(“Then Again” is Mark Bushnell’s column about Vermont history.)
Regal enough at birth to have five names, northern Vermont-born Agnes Elizabeth Winona Leclercq Joy later traveled in Europe as a princess.
On her knees, begging that the emperor’s life be spared, the princess had no time to ponder how she, a woman from Vermont, could have gotten into this situation.
Few people at the time knew where Princess Salm-Salm had come from. Throughout her life, she obscured her past, perhaps wanting to hide her humble beginnings. Her occasional silence, however, only served to make her more alluring. Contemporaries invariably filled in the gaps with romantic details.
What we know is this: The princess was born Agnes Elizabeth Winona Leclercq Joy. She started life somewhere in northern Vermont. She was apparently born either in Swanton or Franklin—accounts vary. The year was 1844, unless you believe the biographers who say it was 1840. The day was Christmas Day, a portentous day, though perhaps it was Dec. 28, the same as her prince, a remarkable romantic coincidence.
Agnes grew up in Swanton (or perhaps Franklin or just over the border in Philipsburg, Quebec). We know little of her early life, like whether she attended school. She seems to have had some education, however, because later in life contemporaries describe her as polished and articulate. She also apparently spent a lot of time around horses, as she was described as a graceful equestrienne.
In 1861, Agnes arrived in Washington, D.C., to visit her sister, who had married an Army captain. Her path there is sketchy, too. One theory is that she traveled to Washington from Swanton, where she had been working as a servant. She does not, however, appear in the 1860 census as living in Vermont, or anywhere else in the United States for that matter. Perhaps she headed south from Quebec.
More intriguing is the story that, while in her early teens, she had left home to join a circus. While in Chicago, Agnes is said to have performed for the first time as “Agnes Leclercq, the Great Ascensionist,” or tightrope walker. Winds knocked her from the wire, which must not have been very high, because another acrobat is said to have caught her. Agnes then climbed back onto the wire and completed her act, or so the story goes. After leaving the circus, Agnes supposedly took up acting and performed for several years in a nightclub in Havana.
When she finally made it to Washington, people didn’t know what to make of her. But she clearly made an impression with her energy, good looks and cheerfulness. Journalist Noah Brooks, a friend of President Lincoln, was taken by Agnes and her mysterious background.
“She claims American parentage,” he wrote, “but was Italian in personal appearance, French in manner and spirit, and decidedly Bohemian in her tastes. When in the prime of her womanhood she was a very beautiful person, and as charming as beautiful. …In brief, she was a fascinating little woman, perfectly bewitching where she determined to bewitch, and never sullen, grave, or morose to anybody … (S)he was often more like a sprite than a woman of flesh and blood.”
Washington during the Civil War was very much a military town, and Agnes enjoyed mingling with officers, Congressmen and even the president, who was reportedly a distant cousin. Her attentions to Lincoln supposedly made the president’s wife bristle with jealousy.
Agnes took to riding her horse around the city, decked out in an approximation of a military uniform, complete with gold buttons and braid, and a captain’s stripe. Brooks said she was a “dashing and fascinating beauty who had the hearts of half the men (in Washington).”
She soon met her prince – Prussian Prince Felix zu Salm-Salm. The prince was in Washington, serving as an officer in the Union Army and looking for glory. Not incidentally, he was also trying to escape scandal at home involving duels and debts.
The attraction was mutual and immediate. They met at a dinner party. Agnes would describe the occasion years later in her biography, “Ten Years of My Life”:
“I felt particularly attracted to the face of the Prince, and it was evident that my face had the same effect on him. He addressed me in his polite and smiling manner, but, alas, he did not speak one word of English, and as I didn’t understand either German or French, and only very imperfectly Spanish, of which he had some superficial knowledge, our conversation would have been very unsatisfactory without the assistance of the more universal language of the eyes, which both of us understood much better.”
After a brief engagement, during which the prince studied English and Agnes converted to the prince’s religion, Catholicism, the couple married. Suddenly, Agnes was a princess.
As much as Agnes gained from their union, the prince may have gained more. When he met his future wife, the prince’s efforts to move up in the ranks had been at a standstill. Once married, his fortunes suddenly improved.
Apparently, the princess could be quite persuasive. In letters and in person, Agnes prevailed upon high-ranking officials, including the governor of Illlinois and the U.S. secretary of war, to promote her husband, which they often did. When the Civil War ended, the prince was named civil and military governor of Northern Georgia.
The princess sympathized with the plight of Georgians, left hungry and poor by the war. She helped distribute clothes and food to the most needy. Such humanitarian work was nothing new to her. During the war, she had followed her husband’s regiment, and volunteered in various field hospitals along the way. The princess might have been in her element, but the prince was not. With the war over, he looked for further adventure, and found it farther south.
Archduke Maximilian, brother of Austrian Emperor Franz-Joseph, backed by a cabal of conservative businessmen and France’s Napoleon III, had been installed as emperor of Mexico in an effort to replace the more liberal President Benito Juarez. Prince Salm-Salm felt it his duty to aid the emperor, because for generations his family had served the Austrian dynasty. The princess wanted nothing of this venture.
“I believe I hated him at that moment,” she confessed in her autobiography, “and felt very unhappy, for I knew he would come to grief, having never had any luck without me.”
Under pressure from the United States, France eventually withdrew its forces. Troops loyal to Suarez soon captured the emperor along with the prince and the rest of his staff. The emperor was sentenced to death.
Hearing the news, the princess rushed to Mexico and worked frantically to save the emperor. She decided she needed money to bribe his captors into letting him escape. Riding a mule-drawn coach, the princess set out to solicit funds from the American, English, Belgian and Italian ambassadors. Along the way, she was shot at by Mexican troops.
“I was more annoyed than frightened,” she later wrote, “because it is far too stupid to shoot a woman alone, as if I could have assaulted their battery. My first impulse was to ride into those cowards and to beat them with my riding whip…”
Instead, she rode on and tried to raise bribe money. When her journey solicited just a single ounce of gold, the princess turned to persuasion. A day before the execution, she gained an audience with Juarez, who seemed indifferent by her pleas, so she fell to her knees and begged.
“The President tried to raise me, but I held his knees convulsively, and said I would not leave him before he had granted (the emperor’s) life,” she wrote. “I saw the President was much moved.”
But Juarez would not change his mind. “‘(I)f all the kings and queens of Europe were in your place, I could not spare that life, ” she quotes Juarez saying. “‘It is not I who take it, it is the people and the law, and if I should not do its will, the people would take it and mine also.’”
The emperor’s fate was sealed. He was shot the next day.
But the princess had gotten Juarez to promise that the prince would not suffer the same fate. Instead, he was put on a ship bound for Europe, where the princess met him. European royalty treated them well. The mother of Archduke Maximilian gave the princess an emerald bracelet to thank her for trying to save her son. Austrian Emperor Franz-Joseph granted her an annuity. The King of Prussia commissioned the prince as a major.
The couple’s life continued much as before, with the prince finding battles to fight, this time in the Franco-Prussian War, and the princess serving in military hospitals. Their partnership ended in August 1870 when the prince was killed in battle.
The final four decades of the princess’s life are nearly as mysterious as her early days. She stayed in Europe, raising money to fund military hospitals. She married once, but only briefly. To sustain herself, she relied on her small pension as a war widow and the annuity from Franz-Joseph.
Before her death in 1912 in southern Germany, Agnes Winona Leclercq Joy zu Salm-Salm returned to the United States one last time – to donate regimental flags from the New York regiments in which her husband had served. There is no record of her visiting her childhood home in Vermont.