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Agnes zu Salm-Salm and others (revisited)

9 March 2022

(orignally published 29 June 2006, revised 28 Feb 2022)

I once read in a British travel guide the amazing information that this painting (hanging in the Puebla Ayuntamiento) purports to show “the daughter of Maximilian” pleading with Benito Juarez for her father’s life . Maximilian had no daughter, but the painting does show one of the more dramatic incidents (and the pleading woman was one of the more dramatic characters) in the doomed Emperor’s circle.

The artist was Manuel Ocaranza, a major figure in late 19th century Mexico. His work resembles French academic painting of the same era, but mostly forgotten today.

And, At any rate, the British travel guide was wrong.

Maximilian had no daughters. He had an illegitimate son … or rather there was a guy who claimed to be Max’s illegitimate son by “la bonita India”.  True or not, he followed in dear old dad’s footsteps (i.e., he was another romantic fool).   A German spy in France during the First World War — though how a indigenous Mexican was going to pass himself off as a Frenchman has never being quite clear to me — he ending up before a firing squad.

But back to the real family:  Max and Carlotta “adopted” Augustin Irtubide’s grandson to present a “Mexican” heir to the throne — hoping, in their deluded way, to legitimize their rule in the eyes of the Mexicans. The problem was they’d bought the kid from an aunt, who didn’t bother to tell his mother, an American citizen. Which made the new crown price…Washington D.C. born Augustín de Irtubide y Green, an American citizen.

Mom complained (and who can blame her) to the U.S. State Department — and, more importantly, to any reporter who would listen. And they did. “Euro-trash Kidnap American Boy” is too good a story to pass up. The British press picked up the story (though they couldn’t make him English, perfidious Austrians in the pay of the French kidnapping good Anglo-Saxons had resonance too): outraged mothers picketed the Mother of all Mothers, Queen Victoria … who — fond as she might be of her “reality-challenged” niece Carlotta — was a political realist. While Britain continued to recognize the Empire, its support was nominal at best.

Obviously, Iturbide y Green would never get a crack at ruling anything.  He’d command a few people as an Mexican army officer, until he had a falling out with  Porfirio Diaz.  His life was not a total waste, however.  He returned to his native city in his middle age, finding fulfillment (and passing the no-existent title to a step brother) as a professor of French and Spanish literature at Georgetown University.

No… no relation to the Hapsburgs at all.  The kneeling woman in Ocaranza’s 1873 “historical painting” is indeed a European princess, but not by birth, and much more intriguing that some boring aristocratic German.

The future Princess Salm-Salm was born in either Vermont or Baltimore (she was coy about her past — some biographers give the year of her birth as 1842, others as 1844, but I’d guess 1832 might be a more realistic guess) as Elizabeth Agnes Wynona Leclerq Joy.  Her past included stints as a circus trick horse rider and high-wire artist, acting on the Havana stage under the name Agnes Leclerq.

In 1861 Agnes parlayed a distant relationship (or alleged relationship) to Abraham Lincoln into a new career as a Washington debutante. In Washington, where she seems to have been a fixture at White House parties (whether invited or just showing up isn’t clear), she somehow met — and in 1862 married — a colonel in a German-speaking Union regiment, Felix zu Salm-Salm.

Make that Prinz Felix zu Salm-Salm. Prinz Felix, born in 1828, was a scapegrace younger son of a minor German ruler. Trained, like a good aristocrat should be for a military career, he was drummed out of the Austrian Army (supposedly for gambling debts), fled to the United States and — needing a job — ended up as a volunteer colonel in a New York City unit recruited among German speaking immigrants. Prinz Felix was an exemplary Union officer (eventually being promoted to Brevet Brigader-General).  The former circus performer. now Prinzessin Alice, reinvented herself as the ultimate military spouse, accompanying the Prince on campaign, and nearly drive General Grant to drink with her continuous demands for supplies and her imperious ways, but all while commanding the army’s respect for bravely and effectively organizing and administering a battlefield nursing unit.

The end of hostilities found the couple bored with Felix’s duties overseeing occupation forces in Georgia. Looking around for something to do, they headed for Mexico. Arriving in February 1866, just as the French occupation forces were preparing to “cut and run”.  Not a good career move.

Boneheaded Max, refusing to abdicate, sent his wife back to Europe to lobby Napoleon III and Pope Pius IX for assistance (Carlotta, as everyone remembers, went completely bonkers in the Vatican, forcing the Pope to spend a restless night telegraphing her family in Brussels who took her back to Belgium where they finally realized that there was no treatment for whatever her form of crazy was.  Possibly tertiary syphilis, if… Max… who we know to have been treated from syphilis at one point, passed it on to her). She stayed locked up in a family chateau until her death 60 years later. Max, who may not been all there (either from syphilis or alcoholism, both having been suggested), on top of his fine aristocratic disdain for reality, deluded himself into thinking that he could retain his “throne”. Abdication, he concluded would dishonor the Hapsburg family, and — of course — in his mind, his reign was selflessly serving the interests of the Mexican people (who did he think wanted him out?).

Max continued to hold his Imperial Court even when it was reduced to basically the chamberlain-slash-foreign minister (a renegade Jesuit run out of Texas), a misplaced doctor from Vienna, and a few younger sons of Austrian and German aristocrats, and a couple professional soldiers like our hero Felix, who — being one of the few genuine aristocrats around — held the imposing title of “Imperial Aide-de-Camp and Head of Household”.

Agnes… who was nothing if not flexible … hung around as “lady-in-waiting” to Carlotta, but for reasons never really made clear, was back in the United States when the Empire (basically, Max, the Imperial court and a few Mexican troops) surrendered at Queretero in May 1867.

When news of Maximilian’s arrest reached her, the Prinzessen grabbed the first steamer back to Veracruz, made it to Mexico City and begin to lobby European consulates for funds to bribe Mexican jailers into freeing the Emperor (and, oh yeah — Felix too) and pestering government officials for face time with President Juárez. She never got a peso from the consulates, but she did finally get her meeting.

The importance of the Manuel Ocaranza painting — such as it is — is not a meeting between a Princess and the “Indian” President. It’s a genre painting:  stern Republican virtues versus aristocratic privilege. Alice, falling back on her Havana stage days, put on a good show, going down on her knees to beg the President to spare poor Maximilian in the name of every King and Queen in Europe. In the painting, Benito Juárez is sadly telling Alice that “I’m sorry Madame to see you on your knees before me; but even if all the queens and kings of Europe were in your place, I still wouldn’t be able to save his life. I’m not the one who takes it, it’s the people that rule his life and mine.”

Happily for us — though not for poor, deluded Maximilian — Juárez (who was a shrewd country lawyer at heart) found a loophole to save Felix from the firing squad. He survived to write My Diary in Mexico in 1867, including the Last Days of the Emperor Maximilian, with Leaves from the Diary of the Princess Salm Salm (London, 1868), to join the Prussian Army Medical Corps and to get his head blown off by a cannonball at the start of the Franco-Prussian War. As one of Lincoln’s less known generals, he earned an entry in the “Virtual Americans Biography” .

Agnes also served on the Prussian side, again as a combat nurse, wrote a semi best-selling “tell some” (in decorous Victorian language, and no more untrue than most celebrity biographies) about the American Civil War and the Mexican adventure, Ten Years of My Life (London, 1876) . She later married a British diplomat, but maintained her German title, using her hard-won aristocratic respectability to raise funds for the American Red Cross and German hospitals (and to be admitted as an honorary member of the Daughters of the American Revolution). She died — like a proper elderly German aristocratic lady was supposed to do — at the spa in Baden, in December 1912.


Most of what has been written about her is in German, or scattered through other documents on 19th century American women. An admiring short biography, “Princess Salm-Salm, an American Princess” (originally part of an anonymous “A Victorian Lady’s Trip to Europe: Summer 1914”) is reprinted in a New Zealand based geneological researcher’s website.

Additional information was gleaned from C.M. Mayo’s well-researched historical novel, “The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire” (Unbridled Books, 2010) and the classic (though romanticized) “Phantom Crown” by Bertina Harding (Halcyon House, 1934). My speculations on Maximilian and Carlota’s mental health issues was explored both in my “Gods, Gachupines and Gringos” (Editorial Mazatlan, 2008) and Joan Haslip’s “The Crown of Mexico” (Holt, Reinhart & Winston, 1974).

One Comment leave one →
  1. 9 March 2022 12:50 am

    Many interesting comments on the original post still worth reading.

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