The Curse of the Nine of Diamonds

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Courtesy of Lewis Walpole Library

Whilst researching our book, An Infamous Mistress: the Life, Loves and Family of the Celebrated Grace Dalrymple Elliott, we came across ‘The Curse of the Nine of Diamonds’, in reference to Grace Dalrymple Elliott’s paternal family.

Grace Dalrymple made a ‘marriage-a-la-mode’ to a wealthy doctor in 1771, but it was not a success! Grace was young, tall and beautiful and her husband, Dr John Eliot, was much older, and reputedly much shorter too, than his new wife. The workaholic doctor allowed his wife to be escorted around London by his friends and other young men, while he basked in the reflective glory of having a wife who was desired by many but ‘owned’ by him. When this ran to its obvious conclusion and Grace was discovered at a bagnio with Viscount Valentia, a divorce swiftly followed leaving Grace, although still not legally an adult, to survive on her looks and her wits.

And so Grace Dalrymple Elliott (she chose to spell her surname differently from her husband, possibly in defiance to him) became a courtesan, notorious amongst the ranks of the Cyprian Corps.

We know that Grace had longed to use the crest of George, 4th Earl of Cholmondeley, one of her lovers but, denied permission to have his arms displayed on the door of her new carriage, Grace instead opted to display those of Dalrymple of Stair instead (although truly not entitled to do so), promoting her aristocratic connection, albeit a distant one, with the then current head of that family, John Dalrymple, 5th Earl of Stair.

The heraldic arms of the Dalrymple of Stair family is known as The Nine of Diamonds, a reference to the nine diamond lozenges which are displayed on it.

Nine Diamonds - arms

There are numerous theories as to the origins of this curse, but the earliest one we have found dates back to 1708 where it was reported in the British Apollo or Curious Amusements for the Ingenious’, 3rd September.

Nine Diamonds - British Apollo (2)

Amongst these theories as to the origin of the curse, the one that appears reasonably plausible concerns John Dalrymple, 1st Earl of Stair, who ordered the massacre at Glencoe (1692). The massacre caused an outcry across Britain and as his family coat of arms contained the nine of diamonds at its centre the card, as a result, assumed this appellation.

The Massacre of Glencoe by James Hamilton (c) Glasgow Museums.  The Massacre of Glencoe took place on 13 February 1692, when government troops slaughtered 38 members of the Clan MacDonald in their homes. Some survivors managed to avoid the attack, as shown in this later painting, and attempted to escape through the snow.
The Massacre of Glencoe by James Hamilton
The Massacre of Glencoe took place on 13 February 1692, when government troops slaughtered 38 members of the Clan MacDonald in their homes. Some survivors managed to avoid the attack, as shown in this later painting, and attempted to escape through the snow.
(c) Glasgow Museums

There was also a somewhat later theory which, bearing in mind the above newspaper report, would now appear to be totally implausible. The account stated that it was due to the Duke of Cumberland who, on the evening before the Battle of Culloden in 1746, was playing cards with his staff when a young officer appeared and wanted to know the orders for the battle. The Duke, it is reputed, ordered “no quarter” to the Jacobites. The young man was worried by this possible massacre and asked the Duke to write down the order, he duly obliged and wrote it on the nearest playing card which happened to be a nine of diamonds.  This interesting theory we know now is impossible as the ‘curse’ was already in existence.

The Duke of Cumberland (1721–1765) by Stephen Slaughter (attributed to), c.1750. (c) Royal Armouries Museum, Leeds; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation
The Duke of Cumberland (1721–1765) by Stephen Slaughter
(attributed to), c.1750.
(c) Royal Armouries Museum, Leeds; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Another suggestion seems to relate ‘Pope Joan’ which was a  card gambling game that was played from at least 1732. The nine of diamonds was a significant card and was called the pope.  The pope was regarded a villain amongst Scottish reformers and so the nine of diamonds was renamed the curse of Scotland in this game.

Lady_Godina's_rout;_-_or_-_Peeping-Tom_spying_out_Pope-Joan_by_James_Gillray

Clearly the mystery continued to make news and in 1786, The General Evening Post offered the following explanation:

‘… the proverbial expression of ‘The Curse of Scotland’ to have taken it’s rise from the Earl of Stair’s (who had a principal hand in the Union) bearing nine diamonds in his coat of arms, and as the Scotch have considered that event as an unfortunate one, and distinguished it as the ‘Bitter Onion’ they have since called the nine of diamonds ‘the Curse of Scotland’.

Whatever its true origins it was considered to be the unluckiest card in the pack. Grace would surely have known of these stories, but the distinction of displaying these arms on the door of her coach overcame any associations with a reputed curse.

An Infamous Mistress: The Life, Loves and Family of the Celebrated Grace Dalrymple Elliott by Joanne Major and Sarah Murden. https://www.amazon.co.uk/Infamous-Mistress-Celebrated-Dalrymple-Elliott/dp/1473844835

 

Divorced wife, infamous mistress, prisoner during the French Revolution and the reputed mother of the Prince of Wales’ child, notorious courtesan Grace Dalrymple Elliott lived an amazing life in eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century London and Paris. Strikingly tall and beautiful, later lampooned as ‘Dally the Tall’ in newspaper gossip columns, she left her Scottish roots and convent education behind, to re-invent herself in a ‘marriage a-la-mode’, but before she was even legally an adult she was cast off and forced to survive on just her beauty and wits. The authors of this engaging and, at times, scandalous book intersperse the story of Grace’s tumultuous life with anecdotes of her fascinating family, from those who knew Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, and who helped to abolish slavery, to those who were, like Grace, mistresses of great men. Whilst this book is the most definitive biography of Grace Dalrymple Elliott ever written, it is much more than that; it is Grace’s family history which traces her ancestors from their origin in the Scottish borders, to their move south to London. It follows them to France, America, India, Africa and elsewhere, offering a broad insight into the social history of the Georgian era, comprising the ups and downs, the highs and lows of life at that time. This is the remarkable and detailed story of Grace set, for the first time, in the context of her wider family and told more completely than ever before. 

Header image: The Battle of Culloden; Peel Ross; Highland Council
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3 thoughts on “The Curse of the Nine of Diamonds

  1. Fascinating research! It may be that the 9th king had started the legend and the massacre of Glencoe reinforced it, and made the legend stick… I’m less convinced by any of the later ones. It would be interesting if any references earlier than 1692 turn up

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    1. All Things Georgian

      Many thanks as always for your comments. We’ve looked for earlier references but nothing has turned up so far, but needless to say we’ll keep digging 🙂

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