One of the difficulties that I often experience when preparing a post on a historical topic for the blog, is deciding what to leave out. Oftentimes I have far more material than I can put in a post, unless I want to transform the post into a treatise. In the case of my recent post on Joshua Barney, American naval hero of the American Revolution and the War of 1812, I had to leave out quite a bit on his life. One portion that I think might be of interest to our readers is his involvement with Jerome Bonaparte, brother to Napoleon Bonaparte.
In many ways Napoleon Bonaparte always remained a Corsican at heart. As his power increased in France and then in Europe he remembered to reward his brothers and sisters, as any good clannish Corsican would. Joseph became King of Naples and then King of Spain; Elisa, perhaps the most competent of the Bonapartes after Napoleon, became Grand Duchess of Tuscany; Louis was King of Holland; the scandalous Pauline married into the Roman nobility; Caroline was Grand Duchess of Cleves and Berg and eventually Queen of Naples after her brother Joseph became King of Spain; Lucien, the family rebel, was made Prince of Canino by Pope Pius VII in honor of Lucien’s opposition to Napoleon. Then there was Jerome Bonaparte, the subject of this post.
Jerome was known as “Fifi” by his family and friends and considered a wastrel fond only of women and drink. In 1802 Napoleon as First Consul made the 18 year old a naval captain and packed him off on a voyage to the West Indies. Jerome was supposed to sail immediately back to France, but he decided to visit America. On July 20, 1802 he stopped at Norfolk and then headed for Washington where he was received by President Jefferson and the French Consul General. The Consul General, no doubt to get Jerome out of his hair, suggested that he visit Baltimore.
Jerome knew one man in Baltimore, Joshua Barney, who had served in the French Navy and risen to the rank of Commodore. Joshua Barney and his wife thus acted as hosts for Jerome. Barney introduced Jerome to the social elite of Baltimore, among whom was merchant William Patterson, a Presbyterian and the wealthiest man in Maryland after Charles Carroll of Carollton, the Catholic signer of the Declaration of Independence. Patterson had a 17 year old daughter Elizabeth “Betsy” Patterson, attractive and vivacious, and popularly known as the “Belle of Baltimore”.
Jerome fell madly in love with Betsy. Betsy realized that Jerome was a rather shallow man, but, as she confessed later, she regarded Baltimore society as stifling and would have married the Devil to get a ticket out. The French consul general was aghast and warned Jerome that since he was underage he could not marry without his elder brother’s permission. Barney, hoping to break up what he regarded as a doomed romance, took Jerome on a tour of Pennsylvania and Maryland. Barney advised both Jerome and Betsy that any marriage between them was unwise, especially if Napoleon’s consent was not first obtained.
Like many young lovers, Jerome and Betsy ignored wise counsel. They were married on Christmas eve 1803, with Bishop John Carroll, the first bishop in the United States and the future first Archbishop of the United States, wedding them. Joshua Barney, having failed to dissuade the young couple, signed as a witness to the marriage.
After the coronation of Napoleon as Emperor in 1804, Jerome and a pregnant Betsy sailed to France. Napoleon forbade Betsy to set foot in Continental Europe and a weak-willed Jerome complied. Napoleon arranged the annulment of the marriage of Jerome and Betsy on March 11, 1805. Napoleon paid Betsy a pension of 60,000 francs a year.
Jerome went on to marry Catherine of Wurttemberg and was eventually made King of Westphalia by his brother. Betsy went back to Maryland to raise her son and scandalize society by the skimpy French dresses she wore. In 1815 the state of Maryland granted her a divorce from Jerome. She lived till 1879 and turned out to be a shrewd businesswoman, leaving an estate worth $1,500,000.00. Ironically her brother’s widow, Marianne (Caton) Patterson, married the elder brother of the Duke of Wellington. Her son, Prince Jerome Napoleon Bonaparte (called “Bo” by his mom), had two sons, one of whom, Charles Joseph Bonaparte, served as Secretary of the Navy and Attorney General in the administration of Teddy Roosevelt, and the other of whom, Jerome Napoleon Bonaparte II, graduated from West Point, and joined the French army after his first cousin one removed, Louis Napoleon Bonaparte, ruled France as Emperor Napoleon III. Jerome served in all the wars of the Second Empire, rising to the rank of Colonel. He returned to America after Napoleon III was deposed in the wake of the Franco-Prussian war.