The Mysterious Death of the Comtesse

Jeanne de La Motte was almost certainly the mastermind behind the theft of the diamond necklace that caused the downfall of the ancien regime in France. If you want her full story click here. If you want the short version of the Affair of the Diamond Necklace, look above for “The Short Story”.

In May, 1786, Jeanne de La Motte was sentenced to be publicly flogged, branded on both shoulders, and imprisoned for life with all of her goods forfeit to the crown. There is almost no mistake that Jeanne’s gains were ill-gotten. She had duped a Cardinal out of a large amount of money, then used the Cardinal to orchestrate the heist of a diamond necklace worth a fortune. Still, the sentence was harsh. This was because the main offense was criminal disrespect for the person of the queen, Marie-Antoinette. It seems that during her efforts to swindle the Cardinal, Jeanne had made him believe the Queen wanted to buy the diamond necklace with him as her secret go-between. In order to convince him, Jeanne hired a whore to play the part of the Queen in the gardens of the Chateau de Versailles. This was very bad for the Queen’s reputation, because many people believed she was capable of meeting a Cardinal with a bad reputation at midnight in the gardens.

In any case, once she had been beaten and branded, she was put into the Salpetriere prison for women. It was from here that she made a daring and heroic escape. She fled across France and made her way to London.

The English naturally welcomed her with open arms. After all, England was always willing to embarrass France, their

Jeanne de La Motte-Valois de Saint-Remy

perennial rival. Jeanne was certainly not quiet, either. She had said some rather nasty things during the trial, and she kept up the flow of vitriol while in London. Many of her accusations against the Queen stuck; as the Revolution began to get off the ground, Jeanne was in London, happily writing tell-all memoirs that put Marie-Antoinette in a very bad light–if you believed what Jeanne said (for the record, I believe very little of it).

On August 23, 1791, the Courier and the Chronicle of London carried the death notice of Jeanne de La Motte-Vaois, self-style Comtesse de La Motte. Her death was the result of injuries from falling out of a third-story window.

The question now as then is, how came she to fall out of the window?

It might have been an accident. The Abbé Georgel, a friend of the Cardinal’s, claims that after a night of drunken debauchery, a tipsy Jeanne accidentally went out the window. He also adds that it was God’s judgment on her for being wicked, but then again he never really liked her.

Jeanne might have been pushed. British newspapers reported that bailiffs had come to collect debts owed by Jeanne. Nicolas de La Motte, Jeanne’s husband, claimed that it was agents of the Duc d’Orleans, who wanted Jeanne to return to Paris for political reasons. Nicolas paints a story of the poor woman’s terror as she’s pursued by these men. He says the Duc d’Orleans men tried to arrest her on trumped up charges of debt. Jeanne sent out the maid, trying to get help, but the maid returned with no one. When it appeared there was no help to be had, she dashed for the door. Instead of getting into one of the passing cabs or carriages, she went to her neighbor’s house. The neighbor tried to protect her by saying that he had no fugitive in his house when the men came after her.  The men battered down the door anyway and started searching the house. Jeanne was on the third floor, waiting as they moved up the floors searching for her. They started to break through the door to the room where she hid. She ran to the window, went over the railing, and held on with every intention of letting go and falling to the ground below if her pursuers made it through the door. The door cracked; Jeanne let go. This, at least, is how Nicolas de La Motte tells the story. How much of it is true is really anyone’s guess. But it’s possible that she was “helped” out the window by these alleged men.

Or, Jeanne might have committed suicide. This sounds like what Nicolas is implying happened, albeit suicide under duress. Jeanne actually had a history of suicidal behavior, which she talked about herself (after the death of twin sons, she says that she took a pair of pistols and was about to shoot herself but decided not to at the last second). Her memoirs from the time of her death make it sounds as though she was not suicidal–she talks about never giving up in her fight against her enemies–but in a moment of panic or distress, it’s entirely possible.

Exactly what happened is unclear. But what is clear is that Jeanne did not die immediately. She was badly injured, and suffered for several days before passing on.

As Jeanne lay dying, the situation in France was quickly heating up. The royal family made an ill-advised attempt to escape France, but were caught at Varennes. The attempt was a disaster for the royal family, who was now looked at with suspicion by all of France. They were brought back to Paris to be put under harsher arrest. The news reached Jeanne on her sickbed as she lay dying from the injuries sustained in the fall out the window. Jeanne considered the Queen her personal enemy, and she must have relished the humiliation and failure of the royal family. In many ways, it was Jeanne’s venomous words and accusations that led to the hatred that Marie-Antoinette received. It’s ironic, then, that Jeanne died in 1791, just about two years before the Queen would have her head cut off by guillotine.


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