Mystery surrounds identity of Rowan County school teacher
By Elizabeth G. Cook
School teacher Peter Stewart Ney was so beloved by his former students that several gathered around his sick bed in a western Rowan County home in November 1846.
For years, people had believed the teacher was Michel Ney, a marshal in Napoleon’s Army who fled to America after a faked execution by firing squad.
As he was breathing his last, someone asked Ney to reveal his true identity.
“I am Ney of France,” they later quoted him as saying — his final words.
Gary Freeze, associate professor of history at Catawba College, calls the Peter Ney-Marshal Ney story one of the biggest mysteries of North Carolina history.
Though Freeze believes Peter Ney was indeed the famed marshal, he presents the story evenly in a documentary DVD recently produced by Rowan Public Library, “The NeySayers.”
The mystery has a history all its own, prompting two exhumations of Ney’s grave, the creation of the Ney Society and publication of several books.
Here’s part of the story as told by Freeze in the “The NeySayers.”
Ney was a man with stories to tell and secrets to keep, according to Freeze.
That helps explain his strange gravesite at Third Creek Presbyterian Church. Ney is buried in a pre-Civil War tomb that is surrounded by a chain link fence, which in turn is encased in a mausoleum of brick and glass.
To understand it all, though, you have to go back to the Napoleonic wars of the early 19th century. Napoleon Bonaparte took advantage of the upheaval following the French Revolution to take control of France, and he set out to systematically conquer the entire continent. This required loyal lieutenants and brave generals, and the bravest of the brave was said to be Michel Ney. The son of a barrel maker, he rose to the level of marshal within 10 years and was with Napoleon at all his great battles.
At the height of his power, Napoleon decided to invade Russia, but his army got caught there in the middle of winter. Napoleon himself retreated, but Ney stayed with the troops and won their admiration when he found a child stranded in the snow, took him in and, upon returning to France, made the boy a member of his family.
Napoleon was ordered into exile in 1814 after his loss in Russia, and when he returned to France a year later, Ney — still an officer in the French military — was sent to arrest him. The two stared at each other momentarily; then Ney stepped across the line and became Napoleon’s marshal once again.
Napoleon’s return to power was brief. His defeat in the Battle of Waterloo on June 18, 1815, led to another period of exile for him and conviction on charges of treason for the ever-loyal Ney. Despite protests from many, Ney fell before a firing squad on Dec. 7, 1815, and was buried.
“Well, somebody was buried,” Freeze says.
Paris soon hummed with talk that Marshal Ney had escaped execution, and the following year a man by the name of Peter Stewart Ney surfaced in Charleston, S.C. He had the same red hair as Michel Ney and matched his general appearance, and people began to speculate that this newcomer was the field marshal.
Ney fled to Georgetown, where he spent a couple of years preparing to be a teacher, and then entered a 20-year career teaching in small towns. He started in Florence, S.C., but was quickly recognized, so he moved on to the backcountry of North Carolina — Rowan, Iredell and Davie counties.
Each job he took was in a small school in a rural neighborhood and lasted about two years. His students included people who went on to become notable citizens.
He accepted any student who wanted a rigorous education and became known as quite a teacher. Mornings, he lined his students up against a wall for daily inspection. He was innovative, teaching his students to go beyond rote memorization, and tried to make knowledge practical. He wrote his own math textbooks, and expertly carved the continents on a pumpkin when he realize how little his students knew of world geography.
Those who tried to play pranks on the teacher could find themselves challenged to a duel, using sticks.
Teacher Ney’s accomplishments included designing the seal for Davidson College, and the college now has a collection of Ney artifacts gathered by students after his death. It includes the handle that once held a compass purchased in Charleston, a book about Napoleon in which Ney made margin notations, and a sketch Ney made of himself on the same page as a printed sketch of the field marshal, bearing the notation, “Ney by himself.”
Other clues suggesting that teacher Ney may have been more than a simple school teacher included his frequent trips to northern cities, money stowed away in a Philadelphia bank and a steady procession of visitors, including one young man who Ney’s friends later learned was his son, using the last name of “Neyman” and studying medicine in Philadelphia.
* When, while living in South Carolina, he learned that Napoleon had died, Ney reportedly punched a knife into his own neck out of despair and might have died if the knife had not broken.
* When he learned Napoleon’s son had died, Ney pronounced that he could never return to France, and went into a rant, speaking in French.
* The sound of approaching thunder apparently sounded like cannon shot to him, and upon hearing one approaching storm, he took on the persona of the military leader, giving orders to phantom troops.
* After his death, Ney’s students thought they could prove his identity by decoding his journal. A man from New York who was supposed to be an expert in such things took the journal away so he could unravel the mystery, but the students never saw the man or the book again.
The clues were enough to prompt Ney’s believers to have his body exhumed in the 1880s to examine his skull. Marshal Ney was supposed to have a silver plate in his head, the treatment for a war injury. But the body had no such plate. Nevertheless, excitement over Ney was so great that, as the body was brought up from the grave, two Statesville women rushed forward and snipped off a lock of hair.
Former students and friends who were determined to prove Ney’s identity organized the Ney Association and continued to press for evidence. They had his grave dug up again in the 1930s, but again found nothing conclusive.
The pivotal point in the mystery, however, was the popular marshal’s execution. Doubters point out that the location of the execution was changed, perhaps to thwart escape attempts, and observers saw him take three bullets to the face. The body was put on view publicly and then buried in Paris.
Besides, the doubters point out, in 1830 the French government pardoned those who had fought the king, and Ney could have returned to his homeland and his family — if he were really Marshal Ney. But he did not.
But teacher Ney told his students that members of the firing squad actually aimed around him. He slapped a bag of blood hidden beneath his shirt and it burst, giving the appearance of a lethal wound, and he fell forward. A nun rushed forward to pray over him — an opportunity to make the mysterious “bullet marks” to his face. And he was able to lie in state at a distance, so mourners could not inspect him closely.
Furthermore, the officer in charge of the execution did not perform the traditional coup de grace (blow of mercy) into Ney’s neck to finalize his death.
There’s more — the Masonic connection that could explain how Ney would have enough co-conspirators to whisk him away to America and help him become established, the handwriting samples that appeared similar to laymen but did not convince handwriting experts.
And then there was a notation Ney made in a hotel registry in Lincoln, “an atom floating on the atmosphere of chance” — strange and highly scientific musings for a simple school teacher.
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