10 Facts About Marie Antoinette

Born Maria Antonia Josepha Johanna, Archduchess of Austria, the woman known as Marie Antoinette became Queen of France and Navarre on May 10, 1774. She was the country’s last queen.

Her marriage to Louis-Auguste was designed to create peace between Austria and France after the Diplomatic Revolution of 1756 and the onset of the Seven Years’ War. She survived shifting political sands of palace intrigue and upheaval between European countries but couldn’t survive the revolution boiling over in her own adopted nation.

Here are 10 facts about a woman we love to make up myths about.

1. SHE WAS ONLY 14 YEARS OLD WHEN SHE MARRIED THE FUTURE LOUIS XVI.

Engraving of the wedding of Louis XVI & Marie Antoinette
Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Marie Antoinette became a queen as a pawn, a child bride at 14 paired with a 15-year-old Dauphin to seal the union between two countries that had previously been at odds. The marriage took place by proxy on April 19, 1770 in Vienna, with Marie Antoinette’s brother standing in for the groom; a ceremonial wedding occurred May 16 at the Palace of Versailles. 

2. SHE WANTED TO RIDE HORSES BUT RODE DONKEYS INSTEAD.

Looking to connect with her hunting enthusiast husband, Marie Antoinette sought to learn horseback riding, but was told (particularly by her escort to France, the Count of Mercy-Argenteau) that it was far too dangerous. Fortunately, riding donkeys was deemed acceptable, so the court sought calm, pleasant donkeys for Marie Antoinette to ride. She grew so enamored of her donkey-accompanied treks into the woods that she would host processions into the forest as often as three times a week with onlookers gathered for the spectacle.

3. SHE GAVE GENEROUSLY TO OTHERS.

The flattened historical view of Marie Antoinette as a puff-headed monster who loathed the poor obscures her generally kind, giving nature. She founded a home for unwed mothers, visited and gave food to poor families, and, during the 1787 famine, sold off the royal flatware to buy grain for those in need. Her generosity wasn’t solely institutional either. One story shows her jumping quickly to the aid of a vintner who was hit by her carriage, paying for his medical care, and supporting the family until he was able to work again.

4. HER SPENDING WASN’T THE MAIN CAUSE OF THE FRENCH REVOLUTION.

It’s easy to see Marie Antoinette and all of Louis XVI’s court as profoundly out of touch with the people of 18th century France because they continued a lavish tradition of royalty in the face of crushing debt and rampant squalor. However, the idea that Marie Antoinette’s expensive whims were to blame for the country’s economic woes is a myth.

When the couple ascended to the throne, the country was already in deep trouble financially, and Louis XVI’s monetary policies failed while he sent massive amounts to support the American Revolution. Propaganda of the time that was typically aimed at kingly mistresses was aimed at Marie Antoinette (since Louis XVI had no mistresses), and populist presses depicted her as being even more extravagant than she was.

5. SHE NEVER SAID THAT THING YOU THINK SHE SAID.

Anti-royal propaganda of the era was so effective that we still believe it to this day, including the idea that Marie Antoinette’s response to the plight of the French not being able to afford bread was “Let them eat cake.” The next time a friend brings that up at a party (happens all the time, right?) you can bet all the money in your pocket that it’s not true. Or, at least, that there’s no record of her having ever said it. On the other hand, stories of oblivious royals suggesting richer pastries when bread’s not available date back to the 16th century, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau told a similar story about “a great princess” in Confessions, but it’s doubtful he was referring to the then-teenaged Marie Antionette.

6. SHE HAD A PEASANT FARMYARD BUILT AT VERSAILLES.

Marie Antoinette can’t escape all accusations of extravagance, though. Like other royals she had expensive tastes, but her construction of a replica of a peasant farmyard where she and her friends could dress up like shepherdesses and play at being poor farmhands was beyond the pale. Built in 1783, Le Petit Hameau (“The Little Hamlet”) looked like a real farm except the farmhouse interior’s opulence was fit for a Queen.

7. SHE LOVED CHILDREN.

Despite not consummating their marriage until seven years in, Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI eventually had four children: Marie Thérèse in 1778, the Dauphin Louis Joseph in 1781, Louis Charles in 1785, and Sophie in 1786. Sophie died before her first birthday, and Louis Joseph died at age 7 (probably from tuberculosis), but Marie Antoinette also adopted several children. They included the daughter of a maid who died, and the three children of an usher following his death. When some loyalists attempted to rescue her from the Revolutionary forces, she responded that she “could not have any pleasure in the world” if she abandoned her children.

8. SHE WAS ALMOST RESCUED BY A CARNATION.

After Louis XVI was executed, Marie Antoinette—then called Widow Capet and prisoner 280—was imprisoned in the Conciergerie. Her friend Alexandre Gonsse de Rougeville visited her wearing two carnations, one of which concealed a note promising her bribe money to help her escape. He dropped it while in her cell and either it was picked up by the guards, or Marie Antoinette read it and scribbled an affirmative response that was then read by the guards. On the night of the attempted escape, the guards were bribed and Marie Antoinette was brought down to meet her rescuers, but one of the guards foiled their plan despite already having pocketed the bribe.

9. SHE APOLOGIZED TO HER EXECUTIONER.

The execution of Marie Antoinette
Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

For someone who lived such an extraordinary, lavish life, Marie Antoinette’s final words were profoundly humble. On her way to the guillotine, the very instrument of death that was used to kill her husband 10 months prior, she accidentally stepped on the executioner’s foot and said, “Pardon me, sir. I meant not to do it.”

10. SHE WAS BURIED IN AN UNMARKED GRAVE, BUT DIDN'T STAY THERE.

After her execution at 12:15 p.m. on October 16, 1793, her body was dropped into a mass grave in the Madeleine cemetery, which was closed the following year because it had reached capacity. During the Bourbon Restoration following the fall of Napoleon, Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI’s bodies were exhumed on January 18, 1815, with a royal burial at the Basilica of St. Denis just a few days later. Their remains are still there, but the Expiatory Chapel dedicated to them was designed in 1816 on the site at the Madeleine cemetery where they’d previously been unceremoniously interred.

5 Facts About Edgar Allan Poe on His 210th Birthday

You’ve read Edgar Allan Poe’s terrifying stories. You can quote "The Raven." But how well do you know the writer’s quirky sense of humor and code-cracking abilities? Let’s take a look at a few  things you might not know about the acclaimed author, who was born 210 years ago today.

1. He was the original balloon boy.

You probably remember 2009’s infamous “Balloon Boy” hoax. Turns out the Heene family that perpetrated that fraud weren’t even being entirely original in their attempt at attention-grabbing. They were actually cribbing from Poe.

In 1844 Poe cooked up a similar aviation hoax in the pages of the New York Sun. The horror master cranked out a phony news item describing how a Mr. Monck Mason had flown a balloon flying machine called Victoria from England to Sullivan’s Island, South Carolina in just 75 hours. According to Poe’s story, the balloon had also hauled seven passengers across the ocean.

No balloonist had ever crossed the Atlantic before, so this story quickly became a huge deal. Complete transatlantic travel in just three days? How exciting! Readers actually queued up outside the Sun’s headquarters to get their mitts on a copy of the day’s historic paper.

Poe’s report on the balloon was chock full of technical details. He devoted a whole paragraph to explaining how the balloon was filled with coal gas rather than “the more expensive and inconvenient hydrogen.” He listed the balloon’s equipment, which included “cordage, barometers, telescopes, barrels containing provision for a fortnight, water-casks, cloaks, carpet-bags, and various other indispensable matters, including a coffee-warmer, contrived for warming coffee by means of slack-lime, so as to dispense altogether with fire, if it should be judged prudent to do so.” He also included hundreds of words of excerpts from the passengers’ journals.

The only catch to Poe’s story was that it was entirely fictitious. The Sun’s editors quickly wised up to Poe’s hoax, and two days later they posted an understated retraction that noted, “We are inclined to believe that the intelligence is erroneous.”

2. He dabbled in cryptography.

If you’ve read Poe’s story “The Gold-Bug,” you probably know that he had a working knowledge of cryptography. But you might not know that Poe was actually a pretty darn good cryptographer in his own right.

Poe’s first notable code-cracking began in 1839. He sent out a call for readers of his Philadelphia newspaper to send him encoded messages that he could decipher. Poe would then puzzle over the secret messages for hours. He published the results of his work in a wildly popular recurring feature. Poe also liked to toss his own codes out there to keep readers busy. Some of the codes were so difficult that Poe professed utter amazement when even a single reader would crack them.

Poe was so confident in his abilities as a cryptographer that he approached the Tyler administration in 1841 with an offer to work as a government code cracker. He modestly promised, “Nothing intelligible can be written which, with time, I cannot decipher.” Apparently there weren’t any openings for him, though.

3. The "Allan" came later.

It would sound odd to just say “Edgar Poe,” but the famous “Allan” wasn’t originally part of the writer’s name. Poe was born in Boston on January 19, 1809 to professional actors, but his early childhood was fairly rotten. When Poe was just two years old, his father abandoned the family—leaving the toddler's mother, Elizabeth, to raise Edgar and his two siblings. Not long after that, Elizabeth died of tuberculosis.

Poe actually had a little luck at that point. John and Frances Allan, a well-to-do Richmond family, took the boy in and provided for his education. Although the Allans never formally adopted Poe, he added their surname to his own name.

Like a lot of Poe’s fiction, his story with the Allans didn't have a particularly happy ending. Poe and John Allan grew increasingly distant during the boy’s teenage years, and after Poe left for the University of Virginia, he and Allan became estranged. (Apparently the root of these problems involved Poe’s tendency to gamble away whatever money Allan sent him to subsidize his studies.)

4. He had a nemesis.

Like a lot of writers, Poe had a rival. His was the poet, critic, and editor Rufus Griswold. Although Griswold had included Poe’s work in his 1842 anthology The Poets and Poetry of America, Poe held an extremely low opinion of Griswold’s intellect and literary integrity. Poe published an essay blasting Griswold’s selections for the anthology, and their rivalry began.

Things really heated up when Griswold succeeded Poe as the editor of Graham’s Magazine at a higher salary than Poe had been pulling in. Poe began publicly lambasting Griswold’s motivations; he even went so far as to claim that Griswold was something of a literary homer who puffed up New England poets.

Poe might have had a point about Griswold’s critical eye, but Griswold had the good fortune to outlive Poe. After Poe died, Griswold penned a mean-spirited obituary in which he stated that the writer’s death “will startle many, but few will be grieved by it” and generally portrayed Poe as an unhinged maniac.

Slamming a guy in his obituary is pretty low, but Griswold was just getting warmed up. He convinced Poe’s aunt, Maria Clemm, to make him Poe’s literary executor. Griswold then published a biography of Poe that made him out to be a drug-addled drunk, all while keeping the profits from a posthumous edition of Poe’s work.

5. His death was a mystery worth of his writing.

In 1849 Poe left New York for a visit to Richmond, but he never made it that far south. Instead, Poe turned up in front of a Baltimore bar deliriously raving and wearing clothes that didn’t fit. Passersby rushed Poe to the hospital, but he died a few days later without being able to explain what happened to him.

Poe’s rumored causes of death were “cerebral inflammation” and “congestion of the brain,” which were polite euphemisms for alcohol poisoning. Modern scholars don’t totally buy this explanation, though. The characterization of Poe as a raging drunk mostly comes from Griswold’s posthumous smear campaign, and his incoherent state of mind may have been the result of rabies or syphilis.

Some Poe fans subscribe to a more sinister theory about the writer’s death, though. They think he may have fallen victim to “cooping,” a sordid 19th century political practice. Gangs of political thugs would round up homeless or weak men and hold them captive in a safe place called a “coop” right before a major election. On election day—and there was an election in Baltimore on October 3, 1849, the day Poe was found—the gangs would then drug or beat the hostages before taking them around to vote at multiple polling places.

This story sounds like something straight out of Poe’s own writing, but it might actually be true. Poe’s crummy physical state and delirium would be consistent with a victim of cooping, and the ill-fitting clothes jibe with gangs’ practice of making their hostages change clothes so they could cast multiple votes. With no real evidence either way, though, Poe’s death remains one of literature’s most fascinating mysteries.

This post originally appeared in 2011.

The $13,000 Epiphany That Made Orville Redenbacher a National Popcorn King

iStock.com/NoDerog
iStock.com/NoDerog

Happy National Popcorn Day! While you’re no doubt celebrating with a bowl of freshly popped, liberally buttered popcorn, here’s something else to digest: Orville Redenbacher originally called his product Red-Bow.

In 1951, Redenbacher and his partner, a fellow Purdue grad named Charlie Bowman, purchased the George F. Chester and Son seed corn plant in Boone Township, Indiana. Though Redenbacher’s background was in agronomy and plant genetics, he had dabbled in popcorn, and was friendly with the Chester family.

Eventually, Carl Hartman was brought in to experiment. In 1969, when the trio had developed a seed they felt really confident in, they went to market. They dubbed the product “Red-Bow,” a nod to “Redenbacher” and “Bowman.”

The product was a hit regionally, but by 1970, Bowman and Redenbacher were ready for a national audience and hired a Chicago advertising agency to advise them on branding strategy. At their first meeting, Redenbacher talked about popcorn for three hours. “Come back next week and we’ll have something for you,” he was told afterward.

The following week, he turned to the agency and was told that “Orville Redenbacher’s” was the perfect name for the fledgling popcorn brand. “Golly, no,” he said. “Redenbacher is such a ... funny name.” That was the point, they told him, and they must have made a convincing case for it, because Orville Redenbacher is the brand we know today—and the man himself is still a well-known spokesman more than 20 years after his death.

Still, Redenbacher wasn’t sure that the $13,000 fee the agency had charged was money well spent. “I drove back to Indiana wryly thinking we had paid $13,000 for someone to come up with the same name my mother had come up with when I was born,” Redenbacher later wrote.

Hungry for more Redenbacher? Take a look at the inventor at work in the vintage commercial below.

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