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

Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images

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.

15 Historic Diseases that Competed with Bubonic Plague

Jan Josef Horemans, Interior with a surgeon and his apprentice attending to a patient (1722), Wellcome Collection // CC BY-NC 4.0
Jan Josef Horemans, Interior with a surgeon and his apprentice attending to a patient (1722), Wellcome Collection // CC BY-NC 4.0

In 1665, about a quarter of all Londoners died of the Great Plague—but bubonic plague was not the only deadly disease circulating in the city. A published register, called London’s Dreadful Visitation, or, A Collection of All the Bills of Mortality, recorded the causes of death and the number of victims in London between December 20, 1664 and December 19, 1665. The systematic, parish-by-parish tally reveals the rapid spread of plague throughout the capital: a total of one victim, recorded in the first week, increased to 7165 during the week of September 12-19, 1665.

But quite a few Londoners met their fates in other ways. Here’s a look into the antiquated diseases that managed to kill those that Yersinia pestis couldn’t catch.

1. Winde

Winde is listed throughout the Bills as a constant cause of death. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, winde referred to paroxysms of severe gastrointestinal pain, which could have been symptoms of numerous diseases.

2. Purples

Purples described purple blotches on the skin caused by broken blood vessels, indicative of an underlying illness, such as scurvy or a circulation disorder. It could also mean the most severe stage of smallpox.

3. Livergrown

People who died of livergrown suffered from an enlarged (or failing) liver. Doctors could diagnose it through the combination of other symptoms, like jaundice and abdominal pain. It was commonly a result of alcoholism, but could be caused by a number of disorders.

4. Chrisomes

Infant mortality was extremely high before the advent of modern medicine. The Bills distinguished abortive (miscarried), stillborn, infant, and chrisom deaths—the latter term specified infants who died within the first month of life, around the time they were baptized with special white cloths (which were called chrisomes).

5. Rising of the Lights

18th century illustration of lungs and heart
Jacques-Fabien Gautier d'Agoty, The Lungs and the Heart (1754), Wellcome Collection // CC BY-NC 4.0

Physicians and scholars have debated the origin of the term rising of the lights. According to the OED, the condition indicated any kind of illness characterized by a hoarse cough, difficulty breathing, or a choking sensation. Croup, asthma, pneumonia, and emphysema were all culprits.

6. Timpany

The condition of having serious swelling or bloating in the digestive tract, which produces a hollow sound when tapped, is still called tympany today. The sort that would have proven fatal to humans could have been caused by kidney disease, intestinal infections, or cancerous tumors.

7. Tissick

The term tissick, a corruption of phthisis, originated in ancient Greek and persisted through Latin, French, and English for thousands of years, only to end up an obsolete word referring to a “wasting disease of the lungs,” according to the Online Etymology Dictionary. In the 17th century, that could indicate the wheezing and coughing associated with asthma, bronchitis, or possibly tuberculosis.

8. Meagrome or Megrim

We recognize this obscurely spelled ailment as migraine. During the years of the Great Plague, any internal head trauma, from an aneurysm to a brain tumor, would be filed under megrim.

9. Imposthume

Imposthume was a swelling, cyst, or abscess, usually filled with pus or other putrescence. At the same time that it was being recorded as a cause of death, imposthume took on a metaphorical meaning and referred to an egotistical or corrupt person “swollen” with pride.

10. Head Mould Shot

In newborns, the bony plates of the skull are not fused together, which makes it easier to fit through the birth canal. Head mould shot described a condition where the cranial bones were so compressed by delivery that they overlapped (or overshot) each other and caused fatal pressure on the brain. Today, the condition, now known as craniosynostosis, is treatable with surgery.

11. Quinsie

18th century illustration of a woman getting her throat examined in a pharmacy

Quinsie, which evolved from a Latin word meaning “choke,” is still occasionally used in modern England. It describes a complication of tonsillitis in which an abscess grows between the tonsil and the throat. Unless the abscess was removed, a patient could suffocate from the blockage.

12. Surfeit

A surfeit means an excess of something. In the Bills of Mortality, it’s hard to identify the substance in question. Sometimes, as in the case of King Henry I and his lampreys, it can refer to overeating a food that becomes poisonous if taken in large enough quantities.

13. French Pox

When people across Europe came down with syphilis beginning in the 1490s, they blamed the French. (Perhaps they should have blamed Christopher Columbus and the Spanish, whom historians believe brought the bacterial infection back from the New World.) Rightly or wrongly, French pox is what the Bills of Mortality lists for deaths by advanced syphilis, whose symptoms included rash, blindness, organ failure, and tissue necrosis.

14. Bloody Flux

Dysentery, a.k.a. bloody flux, was common among densely crowded Londoners without clean drinking water. People contracted dysentery from food or water contaminated with one of several pathogens, and its main symptom was bloody diarrhea (the aforementioned flux) and severe dehydration.

15. Plannet

Plannet is likely a shorthand for “planet-struck.” Many medical practitioners believed the planets influenced health and sanity. A person who was planet-stricken had been suddenly maligned by the forces of particular planets. They would likely present symptoms also associated with aneurysms, strokes, and heart attacks.

The American Museum of Natural History Moves Its Great Canoe—for the First Time in 60 Years—to Its Revitalized Northwest Coast Hall

From left to right: Kaa-xoo-auxc (Garfield George), Jisgang (Nika Collison), Megan Humchitt, Haa’yuups (Ron Hamilton), and Chief Wigviłba Wákas (Harvey Humchitt) performing traditional ceremony before the move of the Great Canoe at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.
From left to right: Kaa-xoo-auxc (Garfield George), Jisgang (Nika Collison), Megan Humchitt, Haa’yuups (Ron Hamilton), and Chief Wigviłba Wákas (Harvey Humchitt) performing traditional ceremony before the move of the Great Canoe at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.
©AMNH/D. Finnin

The Great Canoe at New York City's American Museum of Natural History is one of the largest dugout canoes on Earth. Suspended from the ceiling of the Grand Gallery, it appeared weightless. Visitors entering from 77th Street may have assumed the canoe was built for the space, like the museum's massive blue whale model. But the real history of the vessel can be traced back 150 years to the Pacific Northwest. Now, as the artifact moves locations for the first time in 60 years, AMNH is working with First Nations advisors to strengthen the connections between the new exhibit and its past.

On January 28, 2020, the Great Canoe was rolled in a custom cradle from the Grand Gallery to the neighboring Northwest Coast Hall. Design elements of the Great Canoe indicate it came from the Heiltsuk and Haida nations on Canada's Pacific coast, but the identities of its builders and many other details of its construction remain a mystery. A group of representatives from First Nation communities in British Columbia kicked off the event with traditional song and prayer. They concluded the ceremony by circling the boat and blowing tufts of eagle down over it. The Indigenous representatives then explained the significance of canoes to all First Nations in the region.

"Canoes are absolutely central to the cultures of all the people who are represented here today," Nuu-chah-nulth artist and cultural historian Haa'yuups, or Ron Hamilton, who's co-curating the renovation of the Northwest Coast Hall, said. "All of our people made their livings not long ago in and out of the sea [...] From birth until death, our people lived in and out of canoes."

Moving the Great Canoe at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.
©AMNH/M. Shanley

Even to cultures built around sea travel, the canoe at AMNH is exceptional. It measures 63 feet long and was dug out of a single Western red cedar tree. The body was carved in the 1870s, and it's possible that the orca and raven illustrations and the seawolf figurehead were added after its initial construction. AMNH trustee Heber Bishop acquired the piece for the museum in the late 19th century, and following a journey that included travel on a ship, train, and horse-drawn carriage, it arrived in New York in 1883. The Great Canoe was displayed in the Northwest Coast Hall from 1899 to 1960, when it was moved to the Grand Gallery where it resided most recently. January's move marks the boat's return to the hall after a six-decade absence.

The relocation is part of the museum's two-and-a-half-year revitalization of the Northwest Coast Hall. The exhibit includes hundreds of objects and nearly a dozen totem poles, all of which originate from the same general region of the world as the canoe. Like the canoe, the stories of many of these artifacts have been lost or misinterpreted over the years—largely because none of their original owners were involved in getting them onto the museum floor.

AMNH is determined not to repeat the mistakes of the past with this new project. By seeking the counsel of 10 First Nation advisors, each coming from a different nation represented in the hall, the museum hopes to reflect their cultures in a rich, accurate light. "[Collaboration] is something we definitely try to encourage, specifically in relation to conservation," museum curator of North American ethnology Peter Whitely tells Mental Floss. "We really want it to be a participatory collaboration, because long-term, it's our responsibility to these communities to continue a pattern of mutual engagement."

Jisgang (Nika Collison), Haa’yuups (Ron Hamilton), Kaa-xoo-auxc (Garfield George), Chief Wigviłba Wákas (Harvey Humchitt), and Judith Levenson in the Objects Conservation Laboratory at the American Museum of Natural History.
From left to right: Jisgang (Nika Collison), Haa’yuups (Ron Hamilton), Kaa-xoo-auxc (Garfield George), Chief Wigviłba Wákas (Harvey Humchitt), and Judith Levenson in the Objects Conservation Laboratory at the American Museum of Natural History.
©AMNH/D. Finnin

Jisang, or Nika Collison, of the Ts'aah clan of the Haida Nation, spoke of her role as advisor following the canoe move ceremony. The museum sends her digital images of the artifacts being restored—that way, when she's home, she can consult with other members of her community and dig up context for each piece. "We get these great big files with these digital photos so you can go home and work with the carvers or the weavers that know things," she said. One photo she received showed a wolf mask missing its ears: "My brother was going through it, and he said, 'I think I found the ears,' because they were labeled as a separate piece."

The Northwest Coast Hall is currently closed for the revitalization effort, and in 2021, it will reopen with the Great Canoe in its new position suspended from the ceiling. In the meantime, advisors will continue working with the museum to update the collection. "We’re putting our treasures back together," Collison said, "because that’s the history of museums, that a lot of things came in without our knowledge to go along with it."

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