One of the world’s most famous and popular tourist attractions, this wax museum in London was founded in 1835. Today, the museum has branches in Amsterdam (1971), Las Vegas (1999), New York (2000), and Hong Kong (2000).

Madame Tussaud (1761-1850) was born Marie Grosholtz in Strasburg. Her father, a German soldier, died before she was born, and her mother brought her up in Berne, Switzerland. Her mother was a housekeeper for a doctor, Philippe Curtius, who had an interesting hobby: wax modeling. He even ran a museum of his wax heads and busts.

Dr. Curtius’ creations were a big hit in France, and Marie and her mother followed him there. Young Marie became Dr. Curtius’ assistant, learned his craft, and became immersed in the French court, eventually becoming art teacher to the sister of King Louis XVI. She modeled prominent figures like Voltaire and Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

When Dr. Curtius fell in with the Jacobins, Marie met Maximillien Robespierre and a number of other future revolutionaries. Perhaps this is what saved her life during the French Revolution. To prove her loyalty to the revolutionary cause, she was forced into the gruesome task of making casts of the heads of victims of the guillotine, including many people who were once her friends and acquaintances, and even King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. She also made the death mask of Jean Paul Marat and a cast of the head of his killer Charlotte Corday. She would sketch the scene of his death for painter Jacques Louis David (see The Death of Marat). And when the karma wheel spun around to claim Robespierre, she made a cast of his head too.

When Dr. Curtius died, he left Marie his creations. In 1795, she married a man named Francois Tussaud and bore two sons, Joseph and Francis. She abandoned him in 1802 and took her boys and her waxworks to begin successful tours of the British Isles.

In 1835, she stopped touring and opened the museum on the corner of Baker Street and Portman Square. In addition to her wax creations, she exhibited a number of artifacts of the French Revolution, including a guillotine blade! The Chamber of Horrors, as the name might suggest, was a special room devoted to murderers.

Marie Tussaud took a hands-on approach to operating her museum, including collecting money from visitors, right up until her death at age 89.

Notable events in the museum’s history:

1895: Alfred Monson sues Tussaud’s for libel, objecting to his placement in the Chamber of Horrors. Monson was accused of killing Cecil Hambrough, his young ward, for the insurance money, but avoided conviction in a sensational trial. Monson wins, but the jury awards him the token amount of a single farthing.

1925: An electrical fire destroys many wax creations and French artifacts, including the campaign coach of Napoleon. The museum is restored in 1928.

1940: A German bomb destroys 325 head molds and the museum’s cinema. Ironically, the wax figure of Adolf Hitler survives.

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