BFP Volume 9
by B. F. Riley
The Russian Princess
Photo by Michael Carian
About the year 1721, a body of German colonists reached Mobile, and settled in the region adjoining. Among them was a woman of unusual personal beauty and of rare charm of manner. Her dress, and especially her jewels, indicated not only her station, but her wealth. She caused it to be understood that she was the daughter of the Duke of Brunswick Wolfenbuttel and the wife of Alexis Petrowitz, the son of Peter the Great, and accounted for her strange presence in the wilds of south Alabama, as due to the fact that she had been cruelly treated by the heir to the Russian throne; that she had fled the dominion of the great Peter, and for security, had sought the most distant region known to her. She furthermore asserted that the younger Peter had duly advertised the death of his wife, but insisted that the monstrous Muskovite had done this in order to conceal the scandal of her forced flight from his castle, and in order, too, to explain her absence from the court circles of St. Petersburg.
All this she explained to be a mere ruse, and that she was the real princess who had escaped his tyranny, preferring the inhospitable wilderness of a distant continent, to the royal palace with its tyrannous cruelty. The story received general credence, since the splendor of her attire and her familiarity with the inner secrets of the Russian court proved that she was no ordinary personage. Besides all this, there was increased evidence afforded by her conduct. Her beautiful face was saddened by some evident trouble over which she seemed to brood, as with a far-away look she would sit and muse for hours together. How else could all this be explained, save by the story which she related? This is just the evidence one would look for in substantiation of a story of cruelty.
The prepossessing manner of the princess, her immense fortune, and her ability to discuss Russian affairs, served to win not alone the confidence of all, but their sympathy as well. Her wrongs were the burden of her conversation, and her own reported station in life elicited much deference, which was duly and promptly accorded by all alike.
Great as the credence was, as a result of the recital of her wrongs, it received a reinforcement from another source that seemed to place it beyond question. Chevalier d’Aubant, a young French officer, had seen the wife of the Russian prince, and he declared that this was none other than she. He could not be mistaken, for he had seen her at St. Petersburg. This insistence settled the identity of the princess in the estimation of all.
But d’Aubant did not stop at this point of mere recognition. His profound sympathy awoke interest, which brought him frequently within the circle of the charms of the fair Russian, and, in turn, interest deepened into tenderness of affection. To the vivacious Frenchman, the glitter of wealth was far from proving an obstruction to the valiantness with which he assailed the citadel of her heart. At any rate, the chevalier and princess became one, lived in comparative splendor for years, and removed to Paris, where, in sumptuous apartments, they resided till the death of the chevalier.
The deep shadow which had come into the life of the princess, according to her own story, won her hosts of friends whom she was able to retain by reason of her charms. The well-known character of the second Peter, a dissolute, worthless wretch, and the fact that his father had sent him abroad in Europe, to travel with the hope that his ways might be reformed by a wider margin of observation of the affairs of the world, lent increased credence to the pathetic story and elicited fresh installments of interest and sympathy. Chevalier d’Aubant died in the belief that he had married the repudiated wife of the eldest son of Peter the Great of Russia.
But a fatal revelation was inevitable. It is said that while strolling in the Garden of the Tuileries she was one day met by the marshal of Saxe, who recognized her as one of the attendants of the Russian princess, an humble female who greatly resembled her mistress, and by reason of her contact with the most elevated of Russian society, had acquired the manners of the best, and while in the service of the princess had means of access to her wardrobe and purse, and by stealth, had enriched herself and at an unconjectured time fled the palace and escaped to America. The Chevalier d’Aubant, having seen the princess once, was easily deceived by the appearance of this woman, her wealth, and by the reputation of the Russian prince. On her ill-gotten wealth he lived for years, and died in blissful ignorance of her huge pretension.
It is said that the pretender died at last in absolute penury in Paris, leaving an only daughter as the result of the marriage with Chevalier d’Aubant. The story has been related in different forms by different writers, and at one time was quite prevalent as a sensational romance in the literary circles of Europe. The particulars of this rare adventure may be found recorded in much of the literature of that period, some insisting on its accuracy, while others deny it. Duclos, a prolific writer of European romance, furnishes the amplest details of the affair, while such writers as Levesque, in his Russian history; Grimm, in his correspondence, and Voltaire, straightway repudiate the genuineness of the story on the basis of its improbability. The incidents of the time at the Russian court, the career of d’Aubant, and much else afford some reason for believing that there is at bottom, some occasion for a romance so remarkable.
Without here insisting on its genuineness, such is the story, in one of its forms, as it has come to the present. However, this, as well as much else, indicates how much of interesting matter lies in literary mines unworked in connection with our primitive history. The literary spirit of the South has never been properly encouraged by due appreciation, with the consequence of a scant literature. The industrial spirit seized our fathers in other years, and the fabulous fertility of our soils, the cultivation of which beneath fervid skies, in an even climate, has largely materialized our thought, and still does. Who now reads a book? If so, what is the character of the book? We scan the morning daily, or read at sleepy leisure the evening press, skim the magazines, and this usually tells the story. From sire to son this has been the way gone for generations. Permit the bare statement without the moralizing.
So far as can be ascertained, and the fact seems beyond doubt, the first protestant that ever preached in Alabama was the eccentric Methodist minister, Lorenzo Dow. He combined in his character a number of strange elements, some of which were quite strong, and by his stentorian preaching he stirred the people wherever he went. He was unique in his make-up, and no conjecture could be had of what he would ever say or do. Mr. Dow reached the distant frontier settlements of Alabama along the Tombigbee as early as 1793. He was a fearless, stern, plain, and indefatigable preacher of the old-time type, who spurned all danger, and boldly faced the direst of perils on the border, that he might preach the gospel. He had a notable career, though still a young man, before he found his way to the vanguard of western civilization.
Born in Connecticut during the stormy days of the Revolution, Dow became a Christian in his youth, and for some time was perplexed about what church relationship he should form. He finally joined the Methodists, as the zeal of that people was an attraction to his heated temperament. His errant and arbitrary course soon made him an undesirable acquisition to the Methodists, and while not severing his relations with the church; he was disposed to yield to a disposition to become a general evangelist or missionary of the independent type. His health was broken, and he conceived the idea of going as far westward as the advanced line of Caucasian occupation had gone, taking with him on his perilous journey his young wife.
At this time Mr. Dow was about twenty-seven years old. By means of the tedious and uncomfortable methods of travel at that early time, he found his way from New England to the thin line of settlements along the Tombigbee. Here, in company with his wife, Peggy, he preached as a son of thunder, but as though the dangers encountered did not gratify his love of the perilous, he sought his way through the dangerous wilds to the region of Natchez, Mississippi, long before made an important French settlement. To Dow peril was a fascination, and like the Vikings of Saga story, he sought danger in order to gratify a desire to fight. Not that he was a man of physical violence, but his love of contention and of opposition was without bound. He loved combat for its own sake, and was never so much at peace as when engaged in wordy war. He was of that mold of humanity that immensely preferred disagreement with one than tranquil acquiescence. He rusted when not in use. His blade glimmered only by constant wielding.
From the region of Natchez, he returned at last to the Tombigbee and Tensas settlements, virile, strenuous, impetuous, and fiery. His journal, which seems to have been sacredly kept, discloses many romantic adventures among the wild tribes, many of the leading spirits among who regarded him with a terror that was awfully sacred, because of his utter lack of fear, his consuming zeal, and his stormy preaching. In advance of the choice of St. Stephens as the territorial capital, he visited the location while only one family was residing there. Impressed by the location, which overlooks the river from an elevation, and the country beyond, Dow predicted that it would become a point of great importance. Both in his diary and in the “Vicissitudes” of Peggy Dow, we learn much of the adventures of this anomalous brace of souls. He would sleep in the open air in the resinous regions of South Alabama, where the abounding pine straw could be raked together in a heap for a mattress, and where he could be lulled to slumber by the soothing monotone of the tall pine trees. There is little doubt that the frail system of this wonderful man was prolonged, by being nurtured in the open air, freighted with turpentine, and strengthened by activity.
Mrs. Peggy, on the other hand, judging from the tone of her journal, did not find so much gratification in this rough and tumble method of life, as did her incorrigible liege lord. There is an undisguised reluctance in her words of compliance with conditions from which there was no appeal.
One of the most singular chapters in the life of Lorenzo Dow preceded his invasion of the far Southwest. When seized by a peculiar fancy that he was called to preach to the Roman Catholics of the world, and having learned that Ireland was one of their strongholds, he hied himself thither. To the quaint Irish, he was a wonder. His vociferous preaching and pungent zeal drew large crowds, but at times his path was not strewn with primroses, and the rougher element of the Irish throngs offered battle at times to his vaunting banters, but nothing was more to the liking of the indomitable Lorenzo. He stood ready to meet any rising emergency even when it was as grave as the attacks of the scraggy sons of the Emerald Isle.
From Ireland he crossed over into Britain, and introduced the camp meeting method of worship, which meetings became popular in England, and later, in the United States. So far as is known Lorenzo Dow was the founder of the camp meeting with its flexibility and abandon of worship. His way in England was clearer than it had been in Ireland. To the staid Briton, he was an object of wonder, and his natural eloquence and eccentricities of speech and of dress, won for him boundless popularity, and the pressing throng heard him with avidity. He found peculiar delight in his assaults on the Jesuits, whom he denounced as conspirators against civil and religious freedom.
Weird, stormy, and extensive as the career of Lorenzo Dow was, he was not an old man when he died, being only fifty-seven. He fought off constitutional weakness and heroically braced himself against the inroad of disease, with the same force with which he did all things else. For years he held the dark monster, death, at bay, and grimly declined to die that he might live and fight, to do which none was fonder than the redoubtable Dow.
As may be easily inferred, Dow was a man of scant learning, so far as pertains to books, but he was a close and apt student of men and of affairs, and from his acquired fund, he preached with great effectiveness, unrestrained by conventionality, and unhindered by prim propriety. He told the truth as he saw it, not in tones of choice diction, but with a quaintness and pluck, and with such projectile force as to stir conviction and arouse action. He chose to be called a Methodist, yet he chafed under the imposed limitations of his church, and defiantly trampled down all restrictions, while he followed the bent of his own sweet will, controlled by none, not even his bosom companion, Peggy, if the indirect suggestions of her journal are to be relied on. He did not seek to found churches, but only desired to preach in his own wild manner. Sometimes he would make appointments a year in advance, at remote points, but would meet them promptly at the hour named.
In point of whimsicalness, Lorenzo Dow has had few peers, for he would veer from the ordinary, for which he had a singular passion, but no one was ever found who could pronounce Lorenzo Dow a fool. He was not without extravagance of speech and of manner, but when challenged, he was gladly able to evince strength equal to the occasion.
His son, Neal Dow, was a brigadier in the Union army, and the author of the “Maine law,” which procured a prohibitory statute for his state.
The Cross Roads "Grocery"
Among the defunct institutions of a past era in the state’s history, is that of the country grogshop, which was known in those days as “the cross roads grocery,” a name derived from the enterprising spirit of the keepers of such places to locate where the roads crossed, in order to catch more “trade.” Many of these country saloons became notorious resorts. These places were the rendezvous of the rustics of the hilarious type in those far-off days. These rude trysting places were the weekly scenes of coarse sports, gross hilarity, and of rough-and-tumble fights. Hither the rowdies gathered from a wide region, drank freely, yelled vociferously, and fought not a little. The monthly muster of the militia was usually in connection with one of these rural institutions, and hither would come “the boys” for an all-day frolic. While squirrel guns and old flint and steel rifles were used in the drill, these would never be brought into requisition when the combats would usually ensue. Shooting and stabbing were far less frequent then than now, the test of manhood being in agility, strength, and the projectile force of the fist. There were bullies, not a few, and when one got sufficiently under way to raise a yell like a Comanche Indian, it was regarded as a defiant banter. This species of “sport” would usually come as the last act of the tragedy of the day.
Among the diversions of the day was that of test of marksmanship. The stakes were usually steaks, or, to use the terminology of the time, “a beef quarter.” To be able “to hit the bull’s-eye,” as the center of the target was called, was an ambition worthy of any rustic. A feat so remarkable made one the lion of the day, and his renown was widely discussed during the ensuing week. No greater honor could come to one than to be able to win a quarter, and “the grocery” was alluded to as a place of prominent resort throughout a wide community. There were also “racing days,” which was applied to footraces as well as to horse racing. There was a track for each hard by “the grocery,” and in the foot races the runners would strip bare to the waist, pull off their shoes, and run the distance of several hundred yards. Brace after brace of runners would test their speed during the day, the defeated contestant having always to “treat the crowd.”
This was varied, in turn, by horse racing day. Two parallel tracks were always kept in order by the grocery keeper for this equestrian sport. Scrawny ponies that had plowed during all the week were taken on the track on Saturday, betting was freely indulged in, the owners would be their own jockeys, and amusing were many of the races thus run.
Still another sport, cruel enough in itself, was that of the “gander pulling.” A large gander with greased neck would be suspended to a flexible limb overhanging the road, and one by one the horsemen would ride at full tilt, grasp the neck of the goose, and attempt to wring it off, while his horse was at full speed. With many a piteous honk, the goose would turn its head here and there to avoid being seized, and it was not easy to accomplish the required feat. A given sum of money was the usual reward to the successful contestant. This cruel sport of more than seventy-five years ago was among the first to disappear from the program of rural diversions. The reader of “Georgia Scenes” has been made familiar with this sport, which at one time was quite popular.
“Muster day,” which came once each month, was usually one of bloody hilarity. The crude evolutions on the field being over, “the boys” would return to the grocery, and, after being bounteously served several times at the bar, they were ready for the fun, which usually began with a wrestling or boxing bout, in which some one who was unsuccessful would change the scene into one of an out-and-out fray. When temper became ascendant, which was not difficult under the condition of free imbibing, one violent blow would invite another, when the crowd would form a ring around the belligerents, and cries of “Stand back!” and “Fair play!” would be heard on all hands. If one interfered in behalf of a kinsman or friend, he was pounced on by another, and not infrequently as many as a dozen men would be embroiled in a fisticuff battle. Nothing was tolerated but the fist. Not even a stick could be used, though when one was down under his antagonist it was accounted lawful to use the teeth, or even to fill the eyes of an opponent with sand, in order to make him squall. When the shriek of defeat was sounded, the successful antagonist was pulled off, and some one treated him on the spot.
It was by this means that bullies were produced in those days. Sometimes a bully would come from some other region where he had swept the field, in order to test his prowess with a local bully. Bets would be made in advance, and the announcement through the region, a week or so in advance, would serve to draw an unusual crowd to the scene of pugilistic contest. A ring was drawn in the sand, and while the contest would begin in a boxing exercise, there came a time when it grew into a battle royal with the fists. The champions of different neighborhoods each felt that not only was his own reputation at stake, but that of his community. Bulls on the pastures would not fight with greater fierceness than would these rough rowdies. When one or the other would “give up,” then would come a general disagreement among the boozy bettors, and the entire crowd would become involved in a general melee.
Saturday night usually brought fresh accessions from the neighboring population, and frequently the brawls would last throughout the night. Broken fingers, noses, well-chewed ears, and dislocated teeth usually made up the casualties of the day. Bunged and beaten as many were, they would resume their usual labor during the next week, while the scenes of the preceding Saturday would be the subject of general comment, and the end of the following week would find them again at the grocery.
These groceries, so called, prevailed throughout the South till the opening of the Civil War, during which it is presumed that the belligerently disposed got full gratification on fields of a different type. Among the changes wrought in our social life by the war, this was not among the least. Efforts to revive “the grocery” of the “good old times” after the return of the few from the battlefields of the war, proved abortive, and thus vanished this popular institution in the states of the South.
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