Friedrich von der Trenck

Frederick, Baron Trenck  was born in Konigsberg, in Prussia, on the 16th February, 1726, of one of the most ancient families of the country. His father, who died in 1740, with the rank of major-general of cavalry, bestowed particular care on the education of his son, and sent him, at the age of thirteen, to the university of his native city, where he made a rapid progress in his studies. He soon began to manifest that impetuous disposition and those violent passions, which were probably the source of his subsequent misfortunes. By the time he was sixteen, he had been engaged in three duels, in each of which he wounded his antagonist.

He went into the army at an early period, and soon obtained the notice and favor of the king. When arrived at manhood, he was remarkable for personal beauty and mingled grace and dignity of bearing. Being stationed at Berlin, he became acquainted with the Princess Amelia, sister of Frederick the Great, and a mutual attachment followed. This became a subject of conversation, and soon reached the ears of Frederick. He warned Trenck to break off his intercourse with the princess; but this being unheeded, the king sent him to Glatz, under some pretext, and caused him to be imprisoned.

His confinement soon became insupportable to his impatient temper, and he resolved to avail himself of the first opportunity of escape. The window of his apartment looked toward the city, and was ninety feet from the ground, in the tower of the citadel. With a notched penknife, he sawed through three iron bars, and with a file, procured from one of the officers, he effected a passage through five more, which barricaded the windows. This done, he cut his leathern portmanteau into thongs, sewed them end to end, added the sheets of his bed, and safely descended from the astonishing height.

The night was dark, and everything seemed to promise success; but a circumstance he had never considered was, that he had to wade through moats full of mud, before he could enter the city. He sunk up to the knees, and, after long struggling and incredible efforts to extricate himself, he was obliged to call the sentinel, and desire him to go and tell the governor that Trenck was stuck fast in the ditch!

After the failure of several other attempts, he finally succeeded in effecting his escape, and fled to Vienna. From thence, he went to St. Petersburg, where he was received with the highest distinction, and the road to honors and emoluments was laid open before him. But at this period, the death of a wealthy cousin in Austria, induced him to return thither. Here, an immense property slipped through his hands, in consequence of some legal flaws.

In 1754, his mother died, from whose estate he received a considerable sum. With a view to the settlement of her affairs, he went to Dantzic, not permitting his name to be known. He was, however, betrayed into the hands of Frederick's officers, and being conveyed to the castle of Magdeburg, was immured in a dungeon, and loaded with irons.

Round his neck was a broad band of iron, to the ring of which his chains were suspended. These were of such weight, that, when he stood up, he was obliged to sustain them with his hands, to prevent being strangled. Various other massive irons were riveted to his body, and the whole were fastened to a thick staple, which was set in the stone wall. Under this staple was a seat of bricks, and on the opposite side a water jug. Beneath his feet was a tombstone, with the name of Trenck carved over a death's head.

His confinement in this dreadful cell continued for nine years and five months. In vain did he attempt to bribe the sentinels, and by other ingenious means, to effect his escape. His furniture consisted of a bedstead, a mattress, and a small stove. His food was a pound and a half of mouldy bread and a jug of water a day. He was permitted to hold no intercourse with any one except his keepers, and even these returned no answer to his thousand questions.

Such, however, were the vigor of his constitution and the elasticity of his spirits, that, amid the gloomy horrors of his prison, he seemed still to seek amusement by the exertion of his talents. He composed verses, and, having no ink, wrote them with his blood. He also carved curious emblems upon tin cups with his knife. His great ingenuity excited the attention of many persons of rank, particularly the Empress Maria Theresa, who ordered her minister to employ all his influence at the court of Berlin to obtain his enlargement.

The Baron, in his Life, relates the following curious anecdote:—"I tamed a mouse so perfectly that the little animal was continually playing with me, and used to eat out of my mouth. One night it skipped about so much, that the sentinels heard a noise, and made their report to the officer of the guard. As the garrison had been changed at the peace, and as I had not been able to form, at once, so close a connection with the officers of the regular troops, as I had done with those of the militia, an officer of the former, after ascertaining the truth of the report with his own ears, sent to inform the commanding officer that something extraordinary was going on in my prison.

"The town major arrived, in consequence, early in the morning, accompanied by locksmiths and masons. The floor, the walls, my chains, my body, everything, in short, was strictly examined. Finding all in order, they asked me the cause of last evening's bustle. I had heard the mouse myself, and told them frankly by what the noise had been occasioned. They desired me to call my little favorite; I whistled, and the mouse immediately leaped on my shoulder. I solicited its pardon, but the officer of the guard took it into his possession, promising, however, on his word of honor, to give it to a lady who would take great care of it. Turning it afterwards loose in his chamber, the mouse, who knew nobody but me, soon disappeared and hid itself in a hole.

"At the usual hour of visiting my prison, when the officers were just going away, the poor little animal darted in, climbed up my legs, seated itself on my shoulder, and played a thousand tricks to express the joy it felt at seeing me again. Every one was astonished and wished to have it. The major, to terminate the dispute, carried it away and gave it to his wife, who had a light cage made for it; but the mouse refused to eat, and a few days afterwards was found dead."

Trenck was at length released, and soon after married an amiable lady, by whom he had eleven children. On the death of Frederick the Great, his successor granted him a passport to Berlin, and restored his confiscated estates, which he had not enjoyed for forty-two years. He soon set off for Konigsburg, where he found his brother, who was very sick, waiting for him with impatience, and who adopted his children as his heirs. He was also received by all his friends with testimonies of joy. Here, it would appear, that Trenck might have spent the remainder of his days, in peace and quiet, but his restless disposition again made him the football of fortune. After many vicissitudes, he terminated his career in obscurity, and died in 1797.