Riviera Reporter
Riviera Reporter

Marie Antoinette’s cats and an American rescue attempt

Cat with a wig

Did you know that Marie Antoinette almost escaped the guillotine and ended up in Maine, USA? Of course, we all know she didn’t make it – but some say her cats might have.

The Maine coon

An unusual breed of large, long-haired cat hails from the state of Maine. Because of its ample size and long bushy tail, it resembles a raccoon and is called a Maine coon. Its origins are unknown but several legends try to explain where this big cat came from. One of the most intriguing tales says they came from France – from the palace of Versailles to be exact. Supposedly, some of Marie Antoinette’s cats were put on a ship along with a load of her belongings and sailed across the sea to Maine.

Maine Coon, Silver Tabby

But let’s go back to 1792, when this story begins…

During the time of the French Revolution, there was a shipping company in Wiscasset, Maine, that had contracts for trading in Paris. The company was owned by Colonel James Swan, and Captain Stephen Clough worked for him, sailing his ship, the Sally, back and forth between Maine and France.

1792 – The Royals are arrested

The Sally was docked at the port of Le Havre in the summer of 1792 when King Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette and their children were arrested. The royalist sympathisers immediately started plotting to rescue the King and his family. They soon came up with the idea of putting them on a ship sailing for America. Since the Sally was there and was a known, legitimate trading ship, Captain Clough was recruited into the plot as the getaway driver. Now they just had to come up with a plan to get them out of prison.

Marie Antoinette before the arrestMarie Antoinette and her children before the arrest

After their arrest, the King and Queen had been taken to the Temple prison and put in separate cells. The palace was ransacked and the royal possessions were sold in the street. Captain Clough and others bought them up and placed them on the Sally so that the royals would feel more comfortable when they reached their new American home.

1793 – A very bad year for the Royals

It seems, however, that the royal supporters took a bit too long in their escape planning, and things went from bad to worse. In December 1792, Louis XVI was brought to trial, and in January 1793 the guillotine claimed his royal head. His supporters stepped up their efforts to try to save the Queen and her two children.

In August, a plot was formed and prison guards were bribed. A note was sent to the Queen on paper wrapped around the stem of a carnation. She replied by pricking a message in the paper with a pin; but the guard, who had been bribed to go along with the plan, had a change of heart. He decided his head was worth more than the money, so he showed the note to his superiors and Marie Antoinette’s fate was sealed.

The Queen was immediately moved to a more secure prison to await her fate. In October, she was tried and, of course, found guilty of treason. Her head rolled into the same basket as her husband’s before her. With no further hope of saving the Queen, Captain Clough sailed back to Maine with his boat load of French finery (and, who knows, maybe even some royal cats).

Meanwhile back in Maine…

Before it had all gone wrong, Captain Clough had sent a letter to his wife. He knew better than to arrive home with an unexpected house guest – especially one who was a queen. He would have been in big trouble.

Of course, when Mrs Clough got the news, she started cleaning, painting and decorating her home, and word leaked out to the townsfolk that a queen would be arriving. Everyone did their best to spruce up the place and all the ladies were fitted out in new dresses.

Clough house

Unfortunately, the Sally arrived in the Wiscasset harbour without the Queen. It was, however, filled with fine French things: carved furniture, velvet and silk draperies, wallpaper, rich fabrics, etc. Captain Clough and Colonel Swan divided up the cargo as payment for their time and for endangering their lives.

The Clough house was papered with royal wallpaper and filled with gilded furniture. It soon became known as the Marie Antoinette House. About 9 months after Mr Clough’s return, Mrs Clough gave birth to a little girl who was given the middle name of Antoinette in memory of the almost house-guest queen.

The Marie Antoinette house still stands in Wiscasset. It was built in 1744 and originally stood on Squam Island, but was moved to its current location in 1838. Today, it’s a private residence and not open to the public.

What about those cats?

So, were there big, long-haired cats on board Captain Clough’s ship along with all that French finery? It’s hard to say. However, we do know that in the 1700s, long-haired Angora or Persian cats were very popular among the Parisian upper classes. King Louis XV, Louis XVI’s grandfather, loved them and let them roam and breed freely at the palace of Versailles. In later years, they became a nuisance and overran the palace property. Louis XVI (Marie Antoinette’s husband) hated them and reportedly used them for target practice.

Painting of a white cat18th century painting of a white angora cat. King Louis XV used to have one like this that he adored. It was even allowed to play on the conference table during important meetings. Painting by Jean Jacques Bachelier.

Is it possible that some of these cats were on Captain Clough’s boat and ended up in Maine? Could they have bred with the local cats to become the large furry cat we know today as the Maine Coon? Well, we may never know, but it sure makes a good story!

More from Margo: www.curiousrambler.com

See Also

Popular: Culture, Arts & History