Greetings again, Persephoneers! Here I am again with another article about a woman who might not be so well-known as other women. But she has a connection to one of the most famous, if not one of the most covetous, families in European history. Ladies, meet Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte.
Born in 1785, Elizabeth, or Betsy, was the daughter of the second richest merchant in Baltimore, Maryland, and considered quite the beauty in her day. Jerome Bonaparte, a younger brother of the Napoleon Bonaparte and a lieutenant in the French navy, had basically gone AWOL and was visiting Baltimore when he and Betsy met at a ball and fell in love. Despite her father’s and Napoleon’s opposition, Betsy was bound and determined to marry Jerome when he proposed after a whirlwind courtship. She declared to her father “that she would rather be the wife of Jerome Bonaparte for an hour than the wife of any other man for life.”
Jerome and Betsy were married on December 24, 1803, by both the mayor of Baltimore and a Catholic bishop. Not only did the celebrity of the bride and groom turn heads, but so did the bride’s choice of a gown. Even though Elizabeth was dressed in the latest European style, it caused quite a stir in Baltimore. Jerome and Betsy settled in Baltimore and became the darlings of society, sort of like the Baltimore Will and Kate of their day. Everyone wanted to get a glimpse of the couple whenever they were out and wanted to see what newest daring fashion Betsy was wearing. Despite the newlywed couple’s nuptial bliss, though, Napoleon was furious, and he refused to regard the marriage as valid, referring to his new sister-in-law as “Miss Patterson.” He demanded that his brother return to France without Betsy, but Jerome wouldn’t. Napoleon hit a further dead end when the United States government declined to involve itself in the matter.
In 1804, though, things changed. Jerome and his pregnant young wife decided to sail for France to attend Napoleon’s coronation. Yet Napoleon refused to allow Betsy passage into continental Europe. Jerome traveled to Italy to try and reason with his brother while Elizabeth remained aboard ship in Amsterdam. Though he wrote to her that all would work out in the end, this was the last time the couple was together. Jerome eventually capitulated to Napoleon’s demands to leave Elizabeth, and Napoleon had that marriage dissolved in the French courts so that Jerome could enter into an alliance marriage with German princess Catherine of Wurttemburg and then be crowned King of Westphalia.
Meanwhile, after hearing nothing from her husband, Betsy went to England, where she gave birth to her son, Jerome Napoleon Bonaparte, in July 1805. After she learned that her husband had abandoned her and that Napoleon would never have accepted her, an “upstart American,” as a sister-in-law, Betsy returned home with her son to Baltimore. Even though her marriage was more or less over, Elizabeth still wore the name of Bonaparte as well as she did the latest European fashions. She had the Bonaparte coat of arms painted on her carriages and styled herself as Madame Bonaparte. Despite the scandal surrounding her marriage and the dissolution of it, she was still the toast of Baltimore society and attended numerous balls and other social engagements. Even though Jerome wrote to her several times entreating her to come to Europe so that he could see his son or to send the boy to him, Betsy refused. She even went so far as to seek a divorce in the Maryland state courts in 1812. Perhaps because of this, Napoleon offered her a pension so long as she stopped using the name of Bonaparte.
In 1815, after Napoleon’s final fall from power, Betsy and her son traveled to England, and later to the Continent, where they were treated as royalty and welcomed into many of the exclusive social circles. Betsy’s former sister-in-law, Napoleon’s sister, Paulina Borghese, was even friendly with her and helped to ensure her social success in Rome. Betsy adored the attention and being surrounded by those of rank and fortune, and she hoped that this would help to pave the way to a possible royal match for her son. Young Jerome ended up marrying an American heiress, though, and his mother’s hopes for him were dashed. Napoleon III did eventually allow young Jerome to use the Bonaparte name, and Jerome and his wife went on to have two sons, but no grandchildren. So after them, the American Bonaparte line ended.
Betsy herself returned to Baltimore and successfully managed her father’s estate, increasing the fortune. After a long and eventful life, she died in 1879 at the age of 94.
Betsy was a stout-hearted, ambitious young woman who knew what she wanted, and she had it for one brief moment before it was taken from her. But she didn’t allow all of it to be taken from her; instead, she allowed the sad affair of her marriage to Jerome Bonaparte to make her into a sort of celebrity when such a scandal would have made a social pariah out of another woman. “Here I am completely in my sphere and in contact with modes of life for which nature intended me,” she wrote her father during her time in Europe. And so Betsy, for all of the lemons life gave her, made plenty of lemonade and enjoyed it.