Marie Tussaud lived through some terrible times during the French Revolution, but she managed to keep her head… along with several others. During the Revolution, she was forced to make wax casts of heads that had been severed by the guillotine. As soon as the Revolution was over, she packed up her wax heads and went to England where she set up the now famous Madame Tussauds Wax Museum.
When you think of Madame Tussauds Wax Museum, you probably think of movie stars, political figures, and other famous people. You can mingle among these wax effigies, and even have your photo taken while snuggling up to your favorite celeb. Amid all this glamour, you might not realize the amazing story of the real-life Madame Tussaud and how she survived the French Revolution.
But let’s start at the beginning…
Madame Tussaud was born Marie Grosholtz in Strasbourg, France in 1761. Her father died before she was born and her mother moved to Switzerland to be near family. Then, when Marie was six, she and her mother went to Paris to live with Dr. Curtius, her mother’s brother. Dr. Curtius had started modelling wax for medical studies in Switzerland and ended up in Paris making wax busts of important Parisians.
The Start of a Career
While her mother kept house for Curtius, Marie became his apprentice and possibly his adopted daughter. She was a fast learner, and at the age of 16, she started to make wax busts of Curtius’ influential dinner guests. She took a cast of Voltaire just two months before his death. Soon afterward, Benjamin Franklin, the American Ambassador to France, was placing his face in Marie’s hands, and Rousseau, Mirabeau, La Fayette and other movers and shakers followed suit. She even lived with the Royals at Versailles from age nineteen through twenty-eight, working as the art teacher to the King’s sister, Madame Elizabeth.
Curtius was a clever businessman whose livelihood depended on knowing the mood of the country, and in early 1789, he heard the rumblings of the Revolution. He went to Versailles to bring Marie back home.
The Revolution: Hard Times and Tragedies
Marie Takes Charge
During the Revolution, Curtius was sent off to war and Marie was left to take care of the business on her own. She would have been around thirty years old and trying to run an entertainment business in the middle of a Revolution. People were fleeing Paris, and the government had asked everyone to support the war effort by handing over all their “nonessential” wealth. No one wanted to be seen going to the waxworks and wasting money on entertainment. Besides, why pay to see wax effigies of people who had lost their heads, when they could go to the public square and see the real thing any day of the week? The waxworks profits were melting away, and Marie took out a loan in an effort to keep the family from losing everything.
Devastating Death Mask
Unfortunately, Marie’s troubles were only beginning. She would soon suffer a horrible shock. The Princesse de Lamballe, whom Marie regarded as one of the sweetest and kindest people she knew, was ripped from prison, horribly abused and murdered. The murderers then took her severed head to Marie and stood over her while she was forced to make a wax cast of it. Although this wasn’t the first severed head she had modelled, it was horrible to be holding her friend’s head in her lap.
Things only got worse as the Reign of Terror picked up speed. Marie, her mother, and her aunt were accused of being royalists and thrown into prison. (It was here that Marie met another prisoner, Josephine Beauharnais, who would later marry Napoleon Bonaparte.) They were in prison for three months. Then one day, without explanation, they were released. They skedaddled out of there and went to stay with one of Curtius’ lawyer friends.
Sculpting the Dead to Stay Alive
Madame Tussaud’s special waxworking skill meant that she would be called upon from time to time to make a wax figure of someone that the Revolutionary Government considered important and wanted to preserve in wax. On July 13, 1793, when the radical journalist, Marat, was murdered in his bathtub, policemen escorted Marie to the scene of the crime to take a mold of his still warm head.
Haunting the Cemetery
Four days later, Marie was in the cemetery making a cast of the face of his murderer, Charlotte Corday. During this time of terror, when heads were being chopped off in record numbers, the future Madame Tussaud, would go to the Madeleine Cemetery each evening and sort through the daily deposit of heads and bodies. She searched out ones that might have historical significance and that she hoped would bring the most interest (and money) into her floundering business.
Robespierre is Dead
On July 28, 1794, Robespierre was sent to the guillotine and France breathed a sigh of relief. The head of the man who had been responsible for so many deaths was dumped at the Madeleine cemetery, where Marie took a cast of it. This might have been one severed head that she was glad to have her hands around.
Getting Out of Town
Just as it seemed her troubles might end, Marie’s uncle died and she lost her mentor and protector. The following year, at age 34, she married François Tussaud with whom she had two sons.
Leaving France Behind
Marie had inherited Curtius’ tools and his wax figures, and tried to carry on the business. But times were hard in a France still recovering from so much bloodshed. In 1802, after the Revolution had ended and peace was established between France and England, Marie was invited to take her waxworks to Great Britain. The 41-year-old Madame Tussaud packed up her wax entourage and her oldest son, and left for England. Her younger son joined them later, but she never again saw France or her husband.
Settling in London
Madame Tussaud moved her traveling waxworks show around Great Britain for 33 years. Then in 1835, at age 74, she decided to settle down and set up a permanent exhibition in London, not far from the present Baker Street location. In the beginning, her exhibits had focused mainly on the French Revolution, featuring her collection of severed heads and prominent Revolutionary figures. But being a shrewd business woman, she was always updating her collection and adding British figures.
Even today, the French Revolution has an important place in the London Madame Tussauds Chamber of Horrors. Besides the wax figures, one of the relics you can see there is a blade from the guillotine used to sever so many French heads.
Marie Tussaud died in London in 1850 at age 88. Her sons carried on her work, and today, Madam Tussauds Wax Museum has locations all over the world.
What a remarkable life this woman had. She lived with royalty, was thrown into prison, and was forced to search through severed heads at the cemetery to keep her business afloat. Then she took the French Revolution to England and turned it from a small traveling show into a world empire. Talk about a woman ahead of her time!
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*Photo of Madame Tussaud with severed head: Even though the plaque says it’s Marie Antoinette’s head, she probably didn’t take casts of the Royal heads after their deaths. The Revolutionaries were keen to make sure there were no souvenirs of them. Madame Tussaud probably did, however, take casts of the Royals before their deaths when she was living at Versailles.
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Beautifully told, Margo – and absolutely fascinating. I had no idea of the origins of Mme Tussaud. Thanks for this.
Thank you, Harriet. What a life she had – but she made the best of it and now her name is world famous.
I have visited Madame Tussaud’s many times and yet I knew nothing of the history behind it, this was absolutely fascinating, thank you. The thought of sifting through heads in a cemetery is beyond repulsive! Have a lovely weekend
Thank you! I guess she was a woman who did what she had to do to survive – even though it was horrible. Then she turned it into an amazing business. What a woman!
Such an interesting post. She was an extraordinary woman. Hard to imagine what it is like to have to handle decapitated heads. Clever businesswoman, and great survivor.
Michelle Moran’s book about the life of Madame Tussaud is an excellent read: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Madame-Tussaud-Michelle-Moran/dp/1849161380/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1457688482&sr=1-1&keywords=madame+tussauds
Thank you, merewoman. Glad you enjoyed it, and thanks for the book recommendation. I agree that she certainly was an extraordinary woman!
Another well researched historical article told with a delightful modern use of old language – one can never underestimate the imagery of ‘skedaddling’! You write in a very readable manner and it’s very refreshing.
Thanks for those kind words, Sandra. I know if I was released from prison, I would certainly skedaddle! 🙂
Fascinating article as per usual! Sifting through the cemetery doesn’t sound appealing though she understood the importance of the ‘popular’ heads – what a mad life!
Thank you, glad you enjoyed it!
Poor Mme Tussaud, what a way to make a living! I think she inherited her uncle’s business sense as well as his artistic talent.
Reblogged this on The Happy Traveler and commented:
Please enjoy this great blog by my friend Margo.
Thanks for the reblog. 🙂
My pleasure. 😃
How fascinating! I’ve been many times to various museum locations but was never fully aware of her history. Pleased I found the post via the reblog on Happy Traveller 🙂
Thank you Haylee!
You’re not alone – I think there are many people who have never really thought about the woman behind all those wax celebs. Thanks for stopping by.
Another very interesting post, thank you Margo. It reminded me of a visit to the “Wookey Hole Caves”, near Cheddar Gorge in Somerset, back in the 1970’s. At that time the “show cave” was owned by Madame Tussauds and in part of it there were towers of shelves full of “severed” heads ! I have just looked at my grainy photos [all digital now!] and it is completely spooky, with dozens of rows of out of date or out of fashion heads of celebrities and historical figures alike. Mind you, even an obsolete wax Anne Boleyn can’t begin to compare with sifting through the real things! What a woman!
Thanks Lisa! Wow, that does sound really eerie – seeing all those life-like heads in a cave. Yikes!
On a less-spooky note, I see they now store cheddar cheese (my favourite) in those caves. It looks like a very interesting place to visit. Thanks for bringing it to my attention.
Hi Margo, I am very much enjoying your blog. The topics are very interesting and diverse. The Madame Tussaud story is fascinating.
Hi Susan, Thank you so much for those kind words. I’m so glad you are enjoying my blog.
I don’t know how Madame Tussaud remained sane handling all those severed bloodied heads, including her friend’s who was murdered. Too gory! Interesting read!! Thank you, Margo 🙂
It must have been so traumatic for her, but she got through it, started a new life, and found success. She was a very strong woman!
A facinating post of the life and times of a strong woman..it just shows that no matter who you are, where you come from, what your background is …something is within and that cannot be taught..it’s just there…..
So true… Some people react to tragedy with such courage. I think we don’t really know what we are capable of until we are put to the test. Thanks for taking the time to comment.
You are welcome, it was an interesting read. I continue to be amazed daily at some of the great blogs I read 🙂
Great article! I came across her story awhile back, but never had the complete story. Thanks for bringing the details of this fascinating woman to the forefront.
Thanks Evelyn! Glad you enjoyed the incredible adventures of Madame Tussaud! 🙂
What an incredible story. I’ve been several times to the Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum in Victoria, BC. I’m not sure if it’s still there, but I remember it well. Knowing the story makes it all the more interesting! Thanks for sharing!
You’re welcome, Lori. I don’t know if the other Madame Tussauds around the world are like London or not, but there, the chamber of horrors is all about the French Revolution and how Madame Tussaud survived it. But most people don’t really make the connection that she actually lived during those terrible times.
Great writing Margo. Last year I visited the Amsterdam Madame Tussaud and didn’t have any kind of knowledge about her horrible life during the French Revolution. I do hope to have a chance to visit the one in London.
Thanks, I’m glad you enjoyed the article. Madame Tussaud was an amazing lady who made the best of a terrible situation. And she has left a wonderful legacy for us all. (I’m glad she moved on from severed heads.) 🙂
Thank you for beinng you
You’re welcome. I can only be me… 🙂
Madame Tussauds Wax Museum is my favorite
And to think that it all came out of the French Revolution… She was an amazing woman!