The Object at Hand- page 1 | History | Smithsonian

The Object at Hand

A bejeweled box from a sorely beset emperor leads to a Yankee dentist, and how he rescued the beautiful empress Eugénie from a Paris mob

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Stickpin. The word conjures up Diamond Jim Brady and other big spenders of the Gilded Age. A jeweled pin that held a gentleman's scarf or ascot in place and at the same time allowed him to show off a bit. Or how about a tiny golden box, like the one above with "N" for Napoleon encrusted in diamonds on its cover.

Many such objects reside at the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, the Smithsonian's unique New York branch housed in the grand old Carnegie Mansion. The Cooper-Hewitt's rich collections are sometimes displayed in groups that have a unifying theme.

It was at just such a show that viewers might have paused before the golden box, part of a bequest to the Cooper-Hewitt from the Thomas W. Evans Collection in Philadelphia. And who was this Evans, this wealthy connoisseur, benefactor and amasser of valuables? He was a friendly neighborhood dentist.

Of course, the neighborhood happened to be the very best section of Paris at the time of the elegant Second Empire (1852-70). And Dr. Thomas Evans' clientele included France's imperial family, most notably Napoleon III and Empress Eugénie. A most successful American abroad, Evans made his fortune by being charming and dependable, as well as skillful with angled mirror, pick and drill.

In 1847, after only four years in practice, Evans, from a good old Quaker family, won an award for his gold fillings at Philadelphia's Franklin Institute. That brought him a bid to join the famous Dr. Cyrus Starr Brewster, who was caring for some very high-class teeth in-of all places-Paris.

Off went young Tom Evans and his wife, Agnes. He soon was packing his examining rooms with the haut monde. Louis-Napoleon, nephew of the "Little Corporal" and a fine-looking man with a well-twirled lady-killer mustache, was his most illustrious client; his teeth were as sensitive as his ambition was prodigious. The gentle care of "Handsome Tom" Evans delighted this eminent patient, and when he pulled off a coup d'éthat and in 1852 declared himself Napoleon III, Emperor of France, he appointed the American in Paris "Surgeon-Dentist" to the imperial court.

The new emperor took a shine to a Spanish noblewoman, Eugénie Montijo, and Evans was an honored guest when they were wed. His acceptance by the imperial couple inspired other members of European royalty to seek his services-not solely as a dentist. Evans, known for his tact as well as his skill, often got, along with an eyeful of monarchical decay, an earful of regal intrigue. The dentist became a useful pipeline for rulers who wished to keep in touch without formal summit meetings. President Lincoln's Secretary of State, William H. Seward, learned from his consul general in Paris that "when the crowned-heads of Europe wish to communicate with one another without any responsibility they send for Dr. Evans to fix their teeth."

Evans saw the Franco-Prussian War coming, and on July 4, 1870, the dentist threw a huge party for Americans at his palatial home and warned them that war was imminent. It broke out two weeks later. Though France had a famous army ready to fight-according to one of its marshals, "down to the last gaiter button"-Prussia had Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, a general named Helmuth von Moltke, and trains to bring up men and supplies. Six weeks after Napoleon III declared war, his country was invaded and whipped. On September 2, he surrendered himself and 100,000 troops at Sedan. Two days later the news reached Paris, and the Second Empire collapsed. A mob proceeded to tear down all symbols of the empire and headed for the Tuileries palace, where the empress was still in residence.

Late that afternoon of September 4, Thomas Evans returned home after checking on the American-style field hospital that he had set up in the city. He found two ladies waiting for him. A distraught Empress of France, heavily veiled and accompanied by Madame Lebreton, her loyal lady-in-waiting, sought the American's help. The Paris mob had stormed the palace gates, shrieking for the blood of "the Spanish woman." She had escaped by the skin of her well-tended teeth.

Dear Dr. Evans, her old friend, was possibly her last chance to get away from France, to reach England where her 14-year-old son, "Lou-Lou," was already safely ensconced. Evans recruited his associate, Dr. Edward Crane, and quickly made plans to get Eugénie to Deauville in Normandy, in hopes of finding a vessel to take her across the Channel to England.

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