Point Breeze: The Ghost Of King Joseph Bonaparte

Love him or hate him, Napoléon Bonaparte's role in history is huge. Although the story of how a young Napoléon (then a student at the Ecole Militaire) narrowly escaped drowning while skating on the moat at the fort at Auxerre in 1791 could be a blog in itself, this Skate Guard blog isn't about the little corporal. It instead has everything to do with his big brother Joseph, who reigned as both the King Of Naples and the King Of Spain and the Indies successively from 1808 to 1813.

After the defeat of the French in the Battle Of Vitoria in his final year as the King Of Spain, Joseph Bonaparte abdicated his throne and returned to France. From there he made the unorthodox move to North America, settling first in New York City and Philadelphia before moving into an estate called Point Breeze in Bordentown, New Jersey. Point Breeze was a controversial spot in itself as it was formerly owned by Stephen Sayre, a former merchant, city sheriff and diplomat who while in London was arrested for his part in a plot to kidnap King George III of England. Enough royals for you yet?

While at Point Breeze, the elder Bonaparte entertained a who's who of anyone who was anyone in New Jersey at the time including the Marquis de Lafayette, John Adams, John Clay and Daniel Webster, but Joseph ultimately returned to Italy where he died at age seventy six in 1844. Here's where things get spooky. Patricia A. Martinelli, Charles A. Stansfield's book "Haunted New Jersey: Ghosts and Strange Phenomena of the Garden State" shares a bit of local folklore about the elder Bonaparte... with a skating connection: "On the north side of Bordentown is a housing development known as Point Breeze, where some residents report strange noises - sounds of footsteps coming from beneath their feet, underground, and the faint sounds of partying: conversations just too low to be understood, laughter, clinking glasses, and faint music. On occasion, in deep winter, a mysterious figure appears to watch ice skaters on a local pond. The figure rolls oranges and apples out onto the ice toward the skaters. But as the skaters chase these gifts, the fruit disappears. Is the dark spectator of the ice skaters the ghost of the one-time king of Spain and former king of Naples?"

The English Style of skating popular in the nineteenth century (which we'll get into more in a later blog), which involved tracing figures around an orange placed on the ice as a point of reference. The fruit being rolled onto the ice almost makes you think that maybe someone with more of a skating background (like Napoléon Bonaparte himself?) might be the culprit but Martinelli and Stansfield's book offers some great insight as to exactly why an ghostly apparition might be making offers of Vitamin C to local skaters: "Calling himself the Count de Survilliers, Bonaparte allowed his neighbours to use the park he had created from wilderness and encouraged them to ice skate on his pond in winter. It was Bonaparte's habit of rolling oranges and apples out on the ice for his visitors to chase that seems to be perpetuated by his ghost... Joseph Bonaparte really liked Americans, and his neighbours liked his generosity and the glamour of his social life. Bonaparte had a carefree life here, out from under the shadow of his famous younger brother... His ghost may have preferred to return to the scene of his happiest days. Bonaparte's wife, an unpleasant woman, refused to come to America with him, and Joseph had a series of lovely young mistresses while at Point Breeze - another reason to lure his ghost back to New Jersey!"

"Skating on Bonaparte's Pond" (mural study, Bordentown, New Jersey Post Office) by Avery F. Johnson. Photo courtesy Smithsonian American Art Museum. 

Not that I didn't want to take Martinelli and Stansfield's word as gospel, but it never hurts to look through historical sources to back up your facts... even if what you're ultimately chasing is a ghost. E.M. Woodward's 1879 book "Bonaparte's Park and the Murats" was just the source material I needed! Woodward wrote that "The Count was very good to the citizens of the town, and allowed them all the privileges of his park, and in winter, of the lake. When the skating was fine, he and his household would come down to the shore to see the sport, and it was one of his greatest pleasures to roll apples and oranges over the ice to see the skaters scamper after them." Now would you look at that? 

Joseph Bonaparte's ghost gets around more than Casanova. In addition to the lake on his estate, he's been linked to several hauntings at the Keene Mansion in Pennyslvania, the home of a woman named Sarah Keene who apparently broke the former king's heart. Perhaps though, civil war skating ghosts aren't the only ones haunting the Delaware River. The only way to find out is to hit up the produce department and head on down to Point Breeze and kindly ask the Catholic missionaries who now own the land to give you permission to trespass for an evening skate. If your fruit starts rolling out onto the ice towards you, be sure to tell Joseph Bonaparte that this skating lover says hi!

Here's where things get even creepier though... and this is a cool (if not icy) note to end on. Joseph Bonaparte also has a connection to another ghost story with a skating connection that was explored last year in October on Skate Guard - The Jersey Devil. Like the two teenage boys who spotted the frightening figure in 1978, Bonaparte himself reportedly saw The Jersey Devil. According to S.E. Schlosser who retold the legend in his book "Spooky New Jersey": "the ex-King of Spain was hunting alone in the woods near his house when he spotted some strange tracks on the ground. They looked like the tracks of a two-footed donkey. Bonaparte noticed that one foot was slightly larger than the other. The tracks ended abruptly as if the creature had flown away. He stared at the tracks for a long moment, trying to figure out what the strange animal might be. At that moment, Bonaparte heard a strange hissing noise. Turning, he found himself face to face with a large winged creature with a horse-like head and bird-like legs. Astonished and frightened, he froze and stared at the beast, forgetting that he was carrying a rifle. For a moment, neither of them moved. Then the creature hissed at him, beat its wings, and flew away. When he reported the incident to a friend later that day, Bonaparte was told that he had just seen the famous Jersey Devil, who had haunted the Pine Barrens ever since he was born to Mother Leeds one dark and stormy night in 1735. Bonaparte was impressed by the story of the Jersey Devil, and thereafter kept a lookout for the fabulous creature whenever he went hunting. Once things settled down in Europe, Joseph Bonaparte returned to Europe and was reunited with his wife in Italy. He never saw the Jersey Devil again." Perhaps maybe Joseph Bonaparte has another reason for hanging around the ice of New Jersey... he's protecting the skaters!

Skate Guard is a blog dedicated to preserving the rich, colourful and fascinating history of figure skating. Over ten years, the blog has featured over a thousand free articles covering all aspects of the sport's history, as well as four compelling in-depth features. To read the latest articles, follow the blog on FacebookTwitterPinterest and YouTube. If you enjoy Skate Guard, please show your support for this archive by ordering a copy of the figure skating reference books "The Almanac of Canadian Figure Skating", "Technical Merit: A History of Figure Skating Jumps" and "A Bibliography of Figure Skating": https://skateguard1.blogspot.com/p/buy-book.html.