Souvenirs of the Dead: The Dauphin’s Heart

One of the problems with being famous is that there is a much higher likelihood that your corpse will be desecrated by relic hunters. As I’ve noted before, even highly respected public figures like Albert Einstein aren’t spared. It’s not surprising, then, that a child who represented the evils of absolute monarchy to one half of the population and the possibility of a return to a glorious past to the other half would not be spared.

The Temple

The Dauphin’s Heart

On June 9th, 1795, the body of a young boy was removed from a Parisian prison known as the Temple, at one time the European headquarters of the Knights Templar. The French government claimed he was the Dauphin Louis-Charles Capet, son of the recently executed Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. Doubts surrounding the identity of the body surfaced immediately, leading to hundreds of people over the following decades claiming to be the lost Dauphin.

During the autopsy, the boy’s heart was taken as a souvenir by physician Phillipe-Jean Pelletan. The organ then began a precarious journey through war and revolution before its identity was confirmed. Pelletan initially kept the heart in a jar filled with alcohol. At one point it was stolen by his assistant then returned after his death.

After the Bourbon Restoration Pelletan attempted to turn it over to the Dauphin’s uncles, Louis XVIII and Charles X, both of whom refused it. It ended in the hands of the archbishop of Paris with whom it stayed until his residence was attacked during the July Revolution of 1830.

A printer named Lescroart, attempting to remove the heart, dropped it during a struggle with revolutionaries. He returned days later and retrieved it from the archbishop’s courtyard. It remained with Lescroart’s son until his death when it was bequeathed to the Duke of Madrid, a descendent of the House of Orleans. After close scrapes with the Nazi and Russian armies during World War II, the heart was finally put to rest in Saint-Denis Basillica in Paris where it remains.

In 1999, it was briefly removed to obtain samples for DNA testing. When compared to DNA extracted from the hair of Marie-Antionette and her two sisters, the heart’s original owner was found to be a descendent of the Queen.

This should settle the matter but for one caveat. Louis-Charles’ elder brother, Louis-Joseph, died of tuberculosis in 1789. At least one report claims that the hearts of both brothers were in the possession of the archbishop of Paris at the time of the July Revolution, raising the possibility that it was this heart that Lescroart found. In that case, the DNA test would be equally as conclusive and the Dauphin would be lost again.

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