fate of the “lost dauphin,” Louis XVII, has been
a subject of mystery for over 200 years. Did he die in prison? Did he escape and become a famous American
naturalist, or a German clockmaker, or an Episcopal minister
raised by Native Americans? All of these solutions, and more,
still have loyal supporters. The issue was laid to rest by
DNA testing in 2000. But this is a mystery that just won’t
is no question that Louis XVI and his wife Marie Antoinette
died under the guillotine during the French Revolution. It
is the fate of their 10 year old son, Louis Charles, who disappeared
in 1795, that is the mystery.
the death of his father, Louis Charles was the uncrowned King
of France, Louis XVII. He and his sister were imprisoned with
their mother until July 3, 1793 when guards came in the dead
of night to remove the 8-year-old Louis from her arms. Marie
Antoinette resisted, clutching the child for nearly an hour,
arguing and pleading. Finally she bowed to the inevitable
and gave him up. As Marie Therese (Louis' sister) later recalled,
"they threatened the lives of both him and me, and my
mother's maternal tenderness at length forced her to this
sacrifice." Louis was imprisoned alone in a small windowless
room. What happened next is at the heart of the mystery.
official record states that Louis died in the Temple prison
at the age of 10 on June 8, 1795 from tuberculosis. But few
accepted the official verdict. Some said that he died of neglect,
some that he was murdered, and others that he did not die
at all, but was spirited away to safety and another child
put in his place. A doctor who had been summoned to treat
the dauphin died mysteriously the week before the boy's death.
His widow hinted that he had refused to take part in some
irregular practice on the patient.
flew. At first, it was widely believed both in France and
Britain that the Committee of Public Safety (the radical governing
body of the revolution) had murdered the child. Later public
opinion came to favor the escape theory. In 1814 the historian
of the newly restored French monarchy announced that Louis
Charles had escaped and was still alive. He would not reveal
his location however. The most common rumor was that royalists
substituted another child in his place and spirited him to
America where he would be safe.
rumors did not fade with the passage of time. In 1846 authorities
exhumed the mass grave where the child was buried. Only one
showed evidence of tuberculosis. But he wasn't a perfect fit.
The body appeared to be that of a slightly older child, in
his middle to late teens. Of particular interest was the fact
that the boy had already cut a wisdom tooth. In the years
that followed, at least a hundred men claimed to be the ill-fated
most intriguing candidate was famous naturalist John James
Audubon. Although he never publicly claimed it himself, Audubon
was thought by many to be the real Louis. He was adopted at
about the right time, if indeed Louis had escaped, and was
the same age. On a visit to France in 1828, Audubon wrote
an intriguing letter home to his wife. In it he said that,
"patient, silent, bashful, and yet powerful of physique
and of mind, dressed as a common man, I walk the streets!
I bow! I ask permission to do this or that! I… who should
most colorful claimant was perhaps Eleazer Williams. Williams
was the descendant of a Mohawk Native American and a white
woman who had been kidnapped by the Mohawks at the age of
7. Though raised with the Mohawks, as a teenager he left the
tribe, and went on to become an Episcopal minister and a pioneer
of Greenbay, Wisconsin. He told his story, The Lost Prince,
and became a national celebrity for a few years. He may have
been the object of Mark Twain’s satire in Wild Man
and Huckleberry Finn. Williams claimed until his
death that he was Louis Charles, though there was never any
evidence to support his story. His skull was exhumed in 1947
for anthropological study. The conclusion was that Williams
probably did have Native American ancestry and so could not
have been Louis Charles.
most successful of the claimants was a German clockmaker named
Karl Wilhelm Naundorff. He had some evidence to back his claim
and had widespread support. He managed to convince the dauphin's
childhood nurse, who questioned him at great length about
childhood memories. He spent his final years in The Netherlands
and was even recognized as Louis Charles by that government,
which allowed him to take the family name Bourbon. In 1950
a bone was taken from his grave and later tested for DNA.
His DNA did not match any of the DNA available from Marie
Antoinette and other members of her family. It appeared that
he was an imposter.
the years passed, the speculation continued. Thousands of
articles and 600 books have been written about this mystery.
The most authoritative are by a French historian and an American
journalist. Philippe Delorme, the recognized expert on this
story, tells a fascinating tale of mystery and conspiracy
and pretenders. Recently Delorme has updated his book (originally
L’affaire Louis XVII), Louis XVII: the Truth,
now available in English. A new American book by journalist
Deborah Cadbury also tells the story (the Lost King of France:
How DNA Solved the Mystery of the Murder of the Son of Louis
XVI and Marie Antoinette).
early 2000, scientists did DNA tests on the putative heart
of the boy who died of tuberculosis in his prison, and who
was presumed to be the prince. A sample from the heart was
compared with a lock of hair taken from Marie Antoinette as
a child. There was no doubt. The owner of the heart and the
queen shared DNA.
organized the tests to finally end the debate. To avoid all
question, tests were conducted independently by two different
scientists. Jean-Jacques Cassiman, a professor of genetics
at Belgium's Louvian University, conducted one test; Ernst
Brinkmann of Germany's Muenster University conducted the other.
it the heart of Louis Charles? The heart has an interesting
history of it’s own. It has been shuffling around for
over 200 years. The doctor who did the autopsy, Philippe-Jean
Pelletan, hid the heart in his handkerchief, stole the heart,
and pickled it in alcohol. Later one of his students took
it, but on his deathbed, full of remorse, the student asked
that it be returned to the doctor. His wife sent it to the
Archbishop of Paris where it stayed until the Palace was attacked
in the Revolution of 1830. The crystal urn holding the heart
was smashed, and the doctor’s son retrieved it from
a pile of broken glass. The heart had moved again.
the restoration of the monarchy in 1814, the heart was sent
to the Spanish branch of the Bourbon family where it found
a new home. Soon, the heart was on the move again - the family
returned the heart to Paris. There Louis Charles finally received
his due. His heart was placed in a crystal vase in the royal
crypt at Saint Denis Basilica, where it stayed until 1999.
A piece was removed for DNA tests, and dramatically transported
to the lab in a hearse.
the mystery really solved? The DNA tests did not end the speculation
about “the lost dauphin.” Cassiman himself said
that this test only established that the boy in the crypt
was a relative of Marie Antoinette’s. It is true that
the test did not specifically show that the heart they tested
was that of the boy, or that the owner of the heart and Marie
Antoinette were mother and son. Cassiman said he would leave
it to historians to determine whether the boy was in fact
the son of Marie Antoinette.
and most historians have accepted the tests as sufficient
evidence, but others such as Philippe Boiry (author of Naundorff-Louis
XVII), have questioned the conclusion because the heart itself
was shuffled around so much. By the time it was tested it
was mummified, hard as wood. Is it even the heart of the boy
who died in prison? No one can be absolutely sure. Because
the tests were not absolutely certain, there is continued
speculation from the loyal followers of Eleazer Williams,
John James Audubon, and Karl Naundorff.
descendants, who still carry the name Bourbon, have rejected
the DNA evidence, and they have asked to have Naundorff’s
grave reopened so that there can be more tests.
in Lawrence, Wisconsin, there is still a Lost Dauphin Road,
in De Pere the state of Wisconsin still has a Lost Dauphin
State Park, and there is still a restaurant named Lost Louie’s.
Owner John Nick has no plans to change the name.