Most people enjoy the delightful fun of wax museums, but some feel uncomfortable around the uncanny, life-like creations. Wax museums (also known as waxworks) feature collections of wax sculptures that portray famous historical figures and celebrities. Some places even have a “Chamber of Horrors” gallery showing some of the most horrible criminals known to man. This seems fitting, especially after you learn the creepy story of how Madame Tussaud started her career. But how much of this story is fact?
Madam Tussaud’s Early Life
We know that Tussaud was born on December 1, 1761, in Strasbourg, France as Marie Grosholtz. Her father, a German soldier named Joseph Grosholtz, died in the Seven Years’ War. After her father died, she and her mother, Anne-Marie Walder, moved to Bern, Switzerland where her mother worked as a housekeeper for a doctor named Philippe Curtius. Grosholtz was only six years old at this time. She couldn’t have known at the time, but Curtius would play an instrumental role in her life. Curtius was not only a physician but he was also very skilled in wax sculpting and he was happy to teach her his techniques. She often referred to Curtius as “Uncle” but there were rumors that he may have actually been her real father. When he died in 1794 he left his collection of wax figures to Tussaud.
Madam Tussaud Starts Her Career
She created her first wax figure, which was of Voltaire, in 1777. Later on, between 1780 and 1789 she made portraits of philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Benjamin Franklin, which became some of her most popular sculptures.
According to her memoirs, in 1780, the Royal Court in Versailles learned of her talents and invited her to become an art tutor to King Louis XVI’s sister, Madame Elizabeth. This allowed her to travel in elite groups, meet aristocrats, and French revolutionaries. However, it’s important to note that this claim has never been verified.
The Reign of Terror
But it is true that during the Reign of Terror, she was accused of being a royal sympathizer and was imprisoned in La Forte Prison, where her hair was cut off to prepare her for execution. Fortunately, her former mentor Philippe Curtius was able to secure her safe release.
It’s been said that after the French revolution began, Grosholtz was forced to prove her loyalty to the Revolution by creating death masks of people that died by guillotine. She claimed many of these individuals were her friends when she lived in Paris. She also stated that she used the severed heads of Queen Marie Antoinette, King Louis XVI, and Maximilien Robespierre to create their death masks.
The practice of making death masks goes back to ancient Egypt and Rome. These masks were used to preserve the likeness of the dead. This was an extremely important form of record keeping, especially since photography did not exist.
She would later write that she was forced to make wax models and death masks from a seemingly endless pile of severed heads. The masks she created were paraded through the streets of Paris. But just like her claim of tutoring the king’s sister in Versailles, her claim of being forced to create death masks has never been verified by other sources.
Ultimately, she left France and never returned due to the Napoleonic Wars. She traveled through Europe, showcasing her highly detailed, beautiful, and often disturbing wax sculptures.
By 1795 she had married Francois Tussaud, a civil engineer, and her traveling show was renamed “Madame Tussauds”. They had two sons, Joseph and François, and a daughter who died shortly after birth.
Madam Tussaud’s London Museum
Unfortunately, her husband abandoned her and their two children in 1802. As a single mother, she moved to London and opened her wax museum there. In order to make the exhibit as authentic as possible, she obtained original artifacts to display with her wax creations. She even managed to get King George IV’s coronation robes.
Her creations were extremely popular and her business was highly successful. Many famous people visited her museum, including the Duke of Wellington, who came to enjoy the wax creation of himself.
Of course, with success came controversy. Many believed that profiting from death and tragedy was wrong and distasteful. This criticism followed throughout the years even as the museum’s popularity continued to climb.
After setting up her London exhibition, she also displayed her more outrageous, historical figures in a separate room which was later on called the “Chamber of Horrors” and visitors paid higher fees to see it. Some of the items included the death masks of King Louis XVI, execution scenes of infamous criminals, a model of the guillotine, and even an Egyptian mummy.
The museum was directly hit by a German WWII bomb in 1925 and over 300 molds were destroyed. But a few of Tussaud’s original creations remain.
Madame Tussaud continued to work into her 80s. She died at the age of 88 on April 16, 1850. There is a memorial to her on the side of the nave of St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Church on Cadogan Street in London.
Madam Tussaud’s Legacy
Today the Tussaud waxworks brand is known all over the world. The Baker Street Madame Tussauds Museum in London is a highly popular tourist attraction.
There are Madame Tussauds museums in 24 locations across four continents and they all continue to enjoy millions of visits. There are locations in Beijing, Bangkok, Amsterdam, Blackpool, Montreal, Sydney, Hong Kong, and many other places. The current owner is Merlin Entertainments Group.
The museum’s studio still uses many of the original methods used by Tussaud but now sculptures of Hollywood stars, athletes, and politicians are created from the living through a months-long process that starts with a series of photographs and measurements. A sculptor then creates a clay figure. Then a caster pours a wax mold and color experts match the skin, teeth, and eye color. Real human hair is used, even for the eyebrows and eyelashes. Every work costs over $186,000.
Today wax museums are found everywhere, often as a city’s main attractions. However, no other wax museum can live up to the compelling story of Madame Tussaud and her creepy sculptures.
We don’t know exactly how much of Madame Tussaud fascinating story is true. But what we do know is that she lived during extremely bloody and dangerous times. So perhaps what is most alluring about her is that despite her struggle, she came through everything and managed to become one of the most successful businesswomen in all of history.