In 1795, after the terror had claimed the heads of his father and mother, Louis Charles--next in line for the French throne--finally earned his release from the Temple prison in Paris. He had suffered the dank filth, the coarse ministrations of a guardian cobbler and long periods of isolation before succumbing, at age 10, to tuberculosis. The prince was dead. Vive la Revolution!
Or was he? Rumors swirled that the son of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette lived on: that he had escaped on his own, or been spirited away by royalists who replaced him with a commoner, or that Robespierre himself, betraying a soft spot that has escaped historians, had earlier connived at the boy's flight. Time and again over the following decades, the "real" dauphin--among the dozens, a stable boy and a Prussian clockmaker--revealed himself.
Turns out, and this really does come as a shock to many French, that all of them were pretenders. The boy who died in Temple prison and whose body was dumped in a mass grave really was Louis Charles, DNA tests have revealed. Scientists Jean-Jacques Cassiman and Bernd Brinkmann compared the mitochondrial DNA of the boy's mummified heart with samples from locks of hair taken from his mother, two of her sisters and two living maternal relatives. The sequences were all identical. Cassiman pronounced the results definitive, while conceding that "the heart was not ideally preserved for this test."
That's putting it mildly. The organ in question was stolen first by a royalist doctor, Philippe-Jean Pelletan, who hid it in his handkerchief after participating in the prince's autopsy, and then by Pelletan's assistant, whose wife later returned it to the doctor, who then gave it to the Archbishop of Paris, whose palace was attacked in 1830, at which point the container holding the heart was smashed to pieces, whereupon (after a few more twists) Dr. Pelletan's son retrieved it, little knowing that tiny slices of the dessicated memento would end up in a laboratory more than a century and a half later. Got it?
Anyway, this isn't the first attempt to solve the 205-year-old mystery. The prince's mass grave was exhumed twice in the 19th century, and both times its only tubercular remains were declared to belong to an older boy. Still, Philippe Delorme, a French historian who had pressed for the DNA tests, is convinced by Cassiman and Brinkmann's work. "Clearly, the finding spells the end of this example of the eternal myth--that of the little prince and the hidden king," says Delorme. "Perhaps we should undertake, as I do, the spiritual and philosophic venture of looking for the little prince that sleeps within all of us."
The descendants of the Prussian clockmaker, Karl-Willhelm Naundorff, aren't prepared to do that; they have rejected the DNA analysis. After all, the claim of this pretender was supported by a former Versailles maid, who swore he was the same boy she'd seen at the palace, by some French royals, and by his tombstone, which reads HERE LIES LOUIS XVII, DUKE OF NORMANDY, KING OF FRANCE AND NAVARRE. May they both rest in peace.
--By Nadya Labi. Reported by Bruce Crumley/Paris