Lot 98 of 461:
Letter from a Boston Brahmin fearful of German Revolution  

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Lot closed - Sold For (Includes Buyers Premium):$687.50
$1,000 - $1,500

Letter from a Boston Brahmin’s illegitimate daughter, Longfellow intimate, fleeing Wagnerian German Revolution while planning the purchase of an Old Masters art collection to bring to America

Thies, Clara Crowninshield

Dresden, Germany


May 20, 1849


6-7 pp. including stampless address leaf.  Autograph Letter Signed. To lawyer Benjamin White Nichols, Clara’s trustee.

A dramatic letter from an heiress born out of wedlock to millionaire adventurer George Crowninshield, Jr.  Clara married Louis Thies, German-American art connoisseur. After their marriage, the couple lived in Dresden when the city was torn by a liberal revolt against rule by the King of Saxony. As 2500 insurgents, including composer and revolutionary activist Richard Wagner, erected barricades against royalist troops, Clara and her husband, who was confined to a sick bed, living in the heart of the city, feared for their lives in what she described to Nichols as “the most terrible civil war which perhaps history hast at any time recorded.” Her graphic account of their situation, explaining their immediate need to leave Europe for the safety of America, is prelude to the heart of the letter - her elaborate pleading for funds to buy up, at bargain prices, the fine art collection of a German Baron, a good investment as well as “a good beginning for a public gallery in America” where no such collection was yet to be found.

Apart from Clara’s dramatic account of the Revolution, the letter provides clues as the fate of her art collection in America. At least one of the paintings is now to be found in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, a gift of Clara’s 30 years later, with her note about its provenance with none of the details offered in this letter about the collection’s noble owner and its valuation by local experts. This letter is probably one of the most significant not held by the Peabody Essex Museum’s extensive collection of Clara’s papers, with its account of their precarious position: “…we do not feel ourselves safe here any longer, the foundations of society are undermined and an explosion may come at any moment, we have witnessed in Dresden…the most terrible civil war which perhaps history has at any time recorded, we were ourselves three days in personal danger from the central and exposed situation of our house… being… exposed to the balls which flew in that direction…The populace had possession of the corner houses opposite to ours across the green and fired two days without intermission from 4 o’clock in the morning till 10 in the evening, upon the soldiers who occupied the houses on the other side of the post platz and who fired in turn upon the houses and barricades…the balls whisked continually past our windows before and behind and it was risking ones life to go out of the house on any direction, we were as isolated as if we had been upon the ocean. Mr. Thies lay ill and suffering for want of medical aid and we were in continual dread of fire for there was scarcely an hour in the day that we did not see the smoke of burning houses…Wednesday morning, I was waked at 2 o’clock by the most tremendous firing of cannon and cartridges. I could not remain longer in bed for I knew the scene of action was approaching us and we had reason to expect that the populace and the soldiers would take possession of our house and fire from it. The cook called me to the window in a tone of terror and I saw flames as broad as the window bursting from the houses the other side of the post platz. The populace had set fire to the houses in order to drive out the soldiers and thus open a way of escape in that direction out of the city. The soldiers took the post by storm at 5 o’clock… I heard them in our house. They penetrated into every corner of the house and we had nothing to do but submit. Four soldiers came into Mr. Thies' sick chamber, when they saw him in bed they were suspicious that he was wounded and one of the officers gave a commoner a signal to stand sentinel until they had satisfied themselves that we were innocent people, wherever they found a man with a loaded gun he was instantly shot. In my sleeping room they cut thru into the next house to make a passage in the way to the next square but as soon as they had done cutting thru in my room the populace gave up, white flags waved from all windows and peace was restored. The feeling of releif which ensued is indescribable,,,comment upon the merits of the case I cannot make. I can only say we feel impatient to be gone…”

George Crowninshield, Jr. was the owner of the first yacht to cross the Atlantic. He acknowledged Clara with an endowment at his death. As recorded in her published diary, she was the year-long European traveling companion – possibly not platonic – of young poet Henry Longfellow after the death of his first wife in the mid-1830s. Louis Thies, later a Harvard curator was a friend of Longfellow, Oliver Wendell Holmes and Charles Sumner.

Lot Amendments

Address leaf and last text page stained by non-archival tape, fragile.

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