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.

When Theodore Roosevelt Refused Geronimo's Plea

Portrait of Geronimo (Guiyatle), Apache
Portrait of Geronimo (Guiyatle), Apache
Frank A. Rinehart, Wikimedia // Public Domain

On March 4, 1905, Theodore Roosevelt settled in to watch his first inaugural parade. Though he'd been president since the 1901 assassination of William McKinley, this was the first time Roosevelt would get to enjoy the full pomp and ceremony, as Army regiments, West Point cadets, and military bands streamed down Pennsylvania Avenue in the warm March air. Standing in the president's box with his guests, Roosevelt at times clapped and swung his hat in the air to show his appreciation.

Suddenly, six men on horseback appeared in the procession. They were Native American leaders and warriors, "arrayed in all the glory of feathers and war paint," according to The New York Times report the next day. According to Herman J. Viola, they were “Little Plume, Piegan Blackfoot; Buckskin Charley, Ute; ... Quanah Parker, Comanche; Hollow Horn Bear, Brulé Sioux; and American Horse, Oglala Sioux.” The eldest man, leading the group, was "the once-feared Geronimo," as the Times put it.

The inclusion of the Apache elder was not without controversy. For a quarter-century, Geronimo had attacked Mexican and American troops and civilians, putting up a fierce resistance to settler encroachment. That bloody history—though often sensationalized by press reports—still loomed large during the parade: According to Smithsonian, a member of the 1905 inaugural committee asked Roosevelt, “Why did you select Geronimo to march in your parade, Mr. President? He is the greatest single-handed murderer in American history.”

Roosevelt replied, “I wanted to give the people a good show.”

But unlike the other parade participants, Geronimo wasn't there entirely willingly. He was a prisoner of war. And a few days later, he'd beg Roosevelt for his release.

A Bitter Legacy

Theodore Roosevelt was no friend of America's First Nations. During his childhood, he read books that contained stereotypes of Native Americas, and he and his siblings would, as he wrote in his autobiography, "[play] Indians in too realistic manner by staining ourselves (and incidentally our clothes) in a liberal fashion with poke-cherry juice.” He carried what he had read into adulthood, saying at a lecture in New York while away from his ranch in the Dakotas in the late 19th century that, "I don’t go so far as to think that the only good Indians are the dead Indians, but I believe nine out of every ten are, and I shouldn’t like to inquire too closely into the case of the tenth.”

As president, he supported the allotment system, which broke up reservations and forced Native peoples onto smaller, individually-owned lots—essentially remaking traditional land practices in the dominant white image. In his first message to Congress, Roosevelt called the General Allotment Act “a mighty pulverizing engine to break up the tribal mass.” Roosevelt also favored programs like Pennsylvania's Carlisle Indian Industrial School, established in 1879 to forcibly assimilate Native American children. Students were given new names and clothes, baptized, and forbidden to speak their languages. "In dealing with the Indians our aim should be their ultimate absorption into the body of our people,” Roosevelt said in his second message to Congress.

For most of his life, Geronimo aggressively resisted such attempts at assimilation. Born in the 1820s and named Goyahkla—"One Who Yawns"—near what is now the Arizona-New Mexico border, his life changed forever after his wife, mother, and small children were murdered by Mexican soldiers in the 1850s. Afterwards, Geronimo began attacking any Mexicans he could find; conflict with American settlers soon followed. It is said that his nickname, Geronimo, may have come about after one of his victims screamed for help from Saint Jerome, or Jeronimo/Geronimo in Spanish.

In the 1870s, the Chiricahua Apache were forced onto a reservation in Arizona, but Geronimo and his men repeatedly escaped. Eventually, as Gilbert King writes for Smithsonian, "Badly outnumbered and exhausted by a pursuit that had gone on for 3000 miles ... [Geronimo] finally surrendered to General Nelson A. Miles at Skeleton Canyon, Arizona, in 1886 and turned over his Winchester rifle and Sheffield Bowie knife."

The next chapter of Geronimo's life included being shuffled from Florida to Alabama to Fort Sill in the Oklahoma Territory while watching his fellow Apaches die of one disease after another. He was also repeatedly turned into a tourist attraction, appearing at the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair and even joining Pawnee Bill’s Wild West show (according to King, under Army guard), where he was billed as "The Worst Indian That Ever Lived."

Geronimo's Tearful Request

The 1905 meeting between Roosevelt, Geronimo, and some of the other Native American men took place a few days after the inauguration, once the crowds had thinned out and things had calmed down a little. Geronimo addressed Roosevelt through an interpreter, calling him "Great Father." According to one contemporary account, Norman Wood’s Lives of Famous Indian Chiefs, he began, "Great Father, I look to you as I look to God. When I see your face I think I see the face of the Great Spirit. I come here to pray to you to be good to me and to my people."

After describing his youthful days on the warpath, which the septuagenarian Geronimo now called foolish, he said, "My heart was bad then, but I did not know it." Now, however, he said, "My heart is good and my talk is straight."

With a tear running down his cheek, he got to the heart of the matter: "Great Father, other Indians have homes where they can live and be happy. I and my people have no homes. The place where we are kept is bad for us. Our cattle can not live in that place. We are sick there and we die. White men are in the country that was my home. ... I pray you to cut the ropes and make me free. Let me die in my own country, an old man who has been punished enough and is free."

According to a March 1905 New York Tribune article, Roosevelt said, “I cannot do so now ... We must wait a while and see how you and your people act. You must not forget that when you were in Arizona you had a bad heart; you killed many of my people; you burned villages; you stole horses and cattle, and were not good Indians.” But it seems at some point, Roosevelt softened—according to Wood, Roosevelt said, “Geronimo, I do not see how I can grant your prayer. You speak truly when you say that you have been foolish. I am glad that you have ceased to commit follies. I am glad that you are trying to live at peace and in friendship with the white people.

"I have no anger in my heart against you," Roosevelt went on. But, he said, "You must remember that there are white people in your old home. It is probable that some of these have bad hearts toward you. If you went back there some of these men might kill you, or make trouble for your people. It is hard for them to forget that you made trouble for them. I should have to interfere between you. There would be more war and more bloodshed. My country has had enough of these troubles."

The president reminded Geronimo that he was not confined indoors in Fort Sill, and allowed to farm, cut timber, and earn money. He promised, "I will confer with the Commissioner and with the Secretary of War about your case, but I do not think I can hold out any hope for you. That is all that I can say, Geronimo, except that I am sorry, and have no feeling against you."

Geronimo's request was never granted. Four years later, in 1909, he died after falling from a horse and developing pneumonia. The Chicago Daily Tribune printed the headline: “Geronimo Now [a] Good Indian."

At least, he was finally free.

Mental Floss has a podcast with iHeartRadio called History Vs., about how your favorite historical figures faced off against their greatest foes. Our first season is all about President Theodore Roosevelt. Subscribe on Apple Podcasts here, and for more TR content, visit the History Vs. site.

5 Facts About Charles Ponzi and the Original Ponzi Scheme

Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain
Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

Some of the most infamous scams in history have been Ponzi schemes, but before Bernie Madoff (or Bitcoin), there was Charles Ponzi himself. The con he built was so successful that his last name became synonymous with fraud. In January 2020, a century after he set up his fraudulent Securities Exchange Company, the phrase Ponzi scheme is still used to describe any scheme in which funds from new investors are used to pay back old investors. Here are some facts about Ponzi and his scheme that you should know.

1. Charles Ponzi arrived in the U.S. with $2.50 in his pocket.

Charles Ponzi was born in Lugo, Italy, in 1882. As a young adult, he worked as a postal worker and studied at the University of Roma La Sapienza. Neither path panned out for him, however. In 1903, when faced with dwindling funds, Ponzi boarded a ship for America in search of a better life. But Ponzi wasn't a master hustler at this point in his life; he arrived in Boston with $2.50 after gambling away the rest of his life savings on the ship.

2. Charles Ponzi spent time in prison before his famous scheme.

Ponzi was no stranger to crime before concocting the scheme that made his surname infamous. Not long after arriving in Boston, he moved to Canada and got in trouble for forging checks. He spent two years in a Canadian prison for his offenses. Back in the U.S., he served a term in federal prison for illegally transporting five Italians immigrants across the Canadian border. It was only after his so-called Ponzi scheme began to crumble that his criminal history was made public by journalists, thus speeding up his downfall.

3. Charles Ponzi got rich off the postal system.

In 1920, Ponzi discovered the key to the ultimate get-rich-quick scheme: an international postal reply coupon worth $.05. It had been included in a parcel he received from Spain as prepayment for his reply postage. Thanks to an international treaty, the voucher could be exchanged for one U.S. postage stamp worth a nickel, which Ponzi could then sell. Ponzi knew that the value of the Spanish peseta had recently fallen in relation to the dollar, which meant that the coupon was actually worth more than the 30 centavos used to purchase it in Spain. He took this concept to the extreme by recruiting people back home in Italy to buy postal reply coupons in bulk from countries with weak economies, so that he could redeem them in the U.S. for a profit.

4. Charles Ponzi swindled $20 million from investors.

Ponzi technically wasn’t breaking any laws with his postal service transactions, and if he had kept his idea to himself he would have gotten away with it. Instead, he turned his small money-making operation into a wide-reaching scam. If people invested money into his “business” of cashing in foreign postal vouchers, which he dubbed the Securities Exchange Company, they would get their money back plus 50 percent interest in 90 days. The deal was too good for many investors to pass up.

It was also too good to be true: The money wasn’t being used to buy coupons overseas. Ponzi kept most of the investments for himself and used the flood of money coming in from new investors to pay off the old ones. Many investors were so thrilled with their returns that they invested whatever money they had made back into the business, which helped Ponzi keep the sham afloat.

Ponzi was finally rich and famous, but soon enough, cracks in the scheme started to form. The Boston Post launched an investigation into Ponzi and revealed that in order for his business to be functional, he would need to be moving 160 million vouchers across world borders. There were only 27,000 postal reply coupons in circulation at the time. The final blow came when the publicist he had hired to represent him came out against him to the public. His system fell apart and it was revealed that he had stolen $20 million from investors.

Because he had lied to his clients about their investments through the mail, Ponzi was ultimately charged by the federal government for mail fraud. He served three-and-a-half years in prison and then served an additional nine years for state charges.

5. Charles Ponzi didn’t invent the Ponzi scheme.

Though Ponzi schemes were eventually named for him, Charles Ponzi didn’t invent this type of scam. There were many crooks before him who used the same method to exploit investors. Charles Dickens even wrote pre-Ponzi Ponzi schemes into his 1857 novel Little Doritt.

It’s possible that Ponzi got the idea for his own fraud from William F. Miller, who pulled a similar stunt working as a bookkeeper in Brooklyn in 1899. But it was the highs of Ponzi’s success—and the lows of his demise—that made his story so memorable.

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