Day Two: French researchers continue to dig for bones in tomb of Rowan Co. teacher who may have been Napoleon’s top Field Marshal
Peter Stewart Ney had claimed to have been Marshal Michel Ney of Bonaparte’s army
ROWAN COUNTY, N.C. (WBTV) - A French research team is still knee-deep in a gravesite in Rowan County trying to solve a mystery behind the identity of a former school teacher buried in the cemetery at Third Creek Presbyterian Church in Cleveland.
Was Peter Stewart Ney actually Napoleon’s famous Field Marshal Michel Ney?
“That smells a bit of a mystery, right?” said Dr. Jennifer Kerner, an archaeologist and writer from Paris.
Getting to the bottom of this mystery has been hot and exhausting work for the French research team and the broadcasters working with them, but they say it will be worth it.
“We were very triggered by the mystery and the story because this is a great story even if it’s a legend, you know,” Kerner said. “We are excavating the bones just to try and understand if that person was the Marshal Ney of France who possibly escaped from firing squad and settled here in North Carolina.”
Dr. Kerner is well-known in France as a comedian and actress, but she says it was the death of her fiancé that led her to study archaeology.
“I just had that empty feeling because I had nothing to be with,” Kerner added. “I was just feeling so lost with my sorrow.”
Now a highly accomplished researcher and writer, she says this project is one of the most interesting. The goal is to discover if a Rowan County teacher who claimed to be Marshal Ney of Napoleon’s Army was telling the truth, or just spinning a yarn.
“If we were to find out that this man was an imposter, the story would be how could this man do the things that he did?” asked Dr. Gary Freeze, a local historian, writer, and former History professor at Catawba College in Salisbury. “He was an educator beyond the norm and he had impact on his students which lasted for generations.”
Through two days of digging the team has only found a few nails. They hope to find a piece of bone to use for a DNA comparison to Marshal Ney’s descendants. They could also examine any bones that could show evidence of wounds suffered by Marshal Ney in battle.
Kerner says whether or not he’s the famous Ney, the person buried in this tomb made an impact.
“But that dude right here impressed a lot of people and inspired a lot of people,” Kerner said.
What is about this mystery that has attracted so much attention?
“One of the great mysteries of Ney is the fact that the story never dies and that new people encounter this story and are entranced by it from the beginning,” Freeze added. “If it’s true that Peter Stewart Ney was the Field Marshal for Napoleonic France, then what you have is a classic story of celebrity.”
Dr. Freeze has been watching the progress in-person from the comfort of a lawn chair in the shade of the trees in the cemetery. He, like many others, asks if a DNA test can prove that Peter Stewart Ney was Marshal Ney, and if so, how did Ney escape his death sentence, and how did he manage to make such an impact on his students and their families that they still remember him to this day?
“We have flowers left at least once a year and we don’t know where those come from and fundamentally what you have is a story that is all but unexplainable,” Freeze said. “They built basically a shrine to this man’s memory and they intended for that memory to be preserved.”
The team hopes to produce a documentary for the show History Under The Scalpel that would reveal what is found by late January or February.
Church records show that Peter Stewart Ney was already exhumed twice before. When his remains were unearthed in the late 1800′s, it was noted that there were only a few pieces of bone and part of a skull. The fear is that the soil may be too acidic and could have destroyed anything that was left…but for now, they’ll keep digging.
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