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From Mortuary Masks To Tourist Attraction: The Macabre Origins Of Madame Tussauds

We've all taken lots of pictures with our favorite celebrities, or at least their wax versions at Madame Tussauds, but the origins of this popular attraction are quite macabre and morbid.

Madame Tussauds is a name we all know quite well as one of the biggest tourist attractions in the world. Who doesn’t love wandering its halls taking pictures with their favorite characters or celebrities? But behind the kind of creepy aspect of hugging a wax figure that looks (or attempts to look) like a famous celebrity, there’s the even creepier story of its origins.

Born in 1761 in Strasbourg, Marie Groshotz, better known as Madame Tussauds, had quite a busy life for a woman of her time. Her father belonged to an ancestral family of executioners that dated back to the fifteenth century, but sadly, he died just a few months after Marie’s birth during the Seven Years’ War. To raise her, her mother started working with a famous anatomist, Philippe Curtius, who had a successful workshop in Bern, Switzerland. Soon, Marie won the affection of Curtius, who took her in as her guardian, and later on as a pupil at his workshop.

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But their luck was about to change, when, after a trip to Paris, Curtius was offered a business that involved making wax figures for entertainment rather than medical purposes. A few months later, Marie and her mother moved to the French capital, where Marie would develop her work as a wax sculptor. The business was such a success, that soon, prominent figures in France became regulars of the wax salon to take a look at the figures. 

Fun fact: Marie's first sculpture was of Voltaire, the great thinker and writer. 

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As the years passed, Marie’s work became quite popular in the country, catching the attention of the French royalty. By the 1780s, she was already one of the favorite artists at Versailles and also tutor to Madame Elizabeth, King Louis XVI’s sister. However, the Revolution soon broke out and her connections to the court became quite problematic. When the Reign of Terror began (1793-1794), she was arrested as a supporter of the monarchy and was ready to be executed. Luckily for her, she was saved by one of her revolutionary friends (supposedly, it was Robespierre, but there’s no real evidence about it).

In her memoirs, Tussauds claimed that, after being released, she was forced to work for the National Assembly to create wax figures of those executed by the guillotine. However, this proved to be quite a profitable job that brought her back in business. The Revolution and the horrors of the Reign of Terror became not only a political movement, but also quite an entertainment for the people of France. People paid to have the best seats at restaurants to watch the executions and, of course, the wax figures of those they despised were hugely entertaining for the masses.

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Via PinterestNow, on top of how creepy it was to enjoy the art of mortuary masks of the people beheaded, the process of making them was grisly as well. While Curtius was busy attending all the revolutionaries at his wax salons, Marie was the one in charge of providing the latest artworks to the collection. How did she make them so fast? Easy, she had an arrangement with some of the executioners to give her the fresh severed heads of important victims. Once she had the head, she had to quickly apply the plaster to make the model before the head was taken to be buried. And not only that, as she described in her memoirs, most of the time, she would find herself sitting in the prisons, holding the bloody heads on her knees to take precise impressions of their features before they became swollen.

Though making wax figures of the enemies of the Revolution proved to be quite a profitable business, it eventually died out. Curtius died a couple of months after the Reign of Terror ended, leaving Marie the entire business (including several wax salons), but the craze was already over. About a year later, she married François Tussaud, with whom she had two sons. However, just like the business, her marriage proved to be unsuccessful. Tussaud was a lazy husband who would just spend the little money Marie made, which wasn’t the glorious life she had envisioned.

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Fortunately, though, one good day, she met a German illusionist named Paul Philidor. He had invented a “magic lantern” capable of projecting images he called ghouls and ghosts, thus creating the “phantasmagoria” spectacle. Both agreed that with his invention and her wax figures, they could make a fortune in the entertainment business.

And so, in 1802, taking along her most famous figures and some money, Marie moved to England to start a new life. The show wasn’t precisely what Marie had envisioned, but the Brits were actually quite fascinated with her sculptures and all the morbidity around the French Revolution. So, she left Philidor and started touring the British Isles, making a fortune everywhere she went.

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She toured for about thirty years, until she decided it was time to actually create a salon to exhibit her now enormous collection. She settled on the famous Baker Street and basically founded an empire. Was she the only one in the wax figure world? Of course not, but the now Madame Tussaud had an edge over her competition: authenticity. Her work wasn’t a recreation of people, but actual plasters on real people.

Via Antique PrintsSoon, everybody who wanted to be recognized as relevant wanted their figure made by Tussaud. Even Queen Victoria and Prince Albert allowed her to make an exact replica of the Queen's wedding dress for their figures at the “Golden Chamber.” To add even more glamour to her halls, she secured authentic objects to accompany the figures, like King George IV’s coronation robes and one of Napoleon’s carriages. This chamber included the most influential and important people in history and was one of Tussaud’s most popular attractions. That and her equally famous “Chamber of Horrors.”

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As we said before, the French Revolution fascinated the British people, and Tussaud’s famous sculptures of the royal victims generated a huge craze due to people's morbid interest in their deaths. Her chamber didn’t only include all of her original figures, like Marie Antoinette’s or Robespierre's, she also ventured to add some of the most infamous British cases of murder and treason. With characters like Burke and Hare, the famous Scottish mass murderers, and any of the recent cases, her Chamber of Horrors appealed to the masses with their gruesome stories and images. Even convicted murders asked Tussaud if they could donate their clothing for their wax figures. 

Madame Tussaud died in 1850 at the age of 88, but her innovative business left a huge fortune for her family, who are still in charge of the business more than a century and a half later. Her legacy has been translated into one of the most popular tourist attractions in the world, but besides her unique sculpting techniques, perhaps what’s most relevant about her is how she actually created the celebrity culture that still fascinates us today, and all thanks to severed, bloody heads.

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