How Queen Marie-Antoinette Almost Escaped to America

Written by on December 1, 2015 in Guest Blogs

How the French Royal family almost escaped to America… of course we all know they didn’t but it nearly worked and it seems that their cats may have made it safely!

During the time of the French Revolution, there was a shipping company in Wiscasset Maine which had contracts for trading in Paris.  It was owned by Colonel James Swan, and one of his Captains was a man called Stephen Clough. He sailed a ship called The Sally back and forth between Maine and France. The Sally was docked at the port of Le Havre in the summer of 1792 when King Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette and their children were arrested. Royalist sympathizers decided to try to rescue the King and his family. They came up with the idea of putting them on a ship to America. Since the Sally was there and was a known, legitimate trading ship, Captain Clough was recruited into the plot as the getaway pilot. Now the plotters just had to come up with a plan to get the royals out of prison.


After their arrest, the King and Queen had been taken to the Temple prison and put in separate cells. The palace was ransacked and the royal possessions were sold in the street. Captain Clough and others bought them up and placed them on the Sally so the royals would feel more comfortable when they reached their new American home.

It seems, however, that the royal supporters took too long to plan the escape and, in December 1792, Louis XVI was brought to trial, the next month the guillotine claimed his royal head. His supporters stepped up their efforts to try to save the Queen and her two children.

In August 1793, a plot was formed and prison guards were bribed. A note was sent to the Queen on paper wrapped around the stem of a carnation. She replied by pricking a message in the paper with a pin, but the guard, who had been paid off, had a change of heart, so he showed the note to his superiors and Marie Antoinette’s fate was sealed.

The Queen was immediately moved to the Conciergerie, a more secure prison to await her fate. In October, she was tried and, of course, found guilty of treason. Her head rolled into the same basket as her husband’s before her. With no further hope of saving the queen, Captain Clough sailed back to Maine with his boat load of French finery and, the story goes, the royal family’s cats.

Meanwhile back in Maine…

Before it had all gone wrong, Captain Clough had sent a letter to his wife. He knew better than to arrive home with an unexpected house guest –  he would have been in big trouble. Of course, when Mrs Clough got the news, she started cleaning, painting and decorating her home, and word leaked out to the townsfolk that a queen would be arriving. Everyone did their best to spruce up the place and all the ladies were fitted out in new dresses.

Unfortunately, the Sally arrived in the Wiscasset harbor without the Queen. It was, however, filled with fine French things: carved furniture, velvet and silk draperies, wallpaper, rich fabrics, etc. Captain Clough and Swan divided up the cargo. The Clough house was papered with royal wallpaper and filled with gilded furniture. It soon became known as the Marie Antoinette House. About 9 months after Mr Clough’s return, Mrs Clough gave birth to a little girl who was given the middle name of Antoinette in memory of the almost house-guest queen.

Marie Antoinette Clough house

The Marie Antoinette house still stands in Wiscasset. It was built in 1744 and originally stood on Squam Island, but was moved to its current location in 1838. Today it’s a private residence and not open to the public.

What about those cats?

The Maine Coon

An unusual breed of large, long-haired cat hails from the state of Maine. Because of its ample size and long bushy tail, it resembles a raccoon and is called a Maine coon. Its origins are unknown but several legends try to explain where this big cat came from. One of the most intriguing tales says they came from France – from the palace of Versailles to be exact. Supposedly, some of Marie Antoinette’s cats were put on a ship along with a load of her belongings and sailed across the sea to Maine.

marie antoinette Maine coon

Fact: In the 1700s, long-haired Angora or Persian cats were very popular among the Parisian upper classes. King Louis XV, Louis XVI’s grandfather, loved them and let them roam and breed freely at the palace of Versailles. In later years, they became a nuisance and overran the palace property. Louis XVI (Marie Antoinette’s husband) hated them and reportedly used them for target practice.

Is it possible that some of these cats were on Captain Clough’s boat and ended up in Maine? Could they have bred with the local cats to become the large furry cat we know today as the Maine Coon? Well, we may never know, but it sure makes a good story!

Read the full article hereMargo Lestz lives in Nice, France where she blogs as thecuriousrambler and is the author of French Holidays and Traditions and Curious Histories of Nice, France. Margo says “Life is never boring and I learn something new every day… and there are always surprises”.

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