Memoirs of Henry Villard/Volume 1/00.2

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Ancestry: Early Youth in Germany.—1835-1853

HENRY VILLARD was born on April 10, 1835, in Speyer, Rhenish Bavaria, in the home of his maternal grandparents, which now bears a municipal tablet commemorating the event. His baptismal name was Ferdinand Heinrich Gustav Hilgard. His branch of the Hilgard family, whose surname occurs widely in South German village nomenclature, was of Nassau stock.[1] His first known ancestor, Johann Hilgard, was a landowner and a member of the Reformed Church. His descendants of the fourth, fifth, and sixth generations filled pastorates in various parts of what is now Rhenish Prussia. One of them, Gerhard Samuel Hilgard, wrote in 1792 'A Defence of the Revealed Christian Religion,' which he dedicated and presented to King Frederick William II. His son, Jacob Hilgard, was tutor to the heir of the Prince of Nassau-Weilburg, and afterwards associate pastor at Bacharach on the Rhine, where he married a daughter of the pastor, Theodor Erasmus Engelmann, a recluse, but a man of great learning. After Jacob's marriage, the Prince of Nassau-Weilburg gave him the pastorate of Marnheim, a village on the military road to Mainz. At the time of his occupancy this was considered a very lucrative charge, but the exposed position of Marnheim led to its being plundered freely by both contestants in the wars growing out of the French Revolution. Both Jacob Hilgard and his wife believed in the doctrines of the Revolution, and he was so outspoken in favor of them that he was driven by mob violence into exile for four years.

Henry Villard's grandfather was Jacob's son Friedrich. His education suffered considerably because of the unrest of the times and the consequent impoverishment of the family. An uncle sent him to the gymnasium at Idstein in Nassau, and helped him to become a notary in Nancy. Later he was made burgomaster in Kirchheimbolanden, a village near Marnheim, mayor of Speyer, and incumbent of other important Government offices. A man of very solid character and of unusual beauty of person, he was first married to Charlotte Henrich, the daughter of a rich banker whose descendants still carry on his banking business in Neustadt on the Haardt.

Their first-born was Gustav Leonhard Hilgard, who in turn became father of Henry Villard. Gustav, the most talented of the five sons born to Friedrich Hilgard by his first marriage, was somewhat hot-blooded and masterful, with beautiful light-blue eyes and curly, dark-brown hair. Educated at the gymnasium in Speyer, he afterwards studied at the universities of Munich, Heidelberg and Würzburg, at all of which an inheritance received from his mother, who died in 1818, enabled him to live handsomely and to lend a helping hand to needy fellow-students. In 1828 he passed a brilliant examination, and went with his brother Theodor to Paris to attend law lectures at the Collège de France. Returning to the Palatinate, he was appointed to a small legal position at Zweibrücken, and later was transferred to Frankenthal, where he filled a somewhat higher position. Early an admirer of Katharina Antonia Elisabeth (commonly called Lisette) Pfeiffer, he formally asked for her hand in 1830. The marriage was delayed for nearly three and one-half years because of the difference in religion of the pair, Lisette being a Catholic. Finally the consent of the Church was obtained and the home was set up in Frankenthal. Lisette, a charming personality with blue eyes, blond hair and delicate features, was the daughter of a veteran — Franz Pfeiffer — of the wars against France from 1790 until 1801, during which time he fought in the army of the Prince of Condé. For his services, and in recognition of three serious wounds, he was invested in 1816 with the order of St. Louis, which ennobled him and entitled him to a pension. When his military career ended, Franz Pfeiffer entered the civil service, becoming in 1817 director of the Government salt monopoly in Speyer. He married in 1809 Marie Anna Berchtold. As Henry Villard spent most of his boyhood in Pfeiffer's house, this genial, extraordinarily handsome, and kind-hearted grandfather played an important part in the boy's life.

Gustav Hilgard experienced the usual changes of station which then came frequently to those in the legal employ of the Government. In 1839 he settled in Zweibrücken, and remained there until 1856, when he was appointed a justice of the Supreme Court of the kingdom of Bavaria at Munich. Zweibrücken was therefore the true scene of Henry Villard's boyhood, although he made many visits — sometimes staying a year — to his grandparents in Speyer. The boy early proved himself a natural leader in games and in the broils between the children of the city's aristocracy and those of the working classes. His remarkable imagination early displayed itself, as did a thirst for knightly romance, for puppet theatres and theatricals. He soon showed, despite his aristocratic tendencies, that he shared the republican instincts which manifested themselves throughout the Hilgard family, except in the case of his father. Indeed, a large political family migration had taken place in 1833 and 1835 to Belleville, Illinois, a town a few miles from St. Louis, embracing his great-uncle Theodor Erasmus Hilgard, who resigned a judgeship, because he “deemed it a priceless advantage to make my [his] children freemen.”

In 1848 the French Revolution upset the whole of South Germany, and incidentally had a marked influence upon the career of Henry Hilgard, although he was then but thirteen years of age. The expectation of an immediate invasion by the forces of the new French Republic threw the entire town of Zweibrücken, like the rest of Rhenish Bavaria, into a state of feverish excitement. In the gymnasium, which Henry had entered with difficulty, and prematurely, as soon turned out, studies could hardly be thought of, and politics was the sole theme of conversation. The right of public meeting was soon granted by the monarchy to the people, and the addresses of the Revolutionary orators, together with the recruiting of a militia force of five hundred men, furnished the youth of the town with endless excitement. The proceedings of the Frankfort Parliament interested Henry so greatly that he finally obtained his father's permission to visit Robert C. Hilgard, a step-uncle (but little older than himself), then entering mercantile life in Frankfort. He spent a week with this young relative, seeing the sights of the city and listening to the speakers at the sessions of the Parliament. By this time Henry's political sympathies were profoundly democratic, and, with boyish enthusiasm, he returned to his home wearing a “Hecker hat” with a red feather. The rector of the gymnasium was so incensed at this as to give him, on his return, a choice between the hat and expulsion. This incident did not improve Henry's relations with his father, who continued to be loyal to the Government and bitterly hostile to the Revolutionary movement with which his brothers sympathized most keenly. The demoralization of Henry's studies, for which he was plainly not ripe, led to parental threats of apprenticing him to a trade.

In May, 1849, the Revolution began in earnest with the establishment of a provisional government for Rhenish Bavaria at the town of Kaiserslautern. Since it demanded the adhesion of all officials, Henry's father went into a brief exile. By June the gymnasium was at a standstill, and Henry was free to roam the streets and watch the beginnings of war. Before this occurred, he and his classmates conspired to omit, in the repetition of the customary daily prayer, the passage about the welfare of “His in-Christ-anointed Majesty, our most gracious Lord and King.” As fortune would have it, the city pastor, Dr. Krieger, who was the religious instructor, called upon Henry when the class next assembled. The latter repeated the prayer without reference to the King. Taken sharply to task, the boy still refused to pray for the sovereign, saying that it would be disloyal to the rightful provisional Government. His classmates stood by him. “This,” cried the pastor, “is open rebellion and contempt of religion, of his Majesty the King and of myself. I will instruct you no longer.” And he flung out of the room, never to return.

A Prussian army under the command of Prince William of Prussia, afterwards Emperor William of Germany, speedily ended the existence of the new republic. The youngsters of Zweibrücken, Henry among them, had no more thrilling adventure than the spending of a night on a reconnoissance with the militia of the town. This body, much decreased in numbers, later saw brief active service, in which one of the older students of the gymnasium lost his life. With the restoration of the old order, the gymnasium was reopened. The head of the school, the rector, at once sentenced Henry Hilgard for insubordination and rebellion. The punishment was a refusal to advance him with his class, which meant the loss of a year's studies. This added greatly to his father's dissatisfaction, and led to a renewal of the threat of an apprenticeship.

As a compromise, Henry succeeded, with the aid of his mother, in obtaining his father's consent to his spending a year at a French semi-military college in Phalsbourg in Lorraine, to which sons of prominent families were frequently sent. In order to obtain some knowledge of French he went to Phalsbourg in September, 1849, a month in advance of the opening of the school. Here he was fortunate in obtaining daily tuition from no less a personage than Alexandre Chatrian, already a story-writer, but not yet famous. When the school began, the life was found to be very rigorous, the study hours long, those for recreation few, the food insufficient, and the morale of the boys as a whole poor. Despite the fact that he found only one or two congenial friends, Henry enjoyed the life and profited by it, especially physically, growing a foot in height and changing from a weakling to a handsome, vigorous and shapely lad. A visit to his home at Easter in 1850 impressed his parents with his improvement so favorably that his father decided to send him in the fall to Speyer to his grandmother's (Franz Pfeiffer had died suddenly in 1847, almost in Henry's presence), in order to allow him to complete his schooling at the gymnasium in that city.

In September, 1850, Henry passed a brilliant examination at Phalsbourg, visited his mother in Switzerland, and was settled in Speyer in his new home, in which he continued to live until his graduation in 1852. As a scholar he took no high rank, but by this time a strong taste for German literature asserted itself, and a desire to write, which became more and more pronounced as time went on. As a boy he was devoted to dancing and horseback riding. He was much in company with his classmates, and, belonging to a forbidden students' society, became involved in several escapades, one of which was punished with a day's arrest and confinement on bread and water. This sentence increased his popularity with those of his own age, and evoked nothing more than a cutting reprimand from his father.

A serious difference with his father was brought about by Henry's career at the universities of Munich and Würzburg, at which he studied in 1852 and 1853. Letters and art were uppermost in his mind when it came to the choice of a profession, but his father failed to see that, as the Germans put it, “the desire of the heart is the voice of fate,” and advocated a technical training. He accompanied his son to Munich and had him matriculated at the Polytechnicum. After two months of hard work Henry found his tasks there positively repugnant. Instead of advising his father, he then made the mistake of having himself transferred to the University, and devoted himself to lectures by the poet Geibel and by the æsthete and critic Moritz Carriere. The expense of this change of studies, as well as membership in the Franconia, a fashionable student corps, soon ran him into debt, while the corps life itself, with all its attractions, such as duelling, balls, and “Kneip-Abende,” cost him many valuable hours that should have been devoted to his university work. When his father discovered, by accident, the change in his son's mode of life and studies, he ordered him home at once. After much cogitation and much warranted anger, he sent his penitent son to the quieter University of Würzburg, and committed him to a study of the law. Here the subject of this sketch lived quietly and worked hard for some months, but again the old desire for literature and æsthetics, for the study of which he could never gain his father's consent, revived. Gradually the law became more and more distasteful, and his situation was made the more difficult by the necessity of paying off his Munich creditors, who were so ready to trust him when he was a member of the Franconia.

In this emergency he bethought himself of well-to-do relatives at Wachenheim on the Haardt, who loaned him the sum of several hundred gulden, but informed him that they would not keep the loan a secret from his father. Rather than proceed to Zweibrücken and throw himself upon the clemency of a parent who had never treated him otherwise than sternly, and who had insisted upon forcing his son into impossible grooves, Henry decided upon migration to a foreign country. It was his intention to work hard there and to show his parents and sisters that he could make an honorable career for himself by his own endeavors, and this he later thought could be furthered by a change of name. How well he succeeded in his efforts is set forth in the following chapters from his own hand. After trying to obtain temporary employment in Dresden and Hamburg, and declining an opportunity to become an officer in the Austrian army, he took passage on the bark Nordamerika for New York, sailing from Hamburg. He landed in America on October 18, 1853, after a tedious and stormy voyage, with but a scanty wardrobe and an empty purse, ignorant of the English language, and with out a friend to turn to in the American metropolis.

  1. The line, briefly tabulated, is as follows:
      Johann1 Hilgard (deceased before 1626) and Doris Zwenk.
      Philipp2 Hilgard (1603-1634) and Christine Caesar; married in 1626.
      Johann Gottfried3 Hilgard (born in 1628) and Anna Katharina Caps; married in 1654.
      Johann Heinrich4 Hilgard (born in 1669) and Luise Margarete Mauel; married in 1701.
      Gerhard Samuel5 Hilgard (1717-1810).
      Jacob6 Hilgard (1752-1813) and Maria Dorothea Engelmann (1760-1845); married in 1782.
      Georg Friedrich (Fritz)7 Hilgard (1784-1859) and Lotte Henrich (1780-1818); married in 1806.
      Gustav Leonhard8 Hilgard (1807-1867) and Lisette Pfeiffer (1811-1859), parents of "Henry Villard"; married June 11, 1833.