The Tomb Challenge of the Russian Princess

The Tomb Challenge of the Russian Princess Elisabeth de Demidoff, Robert LeFevre, The Hermitage

The Tomb Challenge of the Russian Princess Elisabeth de Demidoff, Robert LeFevre, The Hermitage

Père Lachaise Cemetery is an enchanted fairyland for those of us who like to wander cemeteries. So many famous corpses! So many tragic stories! And so many intriguing legends.

In 1818 the Russian Princess Elisabeth Demidoff died at Paris, aged 39. A massive mausoleum was raised above her grave at Père Lachaise, in the current classical taste. By all rights, this lavish monument for a very rich woman should have been merely another attraction for Sunday strollers at the cemetery as the memory of the lady faded. But 75 years later, strange stories began to circulate about the tomb and its occupant.

Singular Provision in a Will.

A curious will contest, according to Paris papers, is about to be tried in the Seine courts. Five years ago a Russian Princess died, leaving a large fortune. There was great surprise among her relatives when the testament was opened. By one of its clauses she left 5,000,000 francs to the person who would remain a year in the chapel to be erected above her grave in the Pere-la-Chaise. The body of the Princess, according to the legendary report, lies in a crystal coffin, in a wonderful state of preservation. No one of her relatives has been able to remain longer than two or three days in the chapel. What will become of the 5,000,000 francs is the question. Chicago [IL] Daily Tribune 25 October 1893: p. 4

A few months later, more details were given of this extraordinary bequest.

A paragraph which went the round of the Paris journals a few years ago stated in the most matter-of-fact language that a Russian Princess had left a million francs to any person who would consent to live a year and a day in the little chapel raised in Pere Lachaise Cemetery over her tomb. The body was, according to the paragraph, full in view in a glass coffin in the centre of the building, and in order that the man or woman who might undertake the long watch should never lose sight of it, and during the whole year and a day have his thoughts constantly occupied with the deceased Princess, the walls and ceilings were lined with plate-glass mirrors, so that, whichever way the watcher might turn, he or she would always be confronted by the spectacle of the dead Princess in her glass coffin. The person willing to accept the trial was not to be allowed any sort of occupation except that of reading by the funeral light at the head of the coffin, and was condemned never to exchange a word with anyone during the 365 days, not even with the person who was once a day to bring the watcher’s food. Nevertheless, in the evening, after the closing of the gates of the cemetery, the Princess’ watcher was to be permitted to stroll among the tombs for an hour. In the case of any of these stipulations being violated, the watch was to be re-commenced, or all hope of inheriting the million francs abandoned. For months after the publication of this story the conservator of Pere Lachaise Cemetery received so many letters, from all parts of the world, from persons of society anxious to earn the million francs, that it became a long daily labour to reply to them. Some persons wrote several times, but at last there came a time when the supposed legacy of a million francs seemed to be forgotten. The conservator of Pere Lachaise began, so to say, to breathe freely once more, when, to his amazement, the story, considerably augmented and improved upon, reappeared in the papers, with the inevitable consequence of a deluge of letters. This time it was affirmed that several persons had attempted the terrible death-watch, but had all abandoned it. They had, it was said, heard unearthly and mysterious sounds, and been struck with horror and fear by ghostly apparitions. Though applications to watch by the coffin of the Russian Princess came from all parts of Europe, and even North and South America, Belgium seems to have furnished the largest number of intrepid individuals willing and anxious to sit for a whole year in silence beside the glass coffin. An old soldier, occupying the post of night watcher in a factory, declared that he would certainly earn the million francs if the conservator of the cemetery would only admit him into the tomb of the Princess, and then a young shepherd of Laekesles-Bruxelles was in such a hurry to commence the watch which was to make him rich and enable him to marry the girl he loved, that he begged the conservator of Pere Lachaise to indicate the day and hour at which he might present himself. The number of widows who offered themselves for the interminable watch was remarkable. For the most part, they disguised their desire to become rich with the supposed Princess’ million francs under all sorts of excuses. They wanted the money for this and that praiseworthy object—to help a friend, to provide for a daughter, etc., and one went so far as to declare that if she earned the money she would found a home for orphans. Even members of the press were deceived by the story. One of them, writing to a fellow-journalist on the staff of the Temps, seriously inquired with whom the money had been lodged, and whether he was quite sure to receive the million if he succeeded in accomplishing the watch. How this story got circulated no one knows, not even the conservator of the Pere Lachaise Cemetery, who has used every effort to discover its author. To put an end to the fable and to the stream of letters, he has sent notes to the journals contradicting the story, but they have not yet met with so much credence as the legend of the Princess’ million. New Zealand Herald, 17 February 1894: p. 2

And several months after that the Boston Herald really got its teeth into the tale, including documents obtained from the American Ambassador to France.

THE VICTIMS OF A PARIS HOAX

A Bogus Special about the Will of a Princess.

Said to Have Offered $1,000,000 to the Person Who Would Remain One Year in the Chapel Over Her Tomb—Letters from Americans Who Were Willing to Undertake the Ordeal.

Paris, April. 4., 1894. I am impelled to denounce a certain Chicago newspaper as the cause of all sorts of emotions and of semi-diplomatic annoyances to the American embassy, to the prefecture of police and to the municipality of this great capital. It is true that the cordial and peaceful relations between France and the United States have not been strained by this blameful conduct, and no one over here believes that the great newspaper of the West would knowingly indulge in such a thing, but the trouble came all the same, and all on account of a paragraph purporting to be a special cablegram from Paris, printed in that Chicago journal on the 26th of last November, and which read as follows:

“Five years ago a Russian princess who died in this city, left by will $1,000,000 to the person who would consent to remain for the space of one year in the chapel which is erected over her tomb in the cemetery of Pere Lachaise. The princess lies in a crystal coffin. Thus the whole body is distinctly visible and this is what causes so much fright to all who have as yet attempted to gain the prize. But the will forbids all visitors. The candidate must be alone with the dead for a whole year before the $1,000,000 is won. No work is allowed. Books and newspapers, however, are permitted, and a servant brings meals regularly to the watcher. One hour’s walk a day is allowed, but this must be undertaken before 5 o’clock in the morning in summer and 8 o’clock during the winter months. Several Frenchmen have assays to win the prize, but all have given up after a short trial. One lasted out nearly three weeks, by which time he had completely lost his reason, and remains a jabbering idiot. The will makes no mention of foreigners being ineligible. There is every chance, therefore, for a strong-minded American, who fears neither ghosts, ghouls nor gravestones, to become rich in the short period of 356 days. Application is to be made to the municipality of Paris.”

Well, that “news” item” went the rounds of the United States, and the ambition of all the “cranks in the country was aroused. It took some time to stir them up, but by February most of them had “set their hearts” on winning the money, and not a few of them could “feel” their ability to do so. As early as January they began to bombard the officials in Paris and our ambassador with letters seeking information, and so numerous where these inquiries that the prefect of police had to hire another clerk, the city fathers had to increase their secretaries, and Mr. Eustis had to call in the extra hall man at the embassy to open the communications which arrived from all parts of North America. The hoax has been a most successful one, and here are some of the few letters that were received by our ambassador, who has had hundreds.

[There follow letters headed: “Ohio Heard From” “An Illinois Inquiry” “A Suspicious Vermonter” “A Texas Applicant”]

There are scores and more of others like that, about the only noticeable difference being the date and address given. One man in New York by the name of Peruginy wrote directly “to the mayor of Paris” (there are actually 20 of them in this city) on this grave subject and promised, if he succeeded in gaining the money, to give each member of the common council a handsome present, but he did not say of what value this “cadeau” would be. The letter was turned over to the bureau of cranks and curiosities where I found it. M. Lepine, the prefect of police, received at least two dozen communications from the United State asking for information, or an engagement to pass a year with the Russian princess’ mouldering remains. A Milwaukee lawyer, whose name I suppress out of respect for his father, whom I used to know well, backed up his desire to earn this money by referring to two congressmen, to an ex-consul-general to London (sent there from Indiana) and to “Col. Thomas Ochiltree, who is a personal friend of President Carnot, and is known also by the proprietor of the Paris Herald,” and he offered to give the prefect 10 per cent. of the whole amount if he secured him the place.

Of course, no harm has come out of this particular hoax beyond that of showing up the eagerness of some of our people to gain money “no matter how,” and we may all laugh now over it and at those who have been so easily gulled.

Henry Haynie. Boston [MA] Herald 22 April 1894: p. 32

Princess (or possibly Countess) Elisabeth Demidoff/Demidov, née Stroganoff/Stroganov, died at Paris in 1818, not “five years ago.” Why did the legend arise so long after her death and why did it fix on her grave, impressive as it is among the many historic monuments of Père Lachaise? The cemetery was quite new in 1818—it was only opened in 1804—but quickly became the fashionable resting place for the dead and famous including Moliere and lovers Abelard and Heloise. The massive tomb must have been quite visible in the early days, but by the 1890s it was just one among many.

The earliest version of the story I can find is the Chicago Daily Tribune version, which opened this post. It also appeared in a few papers in December 1893. In January 1894, the San Francisco Morning Call reported the story as “a very grim hoax.” The legend received fresh impetus in a fairy-tale rendition by Adolphe Brisson, journalist and drama critic [1860-1925] in Le Temps 2 November 1896.

As late as 1932 The Emporia Gazette reported that “Some time last August an ex-soldier arrived at the cemetery and solemnly announced that he had come to win the million francs offered.” “His advent, so the authorities have informed reporters, was the beginning of a veritable procession of adventurers all equipped with the same tale and paraphernalia and all eager to pass a year in the tomb of the Russian princess.

“Not only this, but letters have been received by the cemetery authorities from persons in Morocco, Tunisia, the Sudan and Indo-China, who desire to undergo the ordeal. Those who have appeared at the cemetery in person, although carefully interrogated by the authorities, have either declined or were unable to divulge the source of their information.” The Emporia [KS] Gazette 2 December 1932: p. 5

As if the story of an incorrupt princess in a crystal coffin wanting company in the tomb wasn’t lurid enough, net-lore reveals that the Princess was actually a vampire! Supposedly there are symbols and inscriptions on the mausoleum that suggest vampirism. Given the classical motifs of her tomb (columns, torches, garlands and a sarcophagus) I can’t imagine what people are thinking. Unfortunately, I can’t find close-up photographs of the inscriptions, but there are what seem to be wolf gargoyles/rain-spouts at the corners.  Possibly these are a reference to the heraldic supporters on her son Anatoly’s coat of arms as Prince of San-Donato. And, alas, there seem to be no photographs at all of the inside of the tomb. Was there really a crystal coffin? Did it contain soil from her native land? Does that slight overbite of the lady’s mouth in her portrait hide fangs?

If you know or have any thoughts on the murky origins of the original tale, send a letter to the Ambassador, who will pass it along to the papers and me. chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com

Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the Dead, The Ghost Wore Black, The Headless Horror, The Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle. Indexes and fact sheets for all of these books may be found by searching hauntedohiobooks.com.