Home > histories, housework, reproduction > Francis Wheen, “The Megalosaurus” (excerpt)

Francis Wheen, “The Megalosaurus” (excerpt)

October 25, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

“The Megalosaurus” (excerpt)

Francis Wheen

Excerpt from Karl Marx: A Life, p. 169-177

His living conditions might have been expressly designed to keep him from lapsing into contentment. The furniture and fittings in the two-room apartment were all broken, tattered or torn, with a half-inch of dust over everything. In the middle of the front living room, overlooking Dean Street, was a big table covered with an oil cloth, on which lay Marx’s manuscripts, books and newspapers, as well as the children’s toys, rags and scraps from his wife’s sewing basket, several cups with broken rims, knives, forks, lamps, an inkpot, tumblers, Dutch clay pipes and a thick veneer of tobacco ash. Even finding somewhere to sit was fraught with peril. ‘Here is a chair with only three legs, on another chair the children have been playing at cooking  – this chair happens to have four legs,’ a guest reported. ‘This is the one which is offered to the visitor, but the children’s cooking has not been wiped away; and if you sit down, you risk a pair of trousers.’

One of the few Prussian police spies who gained admission to this smoke-filled cavern was shocked by Marx’s chaotic habits:

He leads the existence of a real bohemian intellectual. Washing, grooming and changing his linen are things he does rarely, and he likes to get drunk. Though he is often idle for days on end, he will work day and night with tireless endurance when he has a great deal of work to do. He has no fixed times for going to sleep and waking up. He often stays up all night, and then lies down fully clothed on the sofa at midday and sleeps till evening, untroubled by the comings and goings of the whole world.

Marx’s reluctance to go to bed seems eminently reasonable, since his whole menage – including the housekeeper, Helene “Lenchen” Demuth – had to sleep in one small room in the back of the building. How Karl and Jenny ever found the time or privacy for procreation remains a mystery; one assumes that they seized their chances while Lenchen was out taking the children for a walk. With Jenny ill and Karl preoccupied, the task of preserving any semblance of domestic order fell entirely on their servant. ‘Oh, if you knew how much I am longing for you and the little ones,’ Jenny wrote to Karl during her fruitless expedition to Holland in 1850. ‘I know that you and Lenchen will take care of them. Without Lenchen I would not have peace of mind here.’

Lenchen was indeed attending to Jenny’s usual duties – including those of the conjugal bed. Nine months later, on 23 June 1851, she gave birth to a baby boy. On the birth certificate for young Henry Frederick Demuth, later known as Freddy, the space for the father’s name and occupation were left blank. The child was given to foster parents soon afterwards, probably a working-class couple called Lewis in east London. (The evidence here is only circumstantial: Lenchen’s son changed his name to Frederick Lewis Demuth and spent his entire adult life in the borough of Hackney. He became a skilled lathe-operator at several East End factories, a stalwart of the Amalgamated Engineering Union and a founder member of the Hackney Labour Party. Remembered by colleagues as a quiet man who never talked about his family, he died 28 January 1929.)

Since Freddy was born in the small back room on 28 Dean Street – and Lenchen’s swelling stomach would have been all too obvious in the preceding weeks – this apparently miraculous conception could not be hidden from Jenny. Though deeply upset and angry, she agreed that the news would provide lethal ammunition to Marx’s enemies should it ever get out. So began one of the first and most successful cover-ups ever organized for the greater good of the communist cause. There were plenty of rumors that Marx had fathered an illegitimate child, but the first public reference to Freddy’s true paternity did not appear until 1962, when the German historian Walter Blumenberg published a document found in the vast Marxist archive at the International Institute of Social History, Amsterdam. It is a letter written on 2 September 1898 by Louisen Freyberger, a friend of Helene Demuth and housekeeper to Engels, describing her employer’s deathbed confession:

I know from General [Engels] himself that Freddy Demuth is Marx’s son. Tussy [Marx’s youngest daughter, Eleanor] went on at me so, that I asked the old man straight out. General was very astonished that Tussy clung to her opinion so obstinately. And he told me that if necessary I was to give lie to the gossip that he disowned his son. You will remember that I told you about it long before General’s death.


Moreover this fact that Frederick Demuth was the son of Karl Marx and Helene Demuth was again confirmed by General a few days before his death in a statement to Mr. Moore [Samuel Moore, translator of the Communist Manifesto and Capital], who then went to Tussy at Orpington and told her. Tussy maintained that General was lying and that he himself had always admitted he was the father. Moore came back from Orpington and questioned General again closely. But the old man stuck to his statement that Freddy was Marx’s son, and said to Moore, ‘Tussy wants to make an idol of her father.’


On Sunday, that is to say the day before he died, General wrote it down himself for Tussy on the slate, and Tussy came out so shattered that she forgot all about her hatred of me and wept bitterly on my shoulder.


General gave us…permission to make use of the information only if he should be accused of treating Freddy shabbily. He said he would not want his name slandered, especially as it could no longer do anyone any good. By taking Marx’s part he had saved him from a serious domestic conflict. Apart from ourselves and Mr. Moore and Mr. Marx’s children (I think Laura knew about the story even though perhaps she had not heard it exactly) the only others that knew that Marx had a son were Lessner and Pfander. After the Freddy letters had been published, Lessner said to me, ‘Of course Freddy is Tussy’s brother, we knew all about it, but we could never find out where the child was brought up.’


Freddy looks comically like Marx, and with that really Jewish face and thick black hair, it was really only blind prejudice that could see in him any likeness to General. I have seen the letter that Marx wrote to General in Manchester at that time (of course General was not yet living in London then); but I believe General destroyed this letter, like so many others they exchanged.


That is all I know about the matter. Freddy has never found out, either from his mother or from General who his father really is…


I am just reading over again the few lines you wrote me about the question. Marx was continually aware of the possibility of divorce, since his wife was frantically jealous. He did not love the child, and the scandal would have been too great if he had dared to do anything for him.


Since it was made public in 1962 most Marxist scholars have accepted this letter as conclusive proof of Marx’s infidelity. But there are one or two sceptics. Eleanor Marx’s biographer Yvonne Kapp has described the Freyberger letter as a ‘high fantasy’ which ‘forfeits credence on many points’; nevertheless, she concedes, ‘there can be no reasonable doubt that he [Freddy] was Marx’s son.’ Professor Terrell Carver, the author of a life of Engels, goes much further. He refuses to believe that either Marx or Engels could have sired Freddy Demuth, and dismisses the letter as a forgery – ‘possibly by Nazi agents aiming to discredit socialism.’ He points out that the version in the Amsterdam archive is a typewritten copy whose provenance is unknown, and the original (if there ever was one) has never been traced.

Certainly, some of the allegations in the letter defy all logic or common sense. Take the ‘letter’ which Marx is supposed to have sent Engels at the time of the birth, and which Louise Freyberger claims to have seen. Since Freyberger was born in 1860 and did not go to work for Engels until 1890, this means he must have kept it among his papers for many decades. Why, having taken the trouble to preserve it, did he then destroy the only evidence which would ‘give the lie to the gossip that he disowned his son?’

There is also a rather obvious psychological implausibility. When Jenny Marx discovered that her husband and her servant had been canoodling behind her back – and while she herself was pregnant – she would probably have evicted the treacherous Lenchen from the household forthwith, or at least regarded her with cold distrust. Yet the two women remained affectionate partners for the rest of their lives. ‘Research into the life of Frederick Demuth and of his relations has yielded nothing concerning the identity of his father, and even Engels’s alleged claim that he had somehow accepted paternity has no other supporting facts,’ Professor Carver concludes. ‘The surviving correspondence and memoirs certainly provide no positive support for Louise Freyberger’s story.’

This is not quite true. Although the papers of Marx and Engels were carefully weeded by their executors, who did not wish to embarrass or injure the grand old men of communism, a few telling fragments have survived. The first is a letter from Eleanor Marx to her sister Laura, dated 17 May 1882, which shows that Marx’s daughters had accepted the story of Engels’s paternity: ‘Freddy has behaved admirably in all respects and Engels’s irritation against him is as unfair as it is comprehensible. We should none of us like to meet our pasts, in flesh and blood. I know I always meet Freddy with a sense of guilt and wrong done. The life of that man! To hear him tell of it all is a misery and shame of me.’ Tens years later, on 26 July 1892, Eleanor returned to the subject: ‘It may be that I am very “sentimental” – but I can’t help feeling that Freddy has had great injustice all through his life. Is it not wonderful when you come to look things squarely in the face, how rarely we seem to practice the fine things we preach – to others?’ In light of that earlier letter, the jibe is clearly aimed at Engels.

Both Karl Marx and his wife left small but telling clues to the truth. Jenny’s autobiographical essay, ‘A Short Sketch of an Eventful Life,’ written in 1865, includes a curious parenthetical revelation: ‘In the early summer of 1851 an event occurred which I do not wish to relate here in detail, although it contributed to increase our worries, both personal and others.’ The event in question can only have been the arrival of Freddy. If Helene Demuth had been impreganted by some other lover, why would it have caused Jenny such lasting and personal grief?

Odder still is a letter sent by Marx to Engels on 31 March 1851, when Helene was six months pregnant. After an epic grumble about his debts, his creditors and his tight-fisted mother, Marx adds, ‘You will admit that this is a pretty kettle of fish and that I am up to my neck in petty-bourgeois muck…but finally, to give the matter a tragi-comic turn, there is in addition a mystere which I will now reveal to you en tres peu de mots. However I’ve just been interrupted and must go and help nurse my wife. The rest, then, in which you also figure, in my next.’ By the time of the next letter, two days later, he had changed his mind. ‘I’m not writing to you about the mystere, since, coute que coute [whatever it costs] I shall be coming in any case to see you at the end of April. I must get away from here for a week.’

What was the mystere if not Lenchen’s gestation? The coy lapses into French euphemism prove it beyond doubt, since this was his usual language of gynaecological embarrassment. (During Jenny’s pregnancies he often told Engels that she was in un etat trop interessant.’) His reluctance to give any more details in writing is amply explained in the same letter:  ‘My wife, alas, has been delivered of a girl, and not a garcon. And what’s worse, she’s very poorly.’ Was it Frau Marx, or her new daughter, Franziska, who was ‘poorly’? Probably both. We know from Jenny’s memoir that she was depressed during the early summer of 1851, and Marx’s letter of 31 March confirms this: ‘My wife was brought to bed on 28 March. Though the confinement was an easy one, she is now very ill in bed, the causes being domestic rather than physical.’ By the beginning of August, with two nursing mothers sharing the cramped quarters at Dean Street, other emigres were beginning to gossip about old father Marx. ‘My circumstances are very dismal,’ he confessed to his friend Weydemeyer. ‘My wife will go under if things continue like this much longer. The constant worries, the slightest everyday struggle wears her out; and on top of that there are the infamies of my opponents who have never yet attempted to attack me as to the substance, who seek to avenge their impotence by casting suspicions on my civil character and by disseminating the most unspeakable infamies about me. Willich, Schapper, Ruge and countless other democratic rabble make this their business.’ Rudolf Schramm, brother of the duellist Conrad, had been whispering to acquaintances that ‘whatever the outcome of the revolution, Marx is perdu.’

‘I, of course, would make a joke of the whole dirty business,’ Marx wrote. ‘Not for one moment do I allow it to interfere with my work but, as you will understand, my wife, who is poorly and caught up from morning till night in the most disagreeable of domestic quandaries, and whose nervous system is impaired, is not revived by the exhalations by the pestiferous democratic cloaca daily administered to her by stupid tell-tales. The tactlessness of some individuals in this respect can be colossal.’ What was all that about if not the mysterious conception of little Freddy Demuth? It is noteworthy that Marx doesn’t actually deny the ‘unspeakable’ rumors while deploring the tactlessness of those who broadcast them.

Things could hardly get worse; but they did. At Easter 1852, shortly after her first birthday, Franziska had a severe attack of bronchitis. On 14 April, Marx scribbled a brief letter to Engels: ‘Dear Frederic, Only a couple of lines to let you know that our little child died this morning at a quarter past one.’ This unemotional announcement does not begin to describe the agony and despair that now enveloped the Marx household. For that, we must turn to Jenny’s ‘Short Sketch of an Eventful Life.’ ‘She suffered terribly. When she died we left her lifeless little body in the back room, went into the front room and made our beds on the floor. Our three children lay down by us and we all wept for the little angel whose livid, lifeless body was in the next room.’ At first, the Marxes couldn’t even afford to hire an undertaker, but a French neighbour in Dean Street took pity on them and lent them two pounds. ‘That money was used to pay for the coffin in which my child now rests in peace. She had no cradle when she came into the world and for a long time was refused a last resting place.’

Marx had been in London for little more than two years and had already been bereaved twice over. Engels identified the probable reason: ‘If only,’ he lamented in his letter of condolence, ‘there were some means by which you and your family could move to a more salubrious district and more spacious lodgings!’ Whether or not penury killed Franziska, it certainly interfered with her burial. For the previous few weeks Marx had been hoping to stabilize his finances with donations from American sympathizers, but on the very morning of the funeral he had a message from Weydemeyer, now living in New York, warning that there was little chance of salvation from that quarter. ‘You will realize that Weydemeyer’s letter made a very unpleasant impression here, particularly on my wife,’ Marx told Engels. ‘For two years now she has seen all my enterprises regularly come to grief.’

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