A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

Was naturalist J.J. Audubon really the dauphin who would have become Louis XVII?

January 3, 1986

Dear Cecil:

I'm surprised to have (almost) caught you in an error, viz., your recent discussion of Christ, whom you described as having been "flayed." By extension, "flayed" might mean the same thing as "flogged" (which is what I think you mean), but seems to me it just means "skinned," more or less. We devotees have a duty to keep you on your august toes, Cece. Now for a question. What's the straight dope on the story that J.J. Audubon, the famous naturalist, was really the dauphin who would have become Louis XVII if he hadn't taken up watercolors and stuff? Is there a scholarly basis for this tale? Keep up the good work.

Cecil replies:

You're a schmuck, Beers, but at least you're a respectful schmuck. One learns to count one's blessings these days. I used "flayed" to mean "flogged to the point where the victim's skin hangs in tatters." No doubt this is an exaggeration, but let's face it, exaggeration is not exactly unknown in this column. Anyway, the usage is sanctioned by the Harper Dictionary of Contemporary Usage.

Now, where were we … right, the dauphin. "Dauphin," of course, was the title given to the heir apparent to the throne of France. The last one prior to the French Revolution was Louis-Charles Capet, or "Unlucky Chuckie," as we historians call him, who would have become Louis XVII. In 1792 little Chuck, along with his old man, Louis XVI, and several other members of the royal family, was imprisoned in Paris. During this time he received treatment not unlike that inflicted on certain newspaper columnists, i.e., oodles of undeserved abuse. His health deteriorated steadily, and on June 8, 1795, he died of what was officially diagnosed as scrofula, or tuberculosis of the lymph glands. An autopsy was performed, the death was duly witnessed and certified, and the body was buried in the cemetery of Sainte-Marguerite.

End of story? Hardly. Even before his death, rumors circulated in France that the real Louis-Charles had been poisoned or spirited out of prison by royalist sympathizers and replaced by a double. These rumors intensified after the prince's alleged demise, and over the next 50 years more than 30 pretenders turned up. These were invariably exposed as impostors, but not before eager royalists flocked around them. Eventually the whole business began to get comical and was satirized by Mark Twain in the duke and "dolphin" sequence in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. I hadn't heard the Audubon twist before, but it's typical of the genre. Audubon was born the same year as the dauphin and lived in France as a child. There were questions about his parentage for many years, and that probably gave rise to the idea that he was the lost Louis XVII. Unfortunately for conspiracy enthusiasts, it's now firmly established that Audubon was born in Haiti, the illegitimate son of a French sea captain.

Several inquiries into the Louis XVII affair were held over the years. The first, a formal investigation conducted shortly after the restoration of the monarchy in 1815, confirmed the official story, but it was suspiciously slipshod — many think the new king, Louis XVIII, Louis-Charles' uncle, didn't want his right to the throne called into question. In 1846 a priest dug up a body in Sainte-Marguerite cemetery that he believed to be that of Louis-Charles. Investigation showed the victim to have been 14-20 years of age, not 10, as Chuck supposedly was at the time of his demise. This lent credence to the idea that the kid who died in 1795 was a double, a notion that received still more support in the 1950s when researcher Andre Castelot compared samples of the dauphin's hair with some from the 1846 body and found they did not match. However, despite discrepancies in the official version of events, no hard evidence of a plot has ever been discovered. Most historians believe the 1846 body was just some mope who had been dumped in what was basically a common burial ground, and that Louis-Charles died in 1795 as advertised. Yet another disappointment for intrigue buffs, I guess, but I calls 'em like I sees 'em.

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