Reverend Eleazar Williams

The Rev. Eleazar Williams—Soi-Disant  Louis XVII. of France

America also has had her sham dauphin, in the person of an Indian missionary, whose claims have been repeatedly presented to the public both in magazine articles and in book form. His adventures, as recorded by his biographers, are quite as singular as those of his competitors for royal honours. We are told that in the year 1795, a French family, calling themselves De Jardin, or De Jourdan, arrived in Albany, direct from France. At that time French refugees were thronging to America; and in the influx of strangers this party might have escaped notice, but peculiar circumstances directed attention to them. The family consisted of a lady, a gentleman, and two children; and although the two former bore the same name, they did not seem to be man and wife, Madame de Jourdan dressed expensively and elegantly, while Monsieur de Jourdan was very plainly attired, and appeared to be the lady's servant rather than her husband. Great mystery was observed with respect to their children, who were carefully concealed from the public gaze. The eldest was a girl, and was called Louise; while the youngest, a boy of nine or ten years of age, was invariably addressed as Monsieur Louis. He was very rarely seen, even by the few ladies and children who were admitted into a sort of semi-friendship by the new-comers, and when he did appear seemed to be dull, and paid no attention to the persons present or the conversation. Madame de Jardin, who had in her possession many relics of Louis XVI. and Marie-Antoinette, made no secret that she had been a maid of honour to the queen, and was separated from her on the terrace of the Tuileries, prior to her imprisonment in the Temple. She had not yet recovered from the dreadful events of the revolution, and had a theatrical habit of relieving her highly-strung feelings by rushing to the harpsichord, wildly playing the Marseillaise, and then bursting into tears. Those who had free admittance into the family of the De Jourdans had no difficulty in tracing a resemblance between the children and the portraits of the royal family of France; but delicacy forbade questions, and even the most confident could only surmise that this retired maid of honour had escaped from her native land in charge of the children of the Temple. After remaining for a short time in Albany, without any apparent purpose, the De Jardins sold most of their effects, and disappeared as mysteriously as they had come.

Later in the same year (1795) two Frenchmen, one of them having the appearance of a Romish priest, arrived at the Indian settlement of Ticonderoga, in the vicinity of Lake George, bringing with them a sickly boy, in a state of mental imbecility, whom they left with the Indians. The child is said to have been adopted by an Iroquis chief, called Thomas Williams, alias  Tehorakwaneken, whose wife was Konwatewenteta, and although no proof is offered that he was the boy called Monsieur Louis by Madame de Jardin, and still less that he was the dauphin of France, it is said by those who support his pretensions, that whoever considers the coincidences of circumstance, time and place, age, mental condition and bodily resemblance, must admit, apart from all other testimony, that it is highly probable that he was both the sham De Jardin and the real dauphin.

Thomas Williams, the Iroquis chief, who had some English blood in his veins, lived in a small log-house on the shores of Lake George. His unpretending dwelling was about twenty feet square, perhaps a little larger, roofed with bark, leaving an opening in the centre to give egress to the smoke from the fire which blazed beneath it on the floor, in the middle of the ample apartment. Around this fire were ranged the beds of the family, composed of hemlock boughs, covered with the skins of animals slaughtered in the chase. The fare of the family was as simple as their dwelling-place. From cross-sticks over the fire hung a huge kettle, in which the squaw made soup of pounded corn flavoured with venison. They purchased their salt and spirits at Fort-Edward; and the stream supplied them with fish, the woods and mountains with game. Such was the early upbringing of the missionary king.

The boy was known as Lazar or Eleazar Williams; his reputed father, the chief, invariably acknowledged him and addressed him as his own son; and the lad himself could tell but little of his earlier years. He had hazy recollections of soldiers and a gorgeous palace, and a beautiful lady on whose lap he used to recline; but when he tried to think closely and recall the past, his mind became confused, and painted chiefs, shady wigwams, and the homely face of the chieftain's squaw, obtruded themselves, and blurred the glorious scenes amid which he faintly remembered to have lived.

But circumstances sometimes occurred which made a deep impression even on his weak mind. Thus, when the youthful Eleazar was one day sporting on the lake near Fort-William, in a little wooden canoe, with several other boys, two strange gentlemen came up to the encampment of Thomas Williams, and took their seats with him upon a log at a little distance from the wigwam. With natural curiosity at a circumstance which broke in upon the usual monotony of Indian life, the boys paddled their canoe ashore, and strolled up to the encampment to ascertain who the strangers were, when Thomas Williams called out, "Lazar, this friend of yours wishes to speak to you." As he approached one of the gentlemen rose and went off to another Indian encampment. The one who remained with the chief had every indication in dress, manners, and language of being a Frenchman. When Eleazar came near, this gentleman advanced several steps to meet him, embraced him most tenderly, and when he sat down again on the log made him stand between his legs. In the meantime he shed abundance of tears, said "Pauvre garçon!" and continued to embrace him. The chief was soon afterwards called to a neighbouring wigwam, and Eleazar and the Frenchman were left alone. The latter continued to kiss him and weep, and spoke a good deal, seeming anxious that he should understand him, which he was unable to do. When Thomas Williams returned to them he asked Eleazar whether he knew what the gentleman had said to him, and he replied, "No." They both left him, and walked off in the direction in which the other gentleman had gone. The two gentlemen came again the next day, and the Frenchman remained several hours. The chief took him out in a canoe on the lake; and the last which Eleazar remembered was them all sitting together on a log, when the Frenchman took hold of his bare feet and dusty legs, and examined his knees and ankles closely. Again the Frenchman shed tears, but young Eleazar was quite indifferent, not knowing what to make of it. Before the gentleman left he gave him a piece of gold.

A few evenings later, when the younger members of the household were in bed, and were supposed to be asleep, Eleazar, who was lying broad awake, overheard a conversation between the Indian chief and his squaw which interested him mightily. The chief was urging compliance with a request which had been made to them to allow two of their children to go away for education; but his wife objected on religious grounds. When he persisted in his demand she said, "If you will do it you may send away this strange boy. Means have been put into your hands for his education; but John I cannot part with." Her willingness to sacrifice him, and the whole tone of the conversation, excited suspicions in the mind of the listener as to his parentage, but they soon passed away. Mrs. Williams at last agreed that John, one of her own children, and Lazar, according to this story, her adopted child, should be sent to Long Meadow, a village in Massachusetts, to be brought up under the care of a deacon called Nathaniel Ely. It is said that when the supposed brothers entered the village, dressed in their Indian costume, the entire dissimilarity in their appearance at once excited attention, and they became the subjects of general conversation among the villagers. At Long Meadow the lads remained for several years, and are represented as having made "remarkably good proficiency in school learning," as exhibiting strong proofs of virtuous and pious dispositions, and as "likely to make useful missionaries among the heathen." This encomium seems, however, to have been much more applicable to Eleazar than his companion; for, after the most persistent attempts, it was found impossible to cultivate the mind of John, whose passion for savage life was irrepressible, and who returned home to live and die among the Indians. With Eleazar it was different, and his biographer proudly records that he was called familiarly "the plausible boy."

He was as versatile as he was plausible, and in the course of his long life played many parts besides that of Louis XVII. When he had forgotten the early lessons of the wigwam, and had acquired the learning and religious enthusiasm of the New Englanders, he became a sort of wandering gospel-preacher among the Indians; but the work was little suited to him, and he found far more congenial employment when the war broke out between England and America, as superintendent-general of the Northern Indian Department on the United States side. In this office "he had under his command the whole secret corps of rangers and scouts of the army, who spread themselves everywhere, and freely entered in and out of the enemy's camp." In other words, he was a sort of chief spy; and if he had been caught in the British lines would have had a very short shrift, notwithstanding his sanctimonious utterances, and the peculiarly sensitive conscience of which he made a perpetual boast. About the same time he was declared a chief of the Iroquis nation, under the name of Onwarenhiiaki, or the tree cutter—a compliment little likely to have been paid to an unknown man, but which would not unreasonably be bestowed upon the son of a famous chief. Having received a severe wound he was nursed back into life by his reputed father, and on his complete recovery expressed his contrition for his backsliding, and his horror of the bloodthirsty trade of war, and returned to the peaceful work of attempting to teach and convert his dusky Indian brethren. He deserted the Congregationalists with whom he had previously been connected, and joined the Protestant Episcopal Church, by which he was ordained, and to which he remained faithful during the later years of his life.

By this time he was convinced that he was no Indian, and believed that he was the son of some noble Frenchman, but he scarcely ventured to think that he was a pure Bourbon; although dim suspicions of his royal descent sometimes haunted him, although friends assured him that his likeness to the French king was so strong that his origin was beyond question, and although he had certain marks on his body which corresponded with those said to exist on the person of the dauphin. But as he got older, the evidence in favour of his illustrious parentage seemed to grow stronger; if he was questioned on the subject he was too truthful to deny what he thought, and the knowledge of his name and the number of those who believed in him rapidly increased. At last, according to his own story, an event occurred which placed the matter beyond all doubt.

The Prince de Joinville was travelling in America in 1841, and what happened in the course of his travels to the Rev. Eleazar Williams that gentleman may be left to tell. He says—"In October 1841, I was on my way from Buffalo to Green Bay, and took a steamer from the former place bound to Chicago, which touched at Mackinac, and left me there to await the arrival of the steamer from Buffalo to Green Bay. Vessels which had recently come in announced the speedy arrival of the Prince de Joinville; public expectation was on tiptoe, and crowds were on the wharves. The steamer at length came in sight, salutes were fired and answered, the colours run up, and she came into port in fine style. Immediately she touched the Prince and his retinue came on shore, and went out some little distance from the town to visit some natural curiosities in the neighbourhood. The steamer awaited their return. During their absence I was standing on the wharf among the crowd, when Captain John Shook came up to me and asked whether I was going on to Green Bay, adding that the Prince de Joinville had made inquiries of him concerning a Rev. Mr. Williams, and that he had told the prince he knew such a person, referring to me, whom he supposed was the man he meant, though he could not imagine what the prince could want with or know of me. I replied to the captain in a laughing way, without having any idea what a deep meaning attached to my words—'Oh, I am a great man, and great men will of course seek me out.'

"Soon after, the prince and his suite arrived and went on board. I did the same, and the steamer put to sea. When we were fairly out on the water, the captain came to me and said, 'The prince, Mr. Williams, requests me to say to you that he desires to have an interview with you, and will be happy either to have you come to him, or allow me to introduce him to you.' 'Present my compliments to the prince,' I said, 'and say I put myself entirely at his disposal, and will be proud to accede to whatever may be his wishes in the matter.' The captain again retired, and soon returned, bringing the Prince de Joinville, with him. I was sitting at the time on a barrel. The prince not only started with evident and involuntary surprise when he saw me, but there was great agitation in his face and manner—a slight paleness and a quivering of the lip—which I could not help remarking at the time, but which struck me more forcibly afterwards in connection with the whole train of circumstances, and by contrast with his usual self-possessed manner. He then shook me earnestly and respectfully by the hand, and drew me immediately into conversation. The attention he paid me seemed not only to astonish myself and the passengers, but also the prince's retinue.

"At dinner-time there was a separate table laid for the prince and his companions, and he invited me to sit with them, and offered me the seat of honour by his side. But I was a little abashed by the attentions of the prince, so I thought I would keep out of the circle, and begged the prince to excuse me, and permit me to dine at the ordinary table with the passengers, which I accordingly did. After dinner the conversation turned between us on the first French settlement in America, the valour and enterprise of the early adventurers, and the loss of Canada to France, at which the prince expressed deep regret. He was very copious and fluent in speech, and I was surprised at the good English he spoke; a little broken, indeed, like mine, but very intelligible. We continued talking late into the night, reclining in the cabin on the cushions in the stern of the boat. When we retired to rest, the prince lay on the locker, and I in the first berth next to it.

"The next day the steamer did not arrive at Green Bay until about three o'clock, and during most of the time we were in conversation. On our arrival the prince said I would oblige him by accompanying him to his hotel, and taking up my quarters at the Astor House. I begged to be excused, as I wished to go to the house of my father-in-law. He replied he had some matters of great importance to speak to me about; and as he could not stay long at Green Bay, but would take his departure the next day, or the day after, he wished I would comply with his request. As there was some excitement consequent on the prince's arrival, and a great number of persons were at the Astor House wishing to see him, I thought I would take advantage of the confusion to go to my father-in-law's, and promised to return in the evening when he would be more private. I did so, and on my return found the prince alone, with the exception of one attendant, whom he dismissed. He opened the conversation by saying he had a communication to make to me of a very serious nature as concerned himself, and of the last importance to me; that it was one in which no others were interested, and therefore, before proceeding farther, he wished to obtain some pledge of secrecy, some promise that I would not reveal to any one what he was going to say. I demurred to any such conditions being imposed previous to my being acquainted with the nature of the subject, as there might be something in it, after all, prejudicial and injurious to others; and it was at length, after some altercation, agreed that I should pledge my honour not to reveal what the prince was going to say, provided there was nothing in it prejudicial to any one, and I signed a promise to this effect on a sheet of paper. It was vague and general, for I would not tie myself down to absolute secrecy, but left the matter conditional. When this was done the prince spoke to this effect—

"'You have been accustomed, sir, to consider yourself a native of this country, but you are not. You are of foreign descent; you were born in Europe, sir; and however incredible it may at first sight seem to you, you are the son of a king. There ought to be much consolation to you to know this fact. You have suffered a great deal, and have been brought very low; but you have not suffered more or been more degraded than my father, who was long in exile and in poverty in this country; but there is this difference between him and you, that he was all along aware of his high birth, whereas you have been spared the knowledge of your origin.'

"When the prince said this I was much overcome, and thrown into a state of mind which you can easily imagine. In fact, I hardly knew what to do or say; and my feelings were so much excited that I was like one in a dream. However, I remember I told him his communication was so startling and unexpected that he must forgive me for being incredulous, and that I was really between two."

"'What do you mean,' he said, 'by being between two?'

"I replied that, on the one hand, it scarcely seemed to me he could believe what he said; and, on the other, I feared he might be under some mistake as to the person. He assured me, however, he would not trifle with my feelings on such a subject, and had ample means in his possession to satisfy me that there was no mistake whatever. I requested him to proceed with the disclosure partly made, and to inform me in full of the secret of my birth. He replied that, in doing so, it was necessary that a certain process should be gone through in order to guard the interest of all parties concerned. I inquired what kind of process he meant. Upon this the prince rose and went to his trunk, which was in the room, and took from it a parchment which he laid on the table and set before me, that I might read and give him my determination in regard to it. There were also on the table pen and ink and wax, and he placed there a governmental seal of France—the one, if I mistake not, used under the old monarchy. The document which the prince placed before me was very handsomely written in double parallel columns of French and English. I continued intently reading and considering it for a space of four or five hours. During this time the prince left me undisturbed, remaining for the most part in the room, but he went out three or four times.

"The purport of the document which I read repeatedly word by word, comparing the French with the English, was this: It was a solemn abdication of the crown of France in favour of Louis Philippe by Charles Louis, the son of Louis XVI., who was styled Louis XVII., King of France and Navarre, with all accompanying names and titles of honour, according to the custom of the old French monarchy, together with a minute specification in legal phraseology of the conditions and considerations and provisos upon which the abdication was made. These conditions were, in brief, that a princely establishment should be secured to me either in America or in France, at my option, and that Louis Philippe would pledge himself on his part to secure the restoration, or an equivalent for it, of all the private property of the royal family rightfully belonging to me, which had been confiscated in France during the revolution, or in any way got into other hands."

After excusing himself for not taking a copy of this precious document when he had the chance, and mentioning, among other reasons, "the sense of personal dignity which had been excited by these disclosures," the Rev. Eleazar proceeds with his narrative:—

"At length I made my decision, and rose and told the prince that I had considered the matter fully in all its aspects, and was prepared to give him my definite answer upon the subject; and then went on to say, that whatever might be the personal consequences to myself, I felt I could not be the instrument of bartering away with my own hand the rights pertaining to me by my birth, and sacrificing the interests of my family, and that I could only give to him the answer which De Provence gave to the ambassador of Napoleon at Warsaw—'Though I am in poverty and exile, I will not sacrifice my honour.'

"The prince upon this assumed a loud tone, and accused me of ingratitude in trampling upon the overtures of the king, his father, who, he said, was actuated in making the proposition more by feelings of kindness and pity towards me than by any other consideration, since his claim to the French throne rested on an entirely different basis to mine—viz., not that of hereditary descent, but of popular election. When he spoke in this strain, I spoke loud also, and said that as he, by his disclosure, had put me in the position of a superior, I must assume that position, and frankly say that my indignation was stirred by the memory that one of the family of Orleans had imbrued his hands in my father's blood, and that another now wished to obtain from me an abdication of the throne. When I spoke of superiority, the prince immediately assumed a respectful attitude, and remained silent for several minutes. It had now grown very late, and we parted, with a request from him that I would reconsider the proposal of his father, and not be too hasty in my decision. I returned to my father-in-law's, and the next day saw the prince again, and on his renewal of the subject gave him a similar answer. Before he went away he said, 'Though we part, I hope we part friends,'"

And this tale is not intended for burlesque or comedy, but as a sober account of transactions which really took place. It was published in a respectable magazine, it has been reproduced in a book which sets forth the claims of "The Lost Prince," and it was brought so prominently before the Prince de Joinville that he was compelled either to corroborate it or deny it. His answer is very plain. He had a perfect recollection of being on board the steamer at the time and place mentioned, and of meeting on board the steamboat "a passenger whose face he thinks he recognises in the portrait given in the Monthly Magazine, but whose name had entirely escaped his memory. This passenger seemed well informed respecting the history of America during the last century. He related many anecdotes and interesting particulars concerning the French, who took part and distinguished themselves in these events. His mother, he said, was an Indian woman of the great tribe of Iroquis, and his father was French. These details could not fail to vividly interest the prince, whose voyage to the district had for its object to retrace the glorious path of the French, who had first opened to civilisation these fine countries. All which treats of the revelation which the prince made to Mr. Williams of the mystery of his birth, all which concerns the pretended personage of Louis XVII., is from one end to the other a work of the imagination—a fable woven wholesale—a speculation upon the public credulity."

These are but a few of the numerous sham dauphins who have at various times appeared. One author, who has written a history of the elder branch of the House of Bourbon, estimates the total number of pretenders at a dozen and a half, while M. Beauchesne increases the list to thirty. But few, besides those whose history has been given, succeeded in gaining notoriety, and all failed to rouse the French authorities to punish or even to notice their transparent impostures.