Sunday 30 April 2017

The lost treasure of Joseph Pâris Duverney

Here is a curious little story of grave robbers and mysterious lost treasure - sadly there are no Knights Templar or lost bloodlines, otherwise it could have been made into a bestseller...

Jean-Baptiste II Le Moyne, 
bust of Pâris Duverney,   
Musée de Brunoy
On 17th June 1770 Joseph Pâris Duverney, intendant of the École militaire, and the last of the four great financier brothers Pâris, died at his hôtel in the rue Saint-Louis in the Marais.  He was 86 years old. The funeral service took place at his parish church of Saint-Gervais.  Duverney had stipulated in his will in 1766 that he wanted to be buried in the cemetery of the École militaire, "if burials had been authorised by the time of his decease".  In accordance with his wishes, his body was transported to the École and on 20th June it was laid to rest, not in the cemetery but in the crypt of the public chapel, still under contruction at the time. On this occasion the priest of Saint-Gervais, the abbé Bouillerot, delivered a funeral oration before the clergy of the Hôtel Royal.  A further service took place in the private chapel of the cadets on 9th August. On the anniversary of Duverney's death, on 17th June 1771 a full memorial service was also held, again in the pupils' chapel.  In 1773 Duverney's body was joined in the crypt by that of the chevalier Jacques René Croismare, the former governer of the École.  No monument was ever erected to either man, perhaps it was still intended at some point to transfer the bodies to the cemetery, which did exist but remained much smaller than had originally been planned (Laulin (1933) p.133-4; 137)

In the years after his death Duverney's name was kept in the public eye by the protracted and well-publicised legal battle which ensured between his heir,  the Comte de La Blâche, and his protégé, Beaumarchais. Unsurprisingly, there was speculation his estate was worth far more than had been openly declared. 

Here is the account of subsequent events, taken from a publication of 1860:

The Chapelle Saint-Louis today 
A great deal of astonishment  was caused by Duverney’s modest legacy [1,500,000 livres] for public opinion held that he was worth 20 million livres.  People wondered what had become of the immense riches of the great financier, who had always been so fortunate in his speculations.  Strange rumours abounded; there was talk of treasure hidden away for some mysterious purpose. However, interest died away in the turbulent years of the Revolution and  Duverney was so thoroughly forgotten that, even fifteen years ago, his name was unknown in the École militaire which he had founded.

A chance event  brought back to mind both his name and his treasure.

In 1846, during repairs to the floor of the chapel of the École militaire, an old lady reported that she had heard from her father, a sacristan before the Revolution, that there existed close to the altar, a crypt containing coffins.  This claim seemed unlikely, for there was no monument or inscription in the chapel,  nor any sign that one had ever existed.  However, investigations revealed that one of the stone slabs to the right of  the altar concealed  the entrance to the crypt that the old lady had described.  The investigators went down and the engineer in charge found two coffins.  One belonged to Duverney:  a copper plaque attached to it bore an inscription to him].

The two coffins were in a state of perfect preservation, as if they had been put there only yesterday.  In the earth could be seen clearly the footprints of the last priest or friend who had left, eighty years previously, after paying their final respects. The coffins were left as they had been found; all that was done was to replace the stone  slab with one of a different colour to mark the spot.

One would have supposed that such a minor event would have gone unnoticed.  But in certain circles news spread and memories of the mysterious hidden treasure were revived, though in whose  mind we do not know.  All seemed forgotten when  in 1848 a general who boasted one of the most illustrious names of the First Empire  appeared at the École militaire with authorisation to look for treasure.  All the buildings were searched with great care...but to no avail.  

That is not all.  Last year [towards the end of 1859] an unknown person, who imagined himself better informed, took advantage of the absence of the  chaplain insinuate his way into the chapel at night , lift up the stone into the crypt and conduct a thorough survey.  No doubt frustrated by his lack of results, this man seems to have fallen prey to a kind of madness and  imagined suddenly that Duverny must have with him, in his very hands perhaps, a paper  or sign which would provide the searcher with some clue. Without hesitation he took a sacrilegious hand to the coffin, broke it open  and rifled thoroughly through the clothes of  the body.  The cadavre kept its secret.

Several days later, when the violation of the sepulcre was notice, a judicial enquiry was began, which we are assured is still ongoing at this time (May 1860)
Adolphe Rochas, Biographie du Dauphiné, vol.2 (1860), p.222

There are certainly strange goings-on here; but the identity of the general, and the information the intruder was acting on remain a mystery.

A detailed history of the chapels and clergy of the École militaire, which was published in the 1933,  adds only that the judicial enquiry was abandoned.  In 1901 the Commission du Vieux-Paris once again rediscovered the crypt and noted the inscriptions on the two coffins. In Spring 1929  a party accompanied the architect responsible for Historical Monuments on an inspection.  They lifted up two flagstones, and decended by an iron ladder.  They were impressed by the dryness of the earth and the perfect state of the walls and vault. The two oak coffins rested on iron tressles and were still open.  Both contained inner anthropomorphic lead coffins; Duverney's still showed signs of the damage which had been inflicted on it and was resoldered (Laulin (1933) note, p.157-8).

In 2015 as part of a programme in the series" L'Ombre d'un doute", the inside of the crypt was filmed for the first time.  The presenter here is Marc Cheynet de Beaupré, successful banker and author of a two volume biography of Joseph Pâris-Duverney.  It is quite moving to see the two coffins exactly as described:


Adolphe Rochas, Biographie du Dauphiné, vol.2 (1860), p.222

R.Laulan, "Les chapelles de l'École militaire et la vie religieuse dans l'ancien hôtel royal", Bulletin de la Société de l'histoire de Paris et de l'Ile-de-France, 60, 1933. p.108-185.

L'ombre d'un doute - "Louis XV, l'homme qui aimait trop les femmes" broadcast 5th January 2015

Here is small relic of Joseph Pâris Duverney, a altar bearing his arms which he presented to the parish of Nogent on the occasion of his reception as Seigneur of Plaisance in 1721.  After being in the museum in Nogent since 1959, it was recently restored to the parish church of Saint-Saturnin.  The château de Plaisance itself survived the Revolution only to be demolished in 1818. Only a small pavillion remains, today part of the  maison de Santé, 30 rue de Plaisance.

Château de Plaisance, Nogent on the website for the exhibition, "Madame Du Châtelet:  La femme des Lumières"(2011)

"L'autel de Pâris-Duverney de retour à Saint-Saturnin", Nogent-sur-Marne website

Friday 28 April 2017

Shock and Awe: the Marly experiment

BBC Four is currently repeating Jim Al-Khalili's documentary,  "Shock and Awe: the Story of Electricity",  which was first broadcast in 2011.  The first episode is devoted to 18th-century discoveries.   Catch it if you can, before it disappears from i-player as it is a brilliant programme - the camera work is stunning throughout.  There is no gimmicky docudrama, just Jim recreating the original experiments in a load of unusual locations: Charterhouse and the Royal Society in London, Leiden and the University of Bologna.

One of the most satisfying of the early experiments in electricity took place in France at Marly-la-Ville.  How could it be proved that lightning, most awe-inspiring of God's wonders, was really an electrical phenomenon?  Easy.... Stick a long metal rod in a wine bottle and wait for the storm.....!   Here is Jim on the very spot (on location in someone's back garden):  

Franklin had first outlined his experiment in 1751, in a letter to the Royal Society in which he had also advocated the use of lightning rods.  The Royal Society had refused to include his speculations in its transactions, so Franklin printed the letter himself in a book entitled Experiments and Observations on Electricity (Philadelphia 1751)

Buffon was not particularly interested in electricity, but when Franklin's little book fell into his hands, he saw an opportunity to score against his enemy Réaumur whose protegé the abbé Nollet, had opposed Franklin's theories.  Buffon's schoolfriend and collaborator, the botanist Thomas-François Dalibard translated the book into French with an insolent Avertissement attacking "hack physicists". The two hired a public demonstrator in "experimental philosophy" called Delors to repeat Franklin's earlier experiments.

On 3rd February 1752 Louis XV himself was invited to a demonstration, hosted by the duc d'Ayen at St Germain-en-Laye. The monarch was so appreciative that it "excited in Messieurs de Buffon, d'Alibard and De Lor, a desire of verifying the conjectures of Mr. Franklin, upon the analogy of thunder and electricity".

Plate from Expériences et observations sur l'électricité 2nd, ed. 1756, vol.2
Dalibard had previously installed a small laboratory in the grounds of the house in Marly where he lodged and it was here that he set up his insulated pole in early  May 1752. On 10th May it thundered in Marly. The former dragoon charged with the experiment, whose name was Coiffier, ran to the pole and presented to it a brass wire stuck into a glass handle; he was the first man ever to see a spark drawn intentionally from the sky.  Coiffier alerted the curé, Raulet, who repeated the experiment "at least six times in a period of four minutes, each trial lasting as long as "a pater and an ave".

On 13th May Dalibard reported the Marly test to the Academy of Science. 
Dalibard's house and garden in Marly-la-Ville
There was now no doubt that lightning was indeed electricity.  News of the triumph spread rapidly. The furious Nollet, who had not heard of Franklin, thought at first that the great man was Buffon's malicious invention.

In June 1752 Franklin himself famously (though possibly apocryphally) confirmed the findings by flying a kite in a storm, with a key attached to it by a silk ribbon. Once the ribbon became wet, he was able to generate a spark and charge a Leyden jar from the key.  Although Franklin now diverted his attention to politics, his lightening rods were soon set up in Philadelphia and Boston.  Nollet was forced to give up his attacks on Franklin, who was accepted by the Academy of Sciences and became the darling of French society.

Letter of Father Raulet to Dalibard 

 I can now report, Monsieur, the news that you have been waiting to hear: the experiment has been carried out. Today at twenty past two in the afternoon, thunder was heard directly over Marly; it sounded quite strong. My desire to serve you, and  my own curiosity, took me away from my armchair where I had been reading;  I hurried to Coiffier's house, meeting on the way a child whom he had already dispatched to fetch me.  I redoubled my pace in a torrent of hail. 

I arrived at the place where the bent rod had been placed, and advanced slowly towards it with the brass wire.  When I was an inch and a half away, the rod emitted a small blue column of fire which smelled of sulphur; it hit the end of the wire with some force, making a sound as if the rod had been struck with a key.  I repeated the experiment at least six times in a period of four minutes, in the presence of several people, and each test lasted the the time it took to recite a pater and an ave. I tried to continue but the effect diminished gradually; I approached closer, but produced only a few sparks, and finally nothing at all.

The thunder which had started events was not repeated;  a heavy storm of hail brought an end to the proceedings.

In the course of the experiment I received a shock on my arm just below the elbow;  I was too preoccupied with what I was doing to be able to say whether it came from the rod or the wire. I did not complain at the time, but since the discomfort continued, on my return I uncovered my arm in the presence of Coiffier. We observed bruising right around it as though my naked arm had been struck by a blow from a brass wire.  Leaving Mr Coiffier, I met the Vicaire, M. de Milly and the Schoolmaster, to whom I reported what had happened.  All three were  certain that they smelt an odour of sulphur which grew stronger as they approached me. I still had the smell about me when I arrived home;  my servants pointed it out without me mentioning it to them.

Such, Monsieur, is my account. It is written in haste, but I vouch for its veracity and will testify to the events whenever I am called upon to do so.  Coiffier was the first to perform the experiment and he repeated it several times;  it was only afterwards that he sent for me to come.  If other witnesses are needed besides him and me,  I am sure  you will find them.  Coiffier is anxious to leave. 
 I am yours, respectfully, Monsieur,

Raulet, Priest of Marly.  10th May 1752.


BBC Four: Shock and Awe - programme website

Papers of Benjamin Franklin, Founders Online (U.S. National Archives): 
“Thomas-François Dalibard: report of an experiment with lightning, 13 May 1752,”
Jean-Antoine Nollet: Letters on Electricity
Various documents collected and translated by Robert A. Morse as part of a course at Tufts University:

See also:
 J. L. Heilbron, Electricity in the 17th and 18th century (1979), p.348-50.

Thursday 27 April 2017

St Petersburg paradox

Pierre-Louis Dumesnil, Interior with Card Players, c1752 , Metropolitan Museum, N.Y.

The "St  Petersburg Paradox" is a classic problem in probability theory first formulated in the early 18th century by the Swiss Mathematician Nicolas Bernoulli.  It first came to widespread attention in 1738 when Daniel Bernoulli, another of the Bernoulli dynasty, presented it to the Imperial Academy of Sciences in St. Petersburg.  D'Alembert described it in the Encyclopédie article "Croix ou pile" in 1754 and returned to it repeatedly in later writings. Buffon claimed to have been introduced to it independently as early as 1730 by the Genevan professor Gabriel Cramer and to have reached conclusions similar to those of Daniel Bernouilli.

Wednesday 26 April 2017

D'Alembert loses at roulette...

Our experience and understanding of the laws of nature teach us that the same event never happens many times in a row, and it is by virtue of this acquired knowledge that we dismiss the repetition of "heads" or "tails" many times consecutively.
(d'Alembert, Opuscules mathématiques, 1780, p.48)

If Google hits are anything to go by, d'Alembert is remembered chiefly today as the author of a codified gambling staking plan.  Although there is no documentation, the d'Alembert System probably dates from the late 18th or early 19th century and was not "invented" by d'Alembert at all, though it is loosely based on his speculations on the mathematics of probability.

Monday 24 April 2017

Winning the lottery of life - the tontines

Mercure 1726:  24th February, Charlotte Bonnemay, widow of Louis Barbier, died in Paris aged 96 years old.  She alone remained of all the Rentiers who comprised the 13th Class of the first Tontine, and the 14th of the second; at the time of her death she enjoyed an annity of  73,500 livres of income from an subscription of 300 livres in the two classes.

Mercure historique et politique 1762: Mr. Christophle de Beaud, native of Pontarlier, former Chaplain to the nuns of Chaillot and Confessor to the late Queen of England, wife of James II, has just died in his parish of Doux, aged 97 years.  He was the last shareholder of his Division in a Tontine; thus in the last two years of his life, he enjoyed 10,400 livres in rentes

Madame Barbier's obituary, with details of her marvellous annuity, was repeated in journals, dictionaries and books of anecdotes, both French and English, throughout the 18th and early 19th centuries. The source of her wealth was a  "tontine", a form of life annunity with benefit of survivorship, which was occasionally issued alongside ordinary annuities by the French government.

Saturday 22 April 2017

The "Thirty Maidens of Geneva"

The famous “Thirty Maidens of Geneva” were real little girls who, by a curious twist, became the centre of an elaborate and highly lucrative financial strategy to take advantage of  life annuities issued by the French government in the 1770s and 1780s.  To revolutionaries like Jean-Pierre Cambon, the scheme constituted a damning indictment of the financial incompetence of the ancien regime, the "imbecillity of our old government "(note 33) .  It modern  historian described it as the epitome of "rococo finance" (Herbert Lüthy,  La banque protestante en France, 1959, p.469)

Life annuities (rentes viagères) had become  the “financial instrument of choice” for the management of French public debt in the last seventy years of the monarchy.  It is reckoned that between 1730 and 1789  1.4 billion livres was raised in life-contingent debt, of which around 1.1 billion was still outstanding at the time of the Revolution.(p.244)   The principal was simple.  Subscribers paid a lump sum  and received in return a given percentage of their investment  as a payment each year.  This continued until their death,  at which time the capital  was retained by the state coffers. The longer the rentier lived, the more he stood  to gain.

Tuesday 18 April 2017

Après nous, le Déluge.....

La Tour told me that, whilst he was painting Madame de Pompadour, the King entered the room in a state of dejection after the defeat at Rossbach.  She told him that he must not be depressed, that he would make himself ill, and that, in any case,  it would be after them that the Deluge came.

La Tour remembered this remark; when the King had left he said to the lady that her dictum had pained him;  it would be better for the King to be ill, than to have his heart hardened. 

[Il [la Tour] m'a raconté que peignant Mme de Pompadour, le roi, après l'affaire de Rossbach, arriva fort triste ; elle lui dit : qu'il ne fallait point qu'il s'affligeât, qu'il tomberait malade, qu'au reste après eux le déluge.

La Tour retint le mot; quand le roi fut parti, it dit  à la dame que ce mot l'avoit affligé, qu'il valoit mieux que le roy fût malade que si son coeur était endurci].

Letter of Marie Fel to the Chevalier de La Tour, c. 1788 
Reproduced in Neil Jeffares, Dictionnary of Pastellists: 
This letter is the only secure contemporary reference to the infamous remark ascribed to  Madame de Pompadour, après nous, le déluge

The actress Marie Fel, was the long-standing mistress of Maurice Quentin de La Tour.  Writing to La Tour's brother, she recalls a series of anecdotes previously related to the author and connoisseur Antoine-Nicolas Dezallier d’Argenville, who was perhaps planning a biography of the artist. 

There is no reason to doubt Mlle Fel's testimony. (La Tour might have slightly remembered the context, since his famous portrait of Madame de Pompadour, which required many preparatory  sittings, dates from 1755 whilst  the Battle of Rossbach did not take place until November 1757). 

However, it is harder to know exactly what Madame de Pompadour might have understood by the phrase.  Was she really cynically prescient about the cataclysm to come, or was  "après moi, le déluge" just a popular saying?

The phrase is not a common one, but it does occur in several late 18th-century sources. There are various possible classical precedents.  A Greek verse attributed to Euripides, translates as "after my death the world will be consumed by fire".(Cicero, De work of 1779, identified après moi le déluge as the French equivalent, "a horrible maxim which has become almost a proverb".
Guillaume Dubois de Rochefort, Histoire critique des opinions des Anciens...sur le bonheur (1779) p.239-40.

Frederick the Great wrote to d'Alembert in a letter of 26th April 1782 that he was glad to have been born in the time of Louis XIV and observes that "as a consolation in the face of the future, one should say après moi, le déluge". To Frederick, however, the maxim did not imply culpable insouciance, but merely acceptance that the world to come was outside the individual's control, "a perpetual theatre of vicissitudes, a moving scene where everything changes."

Dr Michael Sonenscher has shown that in the pre-Revolutionary period the phrase increasingly came to be used to condemn government financial policy. It was applied particularly to life annuities, a means of funding public debt which was seen as mortgaging future financial and economic viability. The elder Mirabeau, in a work published in serial form as early as 1769, calls the annuities the quintessence of that "dangerous sentiment après moi, le déluge"  Similarly, Mercier in his Tableau de Paris summarises the selfish shortsightedness of the rentiers:  "Neuf, dix pour cent; et après moi le déluge".

Marquis de Mirabeau, Entretiens d'un jeune prince avec son governeur, quoted in Sonenscher, Before the Deluge: public debt, inequality, and the intellectual origins of the French Revolution, Princeton U.P. (2009),p.1-2

Mercier, Tableau de Paris, LXXVI:"Rentiers"

All of this does not quite explain how the dictum came to be regarded as the defining attitude of the ancien régime, nor why it was so strongly associated with Madame de Pompadour.  The earliest reference I can find is in an essay by the English writer Richard Edgeworth in 1812: "'Après nous le déluge' - was one of the favourite maxim of Madame de Pompadour, and of that profligate weak government, which...probably prepared the calamities of France" 
Essays on professional education (1812) p.447-8

In French the first clear reference is an essay by Jean-Baptist-Denis Desprès which prefaces the Mémoires of Mme de Pompadour's femme de chambre, Madame du Hausset, published in 1824 : 
Madame de Pompadour, in the intoxication of prosperity, replied to all threats in the future, with three words which she repeated often: Après nous, le déluge.  Thus did she see a revolution  approaching and announce it.

The benefit of hindsight is a marvellous thing!

Monday 17 April 2017

Casanova, lover and lottery impresario?

Casanova went one better than Voltaire and actually had himself made director of a French state lottery!  

Saturday 15 April 2017

Voltaire wins the lottery

The authorities issued tickets in exchange for Hôtel de Ville rentes, and winning lots were paid in cash and all in such a way that any group of people who had bought all the tickets stood to win a million francs. Voltaire entered into association with numerous company and struck lucky.
Historical Commentary on the Works of the Author of La Henriade (1776)

For collectors of historical trivia, it is a delicious fact that the great Voltaire acquired his fortune, not by inheritance, not by his pen,  but by outsmarting a state lottery.   

Wednesday 12 April 2017

A fragment of Voltaire's dressing gown

Huber, Voltaire en déshabille  
A fragment of Voltaire's dressing gown?  Now there's some real trivia......

In December last year the Wren Library at Trinity College Cambridge announced that it had received a bequest of  over 7,500 books from Mary, Duchess of Roxburghe, who had died in 2014 at the age of 99. The collection, which included several important first editions and literary manuscripts, had been amassed by her father, Robert Crewe-Milnes, and her grandfather, the poet and politician Richard Monckton Milnes.  Milnes had been fascinated by the French Revolution and over half the works are in French. Some of the rarest items had been stored in an old blue suitcase referred to by the duchess as the "holy of holies":

"Opening the suitcase was an exciting moment," said Dr Bell [the Wren Librarian]. "It contained some exceptionally rare first editions of Shelley's poems, books inscribed by William Beckford and Oscar Wilde, a pristine first edition of Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass, and some bizarre curiosities such as a fragment of Voltaire's dressing gown." 

I've struggled to find out any more about the piece of dressing gown.  The 1955 biography of Monckton Milnes by James Pope-Hennessy tells us only that  he owned "a piece of Voltaire's dressing-gown folded into a fine edition of La Pucelle" (as well as such items as Richard Burton's passport to Mecca and the visitors' book from Burns' cottage at Alloway).

The fragment has now been carefully mounted.  My friend who saw it and took this photograph for me, commented only that she "thought it would be more woolly"; me too - this evidently isn' t the hefty affair depicted in Huber's pictures.


The  Crewe collection, Wren Library Trinity College (links to YouTube video, catalogue and digitised works)
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