SULLIVAN, TIMOTHY, known as Timothée Silvain, king’s physician; b. 1690 or 1696, son of Daniel Sullivan, physician of Cork (Republic of Ireland), and Mary Elizabeth MacCarthy; d. 16 June 1749 in Montreal.
Timothy Sullivan had, by various accounts, lived in Canada since 1717. The only source of information on his earlier career is a contradictory and improbable letter of nobility discovered by Abbé Cyprien Tanguay*. It is likely that Sullivan was the author of this fanciful document.
According to the letter, allegedly written by several Irish peers at Paris in 1736, Timothy Sullivan was “the son of Cornelius Daniel O’Sullivan, Count of Killarney . . . and Lieutenant General in the armies of King James II” and had served “as a Captain of Dragoons in Spain for sixteen years; . . . having left Spain in 1716 by order of the General Staff to recruit men in Ireland for his regiment, he was seized by privateers who took him to New England, from whence he fled to Canada in order to remain a Roman Catholic.” At his marriage in January 1720 Sullivan had described himself simply as the 24-year-old son of an Irish physician, though a social or military title would have been an asset in New France. The signatures of the Irish nobles (Fitzjames of Berwick is “Fitzjam de Barwick”) appear to be copied from a French history book, possibly from Sullivan’s extensive library. Ægidius Fauteux* uncovered many errors of fact in the letter’s text.
Sullivan’s marriage and his vanity provided the need for an aristocratic lineage. In 1720 he was a young parvenu with money. His bride was an impoverished widow of 38 with six children. She was, nonetheless, Marie-Renée Gaultier de Varennes, daughter of the late governor of Trois-Rivières, René Gaultier* de Varennes, sister of Pierre Gaultier de Varennes et de La Vérendrye, and former wife of Captain François-Christophe Dufrost de La Gemerais. The wedding was clandestine and was held at Pointe-aux-Trembles (Neuville), far from the bride’s home and family. The marriage contract was, contrary to custom, concluded after the marriage. Sullivan’s powerful in-laws were undoubtedly mollified when he paid out approximately 20,000 French livres in the next three years to cover his wife’s accumulated debts. Governor Vaudreuil’s wife [Louise-Élisabeth de Joybert*] testified that Sullivan “deprived himself of necessities to raise [his stepchildren] and to give them all the education possible.”
Late in 1721 the newlyweds moved from Varennes to Montreal where they eventually made their home on Rue Saint-Paul. Like his father, Sullivan acted as a physician and surgeon. Several seigneurs and townspeople of note asked that he be officially named resident physician of the region. Governor Philippe de Rigaud* de Vaudreuil endorsed their petition in September 1723 since Sullivan was a “fine gentleman who has lived in the town [Montreal] for six years, whose probity and competence are well known to me thanks to the large number of remarkable cures he effected there.” Sullivan, a devout Roman Catholic, also had the confidence of the clergy.
On 7 March 1724 two letters patent were issued by the French crown: one a certificate of naturalization requested by Sullivan, and the other an official appointment without salary as physician on Montreal Island. Sullivan was to visit the officers and soldiers there “in order to prescribe suitable remedies for them and to carefully oversee their recovery under the orders of Sieur [Michel Sarrazin*]”, (king’s physician). Sullivan improperly assumed the title “king’s physician” on the strength of this commission. In 1727 he complained that Joseph Benoist, surgeon to the troops at Montreal, hindered him in his official duties. Letters sent to the council of Marine by the nuns of the Montreal Hôtel-Dieu, where Sullivan worked from 1725 to 1730, the priests, and high officials of the town supported him in this dispute. Intendant Dupuy* repeated Vaudreuil’s endorsement of Sullivan and added that he was “extremely charitable to the poor, risking his life every day by crossing rivers when the ice is very weak to succour them.”
The new governor of Canada, Charles de Beauharnois, did not share this enthusiasm and in 1727 he wrote that Sullivan “exercises his trade in a somewhat strange manner: he is at once physician, surgeon, and apothecary; he . . . gives remedies that no one recognizes and I believe that one can regard him as an empiricist, never making any formal prescription . . . He is allied to a family that obtained a physician’s certificate for him.” Favourable testimony from so many others in 1727 and 1728 induced Beauharnois to reserve judgement for six more years. His suggestion that Sarrazin examine the Irishman was not pressed.
When Sullivan went to France in 1734 the governor and Intendant Hocquart* feared that he was after the vacant post of king’s physician at Quebec. In October they warned the minister that Sullivan “obtained or rather snatched up a commission as physician at Montreal . . . this foreigner is a very bad physician, in whom no one has confidence. . . . He is a charlatan that all sensible people and others have abandoned.” Their fear was unwarranted but Sullivan must have learned of their low opinion of him.
The physician, once praised as generous and charitable, became extravagantly vain and ill-tempered. In 1740s he styled himself “Timothée Silvain écuyer, sieur O’Sullivan, Médecin du Roi en ce pays” and probably concocted the letter of nobility at this time. Though he possessed arrière-fiefs in the seigneuries of Varennes, Cournoyer, and Plaines and claimed to own others in Belœil and Rouville, he did not add them to his titles. From 1724 to 1731 he had committed assault and battery against three persons. Now that he affected that mark of nobility, the sword, he was particularly dangerous.
In 1737 after mass on Christmas eve Sullivan beat his wife so badly that she feared for her life. Despite promises to clerics, he could not control his rage. On 10 January his wife’s brother, La Vérendrye, and a nephew, René Gaultier de Varennes, tried to rescue her. Sullivan held them off with a sword and a poker, boxed his wife, and shouted at all three. Abbé François Chèze* established a truce but even in his presence Sullivan threatened and attacked his wife.
After the fray Sullivan tried unsuccessfully to have the would-be rescuers prosecuted, and his wife petitioned for a legal separation. In a counter-petition Sullivan declared that only the Officialité (ecclesiastical court) could separate him from the wife given him by God. Eventually, and here we must admire Sullivan’s power of persuasion and his wife’s capacity for forgiveness, the couple was reconciled.
Sullivan’s behaviour continued contradictory. After cutting La Vérendrye’s finger with a sword on 10 January he stopped to dress the wound before resuming the argument. In February he savagely attacked a court usher, then bandaged the cuts and forced his bleeding victim to drink with him and to embrace him upon leaving. This usher was armed when he delivered another writ but was attacked by Mme Sullivan when he brandished his pistol.
Sullivan’s most notorious brawl involved the lieutenant general for civil and criminal affairs in Montreal, Jacques-Joseph Guiton de Monrepos. In December 1742 the magistrate ordered one of Sullivan’s houses vacated as a fire hazard. Sullivan went to demand an explanation and as a parting gesture he jabbed Monrepos in the chest with his cane. The court ushers who were ordered to arrest Sullivan wisely sought military reinforcement. The officer on duty was, however, Jacques-René Gaultier de Varennes and he withheld aid until his brother-in-law escaped from Montreal with his belongings. Monrepos was furious and in October 1743 Intendant Hocquart reported that his relentless legal pursuit of Sullivan, “whose wife is related to the entire colony” had “antagonized many worthy people.”
Sullivan retired to Cap de Varennes to undertake the reconstruction of his wife’s former home. By 1744 the details of the Monrepos affair reached the minister of Marine, Maurepas, who reprimanded Governor Beauharnois, suspended three officers and cashiered Varennes to preserve, he said, what little discipline remained in the colonial troops. Sullivan remained at Varennes playing the role of “Lord O’Sullivan. “ He died on 16 June 1749 and was buried the next day near his pew in the Saint-Amable chapel of Montreal’s parish church. Without living children, he left his estate to his wife’s descendants; half his library went to Marie-Marguerite Dufrost* de Lajemmerais, Mme d’Youville, who disliked him. Sullivan was probably an Irish immigrant to the English colonies who had come to Canada for religious reasons. He was literate, he had an ability to make money and possessed attractive qualities, but his pretensions and passionate temper disgraced him.
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Cite This Article
Peter N. Moogk, “SULLIVAN, TIMOTHY, Timothée Silvain,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 3, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed May 29, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/sullivan_timothy_3E.html.
The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:
|Author of Article:||Peter N. Moogk|
|Title of Article:||SULLIVAN, TIMOTHY, Timothée Silvain|
|Publication Name:||Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 3|
|Publisher:||University of Toronto/Université Laval|
|Year of publication:||1974|
|Year of revision:||1974|
|Access Date:||May 29, 2023|