Monday, 27 December 2021

The Prince and the Magician

Portrait  of Orléans by Jean-Pierre Franque, musée de Dreux
Here is a curious episode from the late-eighteenth century world of Freemasonry,the occult and ritual magic.  It involves no less a figure than the duc d'Orléans, later Philippe d'Égalité.   According to the fullest account, events took place near Orléan's  residence at the Château du Raincy, about ten kilometres north-east of Paris. 
  An unnamed Jewish sorcerer led the duke into a forest thicket where an demonic being materialised from a supernatural fire. The apparition conferred on him a talismanic ring and imparted an unknown secret: 

"He conversed for more than an hour with this real or phantasmic figure whose hand sealed an iron ring around his neck.  He showed us this ring, but did not confide in us what had been predicted.  He only told us "The matter is of the highest importance, but it is a mystery".  These are the exact words he used.  [D'Allonville, Mémoires secrets (1838), vol. 1, p.145] 

In later commentaries, notably the history by Auguste Viatte published in 1928,  the  mysterious Jew is identified as Chaim Samuel Jacob Falk, the so-called "Baal Shem of London",  a famous Kabbalistic magician of the later eighteenth century.  It was generally assumed that the duke had been promised a magical guarantee for his accession to the French throne. [see Viatte, p.184]

The sources: 

The main primary sources for the tale are two sets of memoirs, the first by the clergyman and naturalist Jean-Louis Soulavie, published in 1801 [Reading 1] and the second by the former royalist army officer d'Allonville, published in 1838 [Reading 2].  Soulavie, whose writings are known to contain a fair amount of fabrication,  records Orléans's own account "in almost his own words" - though it is not clear whether Soulavie himself heard him first-hand.   D'Allonville's text, though much later, records the testimony of one of d'Orléan's companions at the time , the duc de C*** (?? de Croy).  This too contains a version of d'Orléan's own narrative.   D'Allonville talked to his informant and took notes in about 1795 . He observes that the prince de Léon, who had also been present, added his corroboration.

There is a general sense that some version of the story was well known in the early nineteenth century, at least in Masonic circles. Orléans's execution in 1793 added to the sense of hubris and encouraged a new layer of speculation.  The occultist Madame de la Croix  imagined that she herself had broken the protective spell conferred on Orléans and sent him to the scaffold [Reading 6].

When and where was the incident supposed to have taken place? 

D'Allonville writes that he was given an exact date, but his notes had become illegible.   He tells us that  Orléans was resident at the time at Le Raincy, where he hunted daily with a "crowd of young people". The 19th-century historian Capefigue reasonably infers this would be just after 1785 when  Orléans's inherited his title on the death of his father.

As to location, the two sources unfortunately contradict each other.  In d'Allonville's version the apparition appears in the forêt de Bondy, quite near to Le Raincy, whereas Soulavie (slightly vaguely) refers to the plain of Villeneuve-Saint-George.  In both cases, however, Orléans, is obliged to demonstrate his trust by venturing into a lonely and hostile environment. 

What  happened?

According to d'Allonville, the duke  was alone in his study when he received an unexpected visit from a Jewish man dressed in rags, who  promised to reveal to him a "secret of the highest importance". He was told to go to a particular spot in the forêt de Bondy, where a "personage of remarkable form" would appear to him out of a supernatural fire. The duc de C*** and his companion kept watch whilst Orléans proceeded into the forest as arranged. He later returned in a state of agitation and reported that events had happened as predicted. He showed them an "iron ring" which the apparition has given him - the text says that its hand "sealed an iron ring at his throat" . He  claimed to have spoken with the phantom for over an hour, but would never reveal, even to his intimates, the promises that had been made.

The idea that Orléans's visitor was sorceror is made explicit in Souvalie's more summary version.  Here he is described a "man of an austere and remarkable countenance",  who offers to "raise the devil." We are also informed that the magician revisited the duke on several subsequent occasions.

Hostile historians like Capefigue readily accused Orléans of having made up the whole story, in order to take advantage of the  supernatural to bolster his claim to the throne. Orléans was after all a Freemason and widely rumoured  to be a dabbler in the dark arts.  This, of course, remains the most likely conclusion.  However, there are certain aspects to the narrative, which remain curious:

  • In d'Allonville's version at least, Orléans comes across as genuinely disconcerted.  (In own retelling, as reported by Souvalie, he is more in command of the situation, even going so far as to offer the sorcerer money. )
  • D'Allonville's informer prefaces his account with a strange ghost story, which seems a complete non sequitur. Over three successive evenings immediately prior to the appearance of the Jewish magician, Orléans and his hunting party encountered a man dressed in white, mounted on a white horse. The figure eluded their pursuit and was apparently immune to bullets. Locals said that he was the spirit of a murdered miller.
  • There are odd details in the narrative, notably the mention of a supernatural fire and the  inclusion of an iron ring. Neither fires nor rings are unknown to the Kabbalistic tradition - indeed Falk is recorded as conjuring up a flame in one of his treasure quests. However, there are no very clear magical precedents.

Madame Gontaut [Reading 3] confirms that the duke did indeed own a iron ring (presumably a finger-ring) which he wore tied round his neck. She relates a curious incident in which he brandished it against a wild, almost naked man who surprised him in his carriage. (Was this perhaps the magician himself? ) 

What about Falk?


Thanks largely to the researches of Marsha Schuchard, we now know a great deal more about Samuel Falk who was mentor to Swedenborg and a well-known figure among London Freemasons and occultists.  At one stage Falk even attempted to use ritual magic to restore the fortunes of  Theodore von Neuhof, the deposed king of Corsica.  However, there seems little reason to identify him with Orléans's Kabbalistic magician.  Falk died in 1783 and, besides, what on earth would Falk have been doing in the Île-de-France?  William Beckford, who knew his disciple Loutherbourg, makes no mention of Falk in his discussion of Orléan's encounter [Reading 4].

Portrait of Falk, attributed to the mystic landscape artist and set designer,  Philip James de Loutherbourg.  Falk holds a compass and points to a star depicting the elements, both clear Masonic symbols.  The subject of the painting was long misidentified as the founder of Hasidism, Rabbi Yisrael Baal Shem Tov, by the American artist John Singleton Copyley.  Hence the reason it sold at auction in 2013 for a colossal $75,000.  
See Kestenbaum & Co., New York. Auction of Fine Judaica, 31st January 2013:  The "Ba'al Shem of London" (Lot 287)

The situation is no doubt muddled by the existence of a separate tradition which asserts (little more) that Falk met Orléans in London, and presented him with a talismanic ring, in this case of lapis lazuli. At the time of his execution the ring was passed on via an intermediary to his son Louis- Philippe. The only eighteenth-century source that I can find for all this is the German occultist Baron von Gleichen who imagined Falk to be "first rabbi of the Jews" [Reading 6] Most other references derive from unpleasant and suspect nineteenth-century anti-semitic works,  though unfortunately the information has also found its way into  the article on "Falk" in the Jewish Encyclopedia.  


Auguste Viatte, Les sources occultes du romantisme (1928) [For loan on Internet Archive]

Joscelyn Godwin, The Theosophical Enlightenment (1994), p.101 [Preview on Google Books]

M.K. Schuchard,  "Dr. Samuel Jacob Falk: A Sabbatian Adventurer in the Masonic Underground", Millenarianism and Messianism in early modern European culture (2001) p203-26


First-hand accounts: 

1. From the Memoirs of Jean-Louis Soulavie, 1818

The duke of Orleans, as well as cardinal Rohan, had his Cagliostro: the following account of it is given nearly in his own words. “One day, on entering my study, I found a man there of an austere and remarkable countenance, who told me, that if I pleased he would undertake to shew me things ineffable. He said also, that he would even carry his zeal in my behalf so far, as to raise the devil, and that I should learn from him whatever I wished to know concerning futurity. I accepted the offer.

"But, my lord, added he, you must have the courage to trust yourself alone with me; to quit all frequented roads; to enter a large pathless plain; for example, that of Villeneuve-Saint-George?' I consented to that likewise. This is not all, continued he, you must have the courage to come at midnight, to leave your attendants at Villeneuve, and to abandon yourself wholly to my guidance. I agreed to that condition also. We set out; I left my attendants; I entered the plain: the night was extremely dark. I conquered the emotions of terror with which the sight of the spectres I met inspired me. I listened to their admonitions, their prophecies; I promised to receive my conductor favourably as often as he should return, and a ring was given me. Keep this ring carefully', said the infernal spirit; as long as it remain in your possession, it shall be to you the token of prosperity and happiness; but from the moment it is taken from you, your doom will be sealed.' This same guide, on his returning with me, refused five hundred pounds which I offered him, and took only fifty, promised to come back; has kept his word, and still continues with the same zeal to give me his honest advice." In saying these words, the duke of Orleans uncovered his bosom and shewed his ring.

It is now evident, what means, towards the approach of the revolution, the infernal spirits that directed the whole, employed to insure or accelerate its motion. Some of those means were of a nature to impose on the credulity and weakness of the first prince of the blood, and induce him to negotiate a treaty, that he thought concluded with the prince of darkness. The duke of Orleans did not explain the conditions of the treaty, but I should not be surprised if he were promised success in his enterprises, as long as he preserved the ring: nor should I wonder if he preserved it to the fatal period when it was taken from him at the Place of the Revolution.

The duke of Orleans was ambitious, despotic, and vindictive: his passions were as violent, as his understanding was weak and feeble, as soon as he found the instant of gratifying them... He was persuaded, that the revolution had a certain and decided motion, from which it was impossible it could ever deviate, and which in the end could not fail to be favourable to him. Probably the demon of the plain of Villeneuve-Saint-George had assured him that it was so. Mémoires historiques et politiques du règne de Louis XVI vol. vi (1801)  chapter IX, p.59-63. This extract is from the contemporary English translation.  The text can be found here

2. From the Memoirs of Armand François d'Allonville, 1838

A former Royalist army officer, d'Allonville returned to France in 1828 and devoted himself to historical writing. The first volume of his memoirs, which contains the account of d'Orléan's experience, appeared in 1838.  He tells us that the story was told to him during his second period of exile, so in 1795 or slightly after.

Here is anecdote, or rather a puzzle, that I came upon...

Finding myself at Zutphen during my second trip to Holland, I met the duc de C***, a forthright and talkative man,  enemy of the Revolution, who commanded an army of dragoons funded by the English government.  He recounted the following:

Le duc d'Orleans (Louis-Philippe-Joseph) was living at Le Raincy in the month of .... in the year.... [the figures are illegible in my notes and I cannot recall them].  He went hunting every day with a crowd of young people, among them the prince de Léon and myself.  One evening when we were returning from the hunt, we noticed at the edge of a little wood, a tall man dressed in white and mounted on a white horse.  When we saw him again the next time we hunted, we still did not pay him much notice;  but the third time, his determination to attract our attention seemed so extraordinary that we ran after him, and he disappeared like a phantom. 

The prince questioned his stablemen about this singular apparition.  They replied that it was the spirit of a carpenter who had recently been assassinated.  We laughed at first at this ghost story, but having seen the figure  appear and disappear, and having shot our pistols uselessly at him, we began, if not to believe the old wives' tales, at least to think that the matter deserved explanation.

We were up for the challenge, and on the point of dismissing the vision as the product of excessive alcohol consumption, so we decided to drink nothing but water and return next day with fresh fast horses; but we were no more successful;  the phantom reappeared, received our fire without seeming hit; and disappearing more swiftly than we could follow.

The day after this last encounter an evil-looking Jew presented himself to the duc of Orleans and said to him: 

Monseigneur, I am here to impart to you a secret of the highest importance, by means of which, however excessive they might be, your wishes will be instantly fulfilled.

- Thinking this miserable personage was a schemer of some sort, the prince said to him: Well, my friend; you can keep it ;  your miserable appearance suggests this supposed secret is not so very marvellous or useful.

- "My secret, replied the Jew, is for Your Serene Majesty alone; only you are able make this brilliant use of it; if you doubt its marvellous attributes, remember the frequent apparitions that have preceded my message.

Whether these words started to persuade the prince, or whether he was just motivated by curiosity, the duc began to question the Jew keenly.  He was asked to go alone into the forêt de Bondy, at a place indicated.  Here he was to take of all his clothing near a great fire, from which would appear a personage of remarkable form.  The latter  would reveal, not only the secret in question, but the means to satisfy his greatest desires, and to render himself immune to  all dangers.

The prince hesitated for a long time.  He finally agreed to the conditions,, stipulating only that two of his gamekeepers should be posted close enough to come to his aid if the need arose, though they were to remain too far  away to see or hear what was happening.

Once this had been agreed, the infernal messenger gave him the necessary information and left.  The duc d'Orleans laughingly recounted the conversation to us and declared his intention, despite our pleas, to follow the adventure through to its end.

Thus he departed at the appointed hour, leaving us anxiously awaiting the outcome of his mysterious errand. He came back after three long hours, looking solemn, pensive and agitated. In reply to our anxious questions, he declared that everything had come true as predicted: the fire in the thick of the forest, the phantom that emerged, the secret which was revealed to him, which reduced his heart and mind to turmoil.   He had conversed for more than an hour with this real or phantasmic figure whose hand sealed an iron ring around his neck.  He showed us this ring, but did not confide in us what had been predicted.  He only told us "The matter is of the highest importance, but it is a mystery".  These are the exact words he used. 

Since then we often tried to raise the subject again, but the duc d'Orleans always forestalled us, with a grimace or with a smile.   He remained stubbornly silent; even Mme Elliot or Buffon were not privy to the secret of the ring, which the prince guarded right to his death."

Here the duc de C*** finished his narrative.  He swore its truth on his honour in the presence of many people, among them M. de Caumont, the baron de Rehausen, the princesse de Vaudemont and Mme Desboulais.  It was confirmed to me in the same words by the prince de Léon... 
Armand François d'Allonville, Mémoires secrets de 1770 à 1830 (Paris, 1838), vol. 1, p.145. 

3. From the Memoirs of the Duchesse de Gontaut, 1894

The Duchesse de Gontaut was governess to the children of France at Saint-Cloud in the 1820s. "Monsieur", who relates the story, is  her former charge, Henri duc de Bordeaux (1820-1883).  "Saint-Blacard" was Charles Michel de Gantaut-Saint-Blacard, the duchess's husband, who died in 1822.

One day, it is a long time ago..the Duc d'Orléans (Égalité) was passing through the forest of Fontainebleau.  He was with M. de Saint-Blacard and two other persons, when a man came out of the woods with nothing on but a pair of trousers, bare-headed and wild-looking, and ran towards the carriage, making horrible grimaces.  Thinking he was a madman, they made signs to him to go away; but he paid no heed.  The Duc d'Orléans, who was asleep, woke up.  The man saw him and leaped into the carriage.  Monsigneur shouted to him to go away at once;  but, being unable to get rid of him, he unbuttoned the neck of his shirt, and showed him an iron ring which he had hung round his neck.  As soon as the man saw it he jumped down, and ran away as fast as his legs would carry him, and disappeared in the woods.  The agitated and gloomy manner of the Prince prevented any questions being asked;  but it was a great deal talked about."

When Monsieur told this story, I said that my husband [ie. Saint-Blacard]  had often spoken to me about it.  He replied that no one comprehended the mystery; that he himself had questioned the Duc d'Orleans, but without being able to obtain an explanation..

 Memoirs of the duchesse de Gontant, vol.2 (1894) p.32

Comments and Analysis

4. William Beckford - unpublished MS

(For Beckford's mysterious encounter see my previous post)

In an editorial note, Beckford himself makes the comparison with his own experience explicit:  

I have strong reason to suspect that this austere, grim-visaged old man was the identical personage who, not long before the out-break of the French Revolution conducted the wretched D. of Orléans into the dismal dreary plain of Villeneuve St. Georges--where--at midnight--surrounded by horrible phantoms--a talismanic ring was given him, in which having placed a Macbeth-like confidence, he was led on step by step to the fatal scaffold. [quoted Oliver, Life of William Beckford (1932)  p.181]

Beckford gives as his authority the Memoirs of Soulavie, which is quoted at length by Oliver. ("It tells the story in the words of the ill-fated Philippe-Égalité hmself, and it will be seen that Soulavie, in his introductory paragraphs, hints at the possibility that the occult was being used as a means of revolutionary intrigue").

5. From J-B Capefigue, Louis XVI, 1884

The sceptical prince repeated his tale of phantoms to everyone -  his friends in the clubs, his companions in débauche.  Serious observers think that there is more politics than necromancy in this strange vision by moonlight.   What cannot be said in normal palace communication, can be brought to people's ears by means of such tales of mystery. The ideas of the Revolution of 1688, popular among the innovators, were already taking root in the duke of Orléan's mind; he was head of the Freemasons, of the mystical lodges.  It is possible that this talk of magic or phantoms was ...intended to pave the way for political upheaval....when the crowd believes in fate and magic, fortune-telling can be used to further real ambitions. 
Jean-Baptiste-Honoré Raymond Capefigue:  Louis XVI,  vol.3 (1844) p.17-18.

Orléans and Samuel Falk

6. Memoirs of the Baron de Gleichen, 1813

Karl Heinrich von Gleichen, was a German memorialist with an interest in the occult.  The French Freemason Savalette de Langes kept a dossier of notes in the 1770s on various figures including Falk.  He notes that Gleichen "knows Falk" and is a possible source of intelligence:

This Doctor Falk is known to many Germans. He is a very extraordinary man from every point of view. Some people believe him to be the Chief of all the Jews and attribute to purely political schemes all that is marvellous and singular in his life and conduct.... He has had adventures with the Maréchal de Richelieu, great seeker of the Philosophers' Stone. He had a strange history with the Prince de Rohan Guémenée and the Chevalier de Luxembourg relating to Louis XV, whose death he foretold. He is almost inaccessible. In all the sects of savants in secret sciences he passes as a superior man. He is at present in England. The Baron de Gleichen can give good information about him. Try to get more at Frankfurt.
See Benjamin Fabre,Un initié des sociétés secrètes supérieures. F́ranciscus, Eques a Capite Galeato", 1753-1814 (1913), p.84.

The reference in Gleichen's memoirs comes in a chapter devoted to Félicité-Geneviève de Jarente, marquise de la Croix, an occultist and close associate of the author Jacques Cazotte. The identification of Falk as "first rabbi of the Jews" sounds more like it derives from Gleichen than Madame La Croix herself -  Gleichen says he last actually saw the marquise in 1791.

A feat of which [Madame de Croix] particularly boasted, was to have destroyed a talisman of lapis-lazuli, that the duke of Orléans had been given in England by the famous Falk Scheck, the first rabbi of the Jews.  "This talisman, which would have led the prince to the throne", she said to me, "was broken on his chest by virtue of my  prayers, at that memorable moment when he fainted in the middle of the National Assembly"
Gleichen, Souvenirs (1868 edition), p. 196

7. Édouard Drumont, La France Juive , 1886

The duke of Orleans, chief of the French Freemasons, who conspired openly against his cousin, did not have the excuse of ignorance;  he was intimately associated with the Jews and knew that it was they who controlled Freemasonry. The baron Gleicher...recounts that during his travels to England the duke received from the rabbi Falk-Scheck a talisman ring, a Kainaoth which was to assure him the throne.  Although this prophecy was not realised for Philippe-Égalité, this ring testifies to the incomprehensible infatuation that all the Orléans... have always had for the Jews.

Note: If the author of "Judaisme en France" is to believed, this ring, which Philippe-Égalité was still wearing at the moment he mounted the scaffold, was given by him to a Jewess, Juliette Goudechaux, who passed it on to the duc de Chartres. Louis-Philippe kept this jewel until his death, then gave it on his deathbed to the comte de Paris. Since the ring was too big for him, it was sent to Paris to a Jewish jeweller called Jacques, in whose window it was on show for some time.
The "history of Judaism in France "mentioned is a German pamphlet of 1872 by Hermann von Scharff-Scharffenstein; but I have no desire to read any more of this stuff. 

8. Rabbi Herman Adler, c.1905

The Baal Shem is  believed to have given the Duke of Orleans a ring as a talisman to insure his ascending the throne.  This ring Philippe Égalité is said to have sent to a Jewess, Juliet Goudechaux, who passed it on to his son, the Duc de Chartres, subsequently King Louis Philippe.  The king at his death bequeathed it to the Comte de Paris, and it is believed to be at present in Stow House, Twickenham [ie. at the London residence of the comte de Paris]
H. Adler, "The Baal Shem of London", Transactions of the Jewish Historical Society of England vol. 5 (1902-05) p.148-73.  Quoted from p.155 
See also the article "Falk" in the Jewish Encyclopedia. 

9. Gordon Hills, c.1913

Gordon P.G. Hills, who studied references to Falk in the Rainsford manuscripts in the British Museum, is said to have been informed by Jewish sources that Falk was "in touch with the French Court in the person of 'Prince Emanuel' (/?Swedenborg perhaps), whom he describes as "a servant of the King of France"; he added that the talismanic ring which he gave to the duc d'Orleans "is still in the possession of the family, having passed to King Louis Philippe and thence to the comte de Paris" (Quoted  in Nesta Webster, Secret Societies And Subversive Movements - I can't find the original reference).

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