Mobile’s Knights of Old: Harry Maury and the Baron

A gripping duel and scandalous love affair in 19th-century Mobile set the stage for a drama that sparked interest across the entire country.

The 19th century produced many men who fit the profile of romantic swashbucklers, always in search of adventure and daring deeds. In the 1850s, Mobile became the stage where two of the most colorful characters of their time encountered one another.

Typical of the Southern cavalier was Harry Maury, the handsome product of a prestigious Virginia family whose kinsmen were soldiers, sailors and men of adventure, all endowed with a daring spirit. Born in 1827, he began his travels and quests for excitement as soon as his education was completed. Only a teen, he soon entered the Navy and was at Vera Cruz during the Mexican War. After the war, Maury went into the merchant service and eventually was given command of the schooner Mobile. During one of those voyages, he boldly rescued the passengers of a Spanish ship which had been wrecked on a rocky reef at Cape San Blas and carried them to Havana. It was probably on that visit to Havana that Maury, who was becoming known for his luck, won $10,000 in a lottery. It was a substantial sum of money at the time, and he returned to Mobile and bought a home in Montrose. For the time being, he put aside the adventurous life of a sailor and began to study law. Like everything that Maury undertook, he was successful, and was admitted to the bar in 1852.

During his years of practicing law, Maury made many friends, especially among the ladies, who admired his handsome features and witty personality. In 1857, the appearance of a certain Frenchman set in motion an event which only added luster to Maury’s reputation as a fiery and impulsive cavalier. The Frenchman was the dashing Henri Arnous de Riviere, or the Baron de Riviere, though most called him by the short but aristocratic name, de Riviere. The word around town was that he was a chevalier of France’s Legion of Honor and a participant in two great wars, the last being the Crimean War where he displayed such gallantry that he was awarded the prized ribbon. Now in his late 20s, a little younger than Maury, he had only recently arrived in America and was touring the country, lecturing on the Crimean War and flaunting his role as a colorful Zouave soldier. 

Along with his military accomplishments, the baron was also a world traveler, an explorer and a promoter of various business ventures. Born in France in 1828, he was raised by a good family and was well-educated, fluent in both English and Spanish. His father was also a recipient of his country’s Legion of Honor, and his brother, Jules, was an accomplished and international chess player who played matches throughout Europe with masters of the game. With such a background, it’s understandable that the aristocrats of Mobile were impressed by his very presence, especially when he was received in the home of the socialite Madame Le Vert after presenting her with papers of introduction from friends in Europe. 

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It seemed that Mobile’s high society had not yet learned of the egregious baggage lurking in the Frenchman’s past. Along with the gallantry de Riviere displayed in the Crimean War, he was also guilty of insubordination which resulted in a brief stay in the guard house. Escaping from there, he made his way to Paris where he demanded the Legion of Honor from the French Government as a reward for his meritorious service. Audacity must have worked because, surprisingly, they gave it to him. He then sailed from France and landed in New York with a woman he claimed was his wife. Leaving her behind in New York, the baron circulated throughout the country and ventured as far as Chicago, borrowing money, passing bad checks and leaving behind many unpaid and angry creditors as well as a few broken-hearted young ladies. After being involved in so many dishonest business arrangements, the New York Times began to follow his escapades, labeling him “the black sheep of the family.”

How much, if any, of the baron’s bad reputation was known to Harry Maury is uncertain. But it was known that Maury had an enormous ego, enjoyed the public’s attention and had no intention of sharing his sphere of influence with some swaggering Frenchman. The baron soon got word that Maury had been casting aspersions on his character, slandering him with names like “Count No Count” and “Barren of Intellect.” The animosity finally came to a head in a coffee house on Royal Street where both men happened to be present. Maury became indignant when de Riviere began bad-mouthing the distinguished Madame Le Vert. Maury, aroused by the baron’s impudence, demanded that he retract his comments. De Riviere refused and quickly challenged him to a duel, which Maury happily accepted. 

By the middle of the 19th century, dueling was against most of the local and state laws in this country. But traditions are hard to erase, and as a matter of honor, for the nobility at least, there was still no better way to settle disputes. Nevertheless, in this case, the baron should have exercised more discretion in his choice of someone to challenge; Maury has been referred to as a “crack shot.” What’s more, de Riviere had issued the challenge, giving Maury the choice of weapons. Maury opted for the Colt’s Revolver, a weapon with which he was intimately familiar. The baron, on the other hand, was accustomed to the traditional single-shot dueling pistol, and was considered to be an excellent shot with one, but had no experience with the Colt.

According to the accounts of eyewitnesses, the venue for the duel was near Pascagoula, just over the Alabama-Mississippi state line, a site probably chosen because there were no laws against dueling there. Whatever the case, the duelists took a steamer to Pascagoula, accompanied by a large audience of Mobile gentlemen and two surgeons. By agreement, the two men positioned themselves 12 paces apart and were to advance and fire after a given count until one or both of them should fall. 

“At the first shot,” apparently from Maury’s revolver, “the Frenchman staggered backwards and seemed about to fall.” Confident his shot had found its mark, Maury was surprised that de Riviere was still standing. Nevertheless, Maury lowered his pistol, but kept watching the baron while keeping his thumb on the hammer. When he detected that the Frenchman was again cocking his pistol, Maury fired again, this time aiming for the head. That shot hit the Frenchman somewhere on the left side of his face between his nose and his mouth and sent him to the ground. While still down, he got off a second shot that missed Maury. It was later learned from the baron’s second that “the Zouave had on armor,” which served to deflect Maury’s first shot. As it turned out, though, the armor was only a $20 gold piece in the Frenchman’s vest pocket.

The baron was carried from the dueling field and attended to by one or more of the doctors who were present. It’s probable that Colonel Frederick Blount, a prominent lawyer, was among the spectators of the duel because Blount, after realizing the seriousness of the baron’s wound, had him taken to his home on Springhill Avenue to be cared for by his wife and two daughters.

The time in which it took de Riviere to recover from his wound is uncertain. But during his convalescence, he spent a great deal of time with the colonel’s wife, Mrs. Emily James Blount, and their 15-year-old daughter, Miss Emily. Apparently, both ladies were captivated by the Frenchman and his tales of adventure. Young Emily fell in love with him, and Mrs. Blount was charmed with the very notion of the romance. 

Emily Blount de Riviere, pictured circa 1900. Photo courtesy Erik Overbey Collection, The Doy Leale McCall Rare Book and Manuscript Library, University of South Alabama

As soon as de Riviere was sufficiently recovered, the three of them were discovered missing. The word was that the Frenchman and Miss Emily had run away to get married, and Mrs. Blount had chaperoned her young daughter not only as a guardian but an eager witness to the wedding ceremony. The distraught colonel wasted no time in pursuing the trio, first to New Orleans, then Havana, but always a day behind, until he finally caught up with them in late June of 1858 in New York. There, a woman came forward claiming to be the lawful wife of de Riviere, a contention the Frenchman denied, citing that the ceremony was unlawful. What followed was an exciting melodrama that lasted most of the summer, involving accusations, denials, warrants, arrests and lawsuits between Colonel Blount, de Riviere and Mrs. Blount, with young Emily caught in the middle. Newspapers from New York to Mobile delighted in publishing every scandalous detail of the extravagant affair. Somewhere during the court proceedings, the lawyers supposedly reached an agreement resolving the dispute. It’s unclear, though, whether or not the agreement was ever carried out, but Colonel Blount returned to Mobile with his wife and daughter, and de Riviere, after skipping out on his unpaid debts, eventually made his way back to France. Before leaving, however, the baron insisted he would renew his offer of marriage at a later time that would be acceptable to the colonel, and further suggested that young Emily be sent to a convent for at least a year. “I love Miss Blount above anything in the world,” wrote the Frenchman in a letter to the Times. “I love her purely for herself, knowing very well I have nothing to expect from her. As long as she will encourage me I shall protect her and will marry her as soon as I can, notwithstanding the opposition and menaces.”

In 1864, de Riviere sent word from France, reasserting his marriage proposal to Miss Emily Blount. This time, however, the proposal was formally endorsed by both his wealthy family in France and by Emily’s family, and the marriage occurred in Paris on July 4, 1865. It’s unclear as to why Colonel Blount finally consented, but it’s possible that he learned that the baron’s older brother, the Marquis de Riviere, died in France and left his great fortune to de Riviere. Whatever the reason, young Emily became Madame la Baronne, or the Marquise de Riviere.

The baron’s adventures were far from over. He earned himself another Legion of Honor for gallantry in the Franco-Prussian War, and he would later organize at least three expeditions to South America in search of gold. Ultimately, in 1892, de Riviere returned to Mobile, broken in health, but still dreaming of recovering the gold that waited for him in Bolivia.

In 1909, the Frenchman, then 81 years old, left Mobile for the last time, and returned to France to die, vowing to “lay his bones in the soil of his native land and among those of his ancestors.” Although the baron’s intrepid spirit never failed, in the end his body was only a shadow of the commanding figure it once had been. Once rich, he was broke. But when the Baron de Riviere was buried in France in May of 1909, there was one thing that remained with him: a faded scar on his face, a final reminder of his duel with Harry Maury. His wife, the formerly vivacious Emily Blount, never saw him again, dying impoverished in Mobile in 1917.

Maury, for his part, packed a lot of high adventure into his few remaining years following the duel, including a mad dash from federal authorities to Nicaragua (with the intent to overthrow that country) that ended in shipwreck. The Civil War presented Maury with still another stage to engage in his swashbuckling adventures; enlisting as a private in the Confederate Army, it wasn’t long before he was given a commission as a colonel. He went on to lead the Thirty-Second Alabama Infantry through the campaigns in the Western Theatre, and was wounded at the battle of Murfreesboro, and again at Jackson, Mississippi. He was later in charge of suppressing a rebellion of Confederate deserters in Jones County, Mississippi, and did so with so much brutality that, after the war, he would be pursued actively by the survivors. Despite a reputation for drunkenness, and trial by a military court for that very charge, there are indications that Maury was promoted to general just before the close of the war.

Maury returned to Mobile and retired to the home he had bought in Montrose. Clearly, he was in poor health from the wounds and the miserable hardships he endured during the years of war. The chest wound he suffered at Jackson, Mississippi, was especially troubling, and it would eventually take his life in the spring of 1868.

Like the old South, Maury and the baron have vanished. They lived full lives, and if you consider their many escapades, they lived a multitude of lives. To this day, those who study the minutiae of history continue to question their unique characters. De Riviere, said to be a lionhearted champion of the Crimean and Franco-Prussian Wars, as well as a charming and romantic aristocrat, was also one and the same diabolical French reprobate who hoodwinked his creditors, his business associates and several broken-hearted young ladies. That same dichotomy was also true of Maury. In his time, he too was hailed by many as a handsome hero, a brave soldier and a swashbuckling daredevil. But others in that same generation saw a murderer, a bellicose alcoholic and a troublemaker. Thus, it’s only proper to judge both men to be a mixture of good and bad qualities, personified in the many parts they played in the drama of life. Although life’s stage rarely allows those parts to be rehearsed, the audience cannot deny that Maury and the baron always performed them with a fervent passion.

Russell W. Blount, Jr., is the author of five books on the American Civil War as well as a number of articles on 19th-century America in historical journals and publications. Although a Mobilian, he does not claim any relationship with the Blounts in the story.

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