“A vile business clumsily done”

In 1847, the year that Charlotte Brontë published Jane Eyre, Paris society was riveted by a similar triangle –a wealthy and prominent man, his unbalanced wife, and a young governess. Their story, however, had a very different ending.

In August of that year, the Duc de Praslin murdered his wife and shortly thereafter committed suicide. The governess (that’s her in the photograph), who like Jane Eyre was a nearly friendless orphan, was imprisoned and questioned about her role in the murder and her relationship with the Duc. Were they lovers? Had she pushed him to kill his wife? Just what was her position in this strange household?

But I am getting ahead of my story. Let’s start at the beginning.

In 1824, Théobald de Praslin, aged 19, married Fanny Sébastiani, aged 17. The wedding caused something of a sensation because these two young people, both descended from aristocratic and wealthy families, actually appeared to be in love.

They started a family immediately. In retrospect, perhaps this wasn’t such a good idea. Over the next fifteen years, Fanny gave birth to nine surviving children, and suffered a few miscarriages as well. By the time she was 32, the willowy girl had become an obese and unhealthy matron whose husband had lost interest in her. Yet she still loved him passionately, and the more she tried to cling to him, the more he distanced himself.

She poured out her heart in letters and diaries, sometimes writing to her husband several times a day with entreaties, recriminations, apologies, demands, and expressions of longing for him. As the rest of the household slept, she sat at her desk, scribbling these cris de coeur. Even though they lived under the same roof, she had a footman deliver notes to her husband, sometimes several a day. One can only imagine what she would have done if she’d had access to e-mail.

Her frequent emotional outbursts unnerved Théobald and the children, yet much of the household staff was devoted to her, and she still moved in society. The aristocratic show must go on – there may be screams and scenes behind closed doors, but appearances are to be kept up. She was no Mrs. Rochester in the attic; she was a public figure.

Théobald also had little in common with Jane Eyre’s Mr. Rochester. He was a quiet man, cold and somewhat inert, and his usual reactions to his wife’s outbursts were silence and withdrawal, with occasional bursts of icy rage. He was wealthy and idle and had little to occupy him until the death of his father in 1841 made him the duke. He immediately set about restoring the family seat, today known as Vaux-le-Vicomte – the huge chateau that had once made Louis XIV so jealous that he created Versailles to rival it.

In that same year, the family hired Henriette Deluzy, the latest in a series of governesses. Did she know what she was getting into? Before she arrived, Théobald had insisted that his wife sign a paper stating that she would not see her children unless someone else (such as a governess) were present. It is not clear whether he considered his wife an actual threat to them or simply a bad influence.

And Henriette Deluzy arrived at the family’s house on the rue du Faubourg St-Honoré (the Hôtel Sébastiani, shown in the picture) with her own baggage. She was an orphan – worse still, illegitimate – and dependent on her grandfather, who resented her very existence. She had once studied art seriously in the studio of Pierre Claude François Delorme, a historical painter, but had become a governess when her mother died and she needed to earn a living.

Henriette seems to have impressed many of those who met her with her charm and intelligence, but she was no Jane Eyre – she was more vivacious and outgoing, and at times bossy in her new position (the other servants never warmed to her).

In the six years she was with the family, the growing distance between the husband and wife, and the Duc’s obvious preference for spending time with his children and their governess led to inevitable speculation. The gossip increased when the family (minus the Duchesse) travelled to Italy. Big mistake. By then, all society agreed that the Duke and the governess were lovers.

For the record, it probably wasn’t true. Henriette may have been in love with her employer, but her employer doesn’t seem to have returned the feeling, although he was fond of her in his rather distant way.

Nevertheless, the duchess believed the rumours and started divorce proceedings, planning to take the children from their father. She probably would have succeeded. Although it was common for men to have mistresses, keeping them within the household and giving them charge of one’s children was simply not done.

In June 1847 she dismissed Henriette, who was distraught at being separated from the charges she had grown to love. Henriette found a position in a girls’ school, but wrote some unwise letters to the family she had left, pouring out her misery and loneliness at the separation. Another mistake.

Nobody knows what really happened in those weeks after Henriette left the household, but the Duc seems to have snapped. On an August night when the family was in Paris between returning from Vaux-le-Vicomte and embarking on the family’s annual trip to Dieppe, he tried to cut his wife’s throat while she lay in bed. He didn’t kill her immediately. She woke up and struggled with him. He then tried to bludgeon her, first with the butt of a pistol, then with a candlestick. Her screams awoke the household before she collapsed. Meanwhile, the duke retreated to his rooms and attempted to burn his blood-stained clothing in the fireplace.

It was an inept murder. The police investigator who entered the Duchess’s bedroom and saw the blood and damage said immediately, “This is not the work of a professional thief or murderer. It is a vile business clumsily done. It is the work of a gentleman.”

After her murder, the papers printed details of the condition of the house, including a lurid diagram of the scene of the crime with the location of bloodstains carefully noted. I will spare you that, but show you the floor plan of the vanished Hôtel Sébastiani, published in the Illustrated London News. It’s an odd L-shape, and the Duc and Duchesse occupied rooms on the ground floor (hers was right next to the main salon).

The duke was placed under surveillance. He couldn’t be taken into custody right away because he was a French peer, and his arrest could only be arranged with the agreement of his fellow peers. Despite the close watch, he managed to swallow arsenic. It took him six days to die. He was questioned repeatedly, at home and after being taken to the Luxembourg prison, but he did not confess.

Henriette was also arrested, and kept in solitary confinement, so she would not obtain any outside information about the investigation. She did not learn of the duke’s suicide until three weeks after his death. She was repeatedly questioned, and her thoughtless letters to the family were scrutinized, but she was never charged and was eventually released. She went to the United States and married a clergyman.

The story is interesting in itself, but this was more than just an appalling domestic tragedy. The affair was the last in a string of scandals that undermined public confidence in the court of King Louis-Philippe and it contributed to the revolution of 1848, which brought the Louis-Philippe’s reign to an end.

Today, Vaux-le-Vicomte still stands, lovely as ever, but the site of the murder has been erased completely. In the 1840s, it stood at 55, rue du Faubourg St-Honoré (now the address of the French President). It was demolished in the early 1850s and the rue de l’Elysée (shown in the photo) was cut through its gardens. I wonder – does the ghost of the murdered Duchesse haunt the street by the President’s residence?

Further reading: The best book on the subject is Stanley Loomis’s Crime of Passion (1967). But well before he did his meticulous research in the official records, a popular novelist, Marjorie Bowen, used the same story for a fictional account called Forget-Me-Not (1932). Then Henriette’s great-niece, Rachel Field, wrote a 1938 novel about the murder called All This and Heaven Too, made into a 1940 movie with Bette Davis in the role of the governess. There’s just something about governesses that spells drama and passion.

Text copyright Philippa Campsie


Update (2015): The comments have yielded a lively correspondence about what happened to Théobald, who may not have died of poisoning after all, but may have been smuggled out of the country. According to some accounts, he fetched up in Central America. A reader has contributed the following photograph of him in later life. Will we ever know the truth about what happened on that night in August 1847?


About Parisian Fields

Parisian Fields is the blog of two Toronto writers who love Paris. When we can't be there, we can write about it. We're interested in everything from its history and architecture to its graffiti and street furniture. We welcome comments, suggestions, corrections, and musings from all readers.
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54 Responses to “A vile business clumsily done”

  1. Adam says:

    Very interesting, and a story I wasn’t aware of at all.

    • Dear Adam,

      I happened across Stanley Loomis’s book in a library, and I highly recommend it. Although it is out of print, it is easy to find through any online second-hand book dealer. Like you, before reading the book, I had never heard about this important episode. Here’s a personal sidelight: an ancestor of mine was in Paris on business in 1848, staying at the Hotel Warwick, and I have some of his pencilled notes in a tiny daybook that he had at the time. Amazing to think he was right there when all these upheavals were taking place!


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  3. classiq says:

    Very interesting article. And “All This and Heaven Too” is a great movie. Bette Davis is in my opinion the best actress of all times.

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  5. Nancy Yos says:

    So the property where the murder took place is no more. I’m disappointed. I did like to think of the Duchesse’s ghost roaming through the halls of today’s Presidential palace, her old home.

    Incidentally, one of the nice bits about the movie is the quality of the child actors in it. So often child actors ruin things, and in this movie there are four of them and they are all important. And they are all good. I think the tiny boy who plays Reynald — he can’t be more than three years old — is the best of the lot.

    • Dear Nancy, At first I thought it was the same house, too, because it had the street number that now belongs to the Elysee Palace, but then I found out that the house had been demolished. The President probably has enough to do with the ghost of Madame de Pompadour, who lived in the palace in the 18th century. Philippa

  6. American Choiseul says:

    Like in some recent movies, there is an alternative ending to the “official” story… Many in France doubted that Mr. Choiseul did actually die, partly because he apparently was buried in an unmarked grave and nobody knew where his body was interred. The thought was that the Duke, related to Louis Philippe, had been helped to fake his death. (Six days to die of arsenic poisoning???). Apparently, there are American descendants of the Duke, who, far from dying in France, made his way from London to New York, then to New Orleans and, on his way to “the end of the world”, California, decided to join some German settlers in the northern hills of Nicaragua… In America, before the Panama Canal was built, the Nicaraguan route through the San Juan river, Cocibolca lake and a short carriage ride to San Juan del Sur was the only viable link from the Atlantic to the Pacific. According to local historians, the duke lived in several different cities in Nicaragua and one of his residences, “La Gran Francia” (named so because of its most celebrated one-time owner) was recently renovated and it stands today in the city of Granada. Check it out: http://www.lagranfrancia.com/historia.htm. The duke is currently interred in a cemetery in the city of Dario, in Nicaragua. His Nicaraguan-born children’s and grandchildren’s tombs are quite well marked and can be found in the cemetery of the city of Matagalpa. According to the stories handed down by ancestors, he denied having murdered his French wife until his death, in 1882. According to manfut.org, some Americans who visited the north of Nicaragua in the 1850’s reported having met two French men in Matagalpa, on of them a man who went by the name of Choiseul Praslin.

  7. Mayra Picado Praslin says:

    Mayra Picado Praslin, que historia tan trajica, pero sino hubiera sido que nuestro antepasado,El Duque de Praslin no hubiese cometido ese crimen nuestra familia no existiria,lo siento mucho por la familia de la Duquesa en Francia

    Translation: [I am] Mayra Picado Praslin. What a tragic story, but if our ancestor, the Duc de Praslin, had not committed that crime, our family would not exist. I am sorry for the family of the Duchess in France.

  8. Kat says:

    I’ve always been fascinated by this story, since reading Field’s novel and seeing the movie many years ago, but it’s so hard to find information about it all! I got Loomis’ book a few years ago and it filled in a number of details but of course we always want to know more, more, more… I’d be interested in finding out more about the house; Wikipedia says that the Presidential Palace at 55 rue du F St H was built in the 1700s; this doesn’t allow for it to have been built on the same site of the now-demolished Hotel Sebastiani. Could it be possible that the 55 address, back in the 1840s, referred to a whole group of buildings, all built in the 1700s, and one of which is now destroyed? Or is there more to all this? I’d love to hear any ideas/research!

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  12. I too am fascinated by this case, after reading an old book of my aunt’s(the Stanley Loomis one)I am currently working on some paintings inspired by the case, maybe this will cure my obssession with the story.

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  14. Joanna says:

    If the Duc escaped then he was a cowardly jerk to the end. Reading about the case HD was only human, in her early 30’s, single and who wouldn’t have fallen in love with this handsome Duc. HD was obviously an exceptional person and it must have galled her to serve under this hysterical woman but I blame the Duc more than the wife. If he really hated her so much he should have consented to the divorce like a real man but he was a greedy coward who apparently considered murder more appropriate than a divorce. I wouldn’t be proud of such a relative.

    • Paul says:

      Actually, the Duc moved to Central America, where he tended to the sick. He was well loved and on his deathbed, he is reported to have said repeatedly to his wife Margarita: Margarita, I did not kill her.

  15. So in the Loomis book he says both the Duc and Duchesse were buried in the Vaux Praslin crypt. Who knows if they are there? I’m tempted to write Vaux-le-Vicomte to find out.
    Also, I was at first thinking the escape of the Duc was another myth, like that of poor Louis Charles, Marie Antoinette’s son in 1795…but now it starts to somewhat make sense. According to Loomis he was given no funeral. Just tossed into a wooden box and buried in a cemetery in Montmartre. Not sure if I buy that… And why on Earth would the name Praslin show up in Nicaragua? That’s no accident! The Nicaraguan family should do DNA testing of his corpse to see if it matches those of the French side..like his children or grandchildren or their descendants.

    • I guess DNA testing would be one way to settle the matter for good, but I doubt anyone would do it now. The Praslin family (the descendants of all those children) would not welcome such an intrusion. I was told by a friend of the Loomis family that when Stanley Loomis was in Paris doing research in the 1960s, he was invited to a dinner at which he sat next to a very aristocratic lady from an old French family. She may even have been related to the Praslins. When he told her what he was working on, she was appalled, since it seemed to her like muckraking. The family in France would certainly prefer to maintain the story that the Duke died in France.

      • Lombardo F Palma says:

        The truth is not always convenient + You don’t choose your relatives – Common (Nicaraguan) Proverbs

  16. Wow, really? Another reason why Vaux-le-Vicomte doesn’t even mention anything about it on their tour of the chateau… interesting!

  17. Justin says:

    Humm, if the duke asked Mme Sebastiani to sign a paper forbidding her to be with her own kids unless another person was there, could it be that he felt she was insane and perhaps mad enough to bring harm upon them? The sheer disorganized manner of the murder, almost too clumsy, would bear further study… If Mme Sebastiani was mad enough, could she have planned her own death to ensure her husband’s infidelities would be punished? An alternative opinion was that he could have been framed to hurt Louis Phillippe, since the Duc was the king’s nephew… The murder seems to have accelerated the fall of the monarchy, so who knows?

    • lombardopalma says:

      I have a picture of the Nicaraguan Duke de Choiseul-Praslin given to me by a cousin-in-law that researches the subject. If Parisian Fields allows me to post it, I will upload it.

      • Thank you for your comment. By all means, I think readers would be interested to see the picture.

      • lombardopalma says:

        I would like to post a picture of the Duke that was given to me by Kim Swan–Guzman from CA in 2009. Could you send me instructions on how to go about it?

      • If you find you cannot simply cut and paste the image into a comment, then send it to parisianfields@gmail.com and I’ll see what I can do from my end. Thanks.

      • CLAUDIA says:

        The corpse was never exhumated into the Parisian Cemetery. An autopsy was performed and the results published. And there is also the version that a manservant of the Duke had stolen his documents and went to USA first and then to Nicaragua. If an DNA is taken from the Duke’s rests one can say who that person was. But as far as I know, there were too many gossips without seriousness . And it was very simple to make a fool of people in the 19 century. I had the opportunity of a mail intercourse with Cemetery Authorities . And the corpse is still there, untouched,as a permission of exhumation asked for some people who were not relatives of the Duke was never admitted. I also saw that a French Antiquarian sold the Praslin Will in internet.

  18. CLAUDIA says:


  19. Madeleine says:

    Another great post. Thanks. I love Loomis’ vivid descriptions and insightful elaboration. I have a blog, as well, and someone commented (a rare and delightful event, I might add!), after reading a post I’d written about the Praslin murder/suicide, identifying himself as a direct descendent of the Duc in question. He said he lives in Nicaragua. Interesting, and fun for me that he commented, but no way to confirm.

    • I’ve had similar comments. I gather there is a family in Nicaragua that carries the name, and it is possible that they are descended from the Duke, but at this remove, there is no way to know what really happened. I do know that Stanley Loomis was warned off the story by someone in France back in the 1960s, so in some quarters, the story continued to stir strong emotions long afterwards!

    • Paul-Yves says:

      There are actually quite a few folks who carry the Choiseul, Praslin or both last names in Nicaragua. Quite a coincidence, that such a specific and rare French last name/title should surface in Nicaragua, not long after the Duke’s supposed suicide in France. Check out Eddy Kuhl’s Facebok page… Eddy is the great-grandson of the lady whom the Duke married upon his arrival in Nicaragua and he recently published a book about the Duke’s time in Nicaragua.

  20. Lombardo F Palma says:

    The recently added picture, now placed at the end of the original article here, of the late Duke taken in Nicaragua, should speak a thousand words. Definite proof of the legitimacy of the Nicaraguan escape theory (legend) and his descendants there, which were up to 256 in the early 2000’s, can only be proven through genetic testing. Much of the obscurity of his faked post-envenomation life was dictated by his desire not to be found by the French police which were looking into his escape theory.

  21. Lombardo F Palma says:

    Let me correct the term: envenomation. I should have said his “faked poisoning”.

  22. Thank you for the blog on the fascinating story!

    I have been a bit obsessed by this story since I was a teenager. I am now in my early 50s and still find that the psychology of the case attracts me all these years later. As one of the writers above observed, it’s the kind of story one wants to know more about. The Loomis book is such a great read, but I could have wished it twice as long. I would like to know what happened to the children of the Duc & Duchesse. How horrendous it must have been for them to lose both of the parents in such a dramatic, brutal way. How did they learn to live with the horror of it? Their grief must have been unbelievable. It is almost impossible to imagine what they must have gone through. Those are the kinds of questions I have.

    Also, Loomis makes some points about the case which have never been adequately explained. For example, he makes the point that the Duc never confessed and in fact, made statements like, “I have committed no crime.” Loomis postulates the theory that if he felt his wife had become so mentally unbalanced that she might have “corrupted” her children, then he was putting to death a monster, and so he might well feel that he had “committed no crime.” The bits in the letters between the daughters and Henriette after she was dismissed, about the younger son “confessing infamies” and that their father’s face had “fallen” with this terrible news is all so mysterious. There is enough evidence to suggest some terrible, possibly immoral (?) behaviour on the part of their mother, the Duchesse. Yet all of this part of the story was never investigated by the Parisian authorities. Or if it was, there is no record of their inquiry into this mystery, which must have played a large part in the Duc’s murder of the Duchesse.

    I would also like to know more about Henriette Deluzy/Desportes. Her point of view as suggested by Rachel Field in “All This and Heaven, Too,” is as Field wrote in her introduction to the book, at best only her idea about what Henriette might have been like. Field didn’t really know. She made some educated guesses. Did she actually meet her future husband in Paris before she came over to the USA? Or was that dramatic license to create a better story? Loomis made the point that Henriette’s remarks to her examiners suggested she very likely did love the Duc but that he did not love her. What was their relationship really like? We’ll never know, I don’t suppose. I would like to think it was as Field describes.

    I would love to know more on this subject and if anyone wishes to discuss it further, count me in!

    • karla says:

      I just finished All this and Heaven too. Now I am also curious! What happened to the children and what did Henrieete die of.

  23. Sharon Rojas says:

    I have always wondered what happened to the children living in the home at the time of the murder and afterwards. The film said that they were sent to live with their maternal grandfather but I have not been able to find anything out about what happened to them after that. Does anyone know?

  24. Patrick Patterson says:

    Lewis’ biography of Edith Wharton claims the Duc was passionately in love with Henriette.

  25. jery tillotson says:

    In 2000, American author Jason Fury adapted this case into a modern, fictional setting, giving it a fascinating gay angle. HIS EYES WERE DARK, HE LICKED HIS LIPS describes how charismatic and handsome, Kurt James, is hired as tutor to the two sons of Mona and David Darling of Fifth Avenue. The year is in the early 1970s. Mona is a wealthy, neurotic, insanely jealous of her handsome husband, a Wall Street tycoon and close confidante to President Richard Nixon. Both the husband and the oldest Darling son become infatuated with Kurt James and Mona is determined to oust him out. Her violent murder leads to the arrest of both David Darling and Kurt James and the scandal leads to the toppling of Richard Nixon–along with the Watergate Scandal–out of the White House. There’s a shocking ending that leaves most readers gasping. A fascinating take on this fascinating scandal.

    • An interesting reworking of the triangle plot. It really has all the elements of a thriller, doesn’t it, whether it is New York or Paris, and no matter who is in the triangle!

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  28. Claudia says:

    I finally wrote my version of the old criminal case of Praslin, and I read many literature including Orfila s autopsy of the Duke s corpse. I suppose that one of the most important myths of people is that powerful persons never die in the form that officialism says. But in this case, the Duke died, in spite of every Praslin found in USA and Nicaragua. I sent my work to a supposed descendant of Pasquier in Nicaragua and I hope these ones named Praslin ,Pasquier and another ones can find a real link with their ancestors which, certainly, were not the famous ones but Napoleonic soldiers or some peripheric members of those noble families. About the Praslin couple descendants, there is not much information. I think that the scandal made them cautious. On the contrary there is some info about Miss Deluzy.

    • Where did you publish your account of the case?

      • Claudia says:

        I did not publish it. I sent it to a man who thought he is a descendant of one of the Duc s best friends . It is in Spanish. I thought some Penal webs would like it in my country, but up to the date, no one showed any interest. Maybe because it is more a historic racconto. On the other hand, I am not sure about internet s security . You know, some people copies other s works and presents them as of their own….Maybe it is not a literary piece, but it took me plenty of time. I had to read and translate lots. I said before that Orfila, one of the most famous phisicians in that time, did the autopsy of the corpse. He was a very important man. The Duc s reputation was destroyed. Why would Orfila lie and become a despised man, also? The medical annals are important . There is plenty of old books about arsenic and the laboratory jobs done, and the Duc is a matter of interest because of these samples taken from his body. Another interesting case of uxoricide is Entrecasteaux.

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