Today we will meet Betsy Patterson, who may have lived in another era, but was a unique and complicated mix of a thoroughly modern, independent woman who valued everything old fashioned and traditional. Neither heroine, victim or villain this is Betsy’s story:
In the early 19th century, Betsy Patterson’s father was one of the wealthiest men in America. Beginning with nothing he lived the “American dream” slowly climbing his way up the ladder until he was rich off real estate, shipbuilding and trade. At the time Baltimore, Maryland, where the Pattersons lived, was the third largest city in America and Betsy’s father William Patterson ran in the highest social circles.
In her teens, Betsy gained a reputation for being pretty, wearing scandalous European fashion and her intense hatred and boredom with Baltimore. Only Europe could satisfy her.
“I would have married the devil to get out of Baltimore,” she wrote. Instead she settled for the next best thing: a newly arrived stranger named Jérôme Bonaparte…Napoleon’s little brother, who as it happened would indeed prove himself a little devil in the end.
Jérôme’s reputation marked him as handsome but also as foolish and irresponsible. As Napoleon placed many of his brothers on the thrones he conquered, he worried about handing his teen brother any control or even a title. Instead he sent him to the Navy hoping it would mature Jérôme.
When war broke out in the Caribbean where Jérôme was stationed, he quickly fled to the U.S. to avoid capture from the British. He used his time in America to spend lavishly, socialize at balls, and attempt to “see the most beautiful women in America” as if it was a game. It was on this extended American tour that Jérôme met 18-year old Betsy.
They couple married hastily on Christmas Eve of 1803 against her father’s wishes and also keeping it a secret from Jérôme’s brother Napoleon, who would surely be furious. Jérôme wore a purple satin suit with diamond buckles. Betsy, always more in tune with Europe’s trends than America’s, wore a gossamer gown from Jérôme that was so sheer and small a shocked witness said they could have stuffed it into their pocket as a handkerchief. “Nature never intended me for obscurity,” she wrote to her father.
Jérôme was only 19 at the time of their marriage but had lied to up his age to 21, the age of consent to marry without a parent’s permission in the U.S. Napoleon would later seize on this little lie to regain control of his brother’s life.
After the pair’s honeymoon, the newlyweds sailed for Europe. By this point, Napoleon had heard of their marriage and ordered his brother home without his wife. Jérôme ignored the order and the two set out to return to France in time for Napoleon’s coronation. Betsy anxiously awaited meeting the Bonaparte clan and joining the European social elite. But as they departed America from Philadelphia a strong wind sent them towards Lewes, Delaware and the Delaware Bay instead.
While Betsy may have hated Baltimore, a bustling city most would have been pleased with, you can imagine what she thought of Lewes. The quiet town by the water had only a few hundred citizens in mostly modest homes which lined muddy streets. She demanded to be taken to shore anyway.
One record of the visit noted that the small boat carrying Betsy capsized and Betsy had to be pulled from the cold water. Nearly drowning in freezing water would have done nothing for Betsy’s mood.
Having thoroughly insulted and shocked everyone during their visit by acting like a king and queen, Betsy and Jérôme returned to their ship and sailed for Europe. Rather than the grand reception Betsy had hoped for, Napoleon ordered the ports of Europe closed to her. He did not even relent when he learned that by this time Betsy had fallen pregnant. An advantageous marriage arranged by him for his younger brother would be the only satisfactory end to this story.
Betsy finally found a place to land in England while Jérôme went to reason to his brother. He sent a few letters but he would never see his wife again except for many years later in passing. Given the choice of being stripped of his titles and left penniless, Jérôme left Betsy behind and followed his brother’s orders, agreeing to a divorce from Betsy and marrying a German princess. Meanwhile, Betsy gave birth to their son and held onto the Napoleon name with a fierce determination.
Now a divorced single mother, Betsy returned to America with her son Jerome Napoleon Bonaparte. She spent the rest of her life capitalizing on her royal connection in social circles and trying to obtain the royal title she had almost held.
Many men fell at her feet but she refused to give up the last name Bonaparte. She continued to visit France, once Napoleon was deposed of course, hopping back and forth between Europe and America, but never able to stay in the country she idealized.
Despite being left only a pittance by her father, whose opposition to the marriage and her life led him to disinheriting her, she turned her annuity from Napoleon into a fortune, becoming one of the city’s wealthiest female landowners. A successful divorced, single mother, businesswoman at this time was largely unheard of but Betsy continued to admire only old traditions: marriage, parties, high society, etc.
Her grandchildren became the focus of her failed royal aspirations after her son disappointed her by marrying an American, but none of them would quite ascend to the heights she hoped. Jerome II, served as an officer in the United States and French armies. Charles, became the U.S. Attorney General and Secretary of the Navy in president Theodore Roosevelt’s administration. While in office he founded the Bureau of Investigation which eventually grew into the F.B.I. under J. Edgar Hoover.
Betsy never remarried and lived until she was 94-years old.
p.s. I highly recommend the book “Wondrous Beauty” by Carol Berkin for a more detailed look at this scandalous pair.