My Home’s Story: An Historical Mystery
In the mid-1950s my grandparents and parents bought a Maine house built in 1774. Since then the house has served as a full or part-time residence for almost everyone in the family. I’m lucky to be the current (full-time) owner.
Of course, any old house comes with stories. In the case of this house, over 240 years of memories.
The house’s history has also landed it in many books on Maine history, and, although it has never been opened to the public, in many Maine guidebooks.
It’s known as the Marie Antoinette House.
Captain Stephen Clough, the house’s owner in the 1780s and 90s, was in the “salt and spar” trade: he took the trunks of white pine trees to Europe, where they became masts and spars for royal navies, and brought back salt, used to preserve fish for long winters. His business partner was James Swan, a Boston businessman he’d met when they fought together during the American Revolution. After the Revolution Swan went to Paris, where he bought and sold American war debts. Lafayette, Talleyrand, and many people in the French court were his friends.
The story is that in 1794 Captain Clough and his ship Sally were in Le Havre, under instructions from Swan, and that Clough, along with Lafayette and Talleyrand, plotted to help French queen Marie Antoinette escape from the Bastille.
Did they? That’s the mystery. We don’t know.
We do know Clough and his ship were in Le Havre, and that many plots to save the queen failed. We know Clough set sail from France in the middle of the night (a very unusual things to do) at the beginning of the Reign of Terror, which ended with the deaths of many supporters of the royal family.
Clough arrived in Boston with a ship filled with expensive French furniture, tapestries, clothing, porcelain, and so forth. James Swan took possession of most of the things (they’re now in the Boston Museum of Fine Art) and Clough sailed home to Maine, where his wife gave birth to his fifth child, a girl, whom he named Hannah Antoinette.
People said the belongings he brought to America belonged to Marie Antoinette, and were to make her comfortable when she reached Maine. But the queen’s residence had been looted long before Clough got to France. People said he brought with him Marie’s Persian cats, who mated with Maine raccoons and gave birth to the Maine coon cat. (Highly unlikely.) People said the ghost of the unhappy queen came with Clough, and haunts the house or its rose gardens. (I’ve never seen her.)
Did Clough try to help Marie Antoinette? Or did he hope to enable some Royalists to escape from France?
We’ll probably never know.
I tell one version of this story in my latest book, THREAD AND GONE, which will ship this week. In my book today’s owner of the house finds a piece of elaborate medieval needlepoint under the eaves of the attic and then … but to learn more, you’ll have to read THREAD AND GONE!
Maine author Lea Wait writes the Shadows Antique print mystery series, the most recent of which is Shadows on a Maine Christmas, and the Mainely Needlepoint series, the most recent of which is Thread and Gone. She also writes historical novels for ages 8-14 set in nineteenth century Maine, and Living and Writing on the Coast of Maine, essays about her life as an author. For more information about Lea and her books, see her website, www.leawait.com, and friend her on Goodreads and Facebook.