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The Last King of New Jersey: The Suburban Life of Napoleon’s Brother

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As Napoleon Bonaparte expanded his new French Empire and conquered much of Western Europe, he doled out the spoils of war to his friends and family, whether they wanted it or not. Napoleon’s older brother Joseph, described by historians as “idealist, mild mannered, and lacking in vigor,” had wanted to be a writer, but was instead pressured into following his father into a law career. His brother had other plans for him, and installed him first on the throne of Naples and later, Spain.

King Joseph took both positions reluctantly, and didn’t fill either very well. Almost as soon as he was crowned in Spain, a popular revolt against French rule began. Joseph suffered a string of defeats as he and French forces engaged what was left of the Spanish regular army, and he asked his brother if he could abdicate and return to Naples. Napoleon wouldn’t have it, and left Joseph to keep a tenuous grasp on his army (the generals under his command insisted on checking with Napoleon before carrying out any of Joseph's orders) and kingdom. Unable to beat back the rebels and their English allies, Joseph abdicated his throne in 1813, having ruled for just over five years.

Born to Run

After Napoleon’s defeat and forced exile, the Bonaparte name wasn’t winning Joseph any friends in Europe, so he fled to the United States under an assumed and with the crown jewels of Spain stashed in his suitcase.

He initially settled in New York City, then moved to Philadelphia, where his house at 260 South 9th Street became the center of activity for America’s French expatriate community. He eventually moved to a large estate in Bordentown, New Jersey, twenty-five miles northeast of Philadelphia along the Delaware River. It was called Point Breeze. There, Joseph Bonaparte, former King of Naples and Spain, brother of Napoleon I, Emperor of France, took the title of Comte de Survilliers (though his American neighbors and friends still called him Mr. Bonaparte and referred to his home as “Bonaparte's Park”) and went into quiet, suburban exile.

Mansion on the Hill

Bonaparte may have been dethroned, but he was still royalty. He built up the estate to reflect his social standing.

He constructed a vast mansion for himself, with a large wine cellar, floor-to-ceiling mirrors, elaborate crystal chandeliers, marble fireplaces and grand staircases. His library held the largest collection of books in the country at the time (eight thousand volumes versus the sixty-five hundred volumes of the Library of Congress).

The land surrounding the mansion was elaborately landscaped and featured ten miles of carriage paths, rare trees and plants, gazebos, gardens, fountains and an artificial lake stocked with imported European swans.

Bonaparte’s home became a social hub for both his New Jersey neighbors, who liked to spend quiet afternoons browsing his library, and American and European elites. Among the distinguished guests who came through Point Breeze were John Quincy Adams, Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, the Marquis de Lafayette, and Stephen Girard, a French banker from Philadelphia who was then the richest man in the U.S.

Since Bonaparte’s wife did not accompany him to America (he did not see her for 25 years after he left), another frequent guest at the house was his mistress, Annette Savage. Bonaparte had met Annette, the 18-year-old, French-speaking daughter of distinguished Virginia merchants, while he was shopping for suspenders at her mother's shop in Philadelphia. During their time together, Bonaparte and Annette would have two daughters, Caroline Charlotte and Pauline Josephe Anne.

Fire

In January 1820, Bonaparte’s mansion caught fire and burned to the ground. His neighbors rushed to the house and managed to save most of the silver and his priceless art collection. Contemporary newspaper reports called the blaze accidental, but according to the gossip around town, a local woman, an immigrant from Russia, set the fire as revenge for Napoleon’s invasion of her homeland.

Bonaparte was touched by his neighbors' assistance, and expressed those feelings in a letter he wrote to one of the town's magistrates:

All the furniture, statues, pictures, money, plate gold, jewels, linen, books, and in short, everything that was not consumed, has been most scrupulously delivered into the hands of the people of my house. In the night of the fire, and during the next day, there were brought to me, by laboring men, drawers, in which I have found the proper quantity of pieces of money, and medals of gold, and valuable jewels, which might have been taken with impunity.

This event has proved to me how much the inhabitants of Bordentown appreciate the interest I have always felt for them; and shows that men in general are good, when they have not been perverted in their youth by a bad education. ... Americans are, without contradiction, the most happy people I have known; still more happy if they understand well their own happiness.

I pray you not to doubt of my sincere regard.

—Joseph, Count de Survilliers

[As reprinted in Bonaparte's Park and the Murats, by Evan Morrison Woodward (1879)]

Bonaparte rebuilt his mansion and remained in New Jersey. He took ill and returned to Europe in 1839. When he died in 1844, Point Breeze passed to his grandson, who sold it and most of its contents at auction three years later. Some of the furnishings and paintings are now in the collections of the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts.

A Night With the Jersey Devil

During his years at Point Breeze, Bonaparte believed he had a run-in with one of the Garden State’s most infamous residents—the Jersey Devil.

According to the folklore of Jersey’s Pine Barrens region, the Devil was born around 1735. Mother Leeds was in labor with her thirteenth child when the burden of the dozen she already had finally made her snap. “Let it be the Devil,” she cried as she pushed the baby out. The healthy baby boy in the midwife’s arms suddenly changed before the women's eyes, growing wings, hooves, fur and a tail. The beastly baby screeched and flew out the window, making its home in the Barrens and haunting and harassing the people who lived there.

As Bonaparte recounted the story, he was hunting alone in the woods near his estate when he saw some peculiar tracks on the ground. They looked like they belonged to a horse or a donkey, but one that was walking only on its hind legs. He followed the tracks until they ended abruptly, as if the animal had jumped into the air and flown off. He stopped and stared at them.

A strange hissing noise came from behind him. He whirled around and came face to face with an animal he had never seen before. It had a long neck, wings, legs like a crane with horse’s hooves at the end, stumpy arms with paws and a face like a horse or a camel. He froze, and for a minute neither he nor the creature moved or even breathed. Then, the Devil hissed again and flew away.

Bonaparte later told his friends what happened, and they filled him in on the local legend. Until he returned to Europe, Bonaparte is said to have kept a sharp eye out for the Devil whenever he was in the woods, hoping to kill it and take the body as a trophy.

Last to Die

The Bonapartes had another American connection. Napoleon’s younger brother, Jérôme, visited the United States in 1803 and fell in love with Elisabeth Patterson, the daughter of a wealthy Baltimore merchant. They married that same year, but Napoleon did not approve and ordered his brother back to France. Jérôme went home, annulled his marriage, remarried, and became King of Westphalia. But not before consummating his marriage to Elisabeth. She was already pregnant when Jérôme left the U.S. and gave birth to another American Bonaparte.

The stateside branch of the family tree produced some notable members—including Charles Patterson Bonaparte, Secretary of the Navy under Theodore Roosevelt—but petered out a few decades ago. Jerome-Napoleon Patterson Bonaparte, great-grandnephew of Napoleon I, was walking his dog in Central Park in 1943, when he tripped over the leash, cracked his skull open on the ground and died.

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6 Eponyms Named After the Wrong Person
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Salmonella species growing on agar.

Having something named after you is the ultimate accomplishment for any inventor, mathematician, scientist, or researcher. Unfortunately, the credit for an invention or discovery does not always go to the correct person—senior colleagues sometimes snatch the glory, fakers pull the wool over people's eyes, or the fickle general public just latches onto the wrong name.

1. SALMONELLA (OR SMITHELLA?)

In 1885, while investigating common livestock diseases at the Bureau of Animal Industry in Washington, D.C., pathologist Theobald Smith first isolated the salmonella bacteria in pigs suffering from hog cholera. Smith’s research finally identified the bacteria responsible for one of the most common causes of food poisoning in humans. Unfortunately, Smith’s limelight-grabbing supervisor, Daniel E. Salmon, insisted on taking sole credit for the discovery. As a result, the bacteria was named after him. Don’t feel too sorry for Theobald Smith, though: He soon emerged from Salmon’s shadow, going on to make the important discovery that ticks could be a vector in the spread of disease, among other achievements.

2. AMERICA (OR COLUMBIANA?)

An etching of Amerigo Vespucci
Henry Guttmann/Getty Images

Florentine explorer Amerigo Vespucci (1451–1512) claimed to have made numerous voyages to the New World, the first in 1497, before Columbus. Textual evidence suggests Vespucci did take part in a number of expeditions across the Atlantic, but generally does not support the idea that he set eyes on the New World before Columbus. Nevertheless, Vespucci’s accounts of his voyages—which today read as far-fetched—were hugely popular and translated into many languages. As a result, when German cartographer Martin Waldseemüller was drawing his map of the Novus Mundi (or New World) in 1507 he marked it with the name "America" in Vespucci’s honor. He later regretted the choice, omitting the name from future maps, but it was too late, and the name stuck.

3. BLOOMERS (OR MILLERS?)

A black and white image of young women wearing bloomers
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Dress reform became a big issue in mid-19th century America, when women were restricted by long, heavy skirts that dragged in the mud and made any sort of physical activity difficult. Women’s rights activist Elizabeth Smith Miller was inspired by traditional Turkish dress to begin wearing loose trousers gathered at the ankle underneath a shorter skirt. Miller’s new outfit immediately caused a splash, with some decrying it as scandalous and others inspired to adopt the garb.

Amelia Jenks Bloomer was editor of the women’s temperance journal The Lily, and she took to copying Miller’s style of dress. She was so impressed with the new freedom it gave her that she began promoting the “reform dress” in her magazine, printing patterns so others might make their own. Bloomer sported the dress when she spoke at events and soon the press began to associate the outfit with her, dubbing it “Bloomer’s costume.” The name stuck.

4. GUILLOTINE (OR LOUISETTE?)

Execution machines had been known prior to the French Revolution, but they were refined after Paris physician and politician Dr. Joseph-Ignace Guillotin suggested they might be a more humane form of execution than the usual methods (hanging, burning alive, etc.). The first guillotine was actually designed by Dr. Antoine Louis, Secretary of the Academy of Surgery, and was known as a louisette. The quick and efficient machine was quickly adopted as the main method of execution in revolutionary France, and as the bodies piled up the public began to refer to it as la guillotine, for the man who first suggested its use. Guillotin was very distressed at the association, and when he died in 1814 his family asked the French government to change the name of the hated machine. The government refused and so the family changed their name instead to escape the dreadful association.

5. BECHDEL TEST (OR WALLACE TEST?)

Alison Bechdel
Alison Bechdel
Steve Jennings/Getty Images

The Bechdel Test is a tool to highlight gender inequality in film, television, and fiction. The idea is that in order to pass the test, the movie, show, or book in question must include at least one scene in which two women have a conversation that isn’t about a man. The test was popularized by the cartoonist Alison Bechdel in 1985 in her comic strip “Dykes to Watch Out For,” and has since become known by her name. However, Bechdel asserts that the idea originated with her friend Lisa Wallace (and was also inspired by the writer Virginia Woolf), and she would prefer for it to be known as the Bechdel-Wallace test.

6. STIGLER’S LAW OF EPONYMY (OR MERTON’S LAW?)

Influential sociologist Robert K. Merton suggested the idea of the “Matthew Effect” in a 1968 paper noting that senior colleagues who are already famous tend to get the credit for their junior colleagues’ discoveries. (Merton named his phenomenon [PDF] after the parable of talents in the Gospel of Matthew, in which wise servants invest money their master has given them.)

Merton was a well-respected academic, and when he was due to retire in 1979, a book of essays celebrating his work was proposed. One person who contributed an essay was University of Chicago professor of statistics Stephen Stigler, who had corresponded with Merton about his ideas. Stigler decided to pen an essay that celebrated and proved Merton’s theory. As a result, he took Merton’s idea and created Stigler’s Law of Eponymy, which states that “No scientific discovery is named after its original discoverer”—the joke being that Stigler himself was taking Merton’s own theory and naming it after himself. To further prove the rule, the “new” law has been adopted by the academic community, and a number of papers and articles have since been written on "Stigler’s Law."

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WWI Centennial: Battle of Mărăști

By summer 1917 the outlook for the Allies on the Eastern Front was grim at best, as Russia descended into chaos and a combined Austro-German counterattack routed demoralized troops on the Galician front following the failure of the Kerensky Offensive, while everywhere the once-great Russian Army was rapidly hollowed by mutiny and mass desertions.

Against this gloomy backdrop, late July brought a rare and unexpected bright spot on the Romanian front, where the Romanian Second Army (rested, reorganized and resupplied after the disaster of 1916) mounted a surprise offensive along with the Russian Fourth and Ninth Armies against the junction of the German Ninth Army and Austro-Hungarian First Army, and scored an impressive tactical victory at the Battle of Mărăști, from July 22 to August 1, 1917. However the larger planned offensive failed to materialize, and Romania’s isolated success couldn’t shore up the crumbling Eastern Front amid Russia’s collapse.

Map of Europe July 22 1917
Erik Sass

The Allied success at Mărăști was due to a number of factors, most notably the careful artillery preparation, which saw two days of heavy bombardment of Austro-German positions beginning on July 22, guided by aerial spotters. The Austro-German forces were also deployed on hilly terrain in the foothills of the Vrancea Mountains, meaning their trenches were discontinuous, separated in many places by rough terrain, although they tried to compensate for this with heavily fortified strongholds. Pockets of forest and sheltered gorges also allowed the Romanians to advance in between the zigzagging enemy trenches undetected; on the other hand, the hills and tree cover also made it difficult to move up artillery once the advance began (a task made even more difficult by torrential rain, the familiar companion of the First World War). 

After two days of fierce, concentrated bombardment, on July 24 at 4 a.m. the Romanians and Russian infantry went over the top, with the Romanians advancing along a 30-kilometer-long stretch of front behind a “creeping barrage” of the type recently adopted by the French and British on the Western Front. With three divisions from the Russian Fourth Army supporting them on the southern flank, 56 Romanian battalions advanced up to 19 kilometers in some places – a major breakthrough by the standards of trench warfare. Engineers followed close behind to create roads bypassing the most inaccessible terrain, but unsurprisingly it still proved difficult to move heavy guns as the new roads quickly turned to mud in the rain.

On July 25 the Romanians began to consolidate their gains, spelling the end of major offensive operations during the battle, although smaller actions continued until August 1. The decision was prompted by events elsewhere on the Eastern Front (above, Romanian civilians look at enemy guns captured during the battle). The Battle of Mărăști was supposed to be part of a larger pincer movement by Romanian and Russian forces, including an attack by the Romanian First Army and Russian Sixth Army to the southeast, which were supposed to outflank the German Ninth Army from the southeast. However the disastrous defeat of Russian forces further north in Galicia and Bukovina, widespread insubordination in the Russian Army, and political turmoil in the Russian rear all combined to derail the Allied plan, forcing them to go on the defensive.

The victory at Mărăști was not fruitless: along with an even bigger defensive victory atMărășești two weeks later, Mărăști seriously complicated the Central Powers’ strategy for the remainder of the year, which called for knocking Romania and Russia out of the war before returning to the Western Front to finish off France. 

But the big picture was bad and getting worse, as hundreds of thousands of Russian troops deserted or refused to fight, effectively paralyzing the Allied war effort along most of the Eastern Front, while in Galicia the Austro-German advance continued. Florence Farmborough, a British nurse serving with a Red Cross unit in the Russian Army, described a typical day during the Russian retreat in her diary entry on July 25, 1917 (and noted the growing hostility of ordinary Russian soldiers towards the foreign nurses, representatives of the Western Allies, whom the Russians accused of leaving them in the lurch):

And then there came again that peremptory voice we dreaded. It roused us as no other could ever do, for it was the voice of Retreat. ‘Wake up! Get up at once! No time to lose!’ We started up, seized what we could and helped the orderlies collect the equipment. We were told it was a proruiv [breakthrough] on the right flank of our Front and that the enemy was pouring through the gap. The Sister-on-duty began to weep… Troops were passing quickly by in the darkness; whole regiments were there. We were given a lantern and told to stand by the gate and await transport. Some soldiers entered the yard swearing; we hoped they would not see us. But they did, and soon they were shouting ugly things about us. I too felt like weeping, but we had to keep a straight face and pretend that we had not heard… The soldiers who had always been our patient, grateful men, seemed to have turned against us. Now for the first time we realised that our soldiers might become our enemies and were capable of doing us harm.

This was not an isolated occurrence, but rather one small incident in a rising tide of insubordination and sheer chaos. Later Farmborough noted another encounter:

More soldiers went by in the darkness. There were no officers with them, they too were deserters. Curing and shouting they made their way along the highroad. We were frightened and crouched low against the fence so that they could not see us, and we dared not speak lest they should hear… The night was very dark and the confusion great. Wheels creaked and scrunched; frightened horses slid forwards by leaps and bounds; cart grated against cart; whips twanged and swished; and agitated voices shouted and cursed in one and the same breath... All around us were fires; even in front of us buildings were blazing. My driver said that some of the soldiers thought that they were already surrounded by the enemy.

See the previous installment or all entries.

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