Caveat Reader (of Secondary Sources)

We’ve probably all done it: you turn in a term paper or a report, and someone (your teacher, your boss) points out that you’ve made a mistake somewhere. So maybe you get a B on the paper instead of an A, or you send out a correction warning anyone who might rely on the misinformation in the report. No biggie, usually—these things happen.

But what if you’re, say, a historian, and you make that mistake in a published work? Maybe even a text that’s going to be relied on by untold numbers of other academics, researchers, and students? That’s a little trickier.

For the most part, of course, secondary historical sources are pretty reliable. Scholarly articles and books published by academic presses not only get edited, they’re vetted through what appears to a pretty rigorous peer review process. Nevertheless, once in a while mistakes get made.

Occasionally there’s a real whopper—like the claim in a Virginia public school textbook a couple of years ago that thousands of black soldiers fought on the Confederate side in the Civil War, information apparently gleaned from websites operated by pro-Confederacy fringe groups. More often, though, it’s some seemingly plausible factoid that’s only tangentially related to the main subject of the book—something that falls through the cracks because it’s not that important, at least to the author.

But one person’s factoid can become another person’s prime object of interest—at which point that little mistake can take on larger proportions. And most people who have worked extensively with primary sources have had the unnerving experience of reading something in a secondary source that they know to be inaccurate or untrue. Sometimes you have the even more unnerving experience of seeing the same mistake repeated in several other books that have relied, understandably, on the first one.

Having spent a lot of time digging into the lives of obscure historical figures, I’ve had that experience myself, more than once. Most recently it’s happened in connection with the research I’ve been doing on Eliza Anderson, who founded and edited a magazine in Baltimore in 1807 called The Observer.

Anderson (who later became Eliza Anderson Godefroy, after her marriage to a French architect) was a friend of a somewhat less obscure historical figure named Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte, a Baltimore heiress who married the youngest brother of Napoleon and became, in her time, a woman of great renown. In the late 19th and early 20th century she was the subject of many newspaper and magazine articles, biographies of dubious accuracy, and two Hollywood movies that leapt far into the realm of fiction.

There followed a long period where no one paid much attention to her. But in the past two years there’s been a little flurry of interest in “Betsy,” as she’s known familiarly to aficionados, culminating in the publication of the first scholarly work on the subject: Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte: An American Aristocrat in the Early Republic, by Charlene M. Boyer Lewis.

About three years ago, when I was researching Anderson’s life for a historical novel (which I’m still working on), I came across an article by Professor Boyer Lewis about Betsy Bonaparte and wrote to her to suggest that she, or some other academic, write an article about Anderson, who in some ways seems to me a more interesting figure. I ended up writing that article myself, with Boyer Lewis’s encouragement. And when it was published in the Summer 2010 issue of Maryland Historical Magazine—just a short while before Boyer Lewis finished writing her book on Betsy—I sent the article to Boyer Lewis at her request.

Let me first say that Boyer Lewis has done a valuable service by clarifying and setting in context the facts of Betsy Bonaparte’s life, especially given the daunting amount of raw material she had to sift through (there are twenty boxes of Betsy’s correspondence at the Maryland Historical Society alone). Although the book probably won’t win any awards for its prose style, I found much of what she had to say about Betsy and her place in the early republic of great interest, and I’m sure other researchers will as well.

However … I was dismayed to see Eliza Anderson described, on p. 179, as someone who “wrote and edited a Baltimore ladies’ magazine in the early 1800s, perhaps the first woman in the United States to do so” (emphasis added), with my article cited in a footnote. Yes, I was pleased to see in print—for the first time, aside from my article—the acknowledgment that Anderson was the first woman to edit a magazine in the United States (albeit with the qualifier “perhaps”). And it was nice to have my article cited. But The Observer was not “a ladies’ magazine.”

This is actually a significant point, and it’s one I took great pains to emphasize in my article. Virtually all the female editors of the 19th century (all of whom came after Anderson) were editors of ladies’ magazines, sometimes even styling themselves “editresses.” Yes, they were undertaking a job hitherto performed by men. But by speaking only to other women about matters of ostensible interest only to women, they were carving out a safe harbor for themselves.

Anderson, on the other hand, was editing a general interest magazine—a “literary miscellany,” in the parlance of the day. She and her contributors addressed themselves to anything and everything, including traditionally “male” subjects like history, philosophy, and science. Anderson might have had an easier time of it had she edited a ladies’ magazine. She came in for a fair amount of abuse, some of which almost certainly had to do with the fact that she was a woman presuming to tell men, among others, what they should think and how they should act. It was a bold thing to do at the time, and describing her as the editor of a ladies’ magazine really isn’t giving her fair credit.

That wasn’t the only mistake I found in the book. At another point, Boyer Lewis refers to The Observer as “a gentleman’s magazine,” apparently not realizing it’s the same publication she describes elsewhere as “a ladies’ magazine.” And she quotes a letter written by Anderson to Betsy Bonaparte without appearing to realize it was written by Anderson, even though the footnote identifies her as the author. The quotation praises the United States in extravagant terms (“We have no scandal … nor ill nature, no envy hatred or malice”)—terms that are, to anyone who knows anything about Anderson, clearly dripping with sarcasm. Further down on the same page, Boyer Lewis includes a second quotation, from another letter Anderson wrote, denouncing “Love of Country” as nothing more than “a fashionable cant.” Nevertheless, Boyer Lewis takes the first quotation as though it were meant seriously and attributes it to a nameless “woman on the periphery” who valued America’s “republican simplicity” over Europe’s “aristocratic luxury.”

So, what to do when one comes across what one knows is a mistake in a published text? Well, unless the text is a “wiki”—a format that has yet to be embraced by academic presses, probably with good reason—there are basically only two possibilities. You can write your own book and correct the record—as, ironically, Boyer Lewis herself has done vis-à-vis Betsy Bonaparte, a figure with whom many other writers have had their way. (In a footnote, Boyer Lewis cites one of the more egregious examples: a historian who described her as a “prostitute,” when in fact she was the daughter of one of the country’s wealthiest men.)

You can also write to the author and diplomatically point out the mistake. Not that they’ll recall the book, of course, but you’d think they might want to know. I brought the “ladies’ magazine” error to Boyer Lewis’s attention over a month ago and have yet to receive a reply.

On the other hand, consider this: A couple of years ago, I picked up the then newly published Empire of Liberty, a magisterial and altogether wonderful survey of American history between 1789 and 1815 by the dean of American historians of the era, Gordon Wood. I was at first delighted, and then a little disappointed, to find a couple of pages discussing Eliza Anderson. Wood described Anderson as “a female editor,” but didn’t pause to consider how unusual it was for an editor at the time to be female—let alone that she might have been the first female magazine editor in the country. So I wrote to him and enclosed a copy of my article. Within days, I got the following reply via email:

“Thanks for sending me the journal with your splendid article. I wish I had had your article when I wrote the book. You’re quite right about the novelty of a female editor and I should have made more of it.”

It doesn’t quite correct the record. But at least it acknowledges, quite graciously, that the record should be corrected.

A quick addendum: This morning (October 3), I heard a story on NPR’s Morning Edition detailing the struggle of a historian to correct what he believes is a mistake in virtually all secondary accounts of the 1886 Haymarket Square riot in Chicago, based on his reading of primary sources (the trial transcripts). Apparently Wikipedia has a policy that requires a secondary source for an assertion, and wouldn’t accept his attempt to change their entry on the Haymarket riot based on a primary source.


Celebutantes of the 19th Century

I recently went to a fascinating lecture about the Caton sisters.

Who, I hear you ask? Is that like the Kardashian sisters? Well, yes, kind of.

The Caton sisters were beautiful and wealthy, and basically famous for being famous. They were, if you will, the celebutantes of their time. But–given that their time was the early 19th century–they were way more discreet. And their parents–unlike the parents of Kim, Kourtney, and Khloe–weren’t into alliteration. The Caton girls were named, rather boringly, Mary Ann, Elizabeth (or Betsey), and Louisa. (There was also a fourth one–Emily–but she never made it as a celebutante.)

Before I went to the lecture, almost everything I knew about the Caton sisters was filtered through the letters of the two women I’ve been researching for the past few years, Betsy Patterson Bonaparte and Eliza Anderson Godefroy. All five women grew up in the same elite social circle in late 18th- and early 19th-century Baltimore.

I knew enough to discount much of what Betsy Bonaparte said. Not only did she have a phenomenally venomous tongue, but she clearly saw the Caton girls as her rivals for the title of Belle of Baltimore. Beautiful and wealthy herself, Betsy was the first Baltimore girl to snare a royal title–well, sort of. She married Napoleon’s youngest brother in 1803, but her hopes of someday rising to the throne herself (or at least some kind of throne–I imagine a principality would have sufficed) were dashed by Napoleon’s vehement opposition to the marriage, which he had annulled. Imagine Betsy’s anguish when all three of the Caton sisters ended up with titles after marrying into the British aristocracy (including one, Mary Ann, whose first husband had been Betsy’s own brother).

But Betsy’s animosity toward the Catons started even before their famous 1816 trip to England, during which the sisters were feted as “the three Graces.” Shortly before their departure, Betsy was scolded by her friend Eliza Anderson Godefroy for badmouthing Betsey Caton at a New York boarding-house. After swearing Betsy B. to the strictest confidence (for Betsey C. had “charged me not to tell it to you”), Eliza reported the gossip retailed by two gentlemen in New York who were Betsy C.’s “devoted lovers.” According to them, Eliza told Betsy B., “at a public dinner at the Boarding House you abused her in the blackest & most infamous manner, & that they made it a point to tell her to put her on her Guard against you_ I told her I did not believe a word of it & that they must be dirty Fellows indeed who would take such a business upon their hands.”

Eliza pleaded with Betsy B. “not to open her lips” about Betsey C. in the future (so, despite her protestations, she obviously DID believe the report). Perhaps Betsy B. grew more discreet, but her hatred of the sisters continued to burn with a hard, gem-like flame. In her later years, Betsy B. apparently spent many hours going through her voluminous correspondence and annotating it, just for fun. In 1867–fifty years after Eliza wrote her that letter about the New York boarding house–she wrote on the bottom, “From Mrs. Anderson Godefroy about my old Enemies the Catons who hated & injured me in Europe in 1816 & were, out of the Patterson father & sons Robert John Joseph & Edward, the most pernicious foes of my life.” (The Patterson men referred to were Betsy’s own father and brothers, so you get some sense here of what her relationship with her own family was like. But that’s another story.)

I trusted Eliza’s observations a bit more, but she was ambiguous on the subject of the Catons, especially Betsey. In that 1816 letter to Betsy B., Eliza seems to be endorsing her friend’s own dim view of the Caton girl: “No matter what she may be,” she tells Betsy B., “you cannot but injure yourself by speaking of her. .. she will always make herself appear the unresisting victim to your unmerited dislike.”

But maybe Eliza was only saying what she knew Betsy B. would want to hear. Many years later–when Betsey Caton finally snared a titled husband at the age of 45–Eliza reminisced about her with considerably more warmth. “Betsey Caton had more heart and more head than all the rest of the family put together,” she told a correspondent on hearing of the marriage. Not exactly a ringing endorsement of the rest of the clan, but still pretty favorable to Betsey.

Right after she says that, though, Eliza goes on to say: “… but nothing so wastes the heart, so deteriorates all elevation of mind, as the system of coquetry she and her sisters were taught to practice almost from their cradles. It has however succeeded perfectly well with them, for the end of life is to obtain the object of our Soul’s ambition, and rank and title was theirs.”

The lecture I went to–which was given by Mary Jeske at the Maryland Historical Society–provided a more complete portrait of these three women. They certainly don’t seem to have been the demons Betsy Bonaparte thought they were. On the other hand, Eliza’s judgment that rank and title were their “Soul’s ambition” may well have been correct (they certainly were Betsy B’s!). Such an objective may seem strange to us, in this day and age, but in the early 19th century an excellent marriage was the highest ambition that most women could aspire to. And on those terms, the Caton sisters succeeded spectacularly.

Before the lecture, I found the Caton sisters’ story reminiscent of all those tales about impoverished British landed gentry marrying American heiresses for their money–the most recent version being the addictive PBS series “Downtown Abbey.” But as I discovered, the Caton girls actually didn’t have any money–not of their own. Their grandfather, Charles Carroll of Carrollton (one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence) was indeed fabulously wealthy. But the sisters weren’t able to get a piece of that until Carroll died. And he lived to be 95, which was almost unheard of in those days.

After the first Caton sister married in 1817–not to an aristocrat, yet–it was rumored that her husband was shocked to discover, after the marriage, that she had no fortune. One of Betsy B.’s London correspondents wrote to tell her that no one was going to make THAT mistake again. No one, he said, would be taking Betsey Caton to the altar “unless the money is first paid down, or put into a Train that it will be forthcoming.”

It’s enough to make you feel sorry for Betsey Caton, whatever her ambition was in life. And it’s quite a tribute to the Caton sisters that they all managed to marry aristocrats–at least one of them, indeed, impoverished–even AFTER everyone knew they had no money. Can the Kardashians top that accomplishment?

Betsy Grows Bitter

Eliza, at least, was undoubtedly delighted to arrive back home safely after her adventures with Betsy in Europe, and to be reunited with her father and her little girl.

Betsy was presumably bitterly disappointed that her mission had failed: she now had an infant son–a putative heir to the Bonaparte throne–but her husband was missing in action. She didn’t know yet whether Napoleon would be convinced to recognize her marriage, but in this instance no news must have looked like bad news. Still, she was determined to keep up appearances. As she wrote to her father from London about Jerome, “we must certainly act as if we supposed him possessed of some principle and honour.”

As it would turn out, he wasn’t. Or perhaps that’s being too harsh: Napoleon wasn’t an easy guy to stand up to. In any event, after a few ardent letters and lavish presents he sent to Betsy in 1805 and 1806, Jerome grew silent. And then in 1807 word came that he had acceded to his brother’s wishes and married royalty–Princess Frederica Catherina of Wurtemberg. It may not have been a love match, but the union enabled Jerome to become King of Westphalia–at least until Napoleon met his literal Waterloo.

Betsy essentially spent the rest of her life (and she lived to be 94) fighting to establish herself and her son as genuine Bonapartes. She never got the title she yearned for, and her son disappointed her by marrying a perfectly nice Baltimore girl instead of the royalty she would have preferred–an act that drove her, she said, to the brink of madness. (Apparently she didn’t get the irony here: her OWN marriage was annulled by Napoleon largely because SHE wasn’t royalty.) And eventually she got a court decision recognizing her son, Jerome Napoleon Bonaparte (nicknamed “Bo”), as a Bonaparte. But he wasn’t allowed to take his place in the line of succession for the French throne–which, of course, did end up in Bonaparte hands again for a while. (Her grandson, Charles Bonaparte, did become an Attorney General of the United States–but it’s unclear whether Betsy would have been impressed by that.)

And so we will basically leave the story of Betsy, which gets pretty boring and depressing. In the next installment we’ll switch our attention to Eliza. During her lifetime, Eliza may have felt herself to be in the shadow of her far more celebrated friend (or perhaps I should say “friend”). And lots more ink has been spilled over Betsy than Eliza–who hasn’t been written about by a historian in over 50 years. But as we’ll soon discover, what Eliza herself was about to accomplish was pretty impressive–and, I would argue, a lot more historically significant than anything Betsy ever did.

Back to Baltimore

Sorry if I’ve left anyone hanging, but my Internet was out for a few days (not the whole explanation, but I’m not above resorting to it as an excuse).

In any event, after Betsy announced that “Mrs. Anderson” would be departing from England while the rest of the party wintered in London, there was an abrupt reversal. Betsy wrote to her father the next day, rather tersely, “Our plans are changed with respect to Mrs. Anderson–that is to say, Mrs. Anderson does not mean to go until next spring; therefore I do not send some things to Mama that I mentioned in my letter to her; but by the first good opportunity they shall be sent.”

Again, this seems a rather odd way to talk about a dear friend who has risked her life crossing the Atlantic to keep you company in your hour of need. Betsy writes as though Mrs. Anderson were some pawn in a chess game, with plans being made for her–when just the day before it had been Mrs. Anderson, anxious to return home, who was clearly doing the planning. What happened to her anxiety? Not to mention that the only reaction Betsy betrays to this turn of events is disappointment that she can’t send some things home to Mama.

The following day, August 16th, we get a bit more of an explanation–though not from Betsy. Betsy’s brother Robert, also in London, writes to his father that they have “prevailed on Mrs. Anderson to remain here, as it is possible I may find it necessary or beneficial to go to France; in which case it would be more proper that my sister should not be left alone.” This sounds like Robert’s decision more than Betsy’s. (By “left alone,” Robert apparently means without a female companion; another Patterson brother, William, was in London as well.)

It’s hard not to wonder if there hadn’t been some rift between the two women. After all, on the voyage over to Europe the captain describes the two of them happily passing the hours by gossiping about everyone and everything in Baltimore. Now Betsy’s tone about Eliza Anderson is almost as dismissive as the one she uses to describe the departure of a servant (perhaps a slave) in early September: “Prudence, who was of no earthly use, sailed in the Baltimore.”

Or maybe there hadn’t been a rift, and Betsy was just revealing her imperious, self-centered temperament, which was to come to the fore in the correspondence of her later years. Maybe her feelings of friendship for Eliza didn’t run very deep–although Eliza’s later letters to her (we don’t, alas, have any letters from Betsy to Eliza) seem to reflect a close relationship. Betsy certainly knew how to charm–as she’d thoroughly charmed her husband, Jerome Bonaparte. Maybe she simply deceived Eliza into thinking they were good friends.

In any event, plans soon changed once again. On September 27, 1805, everyone except Robert–which is to say, Betsy, her infant son, her brother William, and Eliza Anderson–embarked for America on the brig Mars. Crossing the Atlantic in late fall and winter was treacherous, and a departure at this late a date was risky. It’s not clear what prompted the decision to leave rather than wait until the spring, but it may have had something to do with a letter from Dr. Garnier, a French physician who had attached himself to Jerome Bonaparte, telling Betsy that Jerome wanted her to return to Baltimore. Betsy scoffed that the letter had “all the marks of a deception.” But still, things didn’t look promising.

The brig Mars safely delivered its passengers to Baltimore in mid-November. The most interesting part of Betsy’s life was now over–and she was only 20 years old. But the most interesting part of Eliza Anderson’s life was about to begin.

Betsy Has Her Baby

So Betsy and Eliza settled in–first at a London hotel and then in some sort of rented quarters in the London suburb of Camberwell–to await (a) word from the errant Jerome, and (b) the birth of Betsy’s baby.

The second of these came sooner than the first. On July 7, 1805, Jerome Napoleon Bonaparte arrived in the world, with his birth certificate attested by a number of dignitaries, including the Austrian and Prussian ambassadors. Betsy must have been delighted that it was a boy–and therefore a potential heir to Napoleon’s throne–and she was taking no chances.

Meanwhile, Napoleon was launching an ultimately unsuccessful effort to get the Pope to declare Betsy and Jerome’s marriage invalid. In a wildly inaccurate letter, Napoleon claimed that his black sheep brother had married Betsy after having been in Baltimore only a month (in fact it was more like six), and that the marriage had been performed by a “Spanish priest” who had “sufficiently forgot his duties to pronounce the benediction” (in fact the officiating cleric was Archbishop John Carroll of Baltimore). His main argument, though, seems to be Betsy’s religion: it was important for France, he argued, that “there should not be a Protestant woman so close to me.” Just for good measure, Napoleon sent along a little present: a tiara of gold and jewels.

To the Pope’s credit, he refused to issue an annulment. Apologizing profusely, he said he simply couldn’t find anything that would authorize him to do so.

Jerome finally wrote to Betsy at the end of July from Genoa, where he was about to launch an expedition to North Africa to retrieve enslaved Christians. While he expresses his undying love for her and their child (who he assumes, correctly, has been born by now), he chides her for having chosen to give birth in the land of Napoleon’s sworn enemies: “what has undone us is your arrival in England.” Still, he urges patience and no badmouthing of the Emperor (“one should never irritate a sovereign,” he advises, perhaps from experience). If she hasn’t heard from Napoleon within two months, she’s to go to America–but not to lose hope: “Have confidence in your husband; be convinced that he breathes, dreams, works, only for you, yes, for you alone and for our child.”

The mails being what they were, this letter didn’t arrive in England for quite some time–not, in fact, until after Betsy had left. But during the late summer and early fall, there was apparently much dithering among Betsy’s party about what to do.

Betsy was apparently having a fine time, being fawned over by London’s elite–and its masses–as a noble victim of that scoundrel Napoleon. The papers treated it as news when she took a walk in the park or made a trip to the bank–and on the latter occasion reported that “some hundreds of persons assembled to see her return to her carriage, which waited at the front of the building.”

But Eliza, perhaps, was getting antsy. On August 14, Betsy wrote to her father that she intended to spend the winter in England, but that “Mrs. Anderson is extremely anxious to return to America, and, as she will be no material loss, she takes her departure in the `Robert.’” The tone of this letter may be what has given rise, in the popular literature about Betsy, to the idea that “Mrs. Anderson” was some elderly and unpleasant family friend or midwife: now that she’d assisted at the birth, good riddance. It was certainly a rather callous way to speak of someone who had left behind her father and small daughter and risked her life to accompany her friend to Europe. One historian has suggested that Eliza’s anxiousness to return to Baltimore had something to do with an inheritance she’d just come into. But what mother wouldn’t be anxious to return to a five-year-old she hadn’t seen for five months?

But soon enough, plans changed …

Betsy Boffo in Britain

On May 18, 1805, the ship Erin–with Betsy Bonaparte and the rest of her party aboard–dropped anchor off the coast of Dover and apparently sent someone ashore to procure passports. In a sign of how slowly news traveled in the early 19th century, that same day the London Morning Courier reported–in an item dated “Madrid, April 10″–that Betsy had just embarked from Lisbon on her way to Holland.

Betsy’s reception in England was considerably warmer than what she had met with in Amsterdam. Her fame, already widespread in the United States, had preceded her, and her rough treatment at Napoleon’s hands apparently trumped her familial connection to the Bonapartes and stirred British sympathies. Not that they would have needed much stirring, given that Britain was at war with France and Napoleon was roundly despised.

On May 20, the Morning Courier–now fully apprised of Betsy’s whereabouts–heaped scorn on “the French, who boast so much of their gallantry to females” but had prevented the pregnant Betsy from landing. Here in England, the Courier added, Betsy “knew she would be hospitably entertained.” A few days later the paper again took up the theme: “In [her] distress she turned her thoughts towards England, a country where neither enmity, politics, or warfare, ever yet extinguished the feelings of humanity and the spirit of gallantry. In England she found an asylum.

According to newspaper reports, when Betsy landed at Dover, she was greeted by an enthusiastic crowd whose numbers the Courier described as “almost past calculation.” Another report said that the man escorting Betsy from the ship was able to get her to her waiting carriage only “with the greatest exertions” because of the pressure of the crowd. The reports noted that Betsy seemed pleased by the attention.

No doubt she was also gratified to read the many encomiums to her beauty. “The personal attraction[s] of Madame Jerome Bonaparte have been reported through every part in Europe,” remarked the Courier (which was on this story like a glove). “Nor has her elegance been too much celebrated. Her figure is about the middle size; her countenance sweet and expressive; and her general deportment such as must interest and engage the heart of every beholder.”

Poor Eliza. Initial reports described her as simply “a female,” although a later one reported her name and called her one of Betsy’s “beautiful countrywomen.” Still, I can’t help wondering if the imbalance in attention might not have caused some friction between the two women–as a comment by Betsy a few months later suggests.

Napoleon Wins Round One

It was now clear to Betsy Bonaparte and her traveling companions–which included her friend Eliza Anderson–that, despite the fact that Betsy was pregnant with his niece or nephew, Napoleon wasn’t going to let them land in any port that he controlled. That would include Amsterdam, where they were currently moored, under armed guard. The same day that the ship Erin finally received fresh provisions from the Dutch Admiral, the ship’s captain also received a written order to leave the port–as though, after they’d almost come under fire from the Dutch, there could possibly be any doubt about whether they were welcome.

So, where to go next? At this point Napoleon controlled enough European territory that there weren’t many options. Of course, one possibility would have been to turn around and sail back to the United States. And Betsy’s husband Jerome had been ordered by Napoleon to tell her to do just that (although there’s no evidence he had sent her such a message at this point). But–given that Betsy was due in only two months, and sea voyages could easily take six weeks–an Atlantic crossing was risky. Besides, Captain Stephenson apparently had other cargo to deliver to Amsterdam and needed to return, once he had rid himself of his problematic human cargo. Nor was Betsy ready to give up on her hopes that Jerome would convince his brother to recognize the marriage.

Betsy’s own brother Robert, who was in Holland on business and had heard of the stand-off in Amsterdam harbor, desperately tried to get a message to her telling her to proceed to Emden, in Germany. But apparently that message never got through.

It’s not clear exactly how the discussion unfolded, because Captain Stephenson reports rather laconically that “when the wind came fair we put to sea and after we were outside debated where we should go[.] [W]hen it being determined for England, we made for that country and next afternoon anchored off Dover.” (Betsy, alas, was even more laconic, reducing the whole episode to the comment, “not being permitted to land in Holland obliged to go to England.” It’s really too bad we don’t have Eliza’s impressions of the Amsterdam adventure. Judging from what I’ve read of her letters, she would have provided quite a vivid account.)

England was, in some ways, a logical choice: it was close by, and–given that England and France were at war–Napoleon certainly wasn’t going to be able to prevent them from landing there. But, if Betsy was still hoping to curry favor with her putative brother-in-law, choosing to have her baby in the land of his sworn enemies, the British, probably wasn’t the smartest move.

Betsy and Eliza vs. Napoleon, Part III

So, back to Betsy and Eliza and their party, hovering near the mouth of the Amsterdam harbor in May of 1805…

According to the captain of the ship, Stephenson (whose journal is transcribed in a 1953 article in Maryland Historical Magazine by Dorthy Quynn and Frank White), a few hours after the incident with the confused pilot, the Erin was forcibly put under guard between two armed warships. And, “by way of doubly securing us if it was not already done,” two additional boats rowed around the Erin all night.

The next day, buffeted by strong winds, the passengers on the Erin began to feel the want of food: a month had now transpired since their last stop, in Lisbon, and they had expected to land in Amsterdam some days before. “Our fresh provisions were all consumed,” Captain Stephenson recorded, “and we found ourselves reduced to salt Beef and Biscuit, fare not very well relished by passengers particularly ladies.” And of course, at this point Betsy–seven months pregnant–was eating for two.

The captain tried to communicate the problem to the armed sloop hovering nearby–many times. “To all of which someone on board with true Dutch Sang-froid answered Yaw, Yaw, and paid us no further attention.”

Then, for some reason, the Dutch ordered the Erin to unmoor, despite the strong winds–which resulted in the ship being blown too close to the armed sloop. At that point, someone on the sloop “told us that if we came near enough to touch him, they would fire into us, and send us to the Bottom, and that we might fully comprehend the force of his generous offer, he repeated it in very good English.”

It’s clear from the journal that Stephenson himself had more than a little sang froid, or at least a dry sense of humor. He follows this report with the comment that “we could not reconcile ourselves [to the] thought of drowning, especially in a climate as cold as Holland is, where to drown is a double death, as you are sure of being half frozen before you get comfortably full of Water…”

He goes on to say that no one “but the principal officers” knew why armed force was being used to prevent the Erin from landing. He later found out that various rumors were circulating: the ship was carrying yellow fever, or “combustibles to destroy the Dutch fleet.” Some even thought the Erin–an unarmed merchant ship–had “some designs of taking Holland.” The captain added, “It never once entered the heads of those poor people that all this stir was only to prevent a man and wife coming together.”

Stephenson then came under pressure from the passengers–particularly Betsy’s brother William–to send out one of the Erin’s lifeboats in an attempt to procure some food. The captain strongly urged against this plan, saying it was too risky, but at length was obliged to give in. William Patterson, accompanied by “the surgeon” (a Dr. Garnier, who presumably was around to attend to the pregnant Betsy), and some seamen set off in the boat, but there was an immediate outcry from the warships. The captain called to “Mr. P.–told him it would be madness to push the business any farther as the guns were pointed and matches holding over them.”

The sight of guns pointed at them seemed at last to have a discouraging effect on the boating party, and they turned back. The captain remarked that “the surgeon who was warm for going appeared to be in full as great a hurry to get back, as he did not take time to step into the ship but rolled over the ship’s side in on deck.”

The whole abortive incident at least caught the attention of the Dutch admiral–who apparently hadn’t understood the situation–and the next day “brought a full supply of everything, an assortment of wines and liquors, and a very polite message from the Admiral.”

At least Betsy and Eliza and the rest had something decent to eat and drink. Now–since it was pretty clear they weren’t going to be landing in Amsterdam–the only question was where to go next.

Betsy and Eliza vs. Napoleon, Part II

After the elderly pilot scampered off into the Amsterdam harbor–fearing for his life because he had almost disobeyed Napoleon’s orders to prevent the ship Erin from landing–Betsy Bonaparte and her little traveling party (including her friend Eliza Anderson) were somewhat demoralized, to say the least. When the circumstances were explained to Betsy, the ship’s captain said, “they afflicted her very much, as it at once proved to her, she would not be received by the French government.”

Here we might pause to consider what had happened to Betsy’s errant husband Jerome, who had parted from her in Lisbon with the promise that he would see his brother Napoleon and convince him to recognize the marriage. Jerome has taken something of a beating from historians and commentators in light of what later transpired, but all the evidence from 1805 indicates that, (a) he really did love Betsy, and (b) he did try, sort of, to get Napoleon’s approval.

Shortly after they parted in Lisbon, Jerome wrote to Betsy: “Don’t cry because tears do no good and may do you much harm… Take care not to receive visitors or to make visits and to have someone always with you either Mrs. Anderson, the doctor, or William… I embrace you as I love you, and you know that I love you very much…” A few days later, Jerome ran into some old friends on the road–the Duchesse d’Abrantes and her husband, who had just been appointed Napoleon’s ambassador to Portugal. Jerome eagerly showed the couple a portrait of Betsy, according to the Duchesse, and then said, “Judge, then, whether I can abandon a being like her; especially when I assure you that to a person so exquisitely beautiful are united every quality that can render a woman amiable.” The Duchesse, who had known Jerome in his black sheep youth, “could not help remarking a wonderful alteration in his manners. He was sedate–nay, almost serious.”

On May 3–almost a month after he’d left Betsy in Lisbon, and only a few days before Betsy tried unsuccessfully to land in Amsterdam–Jerome wrote to her from Italy, where Napoleon was then ensconced. He was clearly optimistic, telling Betsy that he would be meeting with the Emperor the next day and that he and Betsy would be reunited (he doesn’t specify where) during the first half of June. But a few days later Napoleon sent word to Jerome that he would meet with him only if he renounced Betsy and ordered her to go home.

Jerome had previously assured Betsy that if he failed in his mission he would simply withdraw “with my little family in no matter what corner of the world.” But when push came to shove, he gave in to Napoleon’s demand–perhaps by a return letter of the very same day. Why? He later told Betsy that his plan was to prove himself valiant in battle and then ask for Betsy as his reward. It’s also possible that Napoleon wasn’t about to let him leave quietly–he’d already threatened Jerome with arrest if he deviated from the route prescribed for him from Lisbon to Italy. And it’s possible that Jerome suspected that his charming but ambitious little wife wouldn’t have lived too happily ever after in obscurity in “no matter what corner of the world.”

Here’s one thing that puzzles me, though: Napoleon apparently sent word to Jerome in Lisbon, before he left, that Betsy would be prevented from landing in Amsterdam. So why didn’t Jerome warn her, and tell her to go somewhere else? It’s possible that Jerome never got, or didn’t understand, that part of Napoleon’s orders. When he wrote to Betsy in April, shortly after they parted, he addressed his letter to her in Amsterdam (under the pseudonym they’d adopted in Lisbon, d’Albert). So he must have thought she’d be able to land there.

In any event, Betsy and Eliza and the rest of the party knew nothing of what was transpiring in Italy, and they were clearly unprepared for the hostile reception they had gotten in Holland–which, though technically not part of Napoleon’s empire, was ruled by a puppet government. And things were about to get even more hostile…

Betsy and Eliza vs. Napoleon

So: On April 9, 1805, Jerome Bonaparte went off to see his brother Napoleon, who was then in Northern Italy, leaving his wife Betsy and her companion Eliza Anderson behind in Lisbon. “Mon mari est parti,” Betsy wrote in her notebook, adopting the language of what she hoped would soon become her adoptive country.

At this point Betsy was 5 or 6 months pregnant. Originally the young couple may have set off for Europe in hopes that their baby would be born on French soil, thus perhaps strengthening the validity of their marriage in Napoleon’s eyes. Napoleon himself had no heir yet, and presumably another Bonaparte — a little boy Bonaparte, that is — would have been a welcome addition to the family.

But by the time Jerome and Betsy left Baltimore, the plan had apparently been amended: after Jerome was let off the boat in Lisbon, the rest of the party would proceed to Amsterdam, where they assumed Betsy would be allowed to land and have her baby. A letter to Betsy from her father, addressing her as “My Dear Daughter” and dated the day before her departure from Baltimore, instructs her to proceed to Amsterdam and await word from Jerome that he’d arranged for her to be received by the Bonaparte family. Her brother Robert was in Holland attending to business and would be able to provide for her needs until word arrived. If Jerome proved unsuccessful, Betsy was to return home as soon as possible. (A later note written on the document in Betsy’s hand — she apparently loved to annotate her correspondence in her declining years — says, “He never addressed me as his dear daughter after the day of my destiny was over & the Star of my fate had declined.” Indeed, the relationship between father and daughter was soon to deteriorate dramatically.)

And so the ship Erin set off from Lisbon for Amsterdam–its passengers apparently unaware that Napoleon had decreed that Betsy would not be allowed to land there. The journey was much rougher than the trip across the Atlantic had been — “a very tedious and uncomfortable passage,” according to the captain, that took 26 days, longer than the transatlantic voyage.

When they got near the Amsterdam harbor, they waited two or three days for a pilot to guide them in. When none appeared, the captain determined, “with no little Risk and Anxiety,” to bring the ship into harbor without one. As they neared the harbor an elderly pilot appeared and began to guide the ship in. But within a few minutes a shot was fired as a signal for them to halt. “I asked the pilot if this was customary,” the captain recorded. “He told me it was not. Yet no one suspected anything uncommon from it.”

A few minutes later, another pilot boat came along and asked “if we belonged to Baltimore” and if they had come from Lisbon. When the captain answered in the affirmative, this second pilot told them they couldn’t land, and left. “Our old pilot,” the captain related, “now seemed to awaken as from a dream and was excessively frightened.” He had suddenly recalled that pilots had been forbidden from bringing in this very ship, and “concluded by assuring us that if his age did not protect him he would be hung and would no doubt as it was get a severe flogging and imprisonment.”

The pilot was in fact imprisoned. But the little party out of Lisbon hadn’t yet felt the full strength of Napoleon’s wrath.