Skip to content

The ghost of Buchot

19 January 2020

Today marks the 93rd anniversary of the death of the ex-Empress Carlota, after 60 years confined to Buchot Castle. Although called a “castle”, her asylum was nothing more than a large house in suburban Brussels, but then too, her earlier claim to be Empress of Mexico was also meant to give illusory glamour to mundane and often rather shabby reality.

Although Bertita Harding’s 1934 novel, “Phantom Crown, the 1939 Paul Muni and Bette Davis vehicle “Juarez” and similar works have presented a tragic tale of royal intrigue and romance, the whole story is … if not sordid… simply sad. Her father, being one of those spare royals floating around after the fall of Napoleon, was created “King of the Belgians” for the simple reason that the European elites carved out a country from what had been France, and that it needed a monarch. Leopold of Saxe-Coberg, the chosen candidate among the cadre of spare royals floating around took advantage of his position (and what monarch doesn’t?) less creating a fairy-tale kingdom than in getting down to the real work of furthering the family business. Mergers and acquisitions among European royalty being as much a matter of family connections as anything, marrying off his daughter Marie Charlotte Amélie Augustine Victoire Clémentine Léopoldine to the Maximilian, second in line to the Austrian-Hungarian throne in 1857

(Wedding photo 1857)

Leopold, being a king and all, had the wherewithal to gamble magnificently. Given the instability of the Austrian_Hungarian throne (it had been created in 1848 after revolutions throughout Europe led to the demise of the old Holy Roman Empire… which, as its own Prime Minister had said, was “neither holy, nor Roman, nor an Empire”). there was a decent chance that Maximilian would become king of some wealthy territory, or… perhaps, he’d outlive his brother, assuming Franz-Joseph didn’t manage to — as he did the next year — father a male heir.

The 25-year-old Maximilian (Carlota was 17) is always described as “idealistic”… more or less meaning “not particularly suited to kinging”. Not really wanting him around the Austrian throne, he’d originally been palmed off on the Brazilian monarchy, engaged to Princess Maria-Amelia (who was not in the line of succession, and, for that matter, never was born in Portugal and never went anywhere near Brazil). But, Maria Amelia died during the engagement, which maybe should have been seen as a premonition that the guy was unlucky.

It’s not that Max was stupid particularly… he spoke four or five languages and had been broadly educated in several fields, showing some real interest in natural science, though expressed more in his hobby of butterfly collecting than in any rigorous research, just that he really didn’t seem to grasp the nuances of running a government. He showed some talent in naval affairs, and was put in command of the Austrian Navy, showing he wasn’t an incompetent and made viceroy of Trieste… , still second in line to the throne, the Austrians though it might not hurt to give Mex some experience at governance. A stint as Viceroy of Lombardy came to a quick end as the Lombards, being neither Austrian nor Hungarian saw annexation into the new Kingdom of Italy much more to their liking. Off then, to Trieste, another rump Italian province of the Empire, where Max and his bride did their best to market themselves a benign patron of art and culture… starting with building themselves an impressive palace. Which would presage their Mexican adventure, building a royal residence, no expense spared, and no thought given to the cost (Apparently, well-educated as he was, Max never learned to keep accounts), and for all intents and purposes, being the one thing royals should never be… financially embarrassed.

Carlota, still known as Marie Charlotte Amélie, etc., came into her own, proving herself her father’s daughter, someone who knew how to gamble and ruthless when it came to feathering the family nest. With Mexico in the throes of a civil war between conservatives and reformers, the United States tied up with its civil war, and France looking for both overseas financial opportunities (not just Mexican mineral resources, but access to US … or Confederate if it came to that… cotton) the idea of both settling the Mexican situation with an outside and .. theoretically neutral… monarch did have some appeal within conservative Mexican (mostly exile) circles. It also appealed to the Pope, seeking to undo the reformist changes that had not just separated church and state but had nationalized church properties as well.

Napoleon III, the inventor of “Latin America” (he rationalized that having a majority Catholic culture, and speaking a Romance language entitled the non-English parts of the Western Hemisphere the countries were “entitled” to the “protection” of the most powerful cultural Catholic, Romance language-speaking nation of the time) and Leopold, back in Belgium, both saw creating an American throne for Max as to their advantage. So, for that matter, did Franz-Joseph, giving him an honorable way of getting rid of his not-ready-for-Austria-Hungary-throne-time brother. If Mas, the idealist, was ready to sign up immediately, his wife was not just Leopold’s daughter, but had been an able student of the canny Belgian king. She read the contracts carefully, corresponded with her father about various financial and military arrangements, and otherwise trying to convince her husband that if they expected to be Emperor and Empress of Mexico, they needed to learn something about Mexico.

Max, having visited Brazil in the course of his naval career, figured he already had the information he needed. He’d picked up permission to marry his intended bride there, after all. He’d also picked up syphilis, which may have something to do with his increasingly erratic behavior. That, or possibly the mercury treatment then used to treat syphilis. Or, he started drinking heavily… as biographer Joan Haslip surmises. Despite Max’s naval background, it was Carlota … as she now styled herself, in preparation for her role as Empress of a Spanish-speaking nation… who concerned herself with the number of French troops that would be provided, the duration of their intervention, their payment and how much control the French would have over the Mexican Imperial government (and its treasury). She left Max the task of defining imperial court protocols (right down the color of socks to be worn by footmen when serving the imperial couple, as opposed to those footmen serving mere aristocrats… and how various aristocrats were to be addressed), and other equally pressing matters.

Max, throwing a temper tantrum at the last minute (that, of as Haslip details, an apparent breakdown following a long binge) delayed the couple’s departure, giving a little more time to Carlota to consider what would come next.

Whatever she thought might happen, and whatever it was she prepared for… nothing went right. Their landing, meant to be an imperial procession went terribly awry when Admiral Max… in command of the lighter bringing them into Veracruz… ended up not at the landing dock, but in an ad hoc French military cemetery on the beach. The impressive Imperial Carriage got stuck in the mud on the highway between Veracruz and Mexico City, forcing the couple to flag down a passing mail coach (ironically and conspicuously bearing the legend “Republica de México”) to complete their imperial procession. And so it went…

While defenders of the imperial adventure often point to the scientific and archeological research Maximilian fostered to justify his three-year reign, it might be argued that the Reformist government was equally interested in the latest in European intellectual trends, and would have welcomed the new thinking had they not been hampered by having to fight the interventionists. And, any claim that Maximilian was fostering intellectual thought was undermined by his decision (or perhaps that of Mexican General Bazaine) to close those hotbeds of both dissent and innovation, the universities.

Francois Achille Bazaine, French military commander in Mexico.

Maximilian may have been the one signing repressive decrees, but it was, according to Bazaine, Carlota who was holding things together. She, the French General, would later write, was the intelligent one, and the Empire might have had a chance, had the cold-blooded Carlota, not the dithering Maximilian, ruled the country. Which, they never really did despite Bazaine’s best efforts… other than the main highways and some of the major cities, it was the Reforma forces of Benito Juarez who always had the “hearts and minds” of the masses.

The dithering included not producing an heir. Getting into the imperial couple’s heads that they were not at all popular, they concluded that what Mexico needed was a Mexican born, “legitimate” male heir. But, whatever was going on in the imperial bedchamber, or not going on, Carlota could not get pregnant. Haslip suggested alcoholic impotence, but then, syphilis can also cause sterility, and it’s entirely likely that unless Maximilian was completely impotent (the later claims by various individuals to have been the Emperor’s illegitimate sons have always been easily dismissed) Carlota may have also been infected, and might account for her mental illness. On the other hand, C.M. Mayo has suggested that Carlota’s psychic break came about as a result of the understandable paranoia that any monarch’s wife would have if unable to produce her one and only real function… barren queens throughout European history having been quietly assassinated, locked away in convents, or… at the very least… divorced under one or another pretext. As it was, Carlota, then in her early 20s, already was looking at least 10 to fifteen years older in her photographs.

About 14 months into the Empire, Carlota looked closer to 40 than to 20

With the Empire, such as it was, hanging by a thread, Maximilian basically useless, and Carlota unwell, the expedient of buying an heir… the grandson of the one-year Emperor Agustín Iturbide (the wannabe Napoleon of Mexico) was one more good idea badly executed by the regime. Especially considering they bought the child from his aunt, and his parents were living. And the child had U.S. citizenship through his American-born mother. Coupled with the Emperor’s welcome to U.S. rebels, the defeated Confederates, as allies in his realm (conveniently forgetting the “liberal” sentiments Maximilian had cultivated, he held out the possibility of permitting the reintroduction of slavery in Mexico), the United States government began openly supporting the Reforma forces, and leaking intelligence from the Imperial government (the imperial embassy in Washington’s mail and telegrams were intercepted and turned over to Juarez’ agents).

The French, not only facing growing opposition at home to the Mexican adventure, were tired of subsidizing the forces for which Maximilian and Carlota were supposed to be paying… and might have, had they not blown the national budget on another castle. On top of which, Prussia was expanding its power within Europe, becoming an imminent threat to France, which could always go back to buying cotton from the United States, and had other sources for the minerals it hoped to export from Mexico.

Facing an immanent French withdrawal, the “Mexicanization” of the imperial army about as likely to succeed as “Vietnamization” would work when the United States attempted to withdraw from a later attempt to impose a tame regime on a fractious foreign state. the bald attempt to win over the public with a “native-born” royal heir a spectacular bust, and the imperial court a shabby collection of adventurers (like Prince Salm-Salm, a competent officer, who after having been thrown out of a few German armies found his niche as a medical officer in the Union Army, but moved to Mexico in search of new military adventures), rogues (like the court chaplain, a defrocked Lutheran pastor passing himself off as a Jesuit priest), and shady aristocrats like Countess Paula Kollonitz (whose memoirs detail her difficulties in finding decent coffee), Carota simply forgot about the heir and headed for France to shame Napoleon III into keeping his troops in Mexico.

Napoleon was shameless. Not even receiving Carlota, and already physically and mentally exhausted (and convinced Napoleon would simply dispose of her the old head fashioned way… assassination), she headed for Rome and her final psychic break. Unwelcome by other aristocrats, she was forced to move into a hotel, and … fearing assassination was living on chicken, bought live in the markets to be slaughtered and cooked in her rooms. Not something that endeared her to hotel keepers, who thinking the unthinkable for 19th-century people, had the temerity to try evicting her. Off to see the Pope… where things finally reached a head when she grabbed his Holiness’ morning hot chocolate out of his hands and simply refused to leave.

Whatever was going on (and I’m still convinced it was spirochetes whirling around her brain), she would never recover. The legend is that she was the only woman to spent the night in the Vatican apartments, although the Pope himself spent the night in the Vatican telegraph office, trying to get the Belgian royal family to come and take her off his hands.

Royals, being royal, don’t simply drop everything for a family emergency. It took a few days for her brother to arrive, and whisk her off to an Italian castle for observation by the finest alienists of Vienna (Sigmund Freud was only seven years old at the time, but already Viennese doctors were the go-to guys for mental illness). One reason I suspect she had tertiary syphilis is that there never was an official diagnosis on what ailed Carlota, and a sexually transmitted disease among the royals would have been too shameful, especially when protocol demanded she still be acknowledged as a reining Empress, a step about a mere Queen. Whatever the cause, at 26 she was hopelessly insane, was confined to Buchot Castle. Never told that Maximilian had been executed, nor that, being legally incompetent, her brother, Leopold II, had poured her personal funds into his Belgian Congo Company, financing a genocide beyond anything she could comprehend, she managed to outlive everyone connected to her sad story: Juarez, Bazaine, Franz-Joseph, the Austrian-Hungarian Empire itself (along with the Brazilian and Portuguese monarchies), Leopold II, Napoleon III, Pope Pius IX…

Rarely lucid, even more rarely seen in public, she spent the greater part of the next 60 years in her bedroom, playing with dolls, the end coming 19 January 1927.

No comments yet

Leave a reply, but please stick to the topic

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: