Sunday, January 03, 2016

Hero or grifter? (II)

There are two detailed primary sources, as well as a number of supporting documents, on the prosecution of Ernest de Lipowski (see previous post); all are available online, for the curious, in a folder in the Base Leonore.

The two main sources are a report bearing the letterhead of the Mairie de la Ville de Bordeaux, dated December 1873, and an article in the Journal de Bordeaux, dated 19 October of the same year, which coyly refers to the suspect as "le général X."

According to the Journal, the whole affair — "the most vulgar swindle one could dream of" — had to do with three barrels of white lead pigment and two boxes of window-glass. On September 16, 1873, two construction workers named Fargeon and Lhoste presented themselves before a Bordeaux merchant, M. Sainthérand, and asked if he could furnish a quantity of building materials for the restoration of a château in the domaine of La Tresne belonging to the général comte de X, that is, to de Lipowsky. After Sainthérand requested to see the owner, de Lipowsky appeared, a price was agreed on (to be paid on credit), and the materials were loaded onto a carriage. Once out of sight of the merchant, the goods were sold, at a steep loss but for cash, and the two workmen were given a "commission" for their efforts, de Lipowski pocketing the rest. A few hours later Sainthérand became suspicious, made inquiries, and, discovering that the château was fictional, had all three arrested.

Once in court, much of the initial discussion focused on whether de Lipowski had a right to the several titles he claimed to bear. Confronted with the alleged swindle, he stated that he and his wife had (formerly) possessed large sums of money, and that if he had done what he did, it was with the intention of repaying the merchant, on credit. He was, he explained, simply a bit hard up for ready cash. His attorney emphasized de Lipowski's service to France, denied any intention to defraud, and declared that, as to his habit of running into debt, this was due to the luxurious habits he had acquired after his marriage had brought him a considerable dowry. "He has paid such a debt to the country," he concluded, "that the country ought to pay him one in return." The court may have taken de Lipowski's war record into account, but it nevertheless sentenced him to a month in jail and a fine of 50 francs.

The handwritten report on the letterhead of the Mairie of Bordeaux is rambling and hard to decipher in spots, but it gives the impression that de Lipowski was involved in not one but multiple instances of chicanery, in which he tried to leverage his rank and his wife's supposed fortune in order to obtain goods or services from local merchants. When pressed to pay his debts, he would fly into a fury and plead his offended dignity as a general.

As a consequence of his conviction, de Lipowski was removed from the rolls of the Légion d'honneur. He does not, however, appear to have ceased to "habitually wear the insignia of a chevalier," as correspondence between the police and the Chancellor of the Légion noted in 1877. By September 1880, the point would become moot; an official decree indicates that he was awarded the title of officier (a higher title than chevalier) in the Légion, by virtue of being "commandant of the 41st regiment of the infantry of the Austrian army." (The same decree, which was issued in conjunction with the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, awarded similar titles to a number of foreign military officers).

Had de Lipowsky, burdened by chronic debt and jealous of his social standing, become a kind of roving military consultant, trading on his family connections across several European countries and offering his expertise to whatever nation would pay his bills? His travels were not yet over; he would later enter the service of the Tsar of Russia, though he would, in the end, die in Paris in 1904.


Michael Leddy said...

Cultural scavenging — and how. These posts are a really beautiful example of curiosity in action.

Chris said...

Thanks, Michael.