Exile and the Kingdom: Was France’s Louis XVII a nationalized Argentine?

Marie Antoinette with her children and Madame Élisabeth, when the mob broke into Tuileries Palace on 20 June 1792

Four years after the frustrations of the Parisian working class exploded in 1789, King Louis XVI and his wife Marie Antoinette met their infamous end at the guillotine. But what became of their son? Even in the myth-shrouded context of French historical narrative, the 10-year-old Louis Charles (the would-be Louis XVII) remains an enigmatic figure. The dauphin was still with milk teeth when the revolution broke out—but even during the counter-revolution that followed, he never assumed the crown. Why not?

One possible explanation: the dauphin was in Argentina, where he would live out his life peacefully until his ultimate assassination.

Before dismissing the notion out-of-hand, consider two versions of what might have happened. The standard story is that following a failed family attempt to flee to the royalist stronghold of Montmédy, Louis was imprisoned with his parents and sister. While his mother and father were publicly beheaded and his sister sequestered in another location, Louis met with a different fate. Under cover of night, a group of royalist nobles with visions of post-revolution succession kidnapped the boy and delivered him to the care of a sympathist cobbler in the Paris Commune. There Louis stayed until, for mysterious reasons, he was transferred to a dark, humid, and filthy cell. Inadequate ventilation and the poor quality of the food passed to him through the bars proved fatal: he died in 1794 of tuberculosis, and was buried in the churchyard of St. Marguerite. It was his uncle who became the king.

As a character in Cortázar’s Los Premios writes, however: “It is one’s duty to consider each situation with the greatest possible latitude, looking not only at the circumstances themselves, but also at all their imaginable variations—from the initial formulation in which we retain a naïve confidence, to the projections one might call magical or dialectical, forged from one’s hunches or the feelings in one’s gut.” One might imagine an infinite number of justifiable alternatives, possibilities radiating outward from a most-probable center.

And so let us entertain an alternate explanation. The move to a new cell was simply a pretense for subsitution—while an unfortunate look-alike was imprisoned, the real Louis was secreted away to the house of a family of fishermen in Calais, in the north of France. There he was educated by private teachers, learning English, Spanish, German, Latin, and Hebrew in addition to French, and studying navigation, architecture, and painting. Finally, with his own country too dangerous, he changed his name to Pierre Benoit, taking the surname of his fisherman family. With a letter of recommendation signed by Napoleon Bonaparte in hand, he set sail from France—arriving in July 1818 in the marina of Buenos Aires.

Dauphin in the barrio

This second story has its roots in the generational failure to keep secrets—in other words, in oral tradition. Benoit supposedly confided his heritage to his daughter Petrona, who passed it on to her niece Dolores, who told it to her son Federico Zapiola Benoit, who in 1941 revealed it to the world in his book “¿Luis XVII murió en Buenos Aires?”

Zapiola cites a great deal of evidence to make the case for his great-grandfather’s royal status. He describes finding a drawing of Benoit with the initials L.C.R.F.P.B., written in lacy Baroque style—the interpretation, according to him, being “Luis Carlos, Roi de France, Pierre Benoit.” He notes that while Benoit was a painter, he painted only three portraits during his life: one of Marie Antoinette, one of Princess Marie Thérèse Charlotte, and one of Princess Isabelle (the dauphin’s mother, sister, and aunt respectively). Additional evidence is that after Pierre’s death, a letter arrived from Calais, informing the family that his grandfather—supposedly only a fisherman—had bequeathed them a grand fortune. (Benoit’s son supposedly destroyed the letter before witnesses, saying “This money is not for us!”)

  Architect Pedro Benoit

Zapiola wasn’t the only one in his family to have believed the Benoit story. In an interview, another descendant, Lucrecia Zapiola, described Benoit’s habit of carrying with him in a locket a lock of blonde hair, supposedly belonging to his mother Marie Antoinette. According to her, he was closed about his past, and refused to answer questions about family history. Benoit’s great-granddaughter, Elina Benoit Pieres (who devoted her life to the family’s genealogical tree) corroborated this reticence, telling the newspaper Emisiones Platenses that he “told his daughter that he came from a golden cradle; letters in French arrived that he wouldn’t allow anyone to open; money he knew had been deposited in a bank in Calais was never touched.”

According to all accounts, Benoit—perhaps in post-dauphin capacity—led a normal and productive life in in Buenos Aires. He worked, briefly held public office, and married an Argentine woman, with whom he had two sons. (One of them, also named Pierre Benoit, was an architect specializing in the design of churches and public buildings, and is famous here for having helped build the Catedral de Buenos Aires and for having planned the layout of La Plata.)

But myth enlarges Benoit’s life and situates it within a grander narrative. With its quasi-mystical intrigue and Borgesian themes of dual identity, the legend has found resonance in Argentina. Articles in newspapers from Clarín to Diario Hoy have speculated on Benoit’s identity; and the 1950 short-story collection “Misteriosa Buenos Aires,” by Manuel Mujica Láinez—recently republished by Biblioteca del Viajero ABC, and currently displayed prominently on the front tables of numerous bookstores—contains the story “The Marble Staircase,” devoted to chronicling the accounts of those who believe Benoit was truly the disguised Louis XVII.

Death of the dauphin, part I

After the revolution, the idea of a living dauphin grew in popularity as Louis XVIII’s support dwindled. The rumors were loud enough to worry the crown—if a dauphin really did exist, Louis XVIII could be gotten rid of and the “true heir” restored. Convinced this must not happen, the king ordered one of his ministers to find out the truth, an investigation ending with a confession from a member of the Directorio that the boy had been kidnapped in 1794.

        Recoleta Cemetery (Photo: Beatrice Murch)

According to Zapiola’s account, this boy was Pierre Benoit, and he would be considered a threat to France so long as he lived. By this point, the reality is that Benoit was hardly a threat to anyone but himself. Suffering from age-related pains and severe hip problems, he had been confined to his bed for the past fourteen years when in August 1852 an unknown visitor is said to have called on him at his home on Bolívar and Independencia. The two men spoke alone, and in French, but through the walls the maids managed to hear Benoit refer to the other as “docteur.” On his way out, the visitor told the maids that Benoit was sleeping, and was not to be disturbed. Nor would he be—according to the story, he had been prescribed pills containing arsenic. (Legend also has it that while this doctor could not be located in Buenos Aires, he was discovered a few months later in Paris and guillotined.)

Benoit was buried in the cemetery in Recoleta, but his remains lay undiscovered until 1996, when the cemetery was partially remodeled. When a wall was pulled down, Benoit’s bones were found mixed with those of another eighteen people (three men, five women, and ten children). In the laboratory, chemical analysis revealed that the body belonged to that of a 67-year-old man with hip problems. Arsenic was detected in the bones, and chromosomal analysis suggested genetic correspondence with French nobility.

Adding even more ballast to the idea of an “alternate dauphin,” a 1995 genetic analysis revealed that the exhumed remains in the St. Marguerite cemetery in France (according to the traditional story, those of Louis Charles) actually belonged to a child not of 10 years, but of 16. Perhaps Louis Charles really had been replaced in his prison cell by another boy—perhaps the true Louis XVII really had lived out his days in Argentina.

       Louis XVII’s heart in the Saint Denis basilica

Death of the dauphin, part II

Not everyone is so convinced by the idea of a Rioplatense Louis XVII, however. Books like Héctor Sáenz y Quesada’s “¿Vivió y murió un delfín en Buenos Aires?” point out the speciousness of the “evidence” Benoit’s relatives offer. As Quesada notes, during the Bourbon restoration following the revolution, hundreds of claimants to the title of Louis XVII emerged, many with stories as complex and convincing as Benoit’s. As if literally to demolish the myth, in 2008 Benoit’s house in Buenos Aires was torn down, provoking a mini controversy on the theme of historical preservation.

For all its detail, the myth was ultimately dealt a blow severe, swift, and fatal, though no historian was responsible. In 2000 DNA testing was brought into play yet again, with the intention of putting unauthentic claims to rest. Modern methods confirmed that a heart preserved for centuries in alcohol in Paris did in fact belong to the tubercular dauphin—proof that Louis Charles really had died in captivity. The heart was buried in the Basilica in 2004, alongside the remains of his parents. Here the story rests, with a small postscript: while genetic testing occasionally gives life to new legends, more often it murders a few of the many that exist. The Argentine version of Louis XVII could not be done in by French revolutionaries or squalid prison conditions—in the end, it took a test tube.