Thursday, June 6, 2019

Richard Montgomery and His "Disagreeable Companion"

Just to be upfront, this particular post is not going to have a lot of pictures. You’ll see why.

Richard Montgomery is best known as a hero of the Revolutionary War. The former British army officer who gave his life leading his men in a heroic charge against the walls of Quebec. His wife, Janet Livingston Montgomery, was left a saintly widow the keeper of her husband’s memory.  
But this post isn’t about that.
The much romanticized Death of Montgomery 

Richard Montgomery 
This post is about Montgomery the man. The Montgomery, who after experiencing some of the worst fighting and conditions imaginable in the French and Indian War returned to Ireland to recover his health. There he met a woman who struck his fancy. They engaged in a relationship in which they enjoyed connubial bliss without actually marrying.

That is until 1769. I’ll let Montgomery tell you what happened next with a passage from a letter he wrote to a friend; “in short she has clapped me” She gave him the clap.

Gonorrhea.

Montgomery was understandably upset. He wrote, “I have touched no other woman” which seems to indicate this mystery lady was less inclined to monogamy than he was . His “indignation and rage” were so great that he considered abandoning the woman with pocket change but instead as “the flames of my passion have subsided with those of my urine” he settled her with seventy pounds a year.

The end of this story brings up a great many questions. Who was this woman? Had Montgomery intended to marry her? Why did he feel the need to pay her so much money? Was there a child involved?  These questions may never be answered.

Neisseria gonorrhoeae 
What is known is that Gonorrhea had no cure in the 18th century. According to the CDC Neisseria gonorrhoeae is a bacterium that infects the mucus membranes of the reproductive tract. Its symptoms include pain, discharge from the urethra, painful or burning urination (which Montgomery clearly had) and cysts on the skin of the effected area. Untreated it could lead to sterility in both men and women. Today Gonorrhea is treated with antibiotics. In Montgomery’s time treatments were few. Mercury injected into the urethra was used for both Gonorrhea and Syphilis. For men, the French were known to “clap” or hit from both sides an appendage with a cyst to get rid of it. (This is one possible source for Gonorrhea’s nickname “the clap” and really, really horrible to think about)
This syringe for injecting mercury into the Urethra
was found in Blackbeard's wrecked ship

Since there was no way that Montgomery could have gotten rid of his Gonorrhea by the time he married Janet Livingston in the drawing room at Clermont in 1773 and there is no indication that they did not conjugate their marriage, it stands to reason that he passed the clap on to his wife. 

This may have been a part of why she never married again. Without dismissing the affection, she felt for Montgomery remarrying would also have led to humiliation for her and him. A new husband on discovering that he had been “clapped” could only come to two conclusions; that Janet was loose in her morals and we can see that type of reaction from Montgomery to his initial infection or that Richard Montgomery had been a bit free with himself and infected not only himself but his wife. This would surely have caused a scandal because immediately after his death Montgomery was so lionized by the colonies. The first monument that Congress ever voted to build was a monument to Montgomery and later editions of Common Sense by Thomas Paine featured an appearance by Montgomery’s very patriotic ghost.

Richard Montgomery is remembered today as the leader of the invasion of Canada and a hero of the Revolution, but he was a man. A man with a “disagreeable companion” which affected his life and Janet’s since; perhaps, had he not gotten the clap he would have married his mystery woman and stayed in England,. Her decisions about love and marriage after Montgomery’s death were probably at least partially influenced by the condition that her husband had shared with her and a need to protect both her reputation and his. [i]

Now aren't you glad I didn't add more pictures?




[i] The letter in which Richard Montgomery talks about his venereal disease belongs to the Montgomery Collection at the William L. Clements Library at the University of Michigan.

I should also give credit to Rick Atkinson’s excellent book The British are Coming which was the means by which I became aware of the existence of the letter this blog is based on. 

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