“Influences That Mastered and Destroyed the Strong Man That Has Just Fallen”: The Tragedy of Damien Marchessault, 1818-1868

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

Last week featured one of those coincidental conjunctions that come along from time to time and are reminders that unpredictability is one the hallmarks of what we do at the Homestead. First, Dr. Annick Foucrier, Professor Emerita of North American History and former director of the Centre for Research in North American History at the University of Paris, Sorbonne, sent her newly published article for Laval University in Quebec City, Canada on French-born immigrants to California using a photograph, featured in a previous post on this blog, of Damien Marchessault, a mayor of Los Angeles for several terms from 1859 to 1867. This was followed by correspondence with Barbara Lewis, who lives in North Carolina, and is a Marchessault descendant who asked for a copy of the photo for her personal use.

Discussing the image with Barbara led her to contact a cousin, Louis Marchesseault, who lives in Vermont and has conducted a great deal of research on the family. In talking with Louis, who noted that Damien was recorded under the two spellings of “Marchessault” and “Marchesseault,” it was decided to send the photo to other members of the clan, including one in Montreal, and to compare it to cousins of Damien to determine the likelihood that it was him. It should be noted that the original carte de visite (literally, “visiting card”) is inscribed on the reverse “Myr Damien Marchesseault / Los Angeles 1867” and this seemed to be about as clear a confirmation as could be claimed for the authentication of it.

Los Angeles Star, 25 April 1857.

Yet, when Barbara, Louis and I corresponded, it was pointed out that there was another photo in the Homestead collection that is of a man who is identified (somewhat) by an inscription on the back that reads, “The Mayor of Los Angeles / 1860.” This one also had the printed names of the photographers, the brothers R.M. and J.B. Linn, who were known to have practiced their profession in Chattanooga, Tennessee a few years later.

At the time this photo was cataloged, it was noted that there were three mayors of the Angel City that year, including Marchessault, through early May; Henry Mellus, who served until his death the day after Christmas; and, for the last several days of the year, Wallace Woodworth. There are a couple of existing photos of Mellus and this view was clearly not of him, but there were, at that time, no known images of the others, so it was speculated that it might be of Marchessault.

Los Angeles Semi-Weekly Southern News, 14 March 1860.

When I brought the two images together to discuss them with Barbara and Louis, however, it became obvious, because the 1867 photo was acquired two years after the 1860 one and the inscriptions were previously seen in isolation, that the inscriptions were done by the same hand. This was, of course, intriguing, because both of these looked to have been done contemporaneously with the photos, but by whom? Was there someone who collected these and other photographs and then labeled them based on information they possessed that wouldn’t otherwise have been known just from the images and their subjects themselves?

There is, naturally, no way to know the answers to these questions. Instead, the focus turned to whether or not Barbara, Louis and other Marchessault family members could help with getting a more definitive idea, if not with total certainty, if the 1867 view was of Damien. Here, Louis was able to get into contact with others in the clan and compare existing images of cousins of Damien, being from the same generation.

Semi-Weekly Southern News, 17 April 1861.

Most telling, Louis observed, was an image of Cleóphas Marchessau (there is another variation!) and he noted that the long face, the forehead and the chin were such that it seemed clear to him and others that the 1867 photo is of Damien. Beyond this, he continued, there was no resemblance to Marchesseault family photos to the balding, bearded fellow in the 1860 image—someone took that photo and used it for the Wikipedia page for Woodworth, though it should be cautioned that this is not a proven connection.

Louis then provided some background on the Marchessau/Marchesseault/Marchessault family, compiled by several members, that is shared here because it helps us get a better idea of Damien’s life before he showed up in Los Angeles in the early 1850s and then became a prominent citizen until his tragic end. The account begins with Jean Marchessau, who was born in 1677 in Marsilly, in the department of Charente-Maritime on the west coast of France near La Rochelle.

Los Angeles Tri-Weekly News, 9 April 1864.

Orphaned at age seven, Jean was raised by a grandmother and also lived with an uncle at La Jarrie, southeast of La Rochelle, where the uncle did business as a merchant. From La Rochelle, Jean took a ship for New France and settled at Quebec City, where he lived for over three decades, working for some time as a carter, hauling stones used for construction, until his death at age 58 in 1736. He and his wife Magdeleine Gatien had nine children, five of which died as children, while son Jean Baptiste and his son Christophe were the grandfather and father, respectively, of Damien.

Christophe Marchessau and his wife Julie Dorion were the parents of 18 (yes, 18!) children, of which Damien was the fifth, born at St. Antoine-sur-Richelieu, a town northeast of Montreal that today has about 1,700 residents and which is best known as the birthplace of George-Etienne Cartier, a prime minister known as the “Father of Confederation” when Canada was united in 1867 (though the confederation is still fraught with issues over 150 years later!)

Semi-Weekly News, 10 May 1867.

Rebellions in late 1837 by French-speakers and Anglophones in different parts of Canada are said to have been the motivation for Damien, his older brothers Léopold and Côme, and a cousin Antoine Isaac to leave for New Orleans, which, of course, had a long French history, though it is indicated that gambling was a a major attraction for the quartet of young relations.

Léopold died in 1839 after less than two years in the Crescent City, while Côme became a rice broker and lived there until his death almost four decades later in 1877. Antoine Isaac, who was just 14 when he joined his cousins on their southern journey, became a physician but was unable to save himself when he died in 1851, with one theory that he was claimed by cholera, of which epidemics devastated New Orleans around that time.

Semi-Weekly News, 24 December 1867.

As for Damien, Harold B. Eaton, a Pennsylvania researcher found that an “A. Marchessau” was a passenger on a steamer that came to California in August 1850, though whether it was Damien cannot be confirmed. The earliest located reference to him in the Angel City for this post is an advertisement from April 1857 in which Marchesseault (as spelled in the ad) and Victor Beaudry (the lesser-known sibling of future mayor and real estate developer, Prudent) sold ice which they cut from Icehouse Canyon in the mountains above modern Claremont (this is where F.P.F. Temple later had a sawmill) and also sold iced wine, cobblers and ice cream. The partners also started the Santa Anita Mining Company, which was one of many concerns seeking to strike it rich in our local mountains, and ran a billiard parlor in the Montgomery saloon.

The 1860 federal census recorded Marchessault as a “Keeper of Billiard Saloon” and residing with a barkeeper and a cook. Over the next several years, when the Internal Revenue Service had taxes collected for the Civil War, Marchessault was not just assessed for income but also for his sale of liquor and his billiard tables. It was during this era that he served three separate terms as mayor of the Angel City, in 1859-1860, 1861-1865, and for part of 1867.

The 1867 image identified as Marchesseault, at left, and the 1860 photo, inscribed as “Mayor of Los Angeles 1860”, at right. These are the originals, before they were scanned and improved and then posted on the Museum’s online artifact database.

Most of his tenure was during the Civil War period and, as a Democrat (likely he joined the party during his years in New Orleans), he supported secession and proposed a division of California. While he was a member of the executive committee for the 1861 celebration of Independence Day, just after the war began in April, it was said he tamped down on such events in subsequent years.

Other developments during his mayoral administrations concerned the sale of city lands for potential oil development and water delivery improvements. In 1866, between terms, he served as street superintendent and was credited with engineering the grading and drainage of Main Street from the Plaza to 6th Street.

The inscriptions on the two cartes de visite, as these small photos are known.

The water question became a serious problem for Marchessault soon after he left office in 1867 as his friend, Jean-Louis Sainsevain (who, two years before, was treasurer and Marchessault a trustee of the French Benevolent Society, organized in 1860 and who, also in 1865, took over from David W. Alexander the lease of the city’s water works) implemented an extensive installation of wooden water pipes to deliver the precious fluid to city residents, farmers and businesses. Marchessault associated with Sainsevain in the project, but the pine logs, according to merchant Harris Newmark in his 1913 memoir, Sixty Years in Southern California, repeatedly burst causing water to gush into the streets, while flooding caused by heavy rains in the winter of 1867-1868 also wreaked havoc on the system.

The disaster with the water works, the last of which took place as Marchessault was serving as zanjero, or overseer of water, was long credited with being the reason why the ex-chief executive, on 20 January 1868, walked into the city marshal’s office (which had to have been unoccupied, most sources say it was the chamber of the Common (City) Council), left a sealed note, pulled out a pistol and committed suicide. Marchessault was a couple of weeks shy of his 50th birthday and the next day’s Los Angeles News only very briefly noted his death as having taken place in the office of the chief executive, though it did remark on the “Singular Action on the Part of the Coroner’s Jury” convened to look into the circumstances of his death.

Semi-Weekly News, 21 January 1868.

The paper observed,

Beside the body was an unsealed letter, which may have been sufficient to clear up the mystery of his death, but the Jury instead of reading it, allowed it to be disposed of by some of the friends of [the] deceased, who for reasons of their own have not made the same public.

Yet, it was quite clear why the jury decided to hand over the missive to Marchessault’s friends, because it was addressed to his wife, Mary, to whom he married in 1863 (she wedded Edward F. Teodoli, the Italian-born future publisher of the Spanish-language newspaper, La Crónica, which was published by Thomas W. Temple in the late 1880s and early 1890s, and died in 1878.) The jury obviously felt that the document was personal and saw it had no purpose in being part of the public record—whether this was outside the bounds of its purposes is another question.

Semi-Weekly News, 24 January 1868.

In its issue of the 24th, the News published an editorial on the gambling problem in the Angel city and paid special attention to Marchessault’s death, noting that

in his dying moments, leaves [through the letter] his suffering, disgrace and death, together with the misery and grief of a disconsolate and heart-broken wife, as a legacy to the passion for and practice of gaming.

The piece went on to state that the late mayor “was long and well known in this community, as a man of enlarged views, vigorous and active mind, and possessing a firmness of purpose rarely to be met with among the choice men of any country.” Yet, it continued, if such an individual “could become so infatuated with gaming as to surrender himself in death as its victim” then what was to become of young people who came “in contact with influences that mastered and destroyed the strong man that has just fallen.”

Semi-Weekly News, 24 January 1868.

In a separate column, the News published a complete transcription of the suicide note, adding that it was “placed in our hands for publication of the friends” of the widow, who clearly felt that its being made public would be beneficial. Given its dramatic content and the fact that, while so many accounts cite his involvement in the water works as the main reason for his suicide, it is worth sharing the entirety of the missive:

My Dear Mary:— By my drinking to excess, and gambling also, I have involved myself to the amount of about three thousand dollars which I have borrowed from time to time from friends and acquaintances, under the promise to return the same the following day, which I have often failed to do. To such an extent have I gone in this way that I am now ashamed to meet my fellow man on the street; besides that, I have deeply wronged you as a husband, by spending my money instead of maintaining you as it becomes a husband to do. Though you have never complained of my miserable conduct, you nevertheless have suffered to[o] much. I therefore, to save you from further disgrace and trouble, being that I cannot maintain you respectably, I shall end this state of thing[s] this very morning. Of course, in all this there is no blame attached to you; it has been all my fault. On the contrary you have asked me to permit you to earn money honestly by teaching [Mary was a talented musician and a linguist], and I refused. You have always been true to me. If I write these few lines, it is to set you awright [sic] before this wicked world, to keep slander from blaming you in any manner whatever. Now my dear beloved, I hope that you will pardon me, and also Mr. Sansevain [sic]. It is time to part—God bless you, and may you b happy yet.

Your husband,

D. Marchesseault

While some accounts have actually mocked Marchessault as a failed mayor and others emphasized the water works crisis, which he did not mention in his note, few have taken the time to discuss the heartbreaking content of the missive. The News did refer to his suffering, but there is also the palpable guilt and remorse as well as the obvious love felt for his wife. Whatever faults he possessed, particularly with alcohol and gambling, Marchessault clearly was ashamed of his behavior and was especially concerned with his spouse and any “slander” that might be directed to her. By any standard, this is a wrenching letter.

The marker at Los Angles Plaza for Damien Marchessault from Tceng and published on The Historical Marker Database.

Within a couple of years of his death, the city decided to name after Marchessault the street running along the north side of the Plaza and which then extended west across Main Street to the north of the Plaza Church and, later, east across Alameda Street and into Chinatown, where Union Station was later constructed. The eastern and western ends were eventually rerouted or removed and the Plaza portion closed off and converted into a walkway. In one section of this latter, there is a round brass marker devoted to Marchessault—see the image included here.

The extraordinary circumstances of Professor Foucrier’s use of the Homestead’s photo of Marchessault in her article and the contact with Marchessault family members that has led to the determination that the image is of him as well as the providing of family history, makes this post another example of the personalizing power of history and the Museum is always grateful for the opportunity to share that with the public.

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