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IHI Article



by VARICK VANARDY, JR., International Homophilics Institute (IHI)

adapted from his article in The Gay Review, Boston, 1990.12

COUNT RUMFORD is one of the most infamous and least-famous of all Americans, referred to by all but known to few. The reasons are many and the justifications more. None of the four nations with whom he is associated - America where he was born, Britain for whom he worked, Bavaria which he ran, or France where he died - lay much claim to him. He became a kind of man without a country, the first true international scientist.

RUMFORD, as he is generally referred to today, was indeed a tinker, tailor, soldier, and spy. He was an extraordinary number of things. He was the Father of Thermodynamics and a serious inventor, a social glory distrusted by GEORGE WASHINGTON, GEORGE III, Lord GERMAIN (Viscount Sackville), PITT the YOUNGER, CANNING, and NAPOLEON.

He rather resembles CASANOVA - who, curious for his reputation as the greatest lover of all time, was gay. RUMFORD was also a great charlatan - but a con-man who made good! He is at once genius and contradiction, egoist and altruist, good guy and bad, straight and gay. Mostly, however, he was gay - and gay men he couldn't fool for long.

RUMFORD was born humbly on a farmstead in Woburn, today a northern suburb of Boston. The farmhouse, though moved, is on Boston's Gay Freedom Trail today. Despite the fact that he tried to betray America to the British during the Siege of Boston (1775-1776), he is something of a local hero - even to straights - for he is the founder of the Rumford Medal and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the famous Rumford Professorship at Harvard. And he invented the Rumford Stove which keeps so many Yankees warm in winter.

But RUMFORD was even a disloyal Loyalist in the American Revolution. Fleeing America for Britain, he became one of Lord GERMAIN's spies; fleeing Britain for the Continent, he became Chief Minister of Bavaria - then turned around and expected to be the Bavarian ambassador to the Court of St. James - simultaneously apply for the rather incongruent position of Superintendent of the American Military Academy at West Point! The man was mad. For some years he could decided what to do with his money - whether to give America a Military Academy or Britain the Royal Institution. Britain won.

He also invented what we would call 'the modern kitchen', new artillery, new ships, and made and lost several fortunes. Not only is RUMFORD a series of contradictions but the world's attitudes towards him quite as contradictory.

RUMFORD was a life-long correspondent of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, a life-long member of the Royal Academy, and, later, of the Institut de France. He was also a planner. It was RUMFORD who laid out the English Garden in Munich - after all.

But RUMFORD made a terrible mistake. When he was a lowly apprentice in Boston and heard the gunshots of the Boston Massacre which started the whole American Revolution (it was hardly a block up the street), he made what Bostonians would call 'a youthful mistake'. He took the 'other' side in the American Revolution. Not only that, but the farm boy went onto take a title! Even so, he has always been referred to as RUMFORD by the Americans.

Perhaps its a bit like many 'runaways' who make good. The Serbs, after all, loudly lay claim to NICOLA TESLA - though TESLA couldn't wait to escape his native land. St. Louis lays strong claim to TENNESSEE WILLIAMS - and few places this side of Sodom have suffered such derogatory dismissals by anybody's tongue. In one sense, leaving Boston was the best thing RUMFORD ever did in his life - but he sure left a mess behind him.

GEORGE III had replaced Royal Governor Massachusetts in 1774 with a military government in an attempt to control the Province's alarming disaffection with royal rule. The institution of martial law under Gen. Thomas Gage that year led directly to the Siege of Boston which broke out in 1775 with the Battles of Concord, Lexington, Menotomy, and Bunker Hill on Breed's Hill (whew!) and the Siege of Boston by the Americans went on for yet another year.

The Siege of Boston is best understood as an American attempt to take a British town on an island in a lake with a ten-foot tide. Yes, Boston was surrounded by water but the water was surrounded by land (lumps of drumlins in the shapes of whales or dumplings). At about 3 o'clock channels reach through a bay of drumlin islands to the sea some ten miles to the east. In short, Boston is watery but surrounded by land. The Olde Towne was sperm-shaped, a kind of Mount Saint Michael, an island of humpy drumlins up to about 150 feet connected to the mainland to the southwest with an isthmus of beach in the shape of a two-mile tail at 7 o'clock. In high tides and storms this would go awash but was fully dry at low tide. Hardly anywhere round was Boston more than a couple of miles from the mainland shore or another island.

The British, holed up in the city, could be bombarded from several sides but for the fact that the Yankees had no long-range artillery. This was the reason for the famous Haul, when Gen. Knox and his men dragged the heavy canon over the snowy mountains on sledges from Fort Ticonderoga on Lake Champlain to relieve Boston on Evacuation Day, March 17th, 1777. The British managed to hold out that long by cutting a short moat through the isthmus and surrounding the city with espionage rings. These rings were directed by the infamous Dr. Benjamin Church, Jr. Church's right-hand man, we know today, was the lowly apprentice BENJAMIN THOMPSON, former farm boy. He was also a compatriot of Laommi Baldwin, another spy from Woburn, on whose farm the famous American Baldwin apple was first found.

It was RUMFORD's original job to act as courier to Dr. Church, commonly thought second in treachery only to Benedict Arnold but both running poor seconds to RUMFORD himself. He spent much of his time in Cambridge, one of those towns one could bombard Boston from if one had guns, and home of Harvard College. Here in 1775, Isaiah Thomas, the printer of The Massachusetts Spy which helped promote the revolution, sued his wife for divorce, naming Thompson! But, like CASANOVA, he was never caught in flagrante - for the likely fact that being 'over familiar' was a perfect ploy for being 'perfectly disinterested'. There are whole books on Romeos who were really gay, after all, and RUMFORD was definitely one of those. In fact RUMFORD's affaire de coeur with the woman was of an espial nature. Listen to the masterful John Masters on the master of love:

"[T]he curtain rises; the great lover rises; the great lover advances to centre stage; the women go down like ninepins before him. But after a while we begin to notice that all the women lack something. It seems that if a woman falls for Casanova there is something wrong with her - not always morally, but in a more general sense . . . [a list of CASANOVA's known women, their shortcomings, handicaps, and foibles . . .] His appeal to such women was not only to the spirit. He had the power to make them feel better, to lift them up, convince them they were wanted, that they were not abnormal, that they were equal to, even better than, other women . . .. They may even have invited a little sex, but they then established a relationship which we, now that we can know the truth of his sexual bipolarity, we can easily recognize . . . . Casanova was the tame cat, the homosexual confidant whom every sophisticated woman of the western world has known and welcomed, as a respite from the pressures of "normal" society. In brief, Casanova was the demon lover to the insecure, and a safe escort and correspondent to the others."

John Masters: Casanova (1969), pp. 288-289
(a good read with good illustrations)

"In brief . . ." indeed, but Masters has succinctly identified not a certain type of homosexual, per se, (not all 'womanizers' are homosexuals, obviously), but he has identified one at about the right time in nearly the same circles - and up to the same serious games (espionage and blackmail among them) - to leave open the possibility of others. And RUMFORD had a model right in Boston - the Huguenot millionaire PETER FANEUIL, the same who gave the famous market to the town which became the 'Cradle of Liberty', where the infant Republic was rocked. His act was to ride about town in open carriages with all the prettiest women - but never touched them; he was obliged not to under the terms of his bachelor-uncle's extravagant will in any event!

Meanwhile, RUMFORD had begun his career by searching out and marrying an extraordinarily rich widow of what was then called Rumford, Massachusetts (what is today Concord, the capital of New Hampshire!). She had connections to the Royalist Governor Wentworth of New Hampshire, famous for calling for a repeal of the Stamp Act - who nonetheless made a fortune supplying Boston during Siege.

"She married me, not I her."

Second in wealth to the Royal Governor, now Maj. THOMPSON to-be RUMFORD was selling ranks as his regiment's recruitment officer! Believe it. Of his 15 companies, not a single man ranked as 'Private'! Likewise, he was pulling a salary and pension as a spy! Mark that young man as ruthlessly ambitious.

He also had GEORGE WASHINGTON, then having taken control of the American Army at Cambridge, helping to move Harvard's College's library out of harm's way. (It is more likely that RUMFORD, trying to ingratiate himself to WASHINGTON, helped WASHINGTON move the books but the story nonetheless persists.)

In early May of 1775, RUMFORD used invisible ink to warn Gen. Gage, besieged in Boston, that "the four New England governments" would feint an attack on the city to seize its castle, critical as a staging area for royalist raids on provincial magazines. This message is the earliest of the period to use gallo-tannic acid (which could be developed in an iron sulfate solution). Shortly afterwards he was arrested. His wife visited him in gaol once and that was the last he'd ever see of her. (He would remarry in 1805 for money, in France.)

Dr. Church was betrayed by his bungling mistress but RUMFORD managed to escape the four miles to Boston by going 60 miles to Newport in Rhode Island, then sailing 200 miles through the safety of the British blockade, probably bearing Church's secret papers. He was just in time. As Boston fell to the Americans, Gen. Howe sailed for Halifax with his troops and more than a thousand Loyalists, RUMFORD amongst them. He then sailed for Britain with an introduction from Gen. Gage, and immediately reported to Lord GEORGE GERMAIN (n* SACKVILLE), Secretary of State for the Colonies.

Lord GERMAIN, as he is known in America, had a streak of idiocy in him fueled by the ignominy he had suffered in the conflict between George II and GEORGE III. In the famous Minden Affair, he had been exploited and betrayed. GEORGE III, as Prince of Wales, had noted to his confidant and possible lover, the Marquis of BUTE, that GERMAIN was a homosexual; HORACE WALPOLE knew; and, when JOHN WILKES, one of the debauched and orgiastic Monks of Medmenham, published a pamphlet quite openly accusing GERMAIN of sodomy, the whole world knew. It was with the purposes of revenge and vindication that GERMAIN rebuilt his own pedestal - largely by constructing a vast espionage circle in the form of rings within rings within rings. The Boston rings were part of his ringing little plot. GERMAIN could stoop to anything; and RUMFORD was a diabolical match for him.

According to RUMFORD's biographer Sanborn Brown, "... on more than one occasion Thompson's name was associated with Germain's' ..." in regard to charges of sodomy.

This should be borne in mind when we see later the tremendous hold that Thompson had on Lord George when he needed favors done for himself.

Sanborn C. Brown: Benjamin Thompson, Count Rumford (1981)

The British treated American loyalists in general as if they'd caused the American revolt. RUMFORD was in a position to help them, and this gained him an enormous advantage.

GERMAIN became to RUMFORD what DR. GOZZI had been to CASANOVA and, under GERMAIN, RUMFORD became Under Secretary of State for the Colonies (1780-1781) - throughout, note, the Siege of New York and the horrid cases of Nathan Hale and Maj. Andr* (the handsomest American martyr and the handsome Loyalist martyr, respectively). This was also the period when GEORGE WASHINGTON was most in danger of assassination, as we shall see later.

During his tenure, RUMFORD committed two despicable acts (and probably more we know nothing about). First he arranged the arrest and detention of John Trumbull, the painter, son of a Governor of Connecticut and an aide-de-camp to GEORGE WASHINGTON) despite his having been granted immunity to study with Benjamin West. Second, he permitted the torture of Henry Laurens who had been intercepted on his way to negotiate a vital loan for the States from the Dutch traders who had ensured the success of the revolution by supplying ammunition. Laurens, by the way, was the father of JOHN LAURENS, objet d'affection of GEORGE WASHINGTON - a fact RUMFORD would most certainly have known. (New York was full of homosexuals plotting republics.)

The story of the La Motte spy ring and of LORD GERMAIN's trade of a job for a title as Viscount SACKVILLE, is otherwise covered, but with GERMAIN out of the way, RUMFORD found himself at tatters and raised his own regiment - under no less than GERMAIN's worst enemy, Sir Henry Clinton! He and his Dragoons wintered on Long Island while GEORGE WASHINGTON and his pals hid out in the Jersey ridges with Col. Theunis Dey, Hamilton's and Schuyler's brother-in-law. There is no knowing whether RUMFORD was involved in the assassination plot against WASHINGTON at this time, but his appearance on Long Island is suspicious to say the least.

Here RUMFORD and his Dragoons had three male servants, no women in attendance, and acted abominably towards the citizens. When he was recalled early in 1783, he spitefully burnt all the wood he had appropriated lest the citizens have it for the winter. It is in the plethora of spiteful little acts such as this that the real character of RUMFORD is built up; the end result is nowise pretty. On his return to Europe he had some good success raiding the Southern coast - probably thinking of setting himself up as a princeling in Georgia, Secretary of which he had been. But the Battle of Yorktown had long been fought and the American Revolution was a fait accompli merely awaiting the approval of the Treaty of Paris.

He returned to England via France, ironically, on the same ship with Henry Laurens (whom he had persecuted) and Edward Gibbon (the homophobic bachelor historian who at least had the good sense to blame the fall of the Roman Empire on the Christians rather than on the Sodomites). Gibbon thought RUMFORD pompous; RUMFORD, though it is not recorded, would have thought Gibbon a fag-baiter.

He then sat for Gainsborough - but, if Gainsborough was ever thought lacking in the study of character, here he completely missed his mark. There isn't a snake or an asp or a poisonous spider in the portrait. It shows a face that might once have been pretty, a delicate man with sloping shoulders - but it is a portrait of Dorian Gray.

RUMFORD's knighthood stems from an offer for employment from Karl Theodor, Elector of Bavaria, a nation Britain wanted closer ties with. It was not the first British knighthood granted to somebody whilst a monarch held his nose - nor the last. RUMFORD's last letter to GERMAIN noted that he had received the Polish Royal Order of St. Stanislaus from King Stanislaus II (his present employer, the Duke of Bavaria, couldn't issue awards to non-Catholics, of course).

RUMFORD's ruthless rise to power in Bavaria is well chronicled. There's a certain irony, however, that von STEUBEN, the student of FREDERICK THE GREAT, should go to America and save the American army from shooting itself in the foot - while RUMFORD, the student of complete nastiness, should find his way into the interior of the Holy Roman Empire to reform armies, governments, and urban planning. But such is the case.

After he proposed a Pro Memoria for reforming the Bavarian army, he was raised to the rank of Major General by His Most Serene Highness Carl Theodor the Elector Palatine, Duke of Bavaria - whose "sensuality required very frequent absolution" (Brown, per infra., p. 99). At that point RUMFORD effected a coup d'armée and effectively ruled the country.

RUMFORD's abilities in reorganizing the Bavarian army - that which LUDWIG II would inherit and squander - were remarkable. He was inventive. Compulsive liars often are. By brute intellect and threat he swept the city of vagrants and put them to work in workhouses. He drilled a useless ducal guard into a competent military machine. He held, fed, clothed, and armed 12,000 defenders for Munich - enough to send two huge armies away with second thoughts. There is no arguing but what RUMFORD saved Munich from devastation by the Austrians and the French in 1796 - though certainly luck had something to do with it. Only the weathercock on his tobacco factory was a casualty.

In the process, RUMFORD invented what we would call 'the modern, kitchen' - the compact one which Americans took to heart, the one with the sink, the running water, the ice box, the handy stove (he invented lots of stoves and made and lost fortunes on them), even the trash slot, the broom closet, and the overhead cupboards. He was a very model of major modern efficiency. But his most remarkable invention at that time is a surprise to most - especially to those in America who continued to heat houses in Nordic winters with fireplaces. After centuries of the flu chimney, RUMFORD invented the damper in the year 1801.

Truly, homosexuals are descended from heterosexual barbarians.

That BENJAMIN THOMPSON, COUNT RUMFORD (he chose the name of the town where he'd made his first fortune) was also a scientific genius and a mechanical wizard may count for little in the larger history of science were he not best remembered as a traitor; but his very treachery is mitigated by the very success of his espionage, by the likelihood that he was a homosexual in a hostile, heterosexist, homophobic milieu, and by the fact that, while the United States government had to think twice about appointing him commandant of what became West Point, Harvard College didn't bat an eyelash accepting his eternal legacy for a Rumford Professorship. Because he was a contributing scientist, he has managed somehow to rise above any 'mere art critic' who betrays 'the land of his birth' with a disdainful sneer. Did he have much the same motivations as BLUNT, perhaps? That odd smirk he gave Smiley?

But RUMFORD was a doer, no doubt. He cruised with the Royal Fleet. He published plans for improved frigates, correcting hogging (or keel arching). He was experimenting with silk production at an early date. He won the COPLEY Medal, the Royal Society's highest honor - and named for a homosexual). He invented the 'oven roaster'. He founded the Society for Bettering the Conditions and Increasing the Comfort of the Poor (disingenuously or not). And his bust in the English Garden in Munich somehow survived World War II. The man had luck.

Unfortunate for the researcher, an isabel (one thinks of Isabel Burton destroying SIR RICHARD's work) got to many of RUMFORD's manuscripts in the 19th century, made a mess of them, and destroyed all the originals. This isabel was Sarah, the Countess de Rumford, his daughter by his first wife, a countess in her own right but whose title was, in America, at once inoperable and unconstitutional. She left Concord NH, the old Rumford MA, a foundling hospital - not long since destroyed by an expressway. RUMFORD had her over at some point, but found her utterly unbumpkinable; he sent her home.

RUMFORD's realization that America had founded a revolutionary society is certainly evident but, had he returned to America, as he'd wished to do, he would have continued to act in the manner of an international aristocrat even as he necessarily acted in Europe as a Yankee eccentric parvenu. His adoption of the Napoleonic imperial style (NAPOLEON knew him, disliked him, and actually snubbed him - the same way he'd treated von HUMBOLDT) is indicative of a personality not entirely convinced of the benefits to be gained by homosexual intellectuals in the enfranchisement of the masses. In this he had something of the classical Greek in him, the homophilic aristos. In the long run, RUMFORD would prove correct for, if Americana bureaucracy did not create homophobia, it certainly did little in its first 200 years to relieve homophobia's oppressive affects on its own homosexuals. It was the Napoleonic Code which freed homosexuals, not the American Constitution or the Bill of Rights.

His last marriage, to Marie Anne Pierette Paulze, Antoine Lavoisier's widow, was obviously for money. He called her "The Dragon". They actually had descendants ( who, to this day, carry the name Rumford rather than Thompson.

In the end, Americans have forgiven 'The Count' because nobody stood in his way for long, he attended Harvard College (however briefly), he was a fearless general, he made his way in the most sophisticated circles of Europe, American bumpkin or no - and he died rich, famous, and in Paris. Men may have distrusted him, but women adored him! because in Italy he was known as Il Conte Benjamino di Rumfort. That always helps.

Tinker, Tailor, soldier, spy, he was all of these; so how was RUMFORD a tailor? Well, he invented a curious kind of masculine pant with a fly down the front ... and up the back! The man was a gay genius.


  1. Marble, A. R.: From 'Prentice to Patron, the Life Story of Isaiah Thomas; 1935.
  2. French, A., in: General Gage's Informers; 1952. Here French argues that some of Church's dispatches were actually written by RUMFORD.
  3. Masters, John: Casanova; Bernard Geis Associates; NYC, 1969. This is an incisive coffee-table book; don't let its attractive illustrations fool the pedant!
  4. Renwick, James: "Life of Count Rumford", in Library of American Biography; 1848; p. 39.
  5. Brown, Sanborn C.: Benjamin Thompson, Count Rumford; MIT Press, PB; Cambridge USA, 1981.
  6. Valentine, A.: Lord George Germain; 1962; page 409.
  7. Letters of Thomas Walpole to H. S. Conway.
  8. SHIVELY, CHARLEY (U. Mass., Boston): "Was the Father of Our Country a Queen? Bringing New Meaning to the Phrase 'George Washington Slept Here'; Gay Community News; Vol. 17, No. 49; Boston, 1990.07.1-7; pp. 1, 7.
  9. VANARDY, VARICK, Jr.: "Gen. Sir Benjamin Thompson, Graf von Rumford: from the Siege of Boston to the Siege of Munich"; The Gay Review; I.1.; Boston, 1990; pages 9-17. Includes extensive revised chronology.

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