The French Tightrope Walker, Charles Blondin, a Daredevil

Charles Blondin Carrying His Manager, Harry Colcord, on His Back As He Crossed the Tightrope, Courtesy of Wikipedia

The French tightrope walker, Charles Blondin, as he was called, was born at St. Omer, Pas-de-Calais, France on 28 February 1824 under the name of Jean-François Gravelet. When Blondin was about four, a traveling company of equestrian and acrobatic performers came to town. It “produced a powerful and abiding effect upon his infantile mind,” and Blondin fell in love with the idea of acrobatics and tightrope walking. It also encouraged him to attempt to duplicate these acrobatic and gymnastic feats, and before long, he succeeded.

Because Blondin proved to have uncommon agility and a strong desire to perform as an acrobat, at the age of five, his parents placed him in the École de Gymnase at Lyon. Blondin’s first instructor was a man named Blondin and it was from this elder Blondin that he took the name Blondin. The elder Blondin was a man who used kindness to get the best out of the young Blondin, and the young Blondin quickly became recognized as a prodigy. In fact, it was noted that whatever feat he desired to achieve, “he … practised with unflagging pertinacity until he achieved complete success.” Continue reading

Parc-aux-Cerfs and Tales of Louis XV’s Harem

Parc-aux-Cerfs and Tales of Louis XV's Harem: Madame de Pompadour
Madame de Pompadour, by François Boucher, Courtesy of Wikipedia

Fifteen-year-old King Louis XV married a pious woman by the name of Marie Leszczyńska in September 1725. She was the daughter of the deposed King of Poland and 21 at the time. After their marriage, similar to most French kings, Louis XV took several mistresses. Among the most famous of all his mistresses, was his maîtresse-en-titre (chief mistress), named Madame de Pompadour. She was a beautiful, educated, and intelligent woman whom he met at a masked ball in February 1745.

Some years later, the name Parc-aux-Cerfs, which literally means stag park, began to be whispered at Louis XV’s court. Parc-aux-Cerfs, also known as the King’s Birdcage, was alleged to be where the King’s “harem” lived. Parc-aux-Cerfs was in a quarter of Versailles called Parc-aux-Cerfs, and it also happened to be the same neighborhood where Madame de Pompadour, the Louis XV’s favorite, settled after her physical relationship with him ended in 1752. Continue reading

Marguerite Power, the Countess of Blessington

Marguerite Power, the Countess of Blessington, Courtesy of Wikipedia
Countess of Blessington, Courtesy of Wikipedia

Marguerite was born in Ireland on 1 September 1789 to a small landowner named Edmund Power. Her childhood was not particularly happy because of her father’s controlling character, drunkenness, and poverty. Moreover, in 1804, at the tender age of fifteen, a compulsory marriage was forced upon her by her father.

Marguerite married a drunken English officer named Captain Maurice St. Leger Farmer. From the start, it was an unhappy marriage. Marguerite barely spoke of her marriage, although she once said that “she had not been long under her husband’s roof when it became evident that he was subject to fits of insanity.” Apparently, her father had been aware but concealed the information from her, and, in addition, according to Marguerite:

“[Her husband] frequently treated her with personal violence; he used to strike her on the face, pinch her till her arms were black and blue, lock her up whenever he went abroad, and … left her without food till she felt almost famished.”

It should therefore come as no surprise that Marguerite left him after three months of marriage. Moreover, Farmer was eventually imprisoned for debts and during that imprisonment, in October 1817, he died. He was involved in a drunken orgy and fell out the prison window.  Continue reading

The One Who Watched at Walcheren: A Civilian Observer During the Napoleonic Wars

Jacqueline Reiter

Today’s guest is Jacqueline Reiter. Jacqueline has a PhD in late 18th century political history from the University of Cambridge. A professional librarian, she lives in Cambridge with her husband and two children. Jacqueline also researches and writes about the life of John Pitt, 2nd Earl of Chatham.

Here is her guest post for today related to Walcheren:

In the summer of 1809, the British government sent 40,000 men and over 600 ships on an amphibious mission to Holland. The expedition was tasked with capturing the island of Walcheren and the prosperous mercantile town of Vlissingen (Flushing), before going further down the Scheldt River to destroy the French fleet and defences at Antwerp. The “Grand Expedition”, as it was known, was a miserable failure. The venture set sail too late and progressed too slowly, allowing the French to rush reinforcements to the area; the military and naval commanders fell out spectacularly; and “Walcheren fever” – a combination of diseases, including malaria – placed more than a quarter of the army on the sick list. Continue reading

A Disagreement Between Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette

Disagreement Between Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette
Portraits of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette in 1775, Public Domain

During the reign of King Louis XVI, many Frenchmen disliked the King’s wife, Marie Antoinette. In fact, they often blamed Marie Antoinette for coercing her husband into making unpopular decisions. While Louis XVI often agreed with her and allowed Marie Antoinette’s to give gifts and rewards to her favorites, he did not allow her to coerce or sway his decisions when it came to matters of state.

Illustrative of this is a disagreement that occurred between the couple and was reported by Scots Magazine in 1776 and follows almost verbatim: Continue reading

Rue de la Harpe Murders, Cannibalism, and Folktales

Rue de la Harpe murders, Cannibalism, and Folktales
Rue la de Harpe Today, Courtesy of Wikipedia

This folktale is about the Rue de la Harpe murders and begins in 1800 when two rich business men decided to travel to Paris together. They went to the Rue de la Harpe, an ancient street in the Fauxbourg of St. Marcell. One of the men was accompanied by his faithful companion, a dog. Before visiting the more fashionable streets of Paris and upon their arrival at the Rue de la Harpe, the two friends went to the shop of a barber to be shaved.

The barber’s name was Becque. The first business man (whom I shall call Henry for clarity’s sake) was shaved and then Henry told his friend that he needed to complete a small errand. Henry promised to return before the second man finished his shave, but when Henry returned, to his great surprise, he discovered his friend had left and that his friend’s dog was waiting for him outside the barber’s door. Continue reading

Abelard and Heloise: Their Forever Love

Abelard and Heloise
Abelard and Heloise, Public Domain

One famous and tragic love story from medieval times captured the imagination of people in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The story involved Peter Abelard who was a medieval French scholastic philosopher, theologian and preeminent logician and Heloise d’Argenteuil, a French nun, writer, scholar, and abbess.

Abelard has been described as a fascinating man who was twenty years older than Heloise. Yet, when he met Heloise, he was intrigued by her wit, intelligence, and remarkable knowledge of classical letters in Greek, Latin, and Hebrew.

Heloise was under the care of her uncle named Fulbert, and because of Abelard’s interest in Heloise, Abelard obtained work at her uncle’s house in 1115 or 1116. Abelard then pursued Heloise and did so to the point it interfered with his career and ended his celibacy. Moreover, once Fulbert found out about Abelard’s interest in his niece, he separated the pair, but their relationship was so intense and passionate, they could not resist one another and continued to met in secret. Continue reading

The Legendary Jean “Chouan” Couttereau

Legendary Jean Chouan
Portrait Presumed to be Jean Chouan by L. de Labarre, Courtesy of Wikipedia

Born on 30 October 1757 at Saint-Berthevin, the legendary Jean Chouan was the nom de guerre of Jean Cottereau, a counter-revolutionary, insurrectionist, and staunch royalist. He was also a man of several nicknames, with “Chouan” a nickname given to him by his father (or it may have come from his imitation of the call of the tawny owl. However, he got the nickname, it meant silent one. There was also the less flattering nickname of “le Gars mentoux” or “le garçon menteur” (the boy liar).

Chouan is legendary because what is known about him was written by royalist partisan Jacques Duchemin des Cépeaux in 1825 at the request of Charles X. The story that Cépeaux reported has many unfounded facts that were further nourished by a small faction of Catholics and royalist-legitimist. Thus, Chouan’s actual role in history remains questionable and is likely more legend than fact.

Some facts that appear to be true are that Chouan’s father, Pierre Cottereau, was a lumberjack who felled trees, stacked and seasoned the lumber, and then made wooden shoes called sabots. His mother was a woman named Jeanne (nee Moyné) Cottereau. The Cottereau’s lived as tenants on a 20-acre farm located half-way between Saint-Ouën-des-Toits and Bourgneuf-la-Forêt in Mayenne, France. Chouan’s father was often absent and his mother was illiterate, which meant the children — Jean, Pierre, François, and René — were largely unschooled. Thus, when Chouan’s father died, Chouan declared himself a sabot maker, but unlike his father, Chouan was not as energetic or as skilled. Continue reading

Victorian Electric Traps for Rats and Cats

Victorian electric traps for rats and cats
Brown Rat, Courtesy of Wikipedia

Victorians had all sorts of problems and rats and cats were one of their biggest problems. For instance, on an island off Cornwall, known as Looe or St. George Island, one Victorian gentleman found rats overrunning the island. They were so bothersome that no matter how much effort people put into exterminating them, they reappeared. He stated that it was “not how to kill the rats, but how to annihilate them so effectually as to place the reappearance of even one of them altogether out of the question.”

Another Victorian country gentleman also found rats to be a problem where he lived. He wrote:

“What a veritable problem these rats are to those who lead a country life! … These wretches, as evening approaches, sally forth from their hiding-places … In winter they enter the outhouse and too often manage to munch the combs and devour whatever wax they can reach. Poison is sometimes tried, but poison is double-edge and may kill the wrong party.”

Continue reading

Fortune-Telling and the Meaning of Food in Dreams in the 1800s

Meaning of food in dreams in the 1800s
Courtesy of www.mycutegraphics.com

One popular way to determine a person’s fortune in the 1800s was through dreams. Dreams supposedly could foretell what would happen to a person and whether the person would have good or bad luck. For instance, if a person had a dream about barking dogs it was considered a sign of misfortune whereas a dream about playing cards signified good luck in the future. People also had dreams about food, which could indicate good or back luck, as indicated below:

ALMONDS – Dreaming about these nuts signified embarrassment, although it was also said that embarrassment could be avoided with care. Moreover, to eat them in a dream foretold good fortune.
APPLES – It was stated that “if you take them from the tree, it signifies that you will be persecuted. If they are ripe and ruddy, and you eat them, it will bring much happiness. If they are sour, you will shortly quarrel with someone.”
APRICOTS – To see them in a dream meant that person would be disappointed in whatever if was he or she hoped for, but to eat them meant good fortune. That is, unless it was the time of year when almonds were out of season, then it denoted great misfortune and if they were dry, it was thought they would bring sorrow.
ARTICHOKES – To see artichokes in a dream meant secret trouble whereas eating them in a dream meant you should expect trouble. Continue reading