Sunday, July 12, 2015

The Lost Dauphin

Augusta de Grasse Stevens - The Lost Dauphin (1887)

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Bonus Book:
Emilia Pardo Bazán - The Mystery of the Lost Dauphin (Louis XVII) (1906 translation of 1902 novel Misterio)

Over the years, I'd heard a couple of brief references to the idea that the lost Dauphin ended up in an Indian tribe in America, a ludicrous claim that seemed either a miscommunication or a wild speculation more than an actual belief.  But then I stumbled across this book and really I should have done a bit of research since it turns out that there's a lot more to the story as shown by numerous articles about it in both national and local press and at least three other books, one of which appeared from University of Pennsylvania Press this past January (Michael Leroy Oberg's Professional Indian) and another had William Hazlitt as editor of its English translation (De Beauchesne's 1852 Louis XVII).  There was even a film about the idea - Jacques Tourneur's 1937 short The King Without a Crown.  I stayed with The Lost Dauphin not only because I can post it but the book is short and has true believer fervor.  (Among the other people put forward as the lost Dauphin was John James Audubon based almost exclusively on the fact that he lived in France during the appropriate period.)

Admittedly the settled history can't help but give rise to conspiracy beliefs - the Dauphin kept in solitude by a single jailer (ok actually not a jail), the only doctor who visited suddenly and mysteriously dead, the Dauphin himself dead and then buried secretly in the night, and the disinterest in following up on what happened.  It's the kind of odd behavior that the conspiracy-minded take as evidence that something happened though of course this is no evidence of anything other than odd behavior.

Among the numerous people who later claimed to be the Dauphin, certainly the strangest is an American Indian who became a missionary and later in life advanced the idea that was in fact the Dauphin.  This story goes, at least as covered in The Lost Dauphin, that an Indian man who frequently visited European communities (and seems to have been descended from a captive settler) returned once with a boy the age the Dauphin would have been and in the same deteriorated mental condition.  The boy hit his head while swimming and slowly gained back his facilities (as if this was some cartoon).  Later he met a French duke in the US who revealed the truth and then the boy (now a man named Eleazar Williams) started claiming he was in fact the Dauphin though he never made serious efforts to pursue that.

The book lists other evidence.  Accounts of the arrivals and departures of various French people in America fitted together like a jigsaw puzzle, some keepsake jewelry, a Marie Antoinette dress, scars on the face of Williams that fit Dauphin injuries, and so forth.  The most unsettling for current readers are what might be called racialist evidence - two mentions are made of Williams' "Austrian lips", he supposedly had the "Bourbon ear" and even gestured like a Bourbon.  Several accounts are given of his superior nature and natural diplomatic abilities as proof of his hereditary nobility.  (Though it's hard not to think that Louis XVI could have used more natural diplomacy.)

The Lost Dauphin is pretty convincing as far as it goes but then that's the point.  Alas for advocates of French royalty roaming America unrecognized Williams' claim is certainly not true.  For one thing DNA tests in 2000 showed that what was thought to be the actual Dauphin's heart was in fact from a relative of Marie Antoinette - in other words actually the Dauphin's so he was never missing.  (There's still some doubt as to whose heart it actually was but the Dauphin is still the most likely source.)  Even apart from that the claims don't all fit.  Williams actually promoted the idea that he was Dauphin much more than the book indicates.  As usual in these cases the story has far too many moving pieces and peculiar motivations.  The swimming head wound gave Williams a very convenient reason to not have memories of France which might trip him up.  The ages of Williams and the Dauphin don't quite match.  He was also quite a storyteller with possibly embroidered accounts of the War of 1812 and numerous others.  The idea that he was adopted is based mainly on his own claims and the lack of a birth record though his mother claimed him as a birth child.  On and on, it all falls apart.  (There are lots of sources for this information but particularly useful is Lyman C. Draper in the 1879 Report and Collections of the State Historical Society of Wisconsin, p 353).

A brief note on the author:  Despite her name Stevens was American - born in Albany to a highly regarded lawyer and Washington Irving for a godfather.  Her family was of French descent and she spent much of her youth in Paris. She wrote London dispatches for the New York Times and her first novel was Old Boston.  Other writings followed but none of these appear to have been digitized.  She died in 1894.