In France, in the 17th Century, alchemists became wealthy grinding arsenic rock into a colorless and odorless powder and selling the powder to their countrymen who wanted to do away with a wealthy old parent, grandparent, uncle or aunt. There was even an “epidemic” of arsenic poisonings in the year 1670 so that the substance became known as the “succession powder.” Three centuries later, kind and homely Marie Besnard amazed her female friends when she described arsenic as an excellent substitute for divorce. They thought she was joking. But was she?
Illness and death were no strangers to Marie Antigny, yet, cradling Auguste, her dead husband, in her arms she sobbed uncontrollably.
Marie was 31 years old and she and Auguste, who was two years her senior, had been married for seven years. The two were first cousins – her mother was his father’s sister – and Marie had fancied Auguste since she was 17 years old, but it was not until she was 18 that her parents allowed the two to step out together, and another six years had to pass before they’d given their consent for the two to walk down the aisle. By then Marie was 24 and Auguste 26, and what doctors had described previously as his weak constitution had been diagnosed as tuberculosis. It was 1920 and tuberculosis was an incurable, even untreatable illness, but in Marie’s own words, “We were in love!”
Marie was born Marie Josephine Philippine Davaillaud in the village of Saint-Pierre-de-Maillé, 200 miles south-west of Paris, in the Vienne department close to the beautiful Loire valley. Her parents, well-to-do farmers, adored her because before she arrived, they lost two infant sons to long illnesses. Her father Pierre Eugène used to cuddle her when he came in from working his fields, and her mother Marie-Louise never failed to tell her that she loved her “for three,” including the girl’s two dead brothers in her affection.