Venerable Pierre Toussaint: Acclaimed in Death as the Extraordinary Man He Was

June 29, 2023

The following is part of a notice in the Home Journal, which, a few days after [Toussaint’s death], proceeded from the pen of Mr. Henry T. Tuckerman:

“Died on Thursday, June 30th, [1853,] at his residence in this city, Pierre Toussaint, in the eighty-seventh year of his age.

“We cannot allow this brief announcement to form the sole record of one whose example is a higher vindication of his race, or rather a nobler testimony to the beauty and force of character, than all the works of fiction that studious invention ever conceived. Pierre Toussaint for more than sixty years has been the most respected and beloved negro in New York. He came here in 1787 [at 21 years of age], with his mistress. . . . He soon began to exercise his rare talents as a hair-dresser, and became indispensable to the ladies of New York, and their children. A very few of the brides, whose tresses he so daintily arrayed, yet survive; and as long as any of them lived, Pierre paid them regular visits, and was always certain of a kind reception. He supported his beloved mistress, not only in comfort, but luxury, when her means failed, until the day of her death. Meantime, he had associated himself with all the best families. The wives and daughters loved to listen to his tropical reminiscences, or his cheerful comments on the news of the day, as he adorned their heads for the evening party; and the children delighted to put themselves under his kindly hands when the time came for a hair-cutting. Pierre was thus busy from morning to night. . . . After the death of his mistress he married, and was enabled to purchase a very good house in Franklin Street. He retired from business with an adequate fortune, and thenceforth devoted himself to social and benevolent duty. His relations in the former respect were threefold; first, to his cherished lady friends and their families, whom he had attended in youth, and towards whom he exhibited a disinterested and loyal attachment, which seemed to belong to a past age or a different country, so unique and touching was its manifestation; second, to the French population of New York, to which he was attached by early association and native language; and thirdly, to his own race, the mass of whom were so much below him in tone of character and position, that only a fraternal sentiment truly Christian could have prompted his constant interest in their welfare, and ready sympathy in their pleasures and griefs. By these so wildly different classes Pierre was both respected and beloved. He moved among them in a way peculiarly his own. He possessed a sense of the appropriate, a self-respect, and a uniformity of demeanor, which amounted to genius. No familiarity ever made him forget what was due to his superiors, and prosperity and reputation never hardened his heart towards the less favored of his own class.

The tomb of Ven. Pierre Toussaint in Saint Patrick’s Cathedral. He is the only non-religious buried here.

“For sixty years he attended Mass at six in the morning, as punctual as a clock, until prostrated by illness. His days and nights were given to visits, ministrations to the sick, attendance upon the bereaved, and attempts to reform the erring and console the afflicted. . . . Often strangers paused to look with curiosity and surprise upon the singular tableau presented in Broadway of the venerable negro, with both his hands clasped in greeting by a lady high in the circles of fashion or birth, and to watch the vivid interest of both, as they exchanged inquiries for each other’s welfare.

“The last time I saw Pierre, he was seated among a group of mourners, beside the coffin of a lady venerated for years in the highest social sphere of the city. She was almost the last tie that bound him to the past. He had visited her daily for thirty years, and brought his offering of flowers; and there he sat, with his white head bowed in grief, and every line of his honest sable face wet with tears. It was a beautiful homage to worth—a beautiful instance of what may be the disinterested relation between the exalted and the humble—when the genius of character and the sentiment of religion bring them thus together.

Original burial site of Venerable Pierre Toussaint: the northside churchyard of St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral.

“Pierre was buried in the Cathedral churchyard, beside his wife and adopted child; and his funeral was attended by gentlemen and menials, his death-bed soothed by the fairest, as well as venerated by the most humble representatives of the wide circle included in his sympathies and attracted by his worth. Peace to the ashes of good, noble, loyal Pierre Toussaint!”

Hannah Sawyer Lee, Memoir of Pierre Toussaint: Born a Slave in St. Domingo, 2nd rev. ed. (Sunbury, Penn.: Western Hemisphere Cultural Society, 1992), 83–86.

Short Stories on Honor, Chivalry, and the World of Nobility—no. 884


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