- Historic Sites
Asylum In Azilum
Refugees from the French Revolution, many of them of noble birth, built a unique community in the backwoods of Pennsylvania—and hoped their queen would join them
April 1976 | Volume 27, Issue 3
Aristide’s trips to Azilum for supplies became important events for the town. He had acquired a legendary aura as the only one who had realized the popular romantic fantasy of a return to Nature. Stories began to be told of him, none of which he mentions himself. He was supposed to have met a man in the woods who had been robbed of most of his clothes and to have given him his only shirt, later arriving at Talon’s for dinner with his jacket firmly buttoned to the neck. The two fireplaces made the room hot, and Aristide began to sweat but refused to remove his jacket. At last the robbed man arrived to ask for a night’s lodging and pointed out his benefactor. It was said that Aristide became so threadbare that people would contrive to leave bundles of clothes anonymously at his cabin, and lest he lack food, baskets of supplies were slipped through his cabin door.
It was on one of these trips to Azilum that Aristide learned, five months after the event, of the fall of Robespierre. He learned also that his cousin Martine de la Boissière had arrived in Philadelphia, so he walked there, some of the time barefoot because of a blistered heel, to hear her news. His nearest and dearest were living, and the ache to return to France grew agonizing. He and Blacons took a trip to Canada with the Duc de la Rochefoucauld-Liancourt (Aristide always leaving on foot one day earlier than the others because he could not afford a horse); and passing through Philadelphia, he seized the opportunity to clear his status with the French consul for his return. He was the first to leave Azilum just before the new year of 1796, ready to face whatever France of the Directoire might hold for him. Faithful young Norès went with him. Aristide—modest, humorous, gentle, a bit of a poet, with never a penny in his pocket—took some of the original soul of French Azilum away with him.
Restlessness was affecting all the residents now. The end of the Terror, the change of regime might mean eventual amnesty for them, and return became an obsessive idea. Enthusiasm for work waned; more and more labor was farmed out to paid help. Talon was away more often than he was there, hanging around Philadelphia in constant communication with counterrevolutionaries abroad. Keating had gone, too, like Hoops disillusioned with the failing life of Azilum. Now it was left to Laporte to play host at the Big House, and it was he who received three princes of the blood, the young Orléans, Montpensier, and Beaujolais. They were sons of the Duc d’Orléans, “Philippe Égalité,” the dead king’s cousin, accused more than anyone of fostering the first revolutionary explosion. Unwittingly Azilum was entertaining a future king, for young Orléans became the Citizen King, Louis-Philippe.
The exodus gathered momentum. Madame Sibert drifted off to Wilmington, where there was more social life; Montulé and Abbé Carles went to Savannah; and the d’Autremonts considered returning to their original holdings at Butternuts on the Chemung, their family correspondence filled with anxious worries of the pros and cons (eventually they resettled in Angelica, New York). Poor Boulogne had drowned in the Loyal Sock creek when he missed his way on a dark and stormy night, but some said that a disappointed client had pushed him. In Wilkes-Barre Matthias Hollenbeck wondered if half the money he had advanced would ever be repaid. Noailles in Philadelphia tried to re-form the company, but his own will to bring new life to Azilum was dealt a fatal blow when he learned that his wife, his parents, and his mother-in-law had all gone to the scaffold among the last of Robespierre’s victims. He stayed in Philadelphia grimly making money as a particularly gifted player of the American monev market.
The later visitors who passed through Azilum were now critical and unsympathetic. An Englishman, Isaac Weld, said: “The French … seem to have no great ability to cultivate the earth … they amuse themselves with driving deer, fowling and fishing. They live entirely to themselves; they hate the Americans, and the Americans in the neighborhood accuse them of being an idle and dissolute set.” He was unfair, but England and France were at war, and he was probably only too ready to discredit the French. But a French visitor, the Baron Colbert de Maulevrier, was not kind either, although he made some charming drawings. The baron took a haughty view of life in Azilum, stating it was inhabited, with a few exceptions, by “valets and laborers.” The exceptions he mentioned were the brave Blacons, Abbé Colin, Madame de Noailles (still giving pleasure at the piano), and Bee de Lièvre. Louis Lefèvre had now moved across the river to Lime Hill as proprietor of a flourishing roadside inn, and Maulevrier probably considered him and Bartholomé Laporte, still running the Big House, “valets,” and Charles Hornet, who had moved back from the woods, “a laborer.” But it was these three who had determined to stick it out and retained their hope in the community. They had their families around them and felt a real life in America was emerging for them.