HAUNTED BY HER MUMMY
The Story of the Corpse of Queen Victoria’s Mother-in-Law
Queen Victoria’s mother-in-law is the only princess of the blood in modern times whose corpse may be said to have constituted a piece of drawing-room furniture for ten or 15 years after her death. Preserved in the form of a mummy, her dead body was dragged about over Europe. The casket in which the embalmed remains were contained was fashioned like a grand piano. It was always kept locked, although it occupied the most prominent place in the drawing-room of the sorrowing widower. The remains of the unfortunate lady were not finally laid to rest in the ducal vault at Gotha, beside her ancestors, until the house in which her husband resided had been broken into at night by men disguised as burglars, who, after chloroforming the owner, his wife and the members of his household, burst open the piano case and carried off its contents, the corpse of the once exquisitely beautiful reigning Duchess of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha.
In order to understand how the mother-in-law of Queen Victoria came to be subjected to treatment of this kind it is necessary to explain that the duchess, who had brought the duchy of Gotha, to which she was the sole heiress, as a dowry to her husband, the Duke of Saxe-Coburg, was shamefully used by the latter. The duke, a notorious drunkard and profligate and renowned for the brutality of his manners, practically deserted her about three years after the birth of her son Albert (afterwards Prince Consort of Great Britain) and established in her place in his palace a Polish favourite named Schimbowska, with whom he lived.
Indeed, she was the duchess in all but name. The imperial bundestag or federation of sovereign princes of the German empire felt impelled to interfere. But it was of no avail and finally the situation became so intolerable that the young duchess fled, being assisted in her escape by a young officer, Baron von Hanstein. Although it does not appear that the baron had ever been admitted to the intimacy of the duchess further than to help her leave the country, which any man in his position would have done, yet the duke at once brought suit for divorce against the duchess, naming the young officer as co-respondent. At the same time he dismissed the young man from the army and exiled him.
Realizing how much the baron had sacrificed for her the duchess married him a year or two after recovering her freedom and obtaining for him the title of count of Poelzig. As she had, assisted by the bundestag, recovered possession of the revenue of the duchy of Gotha, she was able to live in affluence and spent the remainder of her life at St. Wendel on the Rhine in Switzerland. [She was not allowed to see her children.]
When she died at Paris she left to her husband, Count Poelzig, a large income. Being jealous and passionately devoted to the count, she dreaded his marrying again. She made her bequest to him conditional on his never parting from her corpse, not even for a night. She stipulated further that if he spent 24 hours way from her embalmed remains he would forfeit his inheritance. So the unfortunate count was obliged to carry the mummy of the duchess around with him for nearly 15 years, even after his marriage to another woman to whom he could never reveal the secret of the piano containing the corpse and who constantly regarded the uncanny instrument as a sort of Bluebeard chamber.
Three days after the burglary of his mansion at Paris the count received a communication saying that he remains of his wife had been laid to rest in the family vault at Gotha and that if he made no attempt to recover them or to discover the identity of the burglars the annuity which he had been drawing until then under the terms of his wife’s will would be continued for the remainder of his life.
Delighted to be rid of the mummified duchess on such terms, the count cheerfully acquiesced. He survived his stepson, the Prince Consort of Great Britain, a number of years. It is generally believed that the seizure of the corpse at Paris was at the instance of the Prince Consort and the Queen (the prince’s elder brother being too much of a cynic to care much whether his mother’s body was above or under ground). It is probably the only occasion upon which Queen Victoria has ever been suspected of being concerned in either body snatching or burglary. N.Y. World.
Trenton [NJ] Evening Times 26 March 1897: p. 3
Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: Mrs Daffodil finds herself sceptical of this astonishing tale. The Princess did not marry Von Hanstein out of gratitude—she had been having an affaire de coeur with him and was exiled when the affair was discovered. Princess Louise died in 1831 of cancer. Two years later Von Hanstein married the 21-year-old Marie Therese von Carlowitz, and in 1845 approached Prince Albert, who granted him a pension. Those seem to be the facts as known. Mrs Daffodil is assiduous as anyone in scouring the historic records for royal tittle-tattle, but has been unable to find any independent confirmation of this diverting, if lurid, tale. The story appears with no documentation in the deliciously indiscreet Memoirs of Karoline Bauer, (actress and mistress of Queen Victoria’s Uncle Leopold) published in 1885. It seems difficult to believe that Prince Albert, who had a keen eye to the proprieties, would have not insisted on immediate burial had the story been true. It also does not say much for the efficiency of the Count’s household staff. Any parlour-maid doing a proper job of dusting would have made an alarming discovery.
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You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.