Halloween may be over, but November’s falling leaves, chill in the air and early arriving darkness are enough to keep that creepy feeling around for a while. I know I let out an audible gasp after stumbling across the 1888 catalog for Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum in London in our pamphlet collection. Not only are life-size effigies of the famous cringe-worthy in general, the grisly role sculptor Tussaud claims to have played during the Reign of Terror is particularly eerie.
For those unfamiliar with the story of Madame Tussaud, she was born Marie Grosholtz in Strasbourg, France in 1761. Marie’s widowed mother raised her in Bern, Switzerland, where she worked as a housekeeper for local doctor and wax sculptor, Philippe Curtius. Young Marie studied the fashionable art of wax modelling from Curtius, who served as a father figure. Curtius opened a wax exhibition at the Palais-Royal in the 1770s and Marie followed him to Paris. As his teenage apprentice, she took casts, or life masks, of principle characters of the day, including Benjamin Franklin, French Enlightenment writer Voltaire, and philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau.
Marie’s tale takes an unsettling turn after the French Revolution, when according to her larger-than-life 1838 memoirs, she was forced to make death masks from the severed heads of the executed, including Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette, Marat, and Robespierre. A 1935 Tussaud’s catalog owned by the library claims, “she was compelled again and again to work with tear-rimmed eyes and take impressions of the dead features of many who had been her friends in happy Versailles days.” Stories even suggest Marie had been imprisoned and barely escaped the blade of the guillotine herself. One thing is for certain, wax heads of Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette, Marat, and Robespierre were a major feature in the London museum’s optional Chamber of Horrors attraction – for an extra sixpence.
Tussaud (her name after marriage) and her sons opened the permanent exhibit on Baker Street in 1835, after years of travelling with her collection of waxworks. A savvy businesswoman, she made a financial fortune before she died in 1850. The franchise now has over 20 locations around the world, but sadly for fans of the macabre, London’s Chamber of Horrors is no more. The “Separate Room” dedicated to infamous criminals and murderers finally closed in April 2016.
Please call Rare Books & Manuscripts at 314-539-0370 to schedule an appointment to see the catalogs and memoirs.
More recent biographies and historical fiction written about Tussaud available for check out include the following titles: