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Historic Houses

Bonaparte House
Where Joseph Bonaparte, Ex-King of Spain and Naples, refused the Crown of Mexico

A Jerseyman And His Royal Crown

From Historic Houses of New Jersey by W. Jay Mills, 1902
Edited by GET NJ, COPYRIGHT 2002

BONAPARTE HOUSE, the New Jersey mansion of a Bonaparte Who once wielded the sceptre on the throne of Spain, is only a fading memory to the world at large. Years ago it was destroyed and its beautiful park and gardens laid waste by time and neglect, but it still lives on in Bordentown like the deathless palace of Alladin. In that city to-day there are a few old residents who still cherish every recollection of "Pointe Breeze" the magnificent and its regal owner who had played a part in the history of Europe.

It was some time during the year 1816 that a portly but graceful gentleman, with features closely resembling those of the great Napoleon, drove over from Trenton to Bordentown in company with his business-agent. The day was fair and the scenery beautiful, and at every milestone the occupants of the carriage became more and more enamoured with the country. On finally reaching Bordentown, the portly gentleman, who was none other than Joseph Bonaparte, then calling himself Comte de Survilliers, had decided to purchase a home in its midst as a peaceful haven of refuge for his persecuted family.

Two years later we find him established in all his glory in a mansion on a slight eminence overlooking the Delaware, called Pointe Breeze. This romantic spot was a portion of an estate purchased for him from the Sayre family. Stephen Sayre, who occupied the mansion house with his wife and son until the late summer of the year Bonaparte drove to Bordentown with a view to purchasing an estate, was quite a noted figure in colonial history. When a young man he visited London, where he married a lady of rank possessed of a large fortune. He became a leader of fashion in the London world, and his popularity caused him to be chosen high-sheriff of the city in 1774. He early became interested in the independence of his native country, and secretly did all he could to promote the cause. In October of 1775 he was arrested on a charge of high-treason, made against him by a sergeant in the royal guards. This man, an American, charged him with being in a plot to seize the king on his way to Parliament and overthrow the government. His papers were seized, and at the instigation of Lord Rockford he was committed to the Tower. Subsequently he was tried and acquitted, but his confinement produced his ruin. Having lost fortune and friends, he became Dr. Franklin's private secretary, and was employed by him on many important missions.

After New Jersey had passed the law (This law caused New Jersey to be nicknamed "New Spain" and "The Royal State.") for the count's benefit permitting an alien to own real estate, Bonaparte immediately began remodelling the Sayre dwelling. Skilled workmen were brought from Philadelphia to decorate its interior and gardeners to plan a large park. Near the water-edge he erected the famous Belvedere, in which some writers have asserted a sentinel was always on guard to report any suspicious equipages winding down the Trenton Road. The first Bonaparte House, an oblong frame building with two side wings, was erected about 1790, and destroyed by fire three years after, while Bonaparte occupied it. In constructing a second residence, the Comte de Survilliers, we are told, used his new stables. These were some distance away from his house and near the Trenton Road. By many alterations amP extensions he succeeded in converting them into a very handsome structure. It is described as long and rather low, with its most distinguishing feature a wide front door opening into a regal hall. This hall, with its sumptuous objects of art brought direct from Luxembourg and other places of renown abroad, was a wonderful sight, even in the eyes of the travelled first families of the Bordentown aristocracy. An old lady of Bordentown used to repeat a story of how when taken there as a girl she was so dazzled by its elegance that she mistook one of the count's black-garbed lackeys for himself, and made a profound curtsey to the astonished factotum.

The count's family living in "Bonaparte Park" consisted of Louis Mailliard, his confidential friend, and Adolph Mailliard, his son ; France La Coste and his beautiful wife and boy, and William Thibaud and his daughter, besides many dependants and less important followers. His eldest daughter, the Princess Zenaide Charlotte Julie, and her husband, Prince Charles de Canino and Musignano, lived at the nearby Lake Villa, which he erected for them. His youngest daughter, the Princess Charlotte, presided over Bonaparte House for many years. She was of a petite prettiness, and became a favorite in Bordentown and Philadelphia, owing to her merry temperament. When in 1824 she embarked for Italy to rejoin her mother, the famous Nicholas Biddle eulogized her in thirty-four lines written in her album on board the steam*oat " Philadelphia." While in Italy, in 1827, she married her cousin, Napoleon Louis, Grand Duke of Cleves and Berg, eldest son of Louis Bonaparte by his queen Hortense Beauharnais, and brother of Napoleon III.

In "A Sketch of Joseph Bonaparte, by Helen Berke- ley," which appeared in "Godey's Lady's Book" for April, 1845, that old-time author, in a description of a visit to Bonaparte House with her husband and nieces, has left us the most interesting and intimate picture extant of the count and his Bordentown residence. Treating of the first morning, she says:

The tea-service removed, our host gave some private directions to the servants, which they obeyed by producing two handsomely-bound volumes, large enough to look (at the first glance) like a good-sized portfolio of engravings, rather than a book. One was placed upon a table, immediately under a chandelier, which threw upon it a perfect flood of light, and the other given to Mr. T. [William Thibaud, a member of his household] to dispose of as he chose. The count then arranged seats for Clara and myself at the table, and Mr. T. invited his daughter and Mr. Sindly to join him at another table. Our host opened the book, which was full of costly engravings, representations of Napoleon's life and the different warlike acts he had performed. He paused at every picture, and grew enthusiastic as he recounted the different scenes which had been thus splendidly commemorated. His cheek flushed and his eyes grew brighter as he proudly and affectionately exclaimed, 'There never was but one Napoleon.' Frequently he would sigh, and place his hand over his heart, and say, in a tone which perhaps his broken English rendered more touching, ' I sigh for the death of my poor brother;' and at other times he would say, ' Oh, they did him great wrong ; my brother had great wrongs, madame, and now he is dead.' The excitement was at times painful, and averted my mind so completely from the pictures that I could not do justice to their merit."
Of the next mornning she says
We found the count as fall of vivacity and amiability as ever. When we arose from the table, he asked us if we would like to see his private library and take a general tour of the house. Our answer was, as you may imagine, a joyful affirmative. Mr. T. ordered the key of the private library to be brought, and a servant preceded us up-stairs with the key in his hand. The door was opened, we entered, it closed again, and I heard the servant lock the door and walk away. I looked around. The apartment was filled, or rather lined, with elegant book-cases and handsomely-bound books, but there was no door visible, and I was sure we were locked in.

It seemed rudeness to feel any uneasiness, yet it was unavoidable - the proceeding seemed so strange a one. At all events, I thought it some consolation to know we were all together. After we had walked around the room and examined the books and a few paintings that hung on the wall and many rich vases which had belonged to Napoleon, the count touched a secret spring, and several rows of skilfully painted bookcases flew back and displayed a set of drawers. These he opened, and drew out a number of caskets containing splendid jewels of all descriptions. Several clusters looked like jewelled handles of swords ; others portions of crowns rudely broken off; others like lids of small boxes; many of them were ornaments entire. He showed us the crown and rings he wore when king of Spain, also the crown, robe, and jewels in which Napoleon was crowned. When our eyes had been sufficiently dazzled by the glare of diamonds and emeralds to satisfy him, he touched another concealed spring, which gave to view another set of drawers and displayed to us many of Napoleon's valuable papers. His treaties and letters were carefully bound round by ribbons and fastened by jewelled clasps. Some of the papers he opened and read to us, then returned them to their places with a care which almost amounted to veneration. At length all the papers were returned, the robe and jewels safe in their hiding-places, and the count looked around the room, as much as to say he had nothing further to show us at present.

While I was wondering how we were to make our exit, he approached a bookcase at the end of the room, pressed his finger on a particular place, and the whole case flew back, which showed a door, which opened with a lock, and we entered into the count's summer sleeping-apartment. It consisted of a chamber, dressing- and bathingroom, with a small studio, or rather boudoir. The curtains, canopy, and furniture were of light blue satin, trimmed with silver. Every room contained a mirror reaching from the ceiling to the floor. Over the bed hung a splendid mirror, and also one over the table. The walls were covered with oil-paintings, principally of young females, with less clothing about them than they or you would have found comfortable in our cold climate, and much less than we found agreeable when the count, without ceremony, led us before them, and enumerated the beauties of paintings with the air of an accomplished amateur. In every room of the house there were statues of Napoleon in some different position and of various sizes. There were also statues of his father and mother and all the family. To the statue of Pauline, in particular, the count called our attention, and asked us to admire it. He stood some time perfectly enraptured before it, pointing out to us what a beautiful head Pauline had, what hair, what eyes, nose, mouth, chin, what a throat, what a neck, what arms, what a magnificent bust, what a foot, enumerating all her charms, one after another, and demanding our opinion of them. Necessity made us philosophers, and we were obliged to show as much sang-froid on the subject as himself, for it was impossible to get him away without our prudery exciting more attention than would have been pleasant. When the count was satisfied with the eulogiums we bestowed upon his fair sister, he led us on, remarking, as he turned away from the statue, 'Ah, she was very beautiful, very beautiful was Pauline, but too ambitious. Nothing could satisfy her ; she always felt as if my from the statue, 'Ah, she was very beautiful, very beautiful was Pauline, but too ambitious. Nothing could satisfy her ; she always felt as if my but too ambitious. Nothing could satisfy her ; she always felt as if my poor brother was robbing her of a kingdom, instead of bestowing one upon her ; but she was so beautiful.' . . . The count next conducted us to his winter suite of apartments. They were decorated much in the style of his summer ones, excepting the furniture was of crimson and gold.

In the grand hallway of Bonaparte House, it has been quite truthfully asserted, more Royalists have walked than in any other house in New Jersey. It was there Joseph Bonaparte received the deputation from Mexico which came to offer him the crown of that nation. Tired of unruly kingdoms, he wisely refused the honor, remarking, that he had " worn two crowns, and would not lift a finger to secure a third." Amid its grandeur Clauzel, Lafayette, Desmonettes, Napoleon III., Lallemand, Clay, Webster, Adams, Girard, Scott, and many other famous figures in history have waited to be greeted by America's one long-resident king.

Although Joseph Bonaparte had much of Napoleon's egotism, and was prone to lecture his guests and servants, and ofttimes scandalized the country with his escapades, he was sincerely loved for his open-heartedness and generous hospitality. During his residence in Bordentown he increased the prosperity of the place, and made it almost as famous as his brother did Saint Helena. When he left for Trenton on his way to set sail for England, in July, 1832, the very day of the Duc de Reichstad's death, there was great sadness among the towns- people. After he had gone, Bordentown seemed indeed deserted without its royal benefactor.

In after years he returned there but once, and that was in 1837, "to settle up his affairs," as he told his former neighbors. When he departed again, after this final farewell, many a household was richer by some souvenir of the Corsican family that had occupied half the thrones of Europe. He died a few years later in Italy, in 1844. By his will he left Bonaparte Park and most of his New Jersey property to his eldest grandson, Joseph Lucien Charles Napoleon, son of Zenaide and Prince Charles, fondly believing that it would remain in the Bonaparte family forever. Prince Joseph, as he was popularly called, thought otherwise, and soon commenced disposing of the farms surrounding the park. In 1847 Bonaparte House and park were put up at auction and sold to a Mr. Richards. He disposed of them in a few years to Henry Beckett, Esq., a son of Sir John Beckett, of Somerley Park, Lincolnshire, England. This Mr. Beckett, who is known in Bordentown as "the destroyer," tore down the famous Bonaparte House and erected the hideously ugly dwelling which occupies the site to-day.

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