Herman Thorn

In researching Herman Thorn’s life, I have found a rich composite of stories and snippets that paint a picture of the man. While clearly a spendthrift and a classist social climber, he was also gentlemanly, with a sense of humour and an inclination to host benefits for people in need, such as the impoverished German orchestera and the victims of the disaster in Guadeloupe. He also welcomed all American’s to his table in Paris.

The more I discover, the more I get a sense of a man conflicted. He went to Paris to become noticed and make strong matches for his children, and left with the bitter taste from living a very superficial lifestyle. This is not a judgement on my part, but is deduced from comments I found that he grew weary of the relentless socialising and social politics. The French political landscape also changed and New York called him back.

Below I have collated some intriguing revelations about him, for which I will try and add some context. I apologise for the length of this post, but it is good to have all the information on one page.

Herman Thorn engraving

Henry Wikoff, writer and diplomat, made these remarks in his book of reminiscences:

I found Colonel Thorn a person of very imposing appearance, somewhat above medium height, with a strikingly handsome face that wore an expression of tranquil reserve. Perfectly self- possessed in manner, without affectation or pretension, there was nothing in air or tone to convey the impression of a parvenu. There was much natural dignity, but no animation or sprightli-ness in gesture or conversation. We left him after a pleasant chat, cheerfully accepting an invitation to dinner for the following Monday. Mr. Wilkins informed me that Colonel Thorn had begun his career in our navy, but that his good looks won the affections of Miss Jauncey, a great heiress, who married him against her father’s wish.

My second visit to dine afforded an opportunity to survey the superb residence of my countryman. It was royal property, belonging to Madame Adelaide, sister of the King, and I considered 25,000 dollars a year as a moderate rent. The courtyard was of vast extent. An antechamber led to an apartment of extra-ordinary splendour, which opened on either side into, two other saloons of equal extent and richness.

At the extremity, on the right wing, was the banqueting-hall, of regal dimensions, succeeded by a family dining-room of smaller size. The left wing consisted of a ballroom worthy of a palace. The furniture throughout was of the costliest description, mostly in gilt and damask. The windows in the rear commanded a garden of un-usual space filled with flowers, fountains, and lofty trees. At this season of the year it was an enchanting background.

I was presented on this occasion to Mrs. Thorn, a tall and handsome woman of unassuming and affable demeanour. (I have bolded this because it is one of the rare descriptions I have found of Jane Mary Jauncey) She had a numerous family, all remarkable for exceeding comeliness. The company comprised two foreign ambassadors and many persons of rank…The dinner was served with great elegance, and the dessert-service, I remarked, was of the rarest Sevres porcelain. The numerous servants were attired in showy liveries.

Wikoff goes on to relate an amusing story about an American visiting Thorn, and the liberties he took. It shows how the Colonel was a man living with two cultures and the effort of reconciling them.

Below in dot point are impressions of the Colonel by various people:

  • Colonel Thorne, a man of very marked personality, with a strikingly handsome face, began his career in the navy. He spent many years in Paris, where a chronicler in 1836 described that he lived in a style of princely splendor that eclipsed all rivalry, to the great astonishment of the French, who failed to comprehend where an American had acquired such tastes. Old-timers recall how he drove out of Apthorp Lane in his splendid English coach and four, the admiration of the neighborhood.
  • One of the most dashing men of his generation. His fine physique and courtly bearing were proverbial. During many years of his fashionable career he resided permanantly at Paris, and was one of the prominent notables of that gay metropolis during the reign of Louis-Philippe. In early life Col. Thorne married Miss Jauncey, a wealthy heiress, whose family ranked high amongst the Knickerbockers.
  • Colonel Thorn, whose festivals made so much noise under the July Monarchy. The Colonel was an outrageous original and more American, which gives you the measure of the type. He made people come to his balls at a certain time. After the time indicated, we were no longer received. If you want to build yourselves, moreover, on this eccentric, you only have to read the Wasps of Alphonse Karr: they are filled, around 1840, with the account of his exploits.
  • A wealthy American, Colonel Thorn, lived in the rented hotel, during the reign of Louis-Philippe, and gave splendid parties there… It is undoubtedly from Colonel Thorn’s time that the two small dog graves, with English names, which can still be seen in the garden of the Hotel Matignon date from.

I plan at some stage to write a post about the various legal squabbles Thorn became involved with over the years. Mostly they were with his children, but one at least was with an outside contender for William Jauncey’s inheritance.

Below is passage written by James Fenimore Cooper, friend and writer. It mentions the proceedings against his son James, who married Therese von Leykam. It is intriguing to see how in retelling a story many times, different observers introduce new slants and hearsay. I imagine, though, that the family was in constant turmoil over money.

Thorn has just lost a suit with Mr. Jauncey. I believe he thought of setting up the defence that the children were not his sons, but was persuaded not to do it. Mrs. Thorn, however, talked very strongly against her daughter-in-law, who has now got $3500. per annum for herself and children. The other son-in-law, de Ferussac, has also prevailed against his papa, and the whole family is broken up. Thorn himself is eyed jealously, and has more suits pending with Jauncey’s heirs.

Then later

Yesterday I dined with Thorn. All very glad to see me – Angeline, Mrs. Thorn, two young daughters and Miss Morris – Mrs. Hamilton’s sister. The dinner was a French Service, on a French table. Every thing excellent, and on a great scale. Two footmen, neither in livery, but both in white gloves. Service quiet, and dinner excellent.

I found this delightful piece below in a French newspaper. I have used Google translate, so the language is a little stilted. It’s from the Journal des couturières et des modistes (Journal of seamstresses and milliners)

Colonel Thorn is a fabulous character like you only see in The Thousand and One Nights. Who does not remember the Colonel’s parties? Its salons, to compete with the hanging gardens of Semiramis, were hanging salons; they walked on cashmere rugs worth a thousand crowns a meter; the lackeys were of gold, the master of the house received guests dressed as a Caliph and all covered with precious stones.

One day Colonel Thorn disappeared; rumors spread that he had gone to America to inspect his regiment; those who spoke thus, had not the slightest notion of American mores. As his disappearance took place just as Alexandre Dumas was publishing his Monte-Cristo novel, it was believed that Colonel Thorn, wounded by this indiscreet revelation, had, in his spite, left France. Everything leads to believe that it was to his island of Monte Cristo that the Colonel had retired.

Anyway, here he is back, still in the role of Caliph, and announcing even more magnificent festivals than in the past. The wonderful thing is that no one saw it happen; his post-chair has not been pointed out at any of the barriers in Paris. Would he have fallen from the moon in a fire balloon? One of his friends said to him yesterday after dinner, between coffee and cigar:

By the way, Colonel, where the devil are you coming from?

The colonel smiles ironically. ‘I’m back, he said, from California.’

‘So you went to look for gold?’

‘On the contrary; I had gone to sow it. Europe bored me, Paris seemed gloomy to me: to distract myself, I went to bury a few million underground, in the mountains of California. One of our servants who had the word, pretended to discover them; and I amused myself for a while seeing millions of poor devils scratching the earth. When I had had enough of this show, I took over the post, and here I am.’

What a splendid story. I would love to know the real context for the story. Why did he really go to California?

So, each piece of information is like a jigsaw piece. For instance, below is an account of thefts from Rue de Varenne. The perpetrator seems to have been bought to account thanks to the honest launderer.

For several months, major thefts had been committed almost daily in rue deVarennes, 38, from Colonel Thorn, a rich American, who made a name for himself in Paris for his enlightened love of the heàux-arts and the noble custom which he made his immense fortune. Several vehemently suspected servants, among whom was an Irish maid named Catherine Dewine, had been successively dismissed. The thefts ceased, but the thieves could not be discovered when, two days ago, the Sieur Gey, master laundress, to whom the Dewine woman had given to launder a considerable quantity of laundry, found in the lining of the a petticoat of this woman a glove of skin containing bracelets of great price, a (isace in diamonds and several other jewels. – The honest launderer, who had heard of the thefts committed at Colonel Thorn’s house, hastened to inform the latter of her discovery, and, a few hours later, the Dewine woman was arrested at the moment when she came, quite moved, to claim from the laundromat the fetal petticoat which proved her guilt, and that she had given him by distraction.

And here is the mention of the Guadelope concert:

A magnificent concert took place Wednesday of last week at Colonel Thorn’s, with the aim of helping the victims of the disaster in Guadeloupe. Thalherg was heard several times, and led the choirs sung by the elite of Parisian high society. A recipe of more than 20,000 fr. was the product of this charitable act.

And finally, the mention of a group of Native Americans visiting to Paris:

About this time a very friendly invitation had been given them and us by Colonel Thorn, an American gentleman of great wealth residing in Paris, and all were anticipating much pleasure on the occasion when we were to dine at his house; but, unluckily for the happiness and enjoyment of the whole party, on the morning of the day of our invitation the wife of the Little Wolf suddenly and unexpectedly died. Our engagement to dine was of course broken, and our exhibition and amusements for some days delayed. Adventures of the Ojibbeway and Ioway Indians in England, France, and Belgium, by George Catlin

I hope that you get some sense of the man from this accumulation of memories.

2 comments

  1. I always find it so interesting/sad that the women are invisible..even though in this case Jane Mary was the source of the great wealth that set Herman up…he was charming but it was the wealth that make him the attraction…glad to see you are able to find out nuggets about her too…this invisibleness holds true for several other ancestresses too who brought great wealth into th3 family..glad the way women are perceived is changing…you are doing a fantastic job…thanks…

    Liked by 1 person

    • I agree Jacqueline. It is so frustrating not to be able to find out more about the women. I wonder what sort of a person Jane Mary Jauncey was. What kind of a mother? Did she love her husband? Herman always seems to be alone at the many dinners he went to . I wonder if that was a social convention or if 13 children meant it was impossible for her to accompany him. It’s as though she was invisible, as you say. Thank you for following the blog. I really appreciate it 🙂

      Like

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