Tuesday, February 5, 2013


By Art Martinez de Vara

Count Norbert von Ormay I

      A revolutionary spirit swept over Europe in the 1840’s.  The absolute monarchies which had taken power after the defeat of Napoleon struggled to suppress the new ideas of nationalism, democracy and social reform.  The rural poor of Eastern Europe toiled under the system of serfdom, where they were treated little better than slaves.  The urban poor were packed into unsanitary slums where they worked long hours in dangerous factories or worse.  A generation of intellectuals inspired by the idealism of the French and American revolutions brought about an uprising that touched nearly every part of Europe.  These revolutionaries called for Constitutional governments, expanded voting rights, national self-determination for the ethnic minorities under Austrian domination, the liberation of the serfs and an answer to the “social question”.   They sought to improve the lives of the large masses of poor and starving peasants, as well as the aged, ill and unemployed. The novel Les Miserables depicts this era in Europe.  Its main character Jean Valjean is a nobleman with Revolutionary ideas.  Similarly, Count von Ormay I, was a real life aristocrat who rejected his the old order to become a revolutionary and ultimately gave his life for the Hungarian people.

     He was born Norbert von Auffenberg in 1813, in the Czech town of Dobrany, into a noble Austrian family with a long history of military service.  In some documents he carried the title Graf (Count) and in others Freiherr (Baron).  He was educated at the military academy at Olmütz, Moravia (modern day Czech Republic).  He entered the Austrian Imperial Army in 1828 and was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant by 1840.  Politically he was a liberal who favored a constitutional union of the 32 German mini-states into a single German Republic and an end to absolute rule by the Austrian Emperor, who oppressively ruled an Empire of over 12 different nationalities in which many peasants lived in a state of virtual slavery.

     In 1846, the Poles revolted against Austria and Lt. Norbert von Auffenberg came to their aid.  A cousin, Moritz von Auffenberg wrote in his autobiography, “Joseph von Auffenberg, a cousin of my father, served under his brother Norbert in the Tenth Infantry Regiment in Galicia [Austrian-ruled southeastern Poland and western Ukraine]. In the year 1846 a revolutionary secret society became influential in the officer corps of the regiment. Norbert [von] Auffenberg was an enthusiastic active member; Joseph, only cognizant [i.e., an accessory] of the society.  Chance led to its discovery.  Participants and accessories were condemned to death, afterward commuted to prison.  The two brothers were imprisoned in the Josefstadt fortress [constructed on the promontory at the confluence of the Labe and Metuje rivers in what is today the Czech Republic].”

     The Hungarians had drafted a 12 point revolutionary plan that called for free speech, regular parliaments, civil equality, religious freedom, a national guard, equality of taxation, trial by jury, liberation of the peasants (serfs) and unification of Hungary and Transylvania.  They drafted a national song whose chorus was “We swear by God we shall not be slaves anymore!” Thousands took to the streets in support of the 12 point plan.  A crowd surrounded Buda Castle where the Austrian governor lived shouting “Long live Liberty! Long live Equality!” until the governor stunned by the situation and the threatening crowd signed the plan and fled for his life.

     It was at this time that the brothers stopped using their German name “von Auffenberg” and took the Hungarian surname “von Ormay”.  They joined the newly formed Hungarian National Guard and prepared to defend the newly won freedom from Austria’s inevitable response.  Count Norbert von Ormay (Auffenberg) was given the rank of Major, and was successful in several battles in the south of Hungary in September and October.  He was promoted to Lt. Col. and sent to Transylvania to raise three Rifle Companies of over 7,000 men.  His base of operations was the Transylvanian capital of Cluj.  Norbert was popular among the high-society members of his Rife Companies.   On May 27, 1849 he married Vilma Rozsváry, the 18 year old daughter of fellow revolutionary Maj. Lajos Rozsváry in the Cluj Street Reformed Church.

   Joseph was accepted for service with the Viennese volunteers, at the rank of Oberjaeger and was badly wounded at Novara in Italy.  He was awarded a medal of valor and promoted to an officer’s rank. Maj. Radetzky took him as his own personal quartermaster.

     In June Norbert von Ormay was promoted to full Colonel and named Adjutant or personal assistant to Lajos Kossuth, the political leader of the Hungarian Revolution.  He left Transylvania and returned to Hungary.

     Austria was facing simultaneous uprisings in Moravia, Poland, Serbia, Hungary, Romania, Italy, and elsewhere across its empire. Even in the capital city of Vienna, people took to the streets, seeking freedom and a constitution.  On the edge of defeat, Austria asked the Russian Czar to intervene on behalf of a fellow monarch.  Russian support turned the tide in favor of Austria. By September of 1849, the Hungarians were cornered at Temesvár, which was to be the last battle of the Hungarian Revolution.  Austrian forces besieged the fortified castle and took it when the Russian Army arrived with 70,000 reinforcements.  Col. Norbert von Ormay, then head of the First Hungarian Rife Regiment, was captured and brought before infamous Austrian General Julius Jacob von Haynau, who ordered his immediate execution for high treason.  When the would-be executioners protested that von Ormay had a right to trial because he was an Austrian noblemen, Haynau famously replied, “if Auffenberg is not hanging from the nearest tree in 10 minutes, I will execute all of you.”

     The transcript of his court marshal, held the same day as his capture, is very brief.  It gives a summary of his service in the Hungarian Army since his release from prison.  Count von Ormay’s testimony is mostly about his young wife and his conversion from Catholicism to Presbyterianism.  The document states that he was handed over to a pastor for temporary spiritual comfort then hanged.

     Count Norbert von Ormay envisioned a Europe where all people had rights and no person had absolute power.  The manner of his death was symbolic of what he was fighting against.  Though he was one of the few who had rights under the Imperial system, he met his end under the tyranny of absolute power, which denied him his right to trial.  Fearing further retributions from the Austrian Army, the Hungarians surrendered to the Russians, who promptly handed them over.  Austria put all officers on trial and publically executed all 13 Hungarian generals, who became national heroes.  They are known as the “Martyrs of Arad” and in 2002, the name of Norbert von Ormay was added to the monument of the “Martyrs of Arad.”

Count Norbert von Ormay II

     Count Norbert von Ormay II was born in 1850 and never met his father, who was executed before he was born. His mother Vilma gave birth to him in Hungary then fled to Constantinople which was outside of the reach of the Austrio-Hungarian Emperor, leaving the infant behind.  She later sailed for Brazil to begin a new life.  In Brazil she married a wealthy plantation owner and lived there until her death in the mid-1880s.  In her will, she left her fortune to her long-lost son “if he could be found.” General Moritz von Auffenberg notes in his memoir of World War I (Aus Österreich-Ungarns Höhe und Niedergang - Eine Lebensschilderung) that he was poised to inherit the fortune, if Norbert II was not found.

     It is currently unclear who raised Norbert II or what was his status being the son of an executed traitor.  He was working as minor government official when he received news of his inheritance.  He married a commoner named Francisca around 1875 and had two children Norbert III (b. ~1876) and Frio (b. ~1877). The family arrived in New York on March 14, 1885 and proceeded on to San Antonio.

     On June 5, the family checked into the St. Leonard Hotel in San Antonio.  The San Antonio Express reported, “Norbert von Ormay, a Hungarian nobleman….is seeking a location and to buy a large stock ranch." The Count made a sensation that was published in the local newspapers.  He arrived with a troop of servants and in a gilded carriage. Among those who proposed selling their ranch was Charlotte Jones, the widow of Enoch Jones.  Jones had at one time been the wealthiest man in Texas and had built his dream home on the Medina River southwest of San Antonio at a cost of $40,000 in 1860s money.  Following the death of her husband in 1863, Charlotte’s sister moved into the home and the two raised their families in the house, which was known as the “Castle on the Medina.”  The two sisters dreamed of opening a school for girls and did so through the sale of the Castle to Count Norbert von Ormay in 1885 for $19,000 cash. She and her sister taught at the German-English School in San Antonio for many years.

     During the months of March and April, 1885, Count von Ormay hired Louis Mann to pull 2100 stumps from his land, and he filed for a cattle brand and ear marks in the Bexar County Courthouse.  On July 10, 1885 the San Antonio Light reported that Count von Ormay and his ranch manager were in town making purchases for the new home.  There are several gossip column reports of the comings and goings of the Von Ormay’s in the various San Antonio newspapers over the next year and in all the Von Ormay’s stay at their hotel of choice, the St. Leonard Hotel.

     Local oral history recalls that the Count’s brief stay at the Castle on the Medina was caused by the respiratory ills of his wife, Francisca. However, newspaper accounts refer to an enigmatic stranger appearing at the castle.  Whoever this person was, he and the Count spent several days inside, not once leaving.  Upon his departure, the Count prepared a hasty departure and left with their affairs unresolved.   The Von Ormy Star has uncovered that in 1886, the Count travelled to Brazil, where he possibly took possession of the remainder of his mother’s estate.  He returned from Rio de Janiero in early July of 1886, arriving at Baltimore, Maryland.  A few days later he married Emma B. Hoschke in Hoboken, New Jersey on July 17, 1886, while apparently still married to Countess Francisca who remained in Texas.  He and Emma returned to Germany where they hired an attorney, Friedrich Gustav Steiglich, who returned to Texas to settle their affairs.

     In December of 1886, the Countess Francisca and her son Norbert III  travelled to San Antonio and checked into the St. Leonard Hotel.  There they met with the attorney who was apparently unaware of the existence of the Countess Francisca.  He reported that he met with woman “named Francisca claiming to be the wife of Norbert and occupying the house.”

     A month later Louis Mann filed a lawsuit (Mann v. von Ormay) against Count Von Ormay for failure to pay him for removing stumps.  The citation was published in the local paper:


In the District Court of Bexar County

No. 2958  Louis Mann vs. Norbert Von Ormay

THE STATE OF TEXAS. To the Sheriff or any Constable of Bexar County, Greeting:

  You are hereby commanded that by making publication of this citation in some newspaper published in the county of Bexar, once in each week for four consecutive weeks previous to the return day hereof, you summon Norbert Von Ormay, a non-resident of the State of Texas, to be and appear at the next regular term of the District Court of Bexar County, to be holden at the court house thereof, in the City of San Antonio, on the first Monday in June next, the same being the 6th day of June, A.D. 1887, then and there to answer a petition filed in said court No. 2958, wherein Louis Mann is plaintiff and Norbert Von Ormay is defendant.  Plaintiff in his petition alleges that during the months of March and April, 1885, at the special instance and request of defendant he grubbed and took from defendant’s  land 2100 stumps, for which defendant agreed to pay him the sum of fifteen cents each, aggregating the sum of $310.00.  That although said defendant often requested to pay the same, yet to pay the same or any part thereof, defendant has wholly failed and refused to plaintiff’s damage in sum of $500.00

     That defendant is about to dispose of his property with intent to defraud his creditor.

     Wherefore plaintiff prays for a writ of attachment, and that upon final hearing he have judgment for his debt, with legal interest from January 1st 1886, for all costs and general relief.

         Herein fall not, but have you before said court, on the said first day of the next term thereof this writ, with your return thereon, showing how you have executed the same.”

     The attorney settled the case by Louis Mann for an undisclosed amount.  Learning of their desperate situation, the Countess Francisca asserted her rights to one-half of the Castle.  The attorney arranged the sale of the Castle to Oscar Schmidt of Berlin for $40,000.00.   The Countess received her money, left Texas with her children and returned to Germany.

     The following year, in 1888, Count von Ormay and Emma, by then residents of Berlin, sailed to Bahia, Brazil.   It is not know by this writer for how long they remained in Brazil.  Count von Ormay next appears in January of 1891 in an interview published in the San Antonio Express newspaper.  He was by then a resident of Coahuila, Mexico:


     “Count Norbert Van Ormy, of Montmorales, Mexico, is in the city and temporarily has his headquarters at the Menger hotel.  In the lobby of this hostelry he was interviewed by a reporter of The Express.

     Count Van Ormy is a Hungarian by birth and is well known in San Antonio and Bexar County, having previously been a prominent ranchero near the village that bears his name.  He is now the owner of several haciendas in Mexico and is [...] on a large scale, the wealth producing capabilities of the country.  In the course of conversation, the count said:

     ‘This part of the country in which I am located is making rapid strides towards advancement, under the stimulus of large investments of foreign capital, especially in the branches of mining and agricultural industries.  The success [...] agricultural enterprises is something that is calculated to astonish the average farmer in the United States.  The crops are not exposed to droughts, potatoes sell for 5 cents per pound, cabbage 25 cents per pound, corn $2 per bushel and other articles in proportion; but as the productive strength of the country is increased [...] prices will be reduced.  The country is rapidly filling up with settlers from many climes and land values are climbing skyward in a manner that would sick to the senses of an American [...]

     The work of foreign capital in up building Mexico is particularly noticeable at Monterey, which is fast losing its Mexican character, so great is the [...] of the Caucasian.  Many manufacturing enterprises are springing into existence every day.  A large smelting furnace, giving employment to 800 laborers has just been completed and put in operation.  The growing fondness of Mexico for beer has induced a branch of the great Anhauser-Busch syndicate in [...] the erection of a large brewery, and by next year Mexico will drink beer [...] at home.’”

     Later that year, Count von Ormay returned to Texas, where he married Elise Henrietta Menrmann of San Antonio.  They travelled to New York and Germany for their honeymoon and settled in Galveston at 2714 Market St.  There the Count became a physician and Elise a midwife.

     In 1894, Count von Ormay filed a claim against Oscar Schmidt for fraud. In his claim, he states that Schmidt had promised to pay the $14,000.00 for the Castle by exchanging land of this value in Germany.  The Count, however, discovered that the land Schmidt promised was in fact not owned by him.

     The last known record of Count von Ormay’s is his listing in the 1897 Galveston Directory.   That same year, the Texas Medical Association attempted to revoke his license for quackery and selling unaccredited medical licenses.   He was found not guilty and continued to practice medicine.   If we are assume that he continued to live on Galveston Island, he may have been a victim of the 1900 Storm.  Eliza Henrietta returned to Hamburg as a widow.  He managed to squander his fortune within a decade of inheriting it.

Norbert von Ormay III

    On January 16, 1900, Norbert III, then 19 years old, sailed to Brazil from Germany on steerage class, listing his occupation as “apprentice carpenter.”  There he married and settled down in Rio Grande do Sol, a largely German settlement in the South Brazil.  He died in 1964.  The family dropped the aristocratic “von” from their name and is today known as the Ormay family in Brazil.


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