Josephine Marie Augustine de la Harpe Ludert Ursenbach: From the Tsar’s Court to the Kingdom of God

It will be seen by obituary notice in another column, that Sister Ursenbach died this morning. She was a lady of superior education and attainments, and true to her integrity in the work of the Lord. She leaves one son, who is now in New York, employed as a scenic artist at one of the leading theatres. She has also two daughters in St. Petersburg, Russia. Deceased was a native of Switzerland, but resided for some time in Russia. – Deseret News Weekly, February 27, 1878

The neutrality of today’s Switzerland makes it the natural home of international organizations of all kinds; its highly educated citizens are renowned producers of fine craftsmanship and precision instruments. The political stability that supports such a state grew out of the turmoil and warfare of the 18th century, when a loose collection of feudal Swiss states began to work out a more permanent alliance.

Among the disputes to be settled was the independence of the French-speaking canton of Vaud, which had long been in thrall to the German-speaking canton of Berne. Among the architects of the independent Vaud movement was Frédéric-César de la Harpe, most of whose adult life prior to the revolution had been spent in the court of Russian Tsar Paul I as tutor to the future Tsar Alexander I.

Swiss history from 1789 through the 1830s roughly paralleled that of France – revolution followed by periods of terror and despotism, appeals to Napoleon for assistance, then a repudiation of Napoleon and appeals to Russia for recognition, exiles and rapprochements and negotiations and experimentation, until a workable Swiss confederation emerged. Frédéric-César de la Harpe himself was in and out of political favor according to the winds of empire, and he maintained a lengthy correspondence with his former pupil Alexander I, a detailed record of statecraft that is still studied today.

When de la Harpe’s cousin, General Amédée Emmanuel François de la Harpe, died fighting with Napoleon for Swiss independence, and when his lands in Vaud were confiscated by the party then in power, de la Harpe made arrangements for Amédée’s widow and children to go to St. Petersburg as respected members of Alexander’s internationally flavored court.

It was St. Petersburg where Amédée’s granddaughter Josephine met her husband, a German named Alexander Ludert, Russia’s long-serving Consul General in Cuba. Josephine and Alexander were married while on a visit to London in 1837.

Josephine lived in St. Petersburg raising two daughters who were born early in the marriage, while her husband traveled between Havana and St. Petersburg every year.

During her youth and early wifehood, Josephine was greatly concerned about religion:

I was born in the Reformed (Protestant) faith, but as age ripened my ideas, my soul was disturbed by thoughts of another world. I was anxious about what there was beyond the grave. I studied all religions, their dogmas and beliefs – I always felt there was something not quite right with the faith into which I was born.

My mind was troubled, my heart discontent, and I tasked myself to find the truth … My mind was attracted to the ideas of Fourier, but my heart was repulsed by a feeling of falseness, a conviction that it was the finest work of man but lacked all inspiration from God. …

I went to Rome to study Catholicism … but I came to the conclusion that even if Catholicism were the one true church of God, I could not follow the priests who administered it in the world. I left Rome in discouragement, convinced that I would make a poor Catholic, knowing I could not blindly accept what I could not understand. …

My only goal was always to discover the true road to heaven, to follow it faithfully, and to keep my eye on life eternal. I finally had to content myself with the thought that I would leave myself in God’s hands, waiting for him to find me since I could not find him.

Josephine had many friends in St. Petersburg, and continued to make that her home base even while she traveled throughout Europe. Her youngest child, a son, was born in Switzerland in 1849, and her two much older daughters prepared for marriage within the international aristocracy at the Russian court. Josephine’s husband evidently died in the early 1850s; widowhood does not seem to have created for her any restrictions in movement and wealth. Her travels took her to Geneva in 1854, her small son accompanying her.

One day while was in Geneva, a friend told me that a Mormon had rented a hall to preach that afternoon. I had barely heard of Mormonism and asked my friend about it.

She said, “I don’t know much about them, either – just that they have built a colony in the great American desert, and they practice polygamy.”

“That could be amusing,” I told her. He was no doubt there to gather recruits, and I was curious as to how he would be received. “Shall we go?” So my friend and I went to listen to that Mormon, solely to pass the time mocking him.

Well, madame [said Josephine, to the woman interviewing her], that man spoke in a way that sent me reeling. The revelations of the Most High given to Joseph Smith struck me with great force, and I suddenly understood why I had never been content with any of the religions I had studied, when I heard the restored gospel.

I testify to you that I heard a voice say to me, “You wanted the truth. There it is.” My heart beat with happiness, a veil of darkness was torn from my soul, a divine light seemed to brighten everything.

I left that meeting converted, but undecided what to do. God spoke to me during the sleepless night that followed. “What are you waiting for? Can’t you see, can’t you feel, that this is the right road?”

The next morning I hunted up the elder and begged him to tell me more. One month later, I was baptized.

From that moment, Josephine had two primary goals: To join the Saints in Zion, and to persuade her two daughters to join her there. She wrote to her daughters, telling them of her new faith and her new plans. Appalled, they wrote back, urging her to return to St. Petersburg where they would free her from her foolhardy ideas.

Josephine would not reconsider – but neither could she convince her daughters to believe her testimony. Always in later life, Josephine counted her greatest sacrifice for the gospel to be not her wealth or position, but the loss of her two daughters, left behind in Russia.

She made plans to emigrate in the winter of 1855-56. Her emigration proved to be a blessing to another woman, as well: Josephine’s rank was such that Swiss officials didn’t blink when Josephine asked to have her passport include travel permission for her “maid” – a young Swiss convert who had been unable to secure a passport in her own name. They left Europe without incident.

Safely out of Europe, safely across the ocean, and safely across half a continent, Josephine learned that the last stage of her journey would have to be made by handcart. No matter. This elegant lady, whose extensive travels had always been made in the most comfortable manner available, walked across the American prairies and mountains, her 6-year-old son at her side, with the Daniel D. McArthur (Second) Handcart Company.

Josephine was sealed as a plural wife to Franklin D. Richards a few months after her arrival in Utah, possibly a marriage contracted solely to assure her of her place in the hereafter; as a 44-year-old matron with the responsibilities of a young son, but without other family ties and now entirely without financial resources, she was not a likely candidate for any other kind of marriage.

But two years later, in 1859, the sealing to Richards was canceled and Josephine was married to Octave Ursenbach, several years her junior, then a young gardener and eventually a legendary missionary to the Swiss, and the founder of an extensive, prominent line of descendants. (Those descendants, however, all come through a wife other than Josephine. There exists today among those descendants a body of family legends about Josephine, some demonstrably false and none of the rest independently verifiable, originating with the other wife and apparently arising out of her rejection of Josephine’s son as an heir of Octave Ursenbach. I would have preferred not to stir the inevitable curiosity with this reference, but I reserve the right to refute, as gently as I can, any legends that might be offered by descendants of the other wife.)

Josephine likely knew Octave in Switzerland: he was baptized in Geneva in 1854, as was Josephine; he did not emigrate to Utah, though, until 1858.

Josephine lived very quietly in Salt Lake City. She took newly arrived emigrants into her home while they got their bearings, especially those from French-speaking countries. One such man was 60-year-old William LeFeuvre who had been baptized on the Isle of Jersey and then had gone to France. For 18 years he heard not a single word about the Church, but he kept his testimony. He immediately came to Utah when he learned that the Saints had gathered there; arriving ill, he died in Josephine’s home.

Josephine supported the silk industry in Utah, raising silkworms and reeling their silk at home. She is known to have written to the French author Victor Hugo introducing him to the gospel; he replied in a brief but courteous note, declining all interest in Mormonism.

When Europeans visited Salt Lake City on tours of the West, Josephine was frequently asked to meet with them, living proof that Mormon women were as cultured and educated and noble as any women in the world. Josephine told her personal history to multiple French interviewers, and her story was published several times in French periodicals and in the memoirs of travelers, preserving her history in Europe even while it remained virtually unknown in the U.S. When a garbled version of one interview appeared in an eastern newspaper in 1870, Josephine wrote to set the record straight:

To the Editor of the New York Herald: –

Permit me to rectify an article published in your paper of the 8th inst., entitled “Mormon Romance.” I still reside in Salt Lake City. I am the grand daughter of General de La Harpe, the Swiss hero who fought for the liberty of his country and who distinguished himself as general of a division under Napoleon the Great.

I was a Protestant, or, rather, an earnest inquirer after truth, when I embraced the gospel – restored to earth with all its spiritual powers, gifts and blessings – as it was preached by the Savior and His apostles. After receiving the truth my greatest desire was to identify myself more directly with the people of God, and for this purpose I made the sacrifice of all I hold most dear and near to me on earth – my children. I was the widow of the Russian General Consul in Havana, and, as you say, I was associated with the aristocracy of that country (Russia), where I had many friends.

It is true that nothing could prevail to stop me from coming to Utah, the place appointed by the Almighty for the gathering of Israel in the last days. As I could not get my means I started with just enough to cross the ocean and the States, and I crossed the great American desert on foot, through great tribulations, it is true, but the God I had enlisted to serve gave me power to endure and to arrive here safely thirteen years ago. “Delusion,” sir, would not have given to a delicate, nervous woman the supernatural strength required to accomplish such a feat.

When I arrived at Council Bluffs I received a letter from one of my relations entreating me to go back, stating that the Swiss Consul and Russian Ambassador had received orders to arrest me and send me back, but I escaped from their hands, and here I am, preferring to serve the true and living God under the inspired voice of a living prophet and apostles, in a modest position than to enjoy all the world can give. With the highest consideration, I remain, sir, yours, respectfully,

Josephine De La Harpe Ursenbach

Octave Ursenbach died in 1871. Josephine’s son, who had assisted in gathering geological and zoological specimens for the Deseret Museum, became a portrait and landscape artist, then moved to New York City where, under the name Joseph Delaharpe, he became one of the most celebrated theater-scenery painters of his generation – one of his earliest productions was the 1873 New York Opera House staging of Mark Twain’s popular Roughing It. Josephine corresponded with her daughters, married in Russia, but never saw them again.

Josephine continued her quiet life, alone but apparently happy, until her death in 1878.

Cross-posted from Keepapitchinin — click here for comments.