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The Dentist And The Empress
The mob was at the palace gates; her husband was already a prisoner; the servants were stealing imperial treasures before her eyes; Empress Eugénie turned to the one man in France she could trust—Dr. Thomas W. Evans of Lancaster, Pa.
June/july 1980 | Volume 31, Issue 4
Disheveled, distrait, and bone-tired, a dazzingly beautiful woman sat in the Paris residence of her American dentist, Thomas W. Evans. She did not have a dental appointment; the doctor, in fact, was not there. What she sought was sanctuary from the hatreds accompanying a revolution.
The lady was Eugénie, Empress of the French, Regent, and wife of Napoleon III. With her as she sat uneasily in Dr. Evans’ library was a faithful member of her Court, Madame Lebreton. The latter, through the good offices of a twenty-franc note, had gained entry to the mansion without disclosing their identities.
Time dragged. As the sun dropped toward the horizon on that historic day, September 4, 1870, when the Second Empire collapsed, Eugénie had good reason to review anxiously how she would be received by the doctor. He was, after all, a foreigner with perhaps even less inclination to take grave personal risks in her behalf than many high French personages who had already abandoned her.
A bit of political history sets the scene. France had been the foremost military power in Europe after the victory over Russia in the Crimea and the Austrians in northern Italy. But the German states, led by an aggressive Prussia, had overtaken and passed the French. Too late, with an unready army and untrustworthy allies, a bellicose France attacked Prussia in July on a trumped-up issue. Defeat followed quickly, at Wissembourg, Fröschwiller, Wörth, Forbach, Gravelotte—all names of infamy to a proud nation constrained to discard its expectations and its maps showing the road to Berlin. Then came the death stroke, the disaster of September 1 and 2 at Sedan. There the main French army was mousetrapped and destroyed, another shut up in Metz. Napoleon III was on his way to Wilhelmshöhe, near Cassel, as a prisoner of war. Eugene Louis Jean Joseph Napoleon, only child and heir of Napoleon and Eugénie, known as the Prince Imperial, was smuggled over the Belgian frontier dressed in the smock of a peasant lad.
Eugénie, heading the government as Regent, hardly eating or sleeping, wearing the same black cashmere dress with white lingerie collar and cuffs, kept going somehow on black coffee and chloral hydrate. The news from Sedan filtered into the capital on the afternoon of September third, confirmed by a tragic telegram from Napoleon. The way to Paris was open to the Prussians, and a revolution was in the making. On September 4, a Sunday of cloudless skies and autumn radiance, the Empress turned for protection to General Louis Trochu, Military Governor of Paris, a bombastic, theatrical, and ambitious officer, who pledged to defend the regime and the Empress to the death, saying, “Madame, I am a soldier, a Catholic, and a Breton.”
But Trochu, also a grumbler with republican leanings and a popular following in Paris, chose to guard neither the Empress-Regent nor the Corps Législatif, which was evicted that very afternoon from the Chamber of Deputies by the rabble. All legitimate authority vanished. And when the Third Republic was proclaimed, according to revolutionary ritual, at the City Hall, symbol since 1789 of opposition to the rulers of France, it was Trochu who turned up as President under the new government. An armed multitude wearing improvised red caps and carrying the red flag flowed along the Rue de Rivoli—factory workers, national guards, ruffians in greasy blouses who emerged from the slums of Paris whenever there was an opportunity to threaten public order. The throng crossed the Place de la Concorde, pressed on to the Tuileries palace, shouting for abdication, pushing against the gates, shaking the gilded spikes of the fence, ripping down the imperial eagles. When Henri Chevreau, Minister of the Interior, cried, “All is lost, Madame!” Eugénie had a moment for a bit of gallows humor: “Has poor General Trochu been killed, then?” she asked.
Friends and officials quietly disappeared. Servants began to steal before her eyes. All who remained near the Empress agreed that in those last hours of crumbling authority she was firm, irreproachable, steadfast to duty, with the dignity of a sovereign. If her presence was a danger to France, she was ready to leave. Still at her side were M. Conti, the Emperor’s secretary, Admiral Jurien de la Graviere, aide-de-camp to the Emperor, her chamberlains and dames of honor, General François Certain Canrobert, a Marshal of France, Count Constantino Nigra, the Italian ambassador, and Prince Richard Metternich of Austria, all three her platonic lovers who had been devoted knights in her train. The Swiss guards, halberds in hand, still stood impassively on the grand staircase, but the antechambers of the fading regime were now deserted.