"...we should pass over all biographies of 'the good and the great,' while we search carefully the slight records of wretches who died in prison, in Bedlam, or upon the gallows."
~Edgar Allan Poe

Monday, November 4, 2013

The Mystery of the "Dark Countess"

19th century illustration of the grave of the "Dark Countess"

In 1807, a most mysterious couple moved into the castle of Eishausen, in Hildburghausen, Germany. The man let it be known that he was Count Vavel de Versay, but gave no clue to the identity of his female companion. The pair, whom the locals dubbed the “Dark Count and Countess,” was obviously extremely wealthy, leading luxurious, but remarkably secluded lives. They kept very much to themselves, particularly the “Countess,” who, in the rare times she was fleetingly seen in her carriage, was silent and heavily veiled. They gave not the slightest clue who they really were, where they came from, or why they lived such a hermetic existence.

The lady died in 1837, at what was estimated to be about the age of sixty. The Count, when presented with the need to give the woman a name for her death and burial records, finally said she was “Sophie Botta,” of Westphalia. Later research has found no sign that such a woman ever actually existed, and it is assumed that the woman was buried under a pseudonym. The Count continued to live in aristocratic isolation in Eishausen until his death in 1845.

That is all that can be said with any degree of confidence about this peculiar couple. After his death, it was claimed that “de Versay” was really a Dutch diplomat named Leonardus Cornelius van der Valck, but even that cannot be established with any certainty. Even if that was his real name, it does nothing to explain why he chose to seal himself off from the world.

The “Countess” is an even bigger enigma. In the 19th century, a popular romantic legend emerged claiming that she was Marie Thérèse, the only surviving child of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. According to the story, the young woman was so traumatized by her horrific experiences during the Revolution that she was emotionally unable to resume any normal life. Supposedly, an Ernestine Lambriquet, allegedly an illegitimate daughter of Louis, took on her identity. Support for this theory was offered by the fact that portraits of Marie Thérèse from before the Revolution differ considerably from those painted after she became the Duchess of Angouleme in 1799.

Although this bit of folklore has lingered to this day, modern-day historians, of course, do not buy any of it. There is absolutely no valid reason to believe that Lambriquet was Louis’ daughter, let alone that she was enlisted in such a bizarre conspiracy.

Dismissing the story as fable, however, does nothing to clear up the genuine mystery of the Dark Countess. She was obviously a woman who felt that her true identity was important enough—and dangerous enough--so that she could not even reveal her face to the world, let alone her name.

If she was not Marie Thérèse, then who was she?

[Note: The tomb of the "Dark Countess" has recently been excavated, with the intention of comparing DNA from the skeleton to that from Marie Thérèse's "official" remains. Will these tests reveal everything...or nothing? Stay tuned!]

Update 2/2015:  This item reveals that DNA testing proved that the "Countess" was not related to the French royal family, so the idea that she was Marie Antoinette's daughter can finally be dismissed once and for all.  The question of her real identity remains unknown, however.

8 comments:

  1. Everybody loves a good exhumation now and then!

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  2. Perhaps she was horribly disfigured, like the woman in the Sherlock Holmes story - I think it's this one - "Wisteria Lodge".

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    1. From what I can tell, the few people who actually saw the Countess unveiled did not report anything unusual about her appearance.

      It's a bit like the Man in the Iron Mask. I accept that the idea that she was Marie Therese is pretty outlandish, but she was obviously a "somebody." I wonder if anyone's tried investigating if there are any reports of European female VIPs disappearing or supposedly dying around the time the Countess appeared in Germany?

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  3. Maybe she was the daughter of Louise of Stolberg-Gedern? The latter was married to the much older 'Bonnie Prince Charlie' in 1772, but their marriage was unhappy - he was a violent alcoholic, and she began an adulterous relationship with the Italian poet, Vittorio Alfieri in 1778. She left her husband in 1780, taking refuge in a convent for a while, before returning to Rome to seek a legal seperation. It's around the time of that year that the Dark Countess was estimated to be born, if she was Louise's daughter, it's possible to speculate her mother, knowing she was pregnant, fled to the convent and gave birth there.

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    1. That could be, but if that had been the case, why all the secrecy about her identity?

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  5. The need for secrecy is definitely a curious aspect. But I highly doubt this woman was Marie Therese. Louis XVI would not have fathered an illegitimate child. This would have had to be the biggest hoax in history and I don't think it could have been concealed so well. There's just not enough convincing evidence. Still, it's interesting and I'm curious to see the results.

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