MAY 14, 2015
INTRODUCTION: A PERSONAL PERSEPCTIVE
Obviously, I am a fan of James Swan,
as expressed by the lengthy, three parts of my Blog devoted to him. He lived an incredibly adventuresome life in two countries, the United States and France, each involved during his tenure in separate but intertwined revolutions. I hope that I haven’t bored you, but you don’t face a final exam and can skim if you choose. However, the random encounters from historical knowledge is what fascinates me most about history and, I hope, you as well. The variety of Swan’s life has promoted me to research him so exhaustively and be so verbose in these posts. Encountering personages familiar to Swan continues to surprise me in their current relevance. For example, Swan’s lifelong pal, General Henry Knox,
basically unknown to me before I encountered Swan, is the source of the name for the United States gold depository Fort Knox and, like Swan is another “Dead White Man” interesting to know.
For example, in Part Two of this Swan series, I mentioned passingly a person named Joel Barlow, who like Swan, was an American living in Paris during its revolutionary period. My wife and I were taking a walk yesterday in a hilly area of Washington. D.C. located next to Georgetown called Kalorama, where many of the foreign diplomatic residencies are located. Why this area is called “Kalorama” has been a puzzle to us, derived as it is from the Greek and means “Good Vista,” although it does enjoy a pleasant elevation. We came across a non-functioning, decorative old fire alarm of a type that dot the area, which are now painted in strong colors with gilt trim. Typically, they bear, historical facts pertinent to the vicinity where they stand. The first such fire alarm we saw was dedicated to Joel Barlow,
and states, among other things, that he moved to Washington at the urging of Thomas Jefferson. Significantly, he named his house “Kalorama” located in the area of the fire stand now bearing that name. Knowing something about Joel Barlow and learning how “Kalorama” became “Kalorama” gave an added kick to our walk.
I would greatly appreciate knowing what thoughts or questions you might have on Swan or anything else I post/
SWAN’S WAY TO THE END
Royal France’s generous financial and military aid to the American colonials in their War of Independence played a major role in enabling the colonials to defeat their English master. Indeed, many historians believe that without France’s financial and military aid, the colonial Patriots would not have won its revolt against England. In aiding the colonials, Royal France was motivated primarily, if not entirely, by its desire to harm and humiliate England, its ancient archenemy and not to support the colonials’ aspirations of freedom from English tyranny. This is not true, however, in the case of individual Frenchmen, such as Lafayette and Rochambeau who fought alongside the colonial Patriots and whose sympathies with the Patriots’ cause of liberty were paramount to their participation.
The monetary cost to France in supporting the American War of Independence had dire consequences for the Ancien Regime, which came on top of the cost it had incurred in the Seven Years’ War with England (incorporating the part of that war fought on the American continent, called the French and Indian War, in which France lost its American colonies). Not only did its involvement in both those wars severely cripple Louis XVI’s ability to reestablish economic stability in the last years of his regime’s existence, the American war against England intoxicated all levels of French society with the scent of republicanism; one for example, Count Mirabeau, a French nobleman who was an early leader of Revolutionary France and another, Louis Philippe, Duc d’Orleans,
who became Philippe Equalite and voted with the new formed French National Assembly for the beheading of his cousin Louis XVI. Louis Philippe was ultimately guillotined as well. “It is beyond doubt,” Lafayette wrote to Thomas Jefferson, “that the principles of the United States opened the gates of the Bastille,” the Royal prison in Paris destroyed in 1789 by a revolutionary mob, which was the first event that galvanized the commencement of the French Revolution in earnest. Equally unfortunate for the Ancien Regime and subsequent French governments, its British enemy wasn’t adversely affected for any long period of time after the loss of its non-Canadian American colonies. Its increasing mastery of the seas continued unabated during the balance of the 18th Century well into the first quarter of the 20th Century.
New France needed repayment of the American debt as badly as did its Royal predecessor. Due to the United States’ inability to raise revenues until 1790 under the newly adopted Constitution, the new Nation stopped payments of interest on its loan to France in 1785; it also defaulted on principal payments of the French debt in 1787. The US resumed payment on its French debt obligations in 1790, but this was too late to benefit Royal France, which by then was a failed financial state. Ironically, it was Revolutionary France through the efforts of James Swan that ultimately was repaid in 1795 of the monies so imprudently lent by Royal France in the 1770’s to aid the American war effort and thereby cripple England. In 1795 Swan personally assumed the outstanding amount of the United States debt to France at a somewhat higher interest than on the original US debt to France, and then resold the debt largely in the US at a profit. One can speculate that had the United States service its debt obligations to Royal France on a timely basis before 1789, that country probably would not have avoided revolution, but may have been spared the financial desperation of the 1787-1791 period and have accomplished revolution without the horrific Reign of Terror
and the mindless destruction of everything the Revolutionary satraps didn’t favor. It is interesting to note that the United States was also indebted to Dutch investors, but was more assiduous in paying off those debts, as it cannily and correctly believed that the Dutch would be (and were) a more likely source of new loans than France during the post-war era.
After Swan returned to the United States in 1797, it is not clear exactly where he spent most of his time and in what pursuits he was engaged. However, he still maintained a good reputation in some quarters of consequence, including Robert Livingston
who brokered the Louisiana Purchase from Napoleonic France. Livingston was a signer of the Declaration of Independence of which he was a principal author and a direct descendant of the first Robert Livingston to arrive in American in 1623 where he received a land grant from Charles II
and became the Lord of the Manor of some 400,000 acres along the Hudson River in New York. Livingston the Signer was also an inventor who joined and sponsored Robert Fulton on the invention of the steamboat. In Charles A. Ceramic’s book, “Jefferson’s Great Gamble”, the following appears:
“In the back of (Livingston’s) mind was the one subject far removed from Louisiana that could bring a smile to his lips-the thought of returning home (from Paris) in the fall of 1803 to make a run for the U.S. vice presidency. His friend James Swan, a very active foreign trader and speculator who had major cash claims against France, was still talking being his campaign manager, backed by a group of other claimants who would all show their gratitude to Livingston if he succeeded in getting France to pay their claims.”
Swan returned to Europe about 1800 and spent time in Hamburg, Germany doing exactly what, I don’t know. However, in 1808, Swan was sent to debtor’s prison, St. Pelagie,
in Paris by reason of a debt claimed to be owing to his former business acquaintance, Luppert. There, Swan spent the next 22 years of his life. Debtor’s prison as an institution for deadbeats had been abolished in 1793 by the Revolutionary Government. However, in 1807, France passed a new law reestablishing incarceration for unpaid debts incurred by foreigner not domiciled in France (which Swan was not at that time), if they lacked funds within France to cover the money owed. For years, Swan disputed the legality of his imprisonment on the basis that the law was not retroactive to an unpaid debt existing before 1807. However, in 1809, the Supreme Court of France confirmed the law’s application to Swan. He brought several other actions to challenge the unlawfulness of his continued imprisonment, one in 1816 and another in 1817 but all were rejected.
Most writers on Swan state that the 22 years spent in debtor’s prison resulted from the one contested, but relatively modest indebtedness to Lubbert. These sources claim that Swan could have paid this debt at any time from his personal “fortune” and be released but that he refused to do as a “point of honor.” If his prison accommodations were indeed simple as no responsible authority on Swan seriously contests, why would this man who had spent most of his adult life in luxurious circumstances and footloose “buccaneering” have resisted freedom by reason of pride alone. Honor might have been a cause for spending a few years in prison. But even if his accommodations at St. Pelagie were truly comfortable, was this deprivation of liberty on a point of honor to have been acceptable for a score and two years to person like Swan unless he were deranged, a condition never claimed for him? In 1817, when Swan was petitioning for his release from St. Pelagie, a French newspaper claimed that he was very rich and could pay for his release at any time. Swan himself wrote a letter to the paper wherein he claimed that the 700,000 francs demanded of him by Lubbert would if paid impoverish his “large family”. Whether true or not, this claim was verifiable.
I have had the opportunity to read a series of letters from Swan to Thomas Aspinwall, a fellow Bostonian, written from St. Pelagie and spanning from 1818 to 1830, in the MFA archives. (FN: the collection of letters was given to the MFA by a woman named Mrs. Howard Parker who most likely was a daughter of Elizabeth Howard Bartol who gave the Swan furniture and Gilbert Stuart portraits to the MFA in the 1930’s.) The constant thread of those letters is Swan’s fervent and unrelenting application to Aspinwall for loans of money in various sums, offering one form of collateral or another, but principally his large real estate holdings, i.e., Swan Island off the Maine coast,
his enormous real estate holdings in what is now West Virginia and maybe even Pennsylvania. The first letter in the MFA archives dated April 25, 1818, ten years after his incarceration, Swan refers even to earlier letters to Aspinwall during his imprisonment also asking for loans. All the letters strongly suggest that Swan was financially strapped and desperate for money. Incidentally, there are no indications that Aspinwall ever succumbed to lending Swan the money he solicited. The Small’s book records that Swan did mortgage some portion of his Maine islands to a man called Martin O’Malley for “X” in 1819. It is not determinable whether this was a real transaction or false one with a crony to protect Swan from actually losing the property to real creditors.
I believe that even were Swan’s debt to Lubbert small enough to be paid by him at any time, there most likely was an avalanche of financial problems facing Swan on both sides of the Atlantic as well as grown children who beset by their father’s creditors were not especially keen for his return to Boston. According to Smalls, “repeated attempts were made to get at (Swan’s) estates in Boston, as having been purchased with creditors’ funds.” This must have been disagreeable at best for the Swan progeny, particularly his three daughters who at that time were married to proper Bostonians.
In Europe, there were the sub-agents with whom Swan dealt in his supply business that also might not have received full payment by Swan. Both in Europe and the United States, there were probably a small army of co-investors in Swan’s West Virginia “empire” who had lost the lands they believed to have owned or found that their purchases were 100,000’s of acres smaller than described to them or forfeited to governmental authorities for failure to pay real estate taxes.
Swan very well could have been under the threat of being placed into other debtor’s prisons not quite so agreeable as St. Pelagie were he released from that incarceration. Many surprising inmates populated debtor’s prisons in 18th Century America, including Robert Morris,
one of the richest men in American prior to the Revolution and who on his own financed a large part of the colonial war effort to his lasting honor. However, he, like Swan, got involved in major acquisitions of West Virginia land, totaling some 8,000,000 acres, and also was placed in debtor’s prison from 1788-1801 for defaulting on mortgages payments.
Another indictment of Swan’s dire financial straits is that when he died in 1831, his heirs and creditors anticipated that his estate would be substantial. They were disconcerted to find that it was insolvent. There is or was extant an inventory of Swan’s estate but I have not been able to locate more than a summary of the Estate’s assets and debts.
In a letter dated July 6, 1818, Swan tells Aspinwall that he would be released from prison (“his suffering”) on or about August 8 of that year for the apparent reason that he was recognized as having been Lubbert’s creditor not his debtor. In a subsequent letter of August 17, 1818, he mentions “my time of liberty approaches.” However, in a letter dated October 1, 1818, Swan reports that he had not yet been liberated. It is only in 1830 that he tells Aspinwall that his creditor had died and by reason of that event would attain his freedom. Most sources on Swan state that his release occurred by reason of a general amnesty offered to imprisoned debtors in the course of the so-called July Revolution of 1830 overthrowing Charles X, Louis XVI’s last and youngest brother. For whatever reason, his Swan’s release did actually occur in that year.
The cost of Swan’s keep at St. Pelagie under French law was to be borne by the creditor who had him imprisoned which was set at the rate of twenty francs a month, totaling more than 5,000 francs for the 22-year period of Swan’s imprisonment. It would appear that this went for naught as Swan’s alleged debt to him was never paid inasmuch as Lubbert had expired prior to receiving repayment or Swan was released of his obligation or this death or by reason of a general amnesty in 1830. Lubbert, probably a Frenchman, according to John Goldworth Alger had been ruined financially by Napoleon’s continental blockage against England. This serves a major reason why he so fiercely pursued Swan’s indebtedness to him. Totally irrelevant but nonetheless interesting is Alger’s note that (1) a relative of Lubbet’s was the judge who read Louis XVI’s death sentence and (2) Lubbert’s son who was a composer in France went to Egypt after 1830, converted to Islam and became the entertainment master for Mehmet Ali and Abbas Pasha, the rulers of Egypt.
At the end of his life, Swan is generally described as having a bald head, dressed in long dressing gowns, sported an unfashionably long beard and resembling the elderly Benjamin Franklin. This image seems very divergent from the natty and prettified gentlemen depicted in the Gilbert Stuart’s portrait. After his release, Swan went to see his long time friend, Lafayette at the Hotel de Ville in Paris and some sources report that upon mounting the building’s steps he suffered a heart attack and dramatically died on at Lafayette’s feet. Others sources say that he died as he was voluntarily returning to his prison after three days of freedom. John Goldworth Alger cites an article, possibly Swan’s obituary, in the Angeline Seating in 1831, a contemporary prestigious German periodical, as stating that Swan died “under circumstances which could not be decently mentioned”, suggesting a death in flagrant delicto along the lines of a Governor of New York State in the second half of the 20th Century. In any event, his date of death is generally reported as occurring on March 18, 1831.
Swan’s prison accommodations at St. Pelagie are described either as humble, or modestly comfortable with access to a garden. It is also claimed in several texts that Swan rented a grand apartment across the road from St. Pelagie, fitted up at great expense to entertain his friends and acquaintances. The dining table at the apartment was set for all of Swan’s guests and had one additional place setting that never occupied as he was confined at St. Pelagie. The same sources report that Swan kept a carriage to carry his guests to and from the apartment to enjoy entertainments sponsored by their incarcerated and thereby absent host. I think these tales can be taken as hyperbole. Smalls states that Mrs. Swan paid the rent of that apartment. However, in contradiction, other sources state that Swan periodically transferred funds to his wife for her support as her wealth had been much diminished by him. Mrs. Swan was likely to have been astute enough to keep intact some of her inheritance. In point of fact, she was the only female partner (albeit via a trust) in Mount Vernon Proprietors, the exclusive and savvy group of Bostonians that developed Beacon Hill in Boston,
an area that remains one of the smartest addresses in the United States. Given their estrangement, it is unlikely that she helped Swan out and even one text reports them as being divorced.
Aside from the unlikeliness of his keeping a separate apartment outside of St. Pelagie, Alger reports Swan was said to have a passion for blackberries and that his body rubbed with their juices before going to bed was stained purple. We do know that Napoleon rarely bathed but preferred to have cologne sponged on his body every morning. Given the probable scarcity of frequent bathing in prison, this could have been the prisoner’s equivalent to a cologne rubdown, however odd it might now seem. Alger writes also that Swan had four mistresses during his time in prison, two of whom were sisters and that he fathered a child with one of the sisters. All this is possible but really impossible to establish with any degree of certitude. What is clear, however, about Swan is that did write some remarkable and scholarly documents before and during his 22 years of incarceration. In 1790, he wrote a respected treatise on the creation of major trade between the United States and France. It has been described as dealing with many topics–
“and nothing is too trifling to be cited in support of his object. One page he eulogizes spermaceti candles; on another he relates the foolish objections made in France to the introduction of labor-saving machines. He dwells with wonder on the fact that in France salted meats are practically prohibited while in the US they are eaten twice a day and amongst us the men are as healthy and robust as anywhere”.
How he assembled the data from a prison boggles the mind.
Swan’s will dated and signed in Paris on September 9, 1824 does cast light on his family connections. First, it makes several specific bequests, including one to his sister Margaret for whom he promised his father to supply a dowry on her marriage to one David Swan. This might indicate that Swan wasn’t orphaned at the time he left Scotland in 1765 and perhaps had contact with his father while he was in Boston. Also, inasmuch as the bequest references Swan’s pledge to his father to provide a dowry for his sister, it can be read to shed light on his father’s financial situation in his not being able to make the dowry himself. Another bequest is to his brother, David Cooper (?) who he commends for helping him in his various ventures in Europe. Possibly, he or the party that actually wrote or transcribed Swan’s will mixed up the name David Swan as the one marrying his sister with David Cooper as being his brother. A third bequest is to his son, James Keadie Swan, that recites Swan’s enormous disappointment as a father and states that his son was a wastrel Swan leaves nothing to his wife but makes her an executor of his estate. The will states that Swan was a resident of Dorchester, Massachusetts and signed the will in the presence amongst others of Sam Brown, a professor of Medicine at Transylvania University, U.S. and John Gray of Boston. The will was found in his Dorchester house. It was entered into the Will Book No # 1, Kanawha County, Virginal, presumably because of his real estate interests.
Mrs. Swan never visited Swan in Paris during his imprisonment or are there records of their communication during that period. There is reason to believe that neither of them had much affection for each other at that stage of their lives. John Goldworth Alger relates that “Hepsy” once threw a knife at her husband. He “coolly picked it up, returned it to her with bow and walked out of the room.” Whether or not apocryphal, this story gives some indication of Swan’s non-commercial character. Alger adds that Swan, his wife and his son, according to someone named Hess “were alike unscrupulous”. Some writers on Swan suggested that one of the reasons in stayed jailed in Paris was to avoid living with his wife in Massachusetts.
A blog of the “The Forest Hills Educational Trust”, which is related to the cemetery in which Mrs. Swan is now buried, dated November 15, 2009, gives some indication of her character: “(She) enjoyed the rapt attention of many, she was also said to be a pendant to no one man in particular…”.In this regard, buried originally in the garden at the Swan house in Dorchester was General Henry Jackson
who was Mrs. Swan’s companion and financial advisor during her husband’s long absence. Indeed, he lived with her during that much of that period. Possibly, they had been lovers. This is somewhat discounted by Jackson’s enormous girth and that he was a misogamist except for his affection for Mrs. Swan. One acquaintance jibed that the General by reason of his large belly was unable to see fish on his plate, suggesting that he was able to bring food to his mouth by long and frequent familiarity with the process of eating. However, 18th Century people at all levels of society were more than sturdy and determined as well as less fastidious than present day counterparts and thereby able to overlook a number of obstacles that might currently seem insurmountable. In any event, when Mrs. Swan died, she was buried also in the Dorchester garden, but afterward both she and the General were reburied together along with some of her descendants in the Forest Hill cemetery when Dorchester became a part of the city of Boston.
SWAN’ FURNITURE AND THIERRY VILLE D’AVRAY
The suite of furniture at the MFA, was made by Jean-Baptiste-Claude Sene upon an order from Marc-Antoine Thierry de Ville d’Avray.
The appellation “de Ville D’Avray” was added when Thierry, long a trusted valet to Louis XVI since 1774 was made a Baron, the only one to bear that title in France at the time of the Revolution. As the “premier valet de chamber” to the king, Thierry occupied an important and intimate position of trust to Louis, as his duties truly were essential to the king’s private existence and affairs. For example, Thierry would escort the King to the Queen’s bedroom through the back halls of Versailles, holding a candelabra to light the way. He even carried the King’s petty cash. In July 1792 during the early Revolutionary period, the Girondins, the group that ran the country at that time communicated with the King through Thierry.
Thierry accumulated substantial monies during his time at court that enabled him to purchase a 68-acre property in Ville d’Avray (from which his title was derived), destroy its existing castle and in 1787 replace it with a charming neo-classical house that still exists.
Presumably, Thierry as the King’s valet was able to offer at price an ear to his Majesty. Fortune continued to favor Thierry when in 1788 he was made Administrator of the Garde-Meuble that entitled him to the use of a spacious apartment in the building for himself and his family. He ordered furniture for the apartment from the firms that produced Royal furniture and that was paid for from Government funds. The set that exists in the MFA was upholstered in leftover fabric that was originally made exclusively for Louis XVI’s gaming room at Fontainebleau. Two furniture labels exist, one for a bed and another for an armchair in the suite which permitted tracing of extant records at the Garde Meuble that record the suite’s use to furnish Thierry’s bedroom. A note in the Bulletin of the MFA (XXXVIII) states that the apartment is still more or less intact and that—
“According to legend, one of these rooms was used byMarie Antoinette on her visits to Paris but unfortunately the authority for this tradition dates back only to a late nineteenth-century Baedeker”.
Possibly that is where she might have met Count Axel Fersen, her long time friend and perhaps lover who financed the cost of the Royal family’s abortive escape that was interrupted in the town of Varennes.
The Royals had no access to pocket money after being brought to Paris in 1790. Fersen did seek reimbursement for this ‘advance” from the reestablished Bourbon dynasty in the early 1800’s, but I don’t believe he was successful in gaining repayment.
On the 13th of July 1789, a mob broke into the Garde Meuble and took antiquated weapons stored there which they used in the attack upon the Bastille on the 14th of July, which date is generally considered to be the beginning of the Revolution. A pamphlet circulated in 1790 accuses Thierry of living in “Asiatic sumptuousness” at the Garde Meuble, in stark contrast to the dire conditions of ordinary Frenchmen. Although Thierry was not charged with corruption or any other impropriety, he was nevertheless arrested shortly after the King was “dethroned”, presumably being tainted by his proximity alone to the King. He spent two years in the Prison de l’Abbaye
without having been tried. This was one of the venues for the vicious and never really fully understood massacres in September 1792 of prisoners. The prisoners were told they would be freed and their cells were unlocked. They ran to the main gate in the courtyard of the jail that to their horror was locked shut. A waiting mob of charged-up, riff raff chased the prisoners against the gate and butchered them with knives, spears and any other weapons that could be used to kill other humans. When Thierry Ville d’Avray was about to be murdered, he cried out “Long live the King.” The September massacres in Paris led to the creation of the words: Septembrists, a noun for the murderers of September 1792; Septembriser, a verb for massacre; and, Septembrisade, a massacre.
Like Thiery, none of the victims of the Septembrists had been tried or otherwise found guilty of any offense, or were they all noble or rich or other than simply innocent. Some were servants at the Tuileries and others were members of the Swiss Guard employed to protect the embattled Royal family. Also killed were some 30 children who were in prison for no known reason. The cowardly Septembrists recorded that the children were surprisingly the hardest to kill.
By virtue of the exacting homage paid to maintaining its legal pronouncements by the otherwise lawless Committee of Public Safety, Thierry’s widow was able to obtain an official death certificate that her husband was murdered at the Prison de l’Abbaye. With this document she was able to vouchsafe all of her husband’s properties other than the furnishings of the Garde Meuble apartment (which I presume must have been viewed in the nature of “office furniture” and therefore Royal and not personal to Thierry). The rule at stake promulgated by the Revolutionary Government was that the properties of a noble would not be confiscated if he or she remained in France rather than emigrated (which of course didn’t insure the maintenance of their heads). This enabled Madame Ville d’Avray with her certificate confirming her husband’s murder within France to live with her children unmolested and in more than comfort throughout the Revolutionary period and thereafter, probably living at the lovely villa in Valle d’Avray.
Thierry’s apartment at the Garde Meuble according to Howard Rice in the Bulletin of the MFA states was sealed with its contents in 1790’s. How Swan actually obtained the bedroom suite of furniture is not presently known. as there is no record of its being auctioned and, most probably, was the result of a private deal that Swan made with the revolutionary government as a bartered payment
Albeit the Thierry/Swan group of furnishings at the MFA collection is splendid, it is certainly finite in quantity and couldn’t and doesn’t represent all of the furniture and decorations brought from France to furnish the Swans’ spacious house in Dorchester, including pieces that various sources allege came from the Tuileries Palace where the Royal Family was taken to live after being evacuated from Versailles, as well as from Thierry Ville d” Avray apartment. There clearly were other pieces of 18th Century French origin that didn’t reach the MFA. The Swan’s three daughters, Mrs. William Sullivan, Mrs. John Howard and Mrs. John Sargent, received furniture from the Dorchester house. The furniture that went to Mrs. Howard remained in family hands and constitutes the major portion of what was given to the MFA in the 1920’s by her granddaughter, Mrs. Elizabeth Howard Bartol, a painter, along with three Gilbert Stuart portraits of Mr. and Mrs. Swan as well as one of Mrs. Howard, all commissioned by Mrs. Swan. Mrs. Sullivan’s share was divided among her heirs and may still remain in the hands of some of them. However, the line of the furniture’s descent is no longer clear and those pieces have merged into the general legacy of fine 18th Century French furniture lacking a provenance. Mrs. Sargent’s portion was sold at auction in 1867. Some Swan pieces undoubtedly will emerge from time to time but sadly most of those pieces are likely to have lost any clear Swan pedigree.
A copy of a letter dated April 17, 1938 written to Howard Rice by Ogden Codman, an interior and landscape designer of impeccable taste and Massachusetts lineage (and co-author of a garden book with Edith Wharton), relates that several pieces of Swan furniture derived from Swan descendants were bought by an architect, James Gregerson, who was building a new house on Beacon Street (now a club) for Mrs. Charles Amory (who, incidentally, was the great granddaughter of John Singleton Copley). Gregerson may have bought these items at the Sargent auction. Mrs. Amory was moving from a larger house on Mount Vernon Street, also on Beacon Hill, that she sold before the new one was completed. All of the furniture from the Mount Vernon Street house along with the new “Swan” purchases referred to in Codman’s letter were placed in public storage while awaiting her move. Sadly, the storage facility suffered a devastating fire in which all of Mrs. Amory’s stored possessions were incinerated. Codman states that the Swan furniture destroyed in that fire included a chair, a possible mate to the excellent pier table at the MFA, a “splendid set of armchairs and a sofa”. Mrs. Amory, Codman, adds–
“…went to Paris, where she spent much time at the Hotel
Drouot (an auction gallery now a part of Christie’s) buying beautiful furniture and hangings, some from the Palace of the Tuileries, which was sacked by the communists (not the Soviet variety but 19th Century Frenchmen in revolt against one regime or another), and it happened to be a time when priceless things were going cheap”.
Swan’s son, Robert, who was an alcoholic and died young, also received furniture from the Dorchester house. He had married a daughter of General Henry Knox, and the furniture inherited from his mother went to fill the very beautiful Federal-style Knox mansion, Montplasier, in Thomaston, Maine. It remained there after he died and his widow remarried. The Knox family fell on hard times and was forced to sell Montplasier and its contents in the 19th Century. General Knox had also bought furniture directly from Swan in the 1790’s that arrived from France and was used to furnish the Thomaston house along with what young Swan installed after his marriage to Knox’ daughter. That Swan furniture probably remains is extant, but is likely lacking a clear Swan chain of ownership. A large, mirror fronted bookcase with gothic trefoil mullions now at Montplasier enjoys the legend given by Henry Knox’s grandson, Henry Knox Thatcher, to a Knox biographer that this bookcase once belonged to Marie Antoinette. Apparently, this is common story attached to many period pieces on the Maine coast, whether of French origin or not.
The archives of the MFA have a few letters and a memorandum dating from 1942 regarding 5 gilded items of furniture, a canapé and four chairs, compose a charming tale of possible Swan provenance. A lady of more than 70 years then living in Cambridge, Massachusetts wanted to donate the five pieces to the MFA and was visited by a cultivated gentleman apparently not employed by but somehow connected with the MFA, to see the her “Swan Furniture”. He described her house as shabby and surrounded by a dense and damp garden, but nonetheless was an “island of gentility” in a sea of tenements. Every surface of her parlor furnished by the alleged “Swan” furniture was covered with “good, amateur” watercolors (done by her sister) that had to be removed from the canapé and four chairs in order to see them. The visitor was impressed by the quality of the gilding on the wooden frames and, while not having examined the pieces “carefully,” opined they might have been products of the Louis XVI or late Louis XV periods. He sent a letter and memorandum to the then MFA curator of Decorative Arts, recommending the furniture as a “desirable acquisition” by the Museum provided “they seem genuine to you”. The memorandum notes that the lady inherited the pieces 55 years ago from a gentleman who was a benefactor to Harvard and M.I.T and had purchased the “Marie Antoinette” Suite that had been in the Swan mansion in Dorchester.” He adds that she herself had visited Versailles some years before where she had taken with her a piece of her furniture’s fabric. At Versailles, she saw some furniture upholstered with the same color material, and therefore she “knew that her canapé came from there.” A note written from the MFA curator on the bottom of the letter enclosing the memorandum of recommendation, states tersely:
“EJH (the curator) called and found only a coarsely detailed sofa, probably Louis XVI, in bad order and 19th C chairs. No connection with Swan”
Truly an instance of nothing ventured, nothing gained.
All in all, James Swan is a personage who still deserves to be reckoned with and whose convoluted life remains to be further exhumed and resolved. Curiously, other than his letters to business associates, American and French political types, those from St. Pelagie to Thomas Aspinwall that are for the most part restricted to finances, a few letters to Henry Knox, the several pamphlets on slavery, agriculture, and the benefit of a paper currency to the new United States as well as his last will and testaments, Swan remains strangely mute, especially when one considers that he came from an age when people wrote copious letters regularly and often kept diaries. I have not seen any diaries or others letters to his family and friends that would elucidate his reactions and views on the extraordinary events he witnessed in his life, from the time he arrived presumably alone on the wharfs of Boston as a boy, to when he disguised himself as a Mohawk Indian to throw tea crates into Boston waters,and to what and to whom he must have encountered daily in Paris at the time of the Terror. Perhaps letters covering these and similar proceedings may exist buried in the vaults of one or another historical society or still in the attics of his descendants that may come to light in the future. However, the only truly personal note I have read by Swan is his description of his imprisonment in a letter to Aspinwall as his “suffering”and his negative view of his son written into his will.
I don’t think that Swan viewed the fine furniture he received in barter as aesthetically stirring and would have preferred to receive hard currency. I can’t really imagine him as an aesthete evaluating the gilding on rare bronzes or the rake of a cabriole leg, but then again I can’t imagine him quite as “Bartleby the Scrivener” who took all that he witnessed in his remarkable life on an equal plane without any emotional or intellectual response. What Swan really needs may be a scriptwriter who can give an inner voice to his extraordinary outer existence. However, we can be thankful that if he were indeed obtuse, totally insensitive to all about him other than commerce or were otherwise a tedious plodder, we don’t have to know it and can believe him to have been as stimulating as his exploits.