At her trial in Paris in 1680, Catherine Deshayes, "La Voisin" (c. 1640–1680), boastfully stated that she had sacrificed more than 2,500 children who had their throats slit at her Black Sabbats. She also claimed that her poisonous potions brought about the deaths of many more jealous husbands, unfaithful wives, and unwanted parents than all the other professional poisoners of Paris combined.
In 1647, the little girl who would become one of history's most infamous Satanists was just another barefooted beggar who had been sent out into the streets to tell fortunes for a few coins from the passersby. By coincidence, many of the waif's "predictions" came true, and she cultivated a clientele who swore by her "God-given powers." But the appealing little prophetess with the smudged nose soon discovered that Satan's wages were much higher than the ones offered by the angry wives who suspected their husbands of infidelity or the frustrated young women who wanted to know when they would get a husband.
When she was 20, Catherine married Antoine Montvoisin, who, as far as can be determined, never contributed any money toward her well-being. Innately resourceful, she had soon established herself as a midwife, a beautician, and an herbalist, and was supporting both Antoine and his daughter by a former marriage in handsome style.
It was when the enterprising La Voisin included palmistry, prophecy, and astrology among her stock-in-trade that she incurred the wrath of the established Church. Instead of being flayed alive by a grand inquisitor, the young woman convinced a learned tribunal composed of the vicars general and several doctors of theology from the Sorbonne that her approach to astrology was completely acceptable to the Church.
The effect that her release had upon her already flourishing trade as an herbalist and her ever-increasing reputation as a seer was remarkable. People reasoned that La Voisin had secured the Church's blessing on her magic. She was soon surrounded by many wealthy clients.
La Voisin received her supplicants in a darkened chamber wherein she appeared in an ermine-lined robe emblazoned with two hundred eagles embroidered in gold thread on purple velvet. For the right price, the high priestess would officiate at a special Black Mass for a troubled seeker of satanic solace. If the supplicant were female, then the client herself, regardless of how high-born she might be, would serve as the Black Mass's living altar.
The high priestess kept a secret list of more than 50 Roman Catholic priests who would celebrate the Black Mass at her bidding. Her great favorite was Abbe Guilborg (d. 1680), who, in spite of the fact that he held a number of public and private ecclesiastical offices, was always in need of extra money to maintain his mistresses he kept closeted about Paris. His skill as a chemist was also put to good use by La Voisin for her clients who wished effective poisons, and Guilborg managed to cut down on housekeeping expenses with his mistresses by selling his many illegitimate children to La Voisin for use as satanic sacrifices during her Black Masses.
Babies for sacrifice cost the high priestess a good deal of money, but she had learned to economize in the Paris streets. She established a home for unwed mothers, which saw the girls through their pregnancies and relieved them of the responsibility of caring for an unwanted child. Girls without financial means were provided for at no charge. The bills presented to the women of the aristocracy were large enough to cover the operating expenses for the entire home. The young pampered aristocrats, who inconveniently found themselves in a family way, were, however, offered the bonus of having a punitive potion secretly administered to the rogue who had been so careless in his seduction. With moral laxity the order of the day in Louis XIV's (1638–1715) France, the shrewd La Voisin's home for unwed mothers always managed to provide her with a stockpile of sacrificial infants.
The Black Mass was held deep in the bowels of La Voisin's high-walled house in the region lying south of St. Denis, which, in seventeenth-century Paris, was called Villeneuve. The supplicant approached the altar in complete nudity and lay upon its black surface. A black-robed acolyte stepped forward to place a flickering black candle in each of her upturned palms. At this point, Abbe Guilborg (d. 1680) appeared and positioned himself at the living altar. He wore vestments of an orthodox shape made of white linen. The chasuble (outer vestment worn by celebrant at Mass) and the alb were embroidered with black pine cones, the ancient Greek symbol of fertility. The priest placed the chalice upon the supplicant's stomach, kissed her body, and officiated the ceremony. The prayer book was bound in human skin; the holy water was urine; and the host was usually a toad, a turnip, or on occasion, true host stolen from a church and desecrated with filth.
The rituals completed, it was time for the offering. Abbe Guilborg stretched out his arms to receive the infant delivered there by the black-robed acolyte, intoning the dark entities Astaroth and Asmodeus to accept the sacrifice of the child so the supplicants at the Black Mass might receive the things that they asked.
The child was raised aloft and the priest deftly slashed its throat.
Marguerite, La Voisin's stepdaughter, often assisted at the Black Mass in the capacity of clerk to the celebrating priest. When Marguerite happened to find herself with child as the result of a flirtation with a married neighbor, she became alarmed when she found her stepmother casting appraising eyes at the bulge of her pregnancy. When the child was born, Marguerite, in spite of herself, found that a maternal instinct existed within her. Since she was quite aware that La Voisin had no interest in becoming a grandmother, Marguerite had sent her child away to be brought up in the country.
While she was becoming wealthy from her performance of the satanic rites, La Voisin was unaware that a police official named Desgrez, a detective who had arrested Madame de Brinvilliers (1630–1676), an aristocratic Satanist who specialized in poisons, was closing in on her Black Sabbats. When his men reported the number of the high-ranking and the high-born who were frequenting the Satanist's subterranean chambers, Desgrez found himself faced with quite a decision. It would not benefit him to anger so many important people by suggesting that the activities in which they were engaging were wrong. If he arrested La Voisin, he would, at least indirectly, be criticizing the members of the aristocracy who regularly attended her Sabbats and who relied upon her talents as a seeress and a priestess.
As Desgrez struggled with this dilemma, one of his officers came to him trembling with fear. He had recognized the crest on one of the coaches waiting before La Voisin's walls as belonging to none other than Madame de Montespan (1641–1707), the mistress of King Louis XIV. The officer told him that the royal mistress had served as the naked, living altar at one of La Voisin's Sabbats.
Desgrez brought his evidence and the list of names to his superior, La Reynie, head of the Chambre Ardente. King Louis had pledged himself to support the Chambre, but the rank of the names on the list, including that of his own mistress, placed him in a politically explosive situation. His advisors cautioned him that a hasty exposure of the decadence of court life would lead to a revolution or encourage England to launch an invasion against a morally corrupt and internally torn France.
After the arrest of La Voisin, several planted rumors caused some of the court favorites involved to flee the country on extended trips abroad. After they were safely out of the country, the king saw to it that evidence against highborn court figures, including his indiscreet mistress, was suppressed. La Voisin herself was treated to a rather pleasant stay in jail, until King Louis had seen to it that all those of high position had been protected. Then La Voisin was delivered to the grand inquisitor.
Catherine Montvoisin endured four six-hour ordeals in the torture chamber before she was brought to the stake on February 23, 1680. By the king's order, only testimony concerning those Satanists who had already been condemned was allowed to be recorded. The former fortuneteller from the streets of Paris went to her death singing offensive songs and cursing the priests who sought her final confession.