The Dentist Who Saved an Empress
In 1870, Emperor Napoleon III of France did something really stupid: he declared war on Prussia. The Prussians — better armed, better trained — made short work of the French army. After trying and failing to get himself killed at Sedan, Napoleon III surrendered.
Back in Paris, his wife and regent, Empress Eugénie, scrambled to save the monarchy. Barely sleeping, existing on coffee and chloral hydrate, Eugénie broke down when she heard what her husband had done.
Then the news got worse — the Prussians were on their way to Paris. Eugénie sent the Louvre’s valuable art away for safekeeping and gave her jewels to Princess Pauline Metternich to smuggle out of France in her husband’s diplomatic pouch.
As the exhausted empress prepared for an invasion, an American in Paris spotted an existential threat much closer to home.
Better Living through Dentistry
Dr. Thomas Evans of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania was the world’s first — and possibly only — rockstar dentist. In 1847, he’d moved to Paris to partner with another American dentist, Dr. Cyrus Brewster. As luck would have it, Brewster was out sick when French president Louis Napoleon Bonaparte had a killer toothache. Evans filled in.
Louis Napoleon had extremely sensitive teeth and a predisposition to bleeding. To top it off, he was extremely sensitive to pain. Sounds like a recipe for dental disaster, right?
But Evans specialized in gentle, pain-free treatments. He did such a good job that Louis Napoleon invited him back to the palace the next day. As Evans wrote, “from that time, up to the day of his death, I visited him often — sometimes as often as twice a week.” ¹
When Louis Napoleon followed family tradition and declared himself Emperor Napoleon III, Evans became a fixture at the new imperial court.
He befriended Napoleon’s wife, Empress Eugénie, and soon found his services requested at other European courts.
When the Franco-Prussian War broke out in 1870, Evans volunteered to start a hospital. Obsessed with improving treatment, sanitation, and field ambulances, Evans spent 1.25 million francs of his own money treating the wounded. ²
But on the afternoon of September 4, after visiting his hospital, Evans saw an angry, restless crowd take to the streets. In the Place de la Concorde, workers protested the war, the government, and their defeat.
According to Evans, “…the mob was meeting with no resistance…Paris was in the hands of the Revolutionists.” ³
He remained surprisingly calm for someone with close ties to the monarchy. He went to his office and then home, where he was having a dinner party later that night. But when he arrived, a servant told him there were two mysterious ladies waiting for him in the library.
Three hours earlier, one of those ladies had stood at the windows of the Tuileries, watching an angry crowd tear the symbolic golden eagles from the palace gates. Empress Eugénie listened as the Prefect of Police issued a warning: she had fifteen minutes, tops, before the mob forced their way into the palace.
Everyone remembered what had happened in 1792, when an angry mob had stormed the Tuileries and butchered the Swiss Guard protecting Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. But where Louis and Marie had had 900 men to defend them, Eugénie had only 200. ⁴
The commander of the palace garrison asked for permission to fire on the crowd. Eugénie refused.
“No bloodshed,” she said. “I would prefer the dynasty to perish rather than lose a single French life.” ⁵
The remaining courtiers talked her into evacuating. But to get away safely, she had to give the crowd the slip. That meant sneaking out through the Louvre, which adjoined the Tuileries.
Two diplomats escorted Eugénie and her companion, Madame Lebreton, through the darkened corridors. There, at the furthest exit, they hid in the shadows behind a partially open door, waiting for an angry crowd to pass. Eugénie heard them shout “Death! Down with the Spanish woman!” ⁶
She later said, “No one who has not heard it can realise the horror of…the roar of a crowd that has only one desire — to tear you to pieces.” ⁷
But Eugénie didn’t let it faze her. When the crowd had passed, she was the first to step into the street. “One must be daring,” she said, looking back at her escorts.⁸
One of those escorts, Prince Metternich, hailed her a passing hansom cab.
Suddenly, a teenage boy cried out — he had recognized the empress. Eugénie’s other escort, Signor Nigra, distracted the boy while Metternich helped both women into the cab and sent them on their way.
Their first stop? A friend of Madame Lebreton’s, who wasn’t home. Their second stop? Another friend, who slammed the door in their faces. Finally, Eugénie decided to head for Dr. Evans’s house, just down the street.
That’s how Dr. Evans found Eugénie and Madame Lebreton in his library that night.
“I have no friends left but you,” said Eugénie. “The evil days have come and I am alone.” ⁹
She asked him to help her escape — the sooner the better, in case the revolutionaries decided to arrest her. She already had a British passport, acquired for just this possibility.
Evans was moved: “The fact…that she who had been surrounded by friends and courtiers…now seemed to be deserted and forgotten by everyone in her own country…could not fail to produce in my mind a feeling of pain as well as of sympathy.” ¹⁰
Without hesitation, he agreed to help.
Your Mission, Should You Choose to Accept It
That night, Evans and his nephew concocted a plan.
First, they had to get the two women to the seaside resort town of Deauville, where Evans’s wife was on vacation. There, they could find a boat to take them to England. Evans ruled out using public transit in or near Paris — Eugénie was too recognizable.
The next morning, the foursome set out in Evans’s carriage. They drove for 24 hours straight, stopped once to sleep, and continued to Lisieux by train. There, in the pouring rain, Evans went to look for a carriage, leaving Eugénie huddled on a doorstep.
Evans felt a strange thrill at his role: “…her existence even is known to but two men — and those two Americans!” ¹¹
Finally, on September 6, they reached the seaside resort of Deauville. Evans smuggled Eugénie into his wife’s hotel room through the garden, then headed to the port to find a boat that would take them across the channel.
The first person he approached was Sir John Burgoyne, a British man whose yacht was scheduled to depart the next morning. According to Evans, Burgoyne refused to have anything to do with the dethroned empress.
So Evans played the chivalry card: “I am an American, and in our country every man will run any risk for a woman, and especially for a lady whose life is in danger.” ¹²
Burgoyne then deferred to his wife, who promptly told Evans to bring Eugénie aboard.
At midnight, under the cover of darkness, Evans, Eugenie, and Madame Lebreton boarded Burgoyne’s yacht, the Gazelle. Evans actually seemed disappointed that no one had chased them, either to restore Eugénie to her throne or to arrest her: “A sadder night I have never experienced,” he wrote. ¹³
Red Sky in Morning…
At 7 a.m., the Gazelle set sail for Southampton.
The sea was choppy and it was already raining, but a few hours later, things got much worse. A violent squall pitched the Gazelle back and forth.
At one point, Burgoyne said they might have to turn back — his yacht wasn’t built to withstand this kind of storm. Evans was seasick the entire time, but Eugénie wasn’t afraid. In the face of her courage, they pressed on.
At 6 p.m., they spotted the Isle of Wight. The rest of the storm thundered over them with lightning, wind, rain, and swamping waves that pitched the ship from side to side.
“I was sure we were lost,” Eugénie said. But despite the storm, she had an unearthly calm: “death, perhaps, could not come more opportunely, nor provide me with a more desirable grave.” ¹⁴
Hours into the storm, one of the crew members shouted that they’d hit a rock. The terrified Madame Lebreton, who didn’t speak English, asked what they were saying. “We’re nearing land,” Eugénie deadpanned, as waves crashed over the deck.¹⁵
By midnight, however, the storm died down. Four hours later, they dropped anchor at Ryde Harbor.
Exhausted and drenched, Eugénie walked up to the Pier Hotel, where she was turned away — no room at the inn, they said. But the next hotel had a tiny attic room, and Evans registered the two women as his sister and friend.
Later, they learned that the Captain — “the most powerful fighting ship in the British navy” — had gone down in the storm. All 500 men on board had drowned, including its captain — Sir John Burgoyne’s cousin. ¹⁶
A Lasting Legacy
Days later, Evans reunited Eugénie with her teenage son, who’d also fled to England. Her husband, Napoleon III, arrived seven months later after the armistice was signed. He died not long afterward, in January of 1873.
Eugénie lived on as one of the most respected royal women of Europe. Dr. Evans remained a friend and confidante — in 1879, when Eugénie’s son was killed during a Zulu skirmish, Evans identified the body based on the prince’s dental work. Eugénie died in 1920.
When Evans died in 1897, he left his collection of royal memorabilia to the University of Pennsylvania School of Dentistry.
In that collection? The carriage he and Eugénie had used to escape from Paris.
¹ Evans, Memoirs, 3.
² Carson, Dentist, 108.
³ Evans, Memoirs, 346.
⁴ Seward, Eugénie, 232.
⁵ Seward, Eugénie, 235.
⁶ Seward, Eugénie, 236.
⁷ Seward, Eugénie, 235.
⁸ Evans, Memoirs, 335.
⁹ Carson, Dentist, 120.
¹⁰ Evans, Memoirs, 360.
¹¹ Evans, Memoirs, 433.
¹² Evans, Memoirs, 445.
¹³ Evans, Memoirs, 456.
¹⁴ Evans, Memoirs, 463.
¹⁵ Seward, Eugénie, 241.
¹⁶ Evans, Memoirs, 453.
Burgoyne, John Montagu. “How the Empress Crossed the Channel.” Century Magazine 58 (October 1905): 857–859.
Carson, Gerald. The Dentist and the Empress: The Adventures of Dr. Tom Evans in Gas-Lit Paris. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1983.
Evans, Thomas. Edited by Edward A. Crane, M.D. The Memoirs of Dr. Thomas W. Evans. London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1905.
Paléologue, Maurice. Translated by Hamish Miles. The Tragic Empress. New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1928.
Seward, Desmond. Eugénie: The Empress and Her Empire. Gloucestershire: Sutton Publishing, 2004.