Achille Murat, the Prince of Tallahassee
Napoleon’s nephew Achille Murat was one of the more eccentric Bonapartes. After growing up as the Crown Prince of Naples, he became a colourful Florida pioneer known as the “Prince of Tallahassee.” Achille was independent-minded, restless and adventuresome, always seeking an elusive fortune. Though he claimed to be a democrat, he remained at heart an aristocrat, pining for his family’s lost throne and inherited wealth.
Crown Prince of Naples
Charles Louis Napoleon Achille Murat was born on January 21, 1801 in Paris. He was the eldest child of Napoleon’s sister Caroline Bonaparte and her husband Joachim Murat. Murat was a charismatic cavalry officer who later became one of Napoleon’s marshals. Achille had three siblings: Letizia (born April 26, 1802), Lucien (May 16, 1803) and Louise (March 21, 1805).
Achille spent his early years in the splendour of the Elysée Palace in Paris. According to one anecdote, shortly after Napoleon’s coronation in 1804, Napoleon said to another young nephew, Napoleon Charles (the son of Napoleon’s brother Louis and Napoleon’s stepdaughter Hortense):
‘Do you know, child, that you may be king one day?’
‘And Achille?’ instantly said Murat, who was present.
‘Ah, Achille,’ replied Bonaparte, ‘he will make a good soldier.’ (1)
In 1808, Napoleon made the Murats King and Queen of Naples. Achille became Prince Murat, heir presumptive to his parents’ throne. He grew up in Naples, imbibing his father’s taste for military bravado, his mother’s sense of entitlement, and both parents’ outsized egos.
In 1814, the Murats betrayed Napoleon by allying with Austria. This enabled them to keep their kingdom when Napoleon was exiled to Elba. They lost it, however, when Murat tried to aid Napoleon during the Hundred Days. Joachim Murat was executed by a firing squad in October 1815. Caroline and the children were allowed to live in the castle of Frohsdorf, south of Vienna, under Austrian surveillance. Caroline took the name of the Countess of Lipona (an anagram of Napoli, or Naples).
A visitor to the family in November 1817 wrote:
[T]he oldest son, who is called Prince Achille, gives vent, even at the table and before his mother, who tolerates it, to a ridiculous rage against France.
This young man, scarcely sixteen, is already as tall and strong as a man of twenty-five. He says, ‘I am not French, and I will never be. I am an Italian, and I shall always be an Italian. My mother believed, if my father had died when he was with the army, that she would be queen, but as soon as the news had arrived I should have shut her up in the chateau of St. Elmo. She would have been all right there, and I would have proclaimed myself king.’
The tone of this young man is altogether coarse. He speaks without reflecting. It is said that his health is ruined by debauchery. He gets drunk in the bosom of the family. From all one can gather, he has plenty of courage. (2)
Achille nursed a huge resentment towards the reactionary monarchs of Europe. He particularly hated the Bourbons, who had taken his family’s throne and fortune. Upon becoming an adult, he petitioned for a passport to travel to the United States. This was granted, thanks to the intervention of Austrian Foreign Minister Clemens von Metternich, Caroline’s former lover. Achille had to promise to never return to Europe without the allies’ permission.
Achille Murat in America
In April 1823 Achille Murat sailed from Hamburg with two boxes of books and two bags of gold withdrawn from his mother’s account. He arrived in New York the following month. Achille visited his uncle Joseph Bonaparte in Bordentown, New Jersey. This is where we meet Achille in Napoleon in America. Just as happens in the novel, the Bonapartes briefly considered Achille as a potential husband for Joseph’s daughter Charlotte.
Joseph encouraged Achille to settle into a quiet life in America. Instead, having learned that the Spaniards were in revolt against their Bourbon king, Achille sailed back across the Atlantic. Notwithstanding his lack of military experience, he thought he could lead the Spanish and Portuguese liberals, establish a glorious reputation for himself, and vindicate the Murat name. By the time Achille reached Gibraltar, it was clear that the liberals would be defeated (see my post about the 1823 French invasion of Spain). Instead he published a pamphlet in Liverpool entitled “On the Revolution of Spain in its Relation to Revolution in General.” This attacked reactionary governments and praised revolutions as necessary for the advance of human progress.
Caroline was furious with her son for violating his oath to the allies. His behavior hampered her efforts to recover funds she claimed she was owed by the Bourbons. Other members of the Bonaparte family also disapproved of what Achille had done. Chastened, Achille returned to the United States in late 1823.
After a short visit with Joseph, Achille travelled along the Atlantic coast. In 1824 he decided to establish himself in Florida, having been influenced by Florida booster Richard K. Call, whom he had met in Washington. Achille bought land near St. Augustine, where he tried growing tobacco and raising cattle. In December 1824, he wrote to his friend Count Thibaudeau:
I had the foolishness to buy land too soon, of the sort that is almost sterile although in a delicious position. I am beside the sea, 10 miles south of St. Augustine. I have called my place Parthenope [the old Greek name for Naples]…. This name recalls to me my country if I could forget it…. I have a rather bad house but it will suffice: one room for eating and sleeping, another for my books and writing, that’s all that I have. 1200 arpents of rather inferior land; a sweet climate; 10 male and female negroes that I govern militarily…. I have bread, liberty and equality, the most absolute independence under a government that one does not feel, except to participate in it. I vote, I talk politics in the societies, I make motions, etc. and I can put myself forward to be very popular not only in our territory, but in all parts of the United States where I have been. You see also that I have the time to occupy myself with literary work; that’s what I count on doing and have already done…. My decision is already taken to fix myself here and become a citizen and forever renounce Europe. (3)
We found at Savannah a young man whose name and destiny were calculated to inspire us with a lively interest; this was Achille Murat, son of Joachim Murat, ex-king of Naples. On the earliest news of the arrival of General Lafayette in Georgia, he precipitately quitted Florida, where he has become a planter, and came to add his homage and felicitations to those of the Americans, whom he now regarded as his countrymen. Two days passed in his company, excited an esteem for his character and understanding, not to be withheld by any who may have the same opportunity of knowing him. Scarcely twenty-four years of age, he has had sufficient energy of mind to derive great advantages from an event which many others, in his place, would have regarded as an irreparable fortune. Deprived of the hope of wearing the crown promised by his birth, he transported to the United States the trifling remains of his fortune, and sufficiently wise to appreciate the benefits of the liberty here enjoyed, he has become a naturalized citizen of the United States. Far from imitating so many fallen kings, who never learn how to console themselves for the loss of their former power, Achille Murat has become a cultivator, has preserved his name without any title, and by his frank, and altogether republican manners, has rapidly conciliated the regard of all who know him. He possesses a cultivated mind, and a heart filled with the most noble and generous emotions. For the memory of his father he cherishes a profound and melancholy veneration. (4)
After an unsuccessful year at Parthenope, Achille acquired a new plantation in partnership with Colonel James Gadsden. This was located on the Wacissa River, 15 miles east of the new state capital of Tallahassee. Slaves were set to work clearing land for cotton, a crop from which Achille hoped to make a fortune. In memory of Naples, he called the plantation Lipona. He built a one-room log house in which he slept on a moss mattress, raised from the floor at the head by a pine log.
On July 12, 1826, Achille Murat married Catherine (Kate) Daingerfield Willis Gray, a 23-year-old widow who had recently moved to Tallahassee from Virginia with her parents and siblings. Catherine was a great-granddaughter of Betty Washington Lewis, who was George Washington’s sister. Achille and Catherine had no children, though Achille may have had children with his Negro mistresses. At Parthenope he had impregnated one of his slaves, a 14-year-old mulatto named Mary. Under the influence of a malign priest, Mary strangled the baby at birth, and then died shortly afterwards herself. Achille reportedly commented, “Had she been white, I would have written a touching novel about her.” (5) In this and other respects, Achille does not sound like an easy man to live with.
His want of personal neatness was most trying to the delicate sensitivities of his wife, and but for the constant attention of his faithful ‘William’ (his valet), at times his presence would scarce have been endurable. He boasted of never removing his boots from the first use until worn out, and without some such stratagem as practised upon Domine Sampson, he would never have changed his clothing. On one occasion he fell into a boiler of warm syrup, during the season of making sugar; while bystanders feared he might be badly scalded, his only thought was, as he afterwards expressed it, ‘Kate will make me wash.’ His dislike to water was such that he never drank it, unless well diluted with brandy. ‘Water (he said) was only intended for beasts of the field.’ Col. Murat was a man of singular resource. On an occasion of guests arriving unexpectedly, and finding his larder rather empty, while, to increase the difficulty, Madame was from home, he ordered all the ears and tails cut from his hogs, of which he made a most savory dish, while their swineships still roamed at large. He thought it a pity hogs could not be all heads and tails. He boasted of having tried all the birds and most of the reptiles of Florida. He said, ‘Alligator tail soup would do, but the buzzard was not good.’ He was extremely fond of experiments in cookery, often annoying and puzzling Madame Murat and the cook by the strange mingling of sauces and condiments which he furtively introduced into food for the table. (6)
Catherine remained a devoted wife. Floridians often referred to the couple as the Prince and Princess of Tallahassee.
Achille took a keen interest in American politics. At a political rally in 1826, he called one of the candidates, his neighbour David Betton Macomb, a “turncoat” for supporting Henry Clay. Macomb and Achille fought a duel. Achille wrote:
He fired first and shot off half of the little finger of my right hand. That did not keep me from shooting, and my bullet went through his shirt and scared out the lice. (7)
Achille served as a lieutenant colonel in the Florida militia during the early years of the Seminole Wars. Hoping to embark on a political career, he bought some law books from a neighbour who was quitting his practice. Through voluminous reading, he taught himself law. In 1828, Achille was admitted to the bar. He had law offices in Tallahassee and at Lipona. This brought him some remuneration and modest recognition, but it did not give him the entrance to electoral politics he had hoped for. He lost his bid for a seat in the Legislative Council of Florida.
Back to Europe
In 1830 the July Revolution in Paris ousted the Bourbons under King Charles X, ushering in the reign of King Louis Philippe. Achille Murat saw this as an opportunity to regain his family fortune and title. He also dreamed of making his own reputation in the liberal unrest that was sweeping across Europe. After a farewell ball at the Planter’s Hotel in Tallahassee, Achille and Catherine sailed across the Atlantic. Denied entry to France, they landed in England in February 1831. Achille sent a friend to Paris to liaise with the Bonapartists there. They invited Achille to put himself at the head of a Bonapartist/republican coalition. He agreed, as long as they promised to “stop all negotiations with other members of my family, if any have started.” (8)
The Murats’ next stop was Belgium, where the new liberal King Leopold I (uncle of the future Queen Victoria) named Achille a colonel and invited him to establish a foreign legion to aid in Belgium’s defence. France, Austria and Prussia expressed their displeasure at this move, which they feared was cover for Achille to raise troops to restore his family to the thrones of France and Naples. Bowing to the allies’ pressure, Leopold recalled Achille’s commission and disbanded the regiment.
Catherine returned to Florida while Achille remained in London. In 1830 he had published a book on the United States for a European audience, called Lettres sur les États-Unis. He now expanded his thoughts into a second book on American society and American government: Esquisse Morale et Politique des Etats-Unis de l’Amerique du Nord (1832). The books were popular enough to be translated into English, German, Dutch and Swedish.
In London Achille met with Joseph Bonaparte and other members of the family, including his cousin Louis-Napoléon (the future Napoleon III), to discuss how to advance the Bonapartes’ interests. There was a falling out between Joseph and his nephews, whom Joseph considered hotheads, over who should speak for the Bonaparte family and the route they should take to get back into power. Joseph’s secretary, Louis Mailliard, noted in his diary on February 2, 1833:
Annoyances with the nephews Achille and Louis[-Napoleon]. These young people have strange ideas, they are of all countries depending on the circumstances. [Joseph] is reticent with them. The princess [Charlotte] suffers from all this and dares not speak to her father or to her cousins. (9)
Achille Murat returned to Florida with neither wealth nor glory. Since he had mortgaged his plantation and slaves to finance the European trip, he and Catherine were in need of funds. In 1834, his friends ensured he was appointed to a judgeship in Jefferson County. Achille embarked on a couple of wildcat business ventures. These ended poorly. In 1835, the Murats moved to Louisiana. On the basis of charm and credit, Achille purchased a house on Esplanade Avenue in New Orleans, where he practiced law. In 1837, he bought a sugar plantation near Baton Rouge. The Great Panic of that year – which ushered in a five-year economic depression – coupled with his poor business judgement, ruined him. In 1838, Achille lost his Louisiana properties and the following year he lost Lipona. He and Catherine moved to a smaller plantation they named Econchatti, in what is now Jefferson County, Florida.
The death of Caroline Bonaparte Murat on May 8, 1839, occasioned another trip to Europe. Achille and his mother had not been close – they had not bothered to see each other during his earlier trip. However, Achille hoped to inherit something. On August 1, 1839, Achille set out from New York. Fellow passenger Vincent Nolte recounted:
Murat was a good-natured, jovial fellow, who had forgotten all about his princely youth and gave promise of being enormously fat. (10)
Achille received $15,000 from his mother’s estate. This was not enough to satisfy his demands. In 1840, he and his brother Lucien visited Joseph Bonaparte’s lawyer, Joseph Hopkinson, claiming that their uncle owed them a share of the six million francs (plus interest) Napoleon had given to Joseph in 1815, as well as other family funds. They threatened to file a lawsuit, but said they preferred to settle the claim privately to avoid scandal. Hopkinson wrote to Joseph (who was in England) that he was convinced the claim had no foundation in law.
After this, Achille apparently gave himself up to drink and sloth. Prince Achille Murat died on April 15, 1847 at the age of 46. When Louis-Napoleon became the French Emperor, he gave Catherine Murat all of the claims Achille had tried in vain to recover, including the title of princess. She lived comfortably on these French funds and died on August 6, 1867. Catherine and Achille Murat are buried beside each other in the old Episcopal cemetery in Tallahassee.
You might also enjoy:
- Joseph Turquan, The Sisters of Napoleon, translated and edited by W.R.H. Trowbridge (London, 1908), p. 228.
- Théodore Iung, Lucien Bonaparte et Ses Mémoires, 1775-1840, Vol. 3 (Paris, 1883), p. 394.
- Transcription of letter from Achille Murat to Count Thibaudeau, December 12, 1824, in the Achille Murat Letters, University of Florida Digital Collections, http://ufdc.ufl.edu/UF00086427/00002. Accessed May 20, 2016.
- Auguste Levasseur, Lafayette in America in 1824 and 1825, Vol. 2 (Philadelphia, 1829), pp. 63-64.
- Alfred Jackson Hanna, A Prince in their Midst: The Adventurous Life of Achille Murat on the American Frontier (Norman, OK, 1946), p. 90.
- Ellen Call Long, “Princess Achille Murat: A Biographical Sketch,” Publications of the Florida Historical Society, Vol. 2, No. 2 (July 1909), pp. 29-30.
- A Prince in their Midst, p. 153.
- Georges Weill, “Les Lettres d’Achille Murat,” Revue Historique, Vol. 92, No. 1 (1906), p. 75.
- Peter Hicks, “Joseph Bonaparte and the ‘Réunion de famille’ of 1832-33,” La Revue,2/2010 (No. 8), p. 39.
- Vincent Nolte, Fifty Years in Both Hemispheres; or, Reminiscences of a Merchant’s Life (London, 1854), p. 436.
The tone of this young man is altogether coarse. He speaks without reflecting. It is said that his health is ruined by debauchery. He gets drunk in the bosom of the family.