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1686 Huguenot Protestant religious prisoner’s pin prick note, with notes of wife and child, and 1842 letter of Dr. Johnson Eliot, a founder of Georgetown Medical College
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[FRENCH HUGUENOT PRISONER]. Pin-pricked Manuscript Note, with his wife’s Autograph Note, in French, [1686]. 1 p. Also with his son or daughter’s additional note in English. JOHNSON ELIOT, Autograph Letter Signed, June 19, 1842, gifting the above letter. 1 p. In all 3 pp.

Inventory #24146.01       SOLD — please inquire about other items

Complete Transcript and Translation

The prisoner’s manuscript consists of a 7.625 x 6.125" paper laboriously pin-pricked with 4 lines of Roman capital letters. It reads: “NE TROUVERES VOUS POIN LE MOIEN DENVOIER DE QUOI POUVOIR ESCRIRE”, which translated means: “You will not find the means to send that which you can write.” Accompanying eighteenth-century provenance information indicates that the note was fashioned while the man, a French Huguenot, was in prison without access to writing instruments. The prisoner jumped one hurdle, that of finding an alternate way of “writing” with a pin, but he hit another stumbling block: how to send the messages. It is unclear whether the prisoner meant it will be impossible to convey messages out from prison, or to himself in prison.


[Endorsement by prisoner’s wife:]  “ce papier a ete fait par mon mari dans le cachot de la grite ou il a ette garde 6 semaine par ni homme et de la conduit a la prison ou il a ette 8 mois 1/2 en 1686 du temps de la persecusion de notre religión”

[Translated, “This paper was done by my husband in the dungeon of the grite[?], where he was kept 6 weeks in solitary confinement, and then brought to the prison, where he was held for 8-1/2 months in 1686, at the time of the persecution of our religion.”]

[Separate Endorsement by prisoner’s daughter or son, in English:]  “These papers were pricked with a pinn when my Dear father was in a dark Dungeon for want of penn and Ink in his confinement for Religion in the persecution in france” [4 x 2¾ in.]

[Accompanying Statement:]  “The accompanying paper is presented to the Institute both on account of its antiquity and the interesting circumstances connected with it.

            It was pricked with a pin by a Protestant confined in a dungeon and afterwards executed for his religious belief during the persecution in France in the year 1686.

            It is unquestionably genuine having been carefully preserved by the descendants of the sufferer.

                                                Johnson Eliot / Washington City / 19th June 1842” [5 x 8 in.]

Eliot informs us that the prisoner was executed, which may be either an assumption, or information he gleaned from the prior owner of the notes.

Historical Background

King Henry IV of France issued The Edict of Nantes in 1598, granting Calvinist Protestants (Huguenots) freedom of conscience and restoration of their civil rights. However, in 1685, his grandson, King Louis XIV issued the Edict of Fontainebleau, ordering the destruction of Huguenot churches and the closing of Protestant schools. Thousands were imprisoned, like the unnamed author of this brief note, and hundreds were executed. In the following two decades, hundreds of thousands of Huguenots fled France, many to the United States.

Johnson Eliot (1815-1888) graduated from Columbian College (now George Washington University) medical school in 1842. Having been excluded from practice at the Washington Infirmary, he was one of four founders of the Georgetown Medical School, which opened in 1851. (One of the other four, Doctor Charles Henry Liebermann, was born in Russia, imprisoned in Siberia for several years for fighting under the Polish revolutionary flag, before becoming a doctor in Germany, and emigrating to America). Eliot served as professor of anatomy and later as professor of surgery. After the second battle of Bull Run in 1862, while attending the wounded, he was taken prisoner, but soon released. He was physician in charge of the Washington Smallpox Hospital from 1862 to 1864.

Provenance: a New Jersey historical society