George Washington Papers

To George Washington from Johann Benjamin Erhard, 27 January 1794

From Johann Benjamin Erhard

Muenchen [Munich, Germany] Jan. 27th 1794


It is to the full Confidence in Your Excellency’s general Benevolence to Mankind, which cannot but constitute one of the chief Ornaments of a Character destined by Providence to break the fetters of a World, That I owe the Resolution humbly to address to Your Excellency the present Relation of the most unfortunate Event of an Imposture, that involves a number of honest Persons in Europe, while abusing the Authority of the United States. In vain Delicacy urges the Apprehension of being taxed an Intruder for the particular Complexion of my case and the flattering hope of obtaining some Redress from the Generosity of United States suppress every hesitation arising from that principle of Decency ever so powerful with liberal minds. In order to form a proper series of those Events which, Tho in an indirect manner operated my falling a Sacrifice to the late sad Event, I beg Leave, Shortly to premise an Account of the principal Transactions of my former Life, which will also implici⟨tl⟩y serve to state what little Abilities I may pretend to possess. I am a Native of Nueremberg. My father, a wire manufacturer by procuring me a liberal Education succeeded in his View, to instill Sound republican sentiments in my mind. Accordingly I was at a pretty early Period of my life undeceived as to the true Conception of what they in Europe call honour & grandeur, & resolved to follow the business of my father. Ever since that time I cherished a preponderating Inclination to live in America. My Spare-hours were spent in studying Mathematics which led me to theoretical part of Physic without having any Intention in the least, to embrace that Profession. However I happened in the year 1786 to meet with the Acquaintance of Counsellor Siebold one of the most celebrated Surgeons in this Country, who finding me so well prepared persuaded me, wholly to devote me to the study of Physic, while that Gentleman found means to procure a proper Opportunity of obtaining the practical part of that Science by employing me in the great Hospital at Wuerzburg under his Direction.1 From Thence I repaired to several places calculated to improve physical Knowledge, when in the year 1792 I was created Doctor in Phc & fixed my Domicile at Nurembergh again resolved to acquire if possible a Reputation by publishing some eminent litterary Performance in that Line, yet still attentive to my favourite plan to spend the Rest of my life in America.2

Being so disposed in the month of Octr last past a seemingly Favorable Opportunity of accomplishing so fond a wish offered, which alas! proved a source of the most sad Reverse on my Part, to wit: I became acquainted with a person called William who came to see me furnished with Letters of Recommendation from ⟨my⟩ friends at Wuerzburgh, but afterwards, when I entered into more unreserved Conversation with him, he professed to be an American and proved by producing a number of letters and Documents his proper Name was William Pearce and his Capacity a Colonel & Commander of a newly raised Regiment of Infantry and a member of the Order of The Cincinnati. Then he produced to me as well as to my father and father in Law a written power of Attorney bearing Date June 1793 signed: Washington & Jefferson and sealed with the seal of the Union, that is vested in him a discretionary Power3 (the Original says, illimited power) to engage for the service of the United States Six Captains and eight Lieutenants, the power of Attorney to be in force for the Space of nine months from the Date thereof. By his Assertions there was a first surgeon & an Auditor to be comprehended among the six officers of Captn’s Rank. I myself in the first Emotions of so advantageous an Offer accommodated him at my own Dwelling house, where he further told me, he had fought thro’ all the American war on Your Excellency’s side as Adjutant mentioning several Events and the particulars thereof with a Degree of Accuracy and Probability, that suppressed with me even the remotest Thought of Imposition. Amongst many other Things past he related to have resided at Copenhagen in the fall of the Year 1791 filling the place of an Envoy from the United States. That being exactly the time when I left that City, (where I resided some time to reap Advantage of those excellent Institutions of Surgery and Midwifery established There) I made different Inquiries about some Characters & found all, what he advanced conformable to a Nicety. He without any apparent Design produced Letters and Cards of respectable Officers of The Danish Court. Blinded by so many concluding Circumstances I neglected to write for more authentic Information from Baron Shimmelmann, Minister of Finances, who honours me with his Confidence.4 From Copenhagen The Impostor according to his own Relation departed for Sweden & Stettin.5 He showed me a letter from the Commander of the latter place, in which he is requested to grant a Commission to that Gentleman’s Nephew. Having on his way appointed several Officers whose names escaped my memory (except one Swiss gentleman, called, de Eckhard he said) returned to Philadelphia. He had in his possession Documents, as to Their external Appearance fully authentic, authorizing him to engage Officers in the Swiss Canton of Basel6—also Powers of Attorney to recover Estates & Legacies within the United States, and obligatory notes or Receipts for Sums advanced drawn by Those Officers appointed by him. That Concurrence of facts so palpable & apparently incontrovertible could not but prevail on a liberal temper naturally not suspicious. Therefore I readily accepted his Proposals and he executed in my behalf a Brevet in which he appoints me first surgeon, of which I take the Liberty here to subjoin a Copy certified by a Notary public.7 I do not deny I received that Brevet with Rapture of Joy thinking myself fortunate for having obtained that long wished for Object, being at the same time persuaded, That allways [I] should be able honorably to acquit myself of The whole Province of Duties annexed to That Commission. A spirit of Patriotism began to animate me in such a Degree as to use every means in my power towards contributing to an exquisite choice of Those subjects he wanted to engage in the service of the Union, in which I unfortunately but too well Succeeded by persuading a certain Fick of Anspach8 a young man of promising talents, who, being acquainted with the English and French language, instantly resigned his place and now bewails his misfortune with an interesting family—In that first Emotion I even carried matters so far, as to persuade my father in Law Mr Golling to purchase Bills of Exchange drawn on Robert Hardy, London, sd Colo. wanted to dispose of being out of cash.9 Then I accompanied him in a second Excursion in quest of subjects to engage, when I left him at Salzburg with my chariot, having agreed to meet again at Muenchen. On my Arrival at this place he was not to be found, but I found, in the contrary letters from my father in Law informing me, that the Letters of Exchange had been returned protested, whereupon he to undeceive Us had opened a letter directed to the pretended Colo., which had been re-expedited and Thereby was convinced of his being an Impostor—It is impossible to describe Those poignant desolating feelings like mine were at That moment, I only mention, what greatly heightens my misery I mean the sarcastic strictures of narrowminded persons, who are ever ready to add Injury to Affliction, when it befalls any Man, who does not idolize Their own Prejudices. How far any Relief can or may be granted to me I dare not to imagine but I implore Your Excellency’s Interposition to That End with all the Anguish of a person, that owes only to Religion’s Support to have been able to survive so complicated a Disappointment and Distress, for the dreadful conscious Thought to have plunged in Desolation & Ruin all what is dear to me on Earth, my father, wife, & her own father preys vulturelike on my soul. Some Answer, I flatter myself, I may expect from Your Excellency, as it is still something to clear up the uncertain Prospects of an unfortunate, who might be rendered useful again to Society by changing Imposture in Truth. In that peculiar state of woeful Anxiety I have the honor to remain with unexpressible Respect Your Excellency’s most humble devoted servant

John Benjamin Erhard. Med. Dr

P.S. I have put every thing in motion to have the Villain apprehended, Then I shall also lay before You his fictitious power of Atty.10 He gave himself for 32 years asserting his father was governor in America, his uncle Earl of Pearce & his father Lord Pce he is of middling size, fair complexion, has black curled hairs, is wounded on each thigh. He had about him printed Brevets in German, Latin & french, for Distribution.

L (translation), DNA: RG 59, Miscellaneous Letters. This letter was enclosed in Johann Paul Golling to GW, 4 February. For a somewhat variant text in German, evidently taken from Erhard’s retained copy, see Karl Auguste Varnagen von Ense, Denkwürdigkeiten des Philosophen und Arztes Johann Benjamin Erhard (Stuttgart and Tübingen, 1830), 378–85).

Physician and philosopher Johann Benjamin Erhard (1766–1827) studied at Würzburg and Jena before establishing his medical practice in Nuremberg. In 1795, he published Über das Recht des Volkes zu einer Revolution (Jena & Leipzig).

1Erhard’s father was Jacob Reinhard Erhard. Karl Kaspar von Siebold (1736–1807) taught anatomy, surgery, and obstetrics at the University of Würzburg.

2Erhard’s 1792 dissertation was entitled Dissertatio Inauguralis Medica Exhibens Ideam Organi Medici. . . .

3The person using the assumed name William Pearce had no authority to recruit officers for the U.S. Army. On Erhard’s father-in-law, see Johann Paul Golling to GW, 4 February.

4Count Ernst Heinrich Schimmelmann (1747–1831) was the finance minister of Denmark, 1784–1814.

5Stettin, now Szczecin, Poland, was at this time the capital of the Prussian province of Pomerania.

6The canton of Basel in northern Switzerland borders both France and Germany.

7The enclosed copy, which was translated into English, reads: “I William Pearce Colonel and Commander of a Regiment levied for the Service of the United States Member of the Order of the Cincinnati

“Do make known by these Presents: that Mr Benjamin Erhard Doctor in Physic the Bearer hereof hath on this day been appointed a first Surgeon in my Regiment with yearly Salary of Sixteen hundred Spanish milled Dollars. the Expences of his Passage to America to be defrayed by the United States.

“I therefore request His Excellency General Washington President of Congress of the Unitd States to be pleased to acknowledge Said Mr Erhard in his Said Capacity and to order the lawful All[ow]ances for Equipment usually granted to foreign Officers to be furnished to the same. Given at Nurembergh Octr 14. 1793.” This certificate was attested by notary public J. C. Haselbroek at Munich on 30 Jan. 1794 (DNA: RG 59, Miscellaneous Letters).

8For Johann Fick’s account of this scam, see his letter to GW of this date; see also Karl August Freiherr von Wangenheim to GW, 10 February. Ansbach, or Anspach, is a city approximately twenty-five miles southwest of Nuremberg.

9Sir Robert Herries and Co. was a London bankinghouse. For letters from this firm denying any knowledge of Pearce, see n.1 of Wangenheim to GW, 10 February.

10The enclosed power of attorney has not been identified. For GW’s opinion on the impropriety of replying to this type of letter, see n.3 of Wangenheim to GW, 10 February.

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