Jersey Reflections: Bonaparte in Exile

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The Bordentown, NJ, residence of Napoleon’s brother and the treasure once contained there provide insight into the personality of the exiled king.

Joseph Bonaparte, older brother of Napoleon and a resident of Point Breeze in Bordentown since 1816, would resume his life in New Jersey after returning from England following the death of his mother. But his U.S. stay was slowly nearing its end.

In ill health, Bonaparte had been forced to remain in Philadelphia for the first several months of 1832 while en route to his New Jersey home. It would be April by the time he arrived in Bordentown. But soon after, learning of the death of one of his daughters, he set sail once again for Europe, eventually regaining entry into Italy, where he would remain, reunited with his wife who had refused to undertake travel across the ocean to join him in America. He would die in Florence in 1844. 

But the legend of his Bordentown residence and the treasure once contained in its palatial confines managed to live on for the remainder of the 19th century, providing insight into the personality of the exiled king. And its lore makes a fascinating tale even today. 

From the start of his U.S. residency, Bonaparte had exhibited concern over maintaining the treasures he had accumulated while in Europe. According to Edward Brown, in his book Just Around the Corner in New Jersey, after the purchase of the Point Breeze estate, “one thing remained to be done. Bonaparte had to send a trusted agent back to Europe to dig up the gold and jewels he had buried there when things began to go wrong for his brother. His agent, [Louis] Mailliard, made the dangerous trip to Switzerland, and, one jump ahead of spies and thieves who wanted the treasure for themselves, he rescued it for Bonaparte.”

But Bonaparte’s treasure was not the most well-kept secret at the time of his Bordentown residency. He apparently enjoyed providing tours for guests, proudly guiding them past the jewels and paintings he either secretly stored or openly displayed throughout his abode. Information about these possessions reveals a rather impressive collection.

The 1939 book The Bonapartes in America by Clarence Edward Macartney and Gordon Dorrance reports that “visitors to Point Breeze relate how Joseph delighted to take them on a tour of his mansion. In a secret hidden cabinet in his library, he kept a splendid collection of jewels. There, too, could be seen the crown and rings he wore when King of Spain. The art gallery had a notable collection of paintings with masterpieces by Teniers, Bassano, Bidault, Vernet and Rubens. The most valuable of the paintings, however, was the ‘Nativity of our Saviour’ by Raphael Mengs. This painting had been executed as an altarpiece for one of the kings of Spain. Among the paintings that hung on the walls of Joseph's mansion was a copy of David's celebrated ‘Passage of the Alps.’” 

A visitor who was given a tour of the Bonaparte estate later recounted, “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 the paintings with the air of an accomplished amateur. In every room of the house there were statues of Napoleon in different positions and in various sizes.”

The reported wealth contained in the Bonaparte home contributed to the rumors and legends that arose after the former king departed America for the final time. In some accounts, the underground tunnels leading to his daughter’s house on the grounds and to a dock took on much more import than intended. 

Macartney and Dorrance report that “the main buildings…stood on a hundred-foot bluff at the junction of the Delaware River and Crosswicks Creek. It was to this tidewater creek that the famous and largely misunderstood upper tunnel led—a tunnel which was more for his daughter's convenience than his own in going from one house to another, thence, if desired, to a dock at the water-side. Many thought it was used by the Bonapartes to bury treasure; in the past century there have been treasure hunters but no treasure there…”

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