As the nineteenth century began, both the United States and France were in transition. The American Revolution only officially ended in 1783, and now the president-helmed United States was forging an identity that rejected the courtly atmosphere of its European counterparts. Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, France was moving away from the republicanism of its own revolution. Approximately twenty years after the executions of King Louis XVI and Queen Marie-Antoinette, France was poised to become an empire under Napoleon Bonaparte. Amidst these changes, a scandal occurred when Napoleon’s youngest brother, Jérôme, surprised the world by marrying Miss Elizabeth Patterson of Baltimore, Maryland.
Christine Caccipuoti explains.
When eighteen-year old Elizabeth wed nineteen-year old Jérôme on Christmas Eve of 1803, few people other than the bride and groom approved. She was the daughter of a well-off businessman, but despite being lauded as the “Belle of Baltimore” she loathed the newfound United States’ lack of sophistication and glamour. He was only in Maryland because he decided to take a detour before returning to France after an unsuccessful stint in the Caribbean with the French Navy. After their respective social lives brought them into contact, their courtship was a whirlwind, and the starry-eyed pair were engaged within months of meeting.
Elizabeth’s father did not trust Jérôme and French diplomats in the United States warned that Napoleon hated the match, but the couple did not care. They allowed Elizabeth’s father to draw up documents requiring Jérôme to defend his marriage to the best of his ability should Napoleon object and had their nuptials conducted by a Catholic clergyman to underscore its legitimacy through religion. To Elizabeth and Jérôme, marrying was the important part. Acceptance, they believed, would soon follow.
The newlyweds enjoyed an extravagant honeymoon that established them as newspaper celebrities, with Elizabeth immediately turning heads after she adopted French fashions. It wasn’t long before word of the union reached Napoleon, who was about to be crowned Emperor of the French. What little respect Napoleon had for Jérôme evaporated and he made his opinion known by banning French ships from allowing Elizabeth aboard. They were still not deterred. By the time they managed to reach Europe in 1805, Jérôme’s brother was formally Emperor Napoleon I and there was an added complication: Elizabeth was pregnant.
Aware of his responsibilities, Jérôme went to France to win over his brother while Elizabeth traveled to England, a country hostile to Napoleon that welcomed the opportunity to show kindness to a woman he shunned. During this separation, Elizabeth gave birth to their son, boldly named Jérôme Napoleon, who went by the nickname “Bo”.
Elizabeth waited, but Jérôme never sent for her. Because of his unacceptable marriage, he was not among the family members elevated to the title of prince, and this greatly upset him. Although he wrote loving letters to Elizabeth, once Napoleon told him that he would be cut off forever if he remained married, Jérôme abandoned his wife. A shattered Elizabeth had no choice but to take her baby home to Maryland.
Unhappily Ever After
Napoleon sought to annul Jérôme’s marriage but the Pope denied the request. Undaunted, Napoleon had the French ecclesiastical courts declare it void and decided that was good enough. As far as he was concerned Jérôme was free again. Quickly, Napoleon arranged a politically advantageous marriage for him to Princess Catherine of Württemberg and named him King of Westphalia, two moves done to cement his growing influence in Europe. In stark contrast, Elizabeth was still legally married to Jérôme in the eyes of the United States and several years passed before she gained a divorce. Following this, numerous suitors sought her hand, but neither they nor a pension from Napoleon made up for what she lost.
It wasn’t until Napoleon lost power in 1815 that Elizabeth was able to finally experience the pleasures of European life. After all, with the Bonapartes defeated, no one could stop her. She and Bo spent years traveling the continent. They even visited Rome, where part of the Bonaparte family resided after their expulsion from France. This enabled Bo to meet not only his grandmother, but also his father and half-siblings. It is possible that Elizabeth too saw Jérôme but the sole surviving story indicates only that they were once in the same gallery, but did not speak. Elizabeth harbored hopes that Bo would make an illustrious marital match in Europe, perhaps even to one of his Bonaparte cousins, but it would not come to pass. Instead he returned home and married an American woman with whom he later had two children, Jérôme and Charles. Bo’s decision not to pursue what Elizabeth saw as his rightful place in European society broke her heart almost as much as her initial divorce and severely tarnished their mother-son relationship.
Their contact with the Bonapartes continued. In the 1850s when Napoleon III (who was Bo’s cousin, as his father Louis was yet another of Napoleon and Jérôme’s brothers) made France an empire again, he welcomed Bo as part of the family. Jérôme, however, did not. When he died in 1860, Bo was not included in his will. Elizabeth faced one last disappointment when her battle to have Bo recognized as one of Jérôme’s heirs failed.
Once again Elizabeth returned to Maryland devastated. Although she made lucrative financial investments, her personal relationship with her son and his family was strained. The wounds of her youth never healed and her bitterness manifested in the composition of pieces like Dialogues of the Dead, which placed her disapproving father and scoundrel ex-husband together in hell. After such a disappointing life, it is only fitting that following her death in April of 1879, at the age of 94, it was decided her tomb should read, “After life’s fitful fever, she sleeps well.”
An American Legacy
Elizabeth may have disliked the United States, but her grandson Charles lived to serve it. In the 1890s, he met future President of the United States Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt when both men were involved in reform work. When Roosevelt took office in 1901, Charles went along with him, serving as Secretary of the Navy then Attorney General and earning a reputation as Roosevelt’s troubleshooter. His most significant achievement was creating a force solely to carry out investigations at the behest of the Department of Justice. This group later adopted a name that remains recognizable today: the Federal Bureau of Investigation, or FBI. Whether or not Elizabeth would have been proud of her grandson’s enduring contribution to the American government is impossible to say because while yes, he rose to an impressive height, he did so in the wrong country.
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Christine Caccipuoti is a New York-based historian and received both her BA and MA in history from Fordham University. In her position as Assistant Producer of the podcast Footnoting History (FootnotingHistory.com), she serves as the resident Napoleonic historian and is the person behind its twitter account (@historyfootnote). Her personal website and blog can be found at ChristineCaccipuoti.com.
Carol Berkin, Wondrous Beauty: The Life and Adventures of Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2014.
Charlene M. Boyer Lewis, Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte: An American Aristocrat in the Early Republic. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012.
Paul-Napoléon Calland, “Jerome Bonaparte Biography”, Irène Delage (trans), The Fondation Napoléon, 2006. (https://www.napoleon.org/en/history-of-the-two-empires/biographies/bonaparte-jerome/)
Lewis L. Gould, “Bonaparte, Charles Joseph”, American National Biography, February 2000. (https://doi-org.avoserv2.library.fordham.edu/10.1093/anb/9780198606697.article.0500081)
---, “Bonaparte, Elizabeth Patterson”, American National Biography, February 2000. (https://doi-org.avoserv2.library.fordham.edu/10.1093/anb/9780198606697.article.2000085)
Desmond Seward, Napoleon's Family, New York: Viking, 1986.
Attorney General: Charles Bonaparte, via The United States Department of Justice (https://www.justice.gov/ag/bio/bonaparte-charles-joseph)
Brief History of the FBI, via The Federal Bureau of Investigation (https://www.fbi.gov/history/brief-history)