The Real Count of Monte Cristo Meets the Real Tom Sawyer


No, not in a new issue of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, but in this post.

So everyone knows the tale of the Count of Monte Cristo, yes? YES? Well, turns out that Alexandre Dumas, also the sorta author of The Three Musketeers, based the Edmond Dantès character on his father, Thomas-Alexandre, born in Hispaniola and the son of a Norman aristocrat and a slave named Marie-Cessette. “Alex” left what is now Haiti in servitude but became a warrior of merit in Revolutionary France.

Valiant, resolute and born to lead, Dumas was swiftly promoted to the rank of general, commanding the Army of the Alps that carried the Revolutionary war against Austria and its Piedmontese allies into Italy itself. ‘Brave Dumas is tireless,’ reported an admiring fellow officer, after a victorious assault on the Mont Cenis pass; ‘everywhere he shows up the slaves are defeated, and soon Italians will be worthy of their ancestors.’

Having found a devoted wife in Marie-Louise Labouret, daughter of a hotelier in the garrison town of Villers-Cotterêts, Dumas followed his new commander-in-chief, Napoleon Bonaparte, on the ill-starred 1798 expedition to Egypt. The First Consul was scarcely a friend to persons of colour, as the hapless Haitian rebel leader Toussaint L’Ouverture would soon discover, but for the time being Dumas’s fearless impetuosity served its purpose. Nemesis struck when the black paladin, in a face-off between the two men over mismanagement of the campaign, showed himself ready to place duty to France above abject submission to the Man of Destiny. ‘Blind is he who does not believe in my fortune,’ snarled Napoleon, implicitly pronouncing the general’s doom.

On the way home from Egypt, Dumas was captured and imprisoned at Taranto by officers of the Holy Faith Army, a ragtag-and-bobtail force busy massacring republicans, liberals and Jews in the name of King Ferdinand of Naples. Two years of frantic petitioning by Marie-Louise Dumas proved useless and the dungeon door was only unlocked when French forces finally seized control of southern Italy, allowing her husband to totter homewards, wracked with the cancer that would soon kill him. Inevitably his appeals for financial assistance were ignored and, though not cashiered from the army, he was pointedly cold-shouldered by his brother officers. ‘Whatever my sufferings and pains,’ Dumas declared, ‘I will always find enough moral force to fly to the rescue of my country at the first request the government sends me.’ No such summons ever arrived.

Did Napoleon, morally contemptible as he was, effectively kill the general? Dumas’s son, a yet more famous Alexandre, certainly believed so. …

The blackguard Corsican! Betrayer of the Revolution! Midget inspirer of pastries! Loser at Waterloo! May Satan inflame your piles for all eternity!

On another literary front, Tom Sawyer — yes, wooer of Becky Sharp, friend of Huck Finn — was actually a Brooklyn-born fireman with a taste for drinking and gambling and Turkish bathhouses.

Sawyer, 32, who was born in Brooklyn, had been a torch boy in New York for Columbia Hook and Ladder Company Number 14, and in San Francisco he had battled fire for Broderick 1, the city’s first volunteer fire company, under Chief David Broderick, the first fire chief. Twain perked up when Sawyer mentioned that he had also toiled as a steamboat engineer plying the Mexican sea trade. Twain well knew that an engineer typically stood between two rows of furnaces that “glare like the fires of hell” and “shovels coal for four hours at a stretch in an unvarying temperature of 148 degrees Fahrenheit!”

Sawyer had proved his heroism February 16, 1853, while serving as the fire engineer aboard the steamer Independence. Heading to San Francisco via San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua and Acapulco, with 359 passengers aboard, the ship struck a reef off Baja, shuddered like a leaf and caught against jagged rocks. “Don’t be afraid,” Captain F. L. Sampson told the passengers on deck. “You’ll all get to shore safely.” He pointed the ship head-on toward the sand, intending to beach it. In the raging surf the vessel swung around broadside.

Sawyer raced below deck and dropped into two feet of water. Through a huge rent, the sea was filling up overheated boilers below the waterline, cooling them rapidly. Chief Engineer Jason Collins and his men were fighting to keep steam up to reach shore. After the coal bunkers flooded, the men began tossing slats from stateroom berths into the furnaces. Sawyer heard Collins cry, “The blowers are useless!”

Loss of the blowers drove the flames out the furnace doors and ignited woodwork in the fire room and around the smokestack. Steam and flames blasted up from the hatch and ventilators. “The scene was perfectly horrible,” Sampson recalled later. “Men, women and children, screeching, crying and drowning.”

Collins and James L. Freeborn, the purser, jumped overboard, lost consciousness and sank. Sawyer, a powerful swimmer, dove into the water, caught both men by their hair and pulled them to the surface.

Read the rest.

Wait till it’s learned that the White Whale in Moby Dick was actually a hobo who accosted Melville in a bakery but who led thousands of Union soldiers to their deaths in the Civil War because he was color blind.


2 thoughts on “The Real Count of Monte Cristo Meets the Real Tom Sawyer

  1. In fact Napoleon himself was a fictional character, invented out of whole cloth by a committee at the Congress of Vienna, in order to cover up a disastrous food poisoning incident involving Camembert cheese.


    1. I have every reason to believe you’re making that up, but as I am only 84% certain, I’ll let it go for now.


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