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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
As the cab reached the corner of the Boulevard des Capucines, the rioters were tearing from a shop front a gold-lettered emblem indicating imperial patronage. “Already,” Eugénie said sadly. Her dame de campagne had two addresses. At the first no one answered. At the second a servant recognized the Empress, who was adjusting her veil, and slammed the door violently, saying angrily, “Thank me for not denouncing you!” Madame Lebreton then suggested going to the American legation and Mr. Washburne. Elihu B. Washburne, of Galena, Illinois, American minister and political ally of President Grant, had made a very favorable impression in Paris during the year and a half he had been in France. “The revolutionists,” Madame Lebreton continued hopefully, “will respect the American flag.”
“No,” said the Empress, “I will go to Dr. Evans. He is an American also, but he has no political responsibilities, and besides is an old friend.”
And so it was that the Regent of France and her lady in waiting arrived at the home of the dentist and found refuge, for the moment at least, in the doctor’s library with its walls covered somberly in brown paper, thick red carpets, sofas and chairs in red and brown leather, and an oak bookcase “full,” the doctor’s nephew Theodore wrote, “of literary works.”
While the Empress waits for the dentist it is time to meet Dr. Evans. In the 1840’s, an American dentist with a fashionable practice in Paris, Dr. Cyrus Starr Brewster, was looking for a bright young assistant who could do fine gold fillings and would be able to succeed him. Dr. Brewster found his man in Thomas W. Evans, descendant of a Philadelphia Quaker family in modest circumstances. Evans was highly skilled and already as a youth motivated by aspirations which placed him in imagination among the rich, the powerful, the high personalities of an older and more aristocratic society. Such daydreams were not likely to be realized in West Philadelphia or Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where Evans was in practice with an older dentist, so he accepted the Brewster offer with alacrity. In November, 1847, aged twenty-four years, with an attractive wife and no French, Evans arrived at the Brewster office on the Rue de la Paix, then known as the street of jewelers and dentists, two not unrelated occupations. Dr. Evans was just in time to witness the Revolution of 1848, which dethroned Louis Philippe, the last of the Bourbons, who fled ignominiously in a public cab wearing blue spectacles and carrying a cotton umbrella.
This upheaval brought to power Louis Napoleon, the bachelor Prince-President of the Second Republic, who in deference to the suffrages that had called him home to rule, moved symbolically into the relatively modest Elysée palace instead of the royal Tuileries. If Dr. Evans was shocked by the volatile character of French politics and the sight of blood on the barricades, he left no record of his reactions. But he was unhappily surprised at the low esteem in which dentists were held. Generally, they were unregulated and uninhibited, grouped in the public mind with midwives, bleeders, cuppers, and street-corner charlatans who pulled teeth while the howls of the victims were drowned by the beating of drums and clashing of cymbals. Evans resolved to change the “image.”
It was Evans’ good fortune that Louis Napoleon had delicate teeth and was very sensitive to pain. Responding to a call for Dr. Brewster, who was not available, Dr. Evans at once demonstrated to the Prince-President, who was suffering from a lower molar, right, that he was a highly competent professional.
“I was lucky enough to remove the pain at once,” Evans recalled and he added that Napoleon said, “You are a young fellow, but clever, I like you!” With Napoleon’s warm endorsement, Dr. Evans’ progress was rapid. The world of fashion sought his services at his cabinet , No. 15, Rue de la Paix, finding him, as did Napoleon, amusing, a man of sense, discreet, gentlemanly, never overreaching in social relations with his noble clients. Out of democratic, middle-class West Philadelphia had emerged a natural-born courtier.
Soon Dr. Evans enjoyed the President’s confidence in matters other than dental. So richly endowed with the celebrated Bonaparte sexuality that even Queen Victoria did not feel entirely safe when he turned on the charm, Louis Napoleon had a gate cut in the garden wall of the Elysée palace from which it was only a few steps to a house at No. 14, Rue du Cirque, where he had established his official mistress. She was Miss Harriet Howard, a pseudonymous English beauty, the daughter of a bootmaker. In the Rue du Cirque, Louis Napoleon enjoyed the blessings of domesticity without the responsibilities of marriage, surrounded by a trusted group in which the handsome and engaging Dr. Evans was frequently included. It was a small coterie. Bonaparte had few intimates in France since he had spent most of his life as a political exile or in prison and even spoke his native language with a German accent. But the Prince-President had a magic name. His name was a program in itself and it made him master of France.