Feb. 22, 2022

The Affair of Poisons

The Affair of Poisons

February 22, 1680. Catherine Deshayes Monvoisin, known as "La Voisin", is burned at the stake for her role in the Affair of Poisons, which includes murder, satanism, and witchcraft.

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Cold Open

It’s March 12th, 1679.

Catherine Deshayes attends mass at a church in Paris, France. Today, Catherine is tense and afraid, because she's a wanted woman.

Recently, Catherine learned that the authorities believe she’s responsible for the murder of a series of French nobles. And hearing this, Catherine fled to the Church to pray and ask God to protect her.

At the end of the mass, Catherine steps out onto the crowded Paris streets. Just then, she hears men calling out. 

She turns to find police constables rushing towards her. Catherine knows if they catch her, she’ll likely face execution. So she runs.

She breathes heavily as she fights her way through the throngs of people. But the constables are gaining ground. So she darts into an alleyway to try to lose them. But as she rounds the corner…

She realizes she’s run into a dead end. Constables approach with manacles ready, and Catherine trembles with fear.

Prior to Catherine’s arrest, a series of wealthy French nobles were turning up dead. The murder weapon was always the same: poison. Rumors began to spread that these killings were the work of witches. And the French King, Louis XIV, launched a wide investigation into the supposed witchcraft that led the police to Catherine Deshayes, also known as “La Voisin”. After her arrest, Catherine will be called to answer for her alleged crimes. She will be accused of being a Satan worshiper, a witch, and a mass murderer. And within a year, on February 22nd, 1680, the people of Paris will gather to watch her burn at the conclusion of a scandal known as “The Affair of Poisons”.


From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.

History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.

Today is February 22: The Affair of Poisons.

Act One: Catherine’s Fame Grows

It’s 1667 at Catherine Deshayes’ home in Paris, France; Twelve years before her arrest.

Catherine is excited and nervous. She sits at a table waiting for an important client.

Catherine is a well-known fortune teller and apothecary who sells elixirs out of her home. Clients come to her for everything from toothache cures to aphrodisiacs. But her client today is a French noblewoman named Madame De Montespan.

Catherine’s daughter leads the noblewoman into the sitting room and leaves the two women to do business. Madame De Montespan tells Catherine that she wants King Louis XIV to fall in love with her, so she can become the king’s “official mistress,” one of the most highly sought-after roles at court. She explains that the king keeps many mistresses. But the “official mistress” is acknowledged and respected, even by the queen. And any children the king has with his official mistress will be regarded as legitimate and given titles and land.

Catherine looks through the elixirs she has at her disposal, but she’s worried a simple love potion wouldn’t do the trick. Catherine informs her clients that a task this large might require something more powerful.

Madame de Montespan has heard all about Catherine, and her supposed dark powers. Catherine maintains that any power she possesses comes from the Grace of God, but there are whispers that Catherine dabbles with darker forces. Many believe she conducts black masses in aid of her clients. These rituals are said to be the tools of heretics and witches who wish to call upon evil spirits. So in a hushed voice, Madame de Montespan asks Catherine to arrange a black mass to help her achieve her goal. Catherine agrees, and the two women part ways for the time being.

After visiting Catherine, Madame de Montespan becomes the official mistress of the King, just as she desired.

And after achieving the position, she continues to go to Catherine for help from time to time. When she fears King Louis has turned his eye toward a younger mistress, she asks Catherine for a love potion that will keep the king interested in only her. Catherine obliges and offers an aphrodisiac for her most trusted client. The potion works, or at least Madame de Montespan is convinced it does. After slipping him the potion, the King loses interest in the young maiden. Madame de Montespan begins to sing Catherine’s praises at court.

Catherine’s fame quickly grows. Soon, other French nobles and wealthy landowners seek out her services. They come to Catherine to read their fortunes, to create love potions, and to hold black masses for them just as she did for Madame de Montespan.


Catherine’s newfound success is her entree into a life she never dreamed possible. Her business is booming, and soon she's ingratiated into the who’s who of Paris. Often when Catherine wakes up in the morning, she finds wealthy clients already lined up outside her house waiting for her services.

But not all of these clients are looking for aphrodisiacs. Some of them have darker desires. Over time, Catherine learns that many of the French nobles are willing to pay handsomely to have their enemies killed. So, throughout the late-1660s and much of the 1670s, Catherine Deshayes, and a small group of other women, turn this dark reality into a profitable business by selling instruments of murder. 

The art of poisoning gained fame in Italy decades earlier, mainly due to a Sicilian woman named Guilia Tofana. Tofana allegedly helped over 600 women kill their husbands with a specific type of poison she created. At the time, many believed Tofana’s deadly concoction held some mystical power. But in reality, the killing agent in her potion was most likely arsenic. Poisons like Tofana’s spread throughout Southern Italy, and eventually found their way to France. In Paris, apothecaries like Catherine Deshayes were able to create their own versions of these Italian products, and they used them to help members of the French nobility achieve their aims.

Catherine and her cohorts make and sell poisons to help clients kill their husbands and romantic rivals. And for years, these poisoners go about their work virtually undetected by French authorities. But when poison is used to kill several prominent nobles in the 1670s, King Louis XIV takes note. Eventually, he demands the police take action, and they launch an investigation to find the culprits behind the so-called “Affair of Poisons”.

Soon, Catherine will be thrust to the forefront of the investigation after Madame de Montespan returns to make her darkest request yet: she wants to kill the King.

Act Two: Catherine Attempts to Kill the King

It’s early 1679 at Catherine Deshayes’ home in Paris; Months before her arrest.

Catherine sits across the table from Madame de Montespan with her mind spinning. Her longtime client has just asked her to help kill King Louis XIV.

Madame de Montespan has spent over a decade as the official mistress of the King. They’ve had seven children together. But now the king has removed her from her role and cast her aside for a younger woman. Madame de Montespan remains at court, but she wants the king to pay for the pain he’s caused her, and she believes Catherine is the only one who can help her.

Over the years, Catherine has become a good friend to Madame de Montespan, so she agrees to help. But Catherine knows this will be a difficult task.

Catherine sells poisons that can easily be mixed into drinks or soups. But she knows that this won’t work in the case. Madame de Montespan has lost her access to the king, so they have no easy way to slip the poison into his food or wine.

So Catherine seeks out the advice of other women in Paris’ poison trade. Together, they decide to make a poison that can kill through contact with skin. This practice has been used successfully in Italy, where a serial poisoner is said to have coated his victims’ gloves in a deadly substance. Catherine thinks they can devise a similar mixture of their own.

After a short time, Catherine and her co-conspirators create a poison they’re confident will do the trick. But they still have a problem to solve: how to get close. Soon, Catherine learns that the king will appear at the Royal Court in Saint Germain. Catherine knows that when the king is at Saint Germain, he receives petitions from people seeking his aid for particular causes. So Catherine decides to poison a petition and hand it to him directly.

In early March of 1679, Catherine heads to Saint-Germain, carrying her poisoned petition in her gloved hands. Catherine arrives and blends in with the crowd. And when the king appears, Catherine gets ready to execute her plan. But she hasn’t accounted for the sheer number of people on hand. The crowd is so thick, Catherine calls off mission.

Afraid she’ll be found out, she returns home, burns the petition, and tries to destroy any evidence that could link her to the assassination attempt. But Catherine is already in trouble.

Not long after King Louis’ launched his investigation into the Affair of Poisons, rumors began to circulate about a plot against the King. Police inspectors theorize that a group of witches was behind the crimes. So they rounded up several well-known fortune tellers in an attempt to confirm the theory. One of the fortune tellers promised to hand over the names of powerful Parisian witches in order to save herself. At the top of her list was Catherine, “La Voisin”.

Not long after her failed attempt on the King’s life, Catherine catches wind that police investigators may be looking for her. And in a moment of crisis, she turns to God for help.

On March 12th, 1679, police track Catherine to her church. When she steps outside, they give chase and bring her into custody.

Catherine’s trial lasts several months. She admits to the charges against her, claiming responsibility for multiple murders and conducting black masses. But Catherine refuses to be the only one to take the fall. She argues that she was hired by wealthy members of French society to carry out their dark deeds. At trial, she and her daughter give authorities the names of high-ranking members of the French court who were Catherine’s clients, including Madame de Montespan. But implicating others will not save Catherine from her own horrific fate. 

Act Three: Catherine is put to death

It’s February 22nd, 1680 in a public square in Paris, France. Catherine seethes with rage as she’s wheeled on a cart to the place of her execution.

The crowd shouts and jeers at Catherine as she's tied to a stake and the pile below her is set alight. Catherine immediately feels the heat. She launches into an expletive-ridden tirade against the French court and the people who have gathered to watch her die. She screams and rails until her words are silenced as her body is consumed by flame.

The “Affair of Poisons” exposed parts of Paris’ criminal underworld and the deadly rivalries that existed among members of the French nobility. But those that directed the killings largely escaped justice. Some suffered lost reputations. Others ended up in provincial jails. But none were executed like Catherine, not even Madame de Montespan, who tried to kill King Louis XIV. She was never found guilty of any crimes. Instead, she remained at court for several years before being forced to accept her royal pension, give up her status, and live out her life in a convent.

It was other women who suffered the most. Hundreds of apothecaries and fortune tellers like Catherine were arrested on charges of murder and witchcraft. In the end, as many as 36 were executed.

The Affair of Poisons is now widely viewed as one of the most horrific witch-hunts in world history, rivaling those conducted in England under King James I and more deadly than the well-known Salem Witch Trials that took place in the American Colonies a decade later. And many of the women executed during the Affair are believed to be innocent, that Catherine herself was tortured and drugged in confessing, and that all her admissions were likely made under duress. Though the full truth will never be known, there is no doubt that Catherine became the symbol of one of the darkest, and most controversial affairs in history when she met her fiery end on February 22nd, 1680.


Next on History Daily. February 23rd, 1836. The Mexican Army begins a thirteen-day siege to reclaim the Alamo, resulting in the most fabled battle of the Texas Revolution.

From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.

Audio editing by Mollie Baack.

Sound design by Derek Behrens. 

Music by Lindsay Graham.

This episode is written and researched by Michael Federico.

Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.