Betsy Patterson was the celebrated Baltimore belle and beauty whose turbulent love affair and brief marriage to Prince Jerome Bonaparte, the younger brother of Napoleon, turned into a 19th-century soap opera that ended only with her death in 1879 in a local rooming house.
She was born the daughter of William Patterson, an Irish immigrant who became a successful merchant and whose wealth it was said was second only to that of Charles Carroll of Carrollton.
At 18, she sat for her portrait by noted artist Gilbert Stuart, who had earlier painted George Washington.
"He shows her in full three-quarter face and profile. The hazel eyes and dark curly hair, the perfect lips, the soft clear skin, the proud nose and graceful shoulders as the artist painted them are proof that her reputation for beauty was not exaggerated. There is the word of the subject herself that Stuart was the only painter who made her live. Long after time had altered her it is said she was accustomed to stand in rapt attention before this testimony of her youthful loveliness," wrote Francis F. Beirne in his book, "The Amiable Baltimoreans."
Jerome Bonaparte, 15 years younger than his brother, was a handsome and dashing young naval lieutenant when he arrived in Baltimore during the summer of 1803 after a tour of duty in the West Indies to visit the city in the company of his longtime friend Commodore John Barry.
"In England it is the boast of many an ancient manor house that Queen Elizabeth once slept there. In Baltimore there are few ancient families which do not boast that it was at a ball given by their ancestors that the first meeting of Betsy Patterson and Jerome Bonaparte took place," wrote Beirne.
Patterson always claimed she first met Bonaparte at a fashionable dinner given by Louis Pascault, the Marquis de Poleon, in honor of his daughter Henriette.
"According to Betsy's story she was standing with Henriette Pascault when two handsome young men approached. 'I will marry that one,' said Henriette, pointing to one of the young men. 'Then I will marry the other,' replied Betsy. She remarked in later years, 'Strangely enough we both did as we said,'" wrote Beirne.
"The romance of Jerome Bonaparte and Betsy Patterson was the first of the two greatest love stories of Baltimore," reported The Sun in 1946.
"It was the first time that a member of the nobility had to choose between a Baltimore woman and a throne. Jerome chose the throne. Many years later, King Edward VIII chose Wallis Warfield rather than the crown of England," observed the newspaper.
French officials here realized that Napoleon would not approve of the romance and neither did Patterson's father.
Despite protestations on both sides of the Atlantic, the couple were married on Christmas Eve 1803 at her father's home on South Street by Bishop John Carroll with the mayor of Baltimore and the French consul as witnesses.
Patterson had scandalized the wedding guests with her scanty apparel. One shocked guest observed that "all the clothes worn by the bride might have been put in my pocketbook."
Jerome had given his wife a present of a garnet necklace inscribed with the word "Fidelite," a rather ironic wedding remembrance since he deserted her only two years after their marriage.
Napoleon was furious. Jerome had violated French law by contracting a marriage without family consent. He tried to persuade Pope Pius VII to annul the marriage. He refused. In 1805, the couple sailed to Lisbon where an agent of Napoleon inquired as to what he could do for Betsy. "Tell your master that Madame Bonaparte is ambitious and demands her rights as a member of the imperial family."
Napoleon refused to allow Patterson to enter France and she fled to London where she gave birth to the couple's son whom she named Jerome Napoleon and called "Bo."
"Yet there are indications that Betsy's cynicism regarding her former husband may have been assumed to conceal the fact that she never ceased to love him. After her marriage was annulled by a civil decree issued by Napoleon, Jerome became King of Westphalia and married Princess Frederica of Wurttenberg at his brother's command," said a 1959 newspaper story in The Sun.
Her father had successfully petitioned the Maryland Legislature to grant her a divorce while Napoleon settled on her $20,000 and an annuity of $12,000.
She then embarked on a tireless crusade and became a familiar figure in Europe as she sought recognition for her son. After attempting to arrange a royal marriage that failed, Bo married Susan May Williams of Baltimore.
"Though Baltimore has made Betsy Patterson one of its immortals she, on her part, never pretended any affection for the city or its people. At the time of Napoleon's death she made a point of praising his genius despite the fact the 'he hurled me back on what I hated most on earth, my Baltimore obscurity,' " wrote Beirne.