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

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.

The dentist had a pass the British Embassy had once made out for the use of a British doctor and his patient. He dug it out, informed the empress that she was now the patient and explained that he would pose as her brother. Dr. Crane would be her doctor and Madame Lebreton her nurse.

In Evans' enclosed landau the party set out the next morning. At the city gates, a guard appeared at the left-hand carriage door to take a look inside. Foreseeing this, Evans had placed Eugénie in the left rear corner, well back from the window and safe from any perfunctory glance. He then effectively blocked the window by leaning out to answer the guard's questions.

Gerald Carson, in his The Dentist and the Empress, tells a fine, old-fashioned adventure story of their 100-mile journey. Evans' trip with the empress through a countryside swinging violently toward revolution sometimes seems to spring straight from The Scarlet Pimpernel. Carson describes the dentist bluffing and bribing officials and coping with the foibles of a not entirely sensible grande dame cooped up in mortal danger and vast discomfort. Once, seeing a policeman picking on a townsman, Eugénie rose from her carriage seat, loudly declared herself to be the empress and ordered the cop to stop. The villagers stared at her. But Evans quickly gestured that she was insane-tapping the side of his head with a forefinger-and they turned away with a laugh and a shrug.

In Deauville, he and Dr. Crane hunted for secret transport to England. They found a 60-foot cutter named Gazelle, and quietly introduced themselves to the owner, Sir John Burgoyne, probably a remote relation of "Gentleman Johnny" Burgoyne, the British general who surrendered at Saratoga in 1777. This Sir John was dubious about smuggling the empress across the Channel, but his wife was for it. At dawn Gazelle slipped out of the harbor with the two French ladies hidden below, bound on a storm-tossed voyage to safety.

Back in France, the war turned into the siege of Paris, with le rat sauce madère on many a menu and, briefly and bloodily, government in the revolutionary hands of the Paris Commune. A peace treaty, devastating to France, was signed in May 1871. Then the ex-emperor was able to join his wife and son in England where he sickened and died following an operation for bladder stones.

Carrying the last hopes of a Bonapartist restoration, the young prince got a British military education and wangled his way into the Zulu War, raging in South Africa in 1879. Prince Louis-Napoleon was deemed "too plucky and go ahead." But young British officers liked him and chuckled when he claimed he'd prefer to be killed by an assegai than a bullet because "it would show we were at close quarters."

Lou-Lou got his wish. Off on a scouting detail, he and his escort were ambushed by 40 Zulus. The prince's horse broke away as he was trying to mount up. He was dragged 100 yards but turned toward his attackers, revolver blazing. Pierced 18 times by spears, his body was so mangled that Dr. Evans had to identify it by checking the boy's dental work. Heartbroken Eugénie felt her life had ended, but she lived on and on, a tragic widow and bereaved mother, surviving World War I. She died, barely remembered, in 1920 at age 94.

Her dashing dentist became a Paris fixture. He acquired a mistress, the beautiful Méry Laurent, an actress and artist's model, often for the Impressionist Edouard Manet. She was fetchingly endowed and faithful after her fashion. Leaving Evans would be a wicked thing, she declared, so she must content herself with deceiving him.

Handsome Tom apparently knew of the deceits. Both he and Agnes Evans simply accepted their situations as part of the good life. Warmed by Méry's companionship, Evans befriended artists and began collecting paintings as well as jewelry.

Evans did not charge important clients for fillings. Instead, he grew rich by using their inside information to buy and sell real estate in the fashionable heart of Paris. The gifts that he accepted-he couldn't say no-added up to a treasure trove. By the end of his life he was worth more than $4 million.

Agnes Evans died in 1897. Tom brought her home to Philadelphia for burial at Woodlands Cemetery and died soon after. His will established a combined dental school and museum in Philadelphia, affiliated with the University of Pennsylvania. This School of Dental Medicine sent a bequest from the Evans Collection to the Cooper-Hewitt in 1983. It consisted of rings, pins, earrings, bracelets, and boxes, often gold, with enamel or jewel adornment.

Tom Evans once noted a conversation he had had with his imperial patient: "This stone," said the emperor, indicating a diamond, "I had taken from the hilt of a sword belonging to my uncle, Napoleon the First." And that stone adorned a new gift to Evans: a stickpin. One of those at the Cooper-Hewitt? Quite possibly.

Get the latest History stories in your inbox?

Click to visit our Privacy Statement.