Monumentally Speaking . . .
Christopher T. George

Fame (Sort Of) But No Titles for the Bonapartes of Baltimore

A fter life's fitful fever she sleeps well.

     So runs the epitaph on the tomb of Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte in the city's Green Mount Cemetery. The daughter of Scots Irish merchant William Patterson--the second richest man in Maryland (and the man for whom Baltimore's Patterson Park is named)--Betsy had high ambitions at the age of 17 when she married the younger brother of Napoleon Bonaparte, the ruler of France. She became the toast of the city when, on Christmas Eve, 1803, she married 18-year-old French naval officer Jerome Bonaparte.

     But the marriage was fated not to last. Jerome made the mistake of not conferring with big brother, who had plans to marry him into European royalty to give added credibility to his Corsican dynasty. When the couple tried to land in Europe in spring 1805, with Betsy by now pregnant, Napoleon gave orders to French ships' captains that the couple should not be permitted to land. Officialdom referred to her as that "young person" or, worse yet, "Miss Patterson."

     Jerome went to plead with his brother while Betsy sailed for England. Napoleon made it clear that he would not recognize Jerome's American bride. A boy was born to her on July 7, 1805. She christened him Jerome Napoleon Bonaparte, presumably to flatter the emperor. Soon after, she and "Bo" returned to the United States.

     Betsy then began an intense series of negotiations with the French ambassador in Washington to try to gain recognition for herself and her child. She craved a European title. But Napoleon was not going to grant her a title if he did not recognize her marriage in the first place. The Emperor engineered an annulment of the union in a French court. In 1807, he created Jerome King of Westphalia and made him marry Frederica Catherine, daughter of the old King of Wurtemburg. Betsy never remarried.

     Following Jerome's crass desertion and remarriage, Betsy continued to hope for better things from Napoleon even as she labeled her former husband a "Corsican blackguard." The Emperor gave her an allowance but refused to recognize her as a Bonaparte or to give her a title. After Napoleon's 1815 abdication, she and Bo visited many of the former emperor's relatives throughout Europe to lobby for their cause. Her hopes remained alive: Bo could still become a Prince or a King. But in 1829, after Bo entered Harvard and took a law degree (though he never practiced), he dashed her hopes when he became engaged to Baltimore heiress Susan May Williams. Betsy's list of eligible European princesses went begging.

     On learning of Bo's engagement, Betsy wrote a letter to her father that exposes both her arrogance and devastation: "It was impossible to bend my talents and my ambition to the obscure destiny of a Baltimore housekeeper, and it was absurd to attempt it after I had married the brother of an emperor. . . . When I first heard that my son could condescend to marry anyone in Baltimore, I nearly went mad. . . . I repeat, that I would have starved, died, rather than have married in Baltimore. . . ."

     Betsy's ambitions must have risen in 1848 when the Bonapartes returned to power in France. Bo, by now Col. Bonaparte, was a friend of the new ruler, Louis Napoleon. But circumstances were still not to favor her aspirations. Her former husband Jerome, the ex-King of Westphalia, objected to Napoleon, in a gesture of reconciliation, referring to his American cousin as Jerome Napoleon Bonaparte. In 1855, Napoleon offered Bo the title of Duke of Sartene as a way to solve the family feud. Bo turned him down.

     Betsy died in 1879, an embittered old woman of age 94 years who outlived "Bo" by nearly nine years. Col. Bonaparte died aged 65 in 1870. Requiescat in pace--Latin for "Rest in peace"--is inscribed on his monument in Loudon Park Cemetery. The monument in the west Baltimore is four miles from Betsy's grave in Green Mount Cemetery.

     Also buried at the Bonaparte monument are Bo's wife Susan and sons Jerome and Charles Joseph. Jerome fought for the French in the Crimean War and nearly starved to death in the Siege of Paris of 1870. Charles Joseph served as Secretary of the Navy and U.S. Attorney General under President Teddy Roosevelt. A modicum of fame for another of Baltimore's Bonapartes. But no title.

[Device] Christopher T. George is a local free-lance writer and poet and the author of the recent picture book on our city, Baltimore Close Up, from Arcadia Publishers, on sale at local bookstores.

Questions or comments about this article for Mr. George.

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