Elizabeth Spear Patterson was born on 6 February 1785 as the daughter of Dorcas Spear and William Patterson. Her parents’ marriage was unhappy, and even as her mother lay dying in 1814, her father brought his mistress to the house. Elizabeth was joined in the nursery by William, Robert, John, Joseph, Edward, Margaret, George, Caroline and Henry.
At the age of 10, Elizabeth was enrolled in Madame Lacomb’s school, where she learned French and enabled her to mingle with the French royalist refugees. She became close friends with Henrietta Pascault, the daughter of the Marquis de Poleon. Elizabeth carried little for the American society she had been born in. At the age of 17, Elizabeth was praised for her beauty and intelligence. In 1803, Elizabeth met Jérôme Bonaparte, a younger brother of Napoleon Bonaparte. Accounts of their first meeting vary and are all equally romantic. Elizabeth soon declared to her father, “I would rather be the wife of Jérôme Bonaparte for an hour than the wife of any other man for a lifetime.”
Her father was not impressed by her declaration, and he refused to give his blessing. Jérôme went to ask for Elizabeth’s hand in marriage in person, but once more, William refused. Jérôme then sent an emissary who also pleaded with William. He too was refused. Jérôme began to visit the Patterson household often, but by September Jérôme decided to leave Baltimore to give William more time to think. When Jérôme came back, he was done waiting and acquired a marriage license. When Elizabeth’s maternal family rallied for her cause, William realised he would not win and reluctantly agreed to the match, though he did see to it that a prenuptial agreement was made up. He still had his doubts.
Jérôme assured his father-in-law that he was 21 and a new law in France stated that no marriage was valid without parental consent if the groom was under 25. The wedding was supposed to take place in the United States, where no parental consent was required after the age of 21. Still, William feared that when the couple arrived in France, the Bonapartes would challenge the validity of the marriage. Elizabeth was also blissfully unaware of Jérôme’s womanising ways. Despite all of this, the wedding was rescheduled for Christmas Eve 1803. Jérôme wore a coat of purple satin, embroidered with gold while Elizabeth wore a simple muslin gown decorated with lace and pearls. But it turned out that Jérôme was still only 19 years old.
For now, the newlyweds were oblivious. The wedding was announced in newspapers in Boston, New York, Baltimore and Richmond. They decided to move to Washington, where they became quite the celebrities, not in the least because of Elizabeth’s daring way of dress. Elizabeth wore the latest French fashions, but in Washington, these were still considered scandalous. One man who attended a ball with Elizabeth later wrote a poem about her scandalous ways.
Well! What of Madame Bonaparte
Why she’s a little whore at heart
Her lustful looks her wanton air
Her limbs revealed her bosom bare
Shows her ill suited for the life
of a Columbian’s modest wife
When the news of Jérôme’s American wife reached Napoleon, he was not amused. It was pretty clear to him that the marriage was in no way valid, not in America and not in France. Jérôme learned of this in April but hoped that his brother would relent. He wanted to sail to France and introduce Elizabeth to his family, she would charm Napoleon, and everything would be okay. However, Elizabeth was not allowed to board any French ships, and the summer passed. Jérôme then decided to go separately, with him on a French ship and Elizabeth on an American one. However, Elizabeth’s ship was destroyed by a storm, and they would not try again for a while. By May 1804, Napoleon had declared himself Emperor, but Jérôme was not given any titles.
In March 1805, Elizabeth’s father chartered a ship to take Jérôme and Elizabeth to France, and by then Elizabeth was six months pregnant. On 2 April, they reached Lisbon, but they were not allowed to travel any further. Napoleon even wrote to them that he would pay off Elizabeth if she went away quietly. She retorted, “Tell your master I shall never relinquish a name he has made so famous… Tell him that Madame Bonaparte is ambitious and demands her rights as a member of the imperial family.” Jérôme was ordered to come to Napoleon, and he left Elizabeth behind. She would not see him again until several decades later.
Elizabeth travelled on to The Netherlands where she hoped Napoleon’s ban would not be valid. However, she realised she was not welcome when a warship fired a warning shot at them. They were eventually forced to go to England, but before she had even arrived, her husband had given in to his brother’s demands to let her go. Elizabeth disembarked at Dover on 19 May, and she travelled to Camberwell where she gave birth to a boy named for her husband on 7 July. Elizabeth had no idea what was going on with her husband as his letters had missed her, and she had no idea how to contact him. Jérôme wrote several letters to her, but none arrived. Elizabeth soon believed herself to be abandoned, and she made plans to return to Baltimore. Just as she was preparing to leave, several boxes containing dresses and gold pieces arrived from Jérôme. But still, no letter. On 14 November 1805, Elizabeth returned home with her infant son and her brother Robert.1
Part two coming soon.