The Ethan Gage Papers
Explorer. Gambler. Diplomat. Sharpshooter. Electrician. Savant. Treasure hunter. Romantic. Womanizer. Idealist. Opportunist.
American by birth, French by lifestyle, British by alliance, and soldier by happenstance, Ethan Gage at times seems a chameleon in the jumble of personal papers that comprise his haphazard autobiography. Yet Gage would argue he is a model of loyalty and character – except when circumstances require him to spy, steal, flee, or shoot particularly unpleasant people.
The adventurer’s story, being published in successive volumes, generally adheres to our understanding of events in the Napoleonic period, and in fact contains a great deal of detail convincing us that the manuscripts are authentic. Gage often quotes the great people he meets saying something very close to what history records they said.
However, it must be noted that our hero frequently claims personal contributions to events that until now have escaped the notice of historians. Some critics have suggested that Gage may have embroidered his exploits, but Ethan maintained that while he might exaggerate if expedient, he is honest to a fault.
It is from other sources that we get a description of our subject. Ethan Gage was by all accounts (particularly those of ladies) handsome, fit, and tall for his time, standing about five feet, eleven inches – a good five inches taller than Napoleon, who was closer to the male norm of that period. Gage had thick dark hair, a disarming smile, hazel eyes of lively intelligence, an affable manner, and great patience at listening to his self-important contemporaries. Combat veterans report that the American could display an impressive surface calm in dire situations, plus resourceful ingenuity. This produced a reputation for physical courage, despite Ethan’s occasional prudent surrenders. Gage would cheerfully differ, saying he is entirely too sensible to be brave.
Benjamin Franklin suggested that Gage was in turns resourceful, clever, and expedient, but sadly lacking in ambition, punctuality, or moral fiber. Enemies have used words such as cunning, wily, unscrupulous, charlatan, rascal, and coward. Gage regarded such critics as poor losers who at best suffer from poor digestion, and at worst are hypocritical and slanderous.
Most historians agree that Ethan shows considerable intelligence. But from Franklin on, commentators have questioned how he used his gifts.
Ethan Gage gives his date of birth as April 19, 1765 (exactly a decade before the Battles of Lexington and Concord), making him not quite four years older than Napoleon Bonaparte and about two years younger than Bonaparte’s wife, Josephine. Oddly, no record of his birth has ever been found in genealogical archives. In any event, his age put him at the juncture of two Ages: The Enlightenment and American Revolutionary period that inspired Franklin, and the upheaval of the French Revolution that eventually led to the ascent of Napoleon.
Ethan was the third of five children, born of Josiah and Mary Gage of Philadelphia. One of these children, a sister, died in infancy. Ethan’s younger brother Erasmus became a Philadelphia merchant, inheriting the business of his father. Older brother Jacob, blocked from joining his father in the Continental Army because he was still only in his mid-teens, joined an American privateer near the close of the Revolutionary War and thus showed the same adventurous streak as Ethan Gage. Jacob’s fate at sea remains unknown, unless revealed in later Gage papers. Ethan’s sister Susan married into the Bennington farm family of Trenton, New Jersey, had six children of her own, and described her famous brother as, “lazy as an aristocrat, but without the manners.”
Ethan’s mother Mary died when our hero was eight, and his father when Ethan was twenty-nine.
The formative force of Ethan’s late childhood was thus Josiah, a Continental Army officer, Third Degree Mason, entrepreneur, and political activist much in the mold of Benjamin Franklin himself. Josiah’s physical courage – he fought at the Battle of Princeton and was wounded – inspired his children, and he tried to instill a military discipline after the death of their mother. For Erasmus and Susan, conformity came easily. For Jacob and Ethan, the colonial work ethic rankled. Our hero was bright and argumentative enough that his father took him as a teen on trading trips to Quebec, where he began to learn French. Josiah also invested in education for Ethan at Harvard in 1781, a college open at that time to even the most indifferent student should they have the means to pay. Father hoped that his bright son might buckle down and take up the law.
By all reports, however, Ethan missed as many classes as he attended, showing an aptitude for rough play, country adventure, games of chance, and the charms of young ladies. When Philadelphia neighbor Annabelle Gaswick was reported with child, and told her parents the cause must be Ethan’s, a frustrated Josiah decided to send his son abroad rather than consent to a marriage that all but Annabelle believed would be a disaster. It so happened that Franklin was the American representative in Paris, the elder Gage knew the statesman, and won for Ethan a place as the great man’s assistant in Paris. He arrived in France on August 11, 1784, at the age of 19. Franklin was 78.
Ms. Gaswick meanwhile married before her baby was born and neither she nor Ethan ever claimed the son was his, since her new husband assumed paternity. Whether the child christened Jedediah Greenwood ever knew of or met the man who might have sired him is a question not yet answered by the collated Ethan Gage documents.
Elder statesman Franklin was charmed and exasperated by his young apprentice, who showed aptitude in swiftly learning French and showed lively curiosity about electricity. Gage questioned everything, believed little, and yet was consistently intrigued by the mysteries of science, magic, and religion, including paganism. He was also fascinated by the sins of Paris. Franklin advised Gage with his homilies but recognized a kindred spirit of maverick independence. Ethan was so enchanted with his French home that he regretted having to return to the United States with Franklin when that gentleman retired in 1785.
At his father’s suggestion, Ethan met an ambitious young New York fur merchant named John Jacob Astor and was sent by Astor on an early exploratory mission to the Great Lakes. Ethan’s papers on this formative journey have yet to be organized for publication, but his noted skill with the longrifle was apparently acquired at this time. We do know that Ethan descended the Mississippi to New Orleans in 1788, eventually took ship to France, and landed in Le Havre in time to learn of the storming of the Bastille on July 14, 1789. Sensing opportunity in turmoil, Gage set himself up as an American trade representative in Paris and witnessed the tumult of the French Revolution.
Ethan’s mentor Franklin died the next year, and Gage made at least one more trip to America to pay his respects and build business contacts. But he soon returned to Paris and appears to have supported himself by gambling as much as commercial enterprise, ingratiating himself with whichever revolutionary junta happened to have seized power. There he drifted, until he won a medallion in a card game in 1798 and, through a series of circumstances explained in Napoleon’s Pyramids, met the young general Bonaparte and accompanied him to Egypt. There his future bride Astiza first tried to shoot him, which is apt metaphor for most of Gage’s relationships with women.
Astiza was born on June 21, 1770, the summer solstice, and thus had just just turned twenty-eight when she met Ethan Gage. Her Macedonian mother had been captured in a rebellion and sold by Turks as a slave to Cairo, but the woman’s beauty and literacy caused her to be purchased by an Arab intellectual name Ibrahim Hariri, who took her to his bed. The result was another beauty, Astiza, who was raised by her master-father, who himself had an English father and Egyptian mother. She grew up fluent in both English and Arabic, with an aptitude for science, magic, and mysticism. She had no interest in being a product of the harem or a submissive wife to a Mameluke overlord. She sabotaged every attempt to marry or sell her by the indulgent Ibrahim, and became a priestess of ancient cultic religions. Astiza prophesized her true destiny would come from across the sea, and initially thought it might be in the person of Alessandro Silano, the French-Italian intellectual who came to Cairo to study the occult. However, her growing fear of Silano’s dabbling in black magic, and his relentless pursuit of her, led Astiza to persuade her father to sell her to an Alexandrian merchant, Omar Rahman. He was another keeper of the ancient ways, but died in Napoleon’s assault on Alexandria. Astiza was nearly killed as well, and it was Ethan Gage who persuaded Napoleon that she might be useful as a translator. Thus began in improbable romance.
When the pair was locked in Paris’s Temple Prison in Paris in 1799, Astiza kept from the American the news that she was pregnant. She would soon return to Egypt and their son Horus, or Harry, was born without Ethan’s knowledge on June 6, 1800.
After initially meeting Astiza and using her help to gain entry to the Great Pyramid, Ethan went on to adventures in the Holy Land, recounted in The Rosetta Key. Returning to France with Astiza in time to witness the coup that elevated Napoleon to power, he was temporarily heartbroken by her decision to return to Egypt.
Gage got over the loss sufficiently to have a tryst with the First Consul’s sister Pauline in 1801, after playing a small part in ending an undeclared naval war between the United States and France. This unwise liaison forced him to flee again to America where he was dispatched to the frontier by Thomas Jefferson, as explained in The Dakota Cipher. There he became embroiled with the predatory, mercurial Aurora Somerset.
Returning to Paris in 1802 to promote the sale of the Louisiana Territory to the United States, Gage was sent to the Mediterranean on a secret mission by Napoleon. His adventures reunited him with several acquaintances, as explained in The Barbary Pirates.
By 1803, age 38, Ethan is older, wiser, and more than ready to retire and settle down.
His adventures with Napoleon Bonaparte, however, are just beginning.