Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte was an American socialite who married Jerome Bonaparte, Napoleon Bonaparte’s youngest brother, on 24 December 1803. Elizabeth, who was often referred to as Betsy, was the daughter of Dorcas Spear and William Patterson, who had been born in Ireland in 1752 and who had immigrated from Donegal to North America before the American Revolutionary War.
Elizabeth’s father got his start being a gun-runner during the Revolution and then went on to become the founder of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. He ultimately developed many other lucrative business dealings involving shipping, banking, and the Baltimore Water Company. These money-making dealings eventually made him the second wealthiest man in Maryland, with Charles Carroll of Carrollton, a Maryland planter, being named the first. Because of Patterson’s wealth, his daughter Elizabeth and her two brothers, Robert and Edward, enjoyed a fine life.
Jerome Bonaparte was also relishing a fine life that supposedly became even better when he landed in America. He was popular with Americans and received with gusto and distinction based on the success of his older brother Napoleon. By autumn of 1803, Jerome found himself in Baltimore. There he claimed that the elite were contending with one another for the privilege of entertaining him.
An extract from a letter dated 20 August 1803 from Baltimore was published in the Aberdeen Journal, and General Advertiser for the North of Scotland. It gives a slightly different version of what was happening with the young Frenchman:
“Bonaparte’s brother Jerome is now here, living in high style; he has engaged seven rooms in the first inn in town for himself and suite, dashes about in an English curricle, and has ordered a public ball to be given on his account monthly.”
Whether Jerome ordered a monthly ball in his honor or not is not as important as the fact that several events were given in his honor. One of the most elegant and hospitable affairs that happened occurred at the home of Samuel Chase, one of the Maryland signers of the Declaration of Independence. It was there that Jerome was introduced to 17-year-old Elizabeth, a reigning belle among Baltimore society whom he had spotted sometime earlier at a horse race.
Their meeting was fateful as the two fell almost immediately in love and decided to marry. This in turn sparked various rumors being published in newspapers:
“A letter dated Philadelphia, November 5, to a merchant in Liverpool, says, – ‘Jerome Bonaparte has married Miss Patterson, daughter of Mr. W. Patterson, of Baltimore; he has vested 80,000 dollars in the Bank of Baltimore, and reports says, his brother allows him 1000 dollars per week.’
The following article, however, of a later date, gives a different account of this affair:
PHILADLEPHIA, Nov 12, 1803. – Jerome Bonaparte, whom the Foreign Journals have disposed of in various ways, has been a constant resident here ever since his first arrival. Having long been the gallant of the first rate beauty, Miss Patterson, she consented a few days since, to bestow her hand upon her Gaelic admirer, and a license was issued in due form for the solemnization of their nuptials; but the morning on which the ceremony was to take place, the French Minister went in person to the presiding Civilian, and in the name of the First Consul, his master, forbid the union; in consequence, the license was revoked, and the lovers are left to their great mortification, with little hope of Hymeneal redress!”
A third version published 15 November 1803 was completely different:
“A late letter from Baltimore says, ‘On the 3rd November, the nuptials of JEROME BONAPARTE and Miss ELIZA PATTARSON, of this city are to be celebrated. Jerome … is fourth Brother to the First Consul of the French Republic, the Lady the daughter of Mr. Williams Patterson, an eminent merchant of this city. The Corsican is to settle sixty thousand dollars on our fair and beautiful American.’”
Although there was some thread of truth to all the published rumors, Jerome and Elizabeth’s marriage did not occur in November but rather on Christmas Eve, 24 December 1803. The marriage contract was drawn up by Alexander J. Dallas, and the wedding witnessed by prominent citizens with the Mayor of Baltimore performing the civil ceremony and the religious one sealed by Reverend John Carroll, a Baltimore Bishop and later Archbishop and Primate of the American Catholic Church. Afterwards, the newlyweds honeymooned by making an extended tour of the Northern and Eastern states.
Barely had the newlyweds set off on their honeymoon before more rumors surfaced. The rumors were about Napoleon’s unhappiness with Jerome for marrying an American woman. Napoleon had other plans for his brother that included marrying a princess:
“Napoleon was furious when he heard of Jerome’s marriage; he immediately directed that his allowance should be stopped and that he should return to France by the first frigate; otherwise he would be regarded as a deserter. At the same time, Jerome was forbidden to bring his wife to France, and all the captains of French vessels were prohibited from receiving on board ‘the young person to whom he had attached himself,’ it being the intention of the First Consul that she should not on any pretext whatever, be permitted to enter France, and if she succeed in so doing, she was to be sent back to the United States without delay.”
Although Napoleon had ordered Jerome to come home alone, he did not follow his brother’s orders. Instead he set sail with his now pregnant wife, but as Napoleon had refused to let Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte set foot on French soil, she was forced to sail for England. There she gave birth to a son, Jerome Napoleon Bonaparte, nicknamed Bo, on 5 July 1805 at 95 Camberwell Grove in London. After Jerome’s return to France, it resulted in the Carlisle Journal reporting:
“A reconciliation has taken place between Jerome Bonaparte and his brother Napoleon. The beautiful wife of the former, and her lovely child, are still at Camberwell.”
Although a reconciliation between the brothers had occurred, Napoleon told his brother he would face ruin if he did not give Elizabeth up. Therefore, about two months after the birth of her son, she and the baby embarked for the United States without Jerome. They arrived in Baltimore after a four-week journey, and, for a time, Jerome continued to write referring to her as “ma chère” and promising never to abandon her, such as in the following letter dated 4 October 1805:
“My dear and well-beloved wife, life is nothing to me without thee and my son. Be tranquil, thy husband will not abandon thee.”
Jerome’s determination soon faded. Finding he had little choice, it was not long before he acquiesced to his brother’s demands and consented to a divorce. This meant that Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte, whom Napoleon referred to as “Miss Patterson,” would never see her husband again except for a few moments many years later. Napoleon also worked to have an ecclesiastical court nullify the marriage. After considerable delay and an internal struggle, Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte was officially declared divorced from Jerome twelve years later by a special decree and an act of the state legislature of the General Assembly of Maryland in 1815.
Although Elizabeth returned to America, she always thought American society was boring. She viewed the European lifestyle as glamorous, elegant, and sophisticated. She also thought American men were “too preoccupied with moneymaking to appreciate wit and good conversation, too democratic in their values to acknowledge the superiority of birth and breeding. Most of all, she condemned a gender ideal that demanded a woman’s devotion to her husband and family, that confined her world to the parlor and the nursery, and that denied her the public space enjoyed by the women of the French salons.”
In America, Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte soon had a slew of interested suitors. She also discovered that after her mother’s death in 1814, her father expected her to fulfill her role, which meant acting as hostess, remaining at home, and taking care of her son Bo. In the nineteenth century women regularly followed the wishes of their husbands, fathers, or brothers. It was expected. What was not expected was for Elizabeth to leave Bo in the care of someone else and set off for Europe, but she was no ordinary nineteenth-century woman.
Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte did something unexpected. She left Bo, her father, and her numerous suitors behind and traveled to Europe alone arriving in Liverpool on 26 July 1815 at the age of thirty. She had been well prepared for her trip and had obtained letters of introduction from people like Thomas Jefferson. Her uncle, Samuel Smith, also gave her a letter of introduction that helped her meet the American hero, Marquis de Lafayette. Even one of the fathers of one of her failed suitors wrote to his brother, asking that he assist Elizabeth in any way she might require.
Elizabeth’s father was unhappy with the idea that she had left America. He considered her unstable and unbalanced. He simply could not understand her disobeying his wishes and couldn’t comprehend her desire to travel to Europe alone. Moreover, he could not fathom why public life held such an attraction for her. After her departure to England he wrote her a letter dated 16 November 1815 expressing his feelings:
“Owing to the unsettled state of your mind – rather with a view to form an excuse for going to Europe … you certainly embarked contrary to the advice and wishes of your best friends, for you cannot suppose your situation and conduct can be a matter of indifference to them who have very much disapproved of the mode you took to revisit Europe a second time.
I cannot say I am satisfied with the attentions you seem to receive from great people in England; they cannot be lasting; they must arise chiefly from curiosity and compassion. Your regret and disappointment hereafter will be in proportion to the elevated notions you may entertain at present from those attentions.
You say you are prudent and wise; God grant it may be so, for surely nothing would give more pleasure. I must, however, say that your ideas of wisdom do not accord with mine. People must look at home for real substantial happiness, for it is impossible to find it for any length of time elsewhere … I hope you will soon be tired and satisfied with Europe, so as to induce you to return, convinced like myself that this is the most proper place for you to reside.”
Despite her father’s cruel letter and harsh characterization, Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte found England wonderful and life changing. She also discovered that she had as many admirers in Europe as she did in Baltimore. Yet, the idea of a husband was not her liking. She had learned her lesson and would never remarry because she liked her freedom and didn’t want to be ruled by a man.
She also had more sights to see than just London. So, in 1815, after Wellington’s win at the Battle of Waterloo and Napoleon’s imprisonment on St. Helena, she set off for Paris:
“Betsy knew that her beauty and her tragic past had opened many doors wide for her, and she wrote home about her social success in great detail … recount[ing] to her cousin John Spear Smith that ‘for some weeks I have been immersed in Balls, Soirees, Dinners which have not left me a single moment.’ Yet she was also proud that her popularity did not rest alone on her lovely face or her sad history. For Paris was a city with a vibrant intellectual tradition, and it was Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte’s wit and brilliance that brought her many of her most cherished invitations.”
Elizabeth returned to Baltimore in the summer of 1816 and remained there until May of 1819. She then sailed off to Europe again but this time she had her 13-year-old son in tow. After a seven-week voyage she and Bo landed in Amsterdam on 25 June. They eventually ended up in Geneva and traveled to Rome, but Bo never appreciated Europe the same way his mother did and in fact he once stated:
“Since I have been in Europe I have dined with princes and princesses and all the great people in Europe, but I have not found a dish as much to my taste as the roast beef and beef-steaks I ate in South Street (at the house of his grandfather). … I never had any idea of spending my life on the continent; on the contrary, as soon as my education is finished, which will not take me more than two years longer, I shall hasten over to America, which I have regretted ever since I left it.”
During the winter of 1821-1822 Elizabeth and Bo went to Rome where he met his Bonaparte relatives. It was supposedly sometime during this visit that Elizabeth saw her ex-husband for the first and last time since their separation in 1805. They unexpectedly met each other in a gallery at the Pitti Palace. At the time Jerome was accompanied by his second wife, Catharina of Württemberg. Neither Elizabeth nor Jerome spoke to the other, but he did whisper to his wife that Elizabeth was his “American wife.”
Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte would travel all over Europe and make many contacts. She would also become acquainted with not only minor nobility but also Polish and Russian refugees and the prominent French artist Francois Pascal Gerard, the famous salonist Madame de Staël, and enjoy a standing invitation to attend Juliette Récamier‘s salon. In addition, she was friendly with the admirer of both Madame de Staël and Madame Récamier, Benjamin Constant. In addition, among the many people that Elizabeth befriend and corresponded with were Reine Philiberte Rouph de Varicourt (Voltaire’s adopted daughter whom he married off to the Marquis de Villette), Lady Sydney Morgan (the Irish novelist), Teresa Guiccioli (married lover of Lord Byron), the widow of the famous scientist Antoine-Laurent de Lavoisier, and Frances Villiers (Countess of Jersey and the notorious mistress of George IV).
During these times, tension remained between Elizabeth and her father. He was worried and concerned about her constant gallivanting off to Europe and her refusal to stay in Baltimore. Despite his unhappiness when he died on 7 July 1835, he noted in his will:
“The conduct of my daughter Betsey … has through life been so disobedient that in no instance has she ever consulted my opinion 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 expenses that, first and last, has cost me much money. Under such circumstances, it would not be reasonable, just, and proper that she should at my death inherit and participate in an equal proportion with my other children in an equal division of my estate. Considering, however, the weakness of human nature, and that she is still my daughter, it is my will and pleasure to provide for her.”
Although her father may have provided for her, when Jerome died on 24 June 1860, he never mentioned a word of his first marriage or his son Bo. Moreover, he left nothing to Bo or Elizabeth. The slight made Elizabeth feel as if she and her son had simply been erased and she felt thoroughly entitled to receive something from his estate. Therefore, she appealed through a French court for her proper share and hired Pierre-Antoine Berryer as her French advocate. At court:
“He told the story of the romantic marriage of the beautiful Baltimore girl to the brother of Napoleon: Miss Patterson was young; she was in the enjoyment of every advantage, when, under the guidance of her father in the fulfillment of every legal requirement of her country, she bound her life to that of the brother of the First consul. A little time passed and Miss Patterson found herself abandoned and repudiated. The hand which her husband had solemnly pledged to her was to be given to another. That husband was now dead. For fifty-five years she had been sustained by her brave maternal love and the noble pride of a life without a stain.”
Despite Berryer’s position and the justice of her cause, she did not win. When the verdict came down on 15 February 1861 it was noted that “admission of the rights of the Baltimore Bonapartes to membership of the imperial family would have complicated the rights of succession; hence, while they were admitted to be legitimate, they were denied all claims to imperial rank.” Nonetheless, despite the loss, she won the sympathy of Europe at large.
The remainder of Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte’s life proved to be one of obscure retirement. She lived a quiet life in a boarding house remembering her early life and reminiscing about her youth. She also recalled her romantic marriage to Jerome and her exciting European experiences. During this time of retirement, on 17 June 1870, her only son Bo died in Baltimore from throat cancer. She mourned his death but lived for another nine years with the last two years of her life being one of physical suffering: She had digestive distress and lived almost exclusively on brandy and milk.
Still despite the pain, Elizabeth soldiered on. Part of the reason she did was her two grandsons, Jerome Napoleon Bonaparte II and Charles Joseph Bonaparte. They remained a bright spot in her life: The older grandson served in the United States Army and later the French Army and the younger grandson, Charles, became Theodore Roosevelt’s Secretary of the Navy in 1905 and then U.S. Attorney General in 1906.
As to Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte, she died midday on 4 April 1879 two months after turning 94. Her funeral took place at her daughter-in-law’s and was a low-key affair attended only by immediate family and a couple of close friends. She was buried at Greenmount Cemetery in Baltimore where she had purchased a small lot where she could be alone. The epitaph on her tomb reads: “After life’s fitful fever she sleeps well.”
-  Aberdeen Journal, and General Advertiser for the North of Scotland, “Foreign Intelligence,” November 2, 1803, p. 2.
-  The Morning Chronicle, December 15, 1803, p. 3.
-  Windsor Federal Gazette, November 15, 1803, p. 3.
-  The Century v. 10 (New York: Century Company, 1875), p. 2.
-  Carlisle Journal, August 3, 1805, p. 4
-  Scribners Monthly v. 10 (New York: Scribner & Company, 1875), p. 4.
-  C. Berkin, Wondrous Beauty: The Life and Adventures of Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte (New York: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2014), p. xi.
-  E. L. Didier, The Life and Letters of Madame Bonaparte (New York: C. Scribner’s sons, 1879), p. 46–47.
-  C. Berkin. 2014, p. 94–95.
-  E. L. Didier. 1879, p. 74.
-  W. White, Notes and Queries (London: Oxford University Press, 1882), p. 202.
-  E. L. Didier. 1879, p. 259.
-  E. L. Didier. 1879, p. 260.