Joseph Bonaparte, older brother of Napoleon Bonaparte, ending up owning the Point Breeze estate, or Bonaparte’s Park, in New Jersey after he took refuge in America in 1815. How it happened begins several years earlier when Joseph and Napoleon were looking at a map of the United States. At the time Napoleon was supposedly thinking about his waning empire. It was then that he placed his finger on a spot in New Jersey and allegedly remarked to Joseph:
“If I am ever forced to fly to America, I shall settle somewhere between Philadelphia and New York, where I can receive the earliest intelligence from France by ships arriving at either point.”
After Napoleon fell, Joseph, under the name of Comte de Survilliers,* arrived in New York City having departed from Bordeaux at the close of the Napoleonic Wars on 25 July 1815. Some people say that he never forgot the conversation he had with his younger brother and that is what caused him to eventually search out a property in the area Napoleon had suggested. However, author Russell Roberts claims:
“A more likely reason … is that Joseph was seeking privacy. Before buying Point Breeze, he had lived in New York City and Philadelphia and had tried unsuccessfully in both places to blend into the crowd. He was after all, a fugitive from the European allies and as such a marked man; he never knew whether the next knock on his door would be that of foreign agents, ready to drag him back across the water. Perhaps it was an incident on Broadway, when in full view of hundreds of people a Frenchman dropped to his knees in front of Joseph and sobbed out his devotion to the Bonaparte family, that convinced Joseph he could not hide in a city of thousands.”
Whatever the exact reason, Joseph began searching for property and on 16 June 1816, Dr. William Burns of Bordentown met two men – Joseph Bonaparte or the Comte de Survilliers and his interpreter, James Carret – searching for property in the area. Burns took them to the Point Breeze estate. It was located near Bordentown, a small and cozy village just south of Trenton and an equidistant between New York City and Philadelphia that made it the perfect mid-resting point for weary coach and boat travelers between the two cities.
Stephen Sayre had previously owned the property. He had lived in London in an American community at the time of the outbreak of the War of Independence in 1775. He was also an associate of John Wilkes, a radical journalist and politician in London and together they planned to kidnap George III with the help of the London mob, but the plot was discovered, and Sayre was arrested on a charge of high treason. However, he paid a bail of £1000 and was released and when the government found no definitive proof, they decided to take no action and he left England in the summer of 1777. He then traveled to the U.S. where he served a diplomat. He later became a supporter of the French Revolution and even attempted to arrange American weapons for the French Army.
Just like Sayre had liked the Point Breeze property, Joseph liked it too. In fact, he paid $17,500 for it, but his Point Breeze estate was placed under the name of George Reinholdt, an American friend, because aliens were not allowed to own property in New Jersey. Point Breeze consisted of 211 acres with a house. However, in January of 1817 when the New Jersey legislature repealed the law against aliens owning property, Joseph enlarged his holdings to 1,000 acres. He also immediately set about improving his picturesque property covered with stately trees, plentiful shrubbery, and trailing vines. These improvements were described in 1890 in the first issue of the American weekly periodical The Illustrated American:
“It was here, just above where Crosswicks Creek meets the Delaware, that Joseph built his house. A tract of marsh land lying at the foot of the slope he turned, by artificial means, into a pretty lake; the forest was intersected with walks and drives; open spaces here and there were cleared away for lawns; rustic bridges were thrown over ravines; summer-houses were erected in sequestered spots; an enclosure was stocked with deer; flowers bloomed in the parterres, and rare exotics in the conservatories.”
Building his Point Breeze estate took Joseph several years. It also involved a lot of money because supposedly the palatial house cost $20,000 dollars alone to build. However, when it was finished Joseph was in the mood to celebrate and reportedly a huge party was held:
“When at last all work was finished, the king, … gave a housewarming, to which he invited all the people of Bordentown. Never had Bordentown seen such magnificence or had been received with more democratic simplicity. The king was their neighbor, and as such he received them. Short and rather stout, but very graceful, he was in appearance much like Napoleon. His two daughters, Princess Zenaide and Princess Charlotte, received with him, while two of his Marshals of France stood on either side. After the formal welcome there was dance on the lawn, the king opening the dances with one of the stately dames of the historic old town.”
Unfortunately, the house did remain standing long because days after the new year had welcomed the year 1820, on 3 January while Joseph was in Trenton on business, the house caught fire. One rumor claimed that a maid had been bribed through the Russian embassy and another rumor alleged that the fire was caused because Joseph left a fire burning when he departed. By the time Joseph learned of the blaze and rushed home it was a scorching inferno, and despite efforts by the Bordentown citizens, including the women, to save the house, it burned to the ground. Nevertheless, much of the furnishings were saved, which also included precious statues, costly paintings, and hundreds of books.
“Joseph used to the pillaging and looting that routinely occurred during European wars, was astonished when the residents returned these valuable items to him. In gratitude, he addressed a letter to them, saying that the incident showed him that ‘Americans are, without contradiction, the most happy people I have known.’”
A new mansion was then built but not upon the old site. Joseph’s new residence was formed from the stable in front of the former house and expanded. Joseph had built on the lower end of the park a house for his daughter Zenaide and her husband, her cousin Charles Bonaparte, a son of Lucien. “Both structures were a bit distant from the bluff above the Delaware River and Crosswicks Creek where his first residence stood. These new structures were near the public road.” In addition, Joseph also connected his mansion to his daughter’s home with a subterranean passage, allegedly to avoid getting wet during bad weather.
While living at the Point Breeze estate Joseph’s wife, Julie Clary, was absent. She was sister to Désirée Clary, whom Napoleon had once courted. Julie had relocated to Frankfurt, Germany, after Napoleon’s abdication. She was described as charming, quiet, and dignified and was generally well liked. She stayed in Frankfurt until about 1821 and then settled in Brussels. From there she went to Florence and stayed at the Serristori Palace. In the meantime, back at the Point Breeze estate, Joseph led a luxurious lifestyle and spent freely:
“He made the money fly during his fifteen or sixteen years’ residence at Bordentown – the elegance of his furniture and surroundings, the abundance of costly wines, the splendor of the banquets he was constantly giving to distinguished personages, his fine equipages, his magnificent collection of costly pictures and statuary, the extensive improvements he made to his lands and the large retinue of servants he always kept on hand in addition to the extensive force of laborers he had constantly employed on his grounds.
The park alone contained about one thousand acres, and, in addition to this, he had ten farms, all in the immediate neighborhood of Bordentown. He had a number of yachts and pleasure boats that always lay at anchor out on the Delaware, immediately underneath the bluff that marks the terminus of the north side of the park. Not content with his nearness to the river he had a large and beautiful lake made in the lower end of his park, where in summer there was always on hand a number of small pleasure boats. In the winter, when the lake would freeze over, he would throw his gates open and invite the young folks of Bordentown to come in and skate. When the sport would be at its height Joseph and his family would come down and amuse themselves by looking on. A favorite pastime of the ex-King on these occasions would be to roll oranges and coins down on the ice and watch the skaters scamper for them.”
Despite his Frenchness, kingly titles, and extravagant wealth, Joseph seemed to have good relations with the people of Bordentown. Many locals worked for him and found that he paid generous wages. He also regularly patronized the shops of Bordentown. Moreover, the Point Breeze estate became the welcoming site for many visitors as detailed by the St. Louis Globe-Democrat:
“Never did Bordentown have to regret the advent of the Comte de Survilliers. … Scarcely a month passed but some great man came to visit the exiled king. From across the ocean came Clausel, Lafayette, Desmonettes, Grouchy, Lallemand, and the Louis Napoleon who afterward became Napoleon III. From Washington or New York or Boston or Philadelphia came Andrew Jackson, Henry Clay, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Daniel Webster, Stephen Girard, Winfield Scott and a multitude of others. Across the threshold of Bonaparte House there passed more princes, more soldiers, more statesmen, more men of letters, perhaps, than of any other private house in America.”
Visitors to his home found the Comte de Survilliers to be affable and kind to all who wanted to visit. He also enjoyed giving tours and showing off his objets d’art that included a Rembrandt, a Rubens, a Teniers, a Carracci, and a Vernet along with statues by Canova, who had sculpted Madame Récamier, and Bartollini, who had sculpted Elisa Bonaparte. In fact, Joseph “particularly enjoyed showing his strait-laced American visitors his many nude and semi-nude female paintings and sculptures, and watching his guests’ ‘blushes and giggles.’”
A further description of what it was like to be welcomed at the Point Breeze estate was provided in Evan Morrison Woodward’s Bonaparte’s Park published in 1879:
“It was winter and the sleigh drove up to the door. Servants soon appeared with a roll of carpet to protect their feet from the snow. Entering the massive doorway, they found a a number of servants on either side of the hall. These being dress in black broadcloth, with white gloves, vests and neckties of finer material than worn by themselves, and being adorned with mustaches and long beards, then worn only by foreigners, they in their rustic simplicity at first supposed they were French Counts, but the respectful bows soon dissipated this impression. Being shown into a dressing-room a number of servants assisted in removing their great-coats &c., and soon it was announced that the Count awaited them in the drawing-room. Upon entering he advanced and received them with great cordiality and pleasure, and soon, much to the surprise of the younger members of the party, they felt perfectly at ease. After a pleasant conversation he invited them to accompany him over his house. The magnificent furniture, laces and tapestry and rare works of arts appeared to the unaccustomed eyes of the visitors in great splendor.”
Although Joseph may have been extremely welcoming, there was one thing he adamantly refused to allow at his Point Breeze estate. That was poaching. In fact, every winter morning he went out to locate any rabbit traps set by local boys in the park and when he found them, he broke them apart with his hatchet. Once a man claimed to have permission to hunt on the Point Breeze estate but when Joseph approached, he made it perfectly clear that was not the case and told his gamekeeper that “in the future allow no one to gun on these premises but M. Maillard [who was Joseph’s faithful secretary].”
Just like there had been rumors when Jean-Victor Moreau lived in the United States that he might be a secret agent for Napoleon, gossip also swirled that Joseph might be plotting a revolution to place a Bonaparte on the throne. Nevertheless, it seems Joseph’s true intention was just to enjoy his estate. Still it was hard for people to believe there was no plotting or planning on his part because he built a labyrinth of underground tunnels of arched brickwork that led to the Delaware River and there were other tunnels from Crosswicks Creek to the house, as well as the tunnel that connected him to his daughter’s house.
When the political climate changed the nephew of the Princesse de Lamballe, Louis Philippe I, became the King of the French after Charles X was overthrown during the July Revolution. It was then that Joseph felt free to travel to England without worry and he remained there five years. Of his sudden departure from the U.S. it was written:
“Bordentown, accustomed to the sight of princes, marshals and statesmen, was startled one day in 1832 to learn that the king was going away. The long expected turn in the affairs of the Bonapartes was believed to be at hand, and Joseph was en route to Europe, to helps seat Napoleon’s son, the Duc de Reichstadt, on the throne of France. But alas for the hopes of the Bonapartes! On the very day the king left Bordentown the Duc de Reichstadt died. All the hopes, all the plans of the Bonapartes were wrecked, and the bourbons were saved, for a time at least.”
In 1837 Joseph returned temporarily to the U.S. and settled his affairs. He left again in 1839 and was reunited with his wife in Italy. He died in Florence on 28 July 1844 at the age of 76. He was buried in the Les Invalides in Paris. The Point Breeze estate that had been so full of life was never the same as it died with him.
After his death, his grandson, Joseph Lucien Charles Napoleon, inherited the property and held two auctions selling the luxurious and costly furnishing before he sold the property in 1847. The Point Breeze estate eventually became the property of the British consul. Because of the dislike for Frenchmen, the house was razed, and an Italianate villa built in its place. By 1910, the St. Louis Globe-Democrat reported:
“Where once stood Bonaparte House, beautiful in its graceful lines, rich in its memories of great men long since dead and gone, an ugly, sour-looking dwelling now affronts the eye. What was once Bonaparte Park, a fairyland in which princes and princesses might be met at any turn, there is little now but evidence of neglect and decay. The rose-bordered walks are rank with weeds, the lake on which the swanboats once were numerous has dried up and gone. The swanboats have crumbled to dust, as has the belvedere, where once the sentries stood to watch the Trenton post road. A few, only a few, of the group of houses that once made up the American establishment … remain.”
Today the land is owned by the Divine Word Missionaries, which they purchased in 1941. The grounds are still stately but there is no real evidence that Joseph or any Bonaparte once lived there. There are only vestiges that include rubble from the mansion, hedges from Joseph’s gardens, and some tunnels from the labyrinth that he built. Two authors of a 2009 travel guide called Weird NJ visited the site and gave this report on the tunnels:
“Les Hartman, a Trenton-based attorney, told Weird NJ, ‘My father’s friends said that he was in them years ago. He said there was still water in them, and you could even see French handwriting on the brick walls.’ … [The authors searched and found] the walls were built of stone and mortar and appeared to be very old. The hole was located directly under where … Bonaparte’s house had once stood.”
* Joseph took the title of Survilliers from one of his estates in France.
-  The Times, “A Royal Exile,” August 3, 1880, p. 4.
-  R. Roberts, Rediscover the Hidden New Jersey (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2015), p. 32.
-  The Illustrated American v. 1 (New York: Lorillard Spencer, 1890), p. 6.
-  St. Louis Globe-Democrat, “The King Who Became America’s Greatest Gentleman Farmer,” March 20, 1910, p. 54.
-  R. Roberts. 2015, p. 34.
-  R. Lennon, “The Bordentown Story, 1941-2012,” Divine Word, http://www.divineword.org/assets/1/6/communities_of_the_word_bordentown.pdf
-  The Times, p. 4.
-  St. Louis Globe-Democrat, p. 54.
-  R. Roberts. 2015, p. 34.
-  E. M. Woodward, Bonaparte’s Park and the Murats / (MacCrellish & Quigley: Trenton, N.J., 1879), p. 82–83.
-  The Illustrated American v. 1 (New York: Lorillard Spencer, 1890), p. 6.
-  St. Louis Globe-Democrat, p. 54.
-  Ibid.
-  M. Moran and M. Sceurman, Weird N.J.: Your Travel Guide to New Jersey’s Local Legends and Best Kept Secrets (New York: Sterling, 2009), p. 59.