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. 

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The Case of the Dead Cheese Master, Part XI: People

I’m a week late in posting this installment of the cheese master’s story because I spent all of last week at Disneyworld on a family trip, and that wasn’t conducive to posting (though I did finish a conference paper!). This wouldn’t be worth mentioning, except that there’s an odd way in which the experience of being there gave me some insight to these blog posts, and to my larger project on Gatchina: it takes so many people to keep a concern of this size running smoothly. The number of employees there (oh, wait, excuse me, Disney, “cast members”) is astonishing, and it made me think that Disneyworld is probably the thing in the modern world that’s closest to working on the scale of one of the imperial palaces, with all its buildings and grounds to care for. And in the case of Gatchina, when the the town was part of the palace administration too, that was even more pronounced.

Map of Gatchina parks, from Turistskoi karty "okrestnosti Leningrada".
Map of Gatchina parks, from Turistskoi karty “okrestnosti Leningrada”.

In the cheese master’s story, many of the people who worked in and around Gatchina appear, at times interacting with him during his life, at times overseeing the process of dealing with his estate. There’ve been a number of them already in these episodes, from the peasant hundreder Pavel Spiridonov who found the body and the regional officials who helped to identify it and to compile lists of his property, to Unge, the ober-amtman who oversaw one of Gatchina’s districts, and who helped deal with Tinguely’s possessions, to Buksgevden and Ramburg, the nobles on whose properties the body was found or who had agreements with the dead man.

There are others who play important roles in the story of Tinguely’s life and death—or at least in the archival file. The highest ranking are the St. Petersburg civil governor, Dmitrii Fedorovich Glinka, who received reports from district officials and who sent them on to Gatchina authorities, and Petr Khrisanforovich Obolianinov, then the head administrator of the town of Gatchina (and also General and Cavalier). Those titles, though, are a bit misleading. One might expect the governor to be the person with greater authority and rank, but in the files Glinka sounds slightly defensive in his letter to Obolianinov. Obolianinov had evidently written to Glinka chastising him for taking too long to tell the Gatchina authorities about Tinguely’s death, and Glinka responded with a list of the reasons it had been impossible for him to write earlier. He is clearly trying to say that he was not guilty, that the man had been unknown, and that identifying him had simply taken time (ll. 31-31ob, August 23, 1799).

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The Case of the Dead Cheese Master, Part X: Cheeses, Cows, and Contracts

The various reports of Tinguely’s possessions disagreed on a few specifics, but agreed that those possessions included a significant amount of cheese, and that the cheese was valuable. The long list of his possessions concluded that he had produced cheese that was worth 820 rubles—a significant amount, enough to make the true ownership of the cheese a real issue.

The fate of the cheeses is one of the topics that appears only gradually in the archival file about Tinguely’s death—the documents are in part filed out of chronological order, and even if they were in stricter order, their ability to tell a straightforward narrative would be limited by the fact that later documents report on events that happened even earlier in time. So, a report on the cheeses is followed by a request to report on the cheeses, which is followed by a statement from the local court spelling out the circumstances of Tinguely’s death and his prior business arrangements.

Those prior business arrangements turned out to be the real issues in the case. At the time of his death, Tinguely had been working both for the Gatchina administration and on his own account. This is why he left behind a fair bit of livestock and several good (and many bad) cheeses that belonged to the palace administration, and far more good cheeses that were “his own,” and “kept at General Ramburg’s estate of Novaia Ivanovskaia.”

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The Case of the Dead Cheese Master, Part IX: The Historian’s Confession

I could probably put this post off for another two weeks while I go a bit further into the story of the cheesemaster’s cheeses, but I’m eventually going to have to confess something so it may as well be now.

Well, perhaps confession is too strong a term. Or at least, I can start not with the confession, but instead with another story, or maybe a series of nested stories about the process of research. In a way, it starts with my time at the archives last summer, when I started exploratory research for a new project about Gatchina. My topic when I set off for the archives was really that broad—just, Gatchina, the palace, and Gatchina, the town. This rather vague idea started when I went to visit the palace, a bit on a whim, in July 2011. It wasn’t a complete whim; at that point, although I was primarily doing research for my soslovie book, I already had in mind a future research project on Empress Maria Feodorovna, Paul’s wife and widow, mother of Alexander I and Nicholas I. As I look back, I can’t remember exactly what set me off on that path, if it was something specific I’d read, or just the culmination of a number of references. A bit out of this general interest in that empress and her times, I’d visited Pavlovsk and Elagin Palace on earlier trips, and this time, I took the elektrichka out to Gatchina on a gorgeously sunny summer afternoon.

Gatchina Palace: view of the White Room, one of the grand 18th-century rooms


I was immediately smitten by the palace. Part of this has to do with the excellence of the museum display there, which really captures three distinct periods of the palace’s history. The central block of the palace houses grand eighteenth-century rooms that are all about opulent, imperial display of power and wealth.

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The Case of the Dead Cheese Master, Part VIII: The Other Things He Left Behind

Before I get to the fate of the cheeses, I want to take a post to talk about the other things Tinguely left behind. The archival file includes two inventories of Tinguely’s private property, virtually identical. The first (ll. 6-7) follows closely on the inventory of livestock and cheeses I talked about in my last post. It lists the property in precise detail:

  • silver table spoons — 5
  • silver table forks — 5
  • silver ladle with a wooden handle — 1
  • silver shoe buckles — 1 (presumable one pair)
  • shoes, old, leather, mens — 1 (pair)
  • kamzol (a jacket or jerkin), black satin, old — 1
  • breeches, black satin, old — 1
  • frock coats, cloth, old — 3
  • kamzoly, various, worn out (vetkhye) — 3
  • shirts with cuffs — 9
  • cloth — 1
  • silk stockings:
  • — Black pairs — 2
  • — White pairs — 2
  • linen towels — 7
  • mirror, small — 1
  • handkerchiefs, cotton, worn out — 2
  • breeches, suede/doe-skin, old — 1
  • jacket with sleeves, for work — 1
  • chairs, simple, worn out — 4
  • cow hides, untanned — 2
  • goat hides, untanned — 12
  • boots, leather, warm — 1
  • boots, cold, pairs — 2
  • pans, copper — 3
  • pot, copper — 1
  • frying pans, iron — 2
  • dishes, porcelain, pale yellow — 5
  • bowl, the same — 1
  • harnesses, old (?) — 2
  • saddle — 1
  • fur coat, bear, Polish, covered in camlet (a kind of cloth), old — 1
  • featherbeds — 2
  • pillows — 4
  • blankets, fabric, old — 2
  • blanket, flannelette — 1
  • iron-bound chest — 1
  • gun, old — 1
  • various written documents and а copy of his passport
  • And his own livestock and fowl:
    • pigs — 5
    • goats — 3
    • rams — 1
    • ewes — 1
    • bull — 1
    • geese — 20
    • ducks  — 15
    • chickens, Russian — 18
The Case of the Dead Cheese Master

The Case of the Dead Cheese Master, Part VII: The Things He Left Behind

Tinguely’s death, as sudden as it seemed to be, wasn’t one that had to be solved. It’s true that the exact circumstances of his death were a bit uncertain, but none of the later investigation ever seemed to suspect foul play. Despite this, the file about his death in the archives of the Gatchina town administration runs to nearly a hundred sheets of paper, including additional investigation by provincial authorities. Why so much? What were the questions that attracted so much attention? The major issue turned out to be not the circumstances of Tinguely’s death, but rather the provenance and later fate of the things and people he left behind. There were issues with his personal property. There were issues with the students and others he in principle employed. And in particular, there was one major question that took up much of the archival file: who owned the cheeses Tinguely left behind?

The first documents in the file emphasize the central role that things played in the story of Tinguely’s death. Nearly the first document is a report dated August 14, 1799 (RGIA f. 491, op. 1, d. 365, l. 4) from the local zemskii ispravnik (a rural police official), Collegiate Assessor Delin, and the head of one of Gatchina’s administrative units (an ober-amtman), Titular Councillor Unge. In the report, the two men presented the Gatchina town administration with lists of the property Tinguely had left behind. (A side note: this document makes the official court telling of the finding and identification of the body a bit more confusing. According to that document, the body was discovered on August 8, a first report was sent on August 10, and only on August 22 was there a formal report identifying the body. Clearly, though, the body must have been identified well before it was formally reported on.)

The first list (RGIA f. 491, op. 1, d. 365, l. 5) describes the things Tinguely left behind in a professional capacity. It was divided into two sections. First: “the kazennyi (state or treasury) livestock, cheese and other things that were in Tinguely’s control, according to the students living with him.” This state property was:

  • Milk cows (Russian): 64
  • Bulls (breeding): 2
  • Nanny goats: 3
  • Billy goats: 1
  • Cheeses, Swiss, fit to consume, fresh rounds: 10
  • Unfit to consume or broken rounds: 58
  • Big copper pot: 1
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The Case of the Dead Cheese Master, Part VI: Palace, Villages, Town

Over the last couple of posts, I’ve thought a lot about Tinguely’s long-distance travel—of the ways he moved around between Switzerland and France, and then of how he might have made his way to Russia. It turns out that there’s just as much to say about the areas much closer to where he died.

Topograficheskaia karta okruzhnosti Sanktpeterburga. St. Petersburg: Voenno-Topograficheskoe Depo pri Glavnom Shtabe ego Imperatorskogo Velichestva, 1817.
Detail from Topograficheskaia karta okruzhnosti Sanktpeterburga. St. Petersburg: Voenno-Topograficheskoe Depo pri Glavnom Shtabe ego Imperatorskogo Velichestva, 1817; from a zoomable version of the whole map available through the Harvard University Libraries.

First of all, there’s the question of what it means that he was hired on to work for the palace administration of Gatchina. Gatchina meant multiple things. First, there was Gatchina palace, the one built by Grigory Orlov and given by Catherine to her son Paul in 1783. Then, there was the village of Gatchina (more normally Gatchino at the time we’re talking about) which abutted the palace grounds (the palace and village are circled in red on the map, and if you have an hour to spare definitely click through the link in its caption to look at the map in closer detail). And then there were the many smaller villages (20 according to the manifesto, but more according to other sources) that were considered to be part of the larger estate. In other words, figuring out where exactly Tinguely lived and worked during his time in Russia is more complicated than simply noting that he worked at Gatchina.

In some ways, the identification of Gatchina with the palace alone is the most narrow of the possible definitions. After all, the palace, as complicated a place as even just it was, was the smallest part of the larger lands. At the same time, however, it is also among the most powerful of those possible definitions. The alphabetical index to the (first) Complete Collection of the Laws of the Russian Empire, for example, files everything to do with Gatchina under the heading “palaces” rather than under any of its other possible classifications that could apply to it. And the governance of all these lands and places fell under the jurisdiction of the palace, and eventually of the Ministry of the Imperial Court. Only during the reign of Alexander III did jurisdiction over Gatchina, the former court village, move to the Ministry of Internal Affairs (which had jurisdiction over virtually all similar inhabited spaces). So the records of the palace administration are heavily intertwined with all the histories of these various villages, from Gatchina itself down to the tiniest ones.

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The Case of the Dead Cheese Master, Part V: Twists and turns

I initially planned this post to focus on the lands around Gatchina proper where the cheese master lived and worked. But then I started following up on a couple of comments made about the last post, and suddenly I’d written 1000 words. So, instead of the lands around Gatchina, here are more thoughts about trade routes, the French Revolution, bull-running (!!) and being an old Russia hand.


After I posted about the last entry in this tale on Facebook, I got a couple of comments that I felt like I had to investigate. Did I really think, Alexander Martin asked, that the cheese master had traveled to Russia along that long overland route I mapped out, or would he have been more likely to travel up the Rhine, and then enter Russia by sea? It’s a good question, and one that I certainly can’t answer for certain. I suspect, though, that the overland route is indeed the one that Tinguely traveled, for several reasons.

The Case of the Dead Cheese Master

The Case of the Dead Cheese Master, Part IV: The Cheese Master’s Documents

The archival file from the Gatchina Town Administration that records the case of the dead cheese master includes three official documents—only three—that attest to his life before and during his tenure at Gatchina. Two of the documents give a sense of how he might have ended up in Russia. First, there is a passport given to him in 1790: “François Tingeli de Marcens au Canton de Fribourg en Suisse de la paroisse de Nuirens conduit quatre vaches, et deux chêvres a Besançon.” Second, there is a letter from the Marquis de Froissard-Bersaillin, attesting that he bought an excellent cow from one M. Tinguely.

Places in France and Switzerland mentioned in Tinguely's documents (map from
Places in France and Switzerland mentioned in Tinguely’s documents (map from

These two documents already give us a sense of Tinguely’s world before his arrival in Russia. François Tinguely (I’m choosing to use that name for his time spent outside Russia, as it seems to be the variant that has best survived as a surname) was from the village of Marcens (now Marsens, and indicated by the red diamond on the map), in the canton of Fribourg in Switzerland. His work, as indicated by these documents, was in the trade of cows and goats. This reference only makes it clear that he traded in dairy-producing livestock, not that he made cheese, but given his place of origin (Marsens is in the district of Gruyère, home to the most famous of Swiss cheeses), it isn’t too much of a stretch to think that he might also have been involved further in dairy production.

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The Case of the Dead Cheese Master, Part III: The Emperor and the Palace

Grand Duke Paul in 1774
Grand Duke Paul in 1774

The Swiss cheese master was an employee of the palace of Gatchina at the time of his death. He’d been hired just a couple of years before, at a time when Gatchina—both the palace and the village—were undergoing some significant changes that had to do with its owner, the newly crowned Emperor Paul, the supposed “crowned psychopath,” the most autocratic of Russian autocrats whose intemperance got him murdered and replaced by his angelic son.

Paul was actually a far more complicated figure, as even those who were very critical of him admitted. According to one such account, “he was really benevolent, generous, of a forgiving temper, ready to confess his errors, a lover of truth, and a hater of falsehood and deception, ever anxious to promote justice, and repress every abuse of authority, especially venality and corruption.” Such a paragon of virtue ought to have reigned long and well. But the same author goes on: “unfortunately, all these good and praiseworthy qualities were rendered useless to himself and to the empire by a total want of moderation, an extreme irritability of of temper, and an irrational and impatient expectation of implicit obedience.”  (“Reminiscences of the Court and Times of the Emperor, Paul I of Russia, up to the Period of his Death. From the Papers of a Deceased Russian General Officer. Part I,” Frazer’s Magazine (August 1865): 236-237)

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The Case of the Dead Cheese Master, Part II: A Taste for Cheese

Why was a Swiss cheese-master (or perhaps a Swiss-cheese master) working for the administration of Gatchina in 1799? There are (at least) two ways of answering this question. The first has to do with the development of a taste for cheese—and by this I mean a taste for aged cheese, not for soft fresh cheese—among Russia’s elite during the eighteenth century, and a corresponding concern with the Empire’s finances.

While Russia had a long tradition of milk products and soft cheeses, cured cheeses came into fashion during the eighteenth century as imported luxury goods. Peter the Great supposedly preferred cheese to sweets as a dessert (and loved Limburger above all others); by the start of the nineteenth century travelers and others described imported cheeses as common parts of the culinary world of Russia’s nobility.  So wrote Theodore Faber as he described St. Petersburg: “The cheese of Parma is an indispensable need in all kitchens; one never serves the Macaroni of Italy without adding in its perfume.  Nothing is more common than that article.  A housewife speaks of her supply of Parmesan, like in Germany one would speak of the supply of onions or of parsley.  The cheeses of England, of Holland, of Switzerland, are the ordinary dessert.” [1. Bagatelles.  Promenades d’un désœuvré dans la ville de St.-Pétersbourg, vol. 1 (St.-Pétersbourg: L’imprimerie de Pluchart et cie., 1811), 181-2.]

At least among the elite, this might not have been much of an exaggeration. Household records from noble families of the time suggest that they regularly spent significant sums on imported cheese. A register from the Vorontsov family lists a round of Parmesan, a tin of Stilton, a round of Swiss cheese, and 20 funts (more than 8 kilograms!) of “English Chester” cheese in the household stores. [1. RGADA f. 1261, op. 2, d. 668, l. 14 (it also listed 200 bottles of olive oil, 6 bottles of tarragon vinegar, 20 funts of mustard powder, and 5 poods of coffee)] They also suggest something else—that a housewife was less likely to speak of her supply of Parmesan than her husband might have been. Parmesan might be used in cooking, but the other cheeses appeared primarily as part of the zakuski table, the display of pre-dinner snacks presented separately from the main meal, and part of the man’s world. In the records of the Golokhvastov family, most cheese purchases appear in the account books of the man of the house, not in the general kitchen expense accounts. [1. RGADA f. 1264, op. 1, dd. 169, 294, 305]

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The Case of the Dead Cheese Master, Part I: The Body

On the morning of August 8, 1799, the peasant Pavel Spiridonov found a dead body on the road near his village. And he found not only “a dead male unknown body,” but close to it a saddled chestnut horse. What had happened, and who was this man?

Spiridonov was the local sotskii or “hundreder,” a peasant constable or guard, and he immediately turned to the zemskii sud, the district-level land court, for help. The district doctor and a district police officer by the name of Krivoshein were called in to consult. The police officer reported that they found no signs of violence on the body. The doctor gave more information about the state of the corpse: the man suffered from gangrene (антонов огонь) caused by “frequent consumption of spirits.” The doctor also reported that the death had been “sudden,” a fact that suggested that this chronic (over-)consumption of alcohol likely caused the man’s death. The exact mechanism of that death was still unclear. Was the man riding while drunk, and as a result fell off the horse, killing himself in the process? Or had he had some sort of attack caused by the gangrene or the drink, died, and then toppled off the horse’s back?

The horse wasn’t talking, but at least these reports suggested that there had been no foul play in the man’s death. As a result, the only task left was to identify the body. This, however, was no simple matter. Spiridonov, as the village constable, would have recognized any local man. This man was no local, nor was he recognized by anyone in the area.

The only thing that was immediately apparent was that “this unknown man was probably of moderate means (из людей посредственных).” The proof of this was his clothing: “a dark green flannel overcoat, a coat and waistcoat of coffee-colored cloth, white linen trousers and a fine cloth shirt.” No other personal items were found on the body.

This kind of detailed description of clothing was a normal part of identifying dead bodies. Once local newspapers (Gubernskie vedomosti) were established in many provinces at the end of the 1830s, they often featured notices of “found dead bodies” in need of identification. Descriptions of the bodies focused on where they had been found, and to a certain extent on their physical description—their facial features, height, and hair color. But perhaps because those physical descriptions were often made difficult due to decomposition, the notices most of all focused on the clothing and possessions of the dead bodies.

The report from the land court is unclear on how exactly identification was eventually made. Presumably the clothing helped, as did the fact that the man was only recently dead (though death in August was not ideal for identification purposes). Whatever the process was, it took some time. The body was discovered on August 8, and a first report was sent to the governor’s office on August 10. Only on August 22 did the head of the court, Kruze, present a report identifying the body: he was indeed no local, but instead a master cheese-maker named Tengli (or Tingeli or Tinguely), by birth Swiss, and before his death working for the palace administration of Gatchina, one of the many imperial residences outside St. Petersburg.

This identification solved the problem facing the lower court. But who this man was, how he got to be there, and what he left behind, remained questions for those who dealt with the aftermath of his death, still to be uncovered.

(RGIA f. 491, op. 1, d. 365, ll. 39-39ob)