‘Downton Abbey’ theme played out in 1800s Michigan

A bevy of wealthy young Detroit women married titled European nobles

Bill Loomis
Special to The Detroit News

As fast as our honorable, hard-working men can earn this money, their daughters take it and throw it across the ocean. And for what? For the purpose of a title and the privilege of paying the debts of so-called noblemen. If I had anything to say about it, I’d make an international marriage a hanging offense.” — Frank Work, dry goods merchant and millionaire, 1909

Soon after the Civil War, manufacturing boomed across the northern U.S. cities, Detroit among them. Along with newfound wealth, Americans began to consider their position among other countries in the world, especially European nations. They began to travel to Europe, and some Americans concluded that despite their staggering wealth, culturally they were far behind.

Ella Holbrook Walker, the granddaughter of whiskey magnate Hiram Walker, married Count Manfred von Matuschka from Silesia, Germany and moved to his palatial castle, Schloss Bechan.

Thus began a trend (recently portrayed in PBS series “Downton Abbey”) of young, wealthy American women marrying titled European nobility, who in many instances desperately needed their bride’s money to support ancient family property and frequently an indulgent and extravagant lifestyle.

One French writer, Hughes Le Roux, blamed Americans for the popularity of international marriages. In his book published in 1908, “Love in the United States,” he wrote: “The American father has made his daughter an aristocrat without a court, a goddess without an Olympus … The American girl is forced to turn her eyes beyond the sea.” He added this observation about American men: “A man who has no other charm than that of money seldom breaks a heart.”

The first Detroit woman to marry a European noble was Isabella Cass, the daughter of Michigan Gov. Lewis Cass. Isabella (for whom Belle Isle was named) married a Dutch baron, Theodore Marinus Roest Von Limburg, in 1858, and lived her life in Italy as a baroness. While the baron was described by Detroit social commentator Friend Palmer as “old and gouty,” he also described the international marriage ashappy.”

Not all Detroit women’s overseas marriages had a sunny outcome. Some married into real adventure, others were pushed into relationships by aggressive parents and then sadly cloistered in their new castles and generally miserable.

Clashing views on fidelity

The most difficult issue between married couples was infidelity; European husbands believed mistresses and prostitutes had no effect on their marriage or family, and considered it their right to maintain outside relationships, while their American wives found it difficult to endure. U.S. Census Bureau reports showed divorce was generally much higher in the U.S. than in European countries from 1870 to 1905. The No. 1 cause of divorce in the United States was desertion, at an average of 39 percent of all causes, while adultery was down the list at 16 percent.

By the late 1800s the wealthiest Detroiters were a tightly knit group. Daughters who came of marrying age at about the same time knew each other from childhood, went to the same schools, churches and parties, and many ended up marrying Europeans.

Baron Clemens August Von Ketteler of Germany married Detroiter Maude Ledyard in 1897.

One of the most notable Detroit women to marry a foreign noble was Maude Ledyard, the daughter of Henry Ledyard, president of Michigan Central Railroad. In 1897, she married Baron Clemens August Von Ketteler, who at the time was the imperial German Minister to Mexico. They met in Washington D.C. and married in Detroit.

Von Ketteler was considered an outstanding example of German leadership, having spent 10 years in Peking. Two years after they married, he was transferred back to Peking, and Maude, now the Baroness Von Ketteler, went with him. But they arrived just at the start of the Boxer Rebellion.

The Chinese Boxer Rebellion occurred at the beginning of the 20th century when Chinese nationals, in part with support from Chinese royalty, attacked any foreigners perceived as exploiting Chinese resources and people. The foreign legations and missionaries were shielded in an area of Peking near the Forbidden City.

The Chinese nationals, called Boxers by Westerners, were a loosely controlled collection of Chinese peasants who dressed in traditional Chinese uniforms and were armed with primitive weapons such as axes, spears and swords, and attacked any foreigners who dared venture beyond the protected area.

Baron Von Ketteler was in charge of the German legation. In the summer of 1900 the Chinese government ordered all foreigners out of the city, claiming that they would be protected from harm when they left the city for the coast. Von Ketteler decided to examine this protection. On a rickshaw ride through Peking, he was shot through the side of the rickshaw and killed. This event triggered an all-out attack on foreigners.

After the Boxer Rebellion, an image produced to sell a brand of flour depicts the ambush of Baron Von Ketteler, although instead of being murdered in his rickshaw, he's portrayed here in a heroic pose on horseback.

Royal treatment in Germany

Maude Ledyard with other wives and children as well as hundreds of Christianized Chinese made a mad scramble to the better fortified British compound. Maude helped hold back Boxers hacking through doors, treated the wounded and comforted children. After seven weeks, reinforcement troops from the U.S. and elsewhere rescued the civilians and escorted them onto gunboats and steamships.

The experience left Maude in shock. She rested with her family in Detroit for awhile, then later that year traveled to Germany, where she was given an award by the German Emperor Wilhelm II for her courage during the attack. Some months later she was further honored by the Kaiser, as reported in the Detroit Free Press in February 1901: “She is to be appointed to an important station in the Imperial Household. … The American will outrank all ladies of the Court.

“If the Baroness Von Ketteler expresses her wish to make her home in Berlin, there will be set aside for her a suite of twelve large rooms including parlors and drawing rooms in the palaces of Potsdam, Berlin and Wiesbaden. … State occasions will entitle her to the use of a gala coach with four horses. The coachman and grooms will be clad in the imperial livery. Six horses will be placed at her disposal at any time.”

She was given a permanent seat at the royal table and a yearly salary for life. She opted to buy an estate at Villa Gamberaia outside of Florence, Italy, where she regularly entertained friends from Detroit.

The estate outside of Florence, Italy where Baroness Maude Ledyard Von Ketteler made her home.

An emerald from the king

Amy McMillan was the daughter of Michigan U.S. Sen. James McMillan and a friend of Theodore Roosevelt’s famously rebellious daughter, Alice Roosevelt. In Washington, she met Sir John Harrington, a lieutenant colonel in the British Army, and fell in love. Their wedding in 1907 — at which Amy was given an emerald pendant by Great Britain’s King Edward VII — was described by the New York Times as one of the most important of the year. Their wedding band was the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

Sir John was plenipotentiary (ambassador) to Abyssinia, now called Ethiopia. Travel was difficult in northern Africa, requiring Sir John and his bride to travel 400 miles on camel and horseback through what the New York Times described as “hot plains, mountain country, forests, and barrens in which big game abounds and including semi savage tribesmen” to reach Abyssinia and the court of King Menelik II in Addis Ababa.

King Menelik II

Before long King Menelik died and anti-Western factions made it a dangerous place for the Harrisons. They managed to escape to London. In later life Lady Harrison worked for the Red Cross during World War I.

Other Detroit women who married foreign nobles around the turn of the 20th century:

■ Ella Holbrook Walker, the granddaughter of whiskey magnate Hiram Walker, married Count Manfred von Matuschka from Silesia, Germany and moved to his palatial castle, Schloss Bechan.

■Annie Lothrop, daughter of Michigan Attorney General George V.N. Lothrop, married Baron Barthold von Hoyningen-Huene of Russia, a colonel of the Chevalier Gardes, the Empress’s own regiment. They lived outside of St. Petersburg until the Russian revolution, when they moved to Biarritz and Paris. She was described as “one of the reigning belles of St. Petersburg” in 1889 by the New York Herald.

■Martha Palms, daughter of business tycoon Francis F. Palms, married Count Laurent de Champeaux and lived in the magnificent Chateau de Villeneuve in southern France; however, Martha died during childbirth after the first year of marriage.

■Mary Trowbridge Wilkens, daughter of Col. William Wilkens, married Count Conrad von Zeppelin and settled in Stuttgart, where the young count was Grand Chamberlain to the King of Wurtemburg. Count Zeppelin was a cousin to the man who developed the German zeppelin air ships, Ferdinand von Zeppelin.

■Gladys McMillan, granddaughter of Michigan Sen. James McMillan, became Countess Paul Cornet de Ways Ruart of Brussels, Belgium.

Captain Eber Brock Ward's mansion on W. Fort Street dwarfed all others in Detroit.

Detroit’s notorious beauty

No Detroiter made more news in Europe than Clara Ward, called “the most beautiful woman in Europe.” She was the daughter of Detroit’s first millionaire, Captain Eber Brock Ward, a hard man who made his fortune by starting the first Bessemer furnace and steel rolling mill in the city.

He soon owned lumber mills, shipyards, iron mines and other manufacturing entities across the Midwest. His mansion on W. Fort Street was made of white marble and so much bigger than anything seen in Detroit it was called “Ward’s Folly.”

At age 16 Clara Ward was brought to Paris. Her beauty caught the eye of many in the well-to-do crowd who flocked to her mother's salon.

Ward married in the 1830s, and after 32 years and seven children, he had his wife declared legally insane and committed to an asylum in order to receive a divorce. Three months later he married a woman of great beauty who was 30 years his junior, Catherine “Kate” Lyon of Ohio.

It was a scandal and Kate was spurned by Detroiters who felt Ward had destroyed his own marriage and mistreated his first wife, who was popular in the small city. Consequently Kate remained a recluse in Ward’s marble mansion.

They had two children: Clara and Eber Jr. By the time Clara was two, Eber Brock Ward had a stroke while crossing Griswold and died. Kate couldn’t get out of Detroit fast enough. She married a successful Canadian lawyer and banker named Alexander Cameron and moved to Toronto. Clara was sent to London, England for schooling.

Soon Kate moved to France and opened what would become a very popular salon. At age 16 Clara was brought to Paris, after getting kicked out of two private English schools. In the salon was a regular parade of titled nobles who kept their eyes on her. Her mother suggested a promising husband might be a prince: Prince Joseph of Caraman-Chimay from Belgium, cousin of King Leopold II. He was 40 and a hardened bachelor but one evening at the opera he noticed patrons turned around to look up at a box seat.

There was a young woman people thought dazzling, whom the prince recognized from the salon: the beautiful Clara Ward. He made arrangements through his sister to propose marriage to the girl. Soon the engagement was announced and there followed an elaborate wedding on May 30, 1890.

Off she went to Belgium, which tended to be cloudy, cold and lonely; her prince had one consuming interest — hunting — and spoke very little to his teenage American wife. But she received attention in the Low Countries, where even Belgian King Leopold was paying too much attention to her, so the queen suggested the prince move her elsewhere.

A postcard shows Clara Ward and her Gypsy violinist lover Rigo Jancsi.

He took Clara and their two children to Paris, and one winter night in 1895 while he and Clara were dining at a leading Parisian restaurant, a Gypsy violinist, Rigo Jancsi, played at their table. Clara was smitten and the two soon ran off together back to Paks, Hungary, where Rigo was born.

Back in Belgium the Prince sued for divorce, which was granted. While the newspapers didn’t think much of Rigo — the New York Times described him as “skinny, awkward and pitted with small pox scars … a very ordinary talent” — the public saw the Princess Chimay as a rebel and true romantic.

They stayed in his mother’s hut and later were married and toured Egypt, where Clara bought Rigo a white marble palace and other lavish gifts.

From princess to pin-up girl

However, money was no longer coming from Belgium. Clara’s mother cut off her allowance, and Rigo had zero money. So Clara worked hard to promote herself, getting her portrait on packs of cigarettes, modeling French bicycles, and being photographed with Rigo or alone on postcards by the hundreds.

Running low on funds, Clara Ward posed for a cigarette advertisement and other promotions.

She contracted with Folies Bergere to perform seductive poses plastique in which she danced and assumed dramatic poses in a nude body stocking while Rigo played violin in the background. Secretly she gave private performances as well, which Rigo did not like. A London reporter described her performance in a major show in Paris:

“Something in white flashed between us and the semi darkness … I saw that it was the ex-Princesse of Chimay-Caraman, better known to the world at large as Clara Ward. Her beauty was heightened by a loose clinging dress which simply blazed with costly jewels. Then she began her dance to weird, barbaric music, softly, lightly with a voluptuous, sensuous charm, her feet keeping time to the fantastic measure. ... There was dead silence throughout the crowded theatre. Suddenly a man sprang on stage and in a loud voice declared: ‘I forbid this performance in the name of the Law.’”

It turns out that the Prince de Chamay-Caraman had appealed to the public authorities to stop the performance of the woman who was the mother of his children.

Clara Ward soon left Rigo and married two more times. Rigo, described in newspapers as the Swarthy Violinist, came to the U.S. in 1906 to perform in New York, then traveled to Detroit and the Temple Theatre to play his violin in Clara’s “hometown.” He failed to draw much of a crowd. When Rigo played, he typically leered at ladies in the audience, but by this time in his career — when the five-foot-one violinist had put on some weight — they were usually laughing.

His performances, the Detroit Free Press claimed in 1907, were done in “Frankfurter restaurants” where he was “the target of banana rinds and fruit pits which were hurled at his head with much enthusiasm by guests of the place.” The Swarthy Violinist eventually moved to Kansas City and made a living giving violin lessons.

In 1916 Clara died at the young age of 43. The newspapers in Detroit and around the world kept claiming she died penniless, but her lawyer and Italian authorities stated that her estate was worth well over a million dollars.