stayed with numerous people, although he also ran away regularly and was recaptured. Continue reading

The Widow Gras or Jeanne Bricourt: The Jekyll and Hyde Murderess and Courtesan of France

Widow Gras. Public domain.

The Widow Gras or Jeanne Bricourt, also sometimes called Jeanne Brécourt, was considered the female version of a Jekyll and Hyde murderess and one France’s most notorious courtesans. She was born Eugénie Arménaïde Bricourt on 8 April 1837 in Paris and was the neglected child of a printer and a vegetable seller. Because she was so neglected, a Baroness took pity upon her and became her benefactress. However, when Jeanne was eleven, her parents removed from the Baroness’s care and forced her to sell gingerbread, which she did for the next six years. Continue reading

The House Napoleon Owned as a Private Citizen

Napoleon by Jacques-Louis David. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Napoleon owned one house as a private citizen and that house was situated at no. 6 rue Chantereine, which is also the place where some people say he met his future wife Josephine. The story is that after Parisians were ordered to give up their swords, Josephine’s son Eugene went to Napoleon and appealed to keep his father’s sword because his father had been guillotined. Eugene’s appeal so touched Napoleon, he asked to meet the boy’s mother and went to her home.

Although there are several other versions of how Josephine and Napoleon met, what is most important is that after they met, Josephine thoroughly captivated Napoleon. He was so captivated he began to visit her frequently. She was leasing a house in a fashionable district of Paris known as the Chaussee d’Antin located at no. 6 rue Chantereine. The street was so named because chantereine translates in French to “singing frogs,” and there were reportedly many croaking frogs that lived in the nearby marsh. Continue reading

Tales of Charlotte Corday’s Head

Charlotte Corday. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

After Charlotte Corday’s execution for assassinating Jacques-Jean Marat, her body and guillotined head were said to have been buried in Ditch No. 5 of the cemetery of the Madeleine on rue Anjou Saint-Honore in Paris. Ditch No. 4 held the body of Louis XVI, and Ditch No. 6 would be readied shortly for Marie Antoinette and Philippe Egalite. However, that was not the end of the story, as years later Corday’s skull allegedly appeared in the possession of Prince Roland Bonaparte, grandson of Napoleon Bonaparte’s brother, Lucien.

The neighborhood where Corday was buried was supposedly “infected by the putrefaction of the bodies buried there,”[1] and because of that the cemetery was closed sometime after 1794. Around that same time a Monsieur Descloseaux bought the cemetery. Most of the bodies were moved, and the cemetery transformed into a pleasure garden. However, Corday’s body supposedly remained there, and, in 1804, Descloseaux claims he added a cross to mark the spot of her grave. Continue reading

The 19th Century French Hashish Club Called Club des Hashischins

Example of hashish next to a penny. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

The nineteenth century French Hashish Club called Club des Hashischins (also spelled Club des Hashishins or Club des Hachichins) was a club of hashish users dedicated to exploring drug-induced experiences, primarily with a resin that comes from the female cannabis plant called hashish (or nicknamed hash). The club was founded in about 1844 and included members from the literary and intellectually elite of Paris. Monthly séances (the French word for meetings) were held at the gothic Hôtel Pimodan (afterwards known as the Hôtel de Lauzun) in the rooms of Fernand Boissard, a nineteenth century painter and musician who was considered the figurehead of the club. At the time, also living at Pimodan in a rented upstairs apartment was the poet and translator of Edgar Allan Poe’s works, Charles Baudelaire. Théophile Gautier, a poet, dramatist, novelist, journalist, and art and literary critic also rented apartments there. Continue reading

The First Morphine Murderer Edme Castaing

Auguste Ballet, Hippolyte Ballet, and Edme Samuel Castaing. Public domain.

The opiate and pain medication morphine began to be marketed to the public in 1817, and, four years later, in 1821, a young man by the name of Edme Samuel Castaing graduated from the School of Medicine in Paris as a physician. He had been an outstanding student during his school years and won many awards. Many people considered him to be an upstanding and honest person, but problems for Castaing began when he found himself facing financial difficulties. A few years earlier, in 1818, he had vouched for a friend on a loan and when it came due in 1820, his friend could not pay the required 600 francs. Thus, the burden fell upon Castaing, but he was already under financial pressure having fathered two children with his mistress.

Castaing had befriended two brothers, Auguste and Hippolyte Ballet. Auguste was the older of the two having been born on 21 March of 1798, while Hippolyte was born a year later on 17 August 1799. The brothers had received a handsome inheritance when their parents died. Although Hippolyte was thrifty Auguste was not. Thus, soon after their parent’s deaths, Hippolyte visited the family lawyer, a man named Lebret, and told him that he planned to make a will to protect his money. Continue reading

Parisian Luxury Shoe Manufacturer Jean-Louis François Pinet

Late 19th century Pinet boots. Courtesy of Bata Shoe Museum Toronto.

Jean-Louis François Pinet’s career as shoemaker began almost from birth. He was born on 19 July 1817 in Chateau la Vallière commune to a shoemaker from whom he learned the trade. When his father died in 1830, Pinet went to live in the home of a master shoemaker, and, by age sixteen, he was working in Tours earning five francs a week. A few years later, in 1836, he was a declared an accredited journeyman shoemaker (compagnon cordonnier bottier du devoir).

During these early years, Pinet worked hard. He also saved his money and purchased his own tools so that he could become an independent shoemaker with his own atelier. He then left Tours for Bordeaux and then moved from Bordeaux to Marseilles, where he was appointed head of the Société des Compagnons Cordonniers (Workers’Association of Shoemaker Companions). However, by 1844, Pinet had settled in Paris. Continue reading

Empress Éugenie’s Magical Ring

Empress Éugenie's magical ring
The Empress Éugenie in the early 1850s. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

The wife of Napoleon III, Empress Éugenie, who was described as stunning in appearance, was noted to have many fine pieces of jewelry, but she was also reported to be extremely superstitious. For instance, one literary magazine noted that she possessed “unbound faith” in an amulet she wore and that she forced the Emperor to wear “a little flannel bag filled with camphor suspended round his neck”[1] to prevent him from “catching diseases,” such as cholera. There were also reports that she visited fortune tellers and that once when going incognito to a palm reader, she was told:

“Madame, your hand is so extraordinary that one of two things must be the truth; either my skill must be at fault for once, and I see impossible events, or you must be the Empress Eugenie, for no other hand could tell of such strange vicissitudes.”[2]

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