The Case of the Dead Cheese Master

The Case of the Dead Cheese Master, Part XII: The End of the Cheese Master’s Story


I’ve mentioned before that I was a bit inspired by the podcast Serial when I started writing this series of blog posts. The idea of taking one archival file and looking at it deeply is of course not at all the same thing as the act of investigation that Sarah Koenig and her fellow reports took on, but it was motivated by a related desire to look at the layers of different versions of a single story. The makers of Serial were looking for a truth, or the truth, and found themselves unable, in the end, to come up with a single, absolute version of the truth. I wasn’t so much looking for a particular truth as playing around with microhistory, trying to reconstruct the details of the life of this one obscure person from the past and his connections to his larger era. Despite this different goal I, too, am not sure if the story I’ll tell today is exactly the right way to end this larger series, in part because it again brings up so many new questions. But it is the ending I have.

The archival file about the dead cheese master ends with the resolution to one persistent issue that followed his death—what happened to Tinguely’s things?—and I’m largely going to follow suit. This issue was a bit different than the larger question of who owned the cheeses Tinguely left behind. That question brought up contracts and ownership and possession, but once it was resolved, the question remained as to what was to be done with the things that were definitely Tinguely’s at the time of his death. I’ve written about this a bit before, but here it is in a different context. 

There are glimpses of concern about what to do with Tinguely’s things very soon after Tinguely’s death was discovered. First, there was the question of the animals he owned. On August 15, Unge, the ober-amtman in charge of the area where Tinguely lived, asked that Tinguely’s domestic fowl be brought into the palace’s property, on the grounds that “they need food.” (l. 20ob) There’s no response in the file, but it certainly seems reasonable to believe that that’s exactly what happened. (It also brings up another question—it took a while for Tinguely’s death to be discovered. What had happened to his livestock before then? Given that he split his time between two places, did he have some arrangement in place for them to be fed when he was away? Or had they spent their time scavenging until Unge noticed their plight?)

Unge also brought up the next problem. In November he again wrote to the Gatchina administration asking for permission to do something with Tinguely’s things, which were apparently all still sitting in the house he rented. According to Unge, the damp fall weather was creating a problem—Tinguely’s things were sitting in the damp house, going bad and spoiling. It’s a bit unclear as to whether the cheeses were spoiling, or whether this was a more general problem. Some of Tinguely’s possessions had already been assessed as ragged (vetkhii), and sitting in a damp, unheated house would certainly not have helped their sorry state. In any event, Unge asked to be allowed to sell off the property as quickly as possible.

Perhaps as a result, over the next several months, the property was assessed and listed again, this time with estimated values, and then a public auction was organized to sell off Tinguely’s remaining possessions. A later document lists the amount of Tinguely’s estate after the sale and after any debts were paid as 1092 rubles, 10 kopeks. That’s for all the cheese, and all the bits and pieces of clothing and tableware and furniture and livestock that he had in his possession at the time he died. And that’s minus wages he owed, and debts that were claimed against his estate by a number of people he owed money.

Here’s where things take a turn. The Gatchina administration held on to this money, but also took steps to find out whether Tinguely had heirs. They may have looked around a bit locally, though there aren’t any particular notices about that in the file. But in 1801, the Gatchina administration wrote to the Academy of Sciences in St. Petersburg. Why? To ask the Academy of Sciences to place a notice in a Hamburg newspaper announcing Tinguely’s death, and asking for any heirs to come forward to collect his estate (ll. 65-66).

I was surprised when I read this, not so much because the administration cared that much about finding Tinguely’s heirs as because the conduit for information here was the Academy of Sciences. Of course the fact that the administration took what I think I might classify as extraordinary steps to find heirs is interesting in and of itself—all that work to prove the true ownership of Tinguely’s cheeses, only to work to give the proceeds of their sale away? That does seem a bit surprising. But even more, this opened up to me a new role for the Academy of Sciences. I knew that the Academy served as a mediator between Russia and Europe, translating foreign works, and publishing the work of Russian scientists in European languages. I did not know, however, that it served as this kind of mediator or much more commonplace news. Here it’s acting not just as a way to move academic information across borders, but as a more basic conduit for news.

What’s even more amazing is that apparently this advertisement worked. Hamburg’s newspapers had among the widest spread of newspapers of the era, so it made sense to place a notice there. But for the moment (and for lack of the ability to read through a bunch of newspapers of the time), I don’t know if the initial notice was reprinted, or whether a Hamburg newspaper made it to Fribourg, or to the attention of someone who’d known Tinguely in his life before he left for Russia. Somehow, though, news got to Tinguely’s family—for that’s the real ending of Tinguely’s story. Notice came from Switzerland to the Gatchina authorities a year or so after the request to the Academy of Sciences, reporting that Tinguely did indeed have heirs. When he left for Russia in 1791, he left behind—abandoned?—a wife and eight children, four boys and four girls.

Eight children.

Eight children. He abandoned eight children.

Not only that, but shortly after Tinguely left town, his wife died, leaving his children to the charity of relatives, neighbors, and philanthropic institutions, a fact that surely suggests that he had indeed abandoned them, leaving no method of getting in touch once he left the area. Now, though, having finally heard of their late father’s whereabouts, they were claiming their right to Tinguely’s estate.

And so, the file ends with a notice from March 21, 1804, in which the Gatchina Town Administration sent off 1092 rubles and 10 kopeks to Switzerland to pass on to Tinguely’s heirs.

That’s the end of the file, but is it the end of Tinguely’s story? Almost. A census of the district of Fribourg from 1834 makes a better ending. I don’t have the names of those four sons and four daughters left behind by Tinguely when he left for Russia in 1791, so what I’m about to write isn’t necessarily the continuation of his story. But the name Tinguely appears all over the census. One Marguerithe Tinguely, age 40, born in Marsens, was working as a cook for the curé in Épendes, a life that seems about what one might imagine an orphan girl was likely to lead.

The census also lists five households of Tinguelys in the town of Marsens headed by men (or in one case a woman) who were old enough to have been Tinguely’s sons. They may have been sons, or they may have been cousins. But I will end with the source of the image at the top of this post. At least two of them were listed as fromageurs. They, too, were Swiss cheese masters.

Census record for Nicola Tinguely, Marsens, 1834. Screencap from file scanned at
Census record for Nicola Tinguely, Marsens, 1834. Screencap from file scanned at

By Alison Smith

Professor, University of Toronto, Department of History;

Author of For the Common Good and Their Own Well-Being: Social Estates in Imperial Russia (Oxford University Press, 2014)

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