Telltale Heart–and Head–of French Kings

DNA Meets History in Chilling Forensic Case about Louis XVI and Henry IV

“Les Miserables” Lives Again!

Louis XVI DNADNA, not Gothic literature, has all the best stories and tales of murder and intrigue. According to Sam Kean, author of The Violinist’s Thumb: And other Lost Tales of Love, War, and Genius as Told by Our Genetic Code, “ …Somewhere in the tangle of strands are the answers to many historical mysteries about human beings that were once thought lost forever.”  Kean says each one of us has”… enough DNA to stretch from Pluto to the sun and back,” and “…every human activity leaves a forensic trace in our DNA” and the story that DNA tells, Keans says, “…is a larger and more intricate tale of the rise of human beings on Earth: why we’re one of nature’s most absurd creatures, as well as its crowning glory.” We just have to know how to read the story and solve the mystery. Like the one about the French Revolution and King Louis XVI.

Victor Hugo’s classic novel about the French Revolution, Les Miserables, has been given a facelift for a modern audience to ponder over popcorn in the theater.  Or discuss at a local café or bookstore over cappuccino. But few of us would imagine that scientists have had any interest in the French Revolution. We would be wrong if we did, and it is a gruesome tale of the intersection of science and history in this case.

Phillipe Charlier, a forensic scientist, dubbed the “’ Indiana Jones of the Graveyards, ‘“according to the recent Abroad in the Yard article, “DNA Analysis Links Blood of Louis XVI, Beheaded in French Revolution, and Mummified Head of His Ancestor Henri IV,” by Tom Martin Scroft, has linked blood stains in a decorated squash gourd to the mummified head of King Henry IV. There was once a handkerchief, according to the article, that had been “in the possession of an Italian family for over a century” in an “ornate calabash gourd” that had been “dipped in the [beheaded] blood of King Louis XVI” by a Maximilien Bourdalou.mAccording to an earlier Discovery News article by Jennifer Viegas, “Royal Blood May Be Hidden inside Decorated Gourd,” the handkerchief “is now missing.” Most certainly it has “decomposed” by now as David Blair suggests in his recent article, “Louis XVI Blood Mystery Solved.”  Viegas also says the ornately decorated gourd was “dated to 1793” and that the dried squash reads, “Maximilien  Bourdaloue on January 21st, dipped his handkerchief in the blood of Louis XVI after his beheading.” Why he would have done such a thing?  For a bloody relic no doubt.  What  a coffee table conversation piece. Viegas quotes Carles Lalueza Fox, “lead author of the study and a researcher at Spain’s Institute of Evolutionary Biology,” as saying that the act was common: “In fact, many people went there to dip their handkerchiefs in the blood.” How gruesome. But linking blood found in the Italian family’s gourd to King Louis XVI?  It took DNA analysis to validate that tale.

How was that done? In careful steps. First, according to Fox (qtd by Viegas) her team had to identify the “brownish substance” inside the squash as “dried blood.” Later, Fox remembered that the King had “blue eyes” and he identified the genetic marker for the “blue eyes mutation.” But that is a long way off from identifying it as the blood of King Louis XVI. The researchers also analyzed its mitochondrial profile and its Y-Chromosome profile and they found the “’DNA profile [before they had a match]…was rare among Eurasians’” which “suggest[ed] that it [might] derive from a royal bloodline.” But Fox knew that they had to have “ ‘someone’” for comparison. They first thought of the “[pickled]heart located in a royal French crypt thought to belong to the King’s son, Louis XVII.”  It is beginning to sound like a tale from Edgar Allen Poe.

But they didn’t use the heart after all. They discovered the mummified head of King Henri IV, who ruled France from 1589 until 1610, which had been “shuffled between private collections ever since it disappeared during the French Revolution,” according to Marie Cheng’s AP article, “Scientists ID Head of France’s King Henry IV.” (According to the article, “Henry IV was buried in the Basilica of Saint Denis near Paris, but during the frenzy of the French Revolution, the royal graves were dug up and revolutionaries chopped off Henry’s head which was then snatched.”) I don’t suppose the head was in such great condition after all this shuffling about, but it still turned out to be useful.

With that mummified head, DNA analysis has “solved a mystery that has lasted for almost 220 years,” according to Blair. He quotes a new study in the current issue ofForensic Science International as saying that the comparative analysis with the mummified head of King Henri IV confirms the connection by “…establish[ing] that Henri possessed a rare partial “’Y’” chromosome” and Louis, a “direct male-line descendant, separated by seven generations,” [had] this same Y chromosome. Along with “other [genetic] matches,” the study concluded that “…historically speaking, this forensic DNA data would confirm the identity of the previous Louis XVI sample.”

And you thought scientists were boring. Another DNA mystery solved.

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