February-March 2006

I have written four historical mysteries featuring the eighteenth-century Jesuit, Ignaz Pfefferkorn, S.J. (Sonora Moonlight, Sonora Wind, The Storks of La Caridad, and Unrest in Eden). Ignaz, who served as missionary in the Sonora Desert from 1756-1767, was expelled with all Jesuits from Spain and her colonies in 1767, imprisoned for ten years, two in Mexico and eight in Spain on suspicion of treason. He spent the last two years imprisoned in the Monastery of La Caridad near Ciudad Rodrigo, Spain. The Elector of Cologne was alerted by Ignaz’ sister Isabella Berntges of his whereabouts, and after lengthy negotiations, succeeded in freeing him, on Christmas Eve, 1777. In the Archivo Histórico Nacional in Madrid, I found the order issued by the Royal Council that he be taken to Irún by coach and dropped there. I knew he had returned to Germany. But how? Where?

I had been curious from the beginning about that return home, about which no one knew anything: not the historians, not the Vatican, not even the Jesuits themselves. All sources agreed that he was born in Mannheim, the large German city where the Rhine and the Neckar flow together. Should I begin there? My friend Ralph Freedman had already spent three days searching the archives there, but the Allies had burned most of the holdings with incendiary bombs in World War II, and he found nothing. This past February, I decided to begin my further search not in Mannheim but in Cologne.After all, Ignaz had published his book, Sonora, a Description of the Province (Beschreibung der Landschaft Sonora) there in 1794-95.

First, Ralph and I went to the public library, and were steered to the Cathedral Library and to the Archdiocesan Archive, neither of which had been bombed. In the Cathedral, we found nineteenth-century secondary sources that told of the difficulties the German Jesuits had in being accepted by the Spanish branch of the Society, and how they were treated after they were imprisoned in Spain at Puerto de Santa María (the port of Cádiz).

From there, we went to the Archdiocesan Archive. Ralph, a native German, allowed me with my limping German to explain to the archivist whom we were seeking and why. The archivist clearly considered us a pair of tourists, interlopers who had no serious purpose.

“Ah, yes, Pfefferkorn. There are so many families of that name in this part of Germany…”

He pulled the ‘P’ volume off the shelf of books recording the holdings of the archive.

He opened it and there I read, “Pfefferkorn, 1785.”

That’s him!” I cried, leaning forward with eagerness.

“Very unlikely. As I said, there are many Pfefferkorns in the region,”—and he closed the book and replaced it on the shelf. “You say he was a Jesuit?” The archivist’s voice seemed to reflect some distaste. “In that case, go to the City Archives. They have all the Jesuit documents.”

We searched the City Archives the next day, finding many interesting documents by and about the Jesuits up to 1773, the year when Pope Clement XIV suppressed the Society altogether. Then nothing. I continued to search, and found a proclamation by the Rector of the University of Cologne, stating that henceforth no ex-Jesuit would be allowed to teach in the University or in any school in the city. Poor Ignaz, I thought. He and all his brothers are out on the street starving, with no way to earn their daily bread. I asked if I could photocopy the document, and was told no, but I could take a picture with a camera. I should come back next day.

My research trip coincided with Karneval in Cologne. Karneval, an extended Mardi Gras, peaked that next day; everyone in costume, the entire city closed for the holiday, nearly everyone drunk by 10:00 a.m. There would be no photograph taken in the City Archive that day! Ralph and I sat in a restaurant, racking our brains. What to do next?
Below: detail of signature
(Click on the image above to see a larger version)


Father Ygnacio Pfefferkorn, S.J

It came to me during that night. I have a portrait of Ignaz that I sketched–an imaginary portrait–but the signature underneath was scanned from a baptismal certificate in the archive at Tumacácori National Park in Arizona. That was genuine. We would return to the Archdiocesan Archive and ask that the 1785 document be produced, so we could compare handwriting, perhaps signatures.

The following day, we found a second archivist on duty, who was eager to help. He produced photocopies of four documents under the one number and label, “Pfefferkorn, 1785.” They proved to be a nomination of an Ignaz von Pfefferkorn to be Vicar of Sankt Pantaleon Church in a small town about fourteen miles south of Bonn, Unkel-am-Rhein. The nominator, a woman, called him her “extremely erudite, highborn uncle.” Ralph and I looked at each other. I lamented, “Von Pfefferkorn? Our missionary was not, to my knowledge, a nobleman!”

Detail of signature

Detail of signature

The second document was a power of attorney, signed by “Ignaz Pfefferkorn,” but the signature was not at all the same.

“It must be a different Pfefferkorn.” We got up to leave.

The archivist kindly gave us the documents he had printed, and we were almost at the door, when Ralph looked again at the signature of the person who had nominated her uncle and suddenly shouted. “Maria Catharina Vogts, née Berntges. BERNTGES! It IS our man! His sister Isabella’s daughter is nominating him to be Vicar!”

The mystery of the signature on the second document was solved when we realized that the power of attorney was made out to Andreas Josephus Leinen, who also (in his distinctive handwriting) signed for Ignaz when the document was filed in Bonn. The third document was a record of filing the petition in Cologne (diocesan headquarters) and the fourth document, in Latin, showed that Ignaz had, indeed, been named Vicar of Unkel.

Our kindly archivist found that several other documents existed relating to the Berntges family, but they were in the church archive in Unkel. We tried but were unable (on this trip) to get access to them, but did drive to Unkel, a beautiful, picture-worthy village right on the banks of the river. We took pictures of buildings that would have been there in Ignaz’ time, and of ‘his’ 13th-century church, inside and outside-a beautiful environment for our Ignaz, who had suffered so badly. We decided (erroneously, as it turned out) that the Elector must have granted him a title of nobility, when he procured his release from the custody of King Carlos III.

While at the Cathedral Library, we had discovered that Ignaz’ birthplace was noted in one source as “Mannheim bei Bergheim.” We both thought that strange, since we don’t usually say San Antonio near Seguin, or Albuquerque near Bernalillo, but the other way ’round. When we drove to Mannheim and visited their city archive, we immediately asked the location of Bergheim.

“Bergheim? Bergheim? There’s no Bergheim near here!”

The archivist looked into the postal directory, and found four Bergheims, one near Cologne. “Let’s look around there! Is there a village called Mannheim close by?”
When a map was produced, sure enough, there was a tiny place called Manheim (with one ‘n’). At last, so we thought, we knew the real birthplace of Ignaz Pfefferkorn!

We’ll be returning in September to continue the search. But that’s not the end of the story!


On January 15, 2006, I received an unexpected, two-page e-mail letter, from which I quote two paragraphs, first in the Spanish original, then in my translation:

“Me llamo Ricardo Uhagón Vivas y soy el único nieto de la familia Uhagón Foxá dueños del Monasterio de La Caridad en Ciudad Rodrigo, Salamanca…. Primero de todo me gustaría felicitarla por esta gran novela. Me ha gustado muchísimo y me ha tenido entretenido hasta el último momento, no podía evitar imaginarme cada escena y cada momento en las paredes del monasterio. Es fantástica!!

Cuando el libro “The Storks of La Caridad” llegó a mis manos fue como una señal. No lo podía creer, una novela de misterio y crímenes del tipo “In the name of the Rose” (sic!) pero localizada en el monasterio donde he crecido y jugado tantos veranos cuando mis abuelos todavía vivían. Su protagonista, un jesuita y yo llevo toda la vida rodeado de jesuitas puesto que fui a un colegio y universidad de jesuitas en Madrid. Me he pasado 20 años de educación con ellos. Y para colmo el protagonista, el padre Ignaz viene de las misiones del desierto de Sonora, un lugar del mundo por el cual tengo mucho interés y sobretodo por las tribus de nativos americanos, sus costumbres y sus creencias. Me pareció algo, de alguna manera sentí que su libro llegaba a mí como un regalo místico. Una vez leído el libro me ha encantado y no podía evitar visualizar cada escena como una maravillosa película.”


My name is Ricardo Uhagón Vivas, and I am the only grandson of the Uhagón Foxá family, owners of the Monastery of La Caridad in Ciudad Rodrigo, Salamanca (Province)…. First, I want to congratulate you on this great novel. I enjoyed it very much and it kept me entertained to the last moment. I could not help imagining myself in each scene and each moment within the walls of the monastery. It is fantastic!…

When the book “The Storks of La Caridad” came into my hands, it was like a sign. I couldn’t believe it: a mystery and crime novel along the lines of “The Name of the Rose,” but set in the monastery where I grew and played during so many summers when my grandparents were still alive. Your protagonist, a Jesuit—and I’ve spent my whole life surrounded by Jesuits, since I went to a Jesuit grammar school and university in Madrid. I have spent 20 years being educated by them. And to top it all off, Father Ignaz comes from the Sonora Desert missions, an area in the world that interests me greatly, especially because of the Native American tribes, their customs and beliefs. It seemed to me, somehow I felt, that your book came to me like a mystic gift. Once I had read your book I was enchanted and couldn’t avoid visualizing each scene as a powerful film.

Ricardo Uhagón Vivas has an MBA from the Pontifical University in Madrid, has taken courses at the University of Southern California in cinematography, has already filmed a number of documentaries and a ballet enacted at La Caridad, and returns this fall to USC to continue work on an advanced degree.

Ricardo’s father, José Enrique Uhagón Foxá, seconded his son’s invitation, so I visited the family in Madrid in early March 2006, and became good friends, also with Angélica Vivas de Uhagón (Ricardo’s mother) and his uncle Ricardo. I learned that the family plan is to interest a large hotel chain or resort in La Caridad (founded ca. 1165) in order to be able to afford the 15 million euros it would take to renovate and repair the monastery. (It needs new roofs over all structures; the church interior was stripped by Napoleon and is now inhabited by pigeons, etc.). Their dream is to turn it into a luxury hotel or fine resort, still respecting the essential atmosphere of the monastery. They are interested in The Storks of La Caridad not only for its intrinsic readability but as a further means of publicizing the monastery. At the end of my stay, Jose Enrique pledged to have Storks translated and published in Salamanca.

Part Two, September 2006

I flew into Frankfurt airport on September 3, met my fellow researcher, assistant and friend Ralph Freedman there, and together we proceeded to Hamburg where we visited the wife of Ralph’s childhood friend, rented a car and for the next five days visited more friends in Southern Germany. Then we drove to Unkel.

Unkel, a jewel of a town, is about fourteen miles south of Bonn, maybe 30 south of Cologne, right on the Rhine. The core of the town is little changed from the 18th century, though new houses are being built around the perimeter. In the center, streets are narrow, barely wide enough for one car, cobblestoned, and businesses open directly on the street. The streets converge on plazas with a central tree or fountain, where local pubs or bakeries put out tables and chairs for customers to enjoy the excellent local wine, or coffee and the latest confection. Many houses are half-timber, dating back to the 16th-17th centuries.

We stayed for the first three nights in the Rheinhotel Schulz, right on the Rhine with a beautiful view up and down the Rhine Valley, an elegant and correspondingly expensive hotel. We explained to the receptionist/concierge that we would be in Unkel for at least two weeks, and needed less expensive lodgings. She immediately recommended neighboring Gästehof Korf (Hotel Korf), which not only has comfortable rooms for $28 per person per day, breakfast included, but turned out to be Ignaz’ niece, Maria Catharina Vogts’, former dwelling. I was walking in halls and out of doors Ignaz had frequented! The modern hotel Korf is built into what was formerly ware- or storehouses; the family house is now vacant and sits between the Korf and Schulz hotels. Rheinhotel Schulz was formerly the property of Ignaz’ family on his mother’s side, the Eschenbrenders. (The modern hotel wants the former Vogts family home torn down for easier access to its parking lot. Shades of the US!) My room on second floor looked directly into the upper floor windows of the Vogts house, and I could distinctly see Ignaz’ ghost striding up and down there in his black robe, his hands clasped behind his back.

We were welcomed into the Pfarrarchiv (Church Archive) of Unkel by Herr Robert Bieding and the efficient and knowledgeable Church Secretary, Frau Annemarie Lehmann. We began our search, but were hampered by the difficult 18th-century German handwriting that uses completely different shapes for letters than modern ‘Latin’ script. Before the first week was half over, Herr Rudolf Vollmer arrived on the scene, the official Archivist at Unkel who had been-and still was, really-on vacation. He immediately set to work to help us. Eventually, we got the following information together:

Ignaz’ great uncle, Gottfried Eschenbrender, had been pastor of Unkel’s St. Pantaleon Church at the turn of the 17th-18th centuries, and had spent thousands of golden Thaler embellishing the church. St. Pantaleon’s contains treasures far beyond most village (and most middle-sized town or small city) churches. Built in the 13th century, it houses art works from that period through the early 18th: an ancient baptismal font, a highly decorated and precious casket containing relics of St. Pantaleon, statues, paintings, wood sculptures, a stone bas relief, precious golden sacred vessels and brocade vestments, a magnificent organ—the list is lengthy. The Eschenbrenders married first into the Berntges family and then the Vogts, and it was Isabella (Pfefferkorn) Berntges who rescued Ignaz from Spanish prison. Later, her daughter Maria Catharina Vogts found an official church function for him, with enough pay to enable him to be independent.

We now know (as the Library of Congress and the Vatican do not) that Ignaz died on June 16, 1798 and was buried on June 18 in the old church graveyard at St. Servatius Church in Siegburg. We know that his father died when he was 9, his mother when he was 11, and he entered the Society of Jesus in Trier under the guidance of his uncle Pantaleon Eschenbrender, S.J. We know that his book, Sonora, a Description of the Province, (vol. 1 published by G. Langen in Cologne in 1794, vol. 2 in 1795) was written in three volumes, the third an account of Ignaz’ personal experiences. It received official permission in 1792 for publication from both church and state authorities, but was never printed and has since disappeared. I am convinced it was judged ‘politically incorrect’ by the press or the Elector and was suppressed. If any of you out there have an inkling of its whereabouts, let me know!

We know about the fortunes and later misfortunes of Ignaz’ sister Isabella, and the good fortune of the Vogts family. We know that most if not all of Ignaz’ ancestors on the Pfefferkorn as well as the Eschenbrender sides, were mayors, jurists, city councilors and the like, in Siegburg, Mannheim, Düsseldorf, and in the villages round about. We know that his immediate ancestors were half patrician, half noble. Therefore, when his niece writes his name Ignaz von Pfefferkorn, we know he had a right to the title by inheritance.

We know a good deal about the condescending and prejudicial attitude toward ex-Jesuits that was prevalent in the area at the time—and that may well have prevented Ignaz from being employed as a professor, a teacher, and maybe even as an active priest. We know that he was appointed Vicar at St. Pantaleon Church, but may have given up the practice of his office at once, keeping the stipend, or he may have remained as Vicar of the Chapel of the 14 Rescuing Saints until after his sister Isabella died, when he moved to Siegburg, his father’s home town. We know for certain that he was in Unkel and nearby Rheinbreitbach for the first seven-eight years after his release from Spanish prison.

What we DON’T know in any detail is: what was he doing for 20 years other than writing his book??
I intend to write a fourth Pfefferkorn mystery, but will have to fill in that huge gap largely with my imagination—unless one of YOU has the third volume of his book and can enlighten me….

I flew home on October 5, 2006.

Part Three, July, 2007

This time, my fellow researcher and friend, Professor Ralph Freedman of Princeton University, and I met in Paris, then proceeded by train to Cologne, where we had reserved a car with automatic gearshift. Those of you in the know are aware that such cars are scarce as hen’s teeth in Europe, since they are considered gas guzzlers, and gas is somewhere around 5 Euros per gallon. If you aren’t adept at standard shift, you are out of luck—almost. Nonetheless, we were promised an automatic. The car was waiting at a branch of Hertz in an outlying, industrial district. As I signed the paperwork, I glanced outside and saw a slinky, black, latest model Mercedes-Benz.

“Somebody’s getting a really swanky car,” I said.

“That’s your car,” they told me. “It’s the only automatic we have at the moment. No extra charge.”

Ignaz Pfefferkorn, S.J.,
(Click on the image above to see a larger version)

It turned out to have global positioning in addition to every other conceivable automatic gadget. Thanks to the GPS, we got directly from that industrial suburb to our condo in the Eifel Mountains, without needing to struggle with Cologne’s busy city-center traffic.

We had three research goals for the trip: 1) to track down Ignaz’ missing third volume that contained his personal account of the expulsion from New Spain, his imprisonment and his trek in mid-winter on foot through France and finally home to his sister Isabella in the Rhineland, 2) to determine, once and for all, where he really was born, and 3) to fill in his likely activities during the 20 years he lived in Germany after his return in 1778.

The publisher who had brought out two volumes of his three-volume work in 1794 and 1795 was G. Langen of Cologne. We searched by Google and in archives, and found an A. Langen in Munich and a Langen Bookstore (Langenschen Buchhandlung) in a suburb of Cologne called Leichlingen. Maybe it was the same family as G. Langen. Maybe they would have some idea where centuries-old records might be. Maybe…. We set the GPS and drove there, only to be told that there was no connection; this family had come from another part of Germany.

Since then, we have corresponded with archivists in Koblenz and elsewhere, asking if any such manuscript is lying on some neglected shelf, and have come up empty handed. The Archivist of Unkel, Rudolf Vollmer, discovered that, about thirty years ago, a descendant of Ignaz’ niece, Maria Catharina Vogts, had also searched in much the same places for that third volume without success. We gave up the search—at least temporarily—until one of you out there comes up with a new idea on where to look.

Next, we set the GPS for the exact street address of the City Archive of Düsseldorf. The Archivist of Unkel, Rudolf Vollmer, had determined that Ignaz was NOT born in Manheim-bei-Bergheim as we had previously thought, but we had found an account of Ignaz’ life, published by Peter Gansen in 1957 in a Siegburg periodical, asserting that Ignaz had been baptized in Düsseldorf. Since babies were baptized as soon as possible after birth because of the high incidence of infant death, we figured he must have been born in that city. After all, his father was on the City Council there at the time—so we thought.

We went through all the baptismal records of all the churches, finding no Pfefferkorn babies baptized in Düsseldorf in the years 1720-30. Next, we went to Brühl-bei-Bonn, where there is a huge archive frequently searched by people looking for their ancestors. After an hour or so, we found the baptismal record for Isabella Pfefferkorn, born on November 27, 1718. It was a copy of a record in the City Archive of Düsseldorf. We had missed it by two years in our earlier search. But no record for Ignaz. We concluded, from negative evidence, that his father must have been transferred to Mannheim-am Neckar between Isabella’s birth and the time Ignaz was born. Therefore we had come full circle. We had disbelieved those who had maintained that he was born in Mannheim, had gone thousands of miles and spent hundreds of hours to discover where else he might have been born, only to realize that those authorities (his translator, Theodore Treutlein, for example) had been right. Unfortunately, there is no possibility to verify Ignaz’ birthplace positively, since all archival records in Mannheim were incinerated by allied bombing during World War II.

That left goal number three: what Ignaz was doing; how he lived during those 20 years. We knew that he had friends in high places, since he says so himself in his preface to his works. It was to satisfy their curiosity that he wrote his Description of the Province of Sonora. He most likely remained in Unkel and its close neighbor Reinbreitbach for the first seven, nearly eight years, until late 1785 at least. His niece, Maria Catharina Vogts, nominated him to be Vicar of Unkel’s St. Pantaleon Church in 1785, and he received that honor. The post included onerous duties (saying a daily Mass at 5:00 a.m. that entailed a complex ritual in honor of die Vierzehn heilige Nothelfer [the Fourteen Rescuing Saints] among other things) and a generous stipend plus a charming house that still stands today surrounded by its garden. However, there was trouble in the lovely town of Unkel: a fierce battle had flared up between the priest of the parish and the mayor and city council. The mayor accused the priest of drunkenness and tried to have him removed; the priest fought back with parishioners who swore he was an ideal pastor. Some believe that it was about that time when Ignaz moved to his father’s ancestral town, Siegburg, where he stayed until he died thirteen years later (June 16, 1798). If this is the case, it might have been the vicious political battle drove him out. It is anyone’s guess which side he took. On the other hand, he might have served in Unkel as Vicar until his sister Isabella died and the French Revolutionary Army threatened to invade the east bank of the Rhine in 1792, and only then he moved to Siegburg.

Siegburg is home to an ancient Benedictine monastery and to a magnificent thirteenth-century church, where an uncle or great uncle Pfefferkorn had served as priest. Although I have nothing to prove it, I believe Ignaz probably had friends among the Benedictines as well as among the secular upper crust and that he may have served as assistant pastor in the church, St. Servatius. There exists one record showing that he was godfather to a child baptized in the church in 1788.

Shortly after the French Revolution in 1789, revolutionary troops invaded the Rhineland, including Unkel and Siegburg. I gathered much information about the hardships, disease and famine caused by the invasion.

The field is wide open for my novelist’s imagination to fill in details.

The next installment of this saga will be volume 4 of the Pfefferkorn mystery series.


It is now April 2013. Volume 4, Unrest in Eden, was published in November 2011, now also translated into in German by my lovely and generous friend, Dr. Renate Scharffenberg. It was published as Unruhe im Paradies, Unkel: Rheinlander Verlag, 2012, available at www.amazon.de. The novels include historical appendices in which all the information I have been able to gather in my lengthy ”sleuthing” trips may be found.