“Your part can be the king, but unless people are treating you like royalty, you ain’t no king, man” – Jeff Bridges
Louis-Charles, Dauphin of France (b.1785), younger son of King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette, was technically King of France (his older brother died just before the French Revolution) following the execution of his father in 1793. Our official histories say that the young Dauphin was imprisoned from 1792 until his reported death in 1795 at the age of ten. The circumstances of his imprisonment and death were a little mysterious, leading foreign powers suspicious of the new republic and royalists interested in restoring the monarchy to suggest that the Dauphin had actually been spirited away and was waiting in the wings to eventually ascend the throne of France as King Louis XVII.
Countless royal pretenders popped up over the ensuing decades, from Spandau clockmaker Karl Wilhelm Naundorff to the Baron de Richemont, each delineating complicated conspiracies that saw them to safety, but most were easily outed as con men or crazy people. Even with the threat of the guillotine hanging over your head, there were numerous perks to claiming descent from aristocracy in 18th Century Europe. You get invited to all the cool parties. By and large, most stories didn’t hold up to scrutiny.
Yet, the oddities surrounding the imprisonment and subsequent fatal illness of the Dauphin led many to question the veracity of the Republican government’s version of events. On July 3rd, 1793 Louis-Charles was separated from his mother by the Committee for Public Safety and placed under the guardianship of cobbler and revolutionary enthusiast Antoine Simon at the Paris Temple (a medieval Templar Fortress). Royalist versions of history maintain the Dauphin was ill-treated and abused, although nothing was ever proven. In 1794, Simon was relieved of his duties and the Dauphin was certified to be in good health. After Simon’s departure, Bourbon Restoration scholars (who obviously had an ax to grind) suggested that Louis-Charles was locked in a dark room and received no visitors for six months. The Dauphin was then said to have been visited by politician Paul Barras who reported the child as suffering from extreme neglect. Jean Jacques Christophe Laurent (1770–1807), a creole from Martinique was then appointed his caretaker and the Dauphin was allowed walks on the tower roof, but from this time forward, Louis-Charles refused to speak another word. Conveniently, records from the Paris Temple surrounding this time period were destroyed in the Bourbon Restoration.
In March 1975, Dr. P. J. Desault was summoned when Louis-Charles fell ill. Desault himself died suddenly three months later (poisoning was suspected), and not long after, it was reported that the Dauphin had also died. An autopsy was conducted and concluded that the child was roughly ten years old, the body was covered with numerous scars, and the cause of death was tuberculosis. The Dauphin’s body was then buried in an unmarked grave. Clearly, shenanigans were afoot at the Paris Temple and various discrepancies lent some credence to Royalist hopes that somehow the Dauphin had cheated death.
Louis-Charles sister Marie-Thérèse, also held prisoner at the Paris Temple was kept in relative comfort, whereas he was hidden out of sight in a dark room (as you might do if his identity was questionable), his sudden steadfast muteness until death, and the declaration that long standing tuberculosis (which had never before been reported) had suddenly killed him, all contributed to serious doubts as to the actual dispensation of the Dauphin. Hence there was ample room for claimants to the throne of France to insert themselves into the narrative. Of the almost 100 pretenders, most were laughable, but one in particular seemed to have raised undue interest – Eleazar Williams (1788-1858), a Canadian clergyman and missionary.
Now, hanging out preaching to the Iroquois in North America seems like a strange place to stash an extra Dauphin, and superficially we might assume this was just another yahoo with delusions of grandeur or an eye for real-estate speculation. Strangely though, in 1854, François d’Orléans, Prince of Joinville travelled to Green Bay, Wisconsin to conduct a clandestine interview with the Reverend Eleazar Williams. How is this significant? François d’Orléans was the son of Louis Philippe I (1773-1850), cousin of King Louis XVI, who had fled the French Revolution in 1793, living in exile in Great Britain. After the fall of Napoleon in 1814, the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy got underway, followed by the July Monarchy which saw the rise of the Orléans branch of the House of Bourbon. Louis Philippe I was King of France from 1830-1848, paving the way for his children to displace the senior branch of the House of Bourbon as the ruling dynasty of France. The existence of the Dauphin, a direct descendant of King Louis XVI, would throw a wrench in the works. Thus is said that François d’Orléans arrived in Wisconsin to make a handsome financial offer to Eleazar Williams if he would simply renounce all right to title and the throne of France. Obviously, someone was worried.
Let’s take a look at the Right Reverend Eleazar Williams. He was said to be of Mohawk descent, born in Sault St. Louis, Quebec, Canada, educated at Dartmouth College, and known for his diligent linguistic and missionary work among the Iroquois. Williams was a deacon in the Episcopal Church, and was appointed by the Bishop to preach among the Oneida people in upstate New York. Puzzlingly, from 1839 onwards, Eleazar Williams openly maintained that he was the French Lost Dauphin, Louis Charles, a fact that became apparent in his childhood.
As a child, Eleazar Williams was said to be “weak-minded” (a polite term for a moron), but after accidental head trauma, his perspective changed substantially. His memory prior to the accident would never be restored, but he was confident that his parents were not his true parents. He maintained that his adoptive Mohawk parents were kindly folk, but were not his biological family, a conclusion supported by physicians who declared he was not of Indian blood, and his mother’s confession that he was not actually her child. The plot thickened when a Native American frontiersman named Skenondouh emerged to support Williams’ story.
Skenondouh took oath that two French noblemen had appeared upon Lake George in 1795 with a feeble-minded lad of about ten. These great men turned their half-witted charge over to the Williamses who thence-forth were in no want for money. Goodly sums came to them regularly from somewhere. And it was doubtless to escape the curiosity of their neighbors that Eleazar’s foster-parents had moved from their former home (Watkins, 1919, 91-92).
A certain resemblance between Williams and his Bourbon contemporaries was frequently remarked upon, detailed by his colleague Reverend Hanson, who observed, “His complexion is rather dark, like that of one who had become bronzed by living much in the open air; his features are rather heavily moulded, and strongly characterized by the full, protuberant Austrian lips; his head is well formed, and sits proudly on his shoulders; his eyes are dark, but not black; his hair may be called black, is rich and glossy, and interspersed with grey; his eyebrows are full, and of the same colour (upon the left is a scar); his beard is heavy; his nose aquiline, the nostril large and finely cut. His temperament is genial, with a dash of vivacity in his manners, and he inclines to embonpoint, which is the characteristic of the Bourbon family” (Stevens, 1887, p7). I’m no judge of Bourbon physiognomy, but some hereditary similarity between Williams and his ostensible royal family was repeatedly mentioned. All of this would require that the Dauphin had not actually died in prison in 1795, but a series of facts seem to suggest a high possibility of this.
- The surgeons [who conducted the autopsy] do not testify that it was the body of the Dauphin which they opened.
- Louis XVII had tumors at all the joints, and particularly at the knees. This is a fact, so positively stated by the French officials, as to stand beyond reach of contradiction. The tumors were not scrofulous, but the result of confinement, and were in the shape of knots. The proces verbal speaks of only two tumors, one on the inner side of the right knee, and the other near the left wrist.
- M. Desault, on 6th May, testified that scrofula had scarcely imprinted its seal on the constitution of the Dauphin, and that he had merely the germ of a scrofulous affection. M. Dumangin, Pelletan, Lassus, and Jeanroy, certify that the death of the child, whose body they examined, was the effect of a scrofulous disease, which had existed for a long time, and the internal condition of the body, so minutely specified by them, shows how deeply seated the disease was in the constitution, so that the whole stomach and intestines were covered with a great quantity of tubercles, and all the other organs, where the disease could manifest itself, were in the state which showed the ripeness of the malady unto death
- All testimony, except that of Lasne and Gomin, nay, that of Gomin also, in 1795, proves that, mentally, the Dauphin was in a condition of imbecility, coincident with his physical prostration, lethargic, timid, mute, difficult of access, shy of strangers. The boy who died, if the whole account is not false, was exactly the contrary, forward, talkative, animated, imaginative.
- Again, let any physician say whether a child in the mental condition in which Desault found the Dauphin, could have had not only the brain, but all its dependencies, perfectly healthy, or whether its vessels would not have been in a state of temporary derangement (Hanson, 1854, p114-115).
Thus, any conspiracy theorist worth his salt can imagine a scenario where the legitimate Dauphin was secreted away by Royalist sympathizers and replaced with a imbecilic child of a similar age, suffering from the final stages of tuberculosis, an autopsy was hurried through, and the body of the false Dauphin buried in an unmarked grave so as to elude future detection of the ruse. The curious appearance of two French noblemen in the Adirondacks shepherding a 10 year old child and arranging the support of a Native American foster family in 1795 lends further mystery.
Most royal pretenders have an angle. They’re looking for money, prestige, a nice castle, or at least a title that helps them skip to the head of the line. By most accounts Eleazer Williams was a pious man of the cloth, honest and forthright. When the Prince de Joinville arrived in Green Bay to offer him a tidy sum of cash to renounce all claims to the French throne, Williams declined and preferred to continue his missionary work until his death, without seeking notoriety. He just wanted the Prince de Joinville to know that he knew he was the lost Dauphin. Why a presumed rival heir to the French throne would show up in Green Bay, Wisconsin to obtain legal documents from Eleazar Williams makes the whole matter even more questionable (some unsupported suggestions has been made that this was all just a practical joke played by François d’Orléans). Aristocrats don’t tend to joke about royal succession unless they’ve got a lock on it. One or two assassination attempts were rumored to have targeted Eleazer Williams in the ensuing years. Curious that of the multitude of pretenders claiming to be the Lost Dauphin, the only one that merited attempted bribery by the House of Bourbon was an Episcopal Reverend who’d been deposited in Lake George, New York in 1795.
The French Revolution was no doubt the death knell for aristocracy in the Western World, but the magical cachet of royalty has persisted well into the modern era (albeit altering the rules about who deserves to rank among our royalty), thus it is unsurprising that our most popular fairy tales remain the stories of the poor peasant girl or prince who finds themselves descended from a princely pedigree. As Georg C. Lichtenberg said, “Actual aristocracy cannot be abolished by any law: all the law can do is decree how it is to be imparted and who is to acquire it”. I feel like I should have been a Count. Fingers crossed.
Hanson, John H. 1815-1854. The Lost Prince: Facts Tending to Prove the Identity of Louis the Seventeenth, of France, And the Rev. Eleazar Williams, Missionary Among the Indians of North America. New York: G. P. Putnam & Co., 1854.
Stevens, Augusta de Grasse. The Lost Dauphin: Louis XVII, Or Onwarenhiiaki the Indian Iroquois Chief. Sunnyside, Orpington, Kent: G. Allen, 1887.
Watkins, John Elfreth, 1875-. Famous Mysteries: Curious and Fantastic Riddles of Human Life That Have Never Been Solved. Philadelphia: The John C. Winston Company, 1919.
Welch, Catherine. The Little Dauphin. London: Methuen, 1908.