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Historical Society explores scandalous legacy of Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte

FamilyMarriageWar of 1812U.S. CongressMassachusetts Legislature

The small wooden trunk is covered with red leather, painted with an ocher floral embroidery and studded with brass nails — and it couldn't have announced its owner's intention more clearly.

The 19-year-old Baltimore beauty who packed the trunk with her books and with a black lace mantilla wasn't planning to merely travel between two continents. She was determined to conquer them.

On one side of the trunk, plain and simple, is stenciled her birth name, "Elizabeth Patterson." But on the other side, not one, but two labels declare the trunk to be the property of "Madame Bonaparte, nee Patterson."

Never mind that her imperious brother-in-law, Napoleon Bonaparte, had ordered her marriage to his youngest brother annulled. As Elizabeth's father, William Patterson, might have warned the soon-to-be-crowned emperor, he had no idea who he was tangling with.

"The trunk is a symbol of Elizabeth's nomadic life between two worlds," says Alexandra Deutsch, curator of "A Woman of Two Worlds: Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte and Her Quest for an Imperial Legacy."

"She traveled back and forth between Baltimore and Europe eight times. With this trunk, it's almost like she was deliberately talking about her two identities."

The exhibit, which opens today and runs for a year at the Maryland Historical Society, doesn't merely explore Elizabeth's brief, tumultuous marriage to Jerome Bonaparte, which lasted for less than three years, from 1803 to 1806. The exhibit also covers the six decades that followed Jerome's desertion of his wife and the birth of the couple's son.

For instance, Madame Bonaparte's opponents drafted — and came within a hair's breadth of passing — a new amendment to the U.S. Constitution designed to strip her of either her citizenship or her pretensions to nobility. She invested in real estate, amassing a fortune that at her death in 1879 at the age of 94 would amount to between $10 million and $15 million in 2013 dollars. And she never for one moment stopped in her tireless efforts to secure an imperial title, first for her son and then for her grandsons.

"Elizabeth was by far one of the most fascinating women of the early 19th century," says Charlene Boyer Lewis, a history professor at Michigan's Kalamazoo College and the author of the 2012 biography, "Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte: An American Aristocrat in the Early Republic."

"Elizabeth became one of America's first celebrities at a crucial time in our nation's history," Boyer Lewis says. "She was at the center of the debate over society and culture in the new republic."

The exhibit was planned to run concurrent with War of 1812 bicentennial celebrations. The show consists of about 130 artifacts, including silver, porcelain, paintings, textiles, jewelry, manuscripts and furniture associated with Elizabeth and her descendants. Many haven't been on display in nearly 40 years.

Among them are two tiaras — one that Elizabeth wore during her marriage that was set with garnets, and a second dating from the 1820s that's adorned with seed pearls, amethysts and enamel.

The show also includes a white dress in the European style that scandalized American society with its low neckline, short sleeves and absence of stiff undergarments.

"This was the first time that a woman's figure could be seen without the armature of petticoats that were designed to keep a woman's dress away from her legs," Deutsch says. "For the first time, men could look at women in public and see their hips. They could see how they moved and where their legs separated. It seems tame by today's standards. But in the 19th century, it was considered very titillating."

The highlight of the exhibit is a portrait by American master Gilbert Stuart in which he painted the young Elizabeth's head and shoulders from three poses. In the center portrait, she faces the viewer straight on. Behind that figure's right shoulder, a second head peeps out, glancing at onlookers and appearing mildly amused. The third figure is in profile.

Interestingly, Stuart doesn't depict his subject's famously curvy figure, with its 19-inch waist and 35-inch bosom.

"She was widely considered as the most beautiful woman in America," Deutsch says.

It's not certain how Elizabeth first met the dashing Jerome Bonaparte in 1803. But once they said hello, what happened next seemed inevitable.

Both were young, headstrong, reckless and spoiled. Though Elizabeth already lived the life of a pampered princess — her father, the Irish-born merchant William Patterson, was the second-richest man in Maryland — she was chafing to leave her hometown. She considered Baltimore boring and provincial, despite its status as the third-largest city in the United States.

"She hated Baltimore," Boyer Lewis says. "She thought it was the most dull place on earth and that no one would want to live there. In France it was clear that women had a lot more to offer than just being wives and mothers. There was room for women to be witty, to be intellectual and to be authors."

The couple's romance also allowed both of them to rebel against powerful authority figures. Elizabeth's autocratic father complained that his only surviving daughter gave him more trouble than the rest of his children combined. And Napoleon, who was trying to secure his own hold on a throne, had no intention of marrying his youngest brother off to a commoner, regardless of how beautiful or rich she might be.

And if that weren't enough, Elizabeth and Jerome resembled each other so closely they could have been mistaken for brother and sister. Their marriage began to seem not merely desirable, but predestined.

"Elizabeth wrote a letter to her father," Deutsch says. "She said, 'Nature never intended me for obscurity.' "

After the couple exchanged vows on Christmas Eve 1803, Napoleon refused to allow his husband's new bride to set foot in France.

Napoleon asked the pope to annul the marriage. When the pope declined, the French ruler wrote to Thomas Jefferson and James Madison — who were then America's president and secretary of state, respectively — asking if there weren't something they could do to make this marriage go away. Jefferson also responded in the negative.

Napoleon contested the validity of the marriage and gave his younger brother an ultimatum: abandon his family and come back to France, or be left penniless and disinherited. Jerome caved and soon was married off to a German princess.

Napoleon eventually agreed to provide a $12,000 annual pension to Elizabeth for the education and upkeep of the couple's son, also named Jerome but called "Bo." But it was the rumor that the emperor planned to make her a duchess and her son a prince that really alarmed American society.

"Americans didn't know what to do with Elizabeth," Boyer Lewis says.

"We tend to forget how tenuous this republican experiment really was. We're all used to the United States being a success. But we could have failed. So a woman like her, a woman who orders a carriage with the imperial crest and flaunts her connections to the Bonapartes, made people really scared.

Moreover, Elizabeth made no secret of her disdain for republican — and even worse, democratic — forms of government. In response, Congress passed the so-called Titles of Nobility Amendment of 1810, which proposed to strip citizenship from any man or woman who received either a title or money "from any emperor, king, prince or foreign power."

Thomas Pickering, the former U.S. secretary of state, argued in favor of the amendment before the Massachusetts Legislature. According to Boyer Lewis, Pickering's notes for his speech reasoned that Elizabeth and her child were such a glamorous combination that they would "seduce Americans to these gorgeous scenes of royalty" and would cause members of the new nation to turn away from "this virtuous republic."

The amendment was sent to the states, and 12 states voted to ratify it — just one state short of the required three-quarters majority.

Elizabeth never gave up her dreams of securing a royal spouse for Bo or for his sons, Jerome and Charles. All three eventually married American women, which she counted as among the great defeats of her life.

"From an early age, Elizabeth kept a list of the princesses who she thought were eligible for Bo to marry," Deutsch says. "She really threw him at his cousin Charlotte, who was Joseph Bonaparte's daughter. Instead, he married Susan May Williams, an American railway heiress and a woman anyone would have wanted as a daughter-in-law.

"Elizabeth refused to give her consent, and said the most horrific things about that marriage. She really was the mother-in-law from hell."

A proud woman, Madame Bonaparte never stopped disparaging her homeland. She never stopped trying to leave America for good. But for reasons that remain unclear, she never succeeded

Four times, she crossed the Atlantic Ocean to Europe — at one point living abroad for several years. And four times she sailed back again.

In the last years of her life, Boyer Lewis says, she was spotted hobbling down the streets of Mount Vernon in her outmoded French fashions, personally collecting the rents she was owed on her 40 properties.

"Baltimore was still her home," Boyer Lewis says.

"She never really found a place in Europe. Her son was here and her grandsons were here. It was the place she knew best, and the place that knew her the best. Baltimore gossiped about her and denigrated her, but it also gave her status. We never stopped being captivated by her."

mary.mccauley@baltsun.com

If you go

"A Woman of Two Worlds: Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte and Her Quest for an Imperial Legacy" runs through June 9, 2014 at the Maryland Historical Society, 201 W. Monument St. $6-$9. Call 410-685-3750 or go to http://www.mdhs.org.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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