Wednesday, May 31, 2017

The Telephone Game

How many of you out there remember the "telephone game" when you were in elementary school? I recall sitting a circle and the first person started the game by whispering something, only once, in the ear of the person next to him or her. That person then repeated what they thought they heard by whispering it to the person on their other side, and so on, and so forth. When the whispered phrase returned to the beginning of the circle and was revealed to the group, the permutation of the original phrase was usually met by hysterical laughter. "I am wearing blue shoes" somehow morphed into "I am in love with John Hughes," right?

I think we all know that historical legends always involve some degree of the "telephone game." And most of us would also agree that when it comes to selling real estate, there is a strong tendency to lie and embellish in order to make a house more attractive. In our case, the legend surrounding our house, Beverly of Somerset, revolved around a historical figure of the grandest proportions- Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte. We were smitten before we heard the stories, but the legend certainly served as a conversation started about this unique property. But was it true? My natural curiosity coupled with my access to a number of subscription databases allowed me to get to the bottom of this particular legend. The results have shattered the myth, but hardly devalued the property.

The real estate "blurb" mentioned the legend that Beverly had been the center of a plot to rescue Napoleon from his exile on the island of St. Helena. The story told of a secret room behind a fireplace in an upstairs bedroom where he could have been hidden, and of a tunnel from the nearby creek so that he could come and go in secret. Alas, the tunnel was never actually discovered (although a quote from a previous owner who built the swimming pool says they found the ground caved in towards the creek)  and the secret room burned when the entire interior was torched in 1937. The connection to Napoleon was explained as a result of the friendship of the first owner of Beverly, Nehemiah King, to Jerome Bonaparte, who lived in Baltimore and married a local heiress, Elizabeth "Betsy" Patterson. A local resident Pierre Guillet was also mentioned in connection with the plot, but only his coincidental appearance from Philadelphia and departure after Napoleon's death seems to support any involvement in the "plot."

All of this seemed very reasonable to me, even exciting, and my first searches in our historical newspaper databases confirmed the story. Every article I found connected the burned house to the Napoleon plot. Later, when the house was restored after the fire, the rescue plot was repeated when the house was mentioned in connection with house tours and fundraisers. Not long after we moved in, the previous owner forwarded us some photos of the house immediately after the fire, as well as a book about the famous "Belle of Baltimore," Betsy Patterson.

Not far into the book about the 18 year old girl who married Napoleon Bonaparte's younger brother Jerome in 1803, I learned that she was abandoned by Jerome in 1805 and never saw him again. Although I didn't know much about the Bonapartes, it struck me as odd that there would have still been a relationship between a Maryland plantation owner and the brother who had never returned to Maryland by the time Napoleon needed rescue from St. Helena after Waterloo in 1815. Every story I had read had said that King was connected to the plot through Jerome and Betsy. (Later, I found other articles that described the friendship was actually with Nehemiah's son, Robert Jenkins Henry King, who was called Major King at times, and then apparently a Colonel, in the militia or as a sheriff apparently. This makes a little more sense time-wise.)

So I changed up my search terms a little to focus on the Napoleon "rescue plot." What I discovered is that many hamlets large and small in the US claimed to have a relationship to Napoleon and his rescue. Upstate New York was reported to have been where Napoleon was going to settle, because his brother Joseph had settled there. Another story large mansion was built for him in New Orleans and New Orleans Mayor Nicholas Girod, an ardent admirer of the emperor decided to try to rescue Napoleon out of exile on St. Helena and bring him to New Orleans to live in Girod's house. There was even a story about a smuggler, Tom Johnson, who aimed to spring the French leader from the heavily guarded island by using a bosun's chair to lower him down cliffs onto one of two steam-powered submarines waiting offshore.

Then I found articles to suggest that the most likely connection to a brother of Napoleon might have been through brother Joseph, former King of Naples, who arrived in American in 1816 and spent time in Philadelphia. There he became friends with Stephen Girard, a banker who helped finance the Louisiana Purchase. Girard was mentioned as a central figure of the plot in a few newspaper articles from the early 20th Century. Girard was a well-known figure to Philadelphians and was the founder of Girard College. His will and papers have been documented and studied. Unfortunately, there is little evidence of his involvement besides the possible confusion of his name with that of Nicolas Girod, a mayor of New Orleans, whose plot to rescue Napoleon included the building of a ship, the Seraphine, with help from Napoleon's supporters in New Orleans and Charleston, SC.

Girod built a house at 514 Chartres St. in New Orleans, now called "Napoleon House", and hired Dominic You, a lieutenant of the pirate Lafitte, to sail to St. Helena. He received word that Bonaparte had died just days before the ship was to sail. Other articles mention the ship was leave from Cape Charles, just down the Eastern Shore of Virginia from Beverly.

So, Girod or Girard? Cape Charles or Charleston? Nehemiah or Robert J.H.? Jerome or Joseph?

What do you think? Legend or fact? 

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