There’s a myth about Marie Antoinette’s attempt to escape the guillotine I love retelling: In seeking to avoid the wrath of the Jacobin revolutionaries, the royal family escaped to the outskirts of Paris in disguise. When their coach was stopped by a mob, they were unrecognizable. They were found out, improbably, by the noble profile of the king (which perfectly matched a banknote), but also in the noble smell of the queen. After all, only royalty could afford such a sublime scent.
Beauty has always been a direction marker. In his essay “Privacy in the Films of Lana Turner,” the writer Wayne Koestenbaum describes it as a vector—and one that may not have a clear trajectory. In The Secret History, Donna Tartt writes the same and goes further: To her, death is the mother of beauty, and we endlessly seek its capture because we want to live forever. Appropriately, much of the history of beauty—and in particular, of perfume—has been a one-way ticket, paid for in alcohol and essential oil, straight into the afterlife.
We could start in most countries when it comes to death by perfume—it’s actually a tale older than Christ. People were poisoning each other for political gain and biological warfare many thousands of years before Jesus walked.
The Sumerians may have been the first, but ancient Rome and Greece quickly followed. The ingredients lists of Theophrastus, Dioscorides, and Pliny all explored the medicinal, political, and beautiful uses of herbs, animal parts, and floral absolutes. At this time, medicines and perfumes share both ingredients and centers of production. It was quite often a two-for-one.
Writing in the sixth century BCE, the ancient Indian surgeon Sushruta outlined a perfumed connection to death and its use in warfare in his text, the Sushruta Samhita. The Sushrita Samhita lists common poisonings: Lethal doses of anything available were mixed with food, drink, honey, medicine, bathing water, anointing oils, eyelash pigments and sprinkled over clothes, beds, couches, shoes, garlands and jewelry, horse saddles, and perfumes—anywhere that might allow it to sink into pores. While perfumes could be the face of poison, Sushruta also mentioned that sprinkling the earth with perfume and other materials (wine, black clay, and cow poop) could cure the earth of poison. He wasn’t totally wrong: Black clay and alcohol have disinfecting and filtering effects. The perfume, however, is just a mask.
If we’re talking about perfume and war, we can’t leave out the constantly squabbling Medici family: Catherine de Medici made a name for herself in France in the 1500s when she was implicated in the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre. It is said that her perfumer, Rene lé Florentin, concocted the perfumed, poisoned gloves that felled her rival, Jeanne D’Albret, who died after mysteriously falling ill following a shopping trip. That poisoned gloves were the culprit is a common myth, and a gloriously believable one given the popularity of perfumed gloves at the time. Science suggests that Jeanne died of natural causes.
That wasn’t the last death linked to perfume in Paris. There was also the Affair of the Poisons, a murder scandal that implicated many members of the aristocracy in Louis XIV France from 1677–1682. More accurately—almost a parody of itself, frankly—it was a crime ring centered around poison, perfume, abortion, witchcraft, affairs, and royalty. The Affair was entrenched in every echelon of society, from the gutters along the Seine to the court of Louis XIV himself: His official mistress was a regular client of Catherine Monvoisin, better known as La Voisin, a crime leader and perfumer/sorceress extraordinaire. The scandal—called “The Affair of the Poisons” in the press—was linked to inheritance powder—”poudre de succession,” which was typically arsenic or thallium—and it implicated people from all social strata.
As a perfume, Aqua Tofana was a dud, given that the poison was odorless—but as a husband killer, it was a bestseller.
La Voisin was in partnership with famed local abortionists and priests, sharing the profits of unwelcome consequences of sex in an age without Planned Parenthood, and her business was all encompassing. She sold perfumes and powders, yes, but her beauty business was merely her opening card in a game of blood and power that involved arsenic and rituals that supposedly included the skin of infants and priest-sanctified, out-of-wedlock afterbirth. There are unsubstantiated claims that police recovered the remains of 2,500 infants in La Voisin’s garden while her trial was going on. (She was also questioned while intoxicated, so of course the legitimacy of her testimony might be questionable.) Nevertheless, what she was on trial for was not too far removed from more respectable occupations at the time. Sorcerers and pharmacists were very similar during the late 17th century: Both offered remedies for headaches, pimples, bad breath, teeth whitening, hair dye, perfume. La Voisin’s methods just happened to involve considerably more blood, animal sacrifice, and a royal clientele. She was eventually burned at the stake as a result of the scandal; most of her associates, 36 in total, were executed or burned as well. The lucky ones were imprisoned.
While the Affair went on in France, another perfumist–poisoner was making her name in Italy. Something of a Lady Vengeance, Giulia Tofana claimed over 600 lives, mostly those of abusive husbands whose wives were her clientele. Tofana was something of a Lady Vengeance, choosing to sell her poisons in two forms to women who sought to escape their husbands: One was powdered makeup, and another was disguised in a perfume vial, with the face of Saint Nicholas of Bari gazing out from the packaging. (Saint Nicholas is the original inspiration for Santa Claus: He was a secret gift giver.) As a perfume, Aqua Tofana was a dud, given that the poison was odorless (a combination of arsenic, belladonna, and lead)—but as a husband killer, it was a bestseller. Aqua Tofana became so popular in Italy, flooding the households of Palermo, Naples, and Rome, that eventually its maker was found out and executed for her work, along with her entire staff and many of her clientele.
The active ingredients in most of these crimes of beauty were arsenic and cyanide. Perfume and poison have always been intertwined; the Sanskrit word for red arsenicis even the same as the word for perfume. Non-murderous professional perfumers have long been obsessed with working death into beauty, too, though with fewer actual corpses to show for it. Dior’s Hypnotic Poison in particular is an ode to cyanide. It contains notes of bitter almond—and bitter almonds contain amygdalin, which contains a common aromatic ingredient that smells like amaretto liqueur but can also yield cyanide if hydrolysis occurs differently, according to The Secret of Scent by Luca Turin. It’s a clever, subtle pun on poison, by a perfumer with a morbid sense of humor—there is doubtless a better kind.
It’s been a few years since Dior’s Poison ruled the bestseller charts at department stores, but if you were to wander around your local Sephora, you’d invariably come across perfumes that nod to this long lineage of death and glamour. Newer brands like TokyoMilk make use of branding that relies on the lure of the femme fatale—including a scent called Arsenic No.17. As Baudelaire wrote in Fleurs du Mal, a poetry collection that has inspired countless perfumers and poisoners alike: “The charming airs which constitute beauty are… the mischievous air, the sickly air, the feline air, a mingling of childishness, nonchalance and malice.” Perfume, in so many words, is morbid—terrifying, even. While invisible scents may seem like the poltergeist of aestheticism, perfume is often the monster, too, leaving bodies behind in the fumes.