Object of the Month

"A living and very robust reminder of the nearness of the great year of 1848": Mr. Thuolt and his Boston Riding School

Stephen Thuolt Carte de visite

Stephen Thuolt


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  • This carte de visite portrait, identified on the verso as "Mr. S. Thoult Hungary" depicts Colonel István (Stephen) Thuolt, a Hungarian officer who fought alongside Lajos Kossuth in the Hungarian Revolution of 1848-1849. Thuolt and his wife escaped after the failed revolution and became part of a small community of exiles who endeared themselves to the leading families of Boston.

    European Spring

    The year 1848 was a tumultuous one with revolutions sweeping across Europe--January, Sicily; February, France; March, Germany and the Hapsburg Empire. Eventually over fifty countries would be affected by unrest that year. Although essentially democratic in nature, the goals of revolution in each country were distinct, led by loose-knit coalitions of reformers, the middle class, and workers protesting against the feudal order, technological change, food shortages, and the disparity between the wealthy and everyone else.

    The Hungarian Revolution, where the Thuolts's story begins, met with early success followed by eighteen months of struggle and brutal defeat. On 15 March 1848, mass protests rocked Buda and Pest with revolutionaries presenting their "Twelve Points," demands which included freedom of the press, an independent Hungarian government, annual national Assembly, civil and religious authority, and trial by jury among others. Representatives of Emperor Ferdinand acceded to the demands mere days later. Their bloodless revolution, however, soon turned to war when Habsburg forces tried to regain control of the country. After more than a year of harsh fighting, Hungarian revolutionaries were quashed by a joint force of Austrian and Russian troops. The country was placed under martial law and rebels forced into exile or killed. Lajos Kossuth, who led the revolutionaries, along with many of his followers, escaped over the Ottoman border where they were sheltered by authorities who, backed by the British, refused to turn over the fugitives. Colonel Thuolt's own journey brought him to Boston via Aleppo, Tripoli, and Beirut. Finally, in 1851, Kossuth and his followers departed for England and then the United States, where Kossuth would embark on a lecture tour to gain support for future revolutionary activities and others would seek to build a life in a new country.

    Kossuth Mania

    The arrival of Hungarian exiles on our shores caused no small measure of curiosity and fascination, with nothing short of a craze developing for all things Hungarian. Frank Preston Stearns wrote,

    very little was known of them [Hungarians] in America. They were supposed to be descended from a Tartar race and to be somewhat more civilized than the Turks. They possessed no characteristics, however, of Turk or Tartar, except their fine horsemanship … When Kossuth and his train of fellow exiles came to this country in 1851, people were astonished to see a class of men more elegant and more accomplished than the average English traveler.

    All over the country, restaurants served up goulash, men's fashions took on a dashing Magyar flair, and breathless accounts of the Hungarians and their history filled the newspapers. Subscriptions were taken up and bonds sold in support of Kossuth and his work (although never enough for Kossuth). In Boston, the exiles were welcomed by the likes of Henry W. Longfellow, George S. Hillard, and George L. Stearns, who, through their connections with Boston elite, were able to help the newcomers with material assistance, connections, and employment. Stearns himself provided an ongoing open house at his Medford estate, entertaining a small group of Hungarians weekly, smoking cigars, talking politics, and telling anecdotes of Hungarian life, reaching far back into the Middle Ages.

    The Hungarian Riding School

    In the 20 May 1852 issue of the Boston Daily Atlas, the following advertisement, accompanied by a glowing recommendation from none other than the great Kossuth, appeared:

    John A. Kalapsza cavalry officer, wishes to open a riding school … needs the assistance and cooperation of some active and intelligent American, of the same hue of business, and also a certain amount of capital.

    Within months, János Kalapsza (referred to by Stearns as "General Kalapkur") had established his riding school on Hanover Street in Boston and in October, the Daily Atlas noted that they were "informed that Mr. K. has already met with encouragement from our citizens. The ladies especially have aided him, which fact is of itself the forerunner of success." According to another source, the women of Boston, "enthusiastic for the Hungarian cause," had really taken to the idea of this dashing officer establishing a riding school for ladies and raised $1500 for the school by way of individual $50 subscriptions. The school became a great success and by the second season, Kalapsza has been joined by a "Mr. Thouldt," a fellow cavalry officer, skilled horsemen and "men of refined, courteous and gentlemanly manners."

    The tale of how Stephen Thuolt came to own the riding school depends on who is telling the story. According to Stearns, "Kalapkur … proved shortly afterward to be a great rascal. He took advantage of his position to run up debts, and borrowed money in every direction; and, after spending an extravagant summer at Nahant, he suddenly gave his creditors the slip and took a steamer for Europe." According to Helene Tott, his reason for departure was more benign: in 1857, he joined the army on "a quest to go west to learn more about the Mormons," eventually making it as far as Salt Lake City. Either way, not much more is known about Kalapsza/Kalapkur after his departure from Boston.

    In January of 1857, the Boston Daily Advertiser ran a letter to the editor signed "B." extolling the praises of Capt. Thuolt and his riding school, based largely on the opinions of others "too accurate in their judgments to admit of misapprehension and too scrupulously truthful to allow them ever to overpraise." Thuolt's praises were also sung by Henry Cabot Lodge, taught the fine art of riding by Thuolt:

    As far back as I can remember I used to be put upon one of my father's or sister's horses and allowed to ride it round the yard at Nahant. Then came riding lessons in Boston under the instruction of Mr. Thuolt, a follower of Kossuth, a living and very robust reminder of the nearness of the great year of 1848. He was a Hungarian and had served in the Austrian cavalry, a tall, large, fine-looking man, very kind to small boys. He also gave us lessons in the broadsword, and I kept for a long time the wooden representative of that weapon with which I used to practice the cuts and passes.

    Captain Thuolt's riding school flourished until the summer of 1866, when advertisements were placed on behalf of one of his employees "who has been in S. Thuolt's employ thirteen years. He will give him the best recommendation." After July, the riding school is no longer advertised and he disappears from Boston directories the next year. Although Stearns reports that "the Thuolts also went back to Europe, and to an unknown destiny," it seems that Thuolt received an amnesty from the Austrian government and returned to his homeland. Many of his fellow "Forty-eighters" remained here, making lasting contributions to the fabric of our nation.

    Hungarian Controversies

    The Thuolts and other European exiles arrived at a challenging moment in Massachusetts and American history. Nativism was on the rise and 1854 was the high point for the American (or" Know Nothing") Party, which was strongly anti-immigrant. Abolitionists such as William Lloyd Garrison felt that the charity extended to these newcomers distracted attention from the plight of our own enslaved countrymen, writing in the Liberator in 1855,

    How can it be that we Northern men can so readily work ourselves into a fever of sympathy with the oppressed Hungarian, the exiled Pole, the degraded Neapolitan, the abused Turk, and yet not have our blood curdle in our veins at the reflection that we maintain in our own country a despotism infinitely worse than any other, a bondage more cruel than any other the sun ever shone upon.

    A fierce debate in the pages of the North American Review over the nature of the Hungarian revolution erupted between Harvard lecturer Francis Bowen and Mary Lowell Putnam, a wealthy Bostonian and student of Hungarian language, literature and history. Bowen argued that the revolution was merely about one group asserting their dominance over other nationalities living in the same country, while Putnam saw it as "the attempt of an oppressed people to free itself from the yoke of a monarchy." Bowen eventually conceded defeat, but his views on the question were not soon forgotten or forgiven.

    For further reading

    Freitag, Sabine, ed. Exiles from European Revolutions: Refugees in Mid-Victorian England. New York: Berghahn Books, 2003.

    Lodge, Henry Cabot. Early Memories. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1913.

    Stearns, Frank Preston. The Life and Public Services of George Luther Stearns. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1907.

    Toth, Helena. An Exiled Generation: German and Hungarian Refugees of Revolution, 1848-1871. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014.

    Vasvary, Edmund. Lincoln's Hungarian Heroes: the Participation of Hungarians in the Civil War, 1861-1865. Washington, D. C.: Hungarian Reformed Federation of America, 1939.