Venerable Pierre Toussaint, the Devoted Slave, Supports Madame Nicolas, His Impoverished Noble Mistress

June 8, 2023

Toussaint, in the meantime, was industriously pursuing his business as a hairdresser, and denying himself all but the neat apparel necessary for his occupation, never appropriating the smallest sum of his earnings to his own amusement, though at that season of youth which inclines the heart to gaiety and pleasure. Belonging to a race proverbially full of glee, and while on the island, among his sable brethren, first in the dance and song, he now scrupulously rejected all temptation for spending money, and devoted his time to his mistress. We have before alluded to the care with which he hoarded his gains. Besides the pleasure of surprising Madame with little delicacies, he had evidently another object in accumulating, of which he did not speak. He was successful, and took a respectable stand as a hairdresser. His earnings belonged in part to his mistress; but as she grew more sick, he delighted to add voluntarily the portion which belonged to himself. His sister Rosalie was a constant and faithful attendant, but Toussaint was both a companion and friend. Madame Nicolas had an affection of the throat, and was obliged to write rather than converse; to this faithful friend she used to express her wants on little scraps of paper, and he invariably supplied them, while she consoled herself with the idea that he would be fully indemnified eventually from her own property. He had no such belief; he wished for no return. In later years he said, “I only asked to make her comfortable, and I bless God that she never knew a want.”

He strove to supply her with the luxuries of her tropical climate—grapes, oranges, lemons, and bananas; he regularly procured jellies and ice creams from the best confectioners, and every morning went to market to obtain what was necessary for her through the day. His business of hairdressing proved very lucrative, and kept him regularly employed. He attended one lady after another, in constant succession, and when released from his duties hastened to render new services to his invalid mistress. She felt that influence which a strong and virtuous mind imparts, and communicated to him her perplexities. He often read to her, and, adds one of his most cherished and faithful friends,* “Perhaps this scene, so touching to his feelings and elevating to his heart, in contemplating a being honored and beloved, gradually wasting away, may have been the foundation of that piety which has sustained him through life, and become deeply seated in  his breast. He is a Catholic, full in the faith of his Church, liberal, enlightened, and always acting from the principle that God is our common Father, and mankind our brethren.”

Mrs. Philip Jeremiah Schuyler.

Toussaint seemed to understand the constitution of Madame Nicolas’s mind; he reflected that she had always been accustomed to society, and that the excitement of it was necessary for her. “I knew her,” he said, “full of life and gaiety, richly dressed, and entering into amusements with animation; now the scene was so changed, and it was so sad to me! Sometimes, when an invitation came, I would succeed in persuading her to accept it, and I would come in the evening to dress her hair; then I contrived a little surprise for her. When I had finished, I would present her the mirror, and say: ‘Madame, see how you like it.’ Oh, how pleased she was! I had placed in it some beautiful flowers—perhaps a japonica, perhaps a rose, remarkable for its rare species, which I had purchased at a greenhouse, and concealed till the time arrived.” Sometimes, when he saw her much depressed, he would persuade her to invite a few friends for the evening, and let him carry her invitations. When the evening arrived, he was there, dressed in the most neat and proper manner, to attend upon the company; and he was sure to surprise her by adding to her frugal entertainment ice cream and cakes. It appeared his great study to shield her from despondency—to supply as far as possible those objects of taste to which she had been accustomed. In this constant and uniform system, there was something far beyond the devotion of an affectionate slave; it seemed to partake of a knowledge of the human mind, an intuitive perception of the wants of the soul, which arose from his own finely organized nature. In endeavoring to procure for her little offerings of taste to which she had been accustomed, he was unwearied; not because they had any specific value for himself, but simply for the pleasure they gave to her. All he could spare from his necessary wants, and from the sum which he was endeavoring to accumulate, and to which we have before alluded, was devoted to his mistress.

* Mrs. Philip J. Schuyler [Mary Anna Sawyer]

Hannah Sawyer Lee, Memoir of Pierre Toussaint: Born a Slave in St. Domingo, 2nd rev. ed. (Sunbury, Penn.: Western Hemisphere Cultural Society, 1992), 30–32.

Short Stories on Honor, Chivalry, and the World of Nobility—no. 881


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