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, June 06, 2022

When Did James Swan Get Out of Prison?

In her Age of Revolutions article about the American financier James Swan, jailed for debt in Napoleonic France, Erika Vause writes:
Reporting [creditor Herman] Lubbert’s death in September 1830, several [French] newspapers indicated that Swan had been released during the July Revolution, when crowds had freed debtors and political prisoners. There is at least one contemporary report that Swan had indeed attempted to return to Sainte-Pélagie afterwards. Yet, Parisian periodicals, which had followed Swan’s decades-long legal battles to obtain his release, were largely silent about Swan’s whereabouts after 1829.
Vause located definite records of Swan’s death and burial in March 1831, more than half a year after the July Revolution. She even found the area of his grave, shown here.

Nevertheless, within a few years French journalists were writing that Swan had died a month or even a day after becoming free. That legend was too good not to print.

And here’s where I complicate the story still further. Newspapers in three countries reported that Swan’s release was imminent in October 1826, or almost four years before the July Revolution.

This article was printed in the Massachusetts Journal on 14 Dec 1826:
All Americans who have been in Paris, have known or heard of their compatriot Swan, (formerly of Boston,) who has been for 20 years a close prisoner for debt, in Paris. By the annexed article from the Journal des Debats of 30th of Oct. it would appear that he is at length liberated:

“Every one has heard of the famous American, James Swan. This stranger, who owns in Virginia and Kentucky, lands to the amount of 19,000 acres, has undergone 18 years of confinement, which is said to be somewhat voluntary, at St. Pelagie, and solely to vex his creditors. The rumour of his wealth can alone give any probability to such a tale, though it is certain, that after an ineffectual attempt to sell his lands, he has been unable with all that wealth to pay his debts, and has therefore been subject to our commercial laws against foreigners. It was in vain that from four to five years he petitioned the courts for a discharge, he was always defeated.

[“]Finally, after having compromised with the greater portion of his creditors, and on the point of quitting the fatal walls: he was suddenly recommitted, after several hearings, at the suit of one of his creditors more refractory than the rest; and the whole cause it was supposed would be referred. Not so however; at the opening of the court yesterday, M. Mermillo announced that the affair was settled, and that his client was finally about to be restored to liberty.”

Those who have read “The Hermits in Prison,” by [Etienne] Jouy and others, may remember that the fact of Mr. Swan’s imprisonment, his appearance and manner of life, are therein detailed.
On 20 December, the United States’ Telegraph newspaper out of Washington, D.C., reported similar news, attributing this paragraph to “The London Globe of the 2d ultimo [i.e., last month]”:
“Mr. James Swan, an American, who is said to possess 1,900,000 acres of land in Kentucky and Virginia, but who, from want of ready money to settle with his creditors in Paris, has been a prisoner in St. Pelagie for the last 18 years, has at length succeeded in making an arrangement with them, and is to be liberated immediately.”
The Massachusetts Record item no doubt led to the statement in the Boston News-Letter and City Record on 23 December that I quoted back here.

It could be important that all these reports said that Swan was about to be released, not that he was. Perhaps another creditor or legal obstacle popped up, and he stayed in jail. However, I didn’t find any American newspapers running follow-up reports or corrections despite public interest.

If the Journal de Debats story can be verified, then it’s clear that James Swan lived in Paris for more than four years after his release, which had nothing to do with the July 1830 revolution at all. He really didn’t want to come back to Boston.

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