J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Monday, September 06, 2021

A Suitable Suitor for the Widow Lavoisier?

On a very bad day in May 1794, Marie Anne Pierrette Paulze Lavoisier lost both her husband and her father to the guillotine.

Within a couple of years, however, more moderate French governments were restoring her property and clearing those men’s names.

Lavoisier kept busy editing her late husband Antoine’s scientific papers into an authoritative collection. She also wrote a denunciation of one of the officials who had sent her relatives to their execution, though she didn’t publish that under her name.

Multiple men proposed marriage to the wealthy, intelligent widow, including Pierre du Pont, who in 1799 emigrated to the U.S. of A. with his family, and Sir Charles Blagden, secretary of the Royal Society. However, it would take an exceptionally talented and determined man to win Mme. Lavoisier’s hand.

One candidate arrived in Paris in 1801. He had spent eleven years, from 1785 to 1796, as a minister of all trades for Prince Charles Theodore, Elector of Bavaria and Count Palatine. While in Munich he had reorganized the state’s army, reformed its poorhouses, invented a cheap but nourishing soup, designed public parks, developed a way to calculate a substance’s specific heat, and made other breakthroughs in thermodynamics (refuting some of Antoine Lavoisier’s ideas). For such services and feats the prince had named him Reichsgraf von Rumford, or Imperial Count Rumford.

Before that job in Germany, the count had served as an officer in the British army, commanding Loyalist cavalrymen on Long Island in the last years of the American War. Before that, he was secretary to Lord George Germain, Britain’s Colonial Secretary and the chief architect of the empire’s military policy from 1775 to 1782. Those activities had won him a British knighthood.

And before attaching himself to Germain, the count had been a young man from Woburn, Massachusetts, who through brains, hard study, ambition, a lucky marriage, and minimal scruples had transformed himself into a New Hampshire country gentleman with a wealthy wife by the time he turned twenty years old. Yes, it was our old friend Benjamin Thompson (shown above in 1783).

Thompson had left his wife and infant daughter Sally in New Hampshire when he ducked behind British lines in the fall of 1775, worried that he’d be outed as one of Gen. Thomas Gage’s spies. (Remarkably, Americans didn’t tumble to this aspect of Thompson’s career until the 1920s.) In the 1780s Thompson resumed correspondence with some of his American connections, including his mother and his friend Loammi Baldwin, but he was adamant they not tell his wife where he was.

In 1789 Thompson had a second daughter with the Countess Baumgarten, also mistress of Prince Carl Theodore. The count also had a long sexual relationship and friendship with Countess Baumgarten’s sister, Countess Nogarola. In the 1790s Rumford had an affair with Lady Palmerston while Viscount Palmerston had an affair with Emma, Lady Hamilton, later the love of Lord Horatio Nelson. In other words, Count Rumford had entered an aristocratic circle that wasn’t really committed to the traditions of marriage.

Even Count Rumford’s presence in France raised some eyebrows. After all, he was a former British army officer, still on half-pay, and Britain and France were technically at war. The armies of Revolutionary France had also invaded Carl Theodore’s territory twice while Rumford worked for the prince. But First Consul Napoleon Bonaparte was busy consolidating his victories with peace treaties. Starting in March 1802, everyone was supposed to be friendly.

Count Rumford met Marie Anne Lavoisier in Paris on 19 Nov 1801. In the spring of 1802 he made a brief visit back to Britain, then traveled to Bavaria with Sir Charles Blagden. There the new Elector offered him government jobs. On 30 November the count sent a letter to his daughter Sarah in New Hampshire that she summarized like this:
he alludes to his love concern; says he has got into full employment at Munich, but would rather be in Paris; and the certain lady would rather have him there.
In 1803, Mme. Lavoisier joined the count in Munich.

TOMORROW: To marry or not to marry?


EJWitek said...

In February 1775, while engaged in his rather bizarre espionage efforts, Benjamin Thompson had an affair with Mary Dill Thomas, wife of Isiah Thomas, the publisher of the radical newspaper "Massachusetts Spy". Thompson and Mary made absolutely no effort to keep the affair secret and it is alleged that Thompson and Mary even registered at an inn as the Isiah Thomases even though Thompson was wearing his British Major's uniform. The Massachusetts Legislature granted Isiah Thomas a divorce from Mary Dill Thomas in 1777. Circumstantial evidence presented at the proceedings leaves no doubt that Mary committed adultery with Thompson and thus Thomas was granted a divorce. Was Thompson trying to milk Mary for information about the Whigs or was he just carrying on one of his many affairs, or both?

J. L. Bell said...

Yes, I discussed Mary Thomas’s affair and divorce here. Thompson was a major in the New Hampshire militia, not yet a British army officer, but he might have worn a military uniform.

When I first looked into the divorce records, I wondered if Thompson’s travels might correspond to places where Gen. Gage knew the Patriots were hiding weapons. But it looks like the couple was just going places to sleep together.

As a teenager Thompson had worked for Hopestill Capen, who later rented space to Isaiah Thomas. It’s possible Thompson revisited his old boss in Boston and met Mary Thomas there. But that’s just speculation.

EJWitek said...

Thompson, being the man that he was, did not let the fact that his commission was in the New Hampshire Provincial Regiment stop him from wearing a British Army Major's uniform. It probably was part of his appeal to the ladies. If anyone would be a perfect subject for a TV mini-series it would be Thompson