Among the belles of the early century loom the forms of those gracious women whose names are interwoven with those of the most historic figures of their age, the Caton sisters of Baltimore. Granddaughters of Charles Carroll of Carrollton, one of the most illustrious Americans of the period, they became through marriage identified with the most distinguished families in England.
In 1787 Richard Caton, an Englishman who had settled in Baltimore two years before, and engaged in the manufacture of cotton goods, succeeded in winning the fair hand of Mary Carroll. Rumor said that it had been already partially plighted to her cousin John Carroll of Duddington Manor. Cousin “Longlegs,” however, as Kitty, her irreverent younger sister, called him was in Europe at the time with her brother Charles, and in those days of slow travel Mary had probably capitulated to the young Briton before John even knew that he had a rival.
Her father, who was reputed the wealthiest man in America, and who provided liberally both for his children and grandchildren, settled upon Mary at the time of her marriage to Richard Caton, the beautiful estate of “Brookland Wood,” in the centre of the suburb which has since sprung up and been named for them, Catonsville. Their four daughters were born there and grew up to beautiful womanhood, Mary, Elizabeth, Louisa, and Emily. They derived every grace of mind and body from a cultivated and accomplished mother who had been educated abroad, and who, accompanying her father to Philadelphia when Congress met there, had known the best there was of social life in America. Closely associated, moreover, from their infancy with their grandfather, a most courtly gentleman, who ever be held in woman an object worthy of his most chivalrous devotion, they bore every evidence of that innate refinement which created distinction for them in England as the “American Graces.”
The life at that time surrounding such men as Carroll was idyllic. Honored by his countrymen, blessed with the wealth giving him every material comfort and luxury, owning his town house, his estate of Doughoregan, and his plantation the famous Carrollton, sought out by the most distinguished men and women at home and from abroad, to say nothing of the myriad resources which such a man as Carroll possessed within himself, he already saw his family, the third generation born in America, well established, with the rooftrees of his son and daughters close by his own. His granddaughters were much with him, and though they were the belles of Baltimore town from their earliest girlhood, a very delightful phase of their life was that portion of it spent on their own and their grandfather’s estates. There is frequent mention both in the journal and letters of Charles Carroll of visits from them and also of that princely hospitality that is ever associated with the names of many of the old Maryland estates. In one letter he alludes to a ball to be given by Captain Charles Ridgley of “Hampton,” for which three hundred invitations were out, and to which Mary, Betsy, and Louisa were all going. In another he mentions a ball given by Louisa, who was entertaining the Misses Pinkney at his place at Annapolis.
Many a belle in those days went to balls on horseback with a blanket thrown over her muslin gown to protect it from the dust. Yet it was not too much of an undertaking to go all the way from Annapolis to Baltimore, or vice versa, for the pleasure of being present at somebody’s ball or dinner-party. Roads and weather permitting, the Catons occasionally made the trip in winter time in a “sled.” Roads and weather had much to do with the timing of one’s visits in those days of primitive transportation facilities when Charles Carroll recorded that he sent his servant from Donghoregan with a led mare to fetch Miss Nancy Robinson who had been visiting at Homewood, his son’s estate.
Nature lent her perfecting hand to the rural life of these people, for nowhere was she ever more munificent in the bestowal of her epicurean gifts than in the State of Maryland, whose lands and whose waters alike cater to the gastronomic proclivities of the bon vivant.
Oliver Wendell Holmes at a later period attributed a lack of appreciation of literature which he fancied he had detected among the Baltimoreans to the preponderance of these very blessings, and suggested that the highest monument in the city should be crowned with a canvas back duck.
There were club houses and merrymaking in plenty, with oysters, soft shell crabs, terrapin, canvas back ducks, and a roasted young pig with an apple in its mouth, or a turkey stuffed with oysters, as piece de resistance, with a nip of punch for sauce. Miss Ridgley depicts it very temptingly in her little book.
Foremost among the beautiful women whose presence lent piquancy to this life were the Catons. In 1807 Mary, who was at the time nineteen years old, was married to Robert Patterson, the eldest son of William Patterson. She thus became the sister-in-law of the unhappy Madame Jerome Bonaparte, between whom and herself there seems to have existed no great sympathy, through no fault of Mary Caton’s.
The event was a welcome one to William Patterson, who was at the time the wealthiest merchant in America. The wedding ceremony was performed in the private chapel of the Carroll family by Archbishop Carroll, who four years previously had similarly united Elizabeth Patterson and Jerome Bonaparte. In April, 1811, Robert and his wife, accompanied by her sisters Elizabeth and Louisa, went abroad, sailing from Baltimore on one of his father’s ships and landing in Lisbon in the latter part of May. Robert Patterson had already travelled and lived much in Europe. To the Catons it was the first of a series of numerous trans-Atlantic trips.
While in Spain they met the Duke of Wellington, who was there at that time conducting the peninsular war, and Colonel Sir Felton Bathurst Hervey, who had been his aide-de-camp at Waterloo and whom Louisa Caton afterwards married. Charles Carroll, writing of Hervey after his marriage to Louisa, which occurred on the 1st of March, 1817, said, “All who know him love him.” He was a gallant soldier and had lost his right arm at Vittoria.
The Duke of Wellington’s ardent admiration for Mrs. Patterson drew him within the wake of the little American party as they progressed in their travels over Europe, lending them the prestige which opened for them the most exclusive houses in England. Apparent as his admiration was, not the least breath of scandal ever touched the name of this beautiful young matron. The Prince Regent, to whom Wellington presented her, spoke later to Richard Rush, the American Minister, of her unusual beauty. When she came, later in life, into contact with William IV as first lady in waiting at Windsor, she won the sincere admiration of that sovereign on account of the high standard of morality which she maintained.
After the marriage of Hervey and Louisa Caton they were entertained by the Duke of Wellington at Walmer Castle. The Duchess of Rutland gave them a ball, and bestowed upon the sisters on that memorable night the title under which they became famous, the “American Graces.” Hervey’s death occurred in 1819, and Robert Patterson’s at Baltimore in the fall of 1822. The widow of the latter shortly afterwards rejoined her sisters in England, where they were again entertained at Wellington’s country seat. While there they met for the first time his eldest brother, Richard Wellesley, Earl of Mornington, and like himself a soldier and a statesman. In 1797 he had been made Governor of India by George III., who, in return for the services he rendered there, had created him Marquis of Wellesley. At the time he met Mrs. Patterson and her sisters he was Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. Two years later, when Mrs. Patterson and Elizabeth Caton visited Dublin, he entertained them royally, bestowing the most devoted attentions upon the former, to whom he subsequently offered himself.
After a brief engagement they were married at the viceregal castle, the ceremony being performed twice, to accord with the religious convictions of both the bride and the groom, the Archbishop of Dublin marrying them according to the rites of the Catholic Church, and the Lord Primate of Ireland according to those of the Church of England.
Unusual magnificence marked the festivities which followed this event, as well as those of the remainder of Lord Mornington’s reign as viceroy.
On July 4, 1827, Bishop England, of South Carolina, gave the following toast to Charles Carroll, who was the last survivor of the signers of the Declaration of Independence:
“To Charles Carroll of Carrollton in the land from which his grandfather fled in terror his granddaughter now reigns a queen.”
It was rather a strange coincidence that two daughters of the little American town of Baltimore, Elizabeth Patterson and Mary Caton, neighbors and contemporaries, should have married brothers of two of the most formidable characters in modern history, Napoleon Bonaparte, the self-styled conqueror of the world, and the Duke of Wellington, his conqueror.
Madame Jerome Bonaparte, who was in Europe at the time of her sister-in-law’s second marriage, thus wrote to her father concerning it:
“Havre, November 21, 1825.
I write by this packet to announce to you the marriage of Mrs. Robert Patterson. Mrs. Brown received a letter from Betsy Caton the day on which it was to take place. She has made the greatest match that any woman ever made. The Marquis of Wellesley is Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. He is sixty-five. He married an Italian singer, by whom he had a family of children. She is dead. He has no fortune. On the contrary, he is over head and ears in debt. His salary is £35,000 per annum as Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. He will be there eighteen months longer, and if the King does not give him another place he is entitled as a poor nobleman to at least a thousand pounds a year. He is brother of the Duke of Wellington. Mary’s fortune is reported in Europe to be £800,000 cash. It has been mentioned in all the papers at that sum.”
Wellesley retained his position in Ireland till 1828. He was then appointed Controller of the Royal Household of William IV., and his wife first lady in waiting at Windsor Castle. Wellesley’s death occurred in 1842, the Marchioness surviving him over eleven years. The latter part of her life was spent at the Royal Palace at Hampton Court, where Queen Victoria presented her with a house in recognition of her husband’s services.
Louisa Caton was married for the second time in 1828 to the eldest son of the Duke of Leeds, Francis Godolphin D’Arcy Osborne, Marquis of Carmarthen, who came into his title and estates ten years later. This marriage called forth another letter from Madame Jerome Bonaparte to her father: “Louisa has made a great match. He is very handsome, not more than thirty-eight, and will be a duke with £30,000 a year.”
Elizabeth Caton married once and that much later in life than her sisters. She became, in 1836, the wife of Baron Stafford, whose family name was Jerningham. Emily Caton, the youngest of the four sisters, and the only one who left descendants, married John MacTavish, a Scotchman, who had settled in Canada, whence he was sent as consul to Baltimore. Josiah Quincy, who met her at dinner at her grandfather’s in 1826, recorded in his journal that he had been much impressed with her air of high breeding.