Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte

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Elizabeth Bonaparte
Elizabeth-Patterson-Bonaparte Gilbert-Stuart 1804.jpg
Triple portrait by Gilbert Stuart, 1804
Born(1785-02-06)February 6, 1785
Baltimore, Maryland, U.S.
DiedApril 4, 1879(1879-04-04) (aged 94)
Baltimore, Maryland, U.S.
Jérôme Bonaparte
(m. 1803; annulled 1805)
IssueJérôme Napoleon Bonaparte
FatherWilliam Patterson
MotherDorcas Spear[1]

Elizabeth "Betsy" Patterson Bonaparte (February 6, 1785 – April 4, 1879) was an American socialite. She was the daughter of a Baltimore merchant, and the first wife of Jérôme Bonaparte, Napoleon's youngest brother.


Elizabeth's father, William Patterson (1752-1835), was born in Ireland and came to North America prior to the American Revolutionary War (1775-1783). He was a Presbyterian[2] from Donegal, and he became the wealthiest man in Maryland after Charles Carroll of Carrollton, the last surviving signer of the Declaration of Independence of the United States. Elizabeth's brother, Robert, married Carroll's granddaughter, Marianne Caton.


Elizabeth and Jérôme Bonaparte were married on Christmas Eve, December 24, 1803, at a ceremony presided over by John Carroll, the Bishop of Baltimore. Betsy quickly became known for her risqué taste in fashion, starting with her wedding dress.

Jérôme's brother Napoleon ordered his brother back to France and demanded that the marriage be annulled. Jérôme ignored Napoleon's initial demand that he return to France without his wife.[3]

European visits[edit]

In the fall of 1804, Jérôme and a pregnant Betsy attempted to travel to France in time for his brother's coronation, but a number of false starts delayed them. When they finally arrived, Elizabeth was denied permission to set foot in continental Europe by order of Napoleon. Jérôme traveled to Italy in an attempt to reason with his brother, writing to his wife, "My dearest Elsa, I will do everything that must be done," but she would never see him again, except for a brief eye-to-eye contact in 1817.

After remaining in limbo, unable to disembark in either France or the Netherlands, she gave birth to a son on 5 July 1805 at 95 Camberwell Grove in Camberwell, London. Jérôme gave in to his brother, returned to the French Navy, and married the German princess Catharina of Württemberg on August 22, 1807, in the Royal Palace at Fontainebleau, France. (His marriage to "dearest Elsa" had not yet been dissolved.)

Betsy returned to Baltimore with her son, Jerome Napoleon Bonaparte, called "Bo" by his mother, and lived with her father while she continued to flaunt her royal connection. After the Battle of Waterloo, she returned to Europe, where she was well received in the most exclusive circles and much admired for her beauty and wit.

Divorce and last years[edit]

In 1815, by special Act of the Legislature of Maryland, she secured a divorce. Her last years were spent in Baltimore in the management of her estate, the value of which she increased to $1.5 million. Betsy died in the midst of a court battle over whether the state of Maryland could tax her out-of-state bonds.[4] The case reached the Supreme Court (Bonaparte v. Tax Court, 104 U.S. 592). The court decided in favor of Maryland.[4]

In 1861, she filed an inheritance claim in the Tribunal of First Instance at Paris after her former husband, Prince Jérôme, died on June 24, 1860.[5] On February 15, 1861, the Tribunal of the Seine ruled that "demands of Madame Elizabeth Patterson and her son, Jerome Bonaparte, are not admissible, and must be rejected."[6]

On April 4, 1879, she died in Baltimore and was interred in Green Mount Cemetery, Baltimore. Her tomb bears an epitaph: "After life's fitful fever she sleeps well."[7]


Elizabeth Patterson outlived her son, Jérôme Napoléon Bonaparte, by nine years. Her grandson Charles Joseph Bonaparte became Roosevelt's Secretary of the Navy in 1905, and the U.S. Attorney General in 1906.

Betsy's brother's widow, Marianne (Caton) Patterson, married Richard Wellesley, 1st Marquess Wellesley, older brother of Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington. Another brother, Edward Patterson, was the owner of Joppa Iron Works in Eastern Baltimore County, MD.

In popular culture[edit]

The story of Elizabeth and Jérôme's marriage and annulment is the basis for the 1908 play Glorious Betsy by Rida Johnson Young and the two film adaptations, Glorious Betsy (1928) and Hearts Divided (1936). She was portrayed by Dolores Costello in the former and by Marion Davies in the latter. The episode "Duty" of the Hornblower television series features Elizabeth (played by Camilla Power) and Jérôme trying to land in France, and the diplomatic difficulties. A historical novel about her life, The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte by Ruth Hull Chatlien, was published in 2013.

In the 2016 book A Woman of Two Worlds: Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte, the author, Alexandra Deutsch, Director of Collections and Interpretation at the Maryland Historical Society, analyzes Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte’s personal belongings and letters to create a material culture biography of the woman whose seductive beauty and tragic marriage have long been documented.


  1. ^ "Marriage References". Maryland State Archives. May 23, 2001. Retrieved April 14, 2017.
  2. ^ Philip W. Sergeant, Jerome Bonaparte: the Burlesque Napoleon. Brentano's, New York, 1906
  3. ^ Macartney, Clarence E. N, and John G. Dorrance. The Bonapartes in America. Philadelphia: Dorrance and Co, 1939.
  4. ^ a b Maryland State Archives. 2007.
  5. ^ The American Bonapartes. Details of the Legal Trial soon to come on concerning the American Bonapartes. From the London Times., The New York Times, January 30, 1861.
  6. ^ The Bonaparte Family Suit, The New York Times, March 3, 1861.
  7. ^ Christopher T. George. Defeated by Napoleon: Fame (Sort Of) But No Titles for the Bonapartes of Baltimore.

Further reading[edit]

  • F. B. Goodrich, The Court of Napoleon III. Philadelphia, 1864.
  • E. L. Didier, Life and Letters of Madame Bonaparte. New York, 1879.
  • M. Farquhar, Foolishly Forgotten Americans. New York, 2008.
  • Charlene M. Boyer Lewis, Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte: An American Aristocrat in the Early Republic. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012.
  • Berkin, Carol (2014). Wondrous beauty : the life and adventures of Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte (First ed.). New York: Alfred A. Knopf. ISBN 9780307592781. LCCN 2013015270.
  • Edward C. Papenfuse, Maryland State Archives. Maryland Tax Exempt Bonds: The Case of Betsy Patterson, 1868–1882, 2007.

External links[edit]