an instructive myth

Letter of Marian Delorme to M. de Cinq-Mars.

Paris, Feb 1641.
My dear Effiat,
WHILE you are forgetting me at Narbonne, and giving yourself up to the pleasures of the court and the delight of thwarting M. le Cardinal de Richelieu, I, according to your express desire, am doing the honours of Paris to your English lord, the Marquis of Worcester; and I carry him about, or rather he carries me, from curiosity to curiosity, choosing always the most grave and serious, speaking very little, listening with extreme attention, and fixing on those whom he interrogates two large blue eyes, which seem to pierce to the very centre of their thoughts.
He is remarkable for never being satisfied with any explanations which are given him; and he never sees things in the light in which they are shown him: you may judge of this by a visit we made together to Bicétre, where he imagined he had discovered a genius in a madman.
If this madman had not been actually raving, I verily believe your Marquis would have entreated his liberty, and have carried him off to London, in order to bear his extravagancies, from morning till night, at his ease. We were crossing the court of the madhouse, and I, more dead than alive with fright, kept close to my companion’s side, when a frightful face appeared behind some immense bars, and a hoarse voice exclaimed,
“I am not mad! I am not mad! I have made a discovery which would enrich the country that adopted it.”
“What has he discovered ?” I asked of our guide.
“Oh!” he answered, shrugging his shoulders, “something trifling enough; you would never guess it: it is the use of the steam of boiling water.” I began to laugh. “This man,” continued the keeper, “is named Solomon de Caus: he came from Normandy four years ago, to present to the king a statement of the wonderful effects that might be produced from his invention. To listen to him, you would imagine that with steam you could navigate ships, move carriages, in fact, there is no end to the miracles which, he insists upon it, could be performed. The Cardinal sent the madman away without listening to him. Solomon de Caus, far from being discouraged, followed the Cardinal wherever he went, with the most determined perseverance, who, tired of finding him for ever in his path, and annoyed to death with his folly, ordered him to be shut up in Bicétre, where he has now been for three years and a half, and where, as you hear, he calls out to every visitor that he is not mad, but that he has made a valuable discovery. He has even written a book on the subject, which I have here.”*
Lord Worcester, who had listened to this account with much interest, after reflecting a time, asked for the book, of which, after having read several pages, he said, “This man is not mad. In my country, instead of shutting him up, he would have been rewarded. Take me to him, for I should like to ask him some questions.”
He was, accordingly, conducted to his cell, but after a short time, he came back sad and thoughtful “ He is, indeed, mad now,” said he, “misfortune and captivity have alienated his reason, but it is you who have to answer for his madness: when you cast him into that cell, you confined the greatest genius of the age.”
After this, we went away, and since that time he has done nothing but talk of Solomon de Caus.
Adieu, my dear friend and faithful Henry. Make haste and come back, and pray do not be so happy where you are, as not to keep a little love for me.

* This book is entitled, “Les raisons de forces mouvantes avec diverses machines tant utiles que puissantes” Published 1615

We have devoted so much space to this problem, by far the most considerable of those treated in Mr. Delepierre's book, that we have hardly room for any of the others. But a false legend concerning Solomon de Caus, the supposed original inventor of the steam-engine, is so instructive that we must give a brief account of it.

In 1834 "there appeared in the Musee des Familles a letter from the celebrated Marion Delorme , supposed to have been written on the 3d February, 1641, to her lover Cinq-Mars ." In this letter it is stated that De Caus came four years ago [1637] from Normandy, to inform the King concerning a marvellous invention which he had made, being nothing less than the application of steam to the propulsion of carriages. "The Cardinal [Richelieu] dismissed this fool without giving him a hearing." But De Caus, nowise discouraged, followed close upon the autocrat's heels wherever he went, and so teased him, that the Cardinal, out of patience, sent him off to a madhouse, where he passed the remainder of his days behind a grated window, proclaiming his invention to the passengers in the street, and calling upon them to release him. Marion gives a graphic account of her visit, accompanied by the famous Lord Worcester , to the asylum at Bicetre , where they saw De Caus at his window; and Worcester, in whose mind the conception of the steam-engine was already taking shape, informed her that the raving prisoner was not a madman, but a genius. A great stir was made by this letter. The anecdote was copied into standard works, and represented in engravings. Yet it was a complete hoax. De Caus was not only never confined in a madhouse, but he was architect to Louis XIII up to the time of his death, in 1630, just eleven years BEFORE Marion Delorme was said to have seen him at his grated window!

"On tracing this hoax to its source," says Mr. Delepierre, "we find that M. Henri Berthoud, a literary man of some repute, and a constant contributor to the Musee des Familles, confesses that the letter attributed to Marion was in fact written by himself.
The editor of this journal had requested Gavarni to furnish him with a drawing for a tale in which a madman was introduced looking through the bars of his cell. The drawing was executed and engraved, but arrived too late; and the tale, which could not wait, appeared without the illustration. However, as the wood-engraving was effective, and, moreover, was paid for, the editor was unwilling that it should be useless. Berthoud was, therefore, commissioned to look for a subject and to invent a story to which the engraving might be applied.
Strangely enough, the world refused to believe in M. Berthoud's confession, so great a hold had the anecdote taken on the public mind; and a Paris newspaper went so far even as to declare that the original autograph of this letter was to be seen in a library in Normandy!
M. Berthoud wrote again, denying its existence, and offered a million francs to any one who would produce the said letter."

From this we may learn two lessons, the first being that utterly baseless but plausible stories may arise in queer ways. In the above case, the most far-fetched hypothesis to account for the origin of the legend could hardly have been as apparently improbable as the reality. Secondly, we may learn that if a myth once gets into the popular mind, it is next to impossible to get it out again. In the Castle of Heidelberg there is a portrait of De Caus, and a folio volume of his works, accompanied by a note, in which this letter of Marion Delorme is unsuspectingly cited as genuine. And only three years ago, at a public banquet at Limoges, a well-known French Senator and man of letters made a speech, in which he retailed the story of the madhouse for the edification of his hearers. Truly a popular error has as many lives as a cat; it comes walking in long after you have imagined it effectually strangled.