Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte, Napoleon’s American sister-in-law

Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte by Gilbert Stuart, 1804

Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte by Gilbert Stuart, 1804

Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte wrote in 1815 that “nature never intended me for obscurity.” (1) A belle of Baltimore, Elizabeth became an international celebrity when she married Napoleon’s youngest brother Jérôme. When Napoleon convinced Jérôme to abandon her, Betsy (as she was known) became America’s most famous single mother. A hustler with a high opinion of herself, Betsy had a brilliant social career and a very long life, though her letters do not leave the impression of a kind or a happy person. As an early biographer wrote,

This Baltimore girl, married at eighteen and deserted at twenty, seems to have possessed the savoir vivre of Chesterfield, the cold cynicism of Rochefoucauld, and the practical economy of Franklin. (2)

From Mademoiselle Patterson to Madame Bonaparte

Elizabeth Patterson was born on February 6, 1785, the eldest daughter of wealthy Baltimore merchant William Patterson and his wife Dorcas Spear, who ultimately had 13 children. In the fall of 1803 Betsy met Napoleon’s youngest brother Jérôme Bonaparte at the home of Samuel Chase, one of the Maryland signers of the Declaration of Independence. Jérôme, a feckless 19-year-old lieutenant in the French navy, had left his warship in Martinique to visit the United States, though Napoleon had denied him permission to do so. Betsy was beautiful, witty and ambitious, and spoke fluent French. Jérôme was smitten. He proposed soon after they met. Elizabeth’s father gave his reluctant consent only when Elizabeth threatened to elope. She reportedly declared that she would “rather be the wife of Jérôme Bonaparte for an hour, than the wife of any other man for life.” (3) They were married on December 24, 1803 by John Carroll, the first Catholic bishop in the United States.

The couple were the toast of Baltimore society. Betsy courted publicity, not least through her fondness for wearing thin, low-cut gowns – then the fashion in France but considered revealing by American standards. An observer at her wedding reported: “all the clothes worn by the bride might have been put in my pocket.” (4) The couple toured Washington and the northeastern states, meeting “one continual round of hospitality and brilliant entertainment” in Philadelphia, New York, Boston, Albany and elsewhere.

When Napoleon learned of the marriage he was furious. He had in mind a dynastic alliance for his brother, not a union with a commoner. He cut off Jérôme’s allowance and ordered him to return to France alone. Arguing that Jérôme was a minor who could not marry without the consent of his guardians, Napoleon prohibited recognition of the marriage in France and insisted that it be annulled. Thinking that if Napoleon could meet Betsy in person, he would change his mind, Jérôme and his now pregnant wife sailed for Europe in early 1805 (an attempt to leave in fall 1804 was thwarted when their ship was wrecked by a storm near Philadelphia). When they reached Lisbon, a French guard refused to allow Betsy to land. Napoleon had forbidden “Mademoiselle Patterson” to set foot on French soil. Betsy told Napoleon’s emissary,

Tell your master that Madame Bonaparte is ambitious, and demands her rights as a member of the imperial family. (5)

The couple agreed that Jérôme would go to Milan to try to placate Napoleon. Napoleon refused to see Jérôme. He wrote to him on May 6, 1805:

Your union with Mademoiselle Patterson is null, alike in the eyes of religion and of the law. Write Mademoiselle Patterson to return to America. I will grant her a pension of 60,000 francs during her lifetime, on condition that she will under no circumstances bear my name, – she has no right to do so owing to the non-existence of her marriage. You must give her to understand that you are powerless to change the nature of things. Your marriage being thus annulled by your own consent, I will restore to you my friendship and continue to feel for you as I have done since your infancy, hoping that you will prove yourself worthy by the efforts you make to acquire my gratitude and to distinguish yourself in my armies. (6)

Excluded from the ports of continental Europe, Betsy sailed to England to have the baby. She arrived at Dover on May 19, 1805. Prime Minister Pitt had to send a military escort to keep back the crowd. On July 7, Betsy gave birth to Jerome Napoleon Bonaparte at Camberwell, near London.

Napoleon threatened to remove Jérôme senior from the line of succession, to refuse to pay his large debts, and to ban him from France and all its territories. Lacking the backbone of his brother Lucien, of whose marriage Napoleon also disapproved, Jérôme caved. Though Jérôme sent Betsy letters saying he was as attached to her as ever, after leaving him at Lisbon Betsy never saw her husband again, except for a chance encounter in 1822. In 1807, Napoleon rewarded Jérôme by making him King of Westphalia and – the marriage to Betsy having been declared invalid in the French courts (Pope Pius VII refused to annul it) – married him off to Princess Catharina of Württemberg.

In search of rank and fortune

Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte and the baby (whom she nicknamed “Bo”) returned to Baltimore, where Betsy continued to call herself Madame Bonaparte. Refusing to melt quietly into the background, she adopted French manners, was active in society, and made clear to others that she considered the United States inferior to Europe. Desiring financial and legal independence, she filed for divorce from Jérôme in the United States. This was granted by a special act of the Maryland legislature. The pension promised by Napoleon was paid to her until his first abdication in 1814.

After Napoleon’s final abdication in 1815, Betsy went to England and settled in Cheltenham, leaving Bo at school in Maryland. In addition to believing that there was an accumulation of bile on her liver, which required a change of climate, she considered England more congenial to her beauty and talents. Shortly after arriving she wrote to her father that she was happy to be in a country where she was “cherished, visited, respected and admired.”

I am in the first society in Europe, and that, too, for my personal merits; for, without vanity I may say so, since I have neither rank, fortune, nor friends of my own, willing to assist or protect me. I acknowledge that the standing I possess in this country is highly flattering, and that it is not surprising I should prefer people of rank and distinction who are willing to notice me. Their attentions are very gratuitous, for I am a very poor stranger, and a very unfortunate one on many accounts. (7)

Betsy also fancied that she might find a husband in Europe. She scolded her father for suggesting to an acquaintance that she had gone to England against the wishes of her friends.

In Europe a handsome woman who is likely to have a fortune may marry well; but if it gets about that her parents are dissatisfied with her, they will think she will get nothing by them, and if she had the beauty of Venus and the talents of Minerva, no one will marry her…. The reputation of your fortune would be a great advantage to me abroad… I beg that, whatever you may think, you will say nothing and especially write nothing about me, unless it be something likely to advance me. (8)

After a visit to Paris, Betsy returned to Baltimore in the summer of 1816. In May 1819, she again sailed for Europe, this time with Bo, whom she placed at a school in Geneva. According to Bo, they lived modestly.

Mamma lives now in town, in the cheapest way possible, on account of the troubles in Baltimore. She has no man-servant, but one single woman, who does the business of waiter and femme de chamber. (9)

At the same time, Betsy kept up her social life. Bo wrote to his grandfather in November 1820:

Mamma goes out nearly every night to a party or a ball. She says she looks full ten years younger than she is, and if she had not so large a son she could pass for five and twenty years old. She has a dancing-master and takes regularly three lessons a week, and has done so for the last six months; is every day astonished at the progress she makes and is fully determined to dance next winter. She constantly regrets that she had not danced at Paris. (10)

While they were in Geneva, Betsy learned that Pauline Bonaparte desired to see her and Bo in Rome. It was suggested that Pauline, who had no living children of her own, might even make a financial provision for Bo. Though Betsy’s obsession with rank and fortune extended to her son, and she was determined to secure for him the status to which she believed he was entitled, she was under no illusion about the Bonapartes. She was concerned that taking Bo to see Pauline had the danger of

exposing him to the danger of contracting habits of expense entirely unsuitable to my means of expenditure, at the same time losing the most valuable part of his life in idleness; the consequence would be that, after having spoiled him, he would be left to me to support. I cannot say that I have least reliance upon that family….

My resolution is uninfluenced by personal feelings, never having felt the least resentment toward any individual of that family, who certainly injured me, but not from motives which could offend me; I was sacrificed to political considerations, not to the gratification of bad feelings, and under the pressure of insupportable disappointment became not unjust. (11)

Despite her misgivings, Betsy finally did decide to spend the winter of 1821-22 in Rome. She took Bo with her. In letters to her father, she was frank about her motives.

I am desirous to profit by every remote chance of wealth for him, and at the same time conscious that a good education is the only certain advantage I can command for him. I wish to make him acquainted with the old lady [Bo’s grandmother, Letizia Bonaparte]….”

My desire was to defer this experiment until he was two years older, but as the old lady and the princess may not live so long, it has been urged to me that I was allowing an occasion to escape which might be irrecoverable hereafter.… I can only add that I am grateful to the kind Providence which withheld from me the care of a larger family and amidst all the trials and disappointments which have fallen to my share I take comfort to myself that I have only one child. (12)

Betsy was probably also swayed by a letter she had received in the spring of 1821 from Jérôme, which made clear that he had no intention of providing for Bo.

I have had a letter from [Bo’s] father, in which he informs me that his fortune is not sufficient to provide for his present family [his children with Catharina], who will be taken care of by their mother; that I might have known his character too well to suppose he ever thought of laying by a fortune; and that the little he did save he has been cheated out of by the persons he trusted. I believe he is not as bad-hearted as many people think and that many of his faults and much of his bad conduct proceed from extravagance and folly, which are indeed, the source of evil, both to their possessors and to those about them. (13)

The visit appeared initially to be a success. Letizia and Pauline were quite taken with Bo and conceived the idea of providing for him by having him marry Joseph Bonaparte’s youngest daughter, Charlotte. Pauline even promised to throw some capital into the deal. Having visited Joseph in the United States and knowing him to be wealthy, Betsy gladly consented. There was just the slight matter of convincing Joseph. To this end, the Rome Bonapartes advised Betsy to send Bo to America to plead his own cause with his uncle and to impress his handsome person and attractive manners upon Charlotte. Betsy was specific in her instructions to her father in Baltimore:

I do not think it absolutely necessary for me to go out, as I should think you might do everything I could do. The principal and only thing is to see [Bo] will not be left without any provision if [Charlotte] dies before him, or that he will not be entirely dependent on her as long as she lives. They tell me here Joseph means to give a hundred thousand dollars on the marriage. If he does not secure the whole or any part to her, there is nothing to be said, as the money becomes her husband’s. But if he means to tie it up, I wish at least fifty thousand to be settled on my son. There is no knowing how marriages may turn out – women may treat husbands ill, leave them, die before them, but if a good provision be made for the husband, there is nothing lost by risking a marriage. I shall, if absolutely necessary, go out, when I receive Joseph’s letters, although it will be horridly inconvenient to me; and if he tells me his project is to give them a hundred thousand dollars without restriction, there is only for you to see it is so. … His daughters are the best matches in Europe – in point of both money and connection…. I will never consent to [Bo] marrying any one but a person of great wealth. He knows I can only recognize a marriage of ambition and interest, and that his name and rank require it….

If the marriage takes place, he must live with his uncle in America. My health, and the taste I have for European society, render it quite impossible for me to live near them, as probably they will continue in Philadelphia. I hope and trust, my dear sir, that you will have the goodness to attend to the security of a maintenance for the boy…. Do not talk of the fifty until you find how they mean to arrange the hundred thousand. (14)

Here is where fact meets fiction, as Bo arrived at Joseph’s estate of Point Breeze in April 1822, just as he does in Napoleon in America. And although it’s Napoleon who nixes the match in the novel, in real life Joseph did the same, provoking a stoical reaction from disappointed Betsy.

I am sorry to find there is little chance of what I destined for [Bo’s] advancement, but nothing is surprising on the part of those people. The only thing left is for me to put this by with the rest of my earthly trials and to console myself by the consciousness of having lost nothing by my own folly. (15)

Before returning to Geneva in the spring of 1822, Betsy visited Florence, where she by chance encountered Jérôme and Catharina in the gallery of the Pitti Palace. They did not say a word to each other.

Putting her hopes for Bo’s future on his education, Betsy enrolled Bo at Harvard, though she continued to hope that her son would come in for a share of his grandmother’s money when she died. She even employed an agent to ferret out the details of Letizia’s will. When Pauline died in 1825, Betsy was delighted to learn that she had left 20,000 francs to Bo.

In 1826, Betsy encouraged Bo to go to Rome to see his Bonaparte relatives again, and to meet his father for the first time. She wrote to her father:

I confess that I am not at all of the opinion that expectations of future wealth are worth running after, but it is certain that they have it in their power to leave legacies, and that I shall be much blamed if I do not put the boy in the way of getting mentioned in their wills. (16)

Betsy was bitterly disappointed when she learned in 1829 that Bo was going to be married to Susan May Williams, a well-to-do American from Baltimore. She wrote (ironically, in light of her own marriage):

I had endeavored to instil into him, from the hour of his birth, the opinion that he was much too high in birth and connection ever to marry an American woman. … I would rather die than marry any one in Baltimore, but if my son does not feel as I do upon this subject, of course he is quite at liberty to act as he likes best. As the woman has money…I shall not forbid a marriage which I never would have advised. … I hope most ardently that she will have no children; but, as nothing happens which I desire, I do not flatter myself with an accomplishment of my wish on this subject. (17)

Bo and Susan had two sons, Jerome Napoleon Bonaparte II (born in 1830) and Charles Joseph Bonaparte (born in 1851).

Grumpy old age

Betsy continued to move between Europe and the United States, preferring the former. She grew in bitterness as she aged, confessing in her correspondence her boredom, depression and disappointment, though she kept up her social engagements and continued to move in the highest circles. She was preoccupied with money, with position and with her appearance.

When William Patterson died in 1835 he left Betsy a relatively small portion of his estate:

The conduct of my daughter Betsey has through life been so disobedient that in no instance has she every consulted my opinions or feelings; indeed, she has caused me more anxiety and trouble than all my other children put together, and her folly and misconduct have occasioned me a train of expense that first and last has cost me much money. (18)

Betsy was heartened by the French revolution of 1848 and the prospect of a Bonaparte return to power. She wrote to a friend in March 1849:

The emperor hurled me back on what I most hated on earth – my Baltimore obscurity; even that shock could not divest me of the admiration I felt for his genius and glory. I have ever been an imperial Bonaparte quand même, and I do feel enchanted at the homage paid by six millions of voices to his memory, in voting an imperial president. (19)

When Bo’s cousin Napoleon III ascended the French throne, he formally acknowledged that Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte’s descendants were legitimate Bonapartes, but denied them any claim to imperial rank. Upon Jérôme’s death in 1860, Betsy made a fruitless appeal to the French court for a share in his estate.

She spent the last 18 years of her life in a Baltimore boarding house. By then she had accumulated a fortune of about 1.5 million dollars, of which she spent only a few thousand per year. She reportedly said, “Once I had everything but money; now I have nothing but money.” (20) She outlived Bo, who died on June 17, 1870. In 1875, a journalist wrote:

Madame Bonaparte is still living in Baltimore, at the age of ninety years. She says she has no intention of dying until she is a hundred. She has been to Europe sixteen times, and contemplates another trip this summer. This old lady has more vivacity and certainly more intelligence than many of the leading women of fashion of the present day. She expresses her opinion upon all subjects with great freedom, and sometimes with bitterness. She has little or no confidence in men; and a very poor opinion of women: the young ladies of the present day, she says, all have the ‘homo mania.’ All sentiment she thinks a weakness. She professes that her ambition has always been – not the throne, but near the throne. (21)

Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte died on April 4, 1879, at the age of 94. Her funeral was held at her daughter-in-law’s house and was attended only by the immediate family and a few friends. She was buried in Baltimore’s Green Mount Cemetery, under the epitaph “After life’s fitful fever she sleeps well.” Her will divided her estate between her grandsons.

In the realm of strange but true, in 1825 Betsy’s sister-in-law Marianne – widow of her brother Robert – married Richard Wellesley, elder brother of the Duke of Wellington, thus connecting the Bonaparte and Wellesley families in a roundabout way.

Betsy’s story has long captured American imaginations. It was the basis for a 1908 play by Rida Johnson Young called Glorious Betsy, which became a silent film in 1928 and was remade as a musical called “Hearts Divided” in 1936. Novels about Betsy include The Golden Bees: The Story of Betsy Patterson and the Bonapartes by Daniel Henderson (1928), The Purple Trail by Elizabeth Scott McNeil (1930), No Hearts to Break by Susan Ertz (1937), Tide of Empire by Bates Baldwin (1952), The Amazing Mrs. Bonaparte by Harnett T. Kane (1963), and The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte by Ruth Hull Chatlien (2013). Biographies include Bewitching Betsy Bonaparte by Alice Curtis Desmond (1958), Betsy Bonaparte: The Belle of Baltimore by Claude Bourguignon-Frasseto (2002), Betsy Bonaparte by Helen Jean Burn (2010), Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte: An American Aristocrat in the Early Republic by Charlene Boyer Lewis (2012), and Wondrous Beauty: the Life and Adventures of Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte by Carol Berkin (2014). For an entertaining free read it is hard to beat Betsy’s letters in The Life and Letters of Madame Bonaparte by Eugène Lemoine Didier (1879). The Maryland Historical Society has an excellent website based on its exhibit, “Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte: Woman of Two Worlds.”

You might also enjoy:

Jerome Napoleon Bonaparte, Napoleon’s American nephew

Joseph Bonaparte: From King of Spain to New Jersey

Charlotte Bonaparte, Napoleon’s artistic niece

How Pauline Bonaparte lived for pleasure

Fanny Fern on marriage in the 19th century

  1. Eugène Lemoine Didier, The Life and Letters of Madame Bonaparte (New York, 1879), p. 45.
  2. Ibid., p. viii.
  3. Ibid., p. 8.
  4. Ibid., p. 8.
  5. Ibid., p. 25.
  6. Ida M. Tarbell, ed., Napoleon’s Addresses: Selections from the Proclamations, Speeches and Correspondence of Napoleon Bonaparte (Boston, 1896), p. 83.
  7. The Life and Letters of Madame Bonaparte, p. 43.
  8. Ibid., pp. 43-44.
  9. Ibid., pp. 67-68.
  10. Ibid., p. 74.
  11. Ibid., pp. 57-58.
  12. Ibid., pp. 63, 79.
  13. Ibid., p. 75.
  14. Ibid., pp. 90-93.
  15. Ibid., p. 104.
  16. Ibid., p. 174.
  17. Ibid., pp. 218-220.
  18. Ibid., pp. 244-245.
  19. Ibid., p. 253.
  20. Ibid., p. 262.
  21. “The Baltimore Bonapartes,” Scribner’s Monthly, Vol. X, No. 1 (May 1875), p. 8.

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The emperor hurled me back on what I most hated on earth – my Baltimore obscurity; even that shock could not divest me of the admiration I felt for his genius and glory.

Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte