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French Revolution Forgeries?

January/February 2014


When Louis XVI went to the guillotine on January 21, 1793, spectators dipped handkerchiefs in his blood as souvenirs of the French Revolution. One hanky reportedly ended up in a hollow gourd decorated with figures of the revolution, such as Maximilien de Robespierre and Jean-Paul Marat. Over the following 200 years the rag dissolved, leaving just a bloodstain, while the hollowed-out squash itself passed into the hands of an Italian family.


In 2009, the family enlisted paleogenomicist Carles Lalueza-Fox, of Barcelona’s Pompeu Fabra University, to verify that the blood in the gourd was in fact Louis XVI’s. Lalueza-Fox sought out a DNA sample from a member of the House of Bourbon, the royal lineage to which Louis XVI belonged, as a basis of comparison. In the process, he found himself in a genetic quandary that called into question the authenticity of not one, but two, purported relics of the French Revolution.


In the late 1990s, Jean-Jacques Cassiman, a forensic geneticist at Catholic University of Leuven in Belgium, had authenticated a preserved heart that reportedly belonged to Louis XVII, Louis XVI’s son who died at age 10. He did this by isolating mitochondrial DNA, which is passed from mother to child, from the heart and comparing it with genetic material from hair belonging to Louis XVII’s mother, Marie Antoinette. Lalueza-Fox asked Cassiman for a sample of Y-chromosome DNA, which is passed from father to son, to authenticate the gourd blood, but the Belgian team had been unable to extract any from the heart.