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Scientists resolve myth about the identity of the Dark Countess

Marie-Thérèse in Vienna in 1796 soon after her exile from France. Image from Wikipedia.

Marie-Thérèse in Vienna in 1796 soon after her exile from France. Image from Wikipedia.

The Countess and the Princess

In 1807 an enigmatic couple arrived in the village of Hildburghausen in Central Germany and lived in the castle of Eishausen for the next 30 years. The villagers referred to the solitary duo as the Dunkelgrafen or the “Dark Counts” because when the couple was seen outside of the castle they were either in a carriage or the woman hid behind a veil.

The woman known as the Dark Countess died in 1837 and was buried under the name of Sophia Botta in a cemetery in Hildburghausen, and her partner, who went by Vavel de Versay, died in 1845. Versay was later identified as Leonardus Cornelius van der Valck, secretary of the Dutch embassy in Paris.

Drawing of the tomb of the Dark Countess, or Dunkelgräfin from ca. 1863. Image from Wikipedia.

Because of the couple’s covert lifestyle and fondness for fake names, people started to speculate about the Dark Countess’s true identity. One of the most popular rumors was the Dark Countess was really Marie-Thérèse Charlotte of France, the daughter of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette.

Marie-Thérèse (1778-1851) was imprisoned in the Temple Tower with her parents and little brother, Louis XVII, in 1792. Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette were guillotined in 1793 and her brother died from tuberculosis in 1795. After Marie-Thérèse was released from the Temple in 1795, she went to live in exile in Vienna and married her cousin Louis Antoine, Duke of Angoulême and the eldest son of Charles X. Marie-Thérèse died in 1851 and was buried in the Franciscan Monastery of Kostanjevica in Southern Slovenia.

Some rejected the official story of Marie-Thérèse life and put forward the “substitution theory.” According to this theory, the princess was so traumatized from witnessing the execution of parents and from her imprisonment in the Temple that she switched places with her half sister, Ernestine Lambriquet, and lived in hiding as the Dark Countess in Hildburghausen.

To find out if the Dark Countess and Marie-Thérèse were the same person a group of scientists had to dig up the grave of the Dark Countess and compare the DNA to a known relative.

DNA Tests

The grave of the Dark Countess. Image from Poleman on Wikipedia

On October 15, 2013 the grave of the Dark Countess was exhumed and two small fragments of bone were removed from a femur. The forensic team obtained a DNA sample was from a maternal descendent of Marie Antoinette’s sister, His Royal Highness (HRH) Prince Alexander of Saxe-Gessaphe, and mtDNA data on the heart of Louis XVII, Marie-Thérèse’s brother, which had been published earlier. The scientists compared the samples and the results were published in Forensic Sciences International: Genetics in an article written by Walther Parson, Codula Berger, Timo Sänger, and Sabine Lutz-Bonengel titled “Molecular genetic analysis on the remains of the Dark Countess: Revisiting the French Royal family.”

The analysis by Parson, Berger, Sänger, and Lutz-Bonengel revealed that the mtDNA haplotypes from HRH Alexander’s buccal swabs and Louis XVII’s heart matched. But the mtDNA from the Dark Countess’s bones did not match either HRH Alexander or Louis XVII’s heart, which meant that the Dark Countess was not Princess Marie-Thérèse Charlotte.

The mystery of the Dunkelgrafen endures.

Parson, W; Berger, C; Sänger, T; Lutz-Bonengel, S. (2015). Molecular genetic analysis on the remains of the Dark Countess: Revisiting the French Royal family. Forensic Sciences International, 19. Retrieved from:




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