Enter the Chamber of Horrors: Madame Tussaud

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The subject of our final post for our week of women is Marie Grosholtz (1761-1850), although you probably know her as Madame Tussaud. The French-born, Swiss-reared Grosholtz was a wax model prodigy "“ she made her first wax figure (Voltaire, above left) at the tender age of 17. (Her life is so interesting we had to make the post a bit longer than usual. Enjoy!)

1. Marie Grosholtz was trained by her mother's employer, Dr. Philippe Curtius, a skilled wax modeler. Grosholtz, who referred to Curtius as "uncle," apprenticed under the doctor from a young age. The Grosholtz women even moved to Paris with Curtius, where the doctor opened his popular wax museums. Upon his death, Grosholtz inherited his entire collection of wax figures, which became the foundation for her own exhibitions.

2. In 1780, the Royal Court at Versailles came calling: Grosholtz was invited to live at the Palace and serve as art tutor to Madame Élisabeth, Louis XVI's sister. Grosholtz, a savvy businesswoman, used the royal connection to her (and Curtius') advantage in creating Marie Antoinette-themed tableaux for Curtius's Wax Salon. Visitors could watch "Marie Antoinette and her family eating dinner" or satisfy their inner Peeping Toms with a scene of Antoinette, in a low-cut nightgown, preparing for bed.

3. After the mob stormed the Bastille in 1789, the mutilated head of de Launay, the Bastille governor, was brought to Grosholtz. Paraded on a pike by the angry mob, the head had deteriorated in condition and the group had decided a wax head might be better suited for their purposes. Grosholtz supposedly fashioned the wax head on the steps of her exhibition while the mob waited.

4. De Launay's head was just the beginning of the horrors to come for Grosholtz.

Suspected of Royalist tendencies due to her job at Versailles, Grosholtz was forced to make death masks from the heads of freshly guillotined victims of the Revolution, including Marie Antoinette and King Louis XVI. Grosholtz would search through piles of corpses to find the heads of her executed friends and acquaintances. She would then make the mask while holding the bloodied head in her lap.

5. Eventually, Grosholtz too was arrested and imprisoned. According to some sources, her head was even shaved in preparation for her execution, though the day of execution never came. While in prison, she shared a cell with Joséphine de Beauharais, with whom she became good friends. The women were released after three months and remained friends; it was at the request of Joséphine, his wife, that Napoleon Bonaparte later posed for Grosholtz.

6. Grosholtz began using the name Madame Tussaud after her marriage to Francois Tussaud in 1795. Just five years later, she took her eldest son and her collection on the road, exhibiting throughout the British Isles. Some sources allege she left because her marriage had gone sour; others claim she merely left to make money. Whatever the reason, Tussaud left and never saw her husband again, as the Napoleonic Wars prevented a return to France. Her younger son only joined her in 1821, only after the deaths of his father and grandmother and 20 years after he last saw his mother.

7. One of Tussaud's most popular attractions at her museum in England (established in 1835) was the Chamber of Horrors, which included victims of the French Revolution, murderers, and other criminals. Most sources claim that the term "Chamber of Horrors" was coined by a contributor to Punch in 1845, but the term had been used in Tussaud's own advertising as early as 1843, indicating Tussaud most likely coined the term herself.

8. Surprisingly, some of Tussaud's (and even Curtius') original models still exist, including Tussaud's Robespierre, George III, and Ben Franklin (one of her earliest figures) and Curtius's Madame du Barry. Most, though, have been remade from molds, as the originals were rendered unusable through a combination of a 1925 fire and the bombing of London in 1941.

9. Tussaud ensured her museum legacy by establishing a permanent home for her exhibition in 1836; it went to her sons upon her death. She ensured her own legacy by writing her memoirs in 1838, creating a self portrait (shown above right) in 1842, sitting for a portrait by a court painter, and serving as the inspiration for Charles Dickens' Mrs. Jarley in his novel, The Old Curiosity Shop.

Larger versions of the photos of Voltaire (above left) and Madame Tussaud (above right), by Flickr user mharrsch, are available.

Fans should check out the Madame Tussauds web site; this video on the history of Madame Tussauds; the official Flickr photo group for Madame Tussauds London (the original location); this first edition copy of Tussaud's memoirs, available for purchase for $2,150; and the video for the Steve Taylor song "Meltdown" about the figures at Madame Tussauds melting.

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