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Museum Files: Audubon granddaughter rewrites family records

Museum Files: Audubon granddaughter rewrites family records


Editor's note: This is the second part of a story which first appeared in Sunday's editions. The Museum Files is an ongoing series telling the stories behind artifacts at local museums and institutions.

A portrait of a flamingo, slightly faded from years of display, greets visitors to the Center for Folklife, History & Cultural Programs at Crandall Public Library in Glens Falls.

The elephant folio edition lithograph from John James Audubon’s celebrated “The Birds of America,” one of three the library has in its collection, is treasured by both historians and art critics for the role it played in furthering the fields of ornithology and wildlife art.

The prints — along with an eight-volume octavo edition of “The Birds of America” and other Audubon-related items — were donated to the library in 1930. In addition to its significance in American history, the library’s Audubon collection also has a tie to upstate New York. The last American Audubon descendants — his granddaughters Maria and Florence — lived in Salem for nearly five decades.

The sisters have become footnotes in Audubon history. But at the end of the 19th century, Florence was making national headlines for a scandalous divorce and Maria was struggling to promote the Audubon name through puritanical editing of her grandfather’s journals and alignments with the top ornithologists of the day.

For Todd DeGarmo, founding director of the Folklife Center, the granddaughters’ story adds compelling provenance to the library’s Audubon items.

“It’s not boring, sterile history,” DeGarmo said. “It makes those objects resonate more.”

Strutting like a peacock

John James Audubon liked to tell stories.

The famed naturalist, whose work sparked an international interest in the wildlife of North America, was part scientist, part artist and part myth maker.

He was a rugged outdoorsman, despite his proper French upbringing. He also had a charm, which he attributed to his “muscles of steel” and his “handsome figure.”

“My locks flew freely from under my hat, and every lady that I met looked at them and then at me until — she could see no more,” he once wrote.

“He was a superstar in his own day. He’s just so big and robust in every sense. His art is important, but there is so much to this guy. He’s an amazing historical figure,” said David. J. Wagner, author of “American Wildlife Art.”

At the same time Audubon released the pivotal “Birds of America,” he also published the five-volume “Ornithological Biography,” which was a mix of essays on birds and sketches of his own frontier adventures.

He described his birds with passion.

“No sooner has the vivifying orb began to warn of spring once more the season, and caused millions of plants to spread the beauties of its benefiting rays, than the little hummingbird is seen advancing on fairy wings, visiting carefully every opening calyx and like an anxious florist, remove from each of them the injurious insects,” he wrote of the ruby-throated hummingbird.

Audubon’s personal “episodes,” a term he used to describe his essays on his experiences in America, were “vividly told and mostly true,” according to Richard Rhodes’ Pulitzer Prize wining biography, “John James Audubon: The Making of an American.”

“He described spending a night with Daniel Boone, for example, and listening to Boone’s tale of his captivity among the Indians, a meeting Boone’s known visits to Kentucky during the years when Audubon lived there make improbable,” Rhodes writes.

But who exactly was John James Audubon?

During his own lifetime, rumors about his birth circulated, rumors that may have been started by him and his family. He claimed to have been born around 1780 on a Louisiana plantation, the son of a Spanish Creole woman of “exceptional beauty” and a French admiral. Another legend hailed him as the “Lost Dauphin,” the son of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, who was smuggled out of France by his adopted father, Jean Audubon, and brought to America.

Recent scholars pinpoint his birth to Haiti, which was then called Saint Domingue. His father, Jean Audubon, was a French sea captain and plantation owner who fathered John James Audubon out of wedlock.

The African American Registry, a nonprofit education organization, describes his mother as “a Black Creole slave woman from the Congo, and Jean Audubon’s chambermaid and mistress.”

According to Rhodes, Audubon was born “Jean Rabin” on April 26, 1785, on his father’s lost Caribbean sugar plantation on Saint Domingue to a 27-year-old French chambermaid, Jeanne Rabin, who died of infection months after her son’s birth.

Some tales have her perishing during a slave insurrection.

Current research shows John James Audubon’s father previously had two children with his mixed-race housekeeper, Sanitte. After Jean Rabin died from a tropical disease, Sanitte had another child, Rose, with Audubon’s father. He later took both children to France, where they were adopted by his wife, Anne Moynet Audubon.

The family hid young Audubon’s illegitimacy, according to Rhodes, because “bastard” children were denied inheritance in France.

Feathering the nest

According to Salem Town Historian William A. Cormier, Maria — John James Audubon’s granddaughter — first came to Washington County when she was 16 or 17. Around 1860, M. Louise Comstock, a friend of the Audubons, began inviting Maria and her family members to spend summers with her at the fashionable boarding houses of “The Pines” and “Clarks,” which were south of the village. The group developed a love for the region and returned each season to the bucolic countryside.

Although the Audubons held a social status because of their grandfather’s legacy, they were not rich. Maria never knew the joys of being a lady of leisure. She worked as a teacher in New York City and New Haven, Conn.

In 1862, M. Louise Comstock founded The Comstock School for Girls, an elite finishing school in New York City. The school attracted girls from many prominent Manhattan families. Edith Carow, who would go on to marry Theodore Roosevelt, attended the academy from 1871 to 1879. At some point, Maria joined the staff as Comstock’s assistant.

In 1880, Comstock bought a brick home on Broadway in Salem where she could live with her aging mother. She welcomed Maria, her sister Florence and their mother Caroline into the household.

Comstock retired in 1885 and died in 1888 of “paralysis of the brain.” A Feb. 20, 1889, New York Times article mentioned that Maria followed “immediately behind the casket” at the funeral at St. Chrysostom’s Episcopal Church in New York City,

In her will, Comstock left a large portion of her estate, including the house, to Maria.

Comstock’s family fought the inheritance.

“Her uncle, George W. Comstock, who contested the will, attempted to prove that her mind had been impaired for some years before her death,” according to a July 27, 1889 New York Times article.

The will, which was executed in 1884, left nothing to any of Comstock’s relatives.

“Provision had been made for Comstock’s mother, but she died before the testator,” the article states. “The estate, estimated at about $50,000, after the payment of some $30,000 in legacies to Miss Comstock’s friends and fellow teachers, was to be divided into two parts. Miss Maria Audubon, her assistant, was to receive one. St. Luke’s Hospital, St. Mary’s Free Hospital for Children and the Teacher’s Rest, at Tompkins Cove, were made beneficiaries to receive the other half. If anything was left it was to be received by Miss Margaret E. Mitchell.”

In the end, Comstock’s relatives could not prove she “was not perfectly capable of making a will at the time it was executed.”

Maria retained the Salem home and a sizeable fortune. She added an east wing to house a massive library of both Comstock and Audubon collections.

Clipped wings

Comstock’s money afforded Maria the opportunity to pursue a project dear to her heart — glorifying the Audubon name.

In the preface to “Audubon and His Journals,” published in two volumes in 1897, Maria wrote, “I wish also to say that without the loving generosity of my friend the late Miss M. Louise Comstock, I should never have had the time at my command which I have needed for this work.”

For 12 years, Maria worked on the project, carefully shaping her grandfather’s journals into a tome worthy of an American icon.

In 1893, Scribner’s published an autobiographical account written by John James Audubon. In an introduction to the piece, Maria wrote “in one or two instances paragraphs and names which bear on purely family matters have been omitted.”

Maria wanted to purify her grandfather’s life, including the details of his birth.

“The village of Mandeville in the parish of St. Tammany, La., is about 20 miles from New Orleans on the north shore of Lake Ponchartrain,” she writes in “Audubon and His Journals.” “Here, on the plantation of the same name, owned by the Marquis de Mandeville de Marigny, John James Laforest Audubon was born, the Marquis having lent his home, in the generous southern fashion, to his friend Admiral Jean Audubon, who, with his Spanish Creole wife, lived here some months.”

In the book’s introduction, she professes her honesty.

“In the brief biography of Audubon which follows, I have given, I believe, the only correct account that has been written, and as such I present it ... I have tried only to put Audubon the man before my readers, and in his own words so far as possible, that they may know what he was, not what others thought he was.”

She also wrote in all of her grandfather’s journals, “There is not one sentence, one expression, that is other than that of a refined and cultured gentleman.”

Maria was critical of previous publications about her grandfather, including “The Life and Adventures of John James Audubon, the Naturalist,” published in 1868. The book, with source material provided by Audubon’s widow, was edited by Robert Buchanan.

“But the fact remains that Mr. Buchanan’s book is so mixed up, so interspersed with anecdotes and episodes, and so interlarded with derogatory remarks of his own, as to be practically useless to the world, and very unpleasant to the Audubon family,” Maria writes in the introduction to “Audubon and His Journals.”

Throughout the process of compiling her own version of the journals, Maria networked with prominent ornithologists of the day, including Elliott Coues. Coues and his wife spent July 1897 in Salem, and the ornithologist helped Maria through some of the more scientific aspects of the material.

Coues, who also was defending the Audubon name in light of Florence’s divorce scandal, was promoting Maria and her work before the book’s publication. At an American Ornithologists’ Union meeting, he brought along a worn portfolio John James Audubon had used in 1826 to carry his illustration plates for “The Birds of America” and other Audubon heirlooms, loaned by Maria, to impress the crowd.

Maria charmed the ornithological community. Upon the book’s release, the periodical “The Auk” praised the author for her dedication.

“In the brief space of 73 pages Miss Audubon has given the public for the first time a trustworthy biography of her illustrious grandfather, John James Laforest Audubon,” the magazine wrote.

Later historians would not be so kind.

In a 1989 article on Audubon, researcher Walter Sutton chastised the “overedited and mutilated” journals.

“The chief family offender was Maria Audubon, who tried to make her grandfather respectable by Victorian standards,” Sutton wrote. “Trivial but indicative is her changing of Audubon’s ‘naked rock’ to ‘bare rock.’ ”

In the book, “Of a Feather: A Brief History of American Birding,” author Scott Weidensaul is even more critical.

“Reader, be warned: Maria Audubon and her cousin Eliza badly bowdlerized their grandfather’s journals before destroying most of the originals, leaving us with a much sanitized, maddeningly tidy view of this messy, brilliant, fascinating, ambiguous man,” Weidensaul wrote.

Swan song

Maria successfully marketed the Audubon name.

Today, John James Audubon is as much a part of American legend as Paul Revere and Betsy Ross.

Despite the sensationalism generated by the family, Audubon’s work is at the heart of his history.

“In addition to the sheer quantity of his accomplishments, Audubon set new qualitative standards for American wildlife art,” David. J. Garner wrote in the book “American Wildlife Art.”

His name has become synonymous with the National Audubon Society, a conservation group with a focus on birds and other wildlife. George Bird Grinnell, one of the organization’s founders, was tutored by the artist’s widow.

The society was officially formed in 1905, and Maria played a role in some of its developmental activities.

“Miss Maria Audubon has been elected one of the vice presidents of the Audubon Society of the State of New York. This society has been organized throughout the different states of the Union for the purpose of discouraging the destruction of birds and their nests,” an April 2, 1897 article in the Salem Review-Press stated.

According to Cormier, the Salem town historian, both Maria and Florence remained in Salem until their deaths and were well-respected members of the community and strong supporters of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church.

Maria died in 1925. She requested her house be sold to her physician, Dr. Zenas Orton. Florence moved with her housekeeper, Maggie Quinn, to a home she bought on Nichol Street.

Florence died in 1949 at age 95. She was the last living member of the American branch of the family.

Evergreen Cemetery in Salem is the final resting place for Maria and Florence, as well as their mother, who died in 1899, and brother Benjamin, who died in 1886.

The home they shared for about 45 years is still standing and is known by locals as “The Audubon House.” The library in the east wing addition, built after Maria took ownership, has a carved passage in the fireplace mantel often seen in 17th century English churches.

The inscription reads, “Think and Thank.”


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