Joseph, the False Count Solar

Joseph—the False Count Solar

On the 1st of August 1773, a horseman, who was approaching the town of Peronne in France, discovered by the wayside a boy, apparently about eleven years of age, clad in rags, evidently suffering from want, and uttering piercing cries. Stirred with pity for this unfortunate object, the traveller dismounted, and, finding his efforts to comfort his new acquaintance, or to discover the cause of his sorrow, unavailing, persuaded him to accompany him to the town, where his immediate necessities were attended to. The boy ate ravenously of the food which was set before him, but continued to preserve the strictest silence, and, at length, it was discovered that he was deaf and dumb. A charitable woman, moved by his misfortunes, gave him a temporary home, and at the end of a few weeks he was transferred to the Bicêtre—then an hospital for foundlings—through the intervention of M. de Sartine, the well-known minister of police. Here his conduct was remarkable. From the first day of his entrance he shrank from association with the other inmates, who were for the most part boys belonging to the lower orders, and by so doing earned their ill-will, and brought upon himself their persecution. Indeed, so uncomfortable did his new home prove through the malignity of his fellow-pensioners, that the health of the poor waif gave way, and it was found necessary to remove him to the Hôtel Dieu of Paris. Here he was noticed by the Abbé de l'Epée, who was attracted by his quiet and aristocratic manners and gentle demeanour, and who at the same time considered that, by reason of his intelligence, he was likely to prove an apt pupil in acquiring the manual alphabet which the worthy ecclesiastic had invented. Accordingly, the Abbé removed him to his own house, and in a few months had rendered him able to give some account of himself by signs. His story was that he had a distinct recollection of living with his father and mother and sister, in a splendid mansion, situated in spacious grounds, and that he was accustomed to ride on horseback and in a carriage. He described his father as a tall man and a soldier, and stated that his face was seamed by scars received in battle. He gave a circumstantial account of his father's death, and said that he, as well as his mother and sister, were mourning for him. After his father's funeral he asserted that he was taken from home by a man whom he did not know, and that when he had been carried come distance he was deserted by his conductor and left in the wood, in which he wandered for some days, until he reached the highway, where he was discovered by the passing traveller, as above narrated.

When this tale was made public, it naturally created great excitement, and people set themselves to discover the identity of this foundling, whom the Abbé de l'Epée had named Joseph. The Abbé himself was never tired of conjecturing the possible history of his protégé, or of communicating his conjectures to his friends. At length, in the year 1777, a lady, who had heard the boy's story, suggested a solution of the mystery. She mentioned that in the autumn of 1773, a deaf and dumb boy, the only son and heir of Count Solar, and head of the ancient and celebrated house of Solar, had left Toulouse, where his father and mother then dwelt, and had not returned. It had been given out that he had died, but she suggested that the account of his death was false, and that Joseph was the young Count Solar. Inquiries were instituted, and showed that the hypothesis was at least tenable. The family of Count Solar had consisted of his wife and a son and daughter. The son was deaf and dumb, and was twelve years old at his father's death, which occurred in 1773. After the decease of the old count, the boy was sent by his mother to Bagnères de Bigorre, under the care of a young lawyer, named Cazeaux, who came back to Toulouse early in the following year, with the story that the heir had died of small-pox. The mother died in 1775.

The Abbé de l'Epée, astounded by the striking similarity between the facts and Joseph's account of himself, at once came to the conclusion that Providence had chosen him as the instrument for righting a great wrong, and set himself to supply the missing links in the chain of evidence, and to restore his ward to what he doubted not was his rightful inheritance. He maintained that young Solar's mother, either wearied with the care of a child who was deprived of speech and hearing, or to secure his estates for herself or her daughter, had given her son to Cazeaux to be exposed, and that that ruffian had made tolerably certain of his work, by carrying the lad 600 miles from home, to the vicinity of Peronne, and there abandoning him in a dense wood, from which the chances were he would never be able to extricate himself, but in the mazes of which he would wander till he died. God alone, the Abbé declared, guided the helpless and hungry lad within the reach of human assistance, and sent the traveller to rescue him, opened the woman's heart to give him shelter, and brought him to Paris, so that he might be instructed and enabled to tell his doleful tale.

Fired by enthusiasm, the Abbé succeeded in engaging the co-operation of persons of the highest eminence. The Duc de Penthièvre, a prince of the blood, espoused the cause of the wronged noble, and provided for his support as became his supposed rank. From the same princely source, also, funds were forthcoming to obtain legal redress for his hardships, and to prosecute his claims before the courts. Proceedings were instituted against Cazeaux, who was still alive, and a formal demand was made for the reinstatement of the foundling of Peronne in the hereditary honours of Solar. The boy was taken to Clermont, his reputed birthplace, at which he was said to have passed the first four years of his life in the company of his mother. It could scarcely be supposed that those who knew the young heir, aged four, would be able to trace much similarity to him in the claimant of seventeen. But there was far more recognition than might have been anticipated. Madame de Solar's father fancied that Joseph resembled his grandson, and he was the more thoroughly convinced of his identity, because he felt an affection for the youth which he believed to be instinctive. The brother of the countess was convinced that Joseph was his nephew, because he had the large knees and round shoulders of the deceased count. The mistress of the dame-school at Clermont recognised in the Abbé's protégé her former pupil. Several witnesses also, who could not be positive as to the identity of the two persons, remembered that the youthful count had a peculiar lentil-shaped mole on his back, and a similar mole was found on the back of the claimant. As it afterwards proved, Joseph was not completely deaf, but was shrewd enough to conceal the fact. Consequently he succeeded in acquiring a good deal of useful information with respect to the Solar family, and re-produced it as the result of his own recollection when the proper time came.

On the other hand, the evidence against his pretensions was very strong. Many persons in Toulouse who had been intimately acquainted with the youthful count declared that Joseph bore no resemblance to him; and the young countess repudiated him most emphatically, asserting that he was not her brother, and he failed to recognise her as his sister. However, he persevered in asserting his rights, and claimed before the Cour du Châtelet, in Paris, the name and honours of Count Solar; and orders were given by the court for the arrest of Cazeaux as his abductor and exposer. The unfortunate lawyer was seized and hurried to the Miséricorde, a loathsome dungeon below the Hotel de Ville, at Toulouse. Next day, heavily ironed, he was thrown into a cart, and thus set out on a journey of 500 miles to Paris. While the cart was in motion he was chained to it; when they halted he was chained to the inn table; at night he was chained to his bed. At length, after seventeen wearisome days, the capital was reached, and the prisoner was taken from his cart and cast into the vaults of the Châtelet. After considerable and unnecessary delay, the supposed abductor was brought to trial; and not only were the charges against him easily disproved, but the whole of the Abbé's grand hypothesis was destroyed beyond reconstruction. A host of witnesses came forward to testify that the young count did not leave Toulouse under the guardianship of Cazeaux, until the 4th of September 1773, whereas Joseph was found at Peronne on the 1st of August. Moreover, the contemporary history of the two youths was clearly traced, it being shown that in November 1773, the Count Solar was at Bagnères de Bigorre while Joseph was an inmate of the Bicêtre; and finally it was conclusively proved that on the 28th of January 1774, the real Count Solar died at Charlas, near Bagnères, of small-pox, having outlived his father about a year.

The acquittal of Cazeaux followed as a matter of course, and he was dismissed from the bar of the Châtelet with unblemished reputation, but broken in health and ruined in fortune. Happily for him, a M. Avril, a rich judge of the Châtelet, who had been active against him during his trial, repented of the evil he had done him, sought his acquaintance, and bequeathed him a large fortune. Thus raised to wealth, and aided by the revolution, which levelled all social distinctions, he aspired to the hand of the widowed Countess Solar who had lost her estates. Success crowned his suit, and his former patroness became his wife. After their marriage the pair settled on an estate a few leagues from Paris, where Cazeaux died in 1831 and his wife in 1835. Joseph, who was undoubtedly the son of a gentleman, soon ceased to interest the public, and, his pretensions having failed, retired into comparative obscurity, accepting service in the army, and meeting an untimely death early in the revolutionary war.