Friday, 20 March 2020

Louis XVII - "la piste argentine"?

Franck Ferrand has remarked that "the most convincing" case for the survival of Louis XVII in recent years has comes from Argentina. The so-called "piste argentine" was set out in a book of 2011 by Jacques Soppelsa, a much respected career diplomat, honorary president of the Sorbonne and a left-wing militant.  He was a guest on Franck's radio programme Au coeur de l'Histoire in 2013 and greatly impressed the presenter by his sincerity and conviction. The book itself is a first person narrative, in novelised form, but with appendices containing documentation. The conclusions have, of course, been criticised, notably by Christian Crépin, who presented his own researches to the Cercle d'Études Historiques sur la Question Louis XVII in 2011.

According to the Jacques Soppelsa's account of events, Louis XVII, having been smuggled out of the Temple, assumed the identity of a certain Pierre Benoît, born in Calais in 1994.  After a career in the Imperial Navy, Benoît emigrated in 1818 to Buenos Aires where he moved in the highest social circles and pursued successful career as an explorer and architect.  He was said to have been deeply affected by the death of Madame-Royale in 1851 and he himself died in mysterious circumstances in 1852.  

Pierre Benoît himself never claimed to be Louis XVII but his descendants, based on his papers, certain objects in his possession, and other evidence, have long been convinced of his identity.  A member of the family approached Jacques Soppelsa, then cultural attaché in Buenos Aires, who, after his own investigation, came to endorse their view. 

Arte de la Argentina: Pierre Benoit, self-portrait

Franck Ferrand comments in his radio programme that, although the story of Pierre Benoît is something of an Alexandre Dumas novel, coincidences which seem to multiply and converge. I  don't have access to Jacques Soppelsa's book, but his main arguments summarised by Franck are as follows:


The birth certificate of Pierre Benoît, exists in different copies and contains worrying erasures and additions, suggesting that an identity has been manufactured.  Benoît's date of birth is variously given as 1794, 1797 and 1788.  His father is recorded as unknown or given as another Pierre Benoît.  His mother, a "fisherwoman", has the Christian names Marie-Jeanne and the unusual surname Daut ("Daulo" in Spanish).  This has been read by the family as a veiled allusion to Marie-Antoinette:  Marie [Antoinette Josephe] Jeanne [, archiduchese] D ['] Au triche et de] Lo[rraine].

According to Christian Crépin, however, there is no great mystery surrounding  Pierre Benoît's birth.  His father can be securely identified as Pierre François Nicolas Benoît (1764-1844).  He was not, as Jacques Soppelsa implies,  a humble fisherman, but a successful privateer, who commanded several vessels during the American and Revolutionary Wars and took significant prizes.

Pierre Benoît, was born on 16 Thermidor an II (2nd August 1794) in Calais.  His father is not named on the birth certificate, but his parents later married and Pierre was formally recognised before a notary as the fruit of their union.  His mother's surname is variously given as Dot, Daut, Deaux, Dault.  The couple had eight children in all


Education and early career

Although he lived with a "poor family of fishermen in Calais", Pierre Benoît/Louis XVII received an excellent education. Funds arrived regularly from Paris to provide him with tutors.  He was therefore able to develop a passion for botany and geography first acquired under the guidance of his father in the Temple.  Among his papers in Buenos Aires is a reference to Louis XVI's famous request before his execution for "news of Lapérouse".  Benoît  made his reputation as a civil and naval architect; draftsman and painter; and had an extensive knowledge of astronomy, botany, and geodesy. He was also said to be fluent in Castillian, French, Italian, Spanish, Latin, English and German.

The origin of the claims concerning a private education are not clear; according to one website Benoît's "official biography" states that he was educated by the "best private tutors, paid for by the future Emperor". Maybe Benoît himself, a staunch Imperialist, embellished his own academic credentials - why else the reference to Napoleon? In reality his accomplishments are not inconsistent with those of a naval officer, explorer and autodidact.

Christian Crépin documents Benoît's early career.  He is recorded in the census for Calais in 1809, 1815 and again in 1820 as a sailor, living at his parents' home. As early as 1805 he was a cabin boy on a fishing vessel. At the end of 1810, at the age of sixteen, he joined  the Imperial Navy; papers in the possession of his family document his service from 1810 to 1814, by the end of which he had obtained the rank of officer. The French archives no longer have the dossier available. During the Hundred Days he applied for a commission in the Lancers, then, when this was unsuccessful, in a regiment of the line.

The journey to Argentina

In 1818 Benoît is known to have sailed from Le Havre to Buenos Aires in the crew of the scooner  Chiffonne and is thought to have jumped ship in Buenos Aires.  This was an opportune moment for a former Napoleonic officer to seek adventure abroad, though it is less obvious why Louis XVII would want to leave France at this time.  Jacques Soppelsa has two crucial facts:  Firstly, Benoît  was accompanied to Le Havre by no less a personage than Louis XVIII's minister the duc  Decazes. Perhaps the King felt threatened and wanted his rival claimant out of the country?  Secondly, his other travelling companions were an odd set: one Honoré, De Launey, nephew of the governor of the Bastille and a certain Valois.  Again, it is hard to know what to make of this.  Crépin states categorically that Decazes never personally conducted anyone to Le Havre and that there was no-one called Launay or Valois on the Chiffonne.

In Argentina

 Despite travelling incognito, Benoît/Louis XVII seems to have had a privileged position in Buenos Aires and enjoyed access to high society.  He achieved prominence as artist, functionary and political adviser. 

But was his success, in the prevailing colonial environment,  really more than that of a talented adventurer?

On his arrival in 1818 Benoît applied to serve in the Argentine Navy, as an "adventurer officer".  In 1819 he participated in Aimé Bonpland's explorations in the north and along the Argentine coast in 1820, acting as a draftsman and illustrator of flora and fauna.

In 1821, on his return to the capital,  President Rivadavia appointed him auxiliary officer to the Department of Architectural Engineers, then under the direction of the Frenchman  Prospero Catelin. Major projects included the regeneration of the Recoleta area and the construction of the new Buenos Aires Cathedral. Benoit  inspected  the work on the cathedral. A letter of Catelin dated 1823 confirms that he also worked on the plans. In 1828 he was appointed Director of Drawing for the Topographical Department.   He subsequently became civil and naval architect and member of the Public Works Council.  Much of the final years of his life were taken up with designs for the portico of the cathedral,  presented in 1847. For the last fourteen years he suffered from ill health, and was obliged to conducted his tasks for the Topographical Department from his bed.

In 20014 his extensive private house on the corner of Independencia and Bolívar Avenues was investigated by the University of Buenos Aires as an example of early 19th-century Argentinian domestic architecture.
Centro de Arqueología Urbana: Bolivar 793 Casa Pierre Benoit

Benoît's career was undoubtedly assisted by his involvement in Freemasonry. In 1825 he was received into the Lodge of Philadelphia.  His membership may well have secured him the patronage of  Rivadavia, who was also a Mason.

In July 1828 he married Maria Josepha de Las Mercedès Lejes. It is recorded that his father-in-law had misgivings about the eligibility of an unknown Frenchman.  The couple had two children, a daughter Petrona and a son, Pedro, the architect of La Plata.  The latter's first-born daughter Dolores Cándida married into the Zapiola family.

Other clues

Relatives discerned a number of indication - some perhaps deliberately provided - which connected Benoît specifically with Louis XVII.

1. Benoît  had blue eyes.

2. He owned a lock of hair, said by the Zapiola family to have come from Marie-Antoinette. It was contained in a silk purse embroidered with the arms of the Bourbons and fleurs-de-lys.  Elais Zapiola approached the Carnavalet for help with authentication but has so far received no response.

 3. Benoît confided to his daughter that his mother's native language had been German. 

The following is from an article in Euskonews (courtesy of Google Translate!):
The story [that Benoît was Louis XVII] came to Dolores Cándida, his grand-daughter, from her aunt Petrona; the family took many years to get her to say all that she had heard. In fact, in a letter Pierre had stated: "What would we do with knowing the truth so late and without a purpose? [...] It is not the crowns or the shields that make man worth, but his cleansing of the soul, his performance honest, without asking for help from those who left. My grandfather was well born, more in a disastrous time, let us content ourselves with knowing that we are of good birth " . With the passage of time, the secret was obtained from Dolores; but when she broke silence she also indicated:"[My aunt] confessed something to me, not everything, and she told me that her father recommended silence, because if she spoke they would say that she would have lost her mindSo the oral tradition had a break through which information was lost.
In her memoirs, Dolores Cándida recalls that Benoit indicated to his daughter Petrona: "At the end of 1793, at the time of the Terror, a woman of a certain age and a man took me hidden under a wide cape, in a buggy, a dark night and I was handed over to the Benoit couple, in the Port of Calais. Don't ask me Petrona to talk about before that night. I received a careful and private education, I was as if hidden, but very well treated; with great affection

The duchesse d'Angoulême by Pierre Benoît      
4. Benoît fell into a state of depression after the death of the duchesse d'Angoulême.

5. He painted three portraits of the royal women, Marie-Antoinette, Madame Elisabeth and Madame Royale, which are on view at the Casa Rosada, the presidential palace in Buenos Aires. 

 6. His three self-portraits reveal a likeness to the lost prince.  He has a pleasant face, with a thin nose and small mouth like Marie-Antoinette.  Around one of the portraits is a freize with fleurs de lys, discovered by his family only when the frame was dropped and broken. (Crépin, however, points out that the Deseine bust suggests that Louis XVII had a broader lower face. Benoît also lacked the divided chin shown in some drawings of the prince.)

7. His self-portraits show a scar on the upper lip which corresponds to Louis-Charles's rabbit bite.

8. A sculpture by Benoît of Laocoon and his sons has the interlaced letters L.C.R.F.P.B. which the Zapiola family interprets as "Louis Charles Roi de France Pierre Benoit". 

9.His handwriting is identical to a surviving sample from the duc of Normandy in the Temple.

10. Benoît signed his name with a flourish very similar to the one found on the signature of Louis XVI's at the beginning of his Testament.. Crépin points out that this may in itself  be an addition. The embellishment of Benoît's signature may also be identified as a Masonic "love-knot".

10. Benoît's skeleton, exhumed in 1996, was judged to be that of a man of 66 or 67, making him the correct age to be the dauphin.  This, comments Crépin, is potentially a good piece of evidence, but over the age of fifty or so there is margin for error and none of the books give a detailed medical report.

Death and exhumation

On 22nd August 1852 Pierre Benoît died suddenly and mysteriously after taking a remedy proscribed by an unknown French doctor, possibly called Lavergne, who had recently arrived in Buenos Aires. Benoît suffered from longstanding ill-health but poisoning was suspected; when the body was exhumed in April 1996 traces of arsenic were indeed found..The doctor was said to have been arrested immediately on his return to France and secretly guillotined, though there is no documentation to substantiate this  It is claimed that this was the same doctor Lavergne who tried to blackmail the duchesse d'Angoulême in the 1840s - though this man died in his bed aged 81 in 1862.

Jacques Soppelsa, Louis XVII: La piste argentine, A2CMedias, collection histoire, 2011, 187 pages.

Franck Ferrand, Au cœur de l'Histoire: Le sort de Louis XVII, la piste argentine , Europe 1 [radio programme] broadcast 3.5.2013.

"Louis XVII et la piste argentine" - Discussion thread with illustrations on Le Forum de Marie-Antoinette.

"Louis XVII: la piste argentine..." on Tribune Histoire

Christian Crépin, Pierre Benoit et le livre de Jacques Soppelsa, paper presented  at the Cercle d'' études historiques sur Louis XVII, 26th November 2011.

Pierre Benoit" - Biographical notice on
Gonzalo Javier Auza "Los Zapiola, una familia vasco-argentina que convive con la memoria de Luis XVII y la herencia de la corona francesa"

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