Théroigne de Méricourt and Charlotte Vanhove: The Political Activist and the Actress

Théroigne de Méricourt on the eve of the French Revolution. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Théroigne de Méricourt was a political activist during the French Revolution. In 1793, she composed a series of placards that called for the political involvement of women, and on 15 May 1793, as she crossed the Feuillants Terrace to deliver a speech when female supporters of the Jacobins attacked her. They stripped her naked and beat her so severely she could have died had she not been rescued by Jean-Paul Marat, a political theorist, radical journalist, and icon to the Jacobins.

After the beating, Théroigne was never the same. She suffered from headaches, mental troubles, and erratic behavior. On 20 September 1794, she was certified insane and spent more than twenty years institutionalized. Ultimately, she became a patient at one of the leading mental institutions at the time, the Pitié-Salpêtrière in Paris and survived intermittently lucid but constantly speaking about the Revolution.

A few years after Théroigne was institutionalized it became popular for the general public to visit the insane, as reported by one newspaper:

“In the year 1799, it was fashion to go visit the lunatic asylums and shudder at the wild sayings and violence of the unfortunate beings immured in those refuges of the worst of human infirmities. So numerous were they who would enjoy this cruel pastime that the municipal authorities were compelled to interfere, and order the madhouses to be closed upon all women. The prohibition did but stimulate their curiosity, and the moment the amusement was forbidden to all, each strove to have the privileged enjoyment of it. The commissioners were overwhelmed with applications which they could not always reject.”[1]

Charlotte Vanhove in her 50s. Courtesy of Bibliothèque nationale de France.

One woman who asked and gained permission to visit the Salpêtrière was a French actress named Charlotte Vanhove. Vanhove was described as charming woman with blonde hair, a lovely countenance, and a child-like face. She was a lover of fashion and wore the latest styles, such as those worn by socialites Madame Récamier and Madame Tallien. In fact, “at a period when women vied in displaying the most extravagant sumptuousness and prodigality, she [Vanhove] was conspicuous for the richness … and the extreme splendour of her dress.”[2]

Once while visiting at the Salpêtrière, Vanhove wandered around and explored the cells of the “female lunatics.” Of course, she was draped in the latest fashions, a Grecian tunic with large diamond buttons and exposed arms. It was during her wanderings among the inmate’s cells that an unexpected incident happened:

“[O]ne of the poor wretches rushed upon the young actress, seized her arm, and applied her teeth to it with such violence the blood flowed from it. The keepers hastened up, threw themselves upon the ferocious assailant, and with great pains tore her from her prey; she was dragging away howling horribly, licking with delight her bloody lips, and vociferating, ‘Let me drink, I’m thirsty!’”[3]

Théroigne attacking Vanhove. Author’s collection.

Fortunately for Vanhove, the teeth of her attacker did little more than break the skin, and, so a few days later after recovering, she appeared back on stage. This time her performance was received with great applause and enthusiasm due to the peril she had endured. It seems that perhaps she had greatly exaggerated the story of the attack and this resulted in the public’s praise being exceptionally grand; “she was applauded for above a quarter of an hour, and, on the close of the performance was recalled.”[4]

As for the prisoner who had perpetrated the attack, she became known as the “female cannibal” and gained even more fame and celebrity than Vanhove. The attacker’s fame also resulted in authorities being compelled to allow 500 other great ladies of the time access to the cannibal, and when they saw her, they were surprised to find a fine-looking 35-year-old woman with a turned-up nose, graceful gait, and polite manners. Moreover, they quickly discovered that the “cannibal” was actually someone they knew:

“Their astonishment was much greater still when the keeper of the creature thus shut up in a cell which was not unlike the cage of a wild beast, informed them that the very woman had been loved in turn by Count Strogonoff, Baron Clootz, Barnave, Mirabeau, Petion, Camille Desmoulins, and the atrocious Danton himself! The keeper would throw to the woman a piece of raw meat, which she would seize and devour with abominable delight; and, at length, he would utter her name, when all shrunk back, still more terrified at the recollections revived, than disgusted with her hideous voracity, for that fearful name was Théroigne de Mericourt!”[5]

Théroigne’s time in prison finally ended after a short illness and brutal treatment. She died on 9 June 1817, and according to one historian:

“A rash covered the whole of her body, which was then calmed through a ritual application of iced water and drenched straw. But Théroigne immediately took to her bed, drank only water and refused to eat until stricken with extreme catechia. At the end of a fortnight, oedema manifested itself. The death certificate indicated that ‘chronic double pneumonia’ was the cause of death. After an autopsy had been performed and a cast taken of her skull and face, what remained of her corpse was thrown in the ditch of the hospital cemetery.”[6]

As for Vanhove, a tale circulated that in 1837 a doctor with charitable motives was accompanied by police commissaries to a neighborhood near the Palais Royal. There they found the once famous actress living in a wretched garret and believing in invisible beings. They convinced her to leave her wretched abode, and although she resisted, she finally complied and was conveyed to the Salpêtrière where she continued to see invisible beings and where she frequently exhibited her withered arm, exclaiming:

“The teeth of that horrible Théroigne de Mericourt have fortunately not deformed my plump and well-shaped arm; they have left on it but these little white marks!”[7]

In reality Vanhove was never a patient at Salpêtrière and although this 1837 tale ties up the story of Vanhove and Théroigne nicely, it is fiction. In fact, on 31 May 1828, Vanhove married a widower and longtime friend, named Jacques-Antoine-August Chalot. She also continued to attend the theatre and began pursing a life as a writer. After her husband died on 7 January 1848, she enjoyed frequent carriage rides down the Champs-Élysées and finally died peacefully in a Parisian hotel in Saint-Germain-des-Pres on 11 April 1860.

References:

  • [1] Morning Post, “A Judgment of Paris,” April 9, 1839, p. 2.
  • [2] Ibid.
  • [3] Ibid.
  • [4] Ibid.
  • [5] Ibid.
  • [6] Elisabeth Roudinesco, Madness and Revolution: The Lives and Legends of Théroigne de Méricourt (London: Verso, 1992), p. 156.
  • [7] Ibid.

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