The Last Friend of Napoleon


THERE may still be octogenarians who as children remember seeing Napoleon, but Madame Thayer, who passed away in December, 1889, at Paris, was possibly the last survivor of those who had conversed with him. She was herself of Anglo-French, and her husband of American extraction. Her father was General Bertrand, Napoleon’s most faithful follower; her mother was Françoise Elisabeth Dillon, daughter of General Arthur Dillon. The Dillons, between 1688 and 1789, were divided in nationality and allegiance ; their hearts were in France, but their estates were in Ireland. Arthur, son of the eleventh Viscount Dillon, though born in Berkshire, was colonel of the Irish-French regiment bearing his family name. He had been a courtier, but he sympathized with the Revolution, fought against the Prussian invaders in 1792, and was intimate with Desmoulins. He was guillotined at Paris in 1794 as the leader of the pretended prison plot, his real offense being a correspondence with Lucile Desmoulins with a view to effecting her husband’s escape.

The Bertrands had one daughter, Hortense, born at Paris in 1810. She was not merely the namesake, but the god-daughter, of Queen Hortense, Napoleon III.’s mother. She accompanied her parents to Elba and to St. Helena. After a time they became uneasy as to her education, and Bertrand asked Napoleon for a few months’ leave of absence, that he might take her to France and place her in a school. The Emperor died, however, as they were on the eve of starting, and the whole family returned to France. In 1836, a Catholic pamphleteer, Beauterne, represented Napoleon as having held long conversations on religion with Bertrand, and as having been convinced by his arguments of the divinity of Christ. The fact was, as Bertrand publicly protested, that such topics were never touched upon, nor did Napoleon, as alleged by Beauterne, ever advise little Hortense to be a good Catholic and to learn her catechism.

In 1828, Hortense married Amèdèe Gourcy Williams Thayer. Thayer was born at Orleans in 1799. He was the son, by a rich and accomplished Englishwoman from Suffolk, of James Williams Thayer, — an American, claiming descent from Roger Williams, — who had settled in France during the Revolution. James Thayer had an uncle John, a Boston clergyman, who, after visiting England and France, went to Rome, and there joined the Catholic Church. He went back to Boston as a priest, but spent the latter part of his life in Ireland, where he died in 1815, aged sixty. James Thayer was an enterprising merchant and speculator. In 1793, a Genoese ship chartered by him was fired upon by a French coast battery, and to avoid sinking had to run ashore. The convention awarded him 40,751 francs compensation. Apparently removing to Paris, where a second son, Edward James, was born in 1802, he bought part of the gardens of the Hôtel de Montmorency, adjoining the site of the Bourse, and built the Passage des Panoramas, one of the covered passages then in favor, and still standing. This yielded him a handsome profit. After his death his widow remained in Paris, and her receptions were frequented by many notabilities, including Rossini, Malibran, Sontag, and other musicians. It was a grief to her when her sons, both married to daughters of Napoleonic generals, became Catholics.

Amédée had been trained for the bar, but never practiced. He inherited his mother’s taste for painting and music, and studied art for seven years under Gros. When scarcely of age, he and his brother visited Italy, and spent six months in England. He married Hortense Bertrand in 1828 ; was mayor of Drancey in 1837-8; became, after his change of faith, an active member of Catholic societies ; sympathized with the new liberal school; and was intimate with Lacordaire, Ravignan, and Montalembert. He took his wife and son, on account of ill health, to Rome, where they were graciously received by Gregory XVI. The son died there. Thayer also interested himself in agriculture, his wife having inherited from her uncle an estate at Touvent. When Louis Napoleon, in 1852, created the Senate, Thayer was nominated a member of it, and when the Pope’s temporal power was in danger he spoke in its defense. He again visited Rome, and had a flattering reception from Pius IX. He died in Paris, from paralysis, July 6, 1868. According to a brief French biography, he left bequests to his father’s kindred in America and to his mother’s in England.

Edward Thayer, more of a politician and less of a theologian than his brother, was in early life a zealous Freemason, and in 1826 published two addresses delivered at his lodge. He married the only daughter of General Arrighi, Duke of Padua, a young lady whom Louis Napoleon had at one time thought of marrying. “ If,” wrote the future Emperor to his father in 1834, “ I persist in matrimonial designs, the best thing I can do is to fix my eyes on Mademoiselle de Padone.” In June, 1848, as a captain in the National Guard, Edward Thayer was severely wounded while combating the socialist insurgents. When Louis Napoleon was elected President of the republic, he placed Thayer at the head of the post office. In 1852 he became a member of the Council of State, and in the following year a Senator, so that the two Americans sat together in the Upper House. Both brothers were noted for their liberality. Edward died at Fontenay les Baies, Seine-et-Oise, in 1859.

Both died childless, and with the death of Amédée’s widow the name of Thayer Incomes extinct in France. Madame Thayer has bequeathed to Prince Victor Bonaparte her share of the Napoleon relics brought from St. Helena, and divided, on Bertrand’s death, in 1844, between his son and daughter. (The son’s share had already been left to the prince by his widow.) These include the red velvet robe worn by Napoleon on grand occasions, such as the Te Deum at Notre Dame in honor of the Concordat; the saddle and holsters used at Austerlitz ; a cashmere shawl fastened round his waist at the battle of the Pyramids ; an osier chair from his bedroom at St. Helena; the teapot, sugar basin, and candlestick which stood on his table when he died ; the sheet and pillow-case on which he breathed his last; the handkerchief with which his face was wiped when he was dying; and the box of mathematical instruments which he took with him in all his campaigns. It does not appear, unfortunately, that Madame Thayer, in daily contact with Napoleon from her fourth to her eleventh year, had written down her recollections of him. It would have been interesting to know his manners and habits from a child’s standpoint, after his fall and at the close of a life of such vicissitudes.