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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
With the Empress settled in England, Dr. Evans undertook a trip to Germany to tell Napoleon III that his wife was safe and other details he could not know at the time. The dentist was able to do this, he noted with some complacency, because of his connections with German royalty. He had put a fair distance between himself and the social position of the tooth doctor of Europe who made his visits through the servants’ entrance. But his vanity must be balanced against his compassion and his generosity. For he also visited the French wounded and the prisoner-of-war camps where he distributed shoes, food, underwear, money for postage. Later, when it was still dangerous for him to go back to Paris, he was a frequent visitor at Camden Place, meanwhile organizing in London a “clothing society” and spending the winter doing relief work among the ragged remnants of the French imperial army.
A Draconian peace was concluded between France and the German empire, May 10, 1871, and a few weeks later Napoleon joined the Empress in exile. Surrounded by a court in miniature, Napoleon and the Empress lived, one French historian wrote, “in that atmosphere of respect which saddens and solaces the vanquished at the same time. ” At nine-thirty the Prince Imperial went to his room. Napoleon retired soon after, and at eleven Eugénie, too, the guests all bowing as she “made her long, her marvellous curtsy of the Tuileries,” a poignant evocation of the graces and elegancies of happier times.
Hopes rose briefly for a restoration of the Bonaparte cause, but Napoleon’s health intervened. A crisis developed from a large calculus in his bladder, and after two operations he died early in 1873. His last, faintly uttered words, dimmed by chloral hydrate, were addressed to his personal medical doctor, Henri Conneau: “We weren’t cowards at Sedan, were we, Conneau?”
After the bloody Commune of Paris—a word taken from the vocabulary of the first Revolution—was crushed in May, Dr. Evans returned to Paris. He found his residence and treasures undisturbed and resumed his dental practice. There were no more brilliant court functions for the doctor; but he still held his Fourth of July celebration in the gardens of Bella Rosa and entertained such prominent figures from the United States as ex-President Grant and James G. Blaine. In dentistry, Evans was as successful as ever, republican teeth requiring expert care as well as imperial molars. His management of the Empress’s famous escape was more than offset in the eyes of the rulers of the Third Republic by the selfless work of the American ambulance, which he supported from his private purse and by his humanitarian efforts in behalf of the prisoners of war. For several years the police were zealous in compiling an extensive and largely irrelevant dossier on the American dentist, but it was like bringing on the mustard after the dinner was over. The official attitude toward the doctor had softened to the point where President Adolphe Thiers himself promoted Evans, who was already entitled to wear the rosette of the Legion of Honor in his buttonhole, to the rank of commander.
After Napoleon’s death, Eugénie returned to politics. She and the Prince Imperial would finish her husband’s work. She dreamed of her son wearing a crown and governing the French under a program giving the people freedom, but with order . It was not to be. Lou-Lou (his family nickname) was bold, rash, loved danger, and had been stung by suggestions that he had fled before the Prussians. He died in 1879 as a soldier, wearing a British uniform—in the artillery, of course, as befitted a Bonaparte—in the Zulu War in South Africa. His patrol, surprised by the Zulus in a donga, fled, his horse escaped, and the Prince, revolver blazing, fell with eighteen assegai wounds, a victim of Sedan and the obligations of his name. The body could not be recognized when it reached Chislehurst, but Dr. Evans made a positive identification from one of his own gold fillings—and later asserted that he was the first to identify a body from dental work.
Eugénie was prostrated, for a long time beyond the relief of tears. Her only child was dead, all hope of a new Napoleonic epoch shattered. Dean Stanley preached a sermon on the character of the Prince Imperial, and Queen Victoria came to offer such solace as she could, while France bristled with the Anglophobia that always lurked beneath the surface of its political life. In 1880 the Empress moved to Farnborough Hill, in Hampshire. There she erected a memorial Catholic church, with a massive crypt to contain the sarcophagi of her husband and son, and eventually herself. Though Eugénie said, “My role in this world ended in 1879,” she had, in fact, an incredible fifty years more of life ahead of her.