Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Eliza Lynch: “Soldier of Fortune"

In a previous post, we talked about how Paraguay got its fortune.  Let’s follow the money.  At the outbreak of war, the nation had a large hoard of gold on deposit in a bank in Buenos Aires.  Estimates of the amount vary so widely, it is useless to specify how much.  Let’s just call it a king’s ransom.  The dictator Francisco Solano López instructed his agent withdraw it from the bank and send it up river to Asunción on the Esmeralda along with bolts of fancy cloth and a beautiful black landau, the last luxury goods his Irish mistress would ever be privileged to import.

Lynch added her own trinkets to the hoard: jewelry she collected when she and her South American lover were traipsing around France and Italy together previous to sailing for his home in the heart of the remote continent across the sea.  She also managed to collect jewelry in that middle of the nowhere that was Paraguay in the 1850’s and early 60’s.   Lacking a Cartier showroom, she repaired to a local church that boasted a miraculous statue of the Madonna.  As happened elsewhere in Christendom, many of the faithful entreated the Madonna’s blessing in times of peril or when a loved one was threatened by disease and when their prayers were answered, bestowed on the beloved image gifts of gold and precious gems.  (I have seen emeralds the size of a quarter and diamonds that would have made Elizabeth Taylor envious encrusted on a miraculous painting of the Virgin across the border from Paraguay in Bolivia!)  Eliza took Mary’s real jewels from her local statue and replaced them with dross.

Not stopping there, as the conflict dragged on, she began to “induce” the upper class ladies to donate their jewels (or anything else of value) to the war effort.  Well, of course, patriotic ladies would give their jewels for such a cause.  Remember the collection of the gold scene in Gone with the Wind?  The trouble was Eliza Lynch’s efforts took place after the Brazilian navy had taken control of the rivers leading in and out of the country—at which point there was no possibility whatsoever of buying anything even faintly resembling goods useful to an army.  Many have speculated what Lynch and López intended to do with the expensive trinkets they amassed in their attacks on the jewelry boxes.

Ruins of Humaita
It seems likely that the Treasure of Paraguay was dragged along with them as they fled before the pursuing enemy month after month, year after year.  To her credit, maybe, Eliza stuck by López’s side throughout the war.  She was with him in Asunción, scene of the jewelry confiscations, but also at the great fort at Humaitá, where at first she entertained the troops by dancing for them and serving the officers French meals.  When the Bolivian men of war started bombarding them, she walked out on the battlements to encourage the troops, and in the end, when the defenses were crumbling, barely escaped with her sons across the river.  Life with López after that meant breaking camp and running north repeated for literally years until he was finally felled on the first of March 1870.  Many chroniclers report that she buried him and their oldest son, who also died that day, with her own hands.

What happened to the gold and jewels in the process is still a matter of hot speculation over a hundred and thirty years later.  Here are the main theories:  She and López tossed the trunks holding the treasure over a cliff in a deserted area of the north cordillera.  He then forced the carters who had transported the goods to leap over the cliff, too, thereby ensuring that only the ruling couple would know where the gold and jewels rested.  For many years afterwards, treasure hunters scoured the landscape looking to strike it rich.  No one ever found anything.

A more likely possibility: Eliza entrusted the treasure to a third party for safe-keeping.  A close look at her lifestyle after Paraguay’s bitter defeat indicates that she never repossessed the fortune.  She did, however, go to Scotland and sue the family of Dr. William Stewart, who had been the chief surgeon to the Paraguayan forces.  She sought to recover “certain valuables” she had entrusted to his care.  She did not win her case.  Eliza Lynch, died in poverty and obscurity in Paris on 27 July 1886.  The treasure of Paraguay is still missing.

Annamaria Alfieri


  1. Wow. So Dr. Stewart's family was partying with the treasure? Or was it hidden somewhere, buried, or walled up in a false-backed cupboard in a cottage in the Highlands? Mary Stewart could have written about that. You should write about that.

  2. Kate, my next book, Invisible Country, which launches July 3rd takes up this subject and posits a fictional, but I hope plausible answer. I love writing about these enigmas of South American history. Thanks for asking and giving me a chance to mention the book!