The Case of Gabrielle de Launay | Marie Antoinette's Gossip Guide to the 18th Century: The Case of Gabrielle de Launay

June 03, 2011

The Case of Gabrielle de Launay

Anonymous, Woman with Flowers.
18th century, Material oil on canvas.
Villa La Pietra.
And now for an 18th century tale of love, separation and death! Gentle reader, this may upset your sensibilities, but the case of Gabrielle de Launay  was brought to the High Court of Paris, and sparked a great public interest. I would love to hear what you think of this one. 

The story begins in the mid 18th century, with the beautiful Gabrielle de Launay, daughter of M. de Launay.  At just 18 years old, she was not only beautiful and elegant but also in love.  She was betrothed to Captain Maurice de Serres, and the couple were very fond of each other.  The wedding was to be a  happy affair and just before all was to take place, Maurice de Serres was called away to India for duty.

Fearing that he would lose his beloved daughter, or worse, she would not survive the trip, M. de Launay postponed the marriage until the Captain's safe return to Paris.  Both young lovers were devastated at her father's decision, and with tears and broken hearts, they parted.

Norry, Croquis de l'Église
de St Roch, 1787.

Two long years passed before word was sent to Paris that Maurice de Serres had died while in India.  Anxious that his daughter should marry, for she was now twenty years old, he arranged a match with a M. du Bourg. He was much older than Gabrielle (nearly 30 years) and a lawyer, who had both money and reputation. 

Five years later, a man arrived in Paris, Captain Maurice de Serres, his death, as it turned out, had falsely been reported. Shortly after his arrive he passed the church of San Roch, where a grand funeral service was being held.  He made inquiries as any curious party might, to discover the tragic funeral was for a young and beautiful lady, no older than 25.

Richard Wilson,  Head of a man. Drawing.
Victoria and Albert Museum.

She has fallen ill and laid sick for two days before perishing. She was Madame du Bourg, née de Launay! After making more inquiries he discovered this Gabrielle was his very own, and she had fallen ill two days ago resulting in a sudden death.  His heart sunk.

That night, the young captain, crazed with grief, approached the sexton of the cemetery.  He offered a large amount of gold, if he would exhume the recently buried box, only so that he could see his love's features one last time.  Unable to resist the bribe, the sexton agreed, and when they unearthed the coffin, they broke the locks to open it....

The sexton, although a bit shaken and disturbed by this ordeal, and surely only comforted by the gold that was tucked in his pocket, told the captain that they should close the casket and put things back in order.  In a quick motion, the captain cried out and grabbed his deceased lady love.  Before the bewildered man knew what happened he had run off, and the sexton could only return the empty box to the ground.

Five years or so passed when widower M. du Bourg was passing through town.  He caught a glimpse of a lovely woman, whom very much resembled his beloved wife (whom he had mourned for years now).  He looked back for a better view, and was shocked and horrified at the likeness.  She noticed his gaze and quickly took off in a carriage. Before it it was gone he noted the plate number, the family arms on the side, de Serres.

Marcellus Laroon the Younger,  Portrait of an
Unknown Man. Mid-18th century, pen and
gray wash over pencil.  Ashmolean Museum.

With his money and influence it was easy for him to obtain an order that his wife's coffin raised (again), if only to ease his anxiety about the strange apparition.  To the surprise of everyone, the coffin was found with broken locks and empty.  M. du Bourg shocked the city when he claimed that Captain Maurice de Serres had illegally married his wife Gabrielle du Bourg, and brought the matter to the High Court.  He wanted their marriage dissolved immediately. 

Gabrielle was brought to court, but she explained she was not Gabrielle but Julie, born in South Africa and had only recently moved when she married.  Public interest peaked, and pamphlets on the fascinating and unreal case circulated.  She was finally declared to be Gabrielle du Bourg, once de Launay.  Most disturbing would be the fact that the lady was burried while still alive, or had she come back to life? But what of her husband, and her other husband?

This is when a brilliant defence came in.  Since she was, in fact, once M. du Bourg's wife, then by all laws, death should have declared the first marriage lawfully dissolved, permitting the second marriage to de Serres to be lawful.  When the defence failed, she pleaded to live out her days with the nuns and take her vows. 

The court determined that she had to return to her original husband rather than to the cloisters.  It is said, that the day she returned to his house, she shouted to him, "I restore to you what you have lost!" and within seconds, she fell to the ground.  Dead, from poison.  It was later determined that at that same moment, the couple had planned this out, Captain  de Serres had killed himself ending the affair.

This account is from Summers, Montague. 1960. The Vampire, his Kith and Kin. New Hyde Park, N.Y.: University Books.


  1. I second what Heather said. This IS a good story and very heartbreaking at the end (well in my opinion anyways).

  2. Wow, I was on the edge of my seat! Tragic and passionate!

  3. @Heather @Georgiane @madamekat: yes, yes and yes! I was shocked when I read it. Can you imagine if that Captain was not in Paris, and not so grief stricken out of his own sensibilities, she should have awoken underground! No wonder she did not want to return to her husband.

  4. My gosh that was a chilling and beautiful story i loved it and i love this era oh i wish for a time machine!

  5. I'm bummed. I can't read the "more." All it gives me is the next paragraph. I haven't a clue what they found in the coffin. :o(

    But what a sad, sad tale. I think the defense was brilliant and should have held.

  6. @nightsmusic Does this help?

    Here is the link for the full post!
    copy and paste:

  7. Buried alive, oh dear.
    What a fantastic story though, like a real-life Romeo and Juliet.

  8. Absolutely fabulous story! Like some gothic novel!

  9. Wow! The twists are great, terrific story!

  10. Very suspenseful!

  11. All I keep getting still is the same page. *sigh*

    I tried doing some research but didn't find much more. What a sad, sad story though as I said.

  12. Looks like they planned for her to fake her death. Good one, but pity they couldn't keep up pretending she was a South African.