1861: William Edward Johnston to Robert Clark Johnston

How Johnston might have looked when he arrived in Paris

This captivating letter was written by William Edward Johnston, an American physician in Paris. He was born in Wayne County, Ohio on 16 February 1821 and died in Paris on 15 February 1886 — one day short of his 65th birthday. His father was Robert Clark Johnston, ¹ M.D., born in Beaver County, Pa. in 1800. His mother was Mary Wilson, born in Beaver County in 1794. Following a good preparatory education, Johnston studied medicine at the University of New York, graduating in 1847. He practiced medicine in partnership with his father for five years in Ohio and then went to Paris to advance his understanding of medical treatment and surgical techniques. [Source: The New England Historical and Genealogical Register: Volume 40 (1886)]

While serving as a volunteer surgeon with the French army during the Crimean War, he stumbled upon a secondary career which gained him greater notoriety than his chosen profession — that being a correspondent for the New York Times. Throughout the Crimean War, and later during the American Civil War, William submitted articles for publication in the Times — always signing under the pseudonym of “Malakoff.”  In January 1863, a Philadelphia subscriber lauded Malakoff’s contribution to the Times saying, “I beg to commend the letters of ‘Malakoff’ to your readers as from one of the most intelligent, discreet and reliable gentlemen abroad. he is, every way — in his qualifications and points of character — the right man in the right place.”

Johnston’s cover was revealed in 1864 with the following published article in the New York Times which was widely distributed in U.S. papers:

“Malakoff,” the Paris correspondent of the Times, is Dr. William E. Johnston, an American physician, long resident in the French capital. A man of education, of fine abilities, superior social qualities, and in all respects a thorough gentleman. I know of no one whose general character, no less than the care with which he ascertains his facts before writing at all, could give greater confidence to any statement put forth for the public eye. His relations, also, with the American Legation, and the deserved confidence and esteem which he is held by Mr. Dayton, give special assurance that in this particular case his statements are based upon official knowledge….

The article was published chiefly to resolve a dispute that had arisen regarding the accuracy of two versions of the naval engagement between the CSS Alabama — USS Kearsarge off the coast of France. One version claimed that Rafael Semmes voluntarily left the French port to go out and do battle with the Kearsarge; while Johnston’s version claimed that he was ordered to leave port by order of the French government.

Of course Johnston was not without his detractors. Southern newspapers attempted to discredit his Times articles — “Malakoff…has a reputation in America beyond his deserts. He is an Ohio man and graduated a doctor of medicine in Paris….he is large, corpulent and good looking…frequents good society.. [but] there is much smartness and trickery in his letters. Give two rumors and Malakoff will swear to four facts. [The Daily Dispatch, 5 September 1864 (Richmond, Va.)]

In 1866, Johnston was married to Bertha Elizabeth Matteson (1846-1918), the daughter of Joseph Matteson (1814-1852) and Cecelia Cramer (1823-1859) of Chicago, Illinois. The couple were married at Frankfort on the Main. Together, they had one son named Robert. Obituary notices claim that he died of cancer of the stomach and that he practiced medicine in Paris for over twenty years.


Paris [France]
November 12, 1861

Dear father,

Why don’t some of you write and let me know how you all are and what you are doing? It has been six or eight months — I believe even more than that — since I have had a word from home. I have watched the papers to see whether I could find any names in the war news of any of the family, hoping all the time you would write. I was particularly uneasy about the Col. Johnston who was killed in a battle under Jim Lane for fear it was Uncle Will. Pray tell me who among the friends have gone to the war.

American Minister to France — William L. Dayton (1861-1864)

As regards the news on this side, there will be no recognition of the Southern Confederacy by France or England and no attempt to break the blockade until the government ceases its attempt to put down the rebellion, which of course it can never do. Only yesterday Mr. [William Lewis] Dayton told me that he had just been assured by the French Minister that they had no thought of recognizing the Confederacy and a fortnight ago Mr. [John Lothrop] Motley, our minister to Vienna, told me that he had just left Lord John Russell at his chateau in Scotland and that the last words of Lord John were, “Tell your friend [Charles Francis] Adams in London that he need not fear us recognizing those fellows soon.”

There is already a great deal of suffering both in England and France on account of the stoppage of exports to America and for the want of cotton, but they are going to worry it through in the interest of justice and humanity.

We have a great gathering of secessionists here — some who can’t get home, and some who are staying abroad because they have property on both sides of the line and wish to appear neutral so as not to have their property confiscated. The other day I was introduced by accident to [William Lowndes] Yancey who doesn’t appear as confident, they say, as he did at first.

William L. Yancey led a delegation to Europe to try to secure formal recognition of the CSA; he was unsuccessful and returned frustrated.

I am handsomely established in the Rue Saint-Arnaud and have commenced business. I have already something to do and calculate later on to have a large business. I have taken the ground floor of one of the finest modern-built houses of the city — a real palace. It belongs to the Baroness Creuze′ de Lesser’s, ² who, with her sister, occupy all the upper floors. I pay the Baroness 500 dollars a year which is less than the place is worth for it is not only a magnificent suite of rooms, but in the very center of the fashionable quarter. I got it cheap because I am a bachelor and would not make any fuss in the house nor want a sign at the door. My furniture, which is about complete, I have bought all new, and has cost me about 700 dollars for which I paid cash. My study is furnished entirely in carved oak which is very rich, and the parlor in red velvet and rosewood. No bachelor is better lodged in Paris — at least for the same sum of money — and yet I have income enough from my writing to pay for it if I never get a call. Notwithstanding, I have been playing the gentleman for so many years, I am now as well lodged and in the enjoyment of as many comforts as if I had been at work gaining a fortune.

I have dined lately twice at our ministers (Mr. Dayton) and both times was honored with a seat beside the young lady at the head of the table, although there were diplomats and millionaires at the dinner. Do write me and let me know the news from home.

As ever, — W. E. J.

I send you enclosed a puff someone has has given me in a London paper.


¹ I found Robert Johnston (age 67) in Sidney, Shelby County, Ohio enumerated (1870 U.S. Census) in the household of Enos Johnston (age 41). This led me to the grave of William E. Johnston’s father, “Dr. R.C. Johnston” in Sidney, Ohio (Graceland Cemetery); his death occurring on 20 March 1873 — aged 72. Buried nearby is his son, Robert Enos Johnston (1828-1890) — Civil War Veteran who served 6 months as a lieutenant in Co. C, 99th O.V.I.  

² I believe the Baroness was the widow of Augustin Francois Crueze de Lesser (1771-1839) who was an author of dramatic works and poems. The Baroness was formerly Mademoiselle Marie E. F. Dange de Bagneux.

Johnston’s Original 13 May 1852 Passport Application. At age 31, he stood nearly 6 foot tall. He had brown hair, hazel eyes, and florid complexion. A scar over his right eye and on his left toe were his other distinguishing marks.

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