City of Light, City of Poison
Holly Tucker’s fascinating new book on the first police chief of Paris
“Late seventeenth-century Paris assaulted the senses and rattled the nerves. Screams and yells echoes off the walls of narrow streets as Parisians lodged boisterous complaints against the insults of urban life: fistfights among angry neighbors, cutpurses racing from victims, chamber pots dumped out from upper floors onto passersby below. Carriage drivers swore and taunted one another as they jockeyed for command of the street…”
Holly Tucker vividly conveys the chaos and vulgarity of the streets of Paris during the late 1600s from the very first chapter of City of Light, City of Poison. The violence and filth pours from every orifice as people “had no choice but to trudge through the streets with inches of congealed blood.” The city was literally drowning in the secretions of its blood-thirsty inhabitants. And yet — “despite its dangers, a vibrant city still beckoned.”
The title of this book is key to understanding both the sordid and the shining, resplendent aspects of the “crime capital of the world” during this period in history. The “Sun King”, Louis XIV, was appalled by the atrocities taking place throughout the city (witches, poisoners and priests among the culprits), especially the deaths of two magistrates. The true subject of this book is Nicolas de la Reynie, the man Louis XIV employed as the first police chief and guardian of the law so that Paris might shine again, in keeping with the King’s luminous title. City of Light, City of Poison reveals the troubles La Reynie took to keep the city clean; lighting the streets, reducing weaponry, interrogating criminals and so forth with a tenacity that made him perfect for the role. It’s a story told with the immediacy and intrigue of a crime fiction novel.
Read the introduction below:
The plumes on the guards’ hats fluttered in time with the beats of the horses’ hooves along the route from Paris to Versailles. Riding in formation on the hot June day, the men had been entrusted with delivering a single letter to the king. No one, not even the horsemen, knew what made the cargo so precious. But as the swords dangling at their sides and the muskets slung across their chests made clear, they would kill to protect it.
After a few hours the travelers could see the sprawling palace in the distance. Once the site of a modest royal hunting lodge, Versailles was now home to Louis XIV. Construction on the palace had begun nearly a half century earlier, just months after the king had assumed the throne at the age of twenty-three.
The palace’s golden gates shimmered in the sun. Beyond them one could spy the large clock above the window of the king’s bedroom. At the center of the clock sat Apollo, the sun god, his face framed by rays of light. The clock marked the king’s day with precision. From the moment he awoke in the morning to the time he went to bed at night, nobles jockeyed for the privilege of attending to the king’s every need, from helping him dress to removing his chamber pot.
Since 1682 nearly ten thousand souls had lived in cramped quarters in the palace in return for access, either real or longed for, to the king. This sense of connection allowed Louis XIV to retain a large measure of control over the noble class, which he had learned long ago never to trust.
As the guards entered the palace gates, a sea of carriages and sedan chairs parted to make way for them. Once inside the main gates, the horsemen traversed the place d’Armes, the expansive courtyard fronting the château. Hundreds of soldiers stood in formation to protect the king and to impress his subjects.
Dismounting, the lead horseman bounded up the massive stone staircase and headed for the quarters of the king’s most trusted minister, Louis de Pontchartrain. As Louis XIV’s chief of staff, Pontchartrain held unparalleled power at Versailles. All correspondence passed through him — no small task given the daily avalanche of reports and requests that flowed into the palace from across France and throughout Europe.
The guard entered the minister’s quarters and, once acknowledged, placed the letter in Pontchartrain’s hands. Pursing his lips, as was his habit, Pontchartrain turned the letter over. With a start, he recognized the bold handwriting of Nicolas de La Reynie.
It was a letter from a dead man.
La Reynie knew secrets that the nobility and the monarchy alike would have preferred to keep hidden…
For more than thirty years Nicolas de la Reynie had served as the police chief of Paris, the city’s first. He never cared for Pontchartrain. In fact, it had been Pontchartrain’s appointment as the king’s counselor that brought about La Reynie’s eventual retirement. After working closely with La Reynie for nearly seven years, Pontchartrain strongly encouraged the king to replace the aging police chief with a younger, more dynamic officer. Still, the ever-practical La Reynie knew that the only way to get a letter to the king — and to be sure what it contained stayed intact — was through Pontchartrain.
After decades of monitoring Paris and its inhabitants, La Reynie knew secrets that the nobility and the monarchy alike would have preferred to keep hidden: crimes of passion, sins of greed. From prostitutes he’d learned of the nobility’s sexual peccadilloes. From matrons and nuns he’d learned the true identities of the children orphaned at foundling homes. Nothing surprised the police chief.
Some secrets, however, were more dangerous. La Reynie knew of plots so dark and menacing that they posed a direct threat to the monarchy. He promised he would protect these secrets for the rest of his life.
Now, less than a day after the police chief’s death, his letter lay heavy in the minister’s hands. Pontchartrain broke the wax seal and unfolded the thick piece of paper that formed both letter and envelope. A key tumbled out. Holding the key in one hand and the letter in the other, he scanned the page and then left immediately to find the king.
Pontchartrain did not hide his annoyance at the crowds as he marched through the halls of Versailles toward the king’s counsel room. The interior of the château teemed with so many nobles and their attendants that Louis XIV’s late superintendent of royal buildings, Jean-Baptiste Colbert, had fretted over whether the palace’s marble floors were thick enough to withstand the constant traffic.
Congestion was always worst in the long corridor that linked the palace’s north and south wings. First-time visitors stood in awe as their reflections ricocheted across the 578 mirrors that lined the gallery’s walls. On the barreled ceiling were thirty stunning paintings by the master Charles Le Brun that told the story of the Sun King’s economic and political successes. Pontchartrain was now too preoccupied to look up to admire Le Brun’s masterpieces; if he had, he would have been reminded of the king’s gesture of gratitude to the man whose letter he held in his hands.
Among Le Brun’s works was a painting titled The Police and Safety Established in Paris, an allegorical image featuring two women in flowing Greco-Roman gowns. Holding a balance and a sword in one hand, Justice orders soldiers to disperse the violent gangs battling in the background. Reclining at her feet is Security, who extends an open wallet to the soldiers as a show of her support and confidence. The soldiers — armed with weapons and lanterns — point toward newly paved and lighted streets to show the fruits of their labor. La Reynie’s transformation of Paris from a crime-infested city into a civilized one had been chronicled in gesso and gilt for all to see at the king’s château.
An ornate mechanical clock chimed ten as Pontchartrain moved through the king’s empty bedroom and into the adjacent counsel room. He walked to the large table that sat in the center of the room and stood quietly alongside a small group of other ministers. The aging king walked slowly toward his seat. Once settled at the table, he looked toward his ministers and nodded to indicate that he was ready for his daily report.
It did not take long for the king’s eyes to fasten on the letter and key Pontchartain held in his hands. Without a word, Pontchartrain slid the letter toward him.
Louis XIV read the former police chief’s words and paused for a moment, weighing their meaning. He handed the letter back to Pontchartrain. There was no need to speak; the minister knew what to do.
Several days later the royal notary François Gaudion placed a large black leather box on a table in front of Pontchartrain. Thirty years of dust coated the box, confirming that its contents had not been disturbed. When La Reynie entrusted this box and others to Gaudion decades earlier, he made it clear that they were to stay in the notary’s safekeeping until further notice. That moment had arrived. Pontchartrain offered Gaudion written confirmation from the king that neither he nor his family nor his progeny would be held responsible for anything that might be revealed once the box was opened.
Only four other men knew the extent of the secrets that Louis XIV had worked so hard to keep hidden for so long.
Reassured, Gaudion bowed and left the room, shutting the door behind him. Alone, Pontchartrain inspected the black case. It was secured with not one but two sets of wax seals imprinted with La Reynie’s official insignia. Pontchartrain cracked open the brittle seals with a small knife and inserted the key into the lock. The mechanism gave despite years of disuse. Inside he found hundreds of manuscript pages bundled together. Removing one large stack of pages, he placed the papers on the table and turned each gingerly. He saw names of France’s highest nobility. Alongside them were scrawled the words “death,” “poison,” “murdered.”
Only four other men knew the extent of the secrets that Louis XIV had worked so hard to keep hidden for so long. The first was Jean Sagot, La Reynie’s chief notary, who was now long dead. The second, Louis’s trusted minister, Jean-Baptiste Colbert, also took the secrets to his grave in 1683. He was followed eight years later by the marquis of Louvois, Colbert’s nemesis and Louis’s esteemed minister of war. And, of course, Nicolas de La Reynie.
With La Reynie’s death, Louis XIV became the sole keeper of the secrets surrounding the Affair of the Poisons, and he had no intention of letting them outlive him. The king ordered his servants to start a fire in the large stone fireplace at the end of the counsel room. For a hot July day, it was an odd request.
Page by page, Pontchartrain handed the documents to the king, who fed each of them into the hungry flames. The two men watched the parchment curl and catch fire. As the smoke rose from the chimney into the summer sky above Versailles, the king silenced the horrors of the affair and the screams of its victims for good.
Or so he believed.