Louisa La Grange (1817?-?)

by Douglas Wilkie

 

Louisa La Grange was one of the most fascinating and talented of female convicts to be sent to Van Diemen’s Land. She was born in France around 1817 to a family that had connections among the aristocracy of Paris and was well acquainted with the literary and musical circle of Delphine Gay and her husband Emile de Girardin. It would appear that, around 1840, Louisa married a person known as the Baron Mirabello who took her to London, acquired what money she had, and soon abandoned her.

Left to her own resources, Louisa could have made a living as a governess and teacher of languages and needlecraft, and at times she did, however she also set about swindling the jewelers of London’s West End. In 1841 she was caught and sentenced to twelve months at the Coldbath House of Correction where the Prison Governor, George Laval Chesterton, was impressed by her connections in Paris and her literary talent. She was released after nine months, perhaps because she was expecting a baby, and perhaps because the Governor had high hopes for her future rehabilitation.

Less than six months had passed when Louisa met Eugene Ladent, the husband of the renowned Parisian pianist Marie Louisa La grange, who had recently arrived in London to perform and teach music. Adopting the name of Ladent’s wife, Louisa returned to the lucrative and seemingly easy activity of impersonating French nobility and swindling the West End jewelers — this time with Eugene as her noble husband, and lover.

It was not long before they came under the suspicion of the police and Eugene left town in an attempt to elude capture. Thinking he had also left her, Louisa went in search of Eugene, first to Southampton then to Dublin, where the police caught up with her and brought her back to London. They were tried under the names Eugene Rossiet Lennon and Louisa Grange and sentenced to 10 years’ transportation to Van Diemen’s Land.

Louisa arrived at Hobart on board the Margaret in mid 1843. Less than a year later she married an Italian merchant from Venice, Pietro Callegari, who had himself been transported in 1836 for carrying out similar swindles of the jewelers of London. Louisa now used the name Madame Marie Louisa Callegari, even though her official records retained the name Louisa Grange.

In 1847 Pietro and Louisa joined an expedition up Mount Wellington where they were caught in a snow storm. Louisa later wrote that Pietro saved them by lighting a roaring fire. Accompanying them on the journey was John Mortlock who later wrote of the incident and mentioned not only the presence of ‘Madame la Marquise de la Grange’ presence, but also claimed to have lit the roaring fire himself.

Soon after the Mount Wellington Expedition Madame Callegari was persuaded to perform in several musical concerts arranged by Charles Packer. Her singing was well received but the press though she seemed a little nervous. It would appear that Pietro and Marie Callegari, as she now preferred to call herself, taught languages from their home in Hobart, although he may also have kept open his mercantile connections. By early 1849 Marie was granted a conditional pardon and she and Pietro made their way first to Port Phillip, where they found themselves in the midst of excitement surrounding a gold discovery in the Pyrenees Ranges, then went to Sydney were they remained for another six months. From Sydney they sailed to Auckland where Marie advertised as a teacher of languages, needlework and music.

After only a few weeks in Auckland the Callegaris returned to Hobart at the end of 1849 and, although their movements during 1850 are uncertain, in June 1851 the left Hobart bound for San Francisco on the Baretto Junior. San Francisco in late 1851 was still in the midst of gold fever and it was not long before Pietro and Marie decided to travel to the distant northern gold fields past the towns of Marysville and Downieville, where Pietro planned to sell supplies to the miners and make his fortune. All turned out well until an altercation took place with some miners who insulted Marie and two people ended up dead. Although Pietro was acquitted of any wrongdoing, he and Marie decided to leave California and spend the winter of 1852-1853 in Honolulu, where she again advertised as a teacher of languages and needlework.

In 1853 the Callegaris returned to San Francisco and by early 1854 decided it was time to leave and return to France. Coincidentally at this time there were serious political intrigues taking place between France, Mexico and the United States and Marie was asked by the French Consul at San Francisco to deliver some dispatches to the French Charge d’Affaires at Mexico City on her journey home. Her arrival at Acapulco coincided with the beginning of a rebellion against the Mexican President, Santa Anna, but Marie was granted safe passage and on her journey met both the leader of the rebellion and the President. It is possible that Pietro was accompanying her at the time and the Callegari’s were subsequently granted a 9,000 acre farm by President Santa Anna, at La Puerta, on the Isthmus of Tehuantepec.

After nine months in Mexico Marie eventually reached Vera Cruz and made her way back to England and France. It seems Pietro may have gone to their newly acquired property at La Puerta. Arriving in Paris in January 1855, Marie made contact with Alexandre Dumas, one of the close members of the Girardin circle, and arranged for him to edit and publish the journal of her ten years of travelling. However, to avoid embarrassment and to disguise the fact that she had initially been sent to Van Diemen’s Land as a convict, they chose a pseudonym and altered the circumstances of the beginning of Marie’s travels. The story was published in the Parisian journal Le Siecle starting from March 1855, and subsequently in book form under the title Impressions de voyage: Journal de madame Giovanni.

In October 1856 Marie returned to Mexico by way of the United States. She was interviewed by the New Your Herald in 1857 and by the Louisiana Courier in 1858, but in both cases under the name Madame Marie Giovanni. Marie Giovanni was becoming famous, but Marie Callegari was not. She eventually solved this dilemma by adopting the name Giovanni and became known as either Marie Callegari or Marie Giovanni as it suited her, and sometimes Marie Giovanni Callegari.

The Callegaris remained on their property at La Puerta until the 1870s, although they frequently travelled and Marie claimed to have been present at the fall of New Orleans in 1862. Ongoing civil war and political intrigues in Mexico were a challenge, and in 1876 Marie was in Philadelphia on her way to Paris when she wrote to President Ulysses S. Grant, using the name Marie Giovanni, to inform him that she was about to publish a new book in which the corrupt practices of United States officials planning a railway on the Isthmus would be revealed. She offered to remove the potentially embarrassing chapter for a suitable ‘gratification’. The letter was apparently ignored.

By 1876 Marie and Pietro moved from Mexico to San Antonio, Texas, where they lived for the next 25 years, with Marie advertising as a teacher of English, French, Italian and Spanish. Pietro died sometime during the 1880s, after which Marie attempted to have her book published in English. Negotiations to have it translated failed and the project was abandoned. It was not published in English until 1944.

Marie Giovanni Callegari, alias Louisa La Grange, died around 1900.

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Further reading:

Douglas Wilkie, How Louisa La Grange became the narrator in Alexandre Dumas’s Impressions de voyage: journal de madame Giovanni, in From the Edges of Empire, eds L. Frost and C. McAlpine, Convict Women’s Press, Hobart 2015, pp. 206-219.

Douglas Wilkie (2016) Femina Incognita: Alexandre Dumas’s Madame Giovanni, Terrae Incognitae, 48:1, 37-54, DOI: 10.1080/00822884.2016.1147252

Alexandre Dumas,  Impressions de voyage: Journal de Madame Giovanni, Dufour, Mulat et Boulanger, Paris 1858.

Wilkie Douglas, The Journal of Madame Callegari, Historia Incognito, 2015

 

 

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