Chevaliers About Town: Ruspini and d’Eon – Adrian Teal

BrpPB94IgAA5RSwThe following is an extract from Adrian Teal‘s lecture given at St Pancras Old Church the 3 July, 2014.

The cult of celebrity and the burgeoning influence of newspapers on the consumer were exploited to potent effect by the 18th-century quack. In the previous century, mountebanks had been itinerant salesmen peddling cure-alls to crowds in market squares. The sudden proliferation of metropolitan and provincial periodicals in the 18th century provided the opportunity to reach a larger market, and advertising revenue from competing druggists soon became the newspapers’ lifeblood.

Quacks selling proprietary medicines frequently colluded with newspaper publishers, who not only ran the vendors’ advertisements in their pages, but often sold the remedies on the printers’ premises for a cut of the profits. Another ploy was the ‘puff’, which was ostensibly an article reporting impartially on the wondrous efficacy of a new drug, but which was actually a kind of ‘advertorial’ paid for by the drug’s manufacturer.

Self-promotion and public relations were the stock-in-trade of Georgian physicians, and one man who cultivated his reputation very successfully was the Chevalier Bartholomew Ruspini. Ruspini’s medical qualifications are shrouded in mystery, although he claimed he qualified as a surgeon in Bergamo, Italy. It’s more likely that he turned to dentistry after he failed to pass his exams.

He also claimed he studied under King Louis XV’s dentist. At this time, dentistry was more usually practised by barbers, quacks and even blacksmiths, but Ruspini began to style himself a specialist ‘Surgeon-Dentist’. He started practising in England in the 1750s, and in his early career he was based in Bath and Bristol. He offered his clientele remedies for what was termed ‘scurvy of the mouth and gums’.

He did very well for himself, and by about 1766 he had premises opposite the royal residence Carlton House. King George III’s mother Augusta seems to have been his patron. Around 1768, Ruspini published his Treatise on the Teeth. This went through numerous editions, but was essentially a promotional booklet. The contents were on the whole quite sensible, but by no means innovative. He made some useful observations that were not, at the time, particularly obvious, such as the adverse effects of sugar on teeth, but also some nonsensical ones, such as his claim that sleeping with the head uncovered could lead to dental disease.

He sold Dentifrice Powder and Tincture for Preserving and Beautifying The Teeth and Gums, and an Elixir for the Cure of the Tooth Ache, and advertised endlessly in the newspapers. He was the first trader summonsed under The Medicines Stamp Act for evading the tax imposed on druggists with no medical qualifications. When he produced a rather dodgy surgical diploma from Bergamo, the case was dropped.

In 1785, Ruspini launched his haemostatic styptic, and as part of his marketing shtick published his Concise Relation of the Effects of an Extraordinary Styptic Recently Discovered. One of his newspaper advertisements claimed that the styptic had stopped the bleeding of a sailor’s bullet wound, and reads as follows:

[The ball]passed through the man’s cheek, dividing the Vena Jugularis on both sides, which bleeding was immediately stopped by the Styptic, when no other means could give relief. As a result, Sir John Borlase Warren…liberally ordered a quantity to be furnished to each Vessel of his Squadron, for the use of the Seamen, in difficult cases.

There was even a circle printed in the middle of the advertisement that showed the alarming one-and-a-quarter-inch-diameter of the bullet. After this styptic was used by the Prince of Wales in 1787, Ruspini was appointed his royal dentist. A further publication, Short Observations on the Teeth, appeared in 1795.

There was a philanthropic side to Ruspini. He visited the Fleet Prison in 1797, where the celebrated society hostess and Venetian opera singer, Teresa Cornelys, was incarcerated for debt. He applied his styptic to a cancerous sore on her breast, returning on several occasions to repeat the treatment gratis, but was unable to prevent Teresa’s death. She was an extraordinary character in her own right, who had a daughter by Casanova, and who bankrupted herself while making Soho the fashionable epicentre of London’s entertainment industry.

Ruspini introduced the Prince of Wales to freemasonry, and was a founder member of the Prince of Wales Lodge,membership of which was restricted to those under the prince’s patronage. In March 1788 he established the slightly eccentrically named Royal Cumberland School for Female Objects, which later became the Royal Masonic Institution for Girls, and is now known as the Royal Masonic Trust for Girls and Boys. It was first located very near here, at Somers Place East, Somers Town, on the north side of the Euston Road,on the site of what is now the British Library. The school would later commemorate Ruspini’s name annually.

He approached his wealthy connections for funding for the school, including the Prince of Wales, and the Dukes of York and Gloucester. When it opened it was named after the Duchess of Cumberland, its first patron.

For its inauguration, fifteen girls met at Ruspini’s house on Pall Mall and processed to the new school. At the end of their school careers, the girls were returned to their families, or put into domestic service. School life was far from easy, however, and meals consisted mainly of gruel, bread and beer, and boiled mutton once a week.

Ruspini soon needed additional funding for his school, and on its first anniversary he organised a church service and a dinner at which his masonic brethren were invited to make donations. He raised £82, 10 shillings and 6 pence, which works out at around £9,000 in today’s money. This was freemasonry’s first festival appeal, and it engendered the festival system which has endured in the movement for well over 200 years.

Ruspini rose to great prominence in masonic circles. He belonged to and held office in eight separate London lodges, and was also a Royal Arch mason. In 1777 he was a founder of the Nine Muses Lodge; its members included aristocrats, past grand masters, foreign dignitaries, and prominent figures from the world of the arts such as Giovanni Cipriani, Francesco Bartolozzi, Johann Christian Bach, and Johann Zoffany. He also joined the Grand Master’s Lodge (Antients), and at the direction of the prince he was appointed grand sword-bearer for life in 1791.

He became so famous that his brother had only to address letters ‘Ruspini, England’ for them to reach him. He adopted the title ‘Chevalier’ when made a knight of the papal Order of the Golden Spur, although he was nicknamed ‘The Duke of Tuscany’ due to his good looks, skills on the dance-floor, flamboyant character, talent for self-promotion, and his schmoozing of the great and the good. Amongst his acquaintances were Count Cagliostro, the occultist, freemason, and charlatan; and Johann August Starck, the theologian who originated conspiracy theories about the Illuminati, so beloved of novelist Dan Brown.

When Ruspini died in 1813, his estate was valued at a paltry £450, accounted for by both his extravagant lifestyle and his unerring devotion to numerous good causes. He was buried in St James’s churchyard, Piccadilly. His wife survived him, and two of Ruspini’s grandchildren later attended the Cumberland School he founded. Children from the School were mourners at his funeral.

On 5 March this year, the Royal Masonic Trust for Girls and Boys held a service at St James’s Church to dedicate a memorial tablet in honour of the trust’s founder, Chevalier Ruspini.

Ruspini’s friend the Prince of Wales – later King George the Fourth – was also an admirer of the second character I’d like to introduce you to this evening; an extraordinary man who was the subject of sixteen biographies and countless portrait prints.

Chevalier d’Eon was born in Burgundy, a child of the French nobility, and later became a brilliant scholar, obtaining several degrees, and becoming a lawyer at the French parlement by the age of nineteen.

By the time d’Eon came to Britain he was well known as a skilled diplomat, and as a brave soldier who had fought in the Seven Years War. The Chevalier adopted women’s clothes in the course of his espionage duties, and afterwards showed great reluctance to cast them off. He boasted that he once dressed as a woman for a ball at Versailles, and attracted the amorous attentions of the king. He later claimed that he revealed his gender and identity to Madame de Pompadour shortly after he had excited the king’s ardour, and then slept with her.

While on a visit to London, the famous libertine and memoirist Casanova was convinced that the Chevalier was a woman when he met d’Eon at a dinner hosted by the French ambassador. D’Éon was once served with papers for libel, and the case was heard in the Court of the King’s Bench on 3rd July 1764. D’Éon did not show up on the appointed day, and was found guilty by default. Sentencing was deferred until he could be brought to court, and he was subsequently outlawed. He had disappeared, adopting female clothes as a disguise. He hid himself away at Byfleet in Surrey, in the house of an MP, Humphrey Cotes, a friend of the radical MP John Wilkes. The threat of the justice system against him eventually fizzled out, and while living in Surrey, D’Eon claimed he had been born a girl but raised as a boy in order to circumvent France’s strict inheritance laws and come into his father’s estate.

D’Eon was always scrupulously clean-shaven, and quite attractive, and he was such a good female impersonator that there was feverish speculation on the London Stock Exchange over his true sex for many years. Bets took the form of life insurance policies that would or wouldn’t be paid out depending on which gender d’Eon was found to belong to. An enquiry into a notorious wager on the matter was once conducted by Lord Mansfield, the Chief Justice to the Court of King’s Bench. The legal probing this necessitated stopped just short of a physical examination of d’Eon. The Chevalier was greatly affronted by these indignities, and challenged many coffee-house stockjobbers to duels.

The Secret du Roi for which d’Eon worked as a spy was disbanded on the death of his King, and the Chevalier petitioned his paymasters to allow him to return to France. This was permitted, but only on the bizarre condition that he should live out the remainder of his days in the guise of a woman. He agreed to this, but stipulated that the French government should supply him with new sets of women’s clothes. He presented himself to the French court in all his finery, having first undergone a toilette lasting four hours at the hands of a servant to Queen Marie Antoinette.

The agreement of 1775 that allowed his return on these bizarre conditions was known as ‘The Transaction’, and its wording suggested d’Eon had been born female but had taken on male dress, before returning to his female identity. The mystery surrounding his gender deepened as a consequence.It seems likely that the requirement concerning female attire was viewed by the powers that be at Versailles as reasonable in the light of D’Éon’s earlier admission as to his sex, and also as a means of controlling an unruly character who had often provoked his opponents to duels.

D’Eon was known to be an enthusiastic collector of books about strong women such as Joan of Arc and the Amazons of classical legend, and in his letters to the playwright Beaumarchais he referred to himself as female. At one point, Beaumarchais was writing letters to friends claiming that the Chevalier was a crazy woman who was insanely in love with him, and that they were to be married. It seems most likely that this was all part of a ruse to cash in on the betting racket surrounding the question of d’Eon’s sex.

Not everyone was convinced he was a woman. He exfoliated his rough skin, and took deportment lessons, but he still had trouble walking in high heels, and a Vicomtesse recorded that ‘she had nothing of our sex but the petticoats and the curls, which suited her horribly’.

D’Eon was later gaoled for a time in France after being spotted breaking the terms of the Transaction by wearing men’s clothes, before returning to England in the year 1785. He took rooms in Brewer Street, and was visited by man of letters Horace Walpole, and John Wilkes. He had readopted women’s clothes, and was described as looking like a lusty dame. The female guise wasn’t always a success by this stage of his life, however, and Dr Johnson’s biographer James Boswell recorded that, ‘She appears to me a man in woman’s clothes’.

When the French Revolution toppled the monarchy, the pension that had been granted him under the Transaction suddenly evaporated, and he sold parts of his beloved library, his lace and jewellery, his pistols, and even his Order of St Louis medal to help make ends meet. Several of his relatives were guillotined during the Terror.In around 1796 his finances took another turn for the worse when his fencing career was curtailed by a serious wound, and he spent five months in prison for debt in 1804.

Because his income was so small, he was forced to share rooms with a widow called Mrs Cole at 26 New Milman Street. She kept house for him for fourteen years. He died peacefully in New Milman Street on 21 May 1810. To solve the mystery of his sex once and for all, a post-mortem examination was carried out by several doctors, including the surgeon Thomas Copeland, in the presence of Sir Sidney Smith and others. It was found that his male organs were ‘in every respect perfectly formed’, and it was noted that poor Mrs Cole, who had been convinced she was cohabiting with another woman, ‘did not recover from the shock for many hours’.

On 28 May, and according to his wishes, d’Éon was buried here in the graveyard of St Pancras Old Church, and in his hands were placed a crucifix and a copy of the Imitation of Christ, which he mourned that he had so badly imitated. His grave was obliterated when the construction of the Midland Railway destroyed the churchyard in the Victorian period.

 

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2 Responses to Chevaliers About Town: Ruspini and d’Eon – Adrian Teal

  1. Keith Hawkins says:

    Extremely interesting, we look forward to subsequent lecture extracts, would love to attend in person to some, but it is a long way to travel from Liverpool.

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