An American Plot to Save Marie Antoinette From the Guillotine

Marie Antoinette
Marie Antoinette, Author’s Collection

On a slightly misty day on 16 October 1793 the Queen Marie Antoinette was guillotined. However, before it reached that point, there were a variety of plots to save the Queen. One plot to save Marie Antoinette is legendary and may or may not be true. It involves a home built in Maine in 1774 located on Jeremy Squam Island (now called Westport Island) but relocated one winter to the shores of Edgecomb. The plot also supposedly took effect in 1792 while Marie Antoinette was imprisoned at the Temple.

The plot is alleged to involve a number of colorful characters. One character was James Swan. Swan was a financier, a Scotsman, and a member of the Sons of Liberty. Moreover, he had participated in the Boston Tea. He emigrated from Fife, Scotland, to Massachusetts in 1765 and, in the late 1780s, moved to France. While living in France, he developed a successful trade business. The business involved exporting shipping masts and spars to France and importing French goods that were then sold in Boston.

James Swan
James Swan, Courtesy of Wikipedia

Stephen Clough of Wiscasset was among those who worked for Swan. He was a farmer and ship captain. Clough had also “served as an officer in the army during the Revolutionary War, and, being an ardent republican and of Puritan stock, he was a rabid, almost fanatical enemy of the king and of kingdoms.” Therefore, it was surprising that he had any interest at all in saving a queen, let alone Marie Antoinette, who many people thought infamous.

Clough, his father-in-law named Joseph Decker, and another gentlemen owned a ship. The ship was a three-masted, 82-foot, double-decked vessel named Sally. Clough usually captained the Sally, just as he did this time when he sailed off for France. At the time, the three-masted Sally carried lumber. Clough, who spoke French, had sailed the Sally into Le Havre several times before, and this time he arrived in the summer of 1792.

The Baron and de Rougeville, Public Domain
The Baron and Alexandre Gonsse de Rougeville, Public Domain

As the Wiscasset captain sailed to France, supporters of the monarchy tried to figure out how to save the King and Queen. One supporter was a man friendly with Swan. His name was Jean Pierre de Batz, Baron de Sainte-Croix. However, he was better known as the Baron de Batz or de Bance. The Baron wanted to rescue the royal family and thought it could become a reality with the help of a counter-revolutionary named Alexandre Gonsse de Rougeville

The Baron and de Rougeville began to talk and soon devised a plan to save the Queen. However, to accomplish their plan, they needed Clough. For several reasons, Clough was the perfect person to put their plan into action. Unfortunately for Clough, the Sally had been waylaid shortly after arriving in France. In order to get Clough to agree, the Baron and de Rougeville offered to pay for Clough’s cargo and get his ship released.

According to legend, the plot boiled down to nothing less than smuggling Marie Antoinette aboard the Sally, sailing with her to America, and placing “her dainty royal feet upon the safe and secure soil of the state of Maine.” Once in Maine, Marie Antoinette was to be housed temporarily at Decker’s house. However, to accomplish the plot, it relied upon Clough, the “chin-whiskered, cold-eyed, leather-faced, calculating, matter-of-fact, and, to all appearances, as lacking in sentiment and imagination as the mainmast of a ship.”

The Baron’s and de Rougeville’s plot to save the Queen might have come to naught, if the Queen and the King had been successful in their own escape attempt. The royal family’s escape attempt occurred in June of 1791. At that time, they attempted to flee to the Royalist stronghold of Montmédy. The royal family disguised themselves and were on the road to freedom riding in a plush, well-equipped Germany Berline. Unfortunately, due to a variety of unlucky circumstances, including misplacing fresh horses, revolutionaries captured them at Varennes and returned them to Paris.

The next unfortunate incident for the royal family occurred on 10 August 1792. This time insurgents attacked and sacked the Tuileries Palace. The attack caused the royal family to flee. This time they sought safety from the Legislative Assembly, and this action became a defining moment in the French Revolution and contributed to the fall of the monarchy six weeks later. To allegedly protect the royal family, the Legislative Assembly placed them in the Temple. While imprisoned at the Temple, their possession—furniture, goods, and wardrobes—were seized and sold.

As the French royal family sat imprisoned, Royal supports discussed various plots. The plot that involved Clough reputedly rested upon “the nobility and peasants of France, who would throw themselves, heart and soul, into such a noble adventure as to rescue the queen.” While Clough waited, he managed to load his ship with royal possessions. This occurred either through bribery, corruption, or stealth. It also reputedly involved all sorts of “French tapestries, marquetry, silver with foreign crests, rare vases, clocks, costly furniture, and no end of apparelling fit for a queen.” However, as he loaded his ship, tensions built and revolutionaries beheaded Louis XVI in January of 1793.

Details of the exact plot to free the Queen purportedly revolved around her receiving a bouquet of fresh flowers. Hidden inside the flowers was a note that stated that on a certain night the jailer would look the other way and she could escape. To add substance to the idea that Marie Antoinette was to be spirited out of France is a letter Clough sent home. In it he states, “Do not prepare to receive a Queen, but only a very sad and broken-hearted lady.” Sadly, if such a letter existed, the guard who found it, delivered it to the Revolutionary Tribunal.

As to the Queen, after being delivered to the Conciergerie on 1 August 1793, the Revolutionary Tribunal charged her with orchestrating orgies at Versailles, sending millions of livres to Austria, and planning the massacre of the “gardes françaises” (National Guards). In addition, another heinous charge was levied against her. The Tribunal alleged she had committed incest with her son, the Dauphin, Louis-Charles (Louis XVII). Of course, the Queen refused to respond to the charge.

It did not take long for the Revolutionary Tribunal to find the Queen guilty. Two days after her trial began, on 16 October 1793, she arrived at the guillotine. There she was executed. Supposedly, Clough witnessed her execution. A few days earlier, he had received orders from Swan to sail with his goods. So, on the evening of the Queen’s execution, in the dead of the night, Clough complied and sailed off in the Sally.

Edgecomb House (on the left) and the Swan House (on the right)
Edgecomb House (on the left) and the Swan House (on the right), Public Domain

Clough’s return trip then results in another story about what became of all the royal cargo collected. Supposedly, a large portion of it ended up in Dorchester, Massachusetts, at the “old Swan house,” a circular house, very French, crowned with a dome, and a broad veranda surrounding it. In fact, Swan’s house became “known for many years as the Marie Antoinette house, because, as rumor affirmed, it had been largely furnished originally with what had been the belongings of the poor queen.”

References:

  • “A Sea Captain and Marie Antoinette,” in Bangor Daily News, 20 September 1985
  • Collections and Proceedings of the Maine Historical Society, 1894
  • “Edgecomb,” at Lincoln County Maine
  • The Bay State Monthly, 1900
  • The New England Magazine, Volume 22, 1900

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