“I grew up being told that my great-great-great-(grandfather/uncle, etc) was a (close friend/servant/doctor/personal guard) of Napoleon. Have you come across our family name in your research?”
I’m always happy to respond. Sometimes I can point the questioner to a website where they might get help. Occasionally, particularly if the ancestor in question hailed from St Helena, I might put their information in a blog post.
But how much scrutiny can most family legends take? In this holiday season, filled with Santa Clauses, elves, and flying reindeer, it’s appropriate to tell the legend from my own family that comes closest to touching on Napoleon—in this case, Napoleon III, the first emperor’s nephew who ruled France from 1852 – 1870.
One of Napoleon III’s more dubious exploits—and he had several—was the installation of Maximilian of Austria as Emperor of Mexico. Needless to say, many locals weren’t thrilled. A rebellion ensued and the French forces were routed.
In 1864, my grandmother’s grandfather, Ferdinand Heinrich Englebert Osthaus, had followed Maximilian to the New World, expecting to make his fortune as “a gentleman farmer.” From here, I’ll quote the document my father left me:
“After the army of Juarez captured Mexico City in 1867, Maximilian and his followers took refuge in Querétaro north of Mexico City. Querétaro, too, was captured and Maximilian tried by court martial and executed in June of that year. Family tradition has it that Maximilian was “shot in Grosspapa’s shirt,” because his clothing was in such disrepair after being in prison that Osthaus lent him a shirt, which he was wearing when he was executed.”
It turns out there was a photographer, François Aubert, who took photos of Maximilian’s body and his effects. In this photo, Aubert memorialized the very shirt my ancestor claimed as his own. Since the photograph was famous in its time, I do wonder if it prompted my great-great grandfather to claim a little of its gory glory after he fled Mexico to join his brother in Wisconsin.
As a child, this family myth fascinated me. Now it makes me realize how much I wish there had been photography (Video! Audio!) in the Age of Napoleon I. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to see a candid shot of the Great Man? Think of all we could learn that can’t be discerned from the staged portraits of his day.