Death of Madame Tussaud
The woman behind one of Britain's most popular tourist attractions died on April 16th, 1850
Marie Tussaud was 89 and one of the 19th century’s most successful career women when she died at her London home in Baker Street. Surviving a dangerous and singularly gruesome past, she had made herself a household name in her adopted country and Madame Tussaud's has remained one of Britain’s most popular tourist attractions to this day. The gruesomeness began even before Madame Tussaud was born in Strasburg late in 1761. She never knew her father, a German soldier named Grosholtz, whose face had been hideously mutilated in the wars and whose lower jaw had been shot away and replaced by a silver plate. This nightmare figure died two months before Marie was born. Her young widowed mother, Anne Marie, brought the child up at Berne in Switzerland, where she went to be housekeeper to a doctor named Philippe Curtius, who had a talent for wax modelling and ran a museum of his waxwork heads and busts.
It was from this ‘uncle’ that Marie learned her art as a child and after he had moved to Paris, where he scored a fashionable success, she and her mother joined him and she became his assistant. As a result, she met many of the leading French aristocrats and intellectuals of the day and she modelled both Voltaire and Rousseau from life. In the 1780s she was employed to teach Madame Elizabeth, Louis XVI’s sister, and met the King and many of the royal family. Curtius later developed Jacobin sympathies and Marie met Robespierre and other revolutionaries in her uncle’s circle.
As the Terror took its toll, Marie was forced to make casts of the heads of victims of the guillotine, many of whom had been her uncle’s friends and dinner guests. In one episode, the leaders of the mob that hacked the Princess de Lamballe to pieces stood over Marie while she took a cast of the severed head, its auburn hair horribly smeared with blood. Marie had known the princess and liked her. She made a mould of the head of Louis XVI himself after his execution. When Marat was stabbed in his bath by Charlotte Corday, the National Assembly instructed Marie to make his death mask and sketch the scene exactly for the painter David. She took a cast of Charlotte Corday’s face, too, after her execution, and later modelled the severed heads of both Marie Antoinette and Robespierre.
Curtius died in 1794 and left Marie his collection of waxworks. A year later she married a man named François Tussaud. They had two sons, but the marriage was not a success and Marie never saw him again after 1802, when she took the boys and her waxworks across the Channel and began years of successful touring round the towns of England, Scotland and Ireland before settling down in London in 1835, on the corner of Baker Street and Portman Square. The Duke of Wellington was a regular visitor and liked to look at the effigies of himself and Napoleon, and when Queen Victoria was crowned in 1837 Madame Tussaud’s put on a magnificent display of the scene. The following year Marie’s memoirs were published, but contained little about her private life. She was a talkative person, but was always reticent about her experiences during the Terror.
Besides the waxworks, historical relics on view at Madame Tussaud’s included one of the blades from the guillotine obtained from the executioner Sanson himself and objects associated with Napoleon. There was also the Special Room devoted to murderers and bloodshed, which from 1846 became the Chamber of Horrors. Marie’s sons, Joseph and Francis, joined her in the business, but well into her eighties Madame herself liked to sit at the entrance to her exhibition rooms and collect the public’s shillings. A painting of 1845 shows her at her collecting table in a voluminous black dress and black, lace-fringed bonnet, her shrewd blue eyes staring measuringly at the onlooker through the spectacles perched on her long nose, as if she was appraising someone for a waxwork. Towards the end, as she began to suffer from severe asthma, she rediscovered her Roman Catholic faith. Her sons were at her bedside when she died and her last words were to beg them never to quarrel. She was buried in the Catholic chapel in the Fulham Road, where many French exiles had gone before her. Her coffin was subsequently moved to St Mary’s in Cadogan Street.