The Creation of the Latourrette Count Hoax by Theodore Sedwick Fay in 1843
Rather than rolling over in his grave, Theodore Sedwick Fay must chuckle from time to time about the hoax he created to explain how a Latourrette came to America. Fay was a novelist, scholar, and diplomat, with an extensive knowledge of Europe, a vivid imagination and an ability to fashion names, places and historical events into a tale that has led descendants of Jean Latourrette to believe he was a count and, therefore, they are descended from French nobility. The hoax has been passed down in various forms for over 165 years to the present day, frequently embellished by Jean’s descendants.
Theodore Sedwick Fay was born in 1809, the son of Caroline Broome and Joseph Dewey Fay. Caroline’s ancestry can be traced directly back to Marie Latourette, the first child of Jean Latourrette and Marie Mercereau, born in New York on September 23, 1693 and baptized by Pastor Pierre Peiret at St. Esprit on December 6, 1693. The daughter Marie married a Samuel Broome and the family later became very prominent in New York. John Broome, Marie Latourrette’s son, was the mayor of the City of New York and Lt. Governor of the State of New York before his death in 1810. Other members of the Broome family were successful merchants in New York after the American Revolution. Fay’s father was a leading attorney of the time who studied under Alexander Hamilton. Fay followed his father in the practice of law but became more interested in writing novels, essays and short stories. His first novel appeared in 1835 and he traveled in Europe for a decade before returning to America in 1841. While in Europe he sent articles about his travels back to New York to be published in the “Mirror.” In 1840 he published Countess Ida, a popular romantic novel of a young French Countess who had fled with her family to Germany during the French Revolution. Over his lifetime Fay wrote, both in English and German, more than a dozen novels and many more scholarly books about geography, history and Germany. As a diplomat, Theodore was secretary of the American legation at London, England, 1836, at St. Petersburg, Russia, 1837-41, at Berlin, 1841-53, and minister-resident at Berne, Switzerland, 1853-61. Therefore, he certainly had the writing skills, background and contacts to borrow names, places and events to fabricate a tale about his Huguenot ancestors.
It appears, as a very young man, Fay heard a few snippets about his French ancestors on which to build a tale that was embellished into that of a count and countess fleeing from France. These snippets likely included the fact that an ancestor in France (Jean’s father David, about 1625-1697) had a title, Abbe laique d’Osse, and property. His mother, the direct descendant, died when he was only seven. His uncle, Samuel Broome, took his own life in 1811 in London when Fay was two. Samuel Broome had lost an inherited fortune and became an adventurer who traveled to France in the early 1800s. Perhaps the uncle was in pursuit of a fantasy offered by the French law of December 15, 1790, which allowed descendants to reclaim property seized from their ancestors, who had fled from persecution, and hoped to regain his fortune. All of these tidbits were woven into the count tale by Fay as a masterful, romantic fiction writer.
The hoax appeared for the first time in 1843 in Hannah Lee, The Huguenots in France and America,pp. xiv-xv, with the author being identified only as a Huguenot descendant. It is repeated here, followed by a point by point critique.
“I give the following quotation from a letter which I have recently received from a lineal descendant of the Huguenots.
‘ My great-great grandfather was a native of La Vendee, and had there an estate on which he lived, and from which his family took the name, La Tourette. After the revocation of the Edict of Nantes, several Huguenot families in hisneighborhood endured great persecution, and Henri de la Tourette was warned, that he was soon to be molested, any attempt at flight would be discovered, and only serve to hasten his condemnation. To avoid suspicion, he gave a large entertainment to which all the neighboring families were invited, and while the guests were assembled in the house, he left it with his wife, reached the seacoast, which was not far off, and made his escape on board a vessel bound to Charlestown. The ship was cast away on Staten Island, or, being in distress, was obliged to put in there, and there my great-grandmother, Marie de la Tourette, was born. A branch of the family still exists in France, which has adhered to Catholicism. The only female member of it is the Superior of a Convent, and the head of it, the Marquis de la Tourette, who is, or lately was, prefet of Aix-la-Chapelle. The chateau of La Tourette is still standing, but I do not know whether it is possession of the family. A few years since, one of the descendants, the Comte Eugene de la Tourette, came over from France in the hope of obtaining the family Bible, which Henri brought over in his flight. It contained the register of the births and descents (sic) of the family, which, had it been in our possession, would have enabled as Huguenot descendants to claim property which was confiscated at the time of the persecution. The Bible, however, had been long since given to a family who had removed to Germany, and could not be traced.’ “
1. Jean's father, David Latourrette was born about 1625 in Osse and died there in 1697. He had three children with Magdelaine (ca 1630-1696): Jacob (1650 -1711); Jean (1651-1726); and Marie (1661- ?). Under the Fors de Bearn, Jacob as the oldest son, was the heir to David's property and title. Jean was a cadet, an unmarried younger son and, therefore, not an heir. After the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685, Jacob remained in Osse and eventually became a representative to and president of the Parliament in Pau, France. David held two titles, notarie and Abbe laique d'Osse. He also was the most prominent member of the Protestant community and was an elder for two 4-year terms, 1665-69 and 1677-81. The title of notarie meant he was well educated for the time and along with the Protestant minister could write and compose documents. He was authorized to record legal transactions and conduct legal business. The title of Abbe laique d'Osse was an ancient title meaning secular abbot. The title arose centuries earlier in Bearn when villagers were too poor to build a Catholic Church and support a priest and a person of means provided the funds to construct a church and was given the authority to collect taxes from the community to support the church. The Catholic Church in Osse dates fromthe 14th century when a noble family by the name of Gayrosse was an absentee owner. A census of 1385 shows a Seigneur Gayrosse.The seigneur was also the Abbe laique which meant that he had the authority to levy taxes on the community to support the church and a priest. This authority was considered valuable property and was sold by the Gayrosse family after 1385. In turn, it was sold in 1605 to the daughter, Marie, of the first minister of Osse, Gassiot Latourrette. Marie Latourrette was born around 1572 and married Bertrand Davances. Marie and her husband purchased the title and held the authority to collect the taxes and assess an administrative fee. Because of the destruction of records by fire at Osse and at the main archive at Pau, it is not clear how David Latourrette came to hold the title of Abbe laique of Osse. However, records after 1660 clearly indicate he possessed the title and exercised the authority, bringing him into a conflict with the local priest about the distribution of taxes collected as Louis XIV accelerated the persecution of Protestants. All titles and positions of authority, such as notarie and abbe laique, held by Protestants were banned by Louis XIV in 1668. David was referred to as “notaire” in his first term as elder in 1665-69, but the title is not used in the Protestant temple records for his term of 1677-81. There is evidence, however, that he practiced under some other notaire's authority as late as 1694. Although David could not legally hold the title of Abbe laique, it appears he attempted to exercise its authority after 1668, Exactly when he had to relinquish the authority is unclear because references to him as the Abbe after 1668 and before 1685 could have been out of respect for his status in the village.
Holding the title Abbe laique of Osse did not mean David was nobility. He was the most prominent Protestant in Osse and perhaps the most wealthy man in what was at the time a very poor village.The Fors de Bearn, the rules which historically governed society in the Aspe valley, created a system in which the heads of the major families (les bonnes maisons) governed the villages. In other words, there was no dominant family of prestigious nobility governing Osse.. The heads of houses elected the local jurats and mayor and representatives to Parliament in Pau. In some narratives this form of governance has been described as a pastoral democracy, but the right to vote was limited to the heads of the major households.
2. Jean Latourette, as a cadet (in France, an unmarried male) and not a count with a countess, fled with Pastor Peiret from Osse, Bearn, between September 2, 1685, when the minister’s name appeared on Tapie’s list of Protestants refusing to abjure, and September 25, 1685, when a warrant for Peiret’s arrest was issued after the dragoons came to Osse and he was not to be found. Peiret's spouse, Marquerite La Tour, and their two children, Pierre and Magdeleine, accompanied them. They did not wait until the announcement of the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes on October 22, 1685, because Pastor Peiret would have likely faced a trial leading to a sentence to the galleys or death. The flight from Osse, written by Fay, is a romance similar to his book, Hoboken, a Romance published in the same year as the tale, 1843.
3. La Vendee or the Department of Vendee did not exist at the time of the flight in 1685. Fay likely selected Vendee because it is on the coast and, after the French Revolution, was part of the traditional province of Poitou from which many Huguenots fled. Therefore, a flight to the seacoast, “not far off,” would be the route selected by Fay for a fictitious count and his countess to escape France, rather than the long overland route it appears pastors and their fleeing parishioners from Bearn took towards Geneva and Frankfurt and down the Rhine River, eventually to Rotterdam. (Bertrand Van Ruymbeke, From Babylon to Eden, the Huguenots and their Migration to Colonial South Carolina, 2006, pp. 60-1, documents the routes taken from Poitou and Saintonge in western France through La Rochelle and Ile-de-Re. From the south of France, the route was through Geneva and Frankfurt and down the Rhine River to Holland. Alfred Cadier, Le Bearn Protestant, 2003, pp. 202-3, indicates that the pastors who fled from Bearn found their way over land to Rotterdam by April 24, 1686. An unpublished account from Osse states that Jean Latourrette was on this route and was in Frankfurt on November 18, 1685.)
4. Fay knew the name of his great-grandmother Marie who was the daughter born to Jean Latourrette and Marie Mercereau in 1693. But why did he use the name Henri rather than Jean as the father? From the tale he wrote it is obvious he did not know the name of Jean Latourrette and, therefore, described him first as his great-great grandfather and then as Henri. The seventh child of Jean Latourrette and Marie Mercereau named Henry was born in 1708 and lived to 1794. He was well-known by the Broome family and there are many recorded legal transactions between him and the Broome family. Perhaps, hearing a great deal about Henry Latourrette as he grew up Fayjust assumed that the original Latourrette coming to America was a Henry (Henri). Based on the Fay tale, Mrs. Verna Jacob, a genealogist who spent most of her life researching the Latourrette family in America, looked in vain for a Henri Latourrette who in Fay’s tale allegedly came to Staten Island before 1700.
5. Many tales about Huguenots fleeing from France to America have as their destination South Carolina. Actually about one-quarter of the Huguenots who came to America between 1680 and 1700 were drawn to South Carolina by advertisements issued by the proprietors of the Colony of South Carolina and circulated in France, England and Holland for several years prior to the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes. The prospect of free land and huge estates for settling the colony made it appear as a Garden of Eden. This is one of the themes discussed extensively by Van Ruymbeke in From Babylon to Eden, the Huguenots and their Migration to Colonial South Carolina. Fay made Charleston, South Carolina as the destination of Henri (Jean) Latourrette and then added another romantic touch by having the ship “cast away on Staten Island” to account for the fact that Jean Latourrette and Marie Mercereau later moved there and built the first family homestead around 1698. But first they were in New York for many years where the great-grandmother of Fay’s tale, Marie, was born in 1693. Three sons of Jean and Marie Mercereau (Jean, Pierre, and David) were baptized by Pastor Peiret in New York before the last four children(Esther, Susanne, Henry and James) were born and baptized on Staten Island in the first decade of the 18th century.
6. In his fabricated tale Fay substitutes the surname Latourette for Ladoucette twice. In the first case, he implies that there was a prefet Marquis de la Tourette at Aix-la-Chapelle (Aachen, Germany) who actually is the real Baron Jean Charles Francoise de Ladoucette. Baron Jean Charles Francoise de Ladoucette represented Napoleon at Aachen from 1809 to 1814. Then, when the tale turns to reclaiming property “confiscated at the time of the persecution,” he invents a Comte Eugene de la Tourette from the real Comte Eugene Dominique de Ladoucette of the Department of Aisne, implying that he returned from France to locate a Bible that had been brought by “Henri” to America. As it is true of historical fiction today, Fay builds his fabrication around some real events. After the French Revolution there was an act of December 15, 1790 which allowed descendants of people who had fled from France for religious reasons to return and reclaim their property.Countess Ida is a romantic tale about the French Revolution which reveals that Fay had researched its history and was likely aware of the act of 1790.It also appears that Fay based part of his tale on his uncle Samuel Broome who lost his fortune and appears to have traveled to France to regain ancestral property before committing suicide in 1711. He ends the tale with the count returning without the Bible to Germany where Fay eventually spent the later years of his life, dying in Berlin in 1898.
With all the fabricated facts and events contained in Fay’s tale, it is interesting that descendants never questioned or researched its authenticity. Or was the prospect of being descended from a count just too attractive to resist? What is certain, however, is that Theodore S. Fay played a masterful joke on thousands of Jean Latourrette’s American descendants.
For additional background see: