The Life and Times of Philip Figyelmessy (1822 - 1907)

This year is a most memorable one for all Hungarians. It was fifty years ago, in October 1956, that the people of Hungary rose against the Communist dictatorship imposed by Joseph Stalin, history's worst mass murderer. The short-lived struggle was suppressed in a brutal bloodbath by the Red Army assisted by the homegrown lackeys of the Kremlin. Eerily similar events occurred a century before during the 1848-49 War of Liberation and its aftermath. Then, as in 1956, Hungarian patriots faced overwhelming odds in quest for liberty and were abandoned by the West. In these struggles, many individuals showed uncommon courage. This is the story on one such brave individual, Philip Figyelmessy, whose life is a worthy inspiration for all decent human beings.

Figyelmessy was born on January 1, 1822, at the city of Pest, then still a separate entity from Budapest. His father, Antal, owned large tracts of lands and herds of cattle and also operated slaughterhouses. He was a highly respected member of the community and his family, blessed with several children, enjoyed comfortable financial circumstances. At this time, Hungary was part of the sprawling Hapsburg Empire, which suited certain elements of the population, but was opposed by others.

From an early age Figyelmessy wanted to be a soldier. Acceding to his aspirations, his father enrolled him in the prestigious military academy of Wiener Neustadt. Upon the completion of his studies he was commissioned an officer in the Imperial Army's cavalry.

During one of his leaves Figyelmessy met and fell in love with Klára Csázy. But neither his nor her father were enthusiastic about the impending marriage. Both pointed out that a military career is fraught with danger and it's hardly lucrative financially. Understanding their concerns, Figyelmessy resigned his commission and joined the family business. He and Klára were married on May 10, 1846.

Figyelmessy's career as a civilian was short-lived. The revolutionary movements which swept across Europe in 1848 exerted a profound impact on Hungary. Dissatisfied elements, grouped around the charismatic Lajos Kossuth and other prominent figures, demanded reforms and changes from the Hapsburg government. Peaceful negotiations quickly escalated into armed confrontation. Figyelmessy enrolled the revolutionary army, becoming captain in an elite cavalry regiment.

The hastily organized Hungarian forces were sorely pressed by the Hapsburg Imperial army in the initial months of the war. However, in the spring of 1849, the revolutionaries turned the tide, inflicting defeat upon defeat on the enemy. Realizing that his throne was in dire jeopardy, Emperor Franz Joseph appealed to Czar Nicholas I for help. Soon a Russian army of 300,000 was pouring into Hungary.

Under the onslaught of the Russian hordes, the Hungarian armies crumbled and Kossuth, along with many others, fled to the Ottoman Empire after the disastrous battle of Temesvár in August. During the final days of the war Figyelmessy was stationed at the great fortress of Komárom, straddling the Danube between Budapest and Vienna. The defenders hoped that Russian intervention would at last galvanize the Western powers to come to their aid. But as in 1956 neither military nor diplomatic assistance materialized. Komárom finally capitulated, and by the terms of the surrender every member of the garrison received a safe conduct.

The safe conduct enabled Figyelmessy to go abroad or remain unmolested in Hungary. Rather than to retire into quiet obscurity, he helped countless political suspects elude the Hapsburg police and slip across the border into the Ottoman Empire. When his activities were discovered, his safe conduct was revoked. With his position compromised, he himself went into exile with his wife, joining Kossuth and thousands of others.

Having regained power, the Hapsburg government embarked on a reign of terror. Thousands were executed, many more imprisoned or impressed into the Imperial Army, their property confiscated. Repression and absolutism became the law of the land. Hungary wouldn't experience such dark days until the advent of the perverted and demented ideology of Communism emanating from Moscow.

In spite of the bleak situation, Kossuth felt confident that the spirit of the struggle could be kept alive. Two of his chief agents, József Makk and Sándor Gaál, began to organize clandestine movements, sending emissaries and proclamations back to Hungary. One of their most successful couriers was Figyelmessy. Despite the huge reward on his head, he always managed to outwit and elude the Hapsburg police and their informants.

Figyelmessy's success, wrote fellow exile Sándor Veress, was attributable to his determination, resourcefulness, courage, and, above all, his uncanny ability to mimic others perfectly. On one of his missions, Veress tells us, Figyelmessy was disguised as an Orthodox Jew from Galicia, and so well did he play the part that even learned rabbis accepted him as the genuine article.

But the clandestine activities did not produce any tangible results. Many of the exiles emigrated to the United States or western Europe. Figyelmessy himself moved to London. Kossuth, after touring the United States from December 1851 to July of the following year, likewise settled in the British capital. Figyelmessy remained one of his most trusted agents and continued to undertake more daring missions, again often accompanied by his wife.

The writer Dániel Kászonyi, one of his friends in London, recalls Figyelmessy in his memoirs as a stalwart, cheerful individual, not a great intellect, but generous and warm-hearted. According to Kászonyi, Klára was like her husband in every respect.

To earn a living, Figyelmessy became an assistant to Dr. Károly Dombory, another Hungarian exile. Dr. Dombory was an ardent practitioner of mesmerism, which was much in vogue at the time. In wake of some successful cures among the city's wealthy, Dr. Dombory's practice grew by leaps and bounds. When he left for the Near East at the outbreak of the Crimean War to head a British field hospital, Figyelmessy inherited his practice.

Everyone expected the Hapsburg government to come to the aid of Russia. But Franz Joseph adamantly refused to be drawn into a costly war that promised no benefits for his empire. Following the defeat of Russia, the elated exiles hoped that the Hungarian question would be raised at the peace conference. Although the plight of Hungary was ignored, the fragmentation of Italian peninsula was addressed, thanks to the astute policy of Camillo Cavour, prime minister of King Victor Emmauel's Piedmont. Both France and England expressed warm sympathy towards Italian unification.

In late 1858 Cavour began secret negotiations with Napoleon III of France for military help to drive out the Hapsburgs from Lombardy and Venetia. Cavour also approached Kossuth for Hungarian participation was an essential component of his ambitious plans. Although Kossuth had little faith in the French emperor, the opportunity couldn't be missed. Kossuth's principal role was to create political difficulties for the Hapsburgs in Hungary, encourage the desertion of Hungarian soldiers from their army, and organize a Hungarian contingent from exiles, deserters, and prisoner-of-war to fight alongside the Italians and French. As the rumors of the impending war, known as the War of 1859, began to circulate, hundreds of Hungarian exiles flocked to Italy.

Kossuth himself went to Piedmont, accompanied by Figyelmessy. According to Kászonyi, Figyelmessy, expecting a protracted struggle, took along eight pairs of boots. Also joining the Italian army was Giuseppe Garibaldi, already a legend for his part in the revolution of 1848 and his exploits in South America.

The French and Italians lost little time in inflicting crushing defeats upon the Hapsburg army at Magenta and Solferino. Despite the resounding victories, Napoleon - to everyone's utter amazement - requested and concluded an armistice with Franz Joseph. According to the terms, confirmed by a subsequent treaty, Lombardy was ceded to Piedmont, but Venetia remained a Hapsburg possession. Savoy and Nice were handed over to France as the price for Napoleon's help. The liberation of Hungary was not on the agenda.

Cavour was besides himself when he was informed of Napoleon's actions. Kossuth was likewise infuriated. The Hungarian contingent was disbanded and the disappointed exiles dispersed once more. Figyelmessy returned to England, but did not remain inactive for long.

Also extremely displeased with the outcome of the war was Garibaldi. The surrender of Nice to France especially irked him, for it was the city of his birth. He began to weave plans to reclaim it for Italy. Sicilian patriots, however, convinced him to turn his attention toward the Kingdom of Naples. Sicilians, chafing under the despotic rule of King Francis II of the House of Bourbon, were ready to revolt they told Garibaldi; all they needed was a proven leader.

At Quarto, near Genoa, Garibaldi, with the clandestine support of Cavour and Victor Emmanuel, assembled a force of about a thousand men - known simply as I Mille - and on May 5, 1860, the expedition embarked to carve out one of the most glorious chapters in Italian history. Landing unopposed at Marsala, on the western coast of the island, Garibaldi's army, augmented by Sicilian recruits, marched rapidly inland. After decisively defeating the Neapolitans at Calatafimi, Garibaldi stormed Palermo, capturing the city after a short but fierce struggle in the first week of June. Garibaldi's success prompted the Piedmontese government to be more open in their support and soon thousands of volunteers, along with large quantities of weapons and ammunition, were sailing regularly southward.

Among the newcomers were several hundred Hungarians, one of them Figyelmessy. On July 16 the Hungarians asked and received Garibaldi's permission to form a contingent of their own. Figyelmessy, with the rank of major, was appointed commander of one of the two Hungarian cavalry squadrons.

Accompanying the Hungarians was the noted French writer Maxime du Camp, whose books Expedition Des Deux-Siciles, Souvenirs Personnels and Recollections of a Literary Life have left a vivid picture of the men and activities of the Legion during the campaign. Also tagging along with the Hungarian Legion for a while was the celebrated Alexandre Dumas. The 57-year old author of such classics as The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo was reporting on the war for a Parisian newspaper. Traveling with him was his 19-year mistress, affectionately called the Admiral by one and all.

After securing Sicily, Garibaldi crossed the Straits of Messina during the night of August 19. His progress through Calabria was one of uninterrupted triumph. The Bourbon forces simply melted away at his approach. King Francis II, with the remnants of his army, fled from Naples, determined to make a stand at the fortified city of Capua on the Volturno River.

Garibaldi's string of victories convinced Cavour that it was time for the Piedmontese army to assume an active role. But blocking their way to the south was the Papal States, posing a very delicate diplomatic problem. Feeling sure that great powers of Europe would not intervene, Cavour presented an ultimatum to the Pope and at the same time told Napoleon III, the Pope's chief protector, that the Piedmontese were undertaking the invasion to stop Garibaldi and his revolutionaries in their tracks. The ruse worked. After crossing the frontier, the Piedmontese dispersed the Pontificals at Castelfidardo, eliminating all obstacles to the south.

Meanwhile, the Neapolitans holding Capua and the nearby fortress of Gaeta recognized that their situation was becoming more perilous with each passing day. With Garibaldi's forces confronting them to the south and the Piedmontese regulars advancing relentlessly from the north, they had to act quickly and decisively. Believing that they could break through Garibaldi's lines, thousands of Bourbon soldiers sallied forth from Capua in the early hours of October 1.

Success initially favored them. Their fierce assault nearly overwhelmed Garibaldi's outposts at Santa Maria and Sant'Angelo. But Garibaldi soon regained the initiative and by late afternoon the Neapolitans were pushed back to the confines of Capua.

The Hungarian cavalry played a conspicuous role in the battle. It was largely their repeated and ferocious charges that repelled the Neapolitans at Santa Maria. Speaking of the valor of Figyelmessy and his comrades, renowned British historian George Macaulay Trevelyan wrote: "The 200 Hungarian cavaliers, Garibaldi's only mounted force, were at length let loose. They went right over the batteries and on through regiment after regiment. Too few to rout the whole army, they were too brave, and too skilled with horse and sword, to be stopped anywhere on this side of the walls of Capua. Singly and in small groups, as evening fell, the survivors rode back, well satisfied that they had honored the Magyar name before the eyes of Europe."

Garibaldi and Victor Emmanuel met on October 26. Spurning every honor offered, Garibaldi relinquished all powers to the king and, in the true manner of an epic hero, returned to his humble abode on the island of Caprera, off the coast of Sardinia. The Piedmontese government promptly disbanded Garibaldi's army, but the Hungarian Legion was retained in service as a special unit of the Italian army and would remain as such until 1867.

Integrating the former fief of the Bourbon dynasty into the new Italian kingdom was not an easy task. As before, the rugged terrain of the south was infested with common bandits. They were joined by supporters of the deposed Francis II as well as those who resented the heavy-handed administration of the northerners. The government lumped all hostile elements into one category, branding them as brigands. It was the task of the Hungarian Legion to fight alongside regular soldiers and National Guardsmen against these brigands.

Life in the Legion was far from idyllic. Substandard equipment and endless clashes with the brigands were their daily fares. The Legion was also subject to the vagaries of Italian politics and the bickering of the Hungarian leaders in exile. Factionalism was rampant. Discontentment erupted in many forms, in outright mutiny on some occasions.

On April 23, 1861, General Antal Vetter, the Legion's commander, ordered Figyelmessy arrested for conspiracy. Figyelmessy refused to surrender his sword, and on the parade grounds - in front of the entire assemblage - exchanged heated words with Vetter, declaring that he would no longer acknowledge the general as his commanding officer. According to some accounts, Figyelmessy went beyond words, kicking Vetter off his horse.

He was arrested, court-martialed, and sentenced to house arrest for several months. Vetter was replaced by Dániel Ihász, another faithful Kossuth follower. But Figyelmessy wasn't mollified; he decided to go to the United States where the Civil War was unfolding. He arrived in New York City on December 4, 1861, and was soon joined by Klára.

He was appointed colonel and additional aide-de-camp on March 31, 1862, and was assigned the staff of General John C. Fremont, commander of the Mountain Department, headquartered in Wheeling, West Virginia. Fremont's army, in accordance with President Abraham Lincoln's directives, was mobilized against the Confederates of General "Stonewall" Jackson marching with impunity northward in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, causing great consternation in Washington, DC. As Fremont was moving in Jackson's direction, General Irvin McDowell was lumbering against Jackson from the opposite direction. A great victory was anticipated by having the two Federal armies converge on the Confederates around Strasburg.

But the wily Jackson, moving with unusual rapidity, eluded the trap and continued retreating southward. His cavalry, led by Turner Ashby, covered the rear of the Confederate army, skirmishing incessantly with Fremont's advance troops. Figyelmessy participated in several such engagements, drawing praise for bravery in Fremont's report of June 2 to Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton.

Fremont followed Jackson as he retreated down the Valley turnpike. Another Federal column, led by General James Shields, moved parallel to Fremont across the Massanutten Mountains in the Luray Valley. By wisely disposing of his troops and by burning the bridges across the Shenandoah River, Jackson kept both Federal armies at bay and prevented their union. On June 8, at Cross Keys, near Port Republic, he paused long enough to repulse Fremont and then scattered Shields' advance troops.

To rectify this abject failure and to ensure better coordinated efforts in the future, the Lincoln administration decided to incorporate Fremont's forces into a newly created army headed by General John Pope. Fremont, who loathed Pope, promptly resigned his command. All his staff officers, Figyelmessy among them, were dismissed.

Enforced idleness was Figyelmessy's lot for several months until he secured a position on the staff of General Julius Stahel, a fellow Hungarian. For most of the time, his duties placed him in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, where he met many prominent people and became immersed in American social life.

In February 1864 Figyelmessy sustained a severe injury. After inspecting some Pennsylvania cavalry regiments, he was riding along the steep embankment of a road. The road itself was closed to traffic due to repairs. Running close to the embankment was a railroad track. At one point a fast-moving train suddenly materialized near him. To avoid being crushed by the train, Figyelmessy did the only thing he could; he reined his horse, tripping the animal. Although the maneuver saved his life, the horse fell on one of his legs, mangling it badly. He barely avoided amputation and spent several months recuperating. He resigned from the army on December 20, 1864.

Following his resignation, Figyelmessy was again confronted with the problem of earning a living. Influential Pennsylvania friends appealed to President Lincoln to give him a consulship. Lincoln complied, and Figyelmessy's appointment as consul to British Guyana, was confirmed by the Senate on January 30, 1865. Then, as now, it was hardly a plum posting, but Figyelmessy didn't mind and remained on the job there for more than twenty years.

While the Civil War was raging in the United States, momentous events were unfolding in Europe. The Hapsburg government, reeling from the defeats in north Italy during the War of 1859, made numerous conciliatory gestures toward Hungarian nationalists, led by Ferenc Deák. The crushing defeat suffered at the hands of the Prussians in 1866, finally convinced Franz Joseph that the political structure of the empire must be overhauled if it were to survive. Therefore by the historic Compromise of 1867 the Dual Monarchy of Austria-Hungary was established. A general amnesty for all political activities dating back to 1848 was decreed.

While the new arrangement satisfied many of the exiles and induced a large number of them to return to Hungary, Kossuth and his die-hard followers vehemently denounced the new order and vowed not to return to Hungary as long as a Hapsburg sat on the throne.

One of Figyelmessy's first official reports from British Guyana concerned the abominable conditions of the East Indian and Chinese coolies working on the plantations. His communiqué was used by G. des Voeux, administrator of the Government of St. Lucia, in his letter of December 25, 1869, to call the attention of Her Majesty's government to the abuses prevailing in the colony. The result was the formation of a Commission of Inquiry which investigated the prevailing labor system and made numerous far-reaching recommendations to improve the lot of these wretched indentured servants.

Figyelmessy spent much of his spare time capturing exotic wild animals which he shipped off to sundry zoos. Another hobby, namely porcelain collecting, also attracted his attention. Given the proximity of Dutch Guyana and French Guyana as well as the brisk trade with the Far East, he was able to acquire many valuable pieces from England, France, Holland, and the Orient.

The oppressive equatorial climate took a toll on Figyelmessy's health. He experienced numerous bouts with malaria, yellow fever and other debilitating tropical maladies. Klára, whose constitution was far less robust, succumbed to the ravages of the diseases and died on September 7, 1872.

Figyelmessy continued to make frequent trips to the United States, visiting friends in the Harrisburg area. On one of these occasions he met Eliza, daughter of Professor Samuel S. Haldeman. Prof. Haldeman was a man of remarkable accomplishments in philology and numerous branches of science. He even dabbled in architecture and was the designer of the family mansion at Chickies where Figyelmessy and Eliza were married in a lavish ceremony on November 25, 1875. Their marriage, despite the stark contrast of their backgrounds and the substantial disparity in their ages - she was born in 1843 - endured for more than thirty years. Eliza herself was a very cultured and talented lady; after the Civil War she spent two years in Paris studying art with her close friend Mary Cassatt, one of America's most famous painters.

Two sons were born of their union: Lajos, named after Kossuth of course, in 1877, and Samuel Haldeman, named after Eliza's father, in 1880. Years later Eliza would recount the family's life in British Guyana in Two Boys in the Tropics, a charming and entertaining book for youngsters.

In 1887 Figyelmessy was recalled from his post, ending his career as an American diplomat. Upon returning to the United States, the family settled in Marietta, a pleasant little community on the Sasquehanna River, not far from Harrisburg.

Two years later they experienced a devastating tragedy. On April 8, 1889, the two Figyelmessy boys and the young son of a neighbor, were playing in a boat tethered to the shore on Marietta's waterfront. Suddenly the restraining chain snapped and the boat drifted out to the open water. Overcome by panic, all three boys jumped overboard. Before rescuers could come to their aid, 12-year old Lajos drowned. Needless to say, both parents were overwhelmed by grief.

Nevertheless he did not abandon his plans to move to Europe to be nearer to his idol, Kossuth. Figyelmessy, by his own admission wasn't a conscientious letter writer, but he maintained sporadic correspondence with Kossuth. The Figyelmessy family made their home in Geneva, Switzerland, not far from Turin, Italy, where Kossuth had settled years before and was now living in quiet solitude.

Figyelmessy was among the joyous multitude who attended the celebrations surrounding Kossuth's 90th birthday in 1892 and was at his bedside when the fiery patriot drew his last breath on March 20, 1894. Soon afterwards Figyelmessy and his family returned to the United States and took up residence in Philadelphia.

Despite the ravages of old age, Figyelmessy traveled to New York in 1902 to attend a huge rally of Hungarian-Americans. His presence was duly noted in the September 1 and 2 issues of the New York Times. His strength, sapped by the years, slowly but surely ebbed away and he died peacefully on July 25, 1907.

Eliza passed away three years later. Their surviving son, a most sociable and gifted young man by all accounts, became a daredevil airman after studying architecture. Even two serious crashes in 1915 did not dampen his enthusiasm for the wide open skies. He wasn't so lucky in 1919; this time a crash claimed his life.

Shortly before his death Figyelmessy dictated his memoirs to Eliza. Afterwards she subjected the entire the text to a vigorous editing. The manuscript was then acquired by Dr. Géza Kacziány, a teacher, Protestant clergyman, and prolific author who spent a number of years in the United States. Dr. Kacziány translated it into Hungarian, made his own extensive revisions, and added numerous explanatory notes before having it serialized in the Budapest daily Magyarország in 1914, with the last installment published a few weeks before the eruption of World War I. The whereabouts of the original English-language manuscript is unknown.


Brief summaries of Figyelmessy's life and career appear in a multitude of Hungarian biographical works. Most of them state that he was born in 1820. However, his memoirs explicitly give 1822 as the year of his birth and such date is also denoted on his gravestone. I'd like to express my thanks to Mr. Ronald C. Young, of Lancaster County, PA, for information on the Haldeman family and the excellent photos of the graves of Figyelmessy, Eliza, and their two sons.

Vissza az oldal tetejére
Stephen Beszedits