MAY 14, 2015


Obviously, I am a fan of James Swan,

Once again, the mysterious 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,

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,

Fire alarm post with face of 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.

“Kalorama House”

I would greatly appreciate knowing what thoughts or questions you might have on Swan or anything else I post/


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,

Louis Philippe, Duc d’Orleans, every inch a Royal, who lost his head over the French Revolution once he became Louis Equalite

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

Rounding up victims for the National Razor in the 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

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

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,

Prison La Pelagie in Paris

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,

Swan Island

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,

Robert Morris-6262d900734741146d9c14f998bdd5e566a9beab-s300-c85
Robert Morris, Patriot and Later Deadbeat

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,

A lane in ever charming Beacon Hill

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

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.

Obelisk marking grave of Henry Jackson next to Hepsy Swan’s grave



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.

It was good for Marc-Antoine Thierry to be close to the king so long as it was good to be the king 


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.

The new Baron Ville d’Avray’s house

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 King dressed as a valet and the Queen as a lady’s maid are apprehended in 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

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.







MAY 1 2016


In 1787, James Swan left Boston for France to forge a new business career overseas and most likely to escape his stateside creditors. It was suggested by Prince Talleyrand,


the wily nobleman/archbishop whose diplomatic career began with Louis XVI, then Napoleon, Louis XVIII, and Charles X, wrote that Swan was actually in bankruptcy at the time he left the United States. In Paris, Swan sought out Lafayette, Rochambeau, and other well-situated French noblemen whom he had met and befriended during their mutual involvement in the American Revolution.


His relationships with these liberal aristocrats undoubtedly directed his choice of France as a venue for beginning anew. Albeit of Scottish birth, he was unlikely to have had equivalent connections in United Kingdom that so recently had been an enemy of the United States. Moreover, the Colonial Tory population  who fled to England by reason of the Revolution were still very much “licking” their American wounds due to their loss of status, homes, and wealth. Needless to say, the Tories were actively hostile to new United States citizens who sought to tread on their reluctantly new home ground.


Swan’s French friends opened doors for him to the highest French levels during the last days of the Ancien Regime, enabling him to establish a mercantile business under the name of Swan D’Allarde et Cie. Swan most likely was introduced to his partner, Pierre-Gilbert Leory D’Allarde, an aristocrat, by one of his French noble acquaintances, when prior to 1792, such an alliance was still of value in France and elsewhere in Europe. The partnership initially began selling American food products, gunpowder, as well as saltpeter used in making gunpowder to the French army. Historian John Goldworth Alger writes that in 1792, the French were exhorted by their new leaders to scrape the floors of cellars, stables, and sheds in order to collect saltpeter tobe turned over to the new government and used in the manufacture of gunpowder.

France had suffered several years of harsh draughts and consequently poor harvests requiring importation of basic foods. The real hunger suffered both by both rural and urban poor ultimately lit the fuse for the fiery uprising of French masses in 1789, enflamed by the inspirational tracts penned by liberal writers of the time. During 1789, Swan is known to have delivered large consignments of wheat and other foods from the Americas to stave that hunger. It is not clear what happened to Swan D’Allarde et Cie, however, it is likely that D’Allarde, as a nobleman, became a persona non grata after the revolution began in earnest, and was fortunate to keep his head in the new turmoil.

Incidentally, Swan, being a man of broad commercial vision,  began a distillery for the production of rum outside of Paris in Passy that previously had been imported from England. I am not aware of any other rum distillery in Continental France in that or earlier periods. Also, a brother of Swan’s named David whose name I had never came across otherwise than in Swan’s will, joined Swan in the publication of bibles in France and, possibly, in the rum distillery.

As the French Revolution advanced, the increasingly radical individuals who directed the new Republic leftward into anarchy and terror succeeded the liberal aristocrats who initially fostered Swan’s fledging business in Paris. Swan dealt deftly with the new Jacobin ruling caste, probably because they accepted him as a surviving co-participant of a revolution against Royal (British) tyranny. But more likely, they recognized in Swan a “neutral” who proved since he arrived in France that he had access to foreign sources of supplies that that France so desperately needed and, more importantly, knew how to bring goods safely into France without interception by the fiercely-effective British sea blockade. France was precluded from bringing in needed supplies by safer, overland routes, as it was entirely surrounded on land by hostile neighboring nations.

Although Swan’s initial ventures in France were not unnoticed, it was only in the 1790’s that he gained a broad reputation on both sides of the Atlantic for his successful trading pursuits. At that time, the US officially was interested in stepping up the export abroad (and especially to France to which it remained deeply indebted) of its bountiful agricultural (rice, pork, beef, cornmeal, etc.) and other products (gunpowder, saltpeter, timber, leather, etc.) for whatever else France couldn’t produce in sufficient quantities within its borders. A letter from James Monroe to James Madison


dated September 20, 1794, attests to Swan’s notoriety. Monroe recommends Swan as a merchant that resided in France for “some years” and was returning to the US–

“for the purpose of purchasing and shipping to this country the production of ours and relies much on the advances to be made by our gov’t for the means. He will be the sole agent in that line of this republic in America…. I beg you to the attentive to him in regard to it.”



In a letter dated November 15, 1795, Prince Talleyrand in New York, relies to a request for information by “what American houses were furnished the supplies that this vast continent has sent to France”. Talleyrand replied that the principal agent of the French is a Scotsman became an American, who was bankrupt in Boston some years ago, and whose name is Swan.”

It certainly must have helped that Swan spoke French. The French language was not entirely unknown in colonial and early Federal Massachusetts, but, for the most part, was spoken or known only by diplomats, other highly educated individuals with university degrees or those of French ancestry.


The latter were generally French Protestants, the Huguenots, who were persecuted in France in the 16th Century under Francis I and again in 1685 by Louis XIV, many of whom had emigrated to New York and Virginia, but some also to Massachusetts including the family of the Patriot and silversmith Paul Revere. It is uncertain how Swan learned French, not falling into any if the categories above. Thomas Jefferson


most probably spoke French well, having studied the language at William and Mary College in Virginia.


Benjamin Franklin, who spent several years in France, believed that he spoke French but admitted he didn’t pay much attention to grammar or accent. The French found his conversation baffling, albeit charming. Gouveneur Morris from Philadelphia who was the US Ambassador to France


at the end of the Ancien Regime and until 1793 spoke French; his mother came from a prominent Huguenot family called Gouveneur, hence his first name that had nothing to do with his having been a governor. I have not been able to ascertain if Swan spoke French well, but that was probably a prerequisite in his business dealings with the various French governmental authorities notwithstanding a French partner.


In recognition of Swan’s prowess to import essential supplies to France, he was appointed in 1784 by the Committee of Public Safety, the bizarre name of the de facto body that governed France, as an official agent of France for the purchase of goods in America.


The French had some dealings with Swan and were aware of his ability to bring goods safely into France without seizure by the British blockage. However, Revolutionary France was at a critical stage, being close to bankruptcy and desperately needing food and war supplies and had experienced unsatisfactory dealings with some American shippers who either disappeared with their cargoes or were unable to evade the British ships. The Commission des Subsistances was a new revolutionary department set up, inter alia, to obtain vitally needed goods, Its head, Jean-Claude Picquet, introduced Swan to a Swiss named Johann Caspar Schweitzer


who had moved to Paris in 1786. Schweitzer had developed strong ties with the ruling Jacobins and, especially, with Count Mirabeau


whom Schweitzer had met shortly after arriving in France. Although Schweitzer had inherited substantial wealth, he was a committed revolutionary who had chosen to live in Paris in order to become involved in the city’s heady pre-revolutionary milieu.  In fact, he was adored by the Jacobins, notwithstanding his capitalist exploits and high style of living.

As a means of monitoring Swan, the French Government “suggested” that Swan form a business alliance with Schweitzer as his partner in order to run the import/export business; the resulting partnership was called Swan & Schweitzer. Swan is said to have bristled at this business relationship imposed upon him and once he arrived in America equipped with French funds for making the required purchases of products to bring to France, he ignored his partner. Probably to disguise its operations from the British blockade also operated under the name of Jones & Gaspard.

The Revolutionary French fiat currency, the assignats,


was backed by recently confiscated Church and Royal properties as well as the properties of noblemen who fled from France, the so-called émigrés. When first issued in 1789, it was more of a promissory note bearing 5 % interest per annum. However, its value was greatly discounted or even disregarded by reason of the new Republic’s instability and its relentless printing of the notes. It was transformed in 1790 into a non-interest bearing paper currency but that had little effect on its perceived value. Very few foreign suppliers were willing to take assignats in payment for valuable commodities that France required for its survival. Swan wouldn’t either; however, he was willing to barter the indispensable goods that he obtained outside of France in exchange for luxury items that France had in abundance and still could produce such as silks, brandies, etc., but were non-essential and “politically incorrect,” or even life threatening for the French to enjoy at that time.

The French Revolutionary government had tried to raise hard currencies by running auction sales of former Royal, Church and noble properties, largely comprising decorative arts confiscated by the new governing authority. The sales at the Palace of Versailles alone ran one year or more even though Louis XVI sent what is described as masses of furniture and decorations from Versailles to fit out the largely empty Palace of the Tuileries at one end of the Louvre where the Royal Family was taken unwillingly from Versailles to reside by the revolutionaries in 1790 at the outset of the Revolution. Such sales were replicated at the chateaux of Marly, Fontainebleau, St, Cloud and other prior Royal as well as noble abodes who owners had left to flee abroad.

The effect of these mass sales was to create a market glutted with astonishingly good decorative pieces sufficient to fill at bargain prices any empty corners in the palaces of English milords, German graffs, and Russian princes et al. The idea of selling these goods on a less wholesale basis made more economic sense to the Revolutionary Government than placing them on seemingly perpetual and overflowing auction blocks. That Swan was willing to accept such forms of payment which was the only expenditure that France could well afford made him the right man at the right time to provide food and other essential stuffs to France. There is no certainty that Swan himself developed this concept; Possibly, it was suggested by his wife or even Count Mirabeau, the aristocrat who led the Jacobins rulers.

The amazing quality of the French goods that Swan accepted in payment insured their strong market value in countries not undergoing the same turmoil as France. These countries then included the fledging United States that by 1790 had begun to shake off its post war doldrums. The new Constitution the Republic gave the Federal Government the right to impose excise type taxes.  It also begun to prosper by reason of its savvy business community, its natural resources, and its endless ocean frontage, and safe harbors. Finally, its sharp businessmen were untrammeled by the severe trade restraints previously imposed upon them by their English master.  For example, prior to the War of Independence, England dictated that colonial manufacturers of textiles could not sell their goods outside of the colony where manufactured, in order to protect manufacture in the mother country. Howard Rice, in an article entitled, “James Swan: Agent of the French Republic 1794-1796”, writes:

“…. there was in the United States a market for fine furniture, statues, mirrors, clocks, and other articles

from the former mansions of royalty and the nobility.

Silks, taffetas, satins, laces, now scorned by the good French Republicans as the livery of tyrants, might still be sold in America. He (Swan) even specified the colors preferred in taffetas…. There was, too, a demand for silk stockings…. fine wines and brandies….”



While clearly Swan brought French luxury good to the United States for sale generally as well as to furnish his own residence, there appears to be no information as to how the goods arrived in the US, i.e., what ships bore them, what ports did they enter, whether the ships were owned or chartered by Swan himself or carried by independent shippers, what losses or damages occurred, etc. Or is there any hard information as to how Swan sold the furniture in the United States or elsewhere that he didn’t keep for his own use. However, there is statement in a memorandum in the MFA’s Swan archives to the effect that advertisements were placed in the 1795 Boston Chronicle for the sale of French furniture, presumably by Swan.


The Talleyrand letter of November 15,1795 describes Swan as having “very considerable funds at this disposal” and sub-agents who “travel for him”. He adds that—

“…Mr. Swan is now engaged in fitting out two expeditions

for India (from the United States?) where he believes that a

large number of commodities that he has exported from

France, will be saleable. He has a great deal of wine, brandy

and an immense supply of jewels. It appears that all the

jewelry found or seized in domiciliary visits, has been

instructed to him to sell…”


John Goldworth Alger provides the only specific details as to Swan’s actual cargos that he brought to France:

  1. On January 15, 1793, Swan agreed to supply 30,000 barrels of pork and 100 hides (from cattle, horses or other?) from Brazil to France;
  2. On March 14th, 1794, he contracted to send 12 or 15 cargoes

to France of American corn and pork. In this venture, he was partnered with a man called Huger whose “hospitality Lafayette had enjoyed on his first landing in America”.

Another intriguing note as to other goods under Swan’s aegis, there is a reference by Swan in a letter to Thomas Aspinwall dated March 5, 1830, wherein he offers as additional collateral for a requested loan “a catalogue of 136 paintings in the hands of Pitcairn, Brodie…at Hamburghe which I received from the Government in 1794 out of the Emigrants property”.  The “Government” he refers to is undoubtedly that of the French Republic and the “Emigrants” being the French nobles who forfeited their properties in France when they fled the Terror to save their heads. In a subsequent letter to Aspinwall, Swan writes that the paintings were disposed of without any indication of how or to whom. I have been able to establish that the specified merchant firm of Scot nationals, Pitcairn, Brodie, did operate in Hamburg, Germany during the relevant period, but have been unable to establish the nature of its relationship with Swan, the identity of the paintings or who obtained possession of them. It is intriguing to speculate what those 136 paintings comprised and, if extant, to whom they now belong.

Swan’s business in France flourished and once he became an official agent of the French government, he received from the Revolutionary Government gold bullion melted down from seized ecclesiastical paraphernalia such as vessels, reliquaries, candlesticks, etc., to be used for payment for goods essential to France’s survival in addition to decorative arts. We know that Swan did obtain French decorative arts legitimately in payment as a supplier of needed goods to the French Revolutionary Government, but whether he received such goods as a consignee or as final payment isn’t entirely clear. However, an unflattering tale is told of Swan in Herman Wesley Small’s 1898 book, “The History of Swan’s Island, Maine”. The author states that Swan induced a group of French nobles to emigrate to the United States (perhaps to his West Virginia land) and his ships were stowed with their –

“…valuables in advance of their embarkation. As they perished in the Reign of Terror before being able to board, their goods were never reclaimed”.


Another quip in the same vein about Swan is that—


“Between Madame Guillotine, who took off their heads, and Swan who took off their trunks, little was left of those unfortunate Frenchmen.”


The story is repeated at least in one other book, “The Town of Roxbury: Its Memorable Persons and Places (1878)” and elsewhere, giving it some degree of credibility although possibly all versions had their origins in a single source antagonistic to Swan.

Another legend of how Swan acquired Royal French furniture involves him in a plot to rescue Marie Antoinette and take her to Wiscasset, Maine

MysteryAuthor houseGS.2

aboard his ship, “Sally” which had previously belonged to his father-in-law. The Sally, captained by Stephen Cough of Wiscasset, was captured in French waters by a French warship and impounded in France. Clough’s daughter who had been on board the Sally appealed to the American minister to France for the ship’s release and somehow met Prince Talleyrand along the way (although he was clearly staying in London at the time with fellow émigrés and would risked death if found in France). Somehow, Miss Clough was placed in the same prison as Marie Antoinette and had access to the Queen in her own cell.


Some unidentified party told Miss Clough that he would obtain release of the ship if it would take a small group of people to America. Miss Clough and her father agreed to this. According to the tale, the imprisoned Queen was to be a member of that group with some of her furniture and six angora cats, all of which were stowed aboard the Sally in advance of her arrival on board. Ultimately, either the Queen refused to leave without her children or the plot was uncovered, or never existed, but, in any event, the Queen as we know never left France.

There was in fact at that time a foiled rescue plot whereby a nobleman, the Comte de Rougeville, somehow was admitted to the Queen’s quarters at the Concierge and dropped a carnation at her feet. Upon picking it up, she found a note on paper tucked into the petals of the flower that set out a plan for her rescue.  According to one version of the “Carnation Plot”


described in a four-volume series called “The French Revolution”, by George H. Allen (1925), the Queen mistakenly believed that one of her jailers, Gilbert by name, was an accomplice to the rescue plan. She gave him a torn shred of paper on which she wrote her response to Rougeville in a code of pinpricks. The treacherous Gilbert passed her reply on to the wife of the Administrator of the Concierge. There is, however, no mention in the Allen book of Clough, Swan or any other American as being involved in that particular plot (although Gouverneur Morris is associated with another rescue plot). The sad scrap pin pricked paper is now in the Archives National in Paris and a facsimile of the torn paper is included as an exhibit in the Allen book. (FN) The discovery of this rescue plot led to the Queen’s placement in more secure quarters, the “Cachot de la Reine” or the Queen’s Dungeon, from which of course she never left except to be killed.  In 1816, the Cachot was converted by the then King of the French Louis XVIII, (the first younger brother of Louis XVI to succeed to the throne after Napoleon), into the exquisite but deeply pathetic “Expiatory Chapel”, its walls painted in black with an allover pattern of falling white tears.


A number of sources recite variations on the “Sally” rescue tale and state that the ship did not sail with the Queen, but took Prince Talleyrand and the Queen’s six angora cats and furniture to Maine. The Queen’s cats escaped upon arrival in Wiscasset, mated with local shorthaired cats and produced the large and furry Maine Coon Cat.


The Queen’s furniture in the Sally’s hold was then divided between Swan and Talleyrand. What the Prince could have done with the furniture is equally mysterious; but, if indeed if he did receive a share of Royal furniture, he would have sold it as being basically without funds during his sojourn he was in the United States. Perhaps. We do know, however, that Swan was a very resourceful man and did have some of Marie Antoinette’s furniture.

One continuing puzzle about Swan and the furniture which he sold or kept for his own use is that there is not real information as to how, when and where it arrived in the United States. Also, while Talleyrand did go to the United States at that time, it is most likely that he left from England where he had previously sought safety for his own head as he had been designated an émigré by the Revolutionary French government. Émigrés were French nobles who escaped France during the revolutionary period whose properties remaining in France, i.e., chateaux, agricultural lands, mines, furniture, and the like, were confiscated to finance the financial challenged new regime. Returning to France without removal from that category resulted generally in death. Talleyrand was fortunate to have his name removed from that death sentence list in 1795 and did return to France in 1796.

In any event, stories as to the presence of furniture once belonging to Marie Antoinette abounded in the State of Maine for many years. We know that Swan’s friend, Henry Know did buy French furniture from Swan for his house in Thomaston, Maine. Fort Knox is named after Henry Knox.

Enter a caption

While Swan was in France, he also actively and successfully marketed his West Virginia land to French and other European nobles and even to some German royals, all troubled by their proximity to the French revolutionary spirit and looking to a possible safe haven in America. This group included, inter alia, the King of Wittenberg and a Prince von Furstenberg, an ancestor of the first husband of the clothing designer Diane von Furstenberg.

Responding to Swan’s undoubtedly effective pitch of “green and pleasant lands” on which to reestablish fiefdoms free from the shadow of the guillotine, these Europeans bought land they would never see without having any real assurance as to actual size, boundaries and locations. As mentioned above, they like all other of Swan’s land investors lost their respective chemises in the deal and they and their heirs were involved in the ensuing avalanche of law suits. Swan was one of several Americans who bought large tracts of vacant land and marketed the property to Europeans. One man in particular, Joel Barlow,


like Swan enmeshed several generations of Europeans in litigation that ended in total loss in the twentieth century.

Mrs. Swan accompanied her husband to France in 1787 and remained there at least during the initial stages of the Revolutionary period. It is likely that she participated effectively in the choice of what was offered by France in barter to her husband and may have stipulated what would be kept for their personal use in Massachusetts. A writer named William Dana Orcutt wrote that when in Paris Mrs. Swan purchased “draperies from the Tuileries palace as well as a Gobelin tapestry that was hung in the Dorchester house”. There is no indication that Swan had developed an aesthetic taste for the decorative arts other being appreciative of their value as readily saleable commodities. Mrs. Swan is generally described as having been an elegant, cosmopolitan and erudite lady as well as a superb hostess, all of which traits are often accompanied by having an interest and some elevated level of taste in furnishing. At some before mid-1794 while the French Queen was still alive, Mrs. Swan left France to go to London and then returned to Boston. It is claimed that passersby in London were startled by Mrs. Swan’s resemblance to Marie Antoinette who was then imprisoned in Paris, enough to think that the unfortunate Queen might have escaped. The portrait of Mrs. Swan by Gilbert Stuart shows a highly self-possessed, dark haired woman with a distinctive “beakiness” and what was then referred to as an “ample bosom”.


Aside from those three prominent aspects, there would seem to be little in her appearance to be confused with Marie Antoinette. I would presume that h


er lofty carriage and richness of dress still available for foreigners to purchase in Paris during the early 1790’s were certainly arresting enough for people to stare without her being a clone of the Queen. After returning to Boston, she probably never went back to France. Some tracts on Swan state that Mrs. Swan joined her husband in France not out of any conjugal affection for him, but to get her hands on valuable decorative pieces to replace monies that he misappropriated from her inheritance for his own benefit.

Although Swan traveled to and from France from his original commencement of business there in 1787, he returned accompanied by his partner Schweitzer to the United States in 1797 from Europe in order to consolidate his new ventures. It is likely that the French Government requested that Schweitzer go to American with Swan to keep an eye on the wily gentleman. They opened an office in Philadelphia, then the capitol of the fledgling United States. By the end of 1795, he boasted that he had sent 105 shiploads of goods to France and only 17 were captured by the predatory British navy. Swan engineered this success by his crafty “neutralization” of the ships bound for France; that is, using the names only of American suppliers for cargo wherever collected, American crews, shipboards festooned with American flags and documentation showing false ports of call that never included any in France. Swan in letter dated October 11th, 1794 from Paris to James Monroe requests Madison’s help in obtaining for him a new US passport that would show his name as James Keadie (his mother’s maiden name) so as to evade capture by a British blockage vessel searching the ship he would use for returning to the United States. The reason he gives for this subterfuge is that his own name was “marked” by the British as the agent of France and the British interest in bringing him into England–

“in order to baulk the business for which I am going (to the US), and this is most likely to be done on my voyage, as it is the Marine only that is instructed to stop vessels which have been fitted out by me.”


His request was never granted even though he offered to give up this new passport to US Secretary of State or destroy it upon arriving safely in the United States.  Rice’s article also states that, as additional cover, Swan used a Danish company to insure his cargo bound for France and contracted with a firm in Hamburg, Germany called Lubbert & Dumas to pay the insurance premiums so as to further disguise his presence. This latter arrangement was one that Swan would one day come to regret.

Swan enjoyed a reputation both in France and in the United States for getting things done. He is aptly described as a man who “had an uncanny ability to be in be in the right place at the right time”.  In 1795 was given authority to negotiate its behalf the long delayed repayment of the United State’s revolutionary war debt to France in the new and then increasingly strong US currency. Rice states that the ability of the French Government also to obtain credit for its purchases in the United States depended upon Swan’s business acumen and reputation.  However, no less a personage than James Monroe in a letter dated June 30, 1795 who requested James Madison in the prior year to help Swan describes Swan as “a corrupt, unprincipled rascal.” Also, Gouvenor Morris who enjoyed a good reputation and whom Swan sought to join him in one of his ventures bringing American wheat to France in 1794 refused, stating that Swan was a “schemer”. In all, Swan seemed to be the type of person who could be relied upon to accomplish his goals, but at the same time one whom one would have to watch carefully so that he didn’t take off with other than his own share.


To be continued in James Swan: Part Three of Three.

James Swan: Part One of Three

April 16, 2016

JAMES SWAN: Part One of Three Posts

A Dead White Man You Should Know.



Of the three dead eighteenth century white men that are the subjects of my current posts, all of whom are remarkable individuals; however. James Swan stands out as an incomparable and certainly unique individual, in any epoch.images-2

There is a single cube room at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston that contains one of the finest and only intact suite of eighteenth century French furniture in the United States. Two of the pieces in the suite have their maker’s original invoices. Even were I not to have read the valuable information cards provided by the MFA, it was apparent to my reasonably educated eye that the collection is splendid and in a state of glorious restoration. Aside from the stunning quality of the gilding, the upholstered pieces are recovered in the most appropriate and sparkling new silver and pale blue silk lampas, co-equal in spirit, luxury and glamour with what it covers.


Marie-Antoine Thierry Ville d’Avray,


The suite consists of 10 pieces made in 1788 specifically for  Marie-Antoine Thierry Ville d’Avray,


Marie-Antoine Thierry Ville d’Avray,

Louis XVI’s former valet and, at that date, the Administrator of the Garde-Meuble, the Royal storage for furniture, crown jewelry, and weaponry. These pieces furnished the master bedroom of Thierry’s apartment at the Garde Meuble, a perk he was entitled to by his positon.


Marie-Antoine Thierry Ville d’Avray,

The building is now called the Hotel de la Marine, and is one of the twin colonnaded buildings on the Place de la Concorde that was a principal site of the roaming guillotine during the Reign of Terror during the French Revolution. Four years ago, the French Government, which was feeling the pinch like many governmental authorities universally, offered to rent the Marine for commercial use, but now has placed it under the aegis of the Louvre for a museum-type usage beginning in 2017.



Other pieces in the room that aren’t part of the Ville d’Avray suite enjoy the ultimate French royal attribution of having belonged to Marie Antoinette. Other than Madame de Pompadour,


the major mistress of the Queen’s father-in-law Louis XV, she was truly a person having the most superb taste in a country and at a time when good taste was more of a norm than elsewhere in the world, then and now.


The first time I visited the room over a year ago, there was hanging there a portrait by Gilbert Stuart of a powdered and rosy-checked gentleman of early middle age identified as James Swan, a person whose name I had never previously come across. Close by was another Gilbert Stuart portrait of a grand and elegantly dressed woman identified as James Swan’s wife, Hepzebah Clarke Swan. (Her unusual, not especially euphonious, name finds its origins in the Old Testament; and, this type of name was given by the more zealous Protestant New Englanders to show their scorn for so-called “Roman Catholic names” such as Mary, Anne, and Elizabeth, in common use by the less scrupulously religiously.)


The museum cards in the room inform that the suite of furniture furnished James Swan’s house in Dorchester, Massachusetts, and that some of it was given to the MFA by his descendants and some were purchased by the MFA from other descendants, all during the 20th century. Both portraits, I suppose for intra-museum “turf” considerations, now hang apart from each other along with other Gilbert Stuart portraits in the Museum’s new Art of the Americas wing, which for me is unfortunate; the former “Swan presence” conveyed a truly domestic bearing to the room, as the Swans seemed to look with justifiable pride at the assemblage of their furnishings.

I know that many 18th century Americans had collections of fine, and sophisticated furniture to adorn very smart and sometimes opulent houses up and down the Eastern Seaboard. However, those pieces were made largely in the United Kingdom or in America, virtually all English in origin or in design. I am aware that Thomas Jefferson bought some French furniture for Monticello while he was Minister to France in the late eighteenth century. According to historian John T. Marck, Jefferson shipped nearly 100 crates of goods from Paris to his Palladian inspired house in Charlottesville Virginia, much containing wine, brandy, and eaux de vie, during his stint in France as negotiator on the peace treaty between the United States and England. I have seen photographs of some of Monticello’s French furniture but none is of the imposing quality and majesty of Swan’s furniture.

George Washington also acquired some eighteenth centurywhen he lived as first President in Manhattan and rented a large house previously occupied by the French minister to the United States, the Elenor-Francois, Comte de Moustier. The Count returned to France precipitously in 1789, most probably resulting from the commencement of the French Revolution. Washington also purchased de Moustier’s furniture and other household goods to fill out his new, more spacious residence. These goods included a suite of French seating furniture, a dressing table, and a 300 piece Sevres porcelain dinner service. Neither the President’s new French furniture nor whatever else appointed his house apparently was particularly stylish or grand. William Hazlitt, the eighteenth century English essayist, who visited Washington at the former de Moustier residence, wrote: “The drawing-room in which I sat, was lofty and spacious, but the furniture was not beyond that found in dwellings of opulent Americans in general, and might be called plain for its situation.”



Washington did take some of de Moustier furniture to Mount Vernon after his presidency, where it now sits. I have seen photographs of the dressing table that Washington purchased from de Moustier. It is of late Louis XVI origin, made of plain mahogany, is severe and functional, and of a variety that an upscale antiquarian might describe as a middling “bourgeois piece”.


The same description might apply to the white and minimally gold-trimmed Sevres porcelain that that the President purchased from de Moustier that lacks the sinuous lines, polychrome decoration, and plentiful gilding that one normally associates with eighteenth century Sevres production. Presumably, Comte de Moustier imported for use in New York utilitarian pieces that wouldn’t offend the “republican eyes” of the new United States statesmen who considered themselves the spiritual heirs of early Roman republicans.

It seems curious that the French Minister was so discreet in his choice of furnishing, as he, in the French aristocratic fashion of the time, wore an earring and red high-heeled shoes. In addition, he lived with his late wife’s sister as his mistress, which outraged the society ladies in NYC who scorned what they considered as an outlandish pair. At the time, the fledgling United States was a poor nation, saddled with a massive amount of unpaid war debt, much of it to France, its major ally during the War of Independence. On the other hand, France’s Ancien Regime was desperately in need of funds to avoid becoming bankrupt. Indeed, one of de Moustier’s major duties in the United States was to gain an agreement for debt repatriation from Washington’s administration. As this was not financially feasible, Washington needed to avoid needlessly offending de Moustier and his companion by prudish New Yorkers. The astute President, in order to calm pubic sentiment against the French Minister, invited de Moustier and his mistress to spend two weeks at Mount, and even had the talented woman paint miniature portraits of the President and his wife, and some of her children.




Washington’s hospitality may have smoothed de Moutier’s ruffled feathers, but did nothing to help resolve Royal France’s desperate want of money. Louis XVI was forced to call France’s ancient parliament that hadn’t sat for zx years to raise new taxes to feed the Royal maw. That fusty institution morphed into the Assembly Nationale, which as we know turned upside down the Ancien Regime by empowering the non-ecclesiastical and noble classes, resulting in the destruction of the monarchy.


A letter dated December 14,1990 in the Swan archives at the MFA, notes succinctly:
“It seems to me that Swan was not a connoisseur of  French decorative arts in the same way as Jefferson, Madison, (Robert) Morris, or Monroe. It is therefore a paradox that the objects acquired by him are far superior to the objects acquired by these other.”

My interest in finding more about the then-to-me mysterious Mr. Swan grew exponentially.

What I found in researching James Swan is much more fascinating that I could have imagined, truly the stuff of historical fiction bordering on the pulp. I was also surprised that so much written about Swan resembles the efforts of the blind men scoping out the form of an elephant; that is to say, conflicting, incomplete and with mythic aspects which is peculiar since so much of Swan’s family, business, and personal pursuits are so well known and recorded on both continents. I have looked at Swan with functioning eyes and yet pockets of mystery remain.


I think that Swan’s early beginning prepared him to accept his later challenges and upsets. He was born in Scotland in 1754 and immigrated to the Massachusetts Bay Colony as a lad of the very young age of 11 years in or about 1765, apparently unaccompanied at least upon his arrival on American shores. Although orphaned children were sent to the colonies to live with relatives, there is no indication that Swan was taken in to live with a relative or friend of his family at his journey’s end. It could be that Swan’s parents (one or both) began the voyage with him and died at sea which was then a common occurrence for all ages of passengers, although there is some evidence that Swan as an adult corresponded with his father. Poor children of early ages were taken to colonial America often with the consent of their families unable to afford their upbringing and placed in servitude as indentured servants in the seventeenth and eighteenth enturies on a pre-contractual basis. However, there were men called “spirits” who haunted seaports to induce lone children with candy to board ships going to the colonies, hence the expression “being spirited away”.

Although there is no suggestion that Swan had been indentured, records of indenture were often destroyed or never kept. Possibly, Swan was taken up and apprenticed by an employer immediately upon setting foot in Boston. As I noted in my last post on the life  of Brook Watson, potential colonial employers waited at harbor wharfs for incoming ships to take on the newly arrived, given the sparse employee market conditions in the American colonies. Apprentice workers customarily were taken into their employer’s house where they were lodged and fed. In any event, after arriving in Boston, Swan is reported to have worked at a “counting house” (which is what we call an accountant’s office) and studied on his own to become educated.

Swan’s first named employment was a business called Thaxter & Son, which may have been the same as the counting house; but, I believe was some variety of retail shop selling books. At the age of eighteen, Swan wrote a well-read pamphlet challenging the African slave trade in Great Britain and its colonies, entitled “A Discussion of Great Britain and her Colonies from the Slave Trade”. This was very plucky, inasmuch as several notable Boston families were involved in that trade.

During his apprenticeship period, Swan became a fervent Patriot and joined the Sons of Liberty, an association formed to resist perceived abuses of British colonial rule. To protest against a new British tax on tea and restriction that tea in the America be supplied only by the well-connected British East India Company (some of whose shareholders were members of the English royal family), the Sons of Liberty decided that no such tea should be brought ashore. Some dressed as Mohawk Indians with lampblack-smudged faces to conceal their identity, Swan and his Sons of Liberty compatriots boarded the three ships carrying tea, and threw 342 cases of tea into the water of Boston harbor. This event, of course, which became known to history, but only in the 1830’s, as the “Boston Tea Party,” was called simply “the Destruction of the Tea.”

An amusing event, however, occurred immediately after as the “Indians” were returning from the “big brew;” an English Admiral called to them from an upper window of his house, advising that they would be dealt with properly on the following day for their escapade. They called back and suggested that he come down and settle the matter that evening. “Tar and feathering” had by then become a form of torturing sympathizers of England; and, the admiral closed the window and the matter was closed as well.

During the Revolutionary War, Swan fought and is reported to have wounded twice in the Battle of Bunker Hill. This battle, albeit occurring very early in the conflict and which ended indecisively, in many ways influenced the British to concede American independence after x years. Before the battle began, the British officers and their troops believed that the war would be a piece of cake. After all, Britain had the best army in the world that would be fighting a bunch of “peasants” untrained in military discipline and the arts of war. However, moments after the battle began, it was clear to all of the English that the “peasants” were obviously incredibly skilled marksman, which resulted from their experience in hunting as well as dealing with Native Americans from hidden positions, resulting in a wholesale slaughter not only of the British foot soldiers but its officers as well. The memory of the Bunker Hill battle site strewn with dead and dying Englishmen men was never forgotten.


From his employment prior to the war and his service in the Continental Army, he secured valuable connections among his Massachusetts co-Patriots including Henry Knox who was a significant American Continental army general, Years later, Knox became father-in-law to Swan’s only son. Swan also gained friendships with the liberal French aristocrats who fought alongside the colonials in the Revolutionary War, such as Lafayette and Rochambeau. These Frenchman became invaluable contacts for Swan in the late 1780’s when he began a mercantile business in pre-revolutionary France.

In the post-war period, Swan had quickly become a successful merchant on his own in Boston. His early financial and social successes placed him in a position to court and marry Hepzebah Clarke in 1776, whose father Barnaby Clarke was a very rich Boston merchant and ship owner. The young Swans cut a fashionable and, by the standards of that time, a racy swath through Boston society where Puritanical sentiments lingered. The Swans were founding members of a very cosmopolitan group of Bostonians called the San Souci Club. It met weekly for dinner, card playing, and dancing and was the subject of a thinly-disguised play called “Free and Easy” written by Mercy Otis Warren,


also a club member and the product of two eminent Boston families. 100 years earlier, the club members would most likely have been pilloried or worse banished to the wilds of Connecticut by their very dour forefathers at the first whisper of the club’s nocturnal “popish” diversions. “Popish” used by early Puritans to stigmatize anything or anyone that seemed lighthearted and gay (in any sense of that word), improbably including maypole dancing.


Some texts as well as a letter in the MFA archives from a current Swan descendent describe Swan as a “scoundrel;” and, I think that it is probably an accurate characterization. However, this epithet could be applied equally to a number of his New England contemporaries who were sharp traders, often dealing in opium and Africans, or were privateers which was a semi-lawful form of piracy that was condoned if inflicted on British flag ships. These early merchants and shippers did what they needed to do in order to produce generational wealth that, in turn, conferred impeccable social stature on their near and distant heirs bearing great American names. However, poor Mr. Swan produced neither lasting wealth nor high social rank for his progeny, the latter of which came from their marrying well and the former from their mother’s independent wealth. His legacy lies in the glorious furniture at the MFA and, for me, most significantly in the tales and legends of his convoluted and mysterious life.

In support of his scoundrelhood, “The History of Swan’s Island, Maine” by Herman Smalls written in 1898, suggests that Swan early in his marriage persuaded an elderly friend and business associate of his father-in-law, one William Dennie, a childless man lacking blood heirs to leave his entire estate to Swan, which indeed he did. Prior to dying, Dennie, who possibly was demented, maintained that his heirs would be Swan’s wife and her brother. Also, when Barnaby Clark died, Swan was named the executor of his father-in-law’s estate, which was divided equally between Swan’s wife and her late brother’s son, Samuel Clark, a minor and named after his father who died during the Revolutionary War. Mr. Clark’s will instructed how his estate should be managed. According to Smalls, Swan observed none of the management instructions and used the estate assets for his own benefit. Mrs. Swan’s co-heir and nephew had to sue Swan to gain his share when he came of age. Smalls states that his personal knowledge of Swan was derived from the same son of Swan’s brother-in-law who was 90 years old at that time.

Swan, armed with Dennie’s money and control over his father-in-law’s estate, developed his mercantile business on a large scale and prospered during the unfettered post-war capitalist era. Aside from living as a Bostonian nob, Swan also invested in real estate purchasing among other things several of islands off the coast of Maine called the Burned Coat group, the largest of which he called Swan Island, by which name it is still called. Like other affluent Patriots, he purchased properties confiscated from Loyalists, also called Tories, at rock-bottom prices. Loyalists were American colonials who retained allegiance to England and hoped for more sensible administration of the colonies for which they were content to remain as citizens under the British Crown. Ultimately, the violence imposed upon them and their properties by the zealot end of the Patriot movement caused them to flee from America to England or Canada before the Revolutionary War began, leaving per force their real and other nontransportable properties behind to be forfeited.

In the 1780’s, Swan built a country house in Dorchester,


then an outlying suburb of Boston, on confiscated Loyalist acreage. The most distinctive feature of the house was a round dining room that was 32 feet in diameter and had a domed ceiling nearly as tall as the room’s diameter. It was later attributed to Charles Bulfinch, but there is no record of Bulfinch’s involvement with the design of the house or does the house reflect Bufinch’s aestheics. This house was the repository for Swan’s grand eighteenth century French furniture, only some of which is in the MFA. It was pulled down only at the end of the 19th Century when Dorchester had become undesirable as a locale to have a mansion house.

Before and after the Revolution, land outside of the established 13 colonies was available for purchase at pence or pennies per acres in enormous tracts. Even the several governmental authorities, Royal and colonial authorities and then the Federal and various State Governments, to fuel prosperous development, would give gigantic tracts of acreage for free to persons whom they favored. This was an astute policy, as none of the governing entities had the economic wherewithal to develop the new areas; and, if done by and paid for by individuals, such largesse would some day reap tax revenues. The establishment of Lordships of the Manor in the seventeenth century, by the Dutch for the Van Renssalaer family in upstate New York, and by the English for the Livingston, Beekman, Van Courtlandt, and other familes in New York State, are early examples of how several American colonies were first settled, administrated, and developed without cost from afar by their colonial parents. Washington, for example, was given some 30,000 acres in Western Virginia.

James Swan bought and, in some cases, was given what ultimately amounted to over 2,500,000 acres of virgin land in what was then Virginia and Kentucky, an area that now would represent approximately 1/6th of the State of West Virginia. It is highly unlikely that Swan ever saw any of the properties he purchased. According to Smalls, Swan owned this land at the beginning of the American Revolution, although this timing is questionable as Swan then very young, still unmarried, and, at best, a fledging entrepreneur, if not still an apprentice in someone else’s business. It is more probable that he began accumulating these properties after the war.

While Swan’s vast Western land purchases are mentioned in Smalls’ book, the most complete discussion of what became a vexing morass is found in a curious book called “Pages from the Past: Recollections, traditions and old timers’ tales of the long ago: incidents and episodes in the early history of West Virginia”, with a 1974 copyright, written by a man called George W. Summers and assembled and edited by James F. Comstock. Comstock was amongst other things a humorist who published the “West Virginia Hillbilly”. Given the format of the book which is a composition of unrelated tales, its various chapters of the “Pages” were most probably have been printed in the “Hillbilly.”

The chapter on James Swan is called: “OWNED A SIXTH OF W. VA. DIED IN PRISON FOR DEBT”. It states that Swan “bought land as long as his dollars and credit lasted” and that—

“Whatever he could get “looked good” to him and he bought until it is doubtful whether he ever knew just how much “wild land” he really owned.”

The author writes that–

“…Swan died bankrupt and destitute, broken-hearted and forlorn, imprisoned for debt, and unable to realize out of all his millions of acres in West Virginia land enough to gain his freedom…. The lands Swan bought not only made him bankrupt, but impoverished everyone else involved in joint ownership with him. After his death, his heirs turned over all his lands to his creditors, and even they lost practically everything they had invested with him, or loaned to him.”

The “Pages” shows no sources for its facts; however, it is replete in details of transactions and lawsuits arising from interests in the properties that began in the main after Swan died in 1831. The author of the book, George W. Summers, bears the same name as a mid-19th judge whose name is noted therein as having heard some phases of the “Swan” lawsuits. He is likely to have been a descendant of that judge and perhaps had “inherited” family lore on Swan’s ventures.

After Swan’s death, litigation brought by his purchasers, over questions of ownership and wildly unexacting boundaries of the sundry tracts, was battled in State and Federal courts, including the United States Supreme Court. Some of Swan’s West Virginia property was sold to French and German nobles as well as some royals, probably German princelings, for their possible immigration to America who were participants in the litigation as well. This mess of law suits continued for nearly 150 years after Swan’s initial purchases of the subject properties in the late eighteenth century. A letter from Taylor Vinson, an attorney in West Virginia dated February 2, 1977 addressed to a curator at the Museum of Fine Arts, states that he had the “dubious pleasure” of submitting the final order “forever closing this case” sometime in the middle 1930’s.

The newly emerged United States assumed the debt issued by the various American continental authorities during the Revolution to fund their war efforts. An estimate of the American war debt in current dollars exceeds 20 billion dollars. A large portion was owed to France as well as to its Americans. The new nation went into an economic depression just after the Revolutionary War and was unable to service its debt on any timely basis. Like so many other patriots who bought these debt instruments, Swan’s financial status plummeted during this period of a de facto moratorium on debt payments. The adverse economic milieu of the time must have badly affected his other business activities as well. Most likely, his revenue shortfall left him unable to service fully or at all the interest, principal, and real estate tax obligations to which he was shackled by reason of his West Virginia land and their related mortgages. This began the long lasting debacle of Swan’s American land ventures.

In 1787, Swan decided to go to France and forge a new business career and, most likely, to escape the clamor of his stateside creditors, if not actually bankruptcy.




APRIL 5, 2016

Peg Leg Watson

I left off my last post dealing with the life of Brook Watson at the point when the boy returned to Boston from Cuba at the age of fourteen or fifteen years of age, with a wooden leg resulting from the shark attack. Far from experiencing a happy reunion with his guardian Levens, on whose ship Watson sailed to Cuba as a cabin boy, he found to his dismay that Levens had become a bankrupt and disappeared, and with Levens, his house and home for Watson, which was then owned by a shrew. Watson was fortuitously taken up by a kind stranger named Captain John Huston, a shipper, who took Watson along with him to Eastern Canada where he lived and supplied provisions to the British army stationed there. Watson lived in Huston’s house as a son in the family than as a servant. In this twenty-first century where most suddenly formed relationships are subject to a wry skepticism as to intent, Rev. Andrew Brown,

Rev. Andrew Brown in marble

the unpublished historian I introduced in the first section of this post, notes that Huston’s was much impressed by the boy’s–

“great and good, honest and honorable, ever attentive and obliging, apt to learn and to improve.

One thing in support of taking Huston’s interest in Watson at eighteenth century face value is the chronic colonial shortage of able, working people, both male and female. In point of fact, prospective employers in American cities waited for ships to arrive from England, to hire as they disembarked passengers looking for work that were given free passage by the shipper who hoped to collect the transatlantic fare from a prospective  American employer.

During the 1600s and 1700s, the French and English were unceasingly at war with each other. Sadly, the French-English conflicts spilled over into North America in the mid-1700s, as  part of the so called Seven Years’ War fought in Europe. In the first post on Watson, I left you hanging as to the fate of the Acadians, the people of French origin who inhabited what is now Nova Scotia in eastern board of Canada. These French-speaking, Roman Catholic rural people, by reason of various treaties between the French and English, legally became British subjects at the beginning of the eighteenth century, which made them at best “suspicious” to the French, and were referred to as “French neutrals” by their Anglican British overlords, which placed them in less than limbo status as British subjects.

The story of the Acadians’ expulsion from the Canadian lands that many of them had occupied since the early 1600’s is tragic, but too complicated in its multiple parts to describe in less than 100 or more  pages, which is not my intention here. What I want to achieve is to acquaint my readers with the basic element of that exile, which combines features similar to the exile of Armenians from Turkey in the early twentieth century as well as haunting facets that chillingly bring to mind the treatment, but not the intended extermination, of the Jewish population in areas controlled by Germany in the 1930’s and 1940’s. The objective of the British in exiling the Acadians was justified by their real desire to avoid a “Fifth Column” among their midst by what they considered at best as heretical “Neutral” citizens, somewhat similar to the reasons given by the Turks and Germans for ridding their communities of Jews. One should remember that Hitler’s original plan to rid Germany of the Jews was to ship them to the Island of Madagascar.

Also, with some exception, I want to restrict the scope of my discussion of the Acadian exile largely to Brook Watson’s role in that calamity, most of which I have become acquainted directly from his own letter to the Reverend Andrew Brown, who  who was penning a history of Nova Scotia, having been a minister at an Anglican Church in Halifax, Nova Scotia, during the key years of the Acadian expulson. I should note here that his intended history was never published; as we know, Brown’s historical papers ended up as packing butter and cheese before what remained was salvaged by an astute customer.

The Acadian’s principal settlement was Annapolis Royal.

Annapolis Royal

Here, in the first quarter of the eighteenth century, the English built a fort and garrisoned it with English troops, changing the name of the Province from Acadie to Nova Scotia. However, the Brits took no steps to populate the region with British settlors, as it did with the colonies along the American coastline. That changed in 1749, when Colonel Charles Cornwallis

General Cornwallis

was appointed its first Governor of the Province and brought with him from England a group of settlors, presumably farmers and some tradesman engaged to farming and animal husbandry, to the region he renamed as Halifax. (Cornwallis is best know as an important British general in the American War of Independence and as the British officer who was authorized to surrender in 1781 to the American and French force at the Siege of Yorktown.)

The end of the French and Indian War

Predictably, France viewed England’s new policy of populating the region with British settlers as potentially averse to its remaining, albeit somewhat distant, colony in Canada, which constitutes more or less the present Canadian province of Quebec, and perhaps, bellicose in intent given the long history of warfare between the two nations. The French government in Quebec City, which previously had had scant contact with the Acadians, sent some troops from Quebec in 1750, to stir up any latent animosity of the Acadians and Native Americans into active harassment of the the English settlors. The French also to build a fort in the area called Beausejour. For some reason, the Native Americans viewed the French more favorably that the British, perhaps because the French had been less enterprising in developing a presence the New World. It is true that some Acadians gave shelter to the Native Americans from English retribution.

Cozy relations between Acadians and Native Americans

The French policy of inciting the Acadians and Native Americans against the Brits succeeded so well that the British decided to chastise the French by attacking the garrison of French soldiers at Fort Beausejour. A number of Acadians took take part in the French defense of Beausejour.

The Remains of Fort Beausejour 

When the French fort was captured easily by the British in June of 1755, the French troops were allowed to retreat to their former bases. Even the Acadians who took part in the defense of the fort were allowed to return to their respective homes; however, the English governing Council of Nova Scotia, headed by the Acting Governor Charles Lawrence, determined that it was time to deal definitively with the Acadians, who always seemed to present a real or imagined threat to British rule, an attitude supported by their participation, albeit limited, in the defense of Fort Beausejour.


The British Council decided to exile the Acadians from Canada entirely, and orders were issued to initiate that expulsion. A proclamation was issued commanding the Acadians to appear at Beausejour (renamed Fort Cumberland) on a specific day, without stating the purpose. When they arrived, they were surrounded by British troops. The Acadian men were locked up in the fort, and the women and children were required to return to their homes, there to remain until further notice. The remaining men, some four hundred in number, were told them that they were declared rebels on account of their past misdeeds; that their lands, homes, chattels including animals, were forfeited to the Crown, and that, in the meantime, they would be treated as prisoners.  The gates of the fort were then closed. This same round up was repeated across the Acadian territories.

In September of that year, Brook Watson, with a troop of British soldiers, was directed as a part of the Acadian solution to go to an Acadian settlement called Baie Verte (Green Bay, in English),

Baie Verte of the Acadians still pristine

which was then a sizeable and flourishing settlement. He was ordered to collect and send to Beausejour/Fort Cumbrland, for embarkation, all the women and children to be found in that district, the men having been kept in the fort. After the round-up was completed and the Acadians taken out of the Baie Verte, Watson was ordered to set fire to the town and all of the surrounding homes, outhouses, and barns. Thereafter, Watson was charged with the responsibility of providing food and drink (“victualling”) on the awaited transport ships for its forced passengers.

By August 31, 1755, the transports to take the Acadian to exile had arrived at Beauséjour, and early in the month of September the embarkation began. On October 1 of that year, eighty-six Acadian prisoners dug a hole under the wall of fort where they were imprisoned and escaped in the night. But, on October 13 a fleet of ten transport ships, carrying nine hundred and sixty Acadian exiles, left Nova Scotia bound for South Carolina and Georgia. After the departure of the vessels the British soldiers destroyed every barn and house in the vicinity that remained and drove large herds of Acadian cattle into Fort Cumberland.

Watson remarked in a letter to the Rev. Andrew Brown that:

“The season was now far advanced before the embarkation took place, which caused much hurry, and I fear some families were divided and sent to different parts of the globe, notwithstanding all possible care was taken to prevent it. These wretched people, given up by France without their consent, were for adhering to those principles which the liberal mind must deem praiseworthy, plucked from their native soil, cast out by the nation who claimed their obedience, and rejected by that from whence they sprang, and to whose religion, customs and laws they had evinced the strongest attachment.”

After Beausejour, Lawrence had succeeded in exiling approximately a thousand Acadians. About this time, he should have received a letter of August 13, 1755, from Sir Thomas Robinson at the Court in London, to the effect that the king wished the Acadians to remain unmolested. But as some of them had already been deported, Lawrence thought there was nothing to be done but to finish the business of expulsion. And, perhaps, if his policy of exile accomplished the vitalization of the relative moribund British colony of Nova Scotia, he would not face reprimand, but might indeed bask in the glory of a newly thriving colony.

There was a letter published in the Philadelphia Gazette on September 4, 1756, said to have been written by the Acting Governor Lawrence of Nova Scotia, Charles Lawrence, dated August 6 at Halifax, that succinctly expresses Lawrence’s view of the expulsion:

“We are now forming the noble project of driving the French Neutrals out of this province. They have long been our secret enemies and have assisted the Indians. If we are able to accomplish their expulsion, it will be one of the great achievements of the English in America, for, among other considerations, the lands which they occupy are among the best in the country, and we can place good English farmers in their stead.”

Wikipedia notes that the Rev. Andrew Brown was “strongly critical of Acting Governor Charles Lawrence of Nova Scotia

Charles Lawrence

for his role in the expulsion of the Acadians. Brown was also of the view that the expulsion of the “French” was dominated by Boston colonial interests, centering upon unfettered fishing and trapping fur animals in Nova Scotia. As noted before, the British development of the Northeastern America was much more intense than their endeavors in Nova Scotia.

Over all, about 6000 or more people were exiled from Canada. Watson notes that about thirteen hundred perished by shipwreck. Some of the Acadian on British ships that arrived at French ports were denied entry on the ground that they weren’t French citizens, which was technically correct, if not unrealistic. Others who arrived in France were denied entry because of small pox among their midst on the ship. According to Watson, those Acadians were “carried off in great numbers” by the pox. Many went to the French West India, such as Guadalupe and Martinique, were they were admitted, but “died for want of food, as a famine at that time prevailed in the islands; and, the French people there would not help them, as they were not French subjects.”

Watson also wrote that:

“Those who survived the calamity were sent to join their remaining brethren who had been sent to the British colonies from New England to Georgia; they were here more fortunate, for notwithstanding the rancor which generally prevailed against all Roman Catholics, their orderly conduct, their integrity, sobriety and frugality secured to them the good-will of the people and gained them comfortable support.”

Some of the Acadians who were lucky enough to land safely in the North American colonies still longed for their Canadian homes and built boats, taking their families from as far as Georgia along the American coastline to Nova Scotia, or up the Mississippi River.  Watson writes:

“But alas! what did they find? all was desolated for the more effectually to drive them out of the country, all their houses had been burnt, all their cattle killed by order of Government, hence they found no shelter, still they persevered with never-failing fortitude, with unremitting industry, and established themselves in different remote parts of the Province, where they had been suffered to remain, but without any legal property. at least I have not heard of any land having been granted to them; their numbers, I am told, have increased about two thousand, and am informed they still continue, what I know them to be in their prosperous state, an honest, sober, industrious, and virtuous people. In 1755 I was a very humble instrument in sending eighteen hundred of those suffering mortals out of the Province.

Although none of the Acadians appear to have been sent directly to Louisiana, large numbers of them found their way there from various places, especially from Virginia, where they were not allowed to remain. Finding in Louisiana men speaking their own tongue and welcomed by the Spanish rulers of Louisiana at that time, the Acadians felt a sense of security, and gradually settled down with a degree of contentment. There are to-day in various parishes of the state of Louisiana many thousand Acadian-Americans who are called “Cajuns,” which are known outside the State for the cuisine and their amazing music, Zydeco.

A true tale of the horror, compounded priestly hypocrisy, faced by the Acadians is illustrated in one of Rev. Andrew Brown’s papers that was found used to wrap cheese and butter.

“A Capt. Nichols, commanding a transport… was employed by ye Government of Nova Scotia to remove from the Island of St. John about 300 French neutrals with their families. He represented to the agent before he sailed the situation of his vessel, and the impossibility there was of his arriving safe in Old France at that season of the year.

He was nevertheless compelled to receive them on board and proceed upon the voyage. After getting within 100 leagues of Scilly, found the ship so leaking that, with all hands employed, they were not able to prevent her sinking. Finding that she must in a few minutes go down, and that all on board must perish if the French did not consent to the master and crew taking to the boats, by which means a small number had a chance of being saved.

Capt. Nichols sent for their priest and told him the situation, and and pointed out to him the only probable means of saving the lives of a few, among which the priest was one.

He accordingly harangued the Frenchmen for half an hour on the ships deck, and gave them absolution, when they, with one consent, agreed to the master, crew, and priest taking the boats, and themselves to perish with the ship. One Frenchman only went into the boat, on which his wife said “will you thus leave your wife and children to perish without you.” Remorse touched him, and he returned to share their fate. The ship in a few minutes went down, and all on board perished.”

The priest’s argument for leaving the Acadians on board the failing ship and saving his own life was that he hoped to save the souls of the heretics, being the Anglican English crew, and bring them to God. The lifeboats arrived safely at a port in the west of England, with the Acadian priest and captain and crew, all alive and well, whether or not the latters’ souls were saved.

There was a letter published in the Philadelphia Gazette on September 4, 1756, said to have been written by the Acting Governor Lawrence of Nova Scotia, Charles Lawrence, dated August 6 at Halifax, that succinctly expresses Lawrence’s view of the expulsion:

“We are now forming the noble project of driving the French Neutrals out of this province. They have long been our secret enemies and have assisted the Indians. If we are able to accomplish their expulsion, it will be one of the great achievements of the English in America, for, among other considerations, the lands which they occupy are among the best in the country, and we can place good English farmers in their stead.”

Wikipedia notes that the Rev. Andrew Brown was “strongly critical of Acting Governor Charles Lawrence of Nova Scotia for his role in the Expulsion of the Acadians. Brown concluded that the expulsion was largely, if not entirely, the “brain child” of the local Council that governed Nova Scotia, which according to Brown, was dominated by Boston colonial interests that centered upon fishing and trapping fur animals. As noted before, the British development of the Northeastern America was much more intense that their endeavors in Nova Scotia.

As a footnote, the British victory in the French and Indian War resulted in France’s virtual expulsion from the North America continent, losing all of its New World possessions including Canada, except for a few small islands off the coast of Canada and in the Caribbean. This victory, however, came a great cost to England, which had incurred massive debt in fighting the war in and for the Canadian colonies, and ultimately yet greater loss to come. In order to reduce the financial loss, the English Parliament issued the infamous 1765 Stamp Act on the American colonists that taxed most printed documents in the American colonies. As a consequence, the colonists boycotted  British goods, forcing repeal of the act. However. Parliament issued the Declaratory Act, which confirmed Britain’s right to tax the colonists without their consent as Englishmen. The various tax and other acts affecting commercial activities in the colonies provided the spark that resulted in the American War of Independance.

Years later in 1783, Brook Watson become involved in another evacuation. He was then serving as Commissary General to the British army in North America, under the command of Sir Guy Carleton, now Lord Dorchester.

Sir Guy Carleton

He was charged with the evacuation of thirty-five thousand Loyalists in New York after the Treaty between the new United States and England was signed. The New York area had the highest number of Loyalists in the American colonies. As I mentioned in the first post on Brook Watson, the Loyalists population in the colonies, of course, represented a broad swath of colonial American society, but also as a group contained a higher percentage of overachievers and the wealthy. They were Americans as much as the Patriots, but simply sought to work things out with the mother country, as viewed unity with England as providing the best route to long-term prosperity.

Most accumulated wealth at the time was in land and fixed assets rather than in portable assets, such as currencies or gold. Accordingly, leaving the Americas meant leaving the bulk of their assets behind.

Loyalists being taken from their houses.

All Loyalists properties left in America was confiscated by local governments and sold at bargain prices to Patriots, some of whose descendants remained wealthy certainly to the twentieth century. As Watson writes, he had done “all in my power was done to soften the affliction of the Acadians,” and now was to “alleviate the sufferings of the loyalists who were so severely treated for endeavoring to support the union of the British empire.”

A Loyalist family disembarking on English soil

Watson’s task was to provide the Loyalists in his keep “everything necessary to their transportation and settlement with provisions for one year after their arrival. He praised the English government for considering the “case of every individual who claims to have suffered by their loyalty, and, after a ruinous war which added one hundred and twenty millions to the public debt, granted compensation for their losses and relief for their sufferings to the amount of between three or four millions, besides annuities amounting to sixty thousand pounds a year.”

A Cartoon of Loyalists petitioning Britannia to recover their losses. NB the Native American

Wow. Good for George 3!

Watson remained actively trading in the Americas and only abandoned his mercantile ventures when he went into politics in London, serving as Lord Mayor of London for one year in 1796. His political opponents, in the typically English manner, made derisive but clever comments about his early ordeal in Havana Bay. One suggested that had the shark taken Watson’s head rather than his leg, a wooden head would have served him as well as a wooden leg, as follows:

“Oh! Had the monster, who for breakfast eat That luckless limb, his noblest noodle met, The best of workmen, nor the best of wood, Had scarce supply’d him with a head so good.”

Watson became a baronet in 1803 and requested that the coat of arms to be created to reflect his ennobled state have a direct references to his Havana nightmare. Neptune, the god of the sea, sits above the shield, fending off a shark with his trident. In the upper left corner of the shield is an image of leg torn off below the ankle. The motto, Scuto Divino, translates as “Under God’s Protection.”

Book Watson’s Coat of Arms

Watson died in 1807, leaving a wife but no children.


 A third in the series of “Three Dead White Men You Should Know” will be posted next week dealing with an amazing character named James Swan.

Brook Watson


Living in Boston or in Washington D.C., it is impossible for any museum aficionado to avoid being disquieted by the identical paintings of Watson and the Shark, by John Singleton Copley,

Watson and the Shark 

the first at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, and the second at the National Gallery, as often as one might see them. (There is a smaller third version in the Detroit Museum of Fine Arts, which I know was painted by Copley, but don’t know when or why, except that it might have been done as a study.) Each nearly life-size painting shows a Boston Whaler-type boat full of sailors having the dignity and solemnity of the Twelve Apostles, some sitting and some standing, all of their eyes focused on a young man in the water face up, naked, and soon to be have his head bitten off by a monstrously large shark that circles nearly one half of the boat. One of the men holds a boat hook in his hands to ward of the advancing shark showing his full set of teeth. Upon closer inspection, one can see that the boy in the water has had his left leg bitten off below his knee. Both paintings have plaques that give a full description of the event. One of the two versions which is now in Washington was commissioned by the man that the boy in the water became, and the second was painted by Copley for himself and then passed down to his descendants until one donated the painting to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.

Dr. Gordon Bendersky, a retired cardiologist, who wrote a medical analysis of ”Watson and the Shark Copley, marvels over the boy’s survival:

”Not only was the rescue an amazingly miraculous incident, but the mortality of a shark’s chewing off a foot in two attacks, the massive loss of blood expected from the anterior tibial artery, the near-drowning and the mortality rate of the subsequent amputation procedure itself and the expected post-traumatic and postoperative infections would approach 99 percent or greater.

What I love especially about history is where following a single element can lead to an awareness of people and events of whose existence I had no previous idea. My research on Brook Watson, of whom I knew nothing, except as a name on a painting, led me to explore not only Watson’s mesmerizing life, but also that of John Singleton Copley, whom I knew solely by his paintings and a statute of him in Boston’s Copley Square, and finally a remarkable and unfortunate group of people called the “Acadians,” who suffered a holocaustic deportation in eighteenth century Canada.

Inasmuch as the painting “Watson and the Shark” was the spark for this essay, I want to tell you first about Copley and the likely circumstances that led to his creation of those paintings.

John Singleton Copley by Copley 

Copley was born in Massachusetts in 1738, the son of an uneducated, Irish immigrant couple. He was never schooled in painting, but was self-taught. However, his widowed mother remarried a highly-skilled engraver in Boston named Peter Pelham. Pelham had a large stock of old master engravings that must have been a source of inspiration for the young Copley, who absorbed quickly not only their various approaches to portraiture, but also how to embellish the portraits of his colonial clients with the trappings of the English upper classes, such as columns, classical busts, rich European fabrics, hot-house flowers, fine china, and the like. The ruddy colonialists obviously enjoyed being painted with subtle and not so subtle allusions to their wealth.

Rebeccca Boylston by Copley in her negligee

Copley at thirty-five became the most sought after portraitist of the late colonial era, making trips to New York and elsewhere to satisfy his growing register of patrons. Although a number of New England families enjoyed distinguished lineage or substance in England prior to arriving in America (although clearly dukes don’t immigrate), Massachusetts had an upwardly mobile society, and the renowned and prosperous Copley was able to marry the daughter of a well-established and wealthy merchant named Richard Clarke. Clarke’s wife was a Mayflower descendant, which, until the mid-1950’s, was a pedigree that trumped any other in the America.  After his marriage, Copley purchased a 20-acre farm what is now Beacon Hill, adjoining the property of John Hancock, a Boston nob.

Clarke was one of the consignees of the East India Company tea that was destroyed in the Boston harbor, that in the 1830’s was duded the “Boston Tea Party.”

An image of the Destruction of the Tea or the Boston Tea Party

He was also a relative of William Hutchinson, the English Governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, hated by the colonial Patriots, as those who became increasingly opposed to English rule were called.

As the anger against England increased, those colonials such as the Clarke family who favored England’s retention of the America colonies, known as Loyalists (who often were the “best and brightest” of colonial society,) also suffered the escalating fury of their fellow colonialists who began actively to advocate severance from England. Many of the Loyalists were attacked and beaten by the Patriots, their businesses and property desecrated, and even subjected to “tar and feathering,”

Tarring and Feathering

which was a brutal form of torture. Like many other colonials, the Loyalists arrived in America before 1650 and worked to build it prosperity. While Copley was sympathetic to and a close friend of many Patriots, such as Paul Revere, James Otis, and John Hancock, his in-laws and many of his clientele were Loyalists.

Paul Revere by Copley

Copley couldn’t abide the violence wrought by overzealous Patriots that was becoming increasingly common in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, but never experienced by him. One night, Copley was woken by a raucous mob surrounding his house, which demanded to know if a certain Colonel George Watson, a colonial administrator for the English authority and a Loyalist, was staying with him. Watson was also a member of the extended Clarke family, an acquaintance if not a friend of Copley. Copley explained that indeed Watson had visited during that afternoon, but left in the afternoon as well. The mob threatened that Copley’s “blood” would be on his head if he had deceived them, or “if he entertained Watson again or any other villain.” In a letter to his brother-in-law, Issac Clarke, Copley wrote”

“What if Mr. Watson had stayed (as I pressed him to) to spend the night. I must either have given up a friend to the insult of a Mob or had my house pulled down and perhaps my family murthered.”

This encounter with its actual threat of bodily harm shook Copley to his core.

Copley had for many years been encouraged by his friend and fellow painter Benjamin West,

Benjamin West

an American who emigrated lo London to peruse his career, to join him in England. Notwithstanding Copley’s success in the America, he had a long-held grievance that painters, even himself, were deemed basically as workmen in the United States, similar to a skilled carpenter or weaver of textiles. This is a bit odd, as he had achieved so great a degree of success and a marriage into a major Boston family. Possibly, he had taken some cheap shots of snobbery from his “classy” portrait subjects on his way “up,” or perhaps he just wanted to be worshipped. West told him that this would not the case in London, where recognized artists held high status and repute as did nobles. For many years, Copley chose to remain in Boston,  because he thought that he could realize the incredibly high level of income in London that he enjoyed in Boston, as he would be an unknown.

However, fear of harm by barbarous Patriots and the possibility of achieving a higher station of life in London coincided, Copley decided to migrate to what still remained as the mother country. He took passage on a ship called Minerva, the last boat to leave America for England until the end of the War of Independence. The sea voyage began from Marblehead, Massachusetts and took roughly four weeks. Aside from rough seas, bad food and water, and cramped accommodations, the trip was, like all such voyages, at best deadly boring and at worst deadly. Travelers brooked the tedium by telling true and false stories that, at best, were wildly exaggerated over and over to fellow passengers. However, accordingly at least to one source, there was aboard the Minerva one traveler who didn’t have to falsify or embellish his amazing story of his near death as he was swimming in the harbor of Havana, Cuba when fourteen years old. This, of course, was Brook Watson,

Brook Watson

all grown up by then, with a wooden left leg. Copley was intrigued and made some sketches of the harrowing scene under the guidance of Watson, who suggested that Copley painting the gruesome scene when he arrived in London, which he, Watson, would commission. The shipboard meeting may be apocryphal (but I have not concocted it, and freely admit that I prefer that it were true). Copley and Watson did meet in London on August 17, 1794, shortly after Copley passed his first year abroad studying painting techniques in Italy, then considered the mother of art.

Copley was eager to break out of portraiture and paint a narrative history, which had always, if not exclusively, dealt with subjects of a religious, historical, or national nature, such as a major battle or a coronation. He had the temerity to paint dramatically and with a near religious overtone a recent event in the life of an ordinary mortal, and was rewarded immediately when the painting took the English art market by storm. Copley’s reputation soared to the top level of recognized artists, a status that continued for most of his life, as he remained in England. Based on this work and a portrait of his family,

The Copley Family by and with Copley

now also in the Washington National Gallery, Copley was elected to London’s prestigious Royal Academy in 1779.

Now, l will turn to Brook Watson, who in his middle years became Lord Major of London, a founder and chairman of the still extant international insurance company, Lloyd’s of London, as well as a rich and respected man whose life could have ended as food in the belly of a shark. All of these and other business aspects of Watson’s life are, of course, laudable. However, for me, what he did in his life before reaching those commercial heights are what makes him so remarkable for me.

A significant part of Watson’s history would have been lost had not a volume of papers covering the history of the Nova Scotia region of Canada from 1790 to 1815, some written and all compiled by Reverend Andrew Brown, including letters from Brook Watson, had not been saved from annihilation by an astute agent of the British Museum, named Grosart He was in cheese shop in Scotland and noticed that Brown’s papers were being used to wrap up cheese and butter. He purchased them from the shopkeeper, and they were deposited in the National Collection in London.

Watson was born in England as the son of a substantial merchant. When Watson was under 10 years old, probably six to eight years old, his parents died; and, he was sent to a distant relative, possibly named Levens, who was also a prosperous ship merchant in Massachusetts. Can you imagine a recently-orphaned boy of eight going on a small wooden sailing ship across the Atlantic Ocean, a voyage of nearly thirty days, without a relative or other acquaintance? And what did he find when he arrived there, probably not Mr. Levens who probably sent some lackey to pick up the boy form the dock.

At fourteen years of age, Watson was taken on one of Leven’s ships as a cabin boy, which wasn’t uncommon at the time, even for younger boys. When the ship was anchored in the Havana harbor by Moro Castle,

Moro Castle, Havanna

the lad dove off the boat for a swim. This is when the shark attack occurred that took off his lower left leg. Actually, the shark attacked twice and both times took Watson under the water. He was miraculously saved by his shipmates before the beast could finish the meal. Watson spent three months in Cuba, being treated by Spanish doctors, healing from his wound, and having a wooden leg made.

When Watson returned to Boston and entered his guardian’s house, he was accosted by a woman, who apparently then owned the building and ran it as an inn or worse. She told him that Leven was bankrupt, disappeared, and possibly that Levens owed her money above what the house was worth. A letter to the Rev. Andrew Brown describes the salty discourse, which is worth repeating here:

“La Brook,” exclaimed the oddity, ” is this you, with a wooden leg, too? Your friend Levens has been so unlucky, has done so-and-so and now he is gone the Lord knows where. But there is nothing for you here; I can see nothing for you but to have you bound out to be a saylor. I believe I shall send immediately for the select men and was all with them in the business.” She was suggesting that she could get additional money owing to her from Levens, as a bounty from consigning Watson on an outgoing ship; ship owners of the time used all sorts of devices to attract unwilling working hands, including kidnapping. “The Lord help me,” says poor Brook, “for I wish the shark had finished the business he began.”

The woman spoke so loudly that she was overheard by a ship captain named John Huston who was sitting in an adjacent room. He came into the room where Watson was being abused, and the woman was about to resume her tirade, when he Mr. Huston interrupted her and told her to say no more on that subject. He said that he would pay any balance owing her from Watson’s guardian, which he did and took the boy with him when he left Boston. Huston was obviously impressed by the young Watson, to pay for his freedom for his guardian’s debt as well as bring him into Huston’s family as one of his own children.

In one of the letters that would have served to preserve butter or cheese, there is the following statement about Watson that served as a confirmation on the value of my tracking his life;

“It is an observation made by Plutarch — that as the small features about the eyes are the most expressive and do most to distinguish the complexion of the individual, so the little incidents of life are of great account in making up a judgment of a person’s real character. In great actions persons may out-do themselves, but in little actions they act themselves. With this observation I shall introduce an instance or two of the manliness and capacity of young Watson:—“

During the French and Indian War in Canada, which was part if the Seven Years’ War between the English and French were carrying on in Europe, at one point the English forces controlled one side if a river and the French were on the other side. Several cattle belonging to the English one day crossed the river at low tide and were foraging on the French side. This wasn’t noticed until the high tide and one other than Watson said he would attempt to bring them back. He swam over the river-side and was driving the cattle towards the river when a French officer leading a small troop called Watson to halt, and said to him:

“Young man, what have you to do upon the King of France’s land?”  Watson replied that his “present concern was neither with the King of France, nor about his land, but he meant take care of the English cattle.” The French officer was amused by this snappy come back, and ordered his men to allow Watson taking away the cattle. This boldness on Watson’s part “gained him not a little credit” by the English when he returned with the cattle, both he and the cattle intact.

Huston was the captain of a ship that supplied provisions to the British army in Nova Scotia. Watson’s apparent abilities were recognized by the English command serviced by Huston, and he was made a commissary in 1755 to the British forces. I read that three years later he was sent to supervise the “expulsion of the Acadians” from Nova Scotia. Those words caught my eye. Who in blazes were the Acadians? I first I thought they must have been a feckless Native American tribe sent on another, earlier “trail of tears.” That was not the case. If you are familiar with Nova Scotia or the Bay of Fundy in Canada or come from New Orleans, Louisiana, you most likely know who the Acadians were. But I never have, and they were a new name to me.

A Portrait of the Acadians looking to burst into a “Sound of Music” number 

In a letter to the Rev, Andrew Brown, Watson supplies a very complimentary answer to the identity of the Acadians, in a letter he wrote to the Rev. Brown, one of the documents that avoided obliteration by cheese. He states that Acadie, or Acady, now Nova Scotia on the eastern shore of Canada, was first settled by people from Normandy. Indeed, they were French people, mostly from Normandy, but they arrived in Canada in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries rather than in the sixteenth. They were placed under the French government of Canada, but so remote from the capital of Quebec, that little communication could be held with them. They were, therefore, able to enjoy this extensive and fertile country with little or no control. Their chief settlements were made on the borders of navigable rivers emptying into the Bay of Fundy, where marsh, or interval, lands abounded, and which, when dyked to keep off the water occasioned by high tides, produced excellent pastures, and without manure abundance of fine grain and pulse. Hence the country soon became plentifully stocked with neat cattle, horses, sheep, hogs, and poultry of all sorts. The people were left to themselves, without burthens on their property, or restraints on their industry, increased rapidly, possessing the means essential to substantial happiness. Luxuries they did not covet, to ambition they were strangers.

All in all, Watson describes Acadie as a second Eden, even to the degree that he claims that adultery was unknown. His only slightly negative comment was that “bigoted Catholics they were, no doubt, governed by their priests, but these were few in number and moderate in their views.” However, a similar view of the Acadians is expressed in another of Rev. Andrew Brown’s papers:

“Their wants and other wishes were few, and their deficiencies and disputes were still fewer. They had no courts of law — because they had no need of them. If any difference arose it was soon allayed and settled by the interference and counsel of two or three of the most judicious and best respected in the neighborhood.”

Sadly, this remarkable, if slightly improbably good people got caught in the French and English wars, if not eternal, then in the conflicts of the French and English, which were eternal.

In 1713 Nova Scotia was ceded to the crown of Great Britain by France, together with its inhabitants, including the Acadians. Those who chose not to remain were free to leave, provided they left within 12 months. Those remaining, which was the majority of the Acadians,  became subjects of Great Britain. In 1720, a new Governor was appointed and the Acadians were required to take the oath of allegiance, but many declared they would not take arms against the French. The British reassured those that took the oath of allegiance and “behaved peaceably” would not be required to bear arms against the French. In the meantime, they enjoyed the free exercises of their religion; had priests in every district, and were permitted to govern themselves by their own usages and customs were suffered to govern themselves by their own usages and customs.

The French and Indian War brought more suspicion against the Acadians, some of which was justified by their siding with the Native Americans against the British; and the continuing settlement of English farmers in the region brought envy against the skilled husbandry of the Acadians by the new settlers. It wasn’t long before envy and fear of the Acadians as a fifth column in the English midst gave rise to a variation on a “final solution” to obliterate the imagined threat that these people posed to their British overlords.


To be continued in next week’s post of SoRandom: HistoricalSnapshots.


Vincenzo Lunardi the Balloonist:Part Two



 I realize that you are too clever to think that Vincenzo Lunardi failed to return from his first hydrogen balloon flight, where I left you at the end of last week’s blog. Clearly, there would have been no reason for a Part Two had this hero checked out in flight. In any event, I want to take a halt before jumping back into what happened to Lunardi, and let you know what I, my wife Cristin, and my son Pablo, got into by reason of our “Lunardi Connection.”

Lunardi at his first lift-off, losing an oar

A Twenty-first Century Visit to the Lunardi Society at the Hon. Artillery Company

I was intrigued by the idea of the Hon. Artillery Company. That it still exists, and has six undeveloped acres in the heart of the City of London is, for me, an extraordinary bit of English persistence, despite all odds. Being direct, I decided to make a telephone call to the HAC, and speak to whomever had a handle on its history and Lunardi in particular. And, of course, if Vincenzo Lunardi was indeed a recognized character in the HAC’s history. The telephone operator at the HAC suggested that I speak to the archivist, named Justine Taylor. I was transferred to her line and she picked up the call, saying Justine Taylor here, without the usual voice mail, choice of umpteen options, my leaving a detailed message, and never getting a call back, which is what one expects in dealing with an organization of any size and whatever nationality, whether a dental office to the U.S. Post Office. I was momentarily speechless, which is not generally my suit, but being so used to the frustrating game of answering systems; this was truly a lucky break through.

I introduced myself to Justine Tayler, and said that I was researching all possible leads to learn as much as I could regarding Vicenzo Lunardi, and was initially curious as to whether she had ever heard of him. With a friendly laugh, she said, “Yes, of course As a matter of fact, the HAC has a Lunardi Society amongst its members, and they hold a luncheon on the second Wednesday of every month.” All I could bring myself to say at that moment of instant gratification, was, “Really!”

Ms. Taylor asked why I was so interested in Lunardi; and, I told her about the portrait, and what I knew about him and was interested in anything I didn’t already know. I said also that I had arranged with the Boston Museum of Fine Arts to make a museum quality photographic copy of the painting and could make another for the HAC, should it be interested in having one. She said it was likely that the HAC would be interested, and, as we were speaking, I sent her a digital photo of the portrait. She received it while I was still on the line, and said that she could assure me than the HAC would love to have a copy.

Miss Taylor suggested that when I should be in London, I should attend a monthly luncheon. This telephone conversation occurred in January of that year, and I said that was planning to come coming to London in March. She said that she would speak to the powers that be, and confirm an invitation. I added that my wife and my then fourteen-year old son would be accompanying me, and asked if they could join as well, as I could never leave then out, this being a Spring Break trip. She paused and said that women were never permitted to have a meal in the HAC dining room; it was strictly a men’s organization. Even she, as the archivist of the HAC, had never attended a Lunardi Society or other luncheon. I said that I didn’t want to disrupt HAC traditions, but I couldn’t come as it would be rude of me to leave them behind. Miss Taylor said that she would raise the issue with the head of the Lunardi Society and, to my surprise, she called me back several days later with the good news that all three of us were invited to the March luncheon; and, moreover, she was invited to attend as well of the wives of any members who wanted to come as well. The barrier was broken in a big way.

We arrived at noon at the Armoury House
of the HAC, a handsome eighteenth century honey-colored building sitting on the gorgeous six acre grass playing, in the center of the City of London. We met the charming Justine Taylor and were taken into a room for pre-luncheon cocktails. It was filled with men and several women, to whom we were introduced. It was all very jolly and a fortunate remnant of pre-Big Bang London,

The castellated Amory Building of the Hon. Artillery Company

when business lunches were preceded by many rounds of cocktails, a good claret at lunch, brandy after pudding, and everyone going at 4 pm, contrasting strongly with the present day lunch instead of sandwiches and iced tea at a desk or in a conference room at best.I know because my law firm had an office in London at that time. My son was offered a gin and tonic and, when I demurred for him saying that he was 14, the reply was that really didn’t matter. In any event, Pablo chimed in saying that he didn’t take alcohol.

We were the shown the hanging portrait of Lunardi that we had given to the HAC, and then went into the dining room for luncheon. The room was the epitome of an English men’s club, with mellow dark wood paneling, randomly placed tables covered with spanking white table clothes, and portraits of men, mostly in military uniforms, peppering the walls. The table for the Lunardi luncheon was long and set for about 25 people; all of the napkins were embroidered with the motto “Lunardi Society.”

Lunch was a hoot, merry, and merrier as empty glasses of claret were filled and refilled. I was asked to say some words and did. What said I brought laughs, but I can’t remember what those words were. all I know is that I asked for more cheers to Lunardi and the society honoring him. After lunch, the menus with the portrait on their cover were signed with kind words by all present, addressed to me and my wife and son. We were also given as souvenirs the Lunardi society napkins,

A Lunardi Society  napkin

used and unused place into a plastic bag for washing. It was good cheer galore. We all promised to keep in touch, and I hope to return this coming April. Lunardi certainly fell into the right berth when his lift-off was accepted by the HAC. I felt happy for him, as I can’t imagine that the HAC membership of his time to have been any different from the good fellow members I met.


Lunardi return  to London and Beyond

You should know that the best description of Lunardi’s first voyage is contained in a series of letter written by Lunardi that was published as a pamphlet after the returned from that flight, called “An Account of the first aerial voyage in England, in a series of letters, to his guardian, Chevalier Gherado Compagni, by Vincent Lunardi, Esq.”  The pamphlet was sold at the exhibition of his new, second balloon when t was exhibited at the Pantheon, another exhibition hall in London. The letters are very readable (other than having to read most “f’s as “s.s), written in excellent, grammatical English, and reveal Lunardi’s charm, intelligence, and humility. Lunardi certainly wrote the letters, but I have no idea of whether an editor was brought to correct grammar and style. But then again, he did study and teach English in Paris prior to going to Naples. Some of the letters are likely to have written in the balloon’s undercarriage during his first balloon voyage.

Lunardi had an easy trip after leaving the HAC field, partly sailing as he notes above large cloud banks as he notes, so common to all of us who have ever flown upon an airplane; but, his experience was beyond the wildest imaginations of all humankind before his time, expect for the very few Continentals who preceded him in their light-than-air craft or perhaps those who crossed the Alps. He mentions the soundlessness of it all, and not knowing how fast or slow his balloon was going, or whether it was ascending or descending, as the balloon traveled without resistance through the atmosphere. This aspect of air travel is not the case on commercial planes, propeller or jet, but was noted by passengers on transatlantic flights of the German Zeppelin,

An advertisement for the German Zeppelin

fortunate not to be on its last flight. Lunardi writes about the perfect round horizon he saw from his height, how well-kept and tidy the green landscapes of England seemed, and how little people and buildings appeared to be below him. He adds that this must have been how the ancients thought of the god Jupiter’s perspective of the earth from his abode in the sky.

Green England forever

Lunardi records that the temperature dropped from 66 degrees Fahrenheit rapidly to 61 degrees and then to 29 degrees, causing “little crystals” to form about the mouth of the balloon. After about an hour in flight, he noticed the ill effect that the cold had upon his cat, and let out some hydrogen gas to land near a small village in Hertfordshire, about x miles from London, to release the cat. Lunardi’s pamphlet of letters has several legal depositions of persons who encountered this landing, as a means of certifying the accuracy of his accounts. One is by a woman named Elizabeth Brett, described as “Spinster’ and “servant to a farmer” who was working in her “master’s brew house” when she heard a loud noise. She went outside and saw a “strange large body” in the air approaching and a man in it.

Once the balloon landed, Lunardi put the cat onto the field where it was picked up by a woman named Mary Butterfield, who was also deposed in London, to confirm her encounter with Lunardi. She had been in the field “raking oats,” and immediately afterward, sold the cat to a “gentleman” standing on the other side of a hedge row; he enlightened Mary Butterfield that the Machine was called an “Air Balloon.”

Lunardi took off again by dropping off more ballast. In a letter to his cousin, Gerardo Compagni, he relates that after a second lift-off, he ate cold chicken, drank some port, and, then, with total sang foid, took a nap. Ultimately, he descended at Standon Green End near the town of Ware, having made a nearly 24 miles voyage that lasted over 2 hours. Lunardi claimed that the balloon sailed upward to the unimaginable height of 4 miles. Although that is unlikely, it is clear that the height he reached was high enough to numb the cat.

When he came close to his second and ultimate landing, Lunardi called from his trumpet to men working in his chosen landing field below to grab the balloon’s ropes and pull him down. But they were too shaken by the sight of a man standing in a basket in mid-air. They shouted to him that would “have nothing to do with one who came from the Devil’s house.”  However, a fearless young woman named Elizabeth Brett, also later deposed, realized that the man in the sky was human, took hold of one of the balloon’s dangling ropes, and shouted to the men to join her; they denied her request as well. A man Lunardi identifies as a “gentleman,” named General Smith, and several other gentlemen who followed the balloon on horseback from London as well a “other people from the neighborhood” than the faint-hearted field workers helped to land and secure the balloon. The hydrogen gas was let out to deflate the balloon; and, Lunardi notes that the gas “produced a most offensive stench,

An 18th Century toile. Notice the fellow holding his nose to the left of the decompressing balloon


which is said to have affected the atmosphere of the neighborhood.” This, of course, was the downside of landing the safer hydrogen gas balloon, unlike the case of hot-air balloons which simply were filled by hot air that dispersed into the atmosphere.

Lunardi was welcomed back to London in triumph; he writes that:

“No voyager from the most interesting and extensive discoveries; no conqueror from the most important victories, was ever …welcomed with greater joy.”


Perhaps, the foregoing description of his triumph is bit of exuberant hyperbole, but the returning Lunardi truly enjoyed veritable twenty-first century style “pop” status, reaping both the financial and social rewards that such celebrity can bring. What surprised him greatly was that the plates, knives, and forks that he used for eating during his flight as well as an empty bottle of port that he dropped from the balloon as supplementary ballast to gain lift became collectors’ items. He wrote to his guardian Compagni:

“The interest which the spectators took in my voyage was so great, that the things I threw down were divided and preserved, as our people (the Italians) would relics of the most celebrated saint.”

England was enchanted by the idea of balloon flying, as well as with Lunardi. He was made an honorary member of the prestigious Honorable Artillery Company by the support of Prince of Wales, which allowed him to don the stylish red and white uniform of that group shown that he wears in the Portrait. The Prince introduced Lunardi personally to his father, King George the Third. In fact, the four figures that are shown in the mid-right level of the Portrait are the King and Queen Charlotte seated in front of the Prince of Wales and possibly his wife who stand behind them.It would seem possible that the jumping dog in the portrait might have been the same dog that Lunardi brought with him on the first balloon flight.

A ladies’ bonnet shaped like a balloon,

Post: Lunardi outfits for men and women sporting the unisex balloon look.Not too cute

2 feet high, was designed to mark the flight as well as Lunardi skirts decorated with balloon images as well as commemorative plates and other inexpensive pottery items. Georgianna, Duchess of Devonshire, who invited him to a dinner at Devonshire House, her London residence. Lunardi responded to the Duchess’ courtesy by wearing a suit in the color she developed called “Devonshire Brown.”

Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire

Colors introduced by important women of the late 18th century on clothing were immediately worn by the “fashionistas” of the age. Another example of this phenomenon is the color “Caca Dauphin” created by Queen Marie Antoinette, also a friend of the Duchess, after the birth of her first son to commemorate his stool.

A color sample of “Caca Dauphin”

Richard Gillow who inherited and further carried on the eponymous furniture company, still functioning, become acquainted

with Lunardi in order to encourage and assist him in making a hot air balloon flight in the country of Lancaster where Gillow lived and had his factory. In conjunction with Lunardi, Gillow developed a design for a “balloon-backed” chair which became and remains a very successful model.

Following his success in 1784, Lunardi ordered a new balloon in 1785 with the British Stars and Bars emblazoned upon in vivid red and blues. This was exhibited at the Pantheon, another public hall,


1784 An exact representation of Mr Lunardi's New Balloon as it ascended with himself 13 May 1785 Pub by Carrington Bowles, London
Lunardi’s splendid  Anglomania expressed on his second balloon

to create excitement for a second lift-off, also to occur at the HAC field. Lunardi planned to have three aeronauts in the carriage, including him, George Biggin who lost out on the first run, and also an actress friend of Lunardi called Letitia Sage, described as a Junoesque beauty, to gin up public interest.

A very reserved Mrs. Sage


At the awaited hour of lift off, all three entered the carriage, the balloon wouldn’t rise. Madame Sage confessed that she seriously underestimated her weight, which turned out to be over 200 pounds. Lunardi gentlemanly agreed to leave the carriage so Biggin should not miss out a second time; and; Mrs. Sage’s involvement was essential to maintain the gate-paying public’s continued excitement about a second lift-off. Once Lunardi left the carriage, the balloon easily into the air.  However, as the balloon was rising, the portal to the carriage opened, not a serious problem but the crowd below were worried. Mrs. Sage gamely got down her hands and knees to tighten the lacings. This titillated prurient-minded members of the spectator who chose to think that she and Biggin were in flagrante delicto,

images-4creating even more approval for the first female aeronaut; and, they roared their delight. The couple’s flight was otherwise uneventful and their balloon came to earth easily. Lunardi’s reputation was further buttressed after the second voyage for his gentlemanly willingness not to exclude Biggin for the second time and his choice of the fetching Mr.Sage as co-pilot. Mrs, Sage commented in the relacing event in her book on ballooning,speaking i n third person, for whatever its worth:

“Mrs, Sage didn’t lose her head, despite the swaying of the basket during the ascent.She simply knelt down and re-fastend the curtain securely.”

Lunardi made several more flights in England and then in Scotland, but the urban population became accustomed to the sight of men and women in the sky, and lost their initial passion for ballooning. Lunardi tried to devise more purposeful inventions to reignite excitement, but he became viewed simply a showman. His ultimate fall from grace in the United Kingdom occurred when a young helper got entangled in the balloon ropes, was hoisted in the air, and then fell 100 feet to his death at the hands of his horrified parents. Lunardi was heartbroken by this dreadful accident; and, after a period of self-imposed inactivity, he moved to the Continent and had a string of mixed successes and some misfortunes in France and then home to Lucca. There, in his native town, he organized a lift-off before a very large audience, but the balloon had multiple false starts, rising a few feet and then falling back to the ground. When it was finally ready to go, after nearly 10 hours of delay, Lunardi tripped on entering into the balloon carriage; and, it sailed unmanned into the sky.  He was humiliated and shortly after hiding from shame in Lucca, moved on to Rome, where he would encounter his greatest defeat.

Unlike Lucca, which was a tranquil boondock, Rome was a sophisticated city whose populace was well aware that Lunardi had conquered the hearts and mind of England, not a mean feat for an Italian given the English xenophobic reputation. Lunardi scheduled a lift off in an amphitheater that was brimming with Roman. All seemed very propitious for a successful lift-off and flight; the kind weather was and his equipment and crew were top quality. As fate would have it, a man, described in Leslie Gardiner’s book, “Man in the Clouds,” as a malicious little hunchback named Carlo Lucangeli, kept taunting Lunardi, and became even more strident as he realized the possibility of Lunardi’s successful lift-off. He kicked the undercarriage, which was Lunardi’s straw. He picked up his tormenter, turned him upside down, tossed him into the carriage, and cut the ropes. The balloon ascended gracefully into the sky and made a smooth fourteen-mile journey, the longest yet achieved in Italy. Moreover, Lucangeli landed the balloon safely; how he did that a mystery, but had the last laugh on poor Lunardi.  The following quip was pasted after the Lucangeli’s flight on Rome’s famous “talking statute,” Pasquino.


Lunardi remained on the ground like a clod,

While old Carlo went up for an audience with God.”


You probably know this if you have spent much time in Rome; however, for those who haven’t, Pasquino was not an individual, but the name given to an ancient fragmented torso dating from before the Common Era, which was and still exists nearby the Piazza Navona. By tradition, anonymous comments, usually satirical and directed at Rome’s high repressive papal government (and in the Papal States as well) or prominent individuals such as Lunardi, were stuck into the base of the statute. Satirical quips are still called “pasquinades.”

Pasquino’s wisecrack spread like wildfire throughout Rome. Poor Lunardi left Rome, as the expression goes, with his tail between his legs and returned to Naples. The Kingdom of the Two Siciles was still a backwater, albeit on the edge of revolt and/or conquest by Napoleon. Ferdinand IV and his Austrian Queen, always receptive to diversion for their sake and that of their restive population in the ancient Roman style of bread and games to quell discontent, were aware of Lunardi’s success in London via Prince Caramanico; and, when welcoming him back to Naples, even claimed that they remembered him from his earlier sojourn in Naples, which undoubtedly was a pleasing exaggeration. No one had to date made a balloon fight in southern Italy; and, the populace was therefore less blasé than the crowds in the north.

Lunardi was given a sinecure, a residence at the Palace of Capidimonte for himself, and funds for the building of a balloon, as well as a staff to tend to his needs, personal and balloon making. Lunardi finally reached a secure stage in his life where he was both respected and enjoying the trappings of his celebrity. Unfortunately, as Ferdinad had nothing else of note to say to his father in Madrid, he boasted of housing the famous balloonist at his court, to keep the Royal Family amused and his subjects diverted from nefarious conduct. This struck a chord to Charles, as he had a need for a Lunardi type at his court and in his nation, Spain being restive as most of Europe after the French Revolution.

Finally, Lunardi was persuaded to go to Madrid, which he did in 1793, as certainly it was a more significant world stage than eternally frivolous Naples.  He achieved some mixed success in the Iberian Peninsula, but nothing compared to his splash in London. Lunardi went to Portugal for ballooning, but got caught up in Portugal’s war with Spain, at least the extent of wearing a Portuguese military uniform and unlikely was involved in any military action. “Man in the Clouds” states that in or about 1804, Lunardi went back to London for the first time. Leslie Gardner quotes “an announcement” in the London “Morning Post” that “Lunardi the aeronaut is arrived in London, and mediates an aerial ascent in the course of the ensuing month,” This ascent never occurred. However, Lunardi’s “second coming” in London is important to the authorship of the Portrait, a discussion that follows.

After that trip to London, there is no record I have found that traces Lunardi’s steps after he left London. The next and final notice regarding Lunardi appeared in the English publication, “Gentlemen’s Magazine” on July 31, 1806, to the effect that “Mr. Vincent Lunardi, the celebrated aeronaut” died of a decline in the convent of Barbadinos at Lisbon. We know that guardian Gherdo Compagni died more or less before Lunardo returned to Italy; and, that one of his sisters married an elderly noblemen possibly from Sicily, and the other had disappeared from any record. Also, it appears that Lunardi left no wife or heirs. Truly, this was a sad instance of sic transit gloria. But then again no one can contest that Lunardi lived life to the fullest; if not uniformly successful, he always came back for another round.

The Passage of the Lunardi Portriat

The history of the Lunardi Portrait is clear from 1899 to date, with a few minor a few gaps. However, from the time that it was painted until it was purchased 1899 by Agnew’s, a major art dealer in London, then and now, it’s history is a “black hole.”

The painting was purchased from Agnew’s in 1903 by the 4th Baron Ribblesdale. This consummate English lord is the subject of a full-length, life size portrait by John Singer Sargeant,

The Ancestor

which is now in the National Portrait Gallery. Ribblesdale is shown wearing an elegant and high glamour hunting costume, topped off by a high and glossy black silk hat. Even King Edward the Seventh, Queen Victoria’s son, who was considered by many Englishmen of his day to be a “German” due to his Hanoverian and Saxe-Coburg antecedents, dubbed Ribblesdale the “Ancestor,”


as representing the quintessence of the grandest English lord descended from the Norman conquerors. Ribblesdale remarried in 1919 and built a large house on Green Street in London which was furnished, amongst other things, with the Lunardi portrait and one other Zoffany. His new wife was an American beauty named Ava Willing,

Ava Willing Astor Lister, lady Ribblesdale

but she was also Mrs. John Jacob Astor IV,

John Jacob Astor IV

the ex-wife of the Astor who abided by the “women and children first” rule and went down willingly with the Titanic. Mrs. Astor had been divorced from her Astor husband prior to his demise, but was mother to Astor’s son Vincent, who became the richest person in the world in 1912 upon his father’s death. The new Lady Ribblesdale was much admired in British society but never attained notoriety for maternal instincts. She found little Vincent irritating and a burden on her time, especially since he was inexplicably attached to her. Her means of coping with his maternal “addiction” was to lock the boy in her closet, leaving him there until someone else stumbled upon him, which was at least once 8 hours later. Is it any wonder that the little rich boy evolved in a manic depressive with a high predisposition to aIcohol. Vincent Astor married one woman after another, all of whom were quickly willing to leave the unhappy, albeit richest man in the world. As for his third wife, he found a woman willing and able to put up with him, a young widow with young children who upon being widowed again became a beacon of sanity, charity, and glamor as the surviving Mrs. Vincent Astor, who was sadly fleeced by her own son, now in prison, in her foggy dotage.

Vincent Astor

After Ribblesdale, the Lunardi Portrait was owned by Knoedler, a New York dealer in old and no-so-old masters, a firm now in disrepute from recent sales of allegedly fake Rothkos. I don’t how Knoedler got hold of the painting, but sold it to a very rich American family named Crane from Chicago. Mr. Crane owned a large company that made residential and commercial plumbing under

Mr. C's fixtures
Current Crane products

an eponymous name and still is functioning. In 1900, he bought a glorious property to serve as a summer residence consisting of 3,500 acres overlooking the Atlantic Ocean on three sides in Ipswich, Massachusetts. In 1911, he built a large and, from photographs, what seemed to be a seemingly charming Italianate villa/mansion of the Newport variety to crown the highest peak of the property overlooking a mile long rolling tree-lined allee leading to the ocean, similar to one at the Peterhof palace in Puskin, formerly TsarRussia. The landscape was designed by Frederick Law Olstead. Mrs. Crane, for reasons not clear, detested the house from the time it was built and made that evident to her feckless husband. As a means of mollifying her unhappiness and hoping that in time she would come to like the house, he promised that he would tear it down and built a new house of her choosing if in ten years time she had not come around to appreciating the house. In 10 years to the hour and day, Mrs. Crane reminded Mr. Crane of his promise and her unrelenting loathing of the existing house.

The existing Crane house is on the left side, the grand allee to the ocean is shown on the upper right side, and the demolished Italianate house is on the bottom right

Mr. Crane complied, and one can speculate that he viewed this submissive course of action to be less expensive than a divorce with what also from photographs and portraits looks to have been a very beautiful woman, but very “special”, as that adjective is used derogatorily in Spanish.

images copy 3
Mr. and Mrs. Crane with their children.


The villa was demolished and on its site the Cranes engaged David Adler an amateur architect, but extremely amateur, as well as a very accomplished interior designer from Chicago to design and built a large and very tasteful, albeit restrained, Jacobean-style brick house, differing widely from its exuberant Italianate predecessor. Presumably, Mrs. Crane was satisfied with her new house, and perhaps more so that “her will was done.”

The Crane family gave up Castle Hill as a personal residence in 1949, after Mrs. Crane, then a widow, died. The house and property was given to the Trustees of the Reservations, a private, not-for profit trust established in 1877, to hold and preserve historic houses, farms, and beautiful beaches and landscapes in Massachusetts, now over 100 in number. Curiously, this organization provided the structural framework for the English National Trust set up in the early 1940’s, to takeover great English houses after World War II whose owners could no longer maintain them, being taxed to absurd extremes during life and then again upon death by the Socialist Government of that era that was opposed to private wealth and diffident, even hostile to its vestiges that the country houses represented. This is a rare instance of the English looking across the Atlantic to find a suitable means of preserving their history. Most of the furnishings of the house, including the Lunardi portrait,

sitting _room 1
The Lunardi portrait at Castle Hill

were sold at Parke Bernet, the American auction house that was bought by Sotheby’s, at an on site auction. It is likely that Knoedler bought the painting at the Crane auction and sold it to Walter Chrysler, Jr.

From the time of Agnew’s ownership until 1989, the Lunardi portrait was considered to be an authentic Zoffany. It was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1919 as a Zoffany; and, there was an authoritative statement in Victoria Manner’s

Lady Victoria Manners

“definitive” book on Zoffany published in 1920 that it was painted by Zoffany, with the reasons for that judgement. However, my initial research after I bought the painting suggested it was unlikely that Zoffany could have painted the portrait, because Lunardi’s first balloon occurred in September 1784 and Zoffany had left England for India in 1783, returning to the UK only after Lunardi had left for the Continent in 1789. I obtained a copy of a Sotheby’s 1989 for the sale of Walter Chrysler’s old master collection. There, for the first time, the portrait is attributed to the painter John Francis Rigaud, with no “by your leave” as to its earlier but Zoffany attribution.

I spoke to the painting person at Sotheby’s who was familiar with the sale and said Sotheby’s also realized the likelihood that Zoffany didn’t paint the portrait as he, the painter, was not present in London while Lunardi was there. He added that the Rigaud attribution was based solely on its stylistic similarities without any hard information linking this particular painting it to Rigaud. Richard Crossway and Bartolozzi did do portraits of Lunardi, and Rigaud did do a painting on copper of Lunardi with George Biggin

Ricaud’s painting on copper of Lunardi, Biggin, and Sage

and Letitia Sage in a balloon. I personally never found the attribution to Rigaud very satisfactory on stylistic grounds. I also spoke to a curator of a recent Zoffany show, who virtually hung up on me when I asked if he had any relevant information about my “Zoffany/Lunardi. He said before finishing the conversation that “everyone knows that the two men weren’t in London at the same time, and added gratuitously that no one currently paid attention to Victoria Manners.  However, until yesterday, any realistic attribution of the portrait to Zoffany seemed at best unlikely as the two clearly weren’t in the United Kingdom at the same time. I say “until yesterday” because I finished yesterday reading Leslie Gardner’s biography of Lunardi, Man in the Clouds and saw the notice in the London Morning Post, announcing Lunardi’s arrival in London in 1804, a year in which Zoffany was without doubt in London. Perhaps, Lunardi commissioned the portrait himself for old times’ sake, that the portrait didn’t remain in the United Kingdom, but accompanied back to Portugal. Lacking heirs, who knows where it might have been after Lunardi died, until it was bought by whomever or whatever in turn sold it to Agnew’s. I had spoken to the archivist at Agnew’s who told me that some old documents inidicate that Agnew’s bought the painting from someone or some business called “DRYERES.” She said that she couldn’t find any thing which could identify Dryeres as an auction house or dealer or otherwise. I haven’t been able to find anything on Dryeres as well but I have to search outside of the United Kingdom. Perhaps, one or more or my readers can help in this quest.


Next week our fourth issue will begin to explore the incredible life of

images-14.jpegBrook Watson . The second of three dead white men whom you should know.

Three Dead White Men Whom You Should Know


This is the first of a six-part series that traces the lives of three eighteenth-century men who were well celebrated in their lifetimes, and now are virtual nobodies. Each biographic essay will be covered in two separate  issues of this blog. The names of the men are, in the order to appear in this blog: Vincenzo Lunardi; James Swan; and, Brook Watson. All three were orphaned prior to age fifteen, left in poverty by their dead parents, and forced to move to another country in order to make their way in life. At that time, communication was restricted to letters that took weeks or months to receive, if ever; travel by land other than on horseback was limited to unsprung coaches that traveled over roads that were at best muddy or rut ridden paths and took more than a week of days to cross a country such as France; the intrepid travelers that went by sea needed a strong dose of sang froid to deal with menacingly high seas, rotted food, foul water, and God knows what sort of bath and toilet accommodations. In spite of all odds, they achieved levels of successes that eludes so many other people in easier times. 

Portrait of Vicenzo Lunardi


I bought the painting shown above some eight years ago in Mexico City where I had been living with my family. My wife and I along with a friend went to the combined house and shop of an antique dealer. His handsome, Beaux Arts stone townhouse sat on a once haute bourgois circle of similar stone houses located in a now decayed neighborhood. By bewildering contrast, every floor inside the house, table, shelf, and wall resembled a third-dimensional Jackson Pollock, in its maniacal mélange of chairs lacking one or more arms or legs, chipped shell-encrust, sappy paintings on velvet of the Crucifictions and the Annunciations, busts of ladies with large bosoms and big hair, and stuffed, knockoff Steiff-type bears.. If it had a name-or even if it didn’t, it was there. After going through its four-stories, we returned to the ground floor, wondering where its inhabitants could possibly sleep and eat; and, how any vendor with a claim on sanity could be so optimistic as to believe in the eventual sale of the full clutter.

My wife disappeared on the ground floor behind the winding staircase and called me to look at “something”. The “something” was the painting of Vincenzo Lunardi. Aside from being an absolutely charming and well executed oil painting on canvas in obviously good condition and clearly a United Kingdom product of late eighteenth century origin, she pointed out to me a metal plate affixed to the bottom horizontal of the handsome, carved and gilt frame, which stated:

Johann Zoffany, R.A


“Lunardi, the Ballonist”.

I knew Zoffany to be one of King George the Third’s favorite painters and the name immediately brought to my mind the Zoffany portrait of Queen Charlotte seated at her skirted dressing table, every inch of which was ruched and laced as heavily as her gown, along with her two eldest sons standing beside her: the younger of the two dressed as a sultan and the Prince of Wales, as a helmeted five-year old Mars.


When we returned home, my wife called the dealer to confirm that the currency of his quotation was in Mexican pesos, which he did; and, further, he said that the cost of the painting could be reduced by 30% of the original price. She asked him to send the painting over to our house, and he arrived within less than one hour and left shortly thereafter, elatedly, with a check in hand. That both the alleged painter and its subject were non-Latin in origin was obviously viewed by him as causing a long, slow, maybe never, sale, and his good luck to have a pair of “gringos” who wanted it enough to buy.

Both my wife and I immediately sat down at our respective lap tops, she exploring Johann Zoffany and me, the subject of the painting. What we found and didn’t find inspired this biography on Lunardi and what the painting “saw” in its passage from wall to wall, where it hung, and what we two encountered in the process.

Who was Vicenzo Lunardi?

“Lunardi the Ballonist”  was not a name familiar to me– I never having been especially a fan of ballooning. A jumping brown dog next to Lunardi wears a wide, polished steel collar around its neck, inscribed


“V. LUNARDI.” Lunardi rests one arms on a cannon and his other arm is raised to the sky, pointing to a tiny figure of himself standing in the undercarriage of a hot-air balloon. One man and a woman are seated on a bench in the mid-left zone of the painting and another man and woman are standing behind them; above them is a structure that resembles the Round Tower at Windsor Castle. So many clues awaiting revelation.

Lunardi, whose first name I learned was Vincenzo, was born in 1759 in Lucca, still a gorgeous and relatively pristine hill town in Tuscany, to a family described as descended “from” minor Luccan nobility , but having no money at the time of Lunardi’s birth—and, most likely, none for many prior generations. I found no reference to the title they may have once held or any other vestige of nobility, such as a palace or castle, but only a possible coat of arms,  the “Stemma della famiglia Lunardi.”


The device  is shield-shaped with 5 horizontal alternating bands of three white and two red that each have a central double white crescent moon outlined in black, possibly suggesting service in a crusade. The term “minor nobility” suggests to me something equivalent to the Spanish term, hidalgo, which is a diminutive of “hijo d’algo,” translated literally as “son of something;” that is to say, the son of a man who had some memorable station in life as contrasted with a son of a total nonentity.

Vincenzo and his three sisters became orphaned well before reaching 20 years of age. More fortunate than most orphans under these circumstances in the laissez faire world of the mid-eighteenth century, the three were left to the care of a more financially substantial and older, caring cousin named Gherado Compani. Compani was a diplomatic factotum at the Court of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies in Naples,


a Spanish Bourdon monarchy, carried the title of Cavaliere of Naples.

Compani believed that Lunardi was a capable and intelligent young man with a future that might exceed the low achievements of his forebears, polishing the dismal Lunardi family’s tarnished escutcheon. Contemporary accounts relate that Lunardi had an easy charm, was slight in build, and pleasant looking, the latter two are revealed in the “Zoffany” portrait. Compani helped Lunardi travel both inside and outside of the then broad composite of independent states we now call Italy, to enhance his education and sophistication. He is reported even to have spent some portion of his youth in the East Indies; but, I have not been able to findout when or why. In 1780, Compagni was able to obtain a clerical function for his young cousin at the Neapolitan court. Lunardi, who was then living in Paris, teaching as well as studying English and history, left for Naples to take the job upon receiving Compani’s summons.

The king of the Two Sicilies, consisting of the region of Naples and the island of Sicily, was a boorish soul  called Ferdinand IV, whose father  abdicated to become King Charles III  of Spain, and thereby left his Kingdom of the Two Sicilies to is twelve-year old son  His queen was Maria Carolina, one of Marie-Antoinette’s eleven sisters.


The Court was like a comic opera. Among other special pursuits, Ferdinand was reknowned for self-butchering the stags and wild boar he hunted, emerging staunchly from processing his kill into loins, hams, and ribs, covered in the blood, urine and feces. He also brought his fresh-caught fish to sell in the marketplace at his own stall, haggling over price as  did his non-royal vendors at their neighboring stalls. He prided himself on his frenetic approach to dancing the tarantella, the prime folkloric dance of Naples When his brother-in-law Emperor Joseph II of Austria came to visit, the King performed the dance before the Emperor, which was all very well and good, if not a bit looney, for a king to impress his wife’s kin. But, afterward, Ferdinand grabbed the Emperor’s hands and placed them inside his sweat-soaked shirt, presumably further to astound the then stupefied Joseph with his vigor.


The monarchy lived more in fear of its nobles than the proletariate. Even before the beheading of her sister in 1794, Maria Carolina lived in fear of being murdered by one of her fierce aristocratic subjects. Lunardi, being a graceful, intelligent, and ambitious young man in contrast to the coarse and peculiar royals and nobles, found Naples to be a “piece of cake” in his path for personal advancement.

Lunardi enlisted in the Engineer Corps of the Royal Army, and gained a sinecure that, in the main, brought him a smart and colorful uniform, which was in itself a “door opener” to the highest levels of Neapolitan society. Cleverly, he then joined the local chapter of the Freemasons,


a recherché group allegedly brought to the city by the Queen  who was more liberal than her “French” sister, and excoriated by the local clergy as being heretical. As an expected, direct result of clerical disapproval, the membership of the local Freemasons included the most prominent, rich, and powerful men in the Kingdom, including  Francesco d’Aquino, the Prince of Caramanico, a principal advisor to Ferdinand. The Prince, albeit massively fat, was allegedly the Queen’s lover, possibly because she viewed his girth as providing a broad shield against an assassin’s blade. Apropos of nothing,  one of the two current claimants to the throne of the Two Sicilies is associated with the current Prince of Caramanico , Don Alesaandro d’Aquino, in the very small and exclusive Sacred Military Constantinian Order of Saint George, a Roman Catholic dynastic order of knighthood founded in 1520-1545.


The ambassadorship from the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies to England became vacant in 1793; and, the Prince of Caramanico was appointed to that post. Having become acquainted with Lunardi, perhaps from their mutual Freemason membership, the Prince asked Vincenzo to be his attaché in London, officially with the title of Private Secretary to his Excellency, the Neapolitan Ambassador to the Court of Saint James’s. Although the opportunity came with very low salary, Lunardi accepted the job eagerly, as it seemed to provide a clearer path to prosperity. Naples, he had realized early on, was no more than a pleasurable, wacky backwater for a person of his talents and ambition.

Lunardi and the Prince arrived in London in 1793, where the Prince rented five rooms on New Bond Street, in Mayfair, to serve both as office and home for the Ambassador and his staff of one. The Kingdom of the Two Sicilies was a very small, insignificant, and then peaceful state, notwithstanding that its monarchs inhabited one of the largest palaces in Europe.


Naples’ irrelevance provided little to do for the Ambassador and his private secretary, once they had been introduced at the court of George the Third and made the required rounds as newcomers on other officials. Nevertheless, empty diplomatic boxes, all bound in the scarlet red leather with bright gold embossing the escutcheon of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, went back and forth weekly between London and Naples. Lunardi recognized quickly that the combination of his expansive free time and his diplomatic title provided him with broad entrée in London, to advance his pursuit to augment the petty stipend he received.

Late eighteenth-century London was a highly entrepreneurial, free-market capital city, open to scientific and mechanical innovations, discoveries, and cures; and, its moneyed class was willing to reward liberally those ambitious and clever people who came up with those advances. At the time, great interest was focused on experimentation with lighter–than-air crafts that was happening on the Continent. In 1783, the Montgolfier brothers sent a sheep, duck and rooster up 1500 feet into the air in a carriage slung below a gorgeously-decorated balloon on the grounds of Versailles


before an incredulous Louis XVI. This was followed quickly by a balloon ascent launched later that year by the brothers with a man in the balloon carriage, also witnessed by Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. While the idea of hot air balloons is enjoyed by many in the twenty-first century, particularly as a touristic enhancement, we need to understand that, in the eighteenth century, it was comparably nothing less than going into orbit in space by Russian astronauts in 1957.

All of Europe talked about flying machines, and cheap engravings of balloon flights made the experiences visually available to broad populations. The Church railed against these excursions to the clouds as “knocking on heaven’s door.”  Country people saw the flying balloons as the work of demons; and, fallen balloonist were often chased with pitchforks aloft as fallen devils themselves. The English upper crust was aware of the ballooning mania in Europe, but tried to fain disinterest as it was a Continental phenomenon; a few unexciting  ballooning attempts in Scotland didn’t change that general attitude. In fact, ever competitive, England was embarrassed that France had achieved the lead in sending men and animals aloft. Indeed, a London newspaper in 1783 advised that “all men to laugh this new folly out of practice.” Another Italian, Court Francesco Zambeccari, launched a small, unmanned hydrogen balloon in London on November 21, 1783, and, several weeks later set off a larger version, also unmanned. Neither event was particularly successful and failed to gather any meaningful notoriety..

Lunardi was smitten, and chose ballooning as his key to prosperity. He took a leave of absence from his secretarial post to learn how to do it, which he clearly did in depth. First of all, he needed money to make a balloon, as he had none. Promising an Englishman of means named George Biggin


a seat beside him on the first flight, Biggin agreed to back Lunardi. Biggin lived on a sizeable estate called Cosgrove Hall and was on an amateur inventor who produced a new means of tanning leather and, perhaps, a coffee pot still in use called the “coffee biggin.”.


But Lunardi needed funds larger than Biggin was willing to commit to produce the balloon. Potential English backers initially resented the fact that the first likely manned balloon flight in their country would have an Italian at the helm and a seat onboard. However, Lunardi’s charm and enthusiasm overcame the local reluctance to open their pockets. In a letter to his cousin Compani during his fund raising stage, Lunardi writes very presciently the difference between raising venture capital in London as opposed to Italy:

“In Italy, I should have sought the patronage and generosity of my Sovereign, or of some liberal and opulent nobleman, to enable me to obtain the expense of my present undertaking, Here wealth is more diffused; and by any contrivance that can gratify the curiosity of the people, sums of money are immediately collected, without the anxiety and mortification of petitioning the great.” He adds: “Ingenious men are perhaps the better rewarded, and not rendered slaves to the purposes and caprices of patrons.”

Lunardi raised the money to produce the balloon. However, he also needed to locate a ] London site for the lift-off, which needed to be conveniently  situated, as the bulk of attendees would come on foot, as London lacked affordable transport; he also required  a site large enough to hold 100,000 or more persons that he hoped to attract. He was able to persuade the administrators of the Chelsea Hospital, a charitable organization located in what is now South Kennsington,


 to use their spacious grounds for the lift-off. The Hospital then as now provides  a hospice for military invalids and  had begun in the reign of  Charles II under the urging if Nell Gwyn, the Merry Monarch’s  long-term mistress. This site was located two miles from the City if London, but believed by Lunardi to be acceptable as a walk-to venue from the City where the bulk of the London population then lived. South Kennsington/Chelsea in the late eighteenth century was a bucolic region of country villas, small villages, and spacious gardens and fields.


There were two alternative means of filling the balloon, one, by placing a wood-burning stove in the undercarriage of the balloon that feed continuously heated air into the balloon chamber; and, the other was to fill the balloon with hydrogen attained by pouring sulfuric  acid onto zinc or iron filings, thereby producing  hydrogen gas, which is lighter than air; and, then seal the balloon when airborne, only to let the gas escape to lower altitude or land. Anyone who had been close to a sulfur spring is familiar with that noxious smell that occurs when hydrogen gas is so produced in open air. The first method, which Lunardi describes as a moving chimney heated a common fire, and represented the most dangerous method  of filling a balloon, as it can cause the balloon material to catch fire. However, the benefit of using hot air was its low cost as it could made by burning straw. It  had been used by the Mongolfier brothers. Lunardi chose the second method as being safer, except when the craft passed through thunder clouds when the hydrogen could explode. He believed could be avoided if on kept a close eye on the weather in choosing when to lift off. A hydrogen balloon was safer but more costly and required a gradual process to cool down the gas before it could safely channeled into the cavity of the balloon.

Another would-be balloonist, a Frenchman named Moret who had been somehow involved in hot air balloon trials in Paris, arranged for a lift off of his balloon at a field close to the Chelsea Hospital grounds. A crowd exceeding 50,000 paid to watch the lift-off. Attempts to fill Moret’s balloon,  used the fire-fed method, but for reasons unknown took hours linger than Moret anticipated, and the balloon ultimately collapsed into the furnace. Angry spectators destroyed not only was left of the balloon, but some of the crowd robbed other more affluent attendees, and then levelled all fences in the neighborhood. Lunardi described that this bunch of brutes “spread desolation and terror through the whole district.”He adds:

“Though the people of England are comparatively well-informed and  enlightened; yet is the multitude in all nations is nearly alike.”

After the close-by Moret disaster, Chelsea Hospital as politely as possible canceled its agreement with Lunardi. He was embarrased and concerned that his backers would jump his lighter-than-air ship and desperate that his scheme might fail.. He writes in one of his letters that that, although he really had no reputation in London to be destroyed, the loss of the Chelsea Hospital site was a set-back for him. Nevertheless, he continued to calm his backers; and, once  the balloon was completed, he arranged to exhibit it at the Lyceum Hall on the Strand,  


a private  hall pending the arrangement of a new lift-off site and date The balloon was made of oiled silk with decorative red and white stripes, had a diameter of 32 feet, and was exhibited inflated. One attendee, a young woman, wrote in a letter that she had seen “the curious Machine, ” was made sick by the “horrid smell it of it.” This was, of course, the sulfurous smell given off when  acid was poured on metal to produce hydrogen to keep the balloon inflated at the exhibition.  More than 20,000 people came to see the novelty, but the gate was paid only to the owner of the Lyceum. However, he turned out to be a greedy swine, as no previous event in his hall had ever attracted so large an audience. He told Lunardi that he wouldn’t release the balloon unless he were given a percentage of all the funds that Lunardi would garner from the lift-off gate as well.

Lunardi pulled off a major coup by persuading the Honorable  Artillery Company (the HAC”),


England’s oldest military regiment dating from Edward VI, the son of Henry VIII and headed by the then Prince of Wales, later to become George IV, to lease the HAC field of some 6 acres in the City of London for the launch, a prestigious institution and a field that still exists within the City of London. With this sort of backing, Lunardi had no problem convincing the police forcibly to rescue his balloon from the Lyceum owner’s clutches and deliver it safely to the HAC field. And with the publicized use of HAC field, Luardi had London at his beck and call.


The balloon arrived at the HAC field in the early morning hours of September 15, 1784. A massive paying audience estimated at 150,000 to 200,000 people came to see the historic event, including 

Lunardi ascent ticket

some honorary guests such as  Prince of Wales, Lord North, the principal foe of the North American colonials to their attainment of voting and economic rights, Charles Fox soon to be Prime Minister, and the politically active, great beauty, Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire. Inflating the balloon with hydrogen gas took hours longer than Lunardi anticipated. The crowd was becoming restive and the thought of what had occurred at Chelsea Gardens plagued Lunardi; he tried to stay out of view as much as he could. The Prince of Wales calmed the crowd, standing on the launching field close to the balloon to show his personal interest in protecting the craft. When the balloon was only partially filled at 12 noon, Lunardi asked his investor Biggin, who had been promised a place on the first flight, to relinquish that seat for the sake of public peace and allow Lunardi go it alone with a partly-filled balloon. Biggin was a gentlemen and agreed to stay behind on terra firma, at least for the current voyage into space.

Just before Two P.M.,  Lunardi shook hands with Prince of Wales, who wished the brave fellow a safe flight. He then climbed into the carriage with a dog, a cat, and a pigeon. Someone attached a bottle of wine to his belt. All present, including the Prince of Wales, removed their hats in a show of respect to Lunardi. As the lines were released, the balloon began to rise silently into the air,


travellng to the north as the spectators watched in awe, but fearful and doubtful that the “airgonaut” would return, whether or not alive. Because the balloon was not fully filled before lift-off, it lost altitude and dipped close to the heads of the horrified crowd as it was making its way up to the sky. Lunardi gave up some ballast. He had installed several paddles which he erroneously believed would allow him to steer the craft as well as raise and lower its altitude. As the balloon was gradually gaining altitude, the pigeon Lunardi took aboard flew off and one paddle broke and dropped to the ground. A “gentlewoman” thought the paddle was Lunardi himself and suffered a stroke that proved fatal several days after. Unaware of the mayhem that the fallen paddle had caused, the intrepid Lunardi rowed on into the London sky with his one remaining oar. Laundry’s balloon passed Old Buckingham House


before it was converted into Buckingham Palace, where King George the Third was conferring with his cabinet. The King called called the meeting to a halt to watch Lunardi in his flight, saying grimly that they might never see Lunardi again. And all of them watched the balloon with their telescopes.   





To Be Continued in Next Week’s Third Issue of SoRandom: Historical Snapshots.



I am an amateur historian. My amateur status doesn’t arise from a deep shortfall of knowledge, research, or enthusiasm, but from the fact that I have been a “closet” historian. Other then teaching a dozen classes in Classical and Medieval history at the 3rd grade level at my son’s primary school in the Mexican countryside, I haven’t taught. Or have I, to date, written ponderous essays that have been published in arcane journals. I have given only one public lecture, at the highly prestigious Society of the Four Arts in Palm Beach, Florida,[1] on the subject of the Grand Tour and its effect on art and architecture in eighteenth century England. My intention now is to ramp up my historian status. In this blog, I want to share what I know and think about random historical subjects that I find fascinating with a broader audience than my family and friends, and learn what others who read my blog know and think. My ultimate goal to increase the crosscurrent of facts and ideas available to me.    th-2

I remember in my childhood reading a story (I can’t remember what it was called), describing the marvelous discovery that the planet Earth from its origins to the then present date had been filmed by intelligent beings on another planet. The most exciting news was that the film would be made available to view by Earthlings. Most questions as to the history of the Earth could be answered by the film, i.e., by what process did the dinosaurs become extinct or did the Minotaur exist and all other subjects of particular interest to this inquisitive eleven-year old. How long it might take to gain any such information from a film covering untold millennia remained unanswered and unanswerable, but the basic idea gave me much to ponder. I still think about having access to the “film” when encountering serious lapses in the history of a subject I am researching. The thrill of being able to fill in those gaps by the simple expedient of viewing portions of that film on my laptop.

In the same vein, I have also wondered what an inanimate object, such as a painting or a mirror, “saw” over its existence; and, I have often fantasized means of extracting those visions from otherwise mute surfaces. Among other things, wouldn’t it be a marvel if a seeming Jackson Pollack lacking a provenance were able to speak the identity of its master instead of perplexing experts by offering up only telltale brush strokes, paint chemistry, or even a finger print; or, for those romantically inclined, would that a superb 18th century trumeau mirror once hanging at the Petit Trianon chose to trump supermarket tabloids by nattering on the nature of Count Fersen’s visits to Marie Antoinette.


Count Fersen


Absent access to such fantastical means of historical extractions, I am grateful for the Internet, which precludes the arduous process of haunting libraries and specialty bookstores to gain information now available simply by pressing a few letter and number buttons on a keyboard. The information one can gain from the Internet may not ultimately be definitive, but it is obtainable more quickly and more fulsomely than any other sources hitherto available during pre-Internet history. However, I must that the Internet seemed a “fantasy” not too many years ago.

What stirs me most about acquiring historical knowledge is the surprises that challenge one’s erroneous impressions of the past as well as gaining new insights as to how our ancestors functioned. I also find it exhilarating to discover individuals who were justifiably well known while alive and whose current repute is as dead as they are. I welcome the opportunity to gain information that my readers can offer, to fulfill or correct what I write, offer new challenges to impressions of the past, or introductions to personages who were remarkable when alive and are no largely forgotten.


To begin, I have recently finished writing an historical novel called “Magritte” that wanders over 400 years. The novel has as its central core an eponymous French perfume created in 1660, not for commercial reasons but to cover the nasty smell and taste of an aphrodisiac. In the course of writing “Magritte,” I of course researched the general subject of perfume and its history, of which I had known nothing other than the names of a perfumes, particularly those worn by my wife and my mother and the scents they emitted. The topic of this “first issue” is to set out some interesting and random facts I learned about perfume.

One of my chapters in “Magritte” has to do with the peddling of Magritte at the Palace of Versailles in the 1680’s. This perfume, by reason of its being strongly aromatic, quickly broke out of its founding role as an adjunct to an aphrodisiac. Versailles has always been a subject of interest to me; and, I have visited it frequently along with its ancillary buildings, such as the Grand and Petit Trianon, which are relatively small get-way residences for the Royals, and the Hameau, which was Marie Antoinette’s faux farming village where she and her pals pretended to be bucolic country girls.

The Hameau of Marie Antoinette

The Palace itself is vast (covering more than 720,000 square feet), and has grand and beautiful public rooms, and small and delicious private rooms located largely on back palace courtyards, some of the latter have become open to the public. However, it also has an unvisited rabbit warren of diminutive apartments (some 220 in number) and 450 very small single rooms that served to house hundreds of resident nobles of the highest French aristocracy. Many of them, who didn’t as well keep decent, supplementary lodgings in the town of Versailles, subsisted at the Palace in discomfort or even in abject squalor, contrasting strongly with the spacious chateaux many of them had sprinkled throughout France. The nobles were at Versailles to orbit about Louis XIV, not for nothing called the Sun King who radiated privileges and financial benefits on his aristocratic boarders. All in all, Versailles seems slightly a mad creation to me. Even the royals who lived there from its builder Louis XIV to its last queen,Marie Antoinette, had to escape frequently to smaller residences on the Palace grounds or elsewhere, presumably to keep their sanity and avoid the boredom of deliberate and utter grandiosity of Versailles.

Marie Antoinette in a bucolic costume, painted by  Louise Elizabeth Vigee le Brun suitable to days spent at the Hameau

Like our image that ancient Greece and Rome was populated by stark and pristine white marble temples and statutes is fallacious, so is our impression that the Palace of Versailles, even in the period of Louis XIV, was an immaculately maintained edifice. Indeed, Greek and Roman temples and statutes were vividly colored and would probably be considered as gaudy by current Western aesthetic standards. See below the Frieze of the Parthenon and the Augustus Prima Porta as they might have appeared in ancient times.


The Bust of Caligula in an original work of art by Annabel Briger


Similarly, the 10,000 or so occupants of Versailles, both aristocrats and servants, peed and defecated wherever they felt the need, in its marble stairways and halls. Its public indoor latrines scattered around the Palace were often clogged, and clean up and repair was sporadic. We know also that clothing (other than undergarments) worn by the King, nobles, and servants were never cleaned. Or were their bodies washed with any frequency outside of faces and elsewhere that skin was bare, i.e., hands, neck, and, in the case of women, arms and bosoms. The Palace had no central plumbing, and water was brought to the quarters of the nobles in small basins, how often, I don’t know. Needless to say, elimination of human waste product from the noble habitations was irregular. The stench of the Palace emanating from that waste and other garbage from feeding 10,000 people and the like diffused over at least two miles in diameter, serving as a milestone for seventeenth century visitors, signifying that they were heading in the right direction absent modern road signage and the GPS.

The Duke de Saint Simon, a resident at Versailles under the reign of Louis XIV, in his secret memoirs of daily events and court gossip, wrote about the Princesse d’Harcuort who was a glutton at the table and took laxatives  enabling her to eat beyond satiety. The laxatives too often worked before a meal was completed, and she would leave the table hurriedly, leaving a trail of odiferous stool behind her. This was met by laughter from her fellow diners;and, Saint Simon doesn’t suggest her lack of future dinner invitations. Louis XIV rewarded resident nobles with permission to attend his daily scheduled defecations. Also, the King was amused to realize that his daughter-in-law, the Duchesse de Bourgogne. whom he was visiting one evening at her apartment, was undergoing an enema under he voluminous skirts as he was speaking to her. What is remarkable is that this was a court having innumerable rules of etiquette; one rule required women to walk as though they were drifting over space, and another for all to scratch rather than knock at doors to gain admittance to a room so as not to offend delicate eardrums. Contradictions, at least for us, abounded at Versailles.

If Versailles and its noble denizens reeked, what would lesser abodes and people further down on the societal scale be like? The King himself in his late middle age had terrible halitosis due to rotten teeth, a problem that his substantial use of perfume couldn’t cover; his body was bathed every morning in perfume, and afterward his clothing and most likely the towering wigs that he wore were spritzed with scent.

Louis XIV  The Sun King (Big Wig)


Clearly, eighteenth century people of all classes had a much higher tolerance for nasty smells than we do in the fortunate Western world. However, the massive use of perfume at the Court of Louis XIV and by the King on particular indicates strongly that there were definite limits to that tolerance.

I can’t prove, but nevertheless believe, that perfumes in various forms must have existed before recorded history, to relieve the stink of decay, human and animal excrement, unwashed bodies, and accumulated rubbish. Even in the classical Greek and Roman civilizations as well in Medieval and Renaissance Europe, no garbage collection service was offered by the the state or municipal authorities Inhumation by fire, whether for disposal of the dead or the dispatch of heretics at the Autos de Fe under the Inquisition and similar events, has always required large doses of incense to make the process acceptable to mourners or the sadists who congregated to watch the hideous effects of fire on living humans. In fact, the brisk trade in frankincense and myrrh carried on by merchants from the Arabian Peninsula (where those varieties of full-bodied incense abounded) fell off sharply when Christianity took hold in Italy and the rest of Europe. Burial of the intact bodies of Christian dead, in the earth or in tombs, to promote physical resurrection as promised by Jesus Christ, replaced the pagan custom of burning their dead.th-1 The continued use of incense in Roman Catholic church services, which really was adapted by the early Church to provide continuity with pagan practices to comfort new converts, required a fraction of the incense that was needed to mask the horrid stench of burning human bodies. The incense merchants never recovered or did the various oasis they stopped at en route to delivering their wares, which had inns for sleeping, meals, and refreshments.

Just as prehistoric man felt compelled to paint the walls of his caves, I suspect that they used aromatic flora, resins, and other pleasant smelling natural substances to make their brutish existence somewhat less disagreeable. I can imagine a Neanderthal lass rubbing scented leaves, such as the prehistoric equivalents of modern mint leaves, rose-scented geranium petals, or sweet basil, over her face to elicit the then current equivalent of a kiss from her would-be mate, which might have been a bop on the head as in the comics.
The city of Grasse in the south of France has been a leading center for the making of fine perfumes since the mid-sixteenth century. The mild climate, good soil, and dependable amounts of rain make the Grasse region a perfect environment for the growing of roses and other aromatic flora. Oddly, the perfumes were first developed as an adjunct to the Grasse’s leather trade, in order to impart a more agreeable smell to the goods produced by the city’s tanneries. Prior to the application of strong perfumes to leather gloves, boots, jerkins, pantaloons, and hats, those articles often reeked of the animal skins from which they had been cut or the human urine in which the skins had been processed to become supple, particularly after a heavy rain or in the heat of summer.

This industry was directly or indirectly a product of Catherine de Medici’s mariage to Henri II, King of France in 1553. She was the daughter of Lorenzo II de Medici, of the Florentine banking family and de facto rulers of Florence. This marriage was a merger brought about neither by love nor lust, but a massive Medici financial infusion to the French throne.

Catherine de Medici

In addition to wealth, Queen Catherine brought to France a cookbook, which established the origins of what we know as French cuisine, but also her personal alchemist to produce perfumes to scent her gloves. Her sweet-smelling gloves caused a similar fashion phenomenon in Renaissance France as did Christian Dior’s post- war New Look in 1947.

Catherine de Medici gloves

From gloves, the use of perfumed leather spread to all leather garments, and, of course, to untold generations of French perfume aficionados.

The first step in the production of traditional perfume has always involved the laying of thousands of rose petals on large beds of animal 81At58Q34eL._SY355_fat, generally lard. After several months, the fat is distilled to obtain the essential oil that seeped from the rose petals. The resulting rose oil is then mixed with a variety of others oils and alcohols distilled from other flowers, herbs, and leaves, to give the scent distinction and not smell simply like roses.

One of the peculiarities, at least to me, in making exquisite perfume has been the addition of ambergris (gray amber, which has nothing to do with red amber that is derived from tree sap). Ambergris is a waxy substance produced in the digestive system of sperm whales and passed in its fecal matter or regurgitated by the animal into the open sea. Its found hovering on the surface of the water or lying on beaches, and is generally semi-translucent and gray in color. It can harden on dry land and become more resembling of red amber in appearance. Batches of ambergris differ in quality, which is a function of the perfume expert to judge.

Ambergris was added to perfumes by the ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans, and continues to be used today in the making of high-quality perfumes because of its fixative capacity that stabilizes volatile and delicate perfume components. The more ambergris used in a perfume, the longer its aroma will endure. This, of course, adds a high price to traditionally-produced perfumes, as ambergris has always been priced as gold.

I haven’t been able to ascertain how the use for ambergris in perfume was first discovered; and, I hope that anyone of my readers who does know that enigma will enlighten me. Like the discovers of tapioca as an edible food, the first users of ambergris had to be intrepid people, although ambergris unlike raw tapioca has never been found to be lethal.

Modern, less expensive perfumes are purely the product of chemistry which bypass the rose oil extraction process; and, ambergris has been replaced by a synthetic version called ambrozyn. These perfumes can simulate the aromas of traditional rose oil based perfumes; however, they generally don’t linger as long or have so intensive an aroma. But then again, they are a fraction of the cost of traditional perfumes and can be reapplied to perpetuate the aroma with being accused of throwing frugality to the winds.

One of the oddest applications of perfume was employed by ancient Egyptian women who wore what seem to be four or five inch cones of perfumed wax on top of their hair (generally they shaved their heads and wore wigs). The cones melted in the heat, to spread sweet-smelling liquid over their heads and below, which had a cooling effect as well aromatizing, or so we are told. Also, interesting to me is the charming use of the term “nose” to refer to persons in the perfume industry whose olfactory sense is superior to that of other human beings and are able to recognize immediately a change in a new batch of perfumes or create new scents from arcane combinations of ingredients. The person who started the eponymous line of varied aromatics, “Jo Malone,” is considered by her peers to be one of the great “noses” of our time. She claims that she “lives” by her nose, and said in an interview with Bryony Gordon in the UK “Telegraph” that she realized her husband was entering a hotel lobby by his scent before she saw him appear. That’s a “nose.”

Cone Heads 







Next week’s SoRandom: Historical Snapshots will begin a series of issues, having the self-explanatory title: “Three Dead White Men, Whom You should Know.” I think that you will enjoy reading and reacting to them.