At the Pope’s Tavern Museum a small, out of the way place in Florence, Alabama, amid the Civil War relics and antique furniture, a visitor suddenly encounters an exquisite bisque bust of a European woman from the 1800s. The bust is the likeness of Charlotte of Belgium, who was once the Empress of Mexico. What in the world is it doing there?
One of the strangest episodes in Mexican history was the French invasion, the subject of my book, Flanagan and the Crown of Mexico. While America was distracted by its own Civil War, the French, under Napoleon III and his Belgian allies, invaded Mexico, drove out President Juarez, and placed the Austrian Archduke Maximilian in Mexico City as Emperor. Maximilian’s wife, Charlotte of Belgium was crowned Empress Carlotta. Charlotte/Carlotta was both beautiful and capable and was soon the power behind the throne.
But Juarez kept fighting and by 1866, America was applying pressure and the French public was getting weary of the whole affair. Napoleon III ordered his troops home and expected Maximilian to do the same. Instead, he sent Carlotta back to Europe to plead his case and secure support. By this time, however, Carlotta was beginning to crack under the constant strain, and was detained in Italy by her relatives. Meanwhile, Maximilian stubbornly remained after the French troops left, thinking the Mexicans would support him. He was captured by Juarez and later executed by a firing squad. Meanwhile, Carlotta’s condition worsened. She was shipped off to a castle in Belgium, where she remained, subject to delusions and destructive outbursts, but also capable of periods of rationality, until her death in 1927. Although in the path of the German army in WWI, the castle was untouched by order of the Kaiser, to protect the woman who was once married to one of his Austrian allies.
Which brings us to the remarkable bisque bust in the museum in Alabama. The bust was a likeness of Charlotte given as a wedding present to her from Napoleon III upon her marriage to Maximilian. Thinking she would return, Charlotte left it in Mexico when she returned to Europe, and it was snatched up by a family member of one of Maximilan’s loyalists when Juarez took power. Fearing retribution, the loyalists fled Mexico and wound up in the United States, where they later gave the bust to an American family who had helped them. The American family passed the bust down through several generations until one of the descendants married a man from Florence, Alabama. The couple sold the bust to the Susan K. Vaughn museum and it was donated to Pope’s Tavern Museum in Florence, Alabama.
The bust is so detailed and lifelike, it seems as if it could talk. If it could, what a tale it could tell; the likeness of a Belgian noblewoman who married an Austrian and became Empress of Mexico, only to lose her empire, and with it, her mind.