Charles Joseph Bonaparte, who founded the FBI, was Napoleon’s great-nephew

Charles Joseph Bonaparte, who founded the FBI, was Napoleon’s great-nephew

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A Descendant of Napoleon Bonaparte Founded the FBI

We find relatives of Napoleon everywhere and many of them with interesting lives. For instance, Louis Napoleon was in the French Resistance during the Second World War or Eugenio Luis, son of Napoleon III and the Spanish Eugenia de Montijo, fighting against the Zulus.

Today we are going to review the story of another descendant, Charles Joseph Bonaparte, who was attorney general of the United States and under whose management the BOI, precedent of the FBI, was founded.

How did that happen?

Portrait of Napoleon in his forties, in high-ranking white and dark blue military dress uniform.
Portrait of Napoleon in his forties, in high-ranking white and dark blue military dress uniform.

That grand-nephew of Napoleon I, whose name was Charles Joseph Bonaparte, was the grandson of Napoleon’s youngest brother, Jerome. In 1807, Napoleon made Jerome King of Westphalia (today a region in Germany, then a separate principality).

When Napoleon was defeated, Jerome lived for a time in the German state, and also Italy and the United States. When Jerome’s nephew, Napoleon III, took power as emperor, he was given a princely title and died a rich man in 1860.

Charles Bonaparte.
Charles Bonaparte.

His son by his first wife, an American named Elizabeth Patterson, was also Jerome, but known as “Bo.” When Napoleon forced his brother to end his marriage to the American, she and her son returned to Baltimore, where her father was one of the wealthiest men in the state.

Bo, married Susan May Williams in 1829. The next year, his son Jerome Napoleon Bonaparte II was born, followed by another son, Charles Joseph Bonaparte, who was born much later, in 1851. None of this branch of the Bonaparte line ever attempted to claim a royal title, but Charles did make his own coat of arms.

Jerome Napoleon Bonaparte II.
Jerome Napoleon Bonaparte II.

His brother made a career in the armed forces of both the U.S.A. and France and died childless in 1893.

Charles was sent to Harvard, and then Harvard Law. He became a prominent man in Baltimore where he practiced. He was a progressive Republican and championed many of the progressive causes of the day, including greater rights for African-Americans and women.

Group portrait of the cabinet of President of the United States Theodore Roosevelt (at far left). Left to right in back of table: George B. Cortelyou, Charles Joseph Bonaparte, x, James Wilson, Truman Handy Newberry. Left to right in front of table: x, Luke Edward Wright, George von Lengerke Meyer, James Rudolph Garfield
Group portrait of the cabinet of President of the United States Theodore Roosevelt (at far left). Left to right in back of the table: George B. Cortelyou, Charles Joseph Bonaparte, x, James Wilson, Truman Handy Newberry. Left to right in front of the table: x, Luke Edward Wright, George von Lengerke Meyer, James Rudolph Garfield.

He also was a dedicated fighter of corruption in both municipal and state government. Baltimore, like many American cities of the time, was in the hands of crooked machine politicians, who thrived by taking and giving bribes, favors and sometimes threats (and more than threats). His fight against corruption earned him the nickname “Charlie the Crook Chaser.”

“The Crook Chaser” began his career in politics at the turn of the century. When he and other progressive Republicans swept corrupt Democrats out of the office all through the state. He filled a number of posts which involved reform and became were chosen by voters in Maryland as a presidential elector in 1904.

When Theodore Roosevelt was elected in his own right in 1904 after having served part of a term following the assassination of McKinley, he won on a platform of reform, trust-busting, and anti-corruption.

Charles Bonaparte was a known and respected politician despite some personal quirks – he did not take to the new technology of the time, and did not use telegraphs, have electricity in his very large house, or use cars, preferring to travel by horse or horse-drawn carriage until he died in 1920.

Bonaparte was Roosevelt’s third Secretary of the Navy. In this position, he continued the work of his predecessors and president, helping to make the United States Navy a two-ocean navy and a world power.

Bella Vista in 1907.
Bella Vista in 1907.

Impressed by his work and his stance on corruption, Roosevelt made Bonaparte Attorney General of the United States in 1906.

He held this position until the election of Taft in 1908. As Attorney General, Bonaparte established the “Bureau of Investigation,” or “BOI.” Bonaparte wished to incorporate the Secret Service into the BOI (it was and is part of the Treasury Department), but Congress refused, fearing the establishment of the large secret police.

Bonaparte did recruit some Secret Service agents for his original force of thirty-four special agents, along with new recruits and other law enforcement professionals. The first operation undertaken by the BOI was an investigation of interstate prostitution. This resulted in the passage of the Mann Act by Congress in 1910.

This organization was briefly renamed in 1932 to the “Division of Investigation,” but within three years, became known as the “Federal Bureau of Investigation” – the FBI.

Bonaparte returned to Maryland after his time in Washington, D.C. and practiced law. He died in 1920, of Sydenham’s chorea, a nervous disorder. A street in Baltimore is called Bonaparte Avenue, which most people believe is a reference to Charles’ famous uncle.

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John Smith has been with Histecho since 2017, A Senior Editor & Writer for Histecho. his work has been featured in outlets such as Scientific American, The Washington Post, NBC News, and Fox News. John grew up outside of Philadelphia and studied biology at Hamilton College in upstate New York.

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