|Portrait of Orléans by Jean-Pierre Franque, musée de Dreux|
"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]
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.
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.https://www.google.co.uk/books/edition/M%C3%A9moires_historiques_et_politiques_du_r/0VwPAAAAQAAJ?hl=en&gbpv=1&I&pg=PA59&printsec=frontcover This extract is from the contemporary English translation. The text can be found here
3. From the Memoirs of the Duchesse de Gontaut, 1894
Memoirs of the duchesse de Gontant, vol.2 (1894) p.32https://www.google.co.uk/books/edition/Memoirs_of_the_Duchesse_de_Gontaut/XEI_AAAAYAAJ?hl=en&gbpv=1&pg=PA32&printsec=frontcover
4. William Beckford - unpublished MS
(For Beckford's mysterious encounter see my previous post)
6. Memoirs of the Baron de Gleichen, 1813