Carved pumpkins abound this Halloween season, but a decorated gourd dated to 1793 may be the spookiest of them all. New research determines it may contain the blood of Louis XVI, who was executed by guillotine that same year.
The research, accepted for publication in the journal Forensic Science International: Genetics, shows how genetic analysis can provide new historical evidence independent of other traditional sources of information.
The gourd, originally used to store gunpowder, was extensively decorated on the outside with a flame tool. Burned into its surface is the text: "Maximilien Bourdaloue on January 21st, dipped his handkerchief in the blood of Louis XVI after his beheading."
"It is described in contemporaneous accounts that there was a lot of blood in the scaffold after the beheading and that, in fact, many people went there to dip their handkerchiefs in the blood," Carles Lalueza-Fox, lead author of the study and a researcher at Spain's Institute of Evolutionary Biology, told Discovery News.
The handkerchief is now missing from the gourd, but Lalueza-Fox and his team identified a brownish substance on the interior of the dried squash. Biochemical tests determined that the substance was dried blood.
Lalueza-Fox recalled that the king was known for his blue eyes, featured prominently in paintings. He then got the idea of looking for the blue eyes mutation within the dried blood's DNA. The scientists found this mutation, at a gene called HERC2.
The researchers also analyzed other aspects of the blood's genetics, such as its mitochondrial DNA profile, its Y chromosome profile and some other markers. These all revealed that the DNA profile "found inside the gourd is extremely rare in modern Eurasians," suggesting that it may derive from a royal bloodline.
"We have conducted an analysis of the 'person' who is inside the gourd for which we have historical evidence could be the king, but for definite proof we need someone to compare (the findings) with," Lalueza-Fox said.
As luck would have it, a probable organ from such an individual exists. A heart located in a royal French crypt is thought to belong to the king's son, Louis XVII, who died when he was just 10 years old. The heart was cut from the young boy's tumor-ridden body and pickled after Louis XVII spent three horrific years in Paris' Temple Prison.
Bodily remains of Marie Antoinette maternal relatives allowed for genetic comparisons to the DNA in the heart using mitochondrial DNA, which is passed down from a mother to her children. Lalueza-Fox now hopes the gourd blood's DNA can be compared to what's in the heart.
Together, the human remains are reminders of the brutal, 10-year-long French Revolution, which saw the collapse of the country's absolute monarchy. The gourd even has the names of key figures from the revolutionary period burnt into it, including Georges Danton, Jean Paul Marat, Camille Desmoulins, Louis-Sebastien Mercier, Joseph Ignace Guillotin, Maximilien Robespierre, Bernard-Rene de Launay, Jacques de Flesselles and Joseph Foullon.
Another box of text on the dried gourd gives credit to the object's decorator, Jean Roux of Paris.
While storing blood or body parts in a decorated squash might seem unlikely now, Lalueza-Fox said it wouldn't have been for the time.
"It may sound strange today, but probably for a common person witnessing the execution, one of these gunpowder gourds was an acceptable receptacle to preserve something valuable," he explained, suggesting that the gourds were long-lasting, common containers during the 18th century in France.
Eske Willerslev, a Natural History Museum of Denmark evolutionary biologist who is known for his pioneering work on ancient genetics, told Discovery News that "the methodology seems solid" for the new research on the blood.
"It's interesting that such studies of ancient remains of people can actually be used to obtain molecular affiliations of the person and infer some phenotypic traits," Willerslev added.