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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 12

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
The Bonapartes in America

Clarence Edward Macartney and Gordon Dorrance

published by
Dorrance and Company,
Philadelphia, 1939

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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Chapter 14

 p235  XIII
Napoleon's American Son

Rumor attributed to Napoleon Bonaparte not a few illegitimate children. Among these, chiefly sons, who were commonly spoken of as the offspring of Napoleon, and who so declared themselves, were Bloch Bonaparte, of Bordeaux, where the boys on the street, struck with his resemblance to Napoleon, would shout after him, "When are you going to mount your white horse and ride to Paris?"; also a Colonel Duval, who, according to the report, even managed to get to St. Helena, where he served in the kitchens at Longwood as an under cook until expelled by Hudson Lowe, who sent him on an American brig to Rochelle. From Rochelle, Duval went to Baltimore. There, when on August 1, 1821, he heard of the death of his father, the Emperor, he drowned himself in the sea. Napoleon's first-born was said to have been a half black son, his child by a woman of color when he was in Egypt. Germany, too, had its backdoor Bonaparte in the person of Mlle. Falkenberg, who lived at Lindenthal, near Cologne, and was supposed to have been born in the Archbishop's Palace at Cologne.

Whatever may be the lack of historical proof as to many of the alleged children of Napoleon, there is no doubt as to Leon, the son of Napoleon and Eleonore Denuelle de la Plaigne. A beautiful girl, Eleonore Denuelle was at Madame Campan's school at the time  p236 Napoleon's sister, Caroline, and Josephine's daughter, Hortense, were there. A young widower, a Quartermaster captain in the army, Francois Revel, saw her one night at the theatre and fell violently in love with her. They were married on January 15, 1805. After a brief honeymoon, Revel suddenly found his lively young wife cold to his affections and advances. Shortly after this Revel was arrested on a charge of peculation. It was then known in the intimate Bonaparte circles that Napoleon was having an affair with Eleonore. Their son was born December 13, 1806, and named Leon, after the second part of the father's first name. He was brought up under the name of Macon, a French general who had died of his war wounds in 1805.

Napoleon, then in Poland, was vastly delighted at the news brought him by a courier of Caroline Bonaparte that he was the father of a son by Eleonore Denuelle. It removed all doubts as to his ability to beget children, and played an important part in the subsequent divorce of Josephine.​a As he grew to boyhood Leon became the living image of his illustrious father. Portraits of him taken when he was well along in life reveal a remarkable resemblance.

Leon made himself a pest to the brothers and other legitimate relatives of Napoleon, constantly soliciting funds from them. He was repelled by Joseph Bonaparte, and by Napoleon III when he was a refugee in London. Leon challenged his cousin to fight a duel, but Louis spurned him. However, when Louis became Napoleon III, he paid Leon an annuity to compensate  p237 him for the unpaid legacy left him by the will of his father when he died at St. Helena. Thoroughly disreputable, Leon died in poverty at Paris, April 14, 1881, surrounded by portraits of the Emperor and Eleonore Denuelle.​1 He had several children. One son was for a time in the United States, and returned to Europe as a leading man in Buffalo Bill's Wild West Shows.

At about the same time that Napoleon received the glad tidings in Poland that he was the father of a son by Eleonore Denuelle, he met the lovely Polish girl, Countess Walewska. The scruples of the beautiful Count were overcome by the urging of Polish statesmen that if she gave herself to Napoleon she would thereby render a patriotic service to Poland. Of this alliance was born Count Alexander Florin Walewski,​2 who, in striking contrast to his half-brother, Leon, rose to eminence in France and was Minister of Foreign Affairs under Napoleon III.

Still another son of Napoleon whose paternity has been accepted by a noted historian was John Gordon Bonaparte. In his life of Napoleon, August Fournier, Viennese professor, thus refers to John Gordon Bonaparte: "Count Alexander Florin Walewski, Minister of Foreign Affairs under Napoleon III, was born May 4, 1810. He was not the only son of the Emperor born out of wedlock. We know certainly of the following:  p238 a Count Leon, born in 1806, whose mother, Frau Revel, belonged in the suite of Princess Caroline; also a certain Devienne, born in 1802 at Lyons; and, finally, a Mr. Gordon. Gordon Bonaparte died in 1886 at San Francisco, as a watchmaker.

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John Gordon Bonaparte

Taken in Scotland, 1871, there is noted a striking resemblance to Napoleon

Buried in an obscure corner of Laurel Hill Cemetery in San Francisco, John Gordon, if indeed begotten by the Emperor, was the youngest of the sons of Napoleon. The accounts of John Gordon all allege that he was begotten by the Emperor at St. Helena. There is a disagreement, however, when it comes to the person of Mrs. William Gordon, wife of an Edinburgh watchmaker, who had a housekeeper's post at St. Helena. Most of the accounts of John Gordon make this woman his mother; but one account names a certain "Princess" Louise as the mother, and says that the infant was given into the keeping of the Scotch housekeeper. But whether his real mother, or a mother by adoption, this Scotch housekeeper took the child to Edinburgh, where she married William Gordon, who gave his name to Napoleon's son and taught him the trade of watchmaker. The child's appearance and bearing made his resemblance to Napoleon unmistakable.

John Gordon married a Martha Jones, of London. Afterwards he came to the United States and settled at New London, Conn., where he established himself as a successful and well known watchmaker. The New London Directory of 1853‑54 gives his place of business as 45 State Street and his home at 28 Bradley Street. The directory of 1855‑56 lists the firm of Gordon and  p239 Bennett, Jewellers, Cor. State and Main, and the home of John Gordon at 1 Jay Street. His last appearance in the New London Directory was for the year 1870‑71. Gordon was spoken of, too, as the inventor of a Gordon watch, and of the first fog‑horn used on Long Island Sound. Financial difficulties led him to leave New London and migrate to California. He arrived in San Francisco about the year 1874. There he was for a time associated with Tucker's Jewelry Shop, then at Sutter and Market Streets. He afterwards established his own business on Kearney Street. His residence was on Sacramento Street, near Clay.

John Gordon Bonaparte rarely referred to his paternity; but his family and friends knew the secret. His portrait shows a Napoleonic likeness, and that of one of his five children, a daughter, to an extraordinary degree. He lost a fortune in his business, and was reimbursed to the amount of $500,000 by his closest friend, Darius Ogden Mills, pioneer California financier, with the injunction that he was not to waste it in stock gambling. This Gordon at once proceeded to do. He died in 1886 and was buried in Laurel Hill Cemetery in a grave that was not identified until 1913.

Every year thousands upon thousands go to the Hotel des Invalides, and pausing under the golden dome, look down upon the magnificent sarcophagus of the Emperor Napoleon, with the shot-torn standards of Marengo, Austerlitz and Jena standing as sentinels about his resting place. Is it possible that in an obscure grave in a lonely corner of Laurel Hill Cemetery in San Francisco  p240 sleeps John Gordon Bonaparte, watchmaker and jeweler, the last begotten of the conqueror's sons?3

The Authors' Notes:

1 Emil Ludwig, in his Napoleon, page 664, writes, apparently without authority, "Leon was to end his ne'er do well life in America as the husband of a cook."

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2 A half-brother of Count Alexander Walewski, Count Nicholas Walewski, had a son, Alexander Ziwet, who took his mother's name. He was a professor at the University of Michigan and died about ten years ago.

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3 The San Francisco Morning Call for December 12, 1885, mentions the death of a John Gordon, a native of Edinburgh, Scotland, aged 58 years, and asks the New London, Connecticut, papers to copy. If this is the supposed son of Napoleon, he would have been born six years after Napoleon's death. Other records and traditions give Lone Mountain Cemetery, the Laurel Hill Cemetery, and the Masonic Cemetery as his burial place. The Masonic Cemetery Association of San Francisco records the interment in the Old Masonic Cemetery of a John Gordon, aged 59, who died December 10, 1885. In this conflict of records, the one arresting fact is the undoubted and remarkable likeness of John Gordon to Napoleon Bonaparte. August Fournier, who places John Gordon on the same plane as the completely authenticated Count Leon and Count Walewski, is a historian of high standing; but he gives no references or authorities for his statement.

Thayer's Note:

a Knapton, Empress Josephine, pp301 ff.

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Page updated: 26 Feb 13