Tag Archives: Baltimore

19th Century Life: American vs. European Cities

One question that my early test readers of The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte asked me was why Betsy wanted to live in Europe so badly. What did she have against her own country?

In our current time period, when the United States is the most powerful country in the world and U.S. culture is a dominant global force, it’s hard to realize what the country was like two hundred years ago. The difference between living in an American city and living in a European capital was like the difference we’d experience between living in small-town Wisconsin and Chicago.

Look at the two graphs below, which I created using statistics I found on the Internet.

european cities 1800

U.S. cities

To further drive home the difference, here is an image of Paris in the early 1800s:

Place des Victoires by Victor-Jean Nicolle

Place des Victoires by Victor-Jean Nicolle, via Wikimedia Commons

And here is the description I wrote in the novel of Washington, D.C., in 1804:

The next day, Aunt Nancy took Betsy and Jerome on a carriage tour. After Congress had decided in 1790 to build the nation’s capital in a newly created federal district, President Washington commissioned civil engineer Pierre Charles L’Enfant to devise a plan. Originally from France, L’Enfant wanted to construct a city in the European style with important buildings set far apart to allow for public gardens and plazas. At the time of Betsy and Jerome’s visit, the wide spaces between public buildings were occupied by a mix of uncleared land, small plots with cabins, and recently built houses—giving the city of Washington the disconcerting appearance of a sparsely settled wilderness with a few grandiose structures set down at random. Stories abounded of Congressmen going squirrel hunting within the city or getting mired in a swamp as they drove to their quarters at night.

Betsy was clever, ambitious, and interested in art and literature. Is it any wonder she wanted to be in Europe where the action was?


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19th Century Life: Madeira

One of the most popular wines during the early years of the United States was the wine called Madeira. Thomas Jefferson enjoyed it, and according to some reports, the wine was used to toast the Declaration of Independence. Madeira comes from the Portuguese island of the same name, which has a rich volcanic soil. The early United States had no vineyards, so all wines had to be imported, and Madeira has special qualities that allowed it to survive the long, precarious ocean crossing.

During the Age of Exploration, ships often stopped by Madeira to stock up before a long voyage, so the wine makers began to add spirits to the wine during the fermentation process to help preserve it. The other interesting feature about Madeira happened by accident. An unsold shipment of wine returned to the islands and the wine makers discovered that the heat and movement the wine had been subject to during its travels had actually changed its flavor. Manufacturers wanted to recreate this quality, so they began to heat the wine  and expose it to oxygen. The resulting wine’s ability to withstand the rigors of lengthy voyages made it perfect to ship to the American market.

There are many styles of Madeira, made from different grapes. Some are dry, and others are sweet. The most popular variety in Baltimore, Betsy’s hometown, was a variety called Rainwater. It was a pale, delicate variety usually made from Tinta Negra Mole grapes. There is an interesting story about how it got its name. According to legend, some casks were left out on the dock and became diluted when it rained. The unscrupulous dealers sold the wine anyway, and lo and behold, their American customers liked it.

Rainwater Madeira is difficult to find now as it has fallen out of fashion. I’d love to try it sometime, though, just to taste something that Betsy must have tasted.

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19th Century Life: Bodily Functions

Two years ago when I was visiting Baltimore for research, my husband and I toured the Homewood House Museum. Homewood was the mansion of Charles Carroll, Jr., son of Charles Carroll of Carrollton (the only Catholic to sign the Declaration of Independence). Today, Homewood is beautifully restored, decorated, and furnished to authentically represent how it originally looked. It’s located on the campus of Johns Hopkins University, and I strongly recommend visiting it if you’re ever in Baltimore.

Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte almost certainly attended parties at Homewood in its heyday. Not only were the Pattersons and Carrolls both leading Maryland families, they were also intimately connected. In 1806, Betsy’s older brother Robert married Charles Carroll, Jr.’s niece, Marianne. So Homewood was a must-see for me. The day we visited, I told the woman who was going to be our guide that I was there to do research for a historical novel, but I did not name my subject. I was scrupulous about keeping that information private until I finished my manuscript.

As we toured the mansion, our docent led us into a room they have furnished as Mrs. Carroll’s dressing room. Almost directly in front of where I was standing was what looked to be a small, low mahogany table with slender neoclassical legs. Set within an arch-shaped opening in the “table” was a recessed silver basin. (You can see it in the third image on this page.) The docent announced in a somewhat amused voice that this piece of furniture was a bidet that had once belonged to Betsy Bonaparte. The docent didn’t elaborate—and because I was keeping my special interest in Betsy a secret—I didn’t press her for information. I must admit that I had a very difficult time keeping a straight face.

You see, up until that moment, I hadn’t really thought about Betsy in terms of her bodily functions, so unexpectedly encountering her bidet was disconcerting. It turned out, however, to be enormously helpful to me as a novelist, because it allowed me to think of her in an earthier way. She became more of a flesh-and-blood woman to me than just a hazy historical figure.

After we returned home, I did some Internet research and found an article originally published in the Baltimore Sun (Rath, Molly, “You Never Know What Will Turn Up Among the Collectibles at the Maryland Historical Society,” November 20, 1994). According to that article the silver basin in the bidet was inscribed with the name of Napoleon’s own silversmith. I can only assume that Jerome gave it to Betsy after they married—or bought it for their home.

The article also mentioned that Betsy carried a porcelain bourdaloue with her when she traveled. A bourdaloue is basically a fancy, French porta potty shaped something like a gravy boat—a handy thing to have for those long 19th-century carriage rides. I find it difficult to imagine Betsy hiking up her skirts and taking a tinkle in a public coach, but maybe she used it in the shrubbery during stops along the way. And she and Jerome did travel extensively in their own privately owned coach and six, so theoretically, she could have used it there.

Both the bidet and the bourdaloue were left to the Maryland Historical Society (MdHS) by Betsy’s grandson. At first, the curators at MdHS didn’t realize what the bourdaloue was. Thinking it was an extra large sauce dish, they put it on display as part of a table setting—until a porcelain expert enlightened them about its true function.

Since Betsy was known for her sharp sense of humor, I feel certain she would have been amused.

205 Bourdalou mit Blumenmalerei Frankenthal c1756-1759
A Sample Bourdelou (not Betsy’s), Photograph by Austin Towers, via Wikimedia Commons


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Writing Historical Fiction: Researching Historic Ships

These are just a few photographs of the USS Constellation, which I took when I was on my research trip to Baltimore two years ago. It was built after the time period of my novel, but I still found the tour of the ship helpful. Clicking on each image will make it larger.



ship's wheel

cable tier


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Writing Historical Fiction: Back Story

Jérôme Bonaparte - Sophie Lienard
Jerome Bonaparte by Sophie Lienard, on Wikimedia Commons

What brought Napoleon Bonaparte’s brother Jerome to Baltimore of all places? Well, for one thing, Baltimore was the third largest U.S. city in the early 1800s, behind New York and Philadelphia. It was one of the country’s most important ports.

Second, a year or so earlier, Napoleon had decided that his baby brother was going to become the naval expert of the family. Accordingly, Jerome was made a lieutenant (even though he was technically too young) and sent to the West Indies. While there, he made a colossal error of judgment that might have had serious international repercussions, so his commanding officer ordered him to return home to report to his brother, who at the time was First Consul of the French Republic.

Britain and France were technically at peace during 1803, but relations between the two countries remained uneasy. French officials were understandably nervous about exposing a member of Napoleon’s family to possible danger should war break out again while he was en route. They decided Jerome should go to a U.S. port and sail on a neutral ship—and thus, hopefully, escape the notice of the British navy.

So Jerome went to Baltimore, where his friend Joshua Barney lived. Being a young man who loved amusement and pretty girls, Jerome decided to enjoy himself while he was there. He soon began to hear about a beautiful young woman named Betsy Patterson, known as the Belle of Baltimore, and grew eager to meet her. From all accounts, Jerome had a way with young women, but he never took any of his amours seriously. I’m guessing he thought he could have a fling and then be on his way with little consequence to himself. However, Betsy proved to be more than a match for the charming young Corsican. When they met, he was instantly smitten. As the saying goes, the thunderbolt struck, and any interest Jerome had in returning home disappeared.


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Betsy’s Circle: The Man Who Saved Baltimore Twice

General Samuel Smith Rembrandt Peale
General Samuel Smith by Rembrandt Peale [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The person in charge of the defense of Baltimore when the British attacked in 1814 was Samuel Smith, former revolutionary officer and current U.S. senator. He also happened to be Betsy Bonaparte’s uncle, as he was married to her mother’s older sister.

Samuel Smith was born in Pennsylvania, but his family moved to Baltimore when he was a boy, and he made Baltimore his home for the rest of his life. Like Betsy’s father, he made his money from shipping and trade. Smith served in the army during the Revolutionary War, advancing from captain to major to lieutenant colonel. He spent the winter at Valley Forge with George Washington, and he later took part in the Battles of Saratoga, which were the turning point of the war.

In his forties, Smith entered politics. He served in the House of Representatives from 1793 to 1803 and in the Senate from 1803 to 1815. His highest rank was president pro tempore of the Senate, making him third in line to the presidency.

During the War of 1812, a Baltimore officer named General William Winder had been in charge of the disastrous defense of Washington, D.C., which led to a rout of the American forces and the burning of the capital. When it came to defending their own city, Baltimoreans turned to 62-year-old Samuel Smith rather than the much-younger Winder. Smith organized the digging of fortifications to prevent a land approach and prepared to sink ships in the Patapsco River to prevent a water approach.

After the Battle of Baltimore was over, Smith returned to Congress, serving in both the Senate and the House for nearly two more decades. All together he spent 40 years in Congress.

In August 1835, Smith was once again called upon to save his city. Seventeen months earlier, the Bank of Maryland had failed, and the public had grown tired of waiting for the long-promised settlement. For several nights running, angry people gathered to attack the homes of bank directors. Samuel Smith, now eighty-three years old, organized a force of volunteers and managed to quiet the mob and convince them to disperse. The grateful city made Smith mayor, a position he held for three years. He died in 1839 at the age of 86.

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The Star Spangled Banner

Ft. Mchenry 2

As I mentioned yesterday, the last few days have been the 199th anniversary of the British attack on Baltimore during the War of 1812. Most people today don’t realize just how important that war was. At the time it took place, many people referred to it as the Second War of Independence because they realized that our young nation’s very survival was at stake.

How fitting then that this was the occasion of the writing of our national anthem.

To understand what happened, it helps to know a little bit of geography. Baltimore is a harbor, but it does not lie directly on the Atlantic coast. Rather, it was built on the Patapsco River, an estuary leading off Chesapeake Bay. The city is located on the Northwest Branch, upstream from Fort McHenry. In practical terms, the British fleet could not reach the inner harbor of Baltimore without first taking the fort. So British ships gathered in the river below McHenry and began to bombard it.

While all this was going on, an American lawyer named Francis Scott Key was on one of the British warships. A month earlier, after the British burned Washington, DC., they captured a friend of Key’s named Dr. William Beanes. President Madison had given Key permission to negotiate with the British for the release of Beanes, and Key just happened to arrive right before the attack. Once the battle started, he had to remain aboard the ship—which gave him a front row view of the battle.

Like the people in Baltimore, however, Key really didn’t have much information about how the attack was going. All he could do was to make inferences from what he saw before him. As long as the British kept firing mortars and rockets at the fort, he could assume it hadn’t surrendered. This went on from early in the morning of the 13th all through the night.

Then by the dawn’s early light, Key and the people in Baltimore saw that the U.S. flag still waved. This was no ordinary flag. Major George Armistead, commander of the fort, had commissioned a huge 42′ x 30′ flag from Baltimore seamstress Mary Pickersgill. He wanted “a flag so large that the British would have no difficulty seeing it from a distance.” That defiant banner gave proof to anyone who cared to look that Fort McHenry remained in American hands even after 24 hours of shelling.

Not long after sunrise, the British fleet gave up and sailed away. Key wrote a poem about his experience, and that poem eventually became our national anthem.

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Writing Historical Fiction: Channeling Your Character

fort mchenry

One hundred ninety-nine years ago today, a fleet of British ships spent a full day lobbing mortars and Congreve rockets at Fort McHenry (shown above) in an effort to capture Baltimore during the War of 1812. The British viewed the city as a “nest of pirates” because it was home to many of the privateers that had been preying on British shipping.

When I first started writing my novel The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte, I wasn’t sure whether I was going to portray the Battle of Baltimore. By then, I had read five different biographies of Betsy Bonaparte. None of them answered the question of whether she was in her hometown of Baltimore or in Washington, D.C., when the attack took place.

Then in November 2011, my husband and I traveled to Baltimore, so I could do some research. One place we visited was Fort McHenry. We were lucky enough to be able to hear one of the National Park rangers tell the story of the battle. At one point, he described how many of the residents of Baltimore climbed to their roofs so they could watch the attack and see how it was going. As he spoke, a strange thing happened.

An unexpected wave of fear washed over me, and suddenly I was no longer sitting in the bright November sunshine, listening to a ranger spin a lively tale. I was Betsy, standing on the roof of her childhood home, gripped by the dread of what would happen if the British captured the city. During the early years of her marriage, Betsy and her husband Jerome had often been threatened by British warships who wanted to make a hostage of Napoleon’s brother. Now, she feared for her beloved nine-year-old son. He was a Bonaparte, the nephew of the man the British had been fighting for more than 15 years. As I imagined Betsy’s terror, I began to cry right there in the crowd of tourists. The emotion was so powerful, so icy cold and unsettling, that I couldn’t help myself. After that, I knew with absolute certainty that I had to include the battle in the novel and that I had to portray Betsy’s desperate if somewhat irrational fears that if the British conquered Baltimore, her son would be in danger. It was exactly what I needed to make sense of what had up till then been an impersonal event.


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