- Historic Sites
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
Napoleon liked to talk with Dr. Evans, whom he found to be an energetic American business promoter as well as surgeon-dentist-diplomat. They spoke of the transatlantic cable, the new tramways, the repeating rifle, military medicine, and the plans of the Emperor and Baron Georges Eugene Haussmann for building a more beautiful and functional capital. To make a magnificent new park—the Bois de Boulogne—readily accessible, the Emperor agreed to the “haussmannization” of the west end of the city by the construction of a broad avenue four hundred and sixty feet wide with tree-planted grass verges from the Place de l’Etoile (now Place Charles-de-Gaulle) to the Bois at the Porte Dauphine. Dr. Evans offered a felicitous suggestion for naming the new street—Avenue de l’Impératrice (now Avenue Foch)—and hastened to make investments in nearby land. One can scarcely call them speculations since they were based upon accurate knowledge of the government’s plans, the power of the state to expropriate, and the generous indemnities allowed by juries. “It is curious,” Dr. Evans once said, “each time I buy property, a street is cut through!”
Thus it was Paris real estate, not dentistry, that made Dr. Evans a millionaire several times over. And he had the prudence to diversify. Later there were substantial investments in Philadelphia, Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and on New York’s Broadway.
The Avenue de l’Impératrice, begun in 1854 and completed in 1856, quickly became fashionable, with traffic jams every pleasant afternoon, the carriages and horsemen on their way to the boating on the lakes of the Bois, the Longchamps race course, the children’s amusement park, or the café-restaurants. In 1857–58, on a plot which only recently had been devoted to the growing of cabbages, Dr. Evans erected a luxurious mansion, really a small palace, at No. 41, Avenue de l’Impératrice, at the corner of Avenue Malakoff, with carriage entrance, stables, a heated aviary for his collection of exotic birds, specimen trees brought from America, and roses everywhere, which gave the hotel its name, Bella Rosa. The interior contained, in addition to all the usual rooms one would expect, not only a library but a white-and-gold ballroom where Jenny Lind dined and sang. And it was at Bella Rosa, in an immense tent hung with portraits of Daniel Webster, Napoleon III, and President Grant, that Dr. Evans entertained some one hundred and twenty-five American guests on July Fourth, 1870, and warned them that France would soon be at war with Prussia.
On July 18, the day before France did declare war, Dr. Evans organized the American International Sanitary Committee to apply the knowledge of military medicine gained in the Civil War to the coming conflict. The American ambulance (”ambulance” in French meaning both a wheeled vehicle and a field hospital) was established on a vacant lot at No. 35, Avenue de l’Impératrice, just opposite the Evans residence. White U.S. Army tents with 135 beds went up on September 1. This humanitarian effort eventually proved a spectacular success. It was, said the newspaper, La Patrie , “The ambulance where the fewest wounded die,” during the siege of Paris, from September to February, and “was founded by Dr. Thomas W. Evans.” All Paris came to view and marvel at the American innovation which knew only four remedies—fresh air, hot and cold water, opium, and Peruvian bark (quinine). But these simple procedures performed wonders in comparison with traditional practices.
Thus it was that business connected with the ambulance had detained the doctor and his associate, Dr. Edward A. Crane, that afternoon of September 4th. Dr. Evans had intended to make a brief stop at Bella Rosa, then go for a drive in the Bois, when a house servant said to him, “There are two ladies in the library who wish to see you.”
It was six o’clock. Since early afternoon Dr. Evans had known that something serious was afoot. Soldiers were parading with their guns reversed or muzzles filled with flowers. Policemen were being roughed up. Cries of Vive la République rang out in the central city. The people milled about restlessly, often drunk under their improvised red banners. Edmond de Concourt, who was there, called these phenomena “the carnival masks of revolution.” But nothing in the day’s events prepared the doctor for what he saw when he opened the door of his library and found himself in the presence of the Empress Eugénie. “My astonishment,” he recalled, “can hardly be imagined.”
The Empress stood erect, her hands gripping the back of a chair. “Monsieur Evans,” she said, “I have no friends left but you. I come as a fugitive to beg your help. I am no longer fortunate. The evil days have come, and I am left alone.”