Pierre Toussaint Prevents the Sale of His Noble Mistress’s Jewels

April 27, 2023

Melancholy letters arrived from Monsieur Bérard. His property was irreclaimably lost; and he wrote that he must return, and make the most of what he had placed in New York. This letter was soon followed by another, announcing his sudden death by pleurisy.

Madame Bérard had not recovered from this terrible shock, when the failure of the firm in New York to whom her property was entrusted, left her destitute.

“Ah!” said Toussaint, “it was a sad period for my poor mistress; but she believed—we all believed—that she would recover her property in the West Indies. She was rich in her own right, as well as her husband’s, and we said, ‘O madam! you will have enough.’”

But this present state of depression was hard indeed to one who had always lived in luxury. The constant application for debts unpaid was most distressing to her; but she had no means of paying them, and she could only beg applicants to wait, assuring them that she should eventually have ample means.

Toussaint entered into all her feelings, and shared her perplexities; and though he had scarcely passed boyhood, he began a series of devoted services.

He was one day present when an old friend called on her, and presented an order for forty dollars, thinking her husband had left the money with her, and by no means divining her state of destitution. She assured him he should have the money, and requested him to wait a short time; she considered it peculiarly a debt of honor. When he want away, she said to Toussaint, “Take these jewels and dispose of them for the most you can get.”

A typical lady of New York’s high society in the early 19th century.

He took them with an aching heart, contrasting in his own mind her present situation with the affluence to which she had always been accustomed. He had by industry begun to make his own deposit; for, as a slave, he was entitled to make the most of certain portions of his time. In a few days he went to his mistress, and placed in her hands two packets, one containing forty dollars, the other her own valuable jewels, upon which the sum was to have been raised. We may imagine what were her feelings on this occasion!

* Adjusted for inflation, USD$40 in 1790 would be the equivalent of $1,290.42 today.

Hannah Sawyer Lee, Memoir of Pierre Toussaint, Born a Slave in St. Domingo, 2nd rev. ed. (Sunbury, Penn.: Western Hemisphere Cultural Society, Inc., 1992), 28–29.

Short Stories on Honor, Chivalry, and the World of Nobility—no. 876


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