Thursday, April 14, 2011

Women At Sea: The Mysterious Mme Beluche

The private lives of historical corsairs are often lost in the rush to tell of all their daring do. Swinging from ropes a la Errol Flynn is a lot more exciting than drawing room disagreements, but even Hollywood knew that a pretty lady made a pirate that much more appealing. For me personally, today’s story is the kind of mystery that can keep you up at night. So many unanswered whys and hows come up that it is maddening and yet all of what we know is documented. Of course, the family connection only makes me more curious. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.

In 1808 the New World colonies of Spain decided that they would not recognize Napoleon’s brother Joseph as the King of their mother country. Most of them did this without communicating with one another and at a very volatile time in their history. The first hints of revolution would come in the form of Miranda in 1810, and Bolivar’s impossibly successful revolt would begin to percolate in 1811. This first upheaval had world wide repercussions, particularly for France and for her people in the New World.

Those most directly and immediately affected were French citizens who had fled Haiti in 1803. Many had found a home in Louisiana but some had settled in Cuba, which at the time was under the rule of mother France. In 1809 the tide turned, the Governor in Havana declared all French citizens spies and gave them the ridiculous timeframe of 10 days to voluntarily leave the country or be jailed and deported to French Ghana. Even then, no one wanted to go to French Ghana.

Enter those “hellish banditti”, Laffite’s Baratarians. Led by Haitian born Dominique Youx and Louis Aury, any Captain with an available ship signed up to transport the French refugees from Cuba. Some of the refugees would go to Pensacola, some to Mexico, but the majority would seek asylum with relatives in New Orleans. Among the transport ships was the brig Emilie, owned and captained by Renato Beluche.

How many people Beluche took aboard him and exactly when is lost to history. We do know that he was probably at sea transporting refugees in the summer of 1809. We also know that by the fall of that same year he had married a woman of about 27 years old named Marie Magdeleine Victoire Milleret. The new Madame Beluche was born in Port-au-Prince so it is well within reason to assume that she was among the refugees aboard Emilie. While the bride’s age gives us a little hint about her personally – this was an era when a lady would have been considered an “old maid” by the age of 21 – other interesting facts create more questions than they answer.

It appears that Magdeleine and Renato were married in a hurry, within just a month or two of meeting one another. They also went to Campeche, in Mexico, to be married. We know this only from later documentation in legal filings which state that the couple was married “… in Campeche without contract”. In other words, there was no wedding certificate.

At the time Beluche owned property in New Orleans on Rue Esplanade but he and his bride appear to have taken lodgings in an apartment on Rue St. Louis not far from the cathedral. Magdeleine had family in the city, an aunt known as “the widow Thomas” who came to New Orleans – doubtless in the first wave of Haitian refugees – as Marie Catherine Loublan. All seemed rather cozy for a time as Beluche prepared a new schooner, Camillus (or Camille), for privateering and Magdeleine settled in to her role as Madame Beluche.

Almost exactly six months later, Beluche walked out on his bride. He abandoned the St. Louis Street apartment, taking all his doubtless meager processions, and did not make any effort to support or even contact Magdeleine again. Though court documents filed in 1821 state that she approached him whenever he was in New Orleans and begged him to return to her, Beluche would have nothing to do with the woman he had so hastily married.

The court action, a request for separation “…from bed and board”, was filed by Magdeleine who had been living “… quite destitute of any means of subsistence” for the past eleven years. In fact, Magdeleine took up residence with her aunt who, along with Magdeleine and a few friends, gave a deposition in the case. From the widow Thomas’ deposition:

… at that time the witness [Thomas] tried to bring back Mr. Beluche’s sentiments to [his wife], but that it was impossible; that in one conversation in which she strongly insisted on reconciliation, Mr. Beluche replied to her that it was useless, that before he would reconcile himself with his wife the River would cease to flow, and that he would much prefer to face the cannons than have anything to do with his wife…

These are strong words in an equally unusual circumstance. The average number of yearly petitions for separation in New Orleans at the time was two for whites, five for free people of color and – perhaps surprisingly – three for slaves. In a predominantly Catholic culture, such requests were unheard of. Magdeleine, who was by this time approaching old age at forty, was clearly at her wit’s end. But so too, it seems, was her forty-one year old husband who, it is pertinent to note, refused to answer any of the court’s requests appear in the case. His one answer to a summons, written by his attorney, was as brief as his marriage:

This defendant denies all and singular the facts and allegations in the said petition contained. Wherefore he prays to be dismissed of all costs.

What brought these people to this pass? Why did Beluche, by all accounts – including the depositions of acquaintances in this particular case – an honorable gentleman for all the courts might imagine him to be a “pirate”, walk out on his responsibility so quickly after his wedding? One deposition, that of Monsieur Hypolite Vitrac, tells us tantalizingly that Beluche said “… it was impossible for him to live with his wife because of privy causes…” and that is all.

It probably goes without saying that Magdeleine won her suit against Beluche. She proceeded, in 1822, to petition the Louisiana legislature for a legal divorce so that she might sue Beluche for support money. Her petition was in the process of approval when she, suddenly it seems, died. Beluche, always lucky in prizes, got what he doubtless perceived as a break in the muddled case of his first marriage. Marie Magdeleine Victoire Milleret Beluche was buried in St. Louis Cemetery No. 1 on March 14, 1822.

Renato Beluche, now legally free to marry his mistress and mother of his two daughters Marie Mezelle Beaudri de Espocita, did just that in 1824. Friends claimed he never spoke of what brought him to the point of abandoning his first marriage and that secret went to the grave with him in 1860.

So what’s my speculation on this marital mystery? It’s really nothing fancy; in fact it’s as old as the hills and as current as reality TV. I believe that Renato Beluche had lost a love to a rival before he set out to assist refugees in Cuba. Vulnerable, he attached himself to Magdeleine who, seeing perhaps her last, best chance at marriage, fell into bed with him and then claimed to be pregnant with his child. Six months would be more than enough time to prove her lie and Beluche, both angry and ashamed at being so easily duped, left and never looked back. It is at least a plausible theory with a little bit of old Hollywood romance to boot.

Header: Young Girl with a Blue Dress by John Lewis Krimmel c 1815 (Magdeleine was described as “pretty, with blond hair and plump features”, much like this anonymous lady)


Undine said...

That's the simplest, thus probably most likely answer for that sad little puzzle. I must say, however, another possible solution occurred to me as I read this. (And I suppose this says more than it should about how my mind works.)

In history, I've come across a surprising number of situations of this sort, and they generally stemmed from one of two reasons:

1. The man proved to be impotent (although that does not seem to apply here.)

2. The lady proved to be--how can I put it?--flying under false colors. Either "she" turned out to be a "he," or she was unable, physically, to have normal marital relations.

The fact that Beluche hinted at "privy reasons," without ever detailing what those reasons were, and that poor Magdeleine was a spinster, despite being, as you say, "pretty," makes me suspect the latter. Although I admit that doesn't explain how she got him to marry her so quickly in the first place.

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Undine! I agree with you on all counts. My suspicions, based on research, are probably the most likely but I've also considered the possibility of Madame Beluche turning out to be a Monsieur - which would also be decidedly embarassing for a guy like Renato and therefore not something to talk much about. Then there is the issue of conjugal relations, although it seems, as you say, that the "hurried" marriage kind of discounts that possibility.

No matter how you slice it, it's an unfortunate bit of dirty laundry that I'll probably puzzle over my whole life...

Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! Clearly there was a serious betrayal of trust somehwere along the line by one or both parties.

I agree that your theory would appear to be the most plausible, particularly given the religious implications at the time, but it's all speculation at this point...

Which, of course is why it's so much fun (and fodder for your historical fiction, Pirate Queen).

Charles L. Wallace said...

Wow! Verrrry interesting, ladies. Just like Reality TV, just like you say, Pauline :-)

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Timmy & Charles!

Timmy: I think this kind of thing is the only reason I would want to travel back in time. The problem would be making Uncle Renato believe I am who I say I am (plus this 5'10" gal might be a little intimidating to the general NOLA populace circa 1810).

Charles: Seriously. We think we're "different" as moderns but a study of history will turn that idea around pretty quickly.