If you were clomping up tiny Camac Street Saturday night, you may have wondered who were those well-mustachioed men, smoking cigars outside the Franklin Inn Club.
They'd just been celebrating the sesquicentennial of the founding of the Kingdom of Araucania and Patagonia - to many, a forgotten little episode that involved the Mapuche Indians of Chile and Argentina and an intrepid French lawyer who became their ruler until he was declared insane.
Chilean whites and Argentine reds were promised in addition to toasts and commemorative speeches, and so I accepted the invitation of the Rev. Daniel Morrison, who in 1995 cofounded the North American Araucanian Royalist Society.
Morrison is pastor of the Huntingdon Valley Presbyterian Church, and I knew him from a piece I wrote back in 1997 when I accompanied him to the gravestone of Madame Iturbide, a former empress of Mexico, who is buried outside St. John the Evangelist Church in Center City. He was bringing six red roses for a forgotten lady.
Morrison could be found before dinner Saturday night surrounded by seven similarly dressed gentlemen - black tie and curious medals - bellowing a tune that began, "Oh, we will search for that interesting thing, where another'd believe nothing of int'rest could be."
Banquet tables at the old club were set for a couple of dozen characters, men whose imaginations are captured by hand-dug fact and a well-told tale. They'd come from as far as St. Louis, and they brought dates.
A dozen toasts accompanied the coq au vin and tomato soup - welcoming words to just-freed Myanmar dissident Aung San Suu Kyi and any Chilean secret service personnel who happened to be present.
Then Morrison - tall and balding with a deep, easy voice that suggests Garrison Keillor - took to an upstairs lectern, beside a screen that showed a giant old photo of a white-bearded gent on a horse.
That man was R.B. Cunninghame Graham, a Scottish petty noble, whose writings were the first to tip Morrison to the existence of the short-lived kingdom.
Morrison was just out of Marlboro College in 1985 when he read Graham's book about his late-19th-century travels in Morocco, titled Mogreb-el-Acksa. In it, Graham mentions running into the consul to the Kingdom of Araucania and Patagonia, and Morrison, a history buff, wondered, "What's that?"
He began digging, learning about the Mapuche Indians' struggle for self-rule and a provincial French barrister named Orelie-Antoine who'd traveled to Chile in 1858 and was able to live in safety among the formidable warriors whose territory spanned the Argentine border.
Orelie-Antoine went native, learning the Mapudungun language, growing his hair and beard, and ingratiating himself with the tribal leaders. He won election as their first king. In 1860 he created a constitution that established freedom of religion, assembly, and the press - progressive stuff while it lasted. Two years later, the Chilean government sent in its army and grabbed the king.
Orelie-Antoine, who defended himself, was deported after the trial, and several times during the next few years tried to reclaim his title. But his kingdom was no more. He died in 1878, a pauper and "a laughingstock" in his hometown, Morrison said.
In the early days of the Internet, Morrison was cobbling together this history - he was a Ph.D. candidate at Duquesne then. Information was hard to come by; most of it was in French and Spanish, which he learned. Morrison found a fellow enthusiast in Richard Schull, the late character actor known for playing "that loony uncle who comes to your wedding and makes a scene."
They cofounded a society, put out newsletters, and attracted 280 members. They also discovered there was an heir to the throne.
His name is Philippe Boiry. He's 83, a former journalist who works in public relations in Paris. Several times the French courts have recognized his claim. Prince Philippe wasn't able to attend Saturday's dinner, but in prepared remarks he reminded the society's members that more than 30 Mapuche people were currently engaged in a hunger strike to protest the loss of their ancestral territories.
So for some this matter is quite serious. Just before the event broke up and the crowd spilled noisily out onto the last of the city's streets to be paved with wood, Morrison raised a glass and made clear what the night was really about.
"People who brave the ridicule of the world and try great things," he said, "deserve to be remembered."
Contact Daniel Rubin at 215-854-5917 or firstname.lastname@example.org.