The Diamond Necklace
In my sketch of Joseph Balsamo, alias the Count Alessandro de
Cagliostro, I referred to the affair of the diamond necklace, known in
French history as the Collier de la Reine, or Queen's necklace, from
the manner in which the name and reputation of Marie Antoinette, the
consort of Louis XVI, became entangled in it. I shall now give a brief
account of this celebrated imposition--perhaps the boldest and shrewdest
wn, and almost wholly the work of a woman.
On the Quai de la Ferraille, not far from the Pont Neuf, stood the
establishment, part shop, part manufactory, of Messrs. Boehmer &
Bassange, the most celebrated jewelers of their day. After triumphs
which had given them world-wide fame during the reign of Louis XV, and
made them fabulously rich, they determined, with the advent of Louis
XVI, to eclipse all their former efforts and crown the professional
glory of their lives. Their correspondents in every chief jewel market
of the world were summoned to aid their enterprise, and in the course of
some two or three years they succeeded in collecting the finest and most
remarkable diamonds that could be procured in the whole world of
The next idea was to combine all these superb fragments in one grand
ornament to grace the form of beauty. A necklace was the article fixed
upon, and the best experience and most delicate taste that Europe could
boast were expended on the design. Each and every diamond was specially
set and faced in such manner as to reveal its excellence to the utmost
advantage, and all were arranged together in the style best calculated
to harmonize their united effect. Form, shape, and the minutest shades
of color were studied, and the result, after many attempts and many
failures, and the anxious labor of many months, was the most exquisite
triumph that the genius of the lapidary and the goldsmith could
The whole necklace consisted of three triple rows of diamonds, or nine
rows in all, containing eight hundred faultless gems. The triple rows
fell away from each in the most graceful and flexible curves over each
side of the breast and each shoulder of the wearer, the curves starting
from the throat, whence a magnificent pendant, depending from a single
knot of diamonds, each as large as a hazel-nut, hung down half way upon
the bosom in the design of a cross and crown, surrounded by the lilies
of the royal house--the lilies themselves dangling on stems which were
strung with smaller jewels. Rich clusters and festoons spread from the
loop over each shoulder, and the central loop on the back of the neck
was joined in a pattern of emblematic magnificence corresponding with
that in front.
It was in 1782 that this grand work was finally completed, and the happy
owners gloated with delight over a monument of skill as matchless in its
way as the Pyramids themselves. But, alas! the necklace might as well
have been constructed of the common boulders piled in those same
pyramids as of the finest jewels of the mine, for all the good it seemed
destined to bring the poor jewelers, beyond the rapture of beholding it
and calling it theirs.
The necklace was worth 1,500,000 francs, equivalent to more than
$300,000 in gold, as money then went, or nearly $500,000 in gold,
now-a-days. Rather too large a sum to keep locked up in a casket, the
reader will confess! And then it seems that Messrs. Boehmer & Bassange
had not entirely paid for it yet. They had ten creditors on the diamonds
in different countries, and an immense capital still locked up in their
Of course, then, after their first delight had subsided, they were most
anxious to sell an article that had to be constantly and painfully
watched, and that might so easily disappear. How many a nimble-fingered
and stout-hearted rogue would not, in those days, have imperiled a dozen
lives to clutch that blazing handful of dross, convertible into an
Elysium of pomp and pleasure! It would hardly have been a safe noonday
plaything in moral Gotham, let alone the dissolute Paris of eighty years
The first thought, of course, that kindled in the breasts of Boehmer and
Bassange was, that the only proper resting-place for their matchless
bauble was the snowy neck of the Queen Marie Antoinette, then the
admired and beloved of all! Her peerless beauty alone could live in the
glow of such supernal splendor, and the French throne was the only one
in Christendom that could sustain such glittering weight. Moreover, the
Queen had already once been a good customer to the court jewelers, for
in 1774 she bought four diamonds of them for $75,000.
Louis XV would not have hesitated to fling it on the shoulders of the Du
Barry, and Louis XVI, in spite of his odd notions upon economy and just
administration, easily listened to the delicate insinuations of his
court-jewelers; and, one fine morning, laid the necklace in its casket
on the table of his Queen. Her Majesty, for a moment, yielded to the
promptings of feminine weakness, and danced and laughed with the glee of
an overjoyed child in the new sunshine of those burning, sparkling,
dazzling gems. Once and once only she placed it on her neck and breast,
and probably the world has never before or since seen such a countenance
in such a setting. It was almost the head of an angel shining in the
glory of the spheres. But a better thought prevailed, and quickly
removing it, she, with a wave of her beautiful hand, declined the gift
and besought the King to apply the sum to any other purpose that would
be useful or honorable to France, whose finances were sadly straitened.
"We want ships of war more than we do necklaces," said she. The King was
really delighted at this act of the Queen's, and the incident soon
becoming widely known, gave the latter immense popularity for at least
twenty-four hours after it occurred. In fact, the amount was really
applied to the construction of a grand line-of-battle ship called the
Suffren, after the great Admiral of that name.
Boehmer, who seems to have been the business manager of the jeweler
firm, found his necklace as troublesome as the cobbler did the elephant
he won in a raffle, and tried so perseveringly to induce the Queen to
buy it, that he became a real torment. She seems to have thought him a
little cracked on the subject; and one day, when he obtained a private
audience, he besought her either to buy the necklace or to let him go
and drown himself in the Seine. Out of all patience, the Queen intimated
that he would have been wiser to secure a customer to begin with; that
she would not buy; that if he chose to throw himself into the Seine it
would be entirely on his own responsibility; and that as for the
necklace, he had better pick it to pieces and sell it. The poor German
(for Boehmer was a native of Saxony) departed in deep distress, but
accepted neither his own suggestion nor the Queen's.
For some months after this, the court jewelers busied themselves in
peddling their necklace about among the courts of Europe. But none of
these concerns found it convenient just then to pay out three hundred
and sixty thousand dollars for a concatenation of eight hundred
diamonds; and still the sparkling elephant remained on the jewelers'
Time passed on. Madame Campan, one of the Queen's confidential ladies,
happened to meet Boehmer one day, and the necklace was alluded to.
"What is the state of affairs about the necklace," asked the lady.
"Highly satisfactory," replied Boehmer, whose serenity of countenance
Madame Campan had already remarked. "I have sold it to the Sultan at
Constantinople, for his favorite Sultana."
This the lady thought rather curious, but she was glad the thing was
disposed of, and said no more.
Time passed on again. In the beginning of August 1785, Boehmer took the
trouble to call on Madame Campan at her country-house, somewhat to her
"Has the Queen given you no message for me?" he inquired.
"No!" said the lady; "What message should she give?"
"An answer to my note," said the jeweler.
Madame remembered a note which the Queen had received from Boehmer a
little while before, along with some ornaments sent by his hands to her
as a present from the King. It congratulated her on having the finest
diamonds in Europe, and hoped she would remember him. The Queen could
make nothing of it, and destroyed it. Madame Campan therefore replied,
"There is no answer, the Queen burned the note. She does not even
understand what you meant by writing that note."
This statement very quickly elicited from the now startled German a
story which astounded the lady. He said the Queen owed him the first
instalment of the money for the diamond necklace; that she had bought it
after all; that the story about the Sultana was a lie told by her
directions to hide the fact; since the Queen meant to pay by
instalments, and did not wish the purchase known. And Boehmer said, she
had employed the Cardinal de Rohan to buy the necklace for her, and it
had been delivered to him for her, and by him to her.
Now the Queen, as Madame Campan knew very well, had always strongly
disliked this Cardinal; he had even been kept from attending at Court in
consequence, and she had not so much as spoken to him for years. And so
Madame Campan told Boehmer, and further she told him he had been imposed
"No," said the man of sparklers decisively, "It is you who are deceived.
She is decidedly friendly to the cardinal. I have myself the documents
with her own signature authorizing the transaction, for I have had to
let the bankers see them in order to get a little time on my own
Here was a monstrous mystification for the lady of honor, who told
Boehmer to instantly go and see his official superior, the chief of the
king's household. She herself being very soon afterwards summoned to the
Queen's presence, the affair came up, and she told the Queen all she
knew about it. Marie Antoinette was profoundly distressed by the evident
existence of a great scandal and swindle, with which she was plainly to
be mixed up through the forged signatures to the documents which Boehmer
had been relying on.
Now for the Cardinal.
Louis de Rohan, a scion of the great house of Rohan, one of the proudest
of France, was descended of the blood royal of Brittany; was a handsome,
proud, dissolute, foolish, credulous, unprincipled noble, now almost
fifty years old, a thorough rake, of large revenues, but deeply in debt.
He was Peer of France, Archbishop of Strasburg, Grand Almoner of France,
Commander of the Order of the Holy Ghost, Commendator of the benefice of
St. Wast d'Arras, said to be the most wealthy in Europe, and a
Cardinal. He had been ambassador at Vienna a little after Marie
Antoinette was married to the Dauphin, and while there had taken
advantage of his official station to do a tremendous quantity of
smuggling. He had also further and most deeply offended the Empress
Maria Theresa, by outrageous debaucheries, by gross irreligion, and
above all by a rather flat but in effect stingingly satirical
description of her conduct about the partition of Poland. This she never
forgave him, neither did her daughter Marie Antoinette; and accordingly,
when he presented himself at Paris soon after she became Queen, he
received a curt repulse, and an intimation that he had better go
Now in those days a sentence of exclusion from Court was to a French
noble but just this side of a banishment to Tophet; and de Rohan was
just silly enough to feel this infliction most intensely. He went
however, and from that time onward, for year after year, lived the life
of a persevering Adam thrust out of his paradise, hanging about the gate
and trying all possible ways to sneak in again. Once, for instance, he
had induced the porter at the palace of the Trianon to let him get
inside the grounds during an illumination, and was recognized by the
glow of his cardinal's red stockings from under his cloak. But he was
only laughed at for his pains; the porter was turned off, and the poor
silly miserable cardinal remained "out in the cold," breaking his heart
over his exclusion from the most tedious mess of conventionalities that
ever was contrived--except those of the court of Spain.
About 1783, this great fool fell in with an equally great knave, who
must be spoken of here, where he begins to converge along with the rest,
towards the explosion of the necklace swindle. This was Cagliostro, who
at that time came to Strasburg and created a tremendous excitement with
his fascinating Countess, his Egyptian masonry, his Spagiric Food (a
kind of Brandreth's pill of the period,) which he fed out to poor sick
people, his elixir of life, and other humbugs.
The Cardinal sent an intimation that he would like to see the quack. The
quack, whose impudence was far greater than the Cardinal's pride, sent
back this sublime reply: "If he is sick let him come to me, and I will
cure him. If he is well, he does not need to see me, nor I him."
This piece of impudence made the fool of a cardinal more eager than
ever. After some more affected shyness, Cagliostro allowed himself to be
seen. He was just the man to captivate the Cardinal, and they were
quickly intimate personal friends, practising transmutation, alchemy,
masonry, and still more particularly conducting a great many experiments
on the Cardinal's remarkably fine stock of Tokay wine. Whatever poor de
Rohan had to do, he consulted Cagliostro about it, and when the latter
went to Switzerland, his dupe maintained a constant communication with
him in cipher.
Lastly is to be mentioned Jeanne de St. Remi, Countess de Lamotte de
Valois de France, the chief scoundrel, if the term may be used of a
woman--of the necklace affair. She seems to have been really a
descendant of the royal house of Valois, to which Francis I. belonged;
through an illegitimate son of Henry II. created Count de St. Remi. The
family had run down and become poor and rascally, one of Jeanne's
immediate ancestors having practiced counterfeiting for a living. She
herself had been protected by a certain kind hearted Countess de
Boulainvilliers; was receiving a small pension from the Court of about
$325 a year; had married a certain tall soldier named Lamotte; had come
to Paris, and was living in poverty in a garret, hovering about as it
were for a chance to better her circumstances. She was a quick-witted,
bright-eyed, brazen-faced hussy, not beautiful, but with lively pretty
ways, and indeed somewhat fascinating.
Her protectress, the countess de Boulainvilliers, was now dead; while
she was alive Jeanne had once visited her at de Rohan's palace of
Saverne, and had thus scraped a slight acquaintance with the gay
Cardinal, which she resumed during her abode at Paris.
Everybody at Paris knew about the Diamond Necklace, and about de Rohan's
desire to get into court favor. This sharp-witted female swindler now
came in among the elements I have thus far been describing, to frame
necklace, jeweller, cardinal, queen, and swindler, all together into her
plot, just as the key-stone drops into an arch and locks it up tight.
No mortal knows where ideas come from. Suddenly a conception is in the
mind, whence, or how, we do not know, any more than we know Life. The
devil himself might have furnished that which now popped into the
cunning, wicked mind of this adventuress. This is what she saw all at
Boehmer is crazy to sell his necklace. De Rohan is crazy after the
Queen's favor. I am crazy after money. Now if I can make De Rohan think
that the Queen wants the necklace, and will become his friend in return
for his helping her to it; if I can make him think I am her agent to
him, then I can steal the diamonds in their transit.
A wonderfully cunning and hardy scheme! And most wonderful was the cool,
keen promptitude with which it was executed.
The countess began to hint to the cardinal that she was fast getting
into the Queen's good graces, by virtue of being a capital gossip and
story-teller; and that she had frequent private audiences. Soon she
added intimations that the Queen was far from being really so displeased
with the cardinal, as he supposed. At this the old fool bit instantly,
and showed the keenest emotions of hope and delight. On a further
suggestion, he presently drew up a letter or memoir humbly and
plaintively stating his case, which the countess undertook to put into
the Queen's hands. It was the first of over two hundred notes from
him, notes of abasement, beseeching argument, expostulation, and so on,
all entrusted to Jeanne. She burnt them, I suppose.
In order to make her dupe sure that she told the truth about her access
to the Queen, Jeanne more than once made him go and watch her enter a
side gate into the grounds of the Trianon palace, to which she had
somehow obtained a key; and after waiting he saw her come out again,
sometimes under the escort of a man, who was, she said one Desclos, a
confidential valet of the Queen. This was Villette de Retaux, a "pal"
of Jeanne's and of her husband Lamotte, who had, by the way, become a
low-class gambler and swindler by occupation.
Next Jeanne talked about the Queen's charities; and on one occasion,
told how much the amiable Marie Antoinette longed to expend certain sums
for benevolent purposes if she only had them--but she was out of funds,
and the King was so close about money!
The poor cardinal bit again--"If the Queen would only allow him the
honor to furnish the little amount!"
The countess evidently hadn't thought of that. She reflected--hesitated.
The cardinal urged. She consented--it was not much--and was so kind as
to carry the cash herself. At their next meeting she reported that the
Queen was delighted, telling a very nice story about it. The cardinal
would only be too happy to do so again. And sure enough he did, and
quite a number of times too; contributing in all to the funds of the
countess in this manner, about $25,000.
Well: after a time the cardinal is at Strasburg, when he receives a note
from the countess that brings him back again as quick as post-horses can
carry him. It says that there is something very important, very secret,
very delicate, that the queen wants his help about. He is overflowing
with zeal. What is it? Only let him know--his life, his purse, his soul,
are at the service of his liege lady.
His purse is all that is needed. With infinite shyness and
circumspection, the countess gradually, half unwillingly, lets him find
out that it is the diamond necklace that the Queen wants. By diabolical
ingenuities of talk she leads de Rohan to the full conviction that if he
secures the Queen that necklace, he will thenceforward bask in all the
sunshine of court favor that she can show or control.
And at proper times sundry notes from the Queen are bestowed upon the
enraptured noodle. These are written in imitation of the Queen's
handwriting, by that Villette de Retaux who personated the Queen's
valet, and who was an expert at counterfeiting.
A last and sublime summit of impudent pretension is reached by a secret
interview which the Queen, says the countess, desires to grant to her
beloved servant the cardinal. This suggestion was rendered practicable
by one of those mere coincidences which are found though rarely in
history, and which are too improbable to put into a novel--the casual
discovery of a young woman of loose character who looked much like the
Queen. Whether her name was d'Essigny or Gay d'Oliva, is uncertain; she
is usually called by the latter. She was hired and taught; and with
immense precautions, this ostrich of a cardinal was one night introduced
into the gardens of the Trianon, and shown a little nook among the
thickets where a stately female in the similitude of the Queen received
him with soft spoken words of kindly greeting, allowed him to kneel and
kiss a fair and shapely hand, and showed no particular timidity of any
kind. Yet the interview had scarcely more than begun before steps were
heard. "Some one is coming," exclaimed the lady, "it is Monsieur and
Madame d'Artois--We must part. There"--she gave him a red rose--"You
know what that means! Farewell!" And away they went--Mademoiselle
d'Oliva to report to her employers, and the cardinal, in a seventh
heaven of ineffable tomfoolery, to his hotel.
But the interview, and the lovely little notes that came sometimes,
"fixed" the necklace business! And if further encouragement had been
needed, Cagliostro gave it. For the cardinal now consulted him about the
future of the affair, having indeed kept him fully informed about it for
a long time, as he did of all matters of interest. So the quack set up
his tabernacles of mummery in a parlor of the cardinal's hotel, and
conducted an Egyptian Invocation there all night long in solitude and
pomp; and in the morning he decreed (in substance) "go ahead." And the
cardinal did so. Boehmer and Bassange were only too happy to bargain
with the great and wealthy church and state dignitary. A memorandum of
terms and time of payment was drawn up, and was submitted to the Queen.
That is, swindling Jeanne carried it off, and brought it back, with an
entry made by Villette de Retaux in the margin, thus: "Bon,
bon--Approuve, Marie Antoinette de France." That is, "Good, good--I
approve. Marie Antoinette de France." The payment was to be by
instalments, at six months, and quarterly afterwards; the Queen to
furnish the money to the cardinal, while he remained ostensibly holden
to the jewellers, she thus keeping out of sight.
So the jewels were handed over to the cardinal de Rohan; he took them
one evening in great state to the lodgings of the countess, where with
all imaginable formality there came a knock at the door, and when it was
open a tall valet entered who said solemnly "On the part of the Queen!"
De Rohan knew it was the Queen's confidential valet, for he saw with
his own eyes that it was the same man who had escorted the countess from
the side gate at the Trianon! And so it was; to wit, Villette de Retaux,
who, calmly receiving the fifteen hundred thousand franc treasure,
marched but as solemnly as he had come in.
As that counterfeiting rascal goes out of the door, the diamond necklace
itself disappears from our knowledge. The swindle was consummated, but
there is no whisper of the disposition of the spoils. Villette, and
Jeanne's husband Lamotte, went to London and Amsterdam, and had some
money there; but seemingly no more than the previous pillages upon the
cardinal might have supplied; nor did the countess' subsequent
expenditures show that she had any of the proceeds.
But that is not the last of the rest of the parties to the affair, by
any means. Between this scene and the time when the anxious Boehmer,
having a little bill to meet, beset Madame Campan about his letter and
the money the Queen was to pay him, there intervened six months. During
that time countess Jeanne was smoothing as well as she could, with
endless lies and contrivances, the troubles of the perplexed cardinal,
who "couldn't seem to see" that he was much better off in spite of his
loyal performance of his part of the bargain.
But this application by Boehmer, and the enormous swindle which it was
instantly evident had been perpetrated on somebody or other, of course
waked up a commotion at once. The baron de Breteuil, a deadly enemy of
de Rohan, got hold of it all, and in his overpowering eagerness to ruin
his foe, quickly rendered the matter so public that it was out of the
question to hush it up. It seems probable that Jeanne de Lamotte
expected that the business would be kept quiet for the sake of the
Queen, and that thus any very severe or public punishments would be
avoided and perhaps no inquiries made. It is clear that this would have
been the best plan, but de Breteuil's officiousness prevented it, and
there was nothing for it but legal measures. De Rohan was arrested and
put in the Bastile, having barely been able to send a message in German
to his hotel to a trusty secretary, who instantly destroyed all the
papers relating to the affair. Jeanne was also imprisoned, and Miss Gay
d'Oliva and Villette de Retaux, being caught at Brussels and Amsterdam,
were in like manner secured. As for Cagliostro, he was also imprisoned,
some accounts saying that he ostentatiously gave himself up for trial.
This was a public trial before the Parliament of Paris, with much form.
The result was that the cardinal, appearing to be only fool, not knave,
was acquitted. Gay d'Oliva appeared to have known nothing except that
she was to play a part, and she had been told that the Queen wanted her
to do so, so she was let go. Villette was banished for life. Lamotte,
the countess' husband, had escaped to England, and was condemned to the
galleys in his absence, which didn't hurt him much. Cagliostro was
acquitted. But Jeanne was sentenced to be whipped, branded on the
shoulder with the letter V for Voleuse (thief), and banished.
This sentence was executed in full, but with great difficulty; for the
woman turned perfectly furious on the public scaffold, flew at the
hangman like a tiger, bit pieces out of his hands, shrieked, cursed,
rolled on the floor, kicked, squirmed and jumped, until they held her by
brute force, tore down her dress, and the red hot iron going aside as
she struggled, plunged full into her snowy white breast, planting there
indelibly the horrible black V, while she yelled like a fiend under the
torment of the smoking brand. She fled away to England, lived there some
time in dissolute courses, and is said to have died in consequence of
falling out of a window when drunk, or as another account states, of
being flung out by the companions of her orgy, whom she had stung to
fury by her frightful scolding. Before her death she put forth one or
two memoirs,--false, scandalous things.
The unfortunate Queen never entirely escaped some shadow of disrepute
from the necklace business. For to the very last, both on the trial and
afterwards, Jeanne de Lamotte impudently stuck to it that at least the
Queen had known about the trick played on the Cardinal at the Trianon,
and had in fact been hidden close by and saw and laughed heartily at the
whole interview. So sore and morbid was the condition of the public mind
in France in those days, when symptoms of the coming Revolution were
breaking out on every side, that this odious story found many and