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17 November 2011

John de Verdion (1744 - 1802) book dealer, language teacher.

Theodora Grahn was born in Leipzig and raised in Berlin where her father was an architect, noted particularly for the rebuilding of the Sankt Petrikirche.

After his death in 1750 at Bayreuth, she was raised by an aunt, and became proficient in Mathematics, French, Italian and English, as well as her native German.

The aunt died in 1758, leaving 1,000 Reichsthalers. Theodora took to trading as an Exchange Broker and prospered in the then ongoing Seven Years’ War. At its end in 1763 she went to Beyreuth.

On return in 1768 Grahn had declared himself to be Baron de Verdion. The next year Verdion became the secretary and amanuensis of Johann Basedow, the educational reformer. However, it being remembered that Verdion had been a woman, gossip ensued and they were compelled to part.

Later some young men from a merchant’s counting house, invited Verdion to an inn, got him drunk and verified his sex. This prompted Verdion to emigrate to England where as Dr John de Verdion, he became a language teacher and book dealer.

He was helped for a while by his co-patriate Frau Schwellenberg, an attendant to the Queen, Charlotte Mecklenburg-Strelitz. He taught German to the William Cavendish-Bentinck, 3rd Duke of Portland and later Prime Minister, and to Edward Gibbon, the historian. He taught English to the Prussian ambassador.

Verdion was well known at book auctions, and on occasions would buy a entire coach load of books.

Verdion became a regular at Furnival’s inn and coffee house in Holborn where he became known for his prodigious consumption of food and drink. There were suspicions that he was a woman, and he was subjected a few pranks that expressed that opinion.

After 30 years in London, a fall downstairs developed into dropsy, and, despite the ministrations of a German physician who lived in the same house, he died. By his will he bequeathed all to the master of Furnival’s inn and coffee house, but upon his taking possession it proved inadequate to discharge the bill. Verdion’s considerable collection of foreign gold and silver coins were nowhere to be found, neither was his sword.

The coffin plate was at first engraved ‘John de Verdion’, but was then altered to ‘Miss de Verdion’. Verdion was deposited in the burying ground of St Andrew, Holborn.

I am rather surprised that a 14-year-old girl in Berlin in 1758 was not only allowed to become an Exchange Broker, but was a success and made money at it.

I am less surprised that in 1769 it was a scandal for a man and a man-woman to work together.  There are still some Muslim societies that have that attitude even today.

John de Verdion was in London at the same time as D'Éon de Beaumont.  I have not been able to find any mention of de Verdion in books on de Beaumont.  In much the same way that books on Virginia Prince do not mention Edward Wood, although they were both in Los Angeles at the same time.

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