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Friday, November 24, 2023

Is That Napoleon?

That's Napoleon.
No, that's not Napoleon.

Hanging in Staatsburgh's library, the life-size portrait of Staatsburgh's founder, Morgan Lewis, dressed an early 19th century military uniform, often prompts the question "Is that Napoleon?

While Ruth Mills' great-grandfather is not the French emperor, there are certainly reminders of Napoleon Bonaparte throughout the house. Tucked away in the southwest corner of Staatsburgh's library is a leather-bound, four-volume set titled Napoleon Bonaparte: A Life. Sitting upon Mrs. Mills' desk in her boudoir is a small brass sealing wax stamp crowned with a bust of Napoleon Bonaparte. Besides it, there sits a small tortoise box with a cameo of Napoleon Bonaparte. Outside of the guestrooms for unmarried ladies upstairs, hung among the portraits of American presidents such as George Washington and Theodore Roosevelt, hangs a print of Jacques-Louis David's Napoleon Crossing the Alps.

In anticipation of the upcoming Napoleon Bonaparte biopic, Napoleon, starring Joaquin Phoenix as the titular emperor, we wanted to share some of Staatsburgh's own connections to the wider Bonaparte family. For a woman who vied to be Queen of New York Society, Ruth Mills seemed to surround herself with images of French royalty. Yet her and her family's ties to the Bonaparte family went beyond interior decoration. Several generations of Ruth Livingston Mills' family had connections to the famous French imperial family, reaching from the gilded palaces of Paris to the American Wild West.

The King's Gift

In 1816, Gertrude Livingston Lewis, wife of Staatsburgh's founder Morgan Lewis, found herself alone at home. An unexpected carriage arrived at Staatsburgh's door, and after the small party - "whose name the servant could not pronounce" - inspected the estate grounds, Mrs. Lewis welcomed them into her home[1]. Addressing his hostess in French, the mysterious man announced "Madam , you have received me with so much kindness that I can not deny myself the pleasure of telling you that I am Joseph."

Specifically, Joseph Bonaparte. King Joseph Bonaparte.

The stranger whose name
"the servant could not pronounce."
François Gérard. Joseph Bonaparte, King of Spain. 
1808. Oil on canvas.

The older brother of Napoleon, Joseph was made King of Naples then later King of Spain. When his brother's empire began to crumble, and Napoleon was forced into exile on the south Atlantic island of Elba, Joseph fled into his own exile .... in New Jersey. The ex-king took the name Comte de Survillers and established a lavish country estate, Point Breeze, in 1816, where he rubbed shoulders with the young nation’s political elite – including New York's former governor Morgan Lewis.

attributed to Charles Lawrence. 
Point Breeze, the Estate of Joseph Napoleon Bonaparte at
Bordentown, New Jersey
. 1817–1820. Oil on canvas.

Over the next several years, Bonaparte made several seasonal visits to Staatsburgh. Every time, Joseph was treated as one of the family during his visits. The former king was remembered fondly by the Livingston grandchildren; offering gifts upon his arrival to each, breakfasting with the children and "grandpapa" each morning, and teaching the older children lessons in Italian and French (the former King of Naples and brother of Napoleon Bonaparte ain't a bad Italian teacher, no?). Bonaparte particularly enjoyed the Hudson Valley cider produced right on Lewis' estate and would often stroll the grounds with the General discussing the running of the estate - once declaring "God had given us a paradise."

Since the original Staatsburgh House burned in 1832, there are few relics of the king's visit.[2] Yet, one unique piece survived. According to family legend, during one warm summer evening, the drawing room was invaded by June beetles. When one of them landed near his table, Joseph Bonaparte grabbed the pest and held it near a lit candle. Horrified at what he saw, Maturin Livingston, Morgan Lewis' son-in-law (and Ruth Mills' grandfather) slapped the deposed king’s hand – freeing the insect. Everyone, perhaps no one more than Maturin himself, was taken aback.

Innocent-Louis Goubaud.
Joseph Bonaparte. 1832.
Oil on canvas.
Maturin Livingston.
19th century. Oil on canvas.

Showing no hard feelings toward his hosts, before the end of his visit, Bonaparte presented his fowling piece to Maturin Livingston. An early version of the shotgun, used primarily for bird hunting, this fowling piece was handmade with delicate engravings along its maple stock- truly fit for a king![3]

Today, that fowling piece is on display atop the mantle in Staatsburgh's main hall, opposite Maturin Livingston's portrait.

Detail of Bonaparte's fowling piece.

The Prince and the Governor

Louis Napoleon Bonaparte (center),
launching a failed coup in 1836,
before his travels to New York.
When Napoleon's son died, Joseph Bonaparte was seen by many as the natural successor to his younger brother. Joseph's claim to the throne caused friction between the surviving Bonaparte brothers. 

But that didn't stop Napoleon's nephew, Louis Napoleon Bonaparte. The son of Napoleon's brother Louis Bonaparte, King of Holland, Louis Napoleon Bonaparte served as the President of France before seizing power in 1851 to declare himself Emperor of the French. Titled Napoleon III (Napoleon II was Napoleon Bonaparte's son), he ruled until his defeat at the hands of the Prussian army in 1871.

Following an earlier failed coupe in 1836 against the reigning French king Louis Philippe, Louis Bonaparte went into exile in Switzerland before traveling abroad to New York. Like his uncle before him, the young Bonaparte prince was introduced to Morgan Lewis. According to Lewis' granddaughter, Julia Delafield, the aging general Lewis was quite deaf by this point and could not tell how loudly he was speaking. After dinner, Lewis asked a fellow-guest "what do you think of this young Bonaparte? He seems to me to be a very clever fellow." Lewis did not know (or, perhaps, care) how loud he was speaking, for Louis Napoleon "appeared both pleased and amused at having obtained so unsuspected an evidence of the General's good opinion."

Delafield agreed with her grandfather's opinion of the young Bonaparte, but added "none of us saw the star that led him to the imperial throne."

Today, a reminder of Napoleon III's New York travels remains in our possession. Louis Napoleon gifted Lettres de Napoleon, a book of letters between his uncle Napoleon and aunt Josephine, to Maturin Livingston.[4] Sewn into the binding of Lettres de Napoleon are three high-quality facsimiles of letters that postdate Napoleon's 1809 divorce from Josephine. While Louis Napoleon distributed copies of this book widely during his travels, he added a unique handwritten inscription for Maturin.

"Unpublished letters of Napoleon to Josephine.
Presented to Maturin Livingston.
Louis Napoleon

Can You Die of a Broken Heart?

František Xaver Sandmann. Napoléon in Sainte-Hélène.
c. 1820. Watercolor.

It was not just the old-money Lewis-Livingston family that claimed Bonaparte connections. The new-money Mills family had their own connection to the imperial family ... in California, 5,500 miles away from Paris.
A striking resemblance to
a certain emperor,
wouldn't you say?
Courtesy of HathiTrust.

John Gordon, a Scottish watchmaker, died in California in 1886. Upon his death bed, he revealed to his family his true paternity - that he was the illegitimate son of Napoleon Bonaparte!  

The details are vague at best. Susan Gordon De Lancey told the Oakland Tribune of an iron chest beside her father's bedside filled with documentary evidence of his paternity; but sadly that chest, and the archival treasure inside, were sold away shortly after his death. Obituaries and burial records mention he was 58 years old upon his death, meaning he would have been born 6 years after Napoleon's death. Following his final defeat at the Battle of Waterloo, Napoleon Bonaparte was sent to his final exile on the island of St. Helena in the south Atlantic. This was the location in which the family stories allege John Gordon was born - but to whom? Clarence Edward MacCartney and Gordon Dorrance, in their book The Bonapartes in America, outline two suspects for Gordon's mother: either a "Princess Louise," or Napoleon's Scottish housekeeper, Mrs. William Gordon. Regardless, Mrs. Gordon - acting as mother or adopted mother - allegedly took the young boy back to Scotland, where he was raised by the Gordons.

Young John Gordon was taught his father's trade: watchmaking (not empire building). This trade brought him first to London, then over to New London, Connecticut, then in the wilds of California by 1874.

Darius Ogden Mills, 
father of Ogden Mills and 
friend of John Gordon.
Another eastern transplant in the thriving port city of San Francisco was Darius Ogden "D.O." Mills. The father of Staatsburgh's own Ogden Mills, the elder Mills left his native New York for California, chasing gold fever in 1848. Never mining for gold directly, Mills was a wise financier, one of the founders of the Bank of California (the second-richest bank in the United States) and co-owner of the Virginia and Truckee Railroad that transported ore from the wealthy Comstock Lode.

"Mr. Mills was father's closest friend" remembered John Gordon's daughter. There is no record of how the New York banker met the supposed son of Napoleon, but D.O. Mills featured prominently in the latter's final years. After gambling away his money, "Gordon's closest friend" gifted the watchmaker $500,000 on the condition "not to use ... for stock gambling". Sadly, the temptation to gamble away his bailout was too strong - and he died penniless.

"My father really died of grief" noted Gordon's daughter Susan de Lancey, adding that when he lost his gift from Mills "it prayed heavily on his mind."

The San Francisco Call simply declared "John Gordon Died of a Broken Heart"

"John Gordon Died of a Broke Heart"
San Francisco Call & Post (San Francisco, CA).
March 13, 1913.

A Lucky Strike for Napoleon

Gordon is buried in a once-forgotten grave in San Francisco's Laurel Hill Cemetery. His (alleged) father, Uncle Joseph, and cousin Louis Napoleon are all buried in Les Invalides in Paris. 

Young Ogden Mills visited Les Invalides as a child while on a European tour with his family, and was fascinated by all that he saw inside the French landmark. The 12-year-old son of a California banker could hardly imagine that, decades later, he and his wife Ruth Mills would not only own their own elegant Parisian mansion just blocks away, but would find themselves rubbing elbows with a legitimate heir of the Bonaparte name.

A New Yorker throughout his adult life, his inherited wealth let him live as he pleased and do as he liked, and so he never held a job or practiced a profession.

Harsh. That was how The New York Sun characterized Jerome Napoleon Charles Bonaparte long after his death in 1945. 

Jerome Napoleon Charles Bonaparte,
the last of the 'American Bonapartes.'
Courtesy of the L.O.C.

The last Bonaparte in the United States, Jerome Napoleon Charles Bonaparte (above) was born in 1878, the fourth generation of Bonapartes to bear the name Jerome. His great-grandfather, Jerome Bonaparte, was the youngest brother of Emperor Napoleon. While stationed with the French Navy in the United States, he married wealthy Baltimore heiress Elizabeth Patterson in 1803. Napoleon opposed the union and demanded his brother return to France and leave that "young person" behind. A son, Jerome Napoleon, was born in England - a son who would not see his father for several decades. The French courts annulled the marriage and the elder Jerome, now King of Westphalia, married Princess Katharina Friederike of Württember.

Jerome Napoleon Bonaparte II,
as a West Point cadet (c. 1850s).
Courtesy of the Maryland Center
for History and Culture
Elizabeth Patterson returned to her native Baltimore with her son, Jerome Napoleon. Upon his father's death in 1880, Jerome Napoleon Patterson was entitled to use the "Bonaparte" surname by his cousin, Napoleon III. A son, Jerome Napoleon Bonaparte II, was born in Baltimore in 1832. Graduating 11th in his class at West Point (with the help of Superintendent Robert E. Lee), Col. Bonaparte II served the majority of his career in the French Army, serving his first-cousin once-removed Emperor Napoleon III during the Crimean War and Franco-Prussian War and earning medals from the Sultan of Turkey and the Queen of England.[5]

The decorated war veteran was also an early vacationer to Newport during the Gilded Age. Col. Bonaparte's name is listed alongside Ruth Mills' name in several Newport newspapers from the era. In 1886, the colonel and Mrs. Mills both partook in a "notable equine display" of "fashion and beauty" along Bellevue Avenue. A decade later, Bonaparte and Mills are listed as several "cottage owners" who "have come [to Newport] to inspect their houses and to give orders for the necessary repairs." In the 1890s, Bonaparte summered at the Harrison House on Harrison Ave, while the Mills spent the season at Ocean View along Bellevue Ave. An active member of Newport society, Col. Bonaparte was both a stockholder in the Newport Casino and governor of the Newport Golf Club in 1893 - a position Ogden Mills held several years later in 1907.

1892 map of Newport, Rhode Island (detail),
with the homes of Col. Bonaparte and the Millses, circled.
Courtesy of Harvard University.

After Col. Bonaparte's death in 1893, his son far exceeded his father's social standing. "Tall, slender, and mustachioed," Jerome Napoleon Charles Bonaparte lived a life "recorded in one-sentence society-page entries" as the New York Sun noted. A golfer, motorist, and swordsman, Bonaparte and his wife, Mrs. Blanche Pierce Strebeigh, were fixtures of social life from the late Gilded Age through the modern 1920s and 1930s. A 1929 Lucky Strike cigarette advertisement named Mrs. Jerome Napoleon Bonaparte "a leading figure in New York, Palm Beach and Newport social life"!

Mrs. Jerome Napoleon Bonaparte,
"a leading figure in New York, Palm Beach and Newport social life,"
in a 1929 Lucky Strike cigarettes advertisement.
Courtesy of "A New Yorker State of Mind."

In 1919, Mrs. Bonaparte and Mrs. Mills are both listed as patronesses for a benefit recital, "Songs of Old France," in Newport. Through the 1920s, the Bonapartes and Mills families continued to be listed in the same society columns from New York to Newport. By 1927, Mr. and Mrs. Jerome Napoleon Bonaparte are listed as living in the Weylin Hotel on E. 54th Street in New York, opposite Central Park from the Mills' nephew Mr. and Mrs. Ogden Mills Reid, residing on W. 53rd Street. 

In less than a decade, the descendant to European royalty moved further uptown to 15 East 69th Street ... mere steps away from the former-residence of American royalty, Mrs. Ruth Livingston Mills, at 2 East 69th Street!

Her son, Ogden Livingston Mills, was residing at the 69th Street mansion in the 1930s. Both men, Mills and Bonaparte, would pass within a decade with no heirs to carry on their illustrious family names. While both the Bonaparte and Mills names ended with those last generations, their legacy lives on. 

There are no records of the younger Mills and Bonaparte sons ever meeting. But, one wonders, while strolling along East 69th Street, perhaps noticing the new neighbors moving-in down the block, if Ogden Mills ever asked:

"Is that Napoleon?"


[1] Most likely, the "servant" mentioned was a person of African-descent enslaved by Morgan Lewis.

[2] Outside of Staatsburgh, in upstate New York, there is a Lake Bonaparte, named for Joseph Bonaparte, located within Lewis County, named for Morgan Lewis!

[3] We highlighted the Bonaparte fowling piece in our series "Around the World with Staatsburgh's Collections" in 2021 on our YouTube page.

[4] Josephine's daughter from a previous marriage, Hortense, would marry Napoleon's brother, Louis Bonaparte, and bear a son, Louis Napoleon (Napoleon III); making Josephine both Louis Napoleon's (Napoleon III's) aunt and grandmother.

[5] His brother, Charles Joseph Bonaparte, was equally impressive. Born in Baltimore and educated at Harvard University, he made a name for himself in civil service reform across Baltimore. Bonaparte founded the National Municipal League, with the aim of rooting our corruption in state and local governments - catching the eye of US Civil Service Commissioner Theodore Roosevelt. After the 1904 election of Roosevelt to a second term as president, Bonaparte was appointed as Secretary of the Navy.  The following year, he was appointed as Attorney General of the United States - becoming Roosevelt's chief "trust-buster." Bonaparte would argue a record 56 cases in front of the Supreme Court, ranging in prosecutions of Standard Oil and railway corporations to a libel case against the New York World newspaper - 38 decided in favor of the government! Notably, Attorney General Bonaparte established the Bureau of Investigation, a "permanent detective force" of the Justice Department, today known as the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).

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