Prior to becoming President of the United States, John Quincy Adams held several posts as ambassador for the young country. During the War of 1812, he was posted in Russia and had taken his wife Louisa Catherine Adams and their third son, Charles Francis, with him. At the end of the war, John was called to Ghent to participate in the peace talks. It was winter, so he left Louisa and Charles behind to wait until he knew where his next posting would be.
The talks concluded more quickly than he thought and he sent word to Louisa to join him as soon as possible in Paris. In February of 1815, Louisa Adams left St. Petersburg traveling with Charles, then seven-years-old, a French nurse, and two men servants. The weather was bitterly cold, at one point causing even the Madeira they carried to freeze solid.
The journey was perilous, particularly during the winter, but along the way, Louisa met with a few friends and help from the locals. The snow in Courland (present-day Latvia) was so deep at one point that they had to ask for help. The bells were rung and the inhabitants “came out in numbers with pickaxe and shovel to dig us out.” Evidently, this was a common occurrence in the area. Another example of the type of danger she encountered occurred in Courland as well.
When they reached Mitau (also known as Jelgava), the capital of Courland, they stopped to rest for a few hours before proceeding another four miles and stopping for the night. While there she had two visitors. One, Countess Mengs, a woman Louisa had met in St. Petersburg and liked very much, came to extend an invitation to stay for a couple of days and meet some people she thought Louisa would like. Although she knew she would enjoy the visit as the Countess was “a woman of polished manners, fine sense, and charming conversation,” Louisa explained the urgency of her journey and declined.
After the Countess left, the innkeeper came in, shut the door, and checked the windows to be sure no one else was listening. He said he needed to speak to her in private. The house was well-appointed and he was a friend of Countess Mengs, but Louisa was becoming a little uneasy at the sense of mystery about him. After checking for listeners again, he sat down close to her and began his message.
He proceeded to tell her that there had been a dreadful murder along this very road the night before and urged her to wait for the morning before leaving. She told him that she only had four more miles to go and would arrive at the post-house before 9 or 10 o’clock, so she anticipated no risk. He then told her that he had only mentioned the murder incidentally and that the real reason he wanted to warn her had to do with one of her servants!
Louisa knew that one of the men had been taken prisoner from Napoleon’s army and was being sent back to France in her service, but the innkeeper proceeded to tell her that he was well-known in Mitau and was “a desperate villain of the very worst character.” He didn’t believe that Louisa’s life was safe if she kept him on as a servant. At the same time, the “gallant” gentleman begged her not to dismiss him in Mitau, because he was afraid the man would know where the information came from and “his house might be burned over his head.”
He didn’t think she was safe, but at the same time didn’t want her to do anything that would put him in danger. That along with telling her about the murder, incidentally, makes it seem that all he wanted to do was frighten Louisa. Certainly, that’s all he accomplished.
Louisa made a point of remaining calm and told him that the man had “behaved very well so far”, although she did suspect him of stealing a silver cup that belonged to her son, but she had no proof. He also was more efficient in making arrangements for the journey than the other man, and it had been stipulated by a bond that she couldn’t dismiss him, unless he behaved improperly, until they reached France.
The innkeeper then told her she should “appear to put all confidence in him [the servant], to seem to rely on him in any emergency, and to accept his advice if any difficulty occurred.” He then apologized for taking the liberty of speaking to her and begged her to keep their conversation a secret. She promised and said that it was time for her to leave and thought that if she changed her plans now it would seem suspicious. The Countess then reappeared and urged her to take her up on her offer and Louisa again declined.
“All this I declined, I fear, from a proud and foolhardy spirit, and the conviction that, however retarded, the difficulties of my path must be conquered, and it was as well to face them at once.”
She resumed her journey and after about four miles, the postilion stopped and told her that he wasn’t the man who usually traveled that road, the other being sick, and that they were lost.
“Until eleven o’clock at night we were jolted over hills, through swamps and holes, and into valleys into which no carriage had surely ever passed before; and my whole heart was filled with unspeakable terrors for the safety of my child. . . I consulted Baptiste frequently and took his advice as to the best mode of proceeding; and at twelve o’clock at night, the horses being utterly worn out, and scarce a twinkling star to teach of living light, we determined that Baptiste should ride one of the horses and endeavor to find a road through which we might be extricated from our perilous situation.” (She hasn’t mentioned the name Baptiste before, but I assume it’s the French servant she had been warned about.)
About fifteen minutes later, she heard voices and the trampling of horses feet. She was terrified and thought her heart would burst. Meanwhile, Charles Francis slept quietly.
Baptiste rode up to the carriage and told her that he had found a nearby house and a Russian officer who offered to help. The path they were on was even more treacherous than they imagined and they were surrounded by gullies that the carriage could fall into. Proceeding at “foot-pace” they managed to reach the inn about half-past one. After accepting refreshments and a small gift, the Russian officer left telling the innkeeper to take care of Louisa and her horses.
Louisa made a point to thank her servants for the “prudence and discretion” they had shown during the incident and told them to be ready to leave early in the morning. Louisa then went to bed, having survived the incident as well as the terror induced by the innkeeper’s warning.
“After thanking most devoutly the Almighty for His protection through this hour of trial, I sought repose with renewed confidence in the persons attached to my service, and determined not to listen to any more bugbears to alarm my nerves and weaken my understanding.”
Scribner’s Magazine, Volume XXXIV July – December, page 449. This is the narrative of her journey written originally for her family members, with an introduction by her son.
The Adams Women: Abigail & Louisa Adams, Their Sisters and Daughters by Paul C. Nagel