How Madame Tussauds built a business out of beheadings
Modern techniques and advanced artistry lends the wax figures a hyper-reality that can be off-putting to some, astounding to others. However, the history of the most famous waxworks of them all, Madame Tussauds Wax Museum in London, is a dark one. Madame Tussauds has branches all over and is the place to go to see movie stars, politicians, athletes and royalty up close – if not quite in the flesh and blood. The history of this museum has been a story of art, death, revolution and fame which remains hidden beneath the modern museum’s public-friendly exterior. This is a tale of gruesome masks, bloody revolution and one of the 19th century’s most successful business women.
Anna Maria “Marie” Tussauds was born as Anna Maria Grosholtz on 1 December 1761 in Strasbourg, France. Surviving a dangerous and gruesome past, she had made herself a household name in her adopted country and Madame Tussauds has remained one of Britain’s most popular tourist attractions to this day. She never knew her father, a German soldier named Grosholtz, having died of gruesome war wounds. Her young widowed mother, Anne Marie, brought the child up at Berne in Switzerland, where she worked as a housekeeper for Dr Philippe Curtius, who had a talent for wax modelling and ran a museum of his waxwork heads and busts. Dr Curtius considered the girl a prized pupil. Her first sculpture was a likeness of Voltaire.
During the French Revolution, Madame Tussauds was imprisoned. During this time, she was ordered to create plaster casts and death masks of the victims of the guillotine. The work required equal comfort in palaces and in prisons, and a certain ease with the grotesque: in her memoirs, Tussauds claimed that she sat “on the steps of the exhibition, with the bloody heads on her knees, taking the impressions of their features.” Success in waxworks involved not only artistic skill and patience, but an ear to the ground and fast feet: when Charlotte Corday murdered the radical Jean-Paul Marat in his bathtub, Marie got to the scene so fast that the killer was still being processed by law enforcement as she started work on Marat’s death mask.
In 1802, a 40-year-old Marie was saddled with a lazy, spendthrift husband, two children and the faltering business Curtius had left on his death. And, she decided to seek her fortune abroad. She left her youngest child with her mother and aunt, packed up with her four-year-old son and a duffel bag of disembodied aristocratic wax heads, and left for England to achieve a “well-filled purse”. She knew that the public, then as now, would go nuts for two things: royal fever and horror shows, and she gladly provided immersion in both. The Chamber of Horrors paid tribute to the Revolution with a working scale-model guillotine, and the heads of Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette and Robespierre, the latter grimly squashed in, to reflect the botched suicide attempt in which Robespierre allegedly shot off half of his own jaw. As the terror took its toll, Marie was forced to make casts of the heads of victims of the guillotine, many of whom had been her uncle’s friends and dinner guests.
In one episode, the leaders of the mob that hacked the Princess de Lamballe to pieces stood over Marie while she took a cast of the severed head, its auburn hair horribly smeared with blood. Marie had known the princess and liked her. She made a mould of the head of Louis XVI after his execution. When Marat was stabbed in his bath by Charlotte Corday, the National Assembly instructed Marie to make his death mask and sketch the scene exactly for the painter David. She took a cast of Charlotte Corday’s face, too, after her execution, and later modelled the severed heads of both Marie Antoinette and Robespierre.
Famous figures in the forbidding salon included an array of British murderers cast from life at their trials, among them James Rush, executed for the triple murder of his landlord and family; and Maria and George Manning, a couple arrested and executed before 50,000 people for the 1849 killing of Maria’s lover. The body-snatchers William Burke and William Hare were a popular tableau: when a lodger in Hare’s house died, the men decided to sell his body to willing Edinburgh surgeons faced with a cadaver shortage. It worked out so well that Burke and Hare killed 16 more people to repeat the transaction, bringing them in sacks to the hospital for no-questions-asked sale. Marie cast Burke’s head three hours after his execution in 1829. Hare turned King’s evidence and escaped the gallows, but was modelled from life by Tussauds’ sons, who had by that time joined her in business.
Marie Tussauds was a hustler, and did her part, as her contemporary P.T. Barnum did in the US, to create what we recognize as the modern concept of celebrity, renown not being something you achieve after death with a sober legacy, but something you cultivate in life by slaking the public thirst. She died in 1850 with credit for England’s most popular tourist attraction, and even the usually grumpy satirical magazine Punch had to admit: “In these days no one can be considered properly popular unless he is admitted into the company of Madame Tussauds celebrities in Baker Street. The only way in which a powerful and lasting impression can be made on the public mind is through the medium of wax.”
In 1884, several decades after her death, Madame Tussauds wax museum moved to its current location on London’s Marylebone Road, where millions have stood in queue for hours to get a glimpse at her work and that of her successors. The current museum suffered a fire in 1925 and many statues were lost. However, the moulds remained intact and several of the pieces were recreated. Unfortunately hundreds of moulds were destroyed during the Blitz at the start of the Second World War. German dictator Adolf Hitler was immortalized in wax in the Chamber of Horrors in 1933, but the figure was decapitated in 2008 by a 41-year-old German man who rushed the exhibit and knocked off the sculpture’s head.
Today the wax museum is one of London’s busiest attractions and during peak tourist season, it is common to encounter long lines that stretch for blocks. The museum started an overseas expansion in 1970, when it opened a branch location in Amsterdam. Today, it has expanded to many more cities including Las Vegas, New York City, Hong Kong, Washington DC and Hollywood.