The story of Peter Stewart Ney isn’t necessarily tied to a crime, but it’s so fascinating that it begs a spot among the other mysteries here. In the 18th century, Ney was a well-liked teacher in the Carolinas; at one point, he designed the seal still used by Davidson College. But was he hiding a secret military past?
Many believed Peter Stewart Ney (some sources spell his middle name “Stuart”) was actually Marshal Ney, military strategist for Napoleon Bonaparte, who’d escaped France for the American South after a fake execution in 1815. According to his Davidson biography, the evidence included a deathbed confession — and more:
On his deathbed, Ney claimed to be Marshal Ney, Napoleon’s famous Marshal of France. Historians have found other connections between the two men. First, the handwriting of the two men has been determined by some experts to be the same. Second, on several occasions Peter Stuart Ney was recognized in America as Marshal Ney by those who had served under him in France. Third, Peter Stuart Ney suffered a violent reaction upon learning of the death of Napoleon. Fourth, the personalities and physical characteristics of the two were reported to be extremely similar. Fifth, Peter Stuart Ney made several references, in addition to his last dying words, that he was in fact Marshal Ney of France.
His tombstone reads: “In memory of Peter Stuart Ney/ A native of France and soldier of the French Revolution under Napoleon Bonaparte/ Who departed this life November 15th, 1846/ Aged 77 years.”
There were other clues: Peter Ney was said to run his classrooms with military precision, suggesting a background in the armed forces. He had numerous scars, as if made from shrapnel. Both Neys were skilled horseback riders, they were the exact same age, and they both had reddish hair. What’s more, according to this Napoleonic Society account:
One day in 1821, a student of Peter Stuart Ney brought to his professor a newspaper announcing the death of the Emperor at Saint-Helena. Upon reading it, Peter Ney fainted and fell from the podium. Once revived, he was brought up to his room. The doctor, believing he was overworked, advised him to rest for the remainder of the day. Although affected, this force of nature could not stay in bed very long, and we expected, naturally, to see him at his post the next morning. But, when the day came, Peter Ney’s students waited in vain for their schoolmaster. Among those concerned about this adnormal situation, was Colonel Rogers. The latter, no longer being able to endure the agonizing wait into which Peter’s absence had plunged the entire village, headed to the residence of Peter Stuart Ney and hammered on the door, without getting any response. Not being able to bear it any longer, he took it upon himself to force the lock and entered into the dwelling. There, a terrible sight awaited him: Peter Stuart Ney was lying on the ground and swimming in his blood. An appeal was made once again to the doctor who repaired, not without difficulty, this terrible suicide attempt. Returned back to him, Peter Ney had to answer what had prompted him to commit such an act. Still shocked by the news of the day, he had these words to say: “Oh…Napoleon is dead. It is my last hope that is gone…” What hope was it? That of returning, one day, to France? If Peter Stuart Ney was, in fact, Marshal Ney, we can better understand the meaning of these words.
His body was exhumed in 1887 and in 1936, a testament to the intense interest his story continues to generate. The above photo was taken in the later year, and shows Ney’s final resting place in Statesville, NC. But since both attempts to prove his identity once and for all were unsuccessful, the mystery marches on.
Image credit: AP Photo