Sunday, June 27, 2021

A Charming Count, Courts and Cannibals

While researching a Captain McNevin for my Skelendipity blog on family history, I came across a number of reports in American newspapers referencing him in a court case involving a Hungarian Count. The mud-slinging in the reports had me intrigued with both men accusing the other of deceit, fraud or bad behaviour.

Further research of the newspapers found this Count cropping up in other sensationalist articles, including his two marriages to rich American women. He also wrote a couple of books about his travels in the South Pacific and his experiences with cannibals! I couldn’t pass up on finding out more about Count Rodolph Festetics de Tolna - and in the process discovered other intriguing characters.

The dramas around Rodolph’s life exceed anything our modern royals and celebrities entertain us with and it is impossible to summarise this man’s extraordinary career in a few paragraphs. Much of the information on him including his travel books are only available in French or Hungarian, so my main source has been the English language newspapers and other blogs. There is also this book, Eaten by Cannibals by Ron S Filion which may reveal more about the Count but likewise not readily accessible just for reference.

Count Rodolph was born in France in 1865, into the aristocratic Hungarian family of Festetics. His early life was spent in Paris where he was a lieutenant in the Austrian Imperial Guard and where he led a sophisticated Parisian lifestyle.

The dashing Lieutenant

Eila Butterworth Haggin, born in 1873, was the only child of Louis Haggin, the son of James Ben Ali Haggin, who had arrived in California at the time of the 1849 Gold Rush and amassed a huge fortune as an entrepreneur. The family mansion in San Francisco was the first to be built on Nob Hill, had 61 rooms and took up an entire city block, plus the family had other homes elsewhere, including France. It was while she was studying there that Eila met Rodolph at a ball. Three years later they were married in New York.

The Haggin Mansion, Nob Hill

Rich American heiresses were much sought after by the often-impecunious members of European aristocracy at the time. Although it may have been a love match on the young Eila’s part - no doubt enhanced by continental panache, charm and the American weakness for titles - one can immediately detect opportunism on the Count’s part. His subsequent behaviour certainly bears that out. It was said that Eila’s parents “did not enthuse about the match”.

The young Eila

Soon after their marriage, they were in San Francisco where Rodolph began his plans for a leisurely exploration of the South Pacific financed by Haggin cash. The region had been much romanticised during this era by famous writers such as Robert Louis Stevenson in Samoa. Rodolph wanted to follow in their footsteps, make discoveries and write celebrated works of his own. 

The newlywed Count and Countess

He decided to build a yacht that he would call Tolna. The process was protracted and Rodolph became embroiled in a range of litigious affairs that were much reported on in the Californian newspapers of the time. The American authorities were suspicious of the Count’s behaviour and his plans to captain the vessel. He did not have citizenship and was therefore not allowed to be master of a United States vessel and the seventeen court cases he was involved in (including those featuring Captain McNevin) did him no favours.

As he was not permitted to be captain of the yacht in his own right, the Count found a loophole in appointing his new young wife as captain. Her marine qualifications, apart from being an American citizen, seem to be nil although Rodolph also found a way around this by recruiting a first officer, or mate, to actually be in charge of the vessel and he would give Eila some basic instructions.

And here the story provides an even more extraordinary twist!

He employed one John F. Wickmann [or Johan Friedrich Wichmann], a shady German-born character with a chequered past of his own, who used aliases and pretended to be from Virginia. One wonders if his maritime qualifications were equally as dubious.

What is even more astonishing, Wickmann was destined to make his mark on history in the future as he turns out also to be Lieutenant Commander George Worley of the Naval Auxiliary Service who was in command of the coal carrier USS Cyclops that disappeared in the Bermuda Triangle in 1918 with a loss of around 300 lives. (His career is worthy of another post, but he has already been written about at length, and this blog reveals his shady background and the connection to Rudolph.)

And so this motley crew eventually embarked on their South Pacific adventure. Descriptions of this can be found in reading various newspapers reports in ports en route, such as Honolulu and Sydney. 

It seems remarkable that they survived the long and arduous journey across the Pacific in a frail craft, given what they faced. Not only had they to deal with perilous and inaccurate navigation through doldrums, typhoons and cyclones, they even experienced an earthquake while anchored. There were bites from a dog with rabies, a surplus of cockroaches, epidemics of smallpox in ports, and a rebellious or often-drunk crew who were also dealing in opium on the side. 

They also took up chewing betel nuts so that their ugly black teeth would put the cannibals they encountered off their intended lunch menu! Not to mention the risks associated with trying to get into Manila at the time of the Spanish-American War. And all this without mentioning the personal squabbles and sheer hatred that developed between the egotistical principals in this saga.

Tight quarters but lots of action

Details of the voyage and the ensuing acrimonious divorce can be found via the Chronicling America newspaper site, and are far too numerous or lengthy to reproduce here but make for entertaining reading for anyone keen to follow this hare-brained expedition and fated marriage in detail, although it is difficult to know how much of it is true or exaggerated for effect. At times, the reporters say the Count is French, Rumanian or Bulgarian, so accuracy is not high but there is such a hilarious absurdity to the whole thing. It feels like one of those old-fashioned comic operas or music hall melodramas, complete with dastardly deeds by (betel-stained?) teeth-gnashing, moustache-twirling villains, rapier-wielding Ruritanian princes and fainting maidens.

At one stage, Rodolph, no saint himself, points his revolver at his perceived villain of the piece, shady first officer Wickmann who had been altering course and fiddling with the chronometer while plotting an evil secret plan to pirate the yacht, kidnap the Countess and blackmail her rich family.

Our hero - the gun-toting Rodolph on the deck of Tolna

One of those what-if quirks of history: it’s a pity that Rodolph didn’t pull the trigger or clap Wickmann in irons, but he let the man depart the vessel. Wickmann was later destined for a Purple Heart  - yes, believe it or not - and immortality in his guise of Worley. What is worse, we can probably blame his incompetence on starting the whole Bermuda Triangle nonsense.

Eila would have gone through a baptism of fire as this was no honeymoon cruise. She’d had enough by the time they reached Singapore where she jumped ship and as soon as she managed to get back to California began divorce proceedings against Rodolph. It wasn’t just the horrors of the cruise itself, but it seems her husband had an unhealthy fascination with the nubile females of the Pacific and his own boastful writings showed an unhealthy preoccupation with lascivious references to free love or irregular multi-liaisons within families.

In Rarotonga, the Count took photographs of the royal women and their ladies in waiting who “had more titles than clothes”. And in Fiji lots more photos of “… young ladies wearing nothing but microscopic leaf girdles … diversified by one Fiji belle wearing a girdle of human hair”. The wag reporter adds his own comment: “They are doubtless nice girls, but scarcely such as one would choose for pink teas.” An investigation of geisha girls of Japan also proved to be another interest that would have upset any young wife. 

 Tolna at Farm Cove, Sydney

After Eila's departure, the yacht Tolna continued to wander around exotic ports and islands before coming to a fiery end when she was wrecked on the island of Minicoy off the coast of India. What exactly happened is a bit hazy but inaccurate navigation played its part. Maybe Eila was the better captain after all. 

Following the divorce, Rodolph did not disappear from the news and the courts. The crew of the Tolna tried to sue him for unpaid wages and he took out an action against a man who accused him of being a fortune-hunter preying on rich American women, but not before he'd first tried to settle the argument with a duel.

Surprisingly, you have to hand it to Rodolph that he wasn't going to let one failure get him down and in 1908 he married another American heiress, Alice Ney Wetherbee, the daughter of Gardner Wetherbee, famous for his New York hotels. Previously married herself to a Swiss man named Schopfer, and with a daughter, Anne, one would think a smart socialite in her thirties would be wise to Rodolph’s dubious charms, but maybe she was also capable of being swept off her feet.

The couple hit the headlines again in the middle of World War I, when it seems they were wandering around the oceans of the world again, this time in a new yacht called Thistle. The vessel was seized by the French due to it flying an Austro-Hungarian flag. Rodolph tried to claim he was actually an American citizen (so why such a flag?) and alleged his citizenship papers had been destroyed in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake but the French didn’t believe him and kept the vessel, valued at $200,000, until he could prove otherwise. I’ve been unable to establish whether it was ever restored to him.

This is a passport photo of the rather intimidating Alice. Her hat looks like it might have been inspired by the Austro-Hungarian military itself!

Alice would send Rodolph packing as well but it seems she had a weakness for Hungarians and married another one, an artist Curt Szkessy in 1931. What happened to either of them is unknown and curiously the wayward Alice is missing from the Wetherbee family trees on Ancestry. Her daughter Anne also made the newspapers with her marriages, but that is another tale altogether.

Meanwhile Rodolph's first wife, Eila, continued to use the surname of Festetics when she travelled abroad, judging from her passport application forms also to be found online. In 1924, she married Robert T McKee and together they were instrumental in establishing the Haggin Museum at Stockton, California. On her father's death, Eila inherited 10 million dollars that would have made her one of the richest women in America. She had no children.

Eila with her second husband. Source

So, what happened to the intrepid Count?

There is a rather sad report in a newspaper in 1925 in which Rodolph is again up before the courts unable to pay his doctor's bill, saying he had only $7 a week to live on. It seems he had been subsisting as a riding instructor but was injured in a fall. He gave his address as Kelly's Hotel, Brooklyn, which had recently been closed down to infringing prohibition laws.

The 1930 US Census shows him living at 1064 E 14th Street, Brooklyn, with the occupation of Riding Master. His ancestry shown as French.

Given his propensity for making headlines wherever he went, it is not surprising that he just seems to fade from the limelight. Without his wives' fortunes, he could no longer plan grandiose cruises or afford to get involved in boastful and wasteful litigation. 

Ironically, after all his battles to finally get American citizenship, he died where he was born, in Paris in 1952 and, as can be seen from this Embassy report of death, he had a common-law French wife, Andree Bonnevide, and was buried in her family's vault.

This is typed on the back of the notice:

"The passport records of the Embassy indicate that Rudolf Count Festetics de Tolna was admitted to American citizenship by the Superior Court of the State of California at San Francisco on April 6, 1906. His naturalization was canceled and he was naturalized again before the District Count of the United States on January 16, 1934. No certification of naturalization was found with the decedent's effects in Paris."

This cartoon accompanies articles that appeared in various American newspapers about the often disastrous marriages between heiresses and European aristocrats. Source Chronicling America

No comments:

Post a Comment