Of all the characters that took to the history-stage of Maryland, you will have to look far and wide to find a more intriguing person than Carroll County’s adopted daughter, Betsy Patterson Bonaparte, the sister-in-law of French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte.
On January 19 historian Helen Jean Burn brought back to life the unique journey of Betsy Bonaparte at a lecture for the Historical Society of Carroll County.
She had just published, on October 19, 2010, the results of her thorough research in a 296-page historical account, “Betsy Bonaparte,” that reads much more like a novel – that is impossible to put down – than a dry, ‘facts and dates,’ history textbook.
For decades, the local Historical Society has thrown a birthday party on January 19 to celebrate the Carroll County’s liberation from Baltimore and Frederick Counties.
Carroll County was formed January 19, 1837, after about 50-years of trying. Almost every year, since the Historical Society was formed in 1939, Carroll Countians get together for birthday cake and a great history presentation. This year we were treated to a lecture by Ms. Burn.
Ms. Burn, a graduate of Western Maryland College (now McDaniel College), spent many years as an historical documentary writer for Maryland Public Television.
Without notes Ms. Burn spent an hour sweeping the audience through the docudrama that was the life and times of Elizabeth "Betsy" Patterson in the painstaking detail as only Ms. Burn could do after her 30-plus-years of primary source research, mostly at the Maryland Historical Society. She began her research while she was living in Westminster in the 1970s.
If you have never heard of Betsy Patterson Bonaparte, you are not alone. “If you say her name to people today, you’ll find most of them never heard of her, yet during her lifetime she was one of the most famous women in America, possible second only to her friend Dolly Madison,” wrote Ms. Burn in the preface of her book.
A synopsis on the back cover of the book gives you an introduction to “Betsy,” (as Ms. Burn referred to Betsy Bonaparte, as if she were a lifelong friend,) and her whirlwind life saga:
“Over the past 130 years, Elizabeth 'Betsy' Patterson Bonaparte has inspired countless books, movies, articles, and fictionalized accounts, yet none captures the full measure of her fascinating life… Ms. Burn's life of Betsy Bonaparte surpasses its predecessors in scope, depth, and soul.”
Ms. Burn explained that Betsy was the fourth child of William Patterson’s 11 children – six sons, and five daughters. Patterson, at the time, was a millionaire by today’s standards, and the second wealthiest person in Maryland. Only Charles Carroll of Carrollton, for whom, Carroll County was named 174 years ago, was wealthier.
By the time Betsy died, she “left an immense fortune; today it would be valued at between ten and fifteen million dollars,” according to Ms. Burn.
Betsy shook Maryland and French society when she married Jerome Bonaparte, brother of the Emperor Napoleon, after a great deal of intrigue and family suspense, on December 24, 1803.
Napoleon disapproved of the wedding – even more so than Betsy’s stern father – and after even more drama involving over-ruling the Pope, had the wedding annulled in the French courts, but not before the marriage produced a son, named Jerome Napoleon Bonaparte – much to the emperor’s displeasure.
“Betsy's failed quest to win royal status for her son and grandsons consumed the remainder of her seventy-four years, decades that transformed her from the glamorous ‘belle of Baltimore’ into a shrewd and successful businesswoman determined to protect her family,” noted Ms. Burn.
Betsy traveled the world from her home base in Baltimore. Ms. Burn noted that she crossed the Atlantic, “18 or 19 times.”
However, her travels often brought her to Sykesville in Carroll County. Her wealthy father held vast land holdings, one of which was the property which later became Springfield Hospital, a mental healthcare facility, in 1896.
Although Betsy was known to have “spent a lot of her time in Springfield,” on the Patterson farm, the event that indelibly etched Sykesville and Betsy into the history books is said to have occurred in 1803.
The incident was explained in more depth when former Sykesville Mayor, Lloyd Helt asked Ms. Burn about it during the question and answer period after her presentation.
For context, Ms. Burn had earlier explained that Jerome and Betsy had initially met in the late summer of 1803. “There were horse races at several locations around Baltimore. One of them was Govenstown, north of the city, and it was there that Jerome encountered the most beautiful woman he’s ever seen (Betsy)…
“Various accounts say that Jerome later met Betsy formally at a ball given in the Baltimore home of Justice Samuel Chase… William Patterson had forbidden his daughter to attend the event and had moved her to his two-hundred-acre Springfield estate for good measure, but she slipped away and rode (horseback) thirty miles to Baltimore” to attend the party.
Mr. Helt repeated the story and asked if it were true. Ms. Burn responded that the account is “a substantial story.” She explained that there are a number of versions of how and when Betsy and Jerome got together.
When Betsy died, on April 4, 1879, “she was still so famous that major newspapers in the United States and abroad devoted many columns to her obituary. Behind those public aspects of her life, she had been both adored and hated. Everyone agreed that she was lovely, but she was not always lovable.”
Betsy “was a very unusual person, she was very different… There was something about her that I felt was a story that had never been told,” said Ms. Burns. “Her fame was incredible, like a movie star…” And she was the constant topic of newspapers throughout the world.
I’m just saying…