Charles Joseph Bonaparte, who founded the FBI, was Napoleon’s great-nephew

The cabinet of Teddy Roosevelt (Charles Joseph Bonaparte is third from left)/Image: public domain in Wikimedia Commons

We find relatives of Napoleon everywhere and many of them with interesting lives. For instance, Louis Napoleon was in the French Resistance during the Second World War or Eugenio Luis, son of Napoleon III and the Spanish Eugenia de Montijo, fighting against the Zulus. Today we are going to review the story of another descendant, Charles Joseph Bonaparte, who was attorney general of the United States and under whose management the BOI, precedent of the FBI, was founded.

All these bonapartes had one thing in common: they did not descend directly from Napoleon, since he only had one son (named after him but nicknamed the little eagle), begotten with Empress Maria Luisa of Austria and who never married or had an official offspring (although some suggest that he was the father of the famous Maximilian of Austria, emperor of Mexico, most historians consider him sterile). Therefore, it was Jérôme who perpetuated the Bonaparte lineage, at least as far as the above-mentioned characters were concerned.

Jérôme Bonaparte as King of Westfalia (Gérard)/Image: public Domain in Wikimedia Commons

Jérôme was the youngest member of the family. He married twice, the first time in the USA (where he had established himself) with a socialité called Elizabeth Patterson and the second one with Princess Catherine of Württemberg. He had offspring with both of them but the one we are interested in here is the first-born, the American: Jérôme Napoleón Bonaparte, a name that usually generates confusion because one of the two that he had with Catalina was baptized in the same way. In order to distinguish them, the diminutive Bo is usually added to the first one, as given by the Americans.

Bo had actually been born in London in 1805 but his mother took him to her country when the French emperor annulled the marriage with his younger brother to provide him with an ancestral wife and make him king of Westphalia. This meant the loss of the right to bear the surname, although decades later his cousin Napoleon III reversed that decision. Bo, who was assured of a comfortable life because his mother’s family owned prosperous commercial businesses in Baltimore, studied law at Harvard, although he never practiced as a lawyer.

Triple portrait of Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte (Gilbert Stuart)/Image: public Domain in Wikmedia Commons

He was president of the Maryland Agricultural Society and the Maryland Club, an exclusive entity founded in 1857 that four years later supported confederate cause and in the 20th century opposed Prohibition (the law outlawing alcohol). But earlier, in 1829, he married Susan May Williams, a wealthy heir to the growing railroad sector and also a Baltimore native, whose millionaire dowry was able to do more than the promises to connect with the European aristocracy she was offered.

After all, he considered himself an American, and in order to retain his citizenship he could not accept foreign nobility titles; this was required by an amendment to the Constitution proposed by Congress in 1810, which, although it was never approved, was dissuasive because it was supposedly his residence in the country that prompted its submission. The fact is that he stayed and with Susan he had two children: one, Jérôme Napoleón Bonaparte I, who would study at West Point; another, Charles Joseph Bonaparte, the real protagonist of this article.

Jerome Napoleon Bonaparte-Patterson, alias Bo/Image: public Domain in Wikmedia Commons

He was born in Baltimore in 1851, coincidentally only five months before his uncle Louis Napoleon staged the coup in France that would make him Emperor Napoleon III. By then, as we have seen, the American Bonapartes were distancing themselves from the implications of their surname and would not accept titles. Like his father, he went to Harvard University, where he later became supervisor, to study laws and be able to work as a lawyer.

But first he formed a family. In 1875 he married Ellen Channing Day, the daughter of a prestigious lawyer who helped him succeed in the practice. They lived a quiet and comfortable existence but without succeeding in engendering offspring. According to their economical status, their ideology was conservative; so much so that it became refractory even in the light of technological advances, for instance, Charles Joseph refused to install electricity in his house and continued driving a horse-drawn carriage until his death at the end of the first quarter of the 20th century. However, that conservatism, which made him a member of the Republican Party, was always tempered by a deep concern for social issues.

Portrait of Charles Joseph and Ellen Channing Day/Image: Find a Grave

The fact is that he stood out enough in the legal profession to make the leap to politics. He did so through the Reform League of Baltimore, of which he was one of its founders in 1885. It was an organization designed to encourage the entry of Republican candidates from the progressive wing into municipal government, then in Democratic hands, something that was finally achieved in the 1895 elections. A year before these elections, he also took part in the creation of the National Municipal League (a non-profit organization dedicated to ensuring public health, respect for the environment, education, racial equality…), in which he defended the rights of African Americans.

Over the following years, Charles Joseph held increasingly important positions, starting with the Board of Indian Commissioners (a federal committee, predecessor of the Office of Indian Affairs, created in 1869 by Ulysses S. Grant to advise the government on Indian affairs and the so-called Peace Policy). He remained there from 1902 to 1904, then presiding over the National Civil Service Reform League (another non-profit entity to promote initiatives in civil administration), which was compatible with a position of administrator in the prestigious Catholic University of America and with being appointed presidential elector by Maryland.

Charles Joseph Bonaparte/Image: public Domain in Wikimedia Commons

In 1905 he took a giant leap when President Teddy Roosevelt appointed him Navy Secretary but only spent a year and a half in charge because he reached a second milestone by becoming U.S. Attorney General. It was in that fate when he processed several antitrust claims, one of which was especially resounding because it would mean the dissolution in 1911 of the powerful American Tobacco Company , which had integrated two hundred minor tobacco companies. These drastic measures earned him the nickname Charlie, the Crook Chaser.

Also then, in 1908, he created the BOI (Bureau of Investigation), a criminal investigation office to prosecute crimes against the United States and with jurisdiction over the entire national territory. It depended on the Department of Justice and although it began with a certain modesty, with only nine detectives, thirteen investigators for civil rights cases and a dozen accountants to investigate economic crimes, it obtained resounding successes and would soon reach great prestige, especially under the direction of J. Edgar Hoover and with the new name that was given to it in 1935: FBI (Federal Bureau of Investigation).

Image of Bella Vista in 1907/Image: Wikimedia Commons

Charles Joseph remained attorney general until the end of Roosevelt’s presidency in 1909. He died of Sydenham chorea (what was formerly called the dance of St. Vitus, an infectious disease of the central nervous system) on his farm in Bella Vista, Baltimore, in the summer of 1921. The American branch of the Bonapartes did not become extinct with him because his brother, who served in the Texas campaign and later in many others with Napoleon III’s French army (Crimea, Algeria, Franco-Prussian War…), would remain definitively in the United States when he married Caroline Le Roy Appleton Edgar and had two children (Louise-Eugénie and Jérôme Napoleon Charles), who in turn gave him several grand-children.

Sources: Charles Joseph Bonaparte: His Life and Public Services (Joseph Bucklin Bishop) / Italian Americans in Law Enforcement (Anne T. Romano) / Jerome Napoleon Bonaparte, Napoleon’s American Nephew (Shannon Selin) / France and the Americas. culture, Politicas and History (Bill Marshall)/Wikipedia