Not many have heard the story of Elizabeth Patterson, a woman from Maryland who, against all odds, became royalty, only to be dumped on the orders of Napoleon Bonaparte. Elizabeth Patterson, known as Betsy, was born on February 6th, 1785, in Baltimore, to William Patterson, a successful businessman, and his wife, Dorcas Spear. Betsy was just a normal—but very rich—American.
In 1803, Jerome Bonaparte, the youngest brother of the First Consul of France, Napoleon, had left his warship in Martinique and was visiting Baltimore, though without permission from his oldest brother. He was a nineteen-year-old lieutenant in the French navy, while Betsy was eighteen years old. After they first met, Jerome was immediately smitten. Betsy was a smart, beautiful, witty, well-read young woman who could speak French fluently. Betsy and Jerome decided to marry, and though Betsy’s father did not approve at first, they married anyway on Christmas Eve, 1803.
Betsy began wearing clothes that were the fashion in France but the Americans considered revealing, and one person commented that “all the clothes worn by the bride might have been put in my pocket.” Everyone loved the couple, and Betsy must have been sure that Napoleon would react well. After all, he’d just been a Corsican nobody before the French revolution, why could he object to Betsy and Jerome’s marriage?
Napoleon turned out to be livid and demanded that Jerome come back to France without Betsy. She was six months pregnant, and Jerome was a very stubborn man, so he refused. Betsy and Jerome went to Europe and arrived in Lisbon, but Betsy had been forbidden by Napoleon to set foot in France. Napoleon had ordered Jerome to come and visit him in Milan alone, and the couple agreed that Jerome should go. Betsy was informed that if she just acknowledged that her marriage was invalid, Napoleon would pay her a pension and leave her alone. Betsy refused.
During this time, Betsy had a son, Jerome Napoleon Bonaparte, whom she nicknamed “Bo”. Jerome wrote to Betsy, saying that he would do “everything that must be done” to stay with Betsy. But once Napoleon, now Emperor, threatened to remove Jerome from the line of succession and exile him, he agreed to acknowledge that his marriage to Besty was invalid. Jerome stopped writing to Betsy, and, heartbroken, she returned to Baltimore. In 1805, their marriage was declared invalid by French courts, while the Pope refused to annul it. Bo was now illegitimate and Besty was stuck in Baltimore as a spurned wife.
Jerome, though, moved on. After his marriage to Betsy was dissolved, Napoleon made him King of Westphalia and had him marry Catharina of Wurttemberg. Jerome wanted Bo to be sent to Westphalia, but that was the one thing Betsy had control over with Jerome, and she refused. Besty also continued calling herself “Madame Bonaparte”, and divorced Jerome in the United States, since their marriage had only been dissolved in French courts.
Even though she hadn’t given into Napoleon’s original demand to stop calling herself a Bonaparte and go back to Baltimore so that she could get a pension, Betsy still asked for a pension from the Emperor. Napoleon decided to pay her, and would continue until he was forced to abdicate for the first time in 1814. Jerome ended up becoming a womanizer and wasn’t such a great king. He would be dethroned in 1813, and Napoleon would be defeated for the final time at the Battle of Waterloo two years later. That meant Betsy could finally travel to Europe, something that she’d always wanted to do.
She sent Bo to school in Maryland and traveled to England and around Europe. She also took Bo with her on a later trip to Geneva, and Bo would write that Betsy “goes out every night to a party or a ball.” Bo’s grandmother and Jerome’s mother, Letizia, wanted to meet him, and so did his aunt, Pauline Bonaparte, and Betsy eventually allowed this. Letizia and Pauline were delighted with Bo and suggested that he marry the daughter of Joseph Bonaparte. Joseph, however, refused.
Betsy went to Florence, where she by chance encountered Jerome and his new wife, Catharina, in the gallery of the Palazzo Pitti. Betsy hadn’t seen him in decades. She simply walked past him and they didn’t say anything to each other, and they would never see each other again. Jerome’s sister, Pauline, was more generous and left money to Bo in her will. After Pauline’s death, Bo went to Italy to meet Jerome once he was a grown man, but he didn’t like his father at all.
Betsy enrolled Bo at Harvard, knowing that that was the only way for Bo to get ahead in life, though she always hoped for a Bonaparte relative like Pauline to leave him money. Bo married an American woman named Susan May Williams, but Betsy disapproved, saying that her son was too good to marry an American, even though Susan was very rich. Bo and Susan had two sons, Jerome Napoleon Bonaparte II and Charles Joseph Bonaparte. The family didn’t stop using the name “Bonaparte”.
When Betsy’s father died in 1835, he left her brothers very much, but Betsy got almost nothing. He wrote that he left Betsy so little because: “The conduct of my daughter Betsey has through life been so disobedient that in no instance has she ever consulted my opinions or feelings; indeed, she has caused me more anxiety and trouble than all my other children put together, and her folly and misconduct have occasioned me a train of expense that first and last has cost me much money.”
When Napoleon’s nephew, Napoleon III became Emperor in 1852, he agreed that Betsy’s descendants were all Bonapartes, but would not be included in the line of succession. Following Jerome’s death, she tried to have Bo declared legitimate in French courts, though very unsuccessfully. She wrote a book called “Dialogues Between Jerome and My Father in Hell”, so she obviously was not fond of her father or Jerome by that point.
Besty died on April 4th, 1879, at the age of ninety-four, having outlived her son Bo by nearly a decade. Her tombstone reads: “After life’s fitful fever, she sleeps well.” She is buried in Baltimore. Betsy’s sister-in-law, Marianne, married the 1st Marquess Wellesley after Betsy’s brother’s death, which made her the sister-in-law of Napoleon’s worst enemy, the Duke of Wellington.