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Thomas W. Evans - A Philadelphian "Yankee" at the Court of Napoleon III

When the Marquis of D'Oyley, né John Henry Evans(1), began to ride to work in a magnificent carriage, complete with coat of arms and yellow-stocking'd footmen, it was carrying the joke of American "nobility" just too far, and his uncle Tom disinherited him(2). Thus it was that Philadelphia, and not the Marquis, got the Evans fortune, and the University of Pennsylvania found itself equipped with the Thomas W. Evans Museum and Dental School. At the same time, Paris lost a precious piece of its memory, as Thomas W. Evans had been privy to much inside information during the Second Empire and had become the unofficial resident American ambassador in the early part of the Third Republic. Tom Evans had himself been no stranger to high nobility, having looked down the throats of many a titled mortal in his capacity as the American Dentist, probably the most famous of his profession in 19th century Europe at a time when most "tooth pullers" were to be feared, some even employing brass bands to drown out the screams of their victims. Moreover, as Evans never himself grew tired of reminding captive audiences in his later life, he had a carriage story of his own to tell.

Thomas Wiltberger Evans had been a bigger-than-life hero, a practical-minded Philadelphia boy who had made out so well in a fairy-tale world that he could hardly believe it himself. Hence his stories and their embellishments were probably designed as much to convince himself that certain things had actually happened, as to impress his listeners. For Thomas Evans was indeed a good dentist and had done amazing things. For example: the carriage story.

When the word of Napoleon III's defeat at Sedan got back to Paris, it was curtains for the Second Empire. The Empress Eugénie fled for her life as former allies and fawning sycophants suddenly melted away at the sight of the unruly crowd. The Empress remembered one man that had her complete confidence: her dentist. She and her lady-in-waiting found their way to Bella Rosa, Dr. Evans' luxurious home on the Avenue de l'Impératrice. The next morning, Evans wheeled out his carriage. . .

"When you get near the sentry, " Evans instructed his driver, "whip up the horses and I'll stand in the window to block out the view of my companions". This, or some other stratagem, worked---there are several versions of the tale(3)---and the carriage sped safely out of Paris past the Porte Maillot and on to Mantes where the horses were changed. After spending the night at Rivière-Thibouville, the little group then went by rail and hired carriage to Deauville, where Mrs. Evans was waiting, and the good doctor set out to persuade a British nobleman, Sir John Burgoyne to ferry the Empress to safety in his yacht. After some prompting by Lady Burgoyne, Sir John acquiesced and the refugees were then subjected to a particularly horrifying night channel crossing. But all ended well, with the chivalrous Evans seeing the Empress to safe quarters at Chislehurst.

Meanwhile back in Paris, across the street from Bella Rosa, the newly-pitched American Ambulance (ambulance meant "field hospital"in those days) found itself in business, but without its patron, who had mysteriously disappeared and would remain so for some time. Paris was under siege. The carriage adventure had proved to be the exciting finale of a glamorous era, the Second Empire, where pageantry reigned and foreigners had found their way to high places. The key figure, Napoleon III, now a prisoner in Germany, had been somewhat of an outsider himself, raised in a German-speaking canton of Switzerland and having spent time in English exile. His wife was Spanish; his dentist, American.

"You are a young fellow, but clever, I like you." said Louis-Napoleon, the president of France's Second Republic, to 27-year-old Evans who had just brought relief to his latest bout with dental agony(4). It was spring, 1850, and by so efficiently standing in for his ailing patron in this emergency call to the Elysée Palace, Thomas Evans had just stepped into another world. Louis-Napoleon had bad teeth, knew a good dentist when he saw one and Evans would therefore be returning professionally to his side, twice a week, for twenty years.

Little had Tom dreamed of such things as a boy. "I think I should like to be a mechanic, be able to make myself something, " he had confided to his mother(5). He was more interested in the watchmaker's shop window than in schoolwork so, when he reached age 14, his parents sent him, their youngest boy, off to apprentice with a Philadelphia silversmith. It was there, while learning to work precious metals, that Evans came in contact with the world of elite dentistry. Good dentists required special tools and special alloys for fillings and at that time, to join their number, one first apprenticed with an established practitioner. Thus in 1841, at age 18, Tom left silversmithing to first work for a noted Philadelphia dentist and then study surgery at Jefferson Medical College. Following that he practiced briefly in Baltimore before joining another dentist in Lancaster, Penn. It was here that he established a reputation as an expert in gold fillings, culminating in his prize-winning demonstration of filling teeth with gold foil at the Franklin Institute's annual exhibition in Philadelphian 1847.

Among the impressed witnesses to Evans' skill was a retired Philadelphia physician, living in Paris, who took the promising young man under his wing and, in November 1847, introduced him to the right people in the right place:the French capital. It turned out that Dr. C. Starr Brewster, an American dentist with an impressive French clientele, was looking for an assistant. Evans proved to be the right man for the job and thus, in the spring of 1850, was ready and eager when the call came from the French president and Brewster himself was unable to go.

There is something in the Evans saga which foreshadows Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court of 1898. Like the Connecticut Yankee, Evans was a supreme pragmatist, inventive, good with his hands, a quick thinker with a sharp eye and not one to miss any opportunities. All these qualities made him an exceptional dentist. His masterful fillings, his use of vulcanized rubber, his use of laughing gas(6) were as revolutionary in the courts of the Second Empire as gunpowder in the King Arthur's day of Mark Twain's tale. Given Evans' miraculous ability to relieve pain, plus his doctor's -not barber's- attention to teeth, the American Dentist soon found himself closer to many members of the high ranks of European society than any of them would have cared to be with each other. And here it was that Evans' affable "chairside" manner quickly catapulted him from the rank of technician---to be discreetly let in through the back door-to diplomat, accorded by imperial decree, in February 1854, the title of Doctor Surgeon to the Emperor, retroactive to January 1853. Moreover, Evans apparently had already had the signal honor of having been the first American to enter the Legion of Honor, on July 22, 1853(7).

Evans' success that day in 1850 and succeeding ones had prompted him to leave Brewster and set up shop on his own at 15 Rue de la Paix, where his fame would grow and other family members, like brother Theodore and nephew John Henry, would come join him. At one point, in fact, Evans would be overseeing five dental offices at that address. After President- then Emperor - Louis-Napoleon, Evans clients included the future Empress(8) and her family, the Czar of Russia, the Sultan of Turkey, English and Belgian royalty, German royal and imperial families. Either this aeropagy traveled by train to Paris or the American Dentist himself did the traveling for what might be dubbed "castle calls". Either way, the result was twofold: grateful recognition, including rewards of both material and honorific kind, and great confidence. Tom Evans could keep a professional secret, but could also be used to discreetly pass messages along the royal grapevine. Evans was awarded, among other things: officer of the French Legion of Honor, commander of the orders of St. Ann and St. Stanislaus of Russia, commander of the orders of the Osmanli and Medjidie of Turkey, commander of the Order of Frederick of Wurtemburg, commander of the Order of Zachringen of Bavaria, officer of the orders of the Crown and Red Eagle of Prussia, of the Oaken Crown of Holland and of St. Michael of Bavaria, and members of the orders of St. Maurice and St. Lazare of Italy and St. Sauveur of Greece.

Evans' star was rising, but in the year before his nomination as court dentist, another imperial appointment had been made which would have a far greater bearing on his material success than mere dentistry: Georges Eugène Haussmann was named Prefect of the Seine District. Haussmann, the architect of the new Paris, would spread out his charts and plans for the Emperor to see. Evans, never very far from Louis-Napoleon's ailing teeth, would also take a look and, practical man that he was, would waste no time in acquiring land whose fate had been so clearly sealed by Haussmann's hand. "Real estate speculation, " we would say today. "Insider trading, "we might add. In any case, this was the mid-19th century where such things were part of manifest destiny: Americans were outmaneuvering Indians, Europeans were building empires, and industrialists everywhere were making vast fortunes. Evans' real estate jackpots enabled him to build a magnificent home, Bella Rosa, on the most prestigious of Haussmann's avenues which joined the Arc of Triumph to the Bois de Boulogne, and was named after the Empress(9) herself. Garnier, the architect of the Paris Opera, designed Bella Rosa's elegant marble staircase. In short, thanks to Haussmann and his own shrewd investments, Evans soon had the means to live in the fairy-tale style that his professional duties seemed to require. He also had the wherewithal to pursue his personal interests, such as the amassing of an impressive collection of U. S. Sanitary Commission paramedical paraphernalia(10).

Evans' title of surgeon dentist allowed him to wear an official uniform at court, while his competency in high places was helping dentistry in general to move from the category of dubious trade to a respected branch of the medical profession. Moreover, Evans' overall interest in medical affairs had led him to participate actively in the promotion of civilian assistance to wounded soldiers. More than dentistry, this was his personal cause. Thus, in the summer of 1864 Evans traveled to his homeland for a double purpose:first, to investigate for himself the work of the U. S Sanitary Commission and second, to evaluate for Napoleon III the North's prospects for winning the Civil War.

Pragmatism not lack of sympathy, had prevented France from recognizing the American Confederacy. There was a natural social affinity between the aristocratic South, well-represented among Paris Americans, and Louis-Napoleon's Court. There were economic interests as well, as France's cloth industry needed cotton. But the situation was complicated by France's Mexican adventure which would be critical, affected by the outcome of America's Civil War. Napoleon III did not want to make any rash moves and thus sent Evans to sound out President Lincoln and the Union high command. Evans quietly accomplished this political mission, bringing back convincing evidence of Northern superiority which certainly contributed towards the Emperor's decision not to recognize the South. In so doing, Evans had stepped into the role of America's unofficial ambassador.

He was already a social ambassador, since it was upon his recommendations that many American were invited to Court functions. As well, he was an upstanding member of the American community in Paris, the American Colony, which tended to gather around its churches. Evans first frequented the American Church, helping it to buy its land at 21 Rue de Berri(11). In the months before the Franco-Prussian War, however, Evans and his wife moved over to the more upper class congregation of the Church of the Holy Trinity, where his brother Theodore had long been very active(12). Evans helped the Holy Trinity purchase its land at 23 Avenue de l'Alma(13).

Evans' move from the American Church to the Holy Trinity, roughly coinciding with France's passage from Second Empire to Third Republic, marked the beginning of the doctor's golden years, where his role as unofficial elder statesman in the expatriate American community was to predominate. Evans was now a man of culture. His first writings, relating to his interest in war medical work, had culminated with his description of his American Ambulance, published in 1873. In 1880, he broadened his field, moving into the purely social arena, by establishing the first American newspaper in Paris, the American Register , a counterpart to the English Galignani's Messenger. After his death, the Register would fall victim to its arch competitor, the Herald Tribune, under the leadership of James Gordon Bennett. In 1884, Evans tried his hand at literary analysis, by publishing an introduction to a French translation of Heinrich Heine's memoirs (a flop). And finally, he prepared his own memoirs which would be published posthumously in 1905 by his friend and collaborator Dr. Edward A. Crane(14). During this period, Evans frequented artistic as well as social circles. At a time when artists were seeking American patrons, Evans' role as newspaper editor, not to mention his personal fortune, gave him considerable clout. Mallarmé cultivated his acquaintance while quite discreetly sharing Evans' amorous interests in one of Manet's models, Méry Laurent(15).

As elder statesman, Evans would play host to visiting Americans, the balcony of Bella Rosa offering a grandstand view of parades(16) marching down the erstwhile Avenue de l'lmpératrice, renamed the Avenue of the Bois de Boulogne. As many of his fellow Episcopalian sat the Holy Trinity, he was concerned for the welfare of young American women who had come to Paris to study art. At the time when the St. Luke's work and Reid Hall were being established on the Left Bank, Evans himself founded Lafayette Hall near his own home(17). His interest in education in particular, and in Franco-American relations in general, also led him to chair a committee investigating the possibility of establishing a university degree accessible to Americans studying at the Sorbonne(18). Altogether, Evans had a wide and varied number of cultural and social activities.

Naturally, such success---and the telling of it--- brought Evans the usual amount of resentment, hostility and criticism. Officials of the U. S. Sanitary Commission, for example, had never been happy about being representing by what they perceived to be a self-appointed, ex-patriot upstart. Members of the U. S. delegation and embassy were not particularly thrilled at living in the shadow of Evans' recognized influence. And John Henry Evans' unconscious mockery of his uncle's former romance with nobility, combined with the courting of his uncle's clients, brought the Thomas Evans Paris story to its sad conclusion(19). Following the death of his wife in June 1897, Thomas Wiltberger Evans died in November and his body was returned to the United States where it was buried, alongside that of his wife, in West Philadelphia's Woodland cemetery.

Naturally, the disinherited Evans family contested the will but, after much litigation on both sides of the Atlantic and with a great deal of the fortune disappearing in the process, a monument to Dr. Evans' memory was finally established in 1916 in Philadelphia, on the former site of his family farm on Spruce Street: the Thomas W. Evans Museum and Dental Institute(20). It was here that the tradition of the 19th century's greatest dentist has since been kept alive but with little emphasis on the overall historical significance of Evans' contributions. There is nothing about the setting of Philadelphia, aside from the Franklin connection, to relate it to French history, or to that of the Second Empire in particular. The tales of Evans' glory, therefore, have all too easily been assimilated to the heady Romanticism of nineteenth century storytelling.

Meanwhile, in France, outside of the dental profession, the memory of Dr. Evans, along with that of the Second Empire, faded with the oncoming of the 20th century, World Wars and the succession of French Republics. In the collective memory, the Evans family has been lumped into a confused whole(21), Theodore (vestry man at the American Cathedral) sometimes having been mistaken for his brother Tom or Mrs. Theodore Evans (benefactor of the American Hospital) for her sister-in-law, Tom's beloved Agnes.

But now, thanks to the generosity of the University of Pennsylvania(22), upon the occasion of this exhibition, Dr. Evans' carriage has come back home to France. Tom Evans' carriage, a symbol of Franco-American cooperation if there ever was one, is a curious metaphor for a bygone era of chivalry: an American-run vehicle for the salvation of French Civilization, with a touch of duplicity, but above all an intense sense of purpose. It is perhaps appropriate to remember, at this point, that the Empress Maria Eugenia de Montijo de Guzmán actually fled France less to save her own skin, than to avoid any bloodshed on her own account(23). This expression of sincere humanitarian concern which grew during the Second Empire, alongside the excesses and Romantic follies of anachronistic courtly grandeur, is what Evans really saved and, forgiven now his foibles, well represents the man himself among the collections of the French national museums(24).

This article was first published in the exhibition catalog of "1853-1947, The Americans of the Legion of Honor", 23 juin - 18 octobre 1993, Musée national de la Coopération franco-américaine, Château de Blérancourt, Véronique Wiesinger, Exhibition curator.


(1) "On the 22nd September 1876, the Sovereign Pontiff, to further show his appreciation, created him by letters Patent (or Bref) dated from the Vatican, Rome, an hereditary Marquis. " From a paper by John F. Platt, "Some Genealogical Tablets of the Family of Evans", a copy of which may be found at the University of Pennsylvania's Levy Library.

(2) See: Excerpts from the Memoirs of James Heesom, forwarded to Mr. Whittock of the University of Pennsylvania by Woodley S. Heesom, 10 April 1986, a copy of which may be found at the University of Pennsylvania's Levy Library.

(3) This version comes from Louis Judson Swinburne's, Paris Sketches, Albany, NY, 1876, pp 181 et sig.

(4) Milton T. Asbell, A Century of Dentistry, A History of the University of Pennsylvania School of Dental Medicine, 1878-1978, Philadelphia, 1978, p. 48.

(5)Ibid, p/ 47

(6) During a visit to the United States in 1867, he learned of the use of nitrous oxide for general anesthesia. (Studies had been publicized by Gardner W. Colton [1814-1898] for many years. ) Believing that such a development would make an unique exhibit for the World Fair to be held in Paris, he invited Colton to Paris, and in fact, did display his work. After the fair, Colton remained with Evans for months administering nitrous oxide on numerous occasions. Convinced of its efficacy and in an attempt to give the technique wider publicity, Evans took Colton to London the following year to demonstrate the use of nitrous oxide to the dental and medical professions. Ibid, p. 49.

(7) Chevalier on that date, promoted to Officer on January 13, 1866 and to Commander on October 15, 1871.

(8) The story that the Emperor was introduced to his future wife in the waiting room of Dr. Evans' office turns out to be a romantic embellishment which, nonetheless, is based on a grain of truth. According to Henry Rainey, in his article "Philadelphia's Royal Dentist", in a booklet celebrating the Dental School's 75th year (Philadelphia, 1945), the countess graciously allowed a member of Napoleon's court to take her place in line at the dentist's, a fact which was reported back to Napoleon and stimulated his interest.

(9) Today it is called Avenue Foch.

(10) Which he exhibited at the Paris World Fair of 1867. See Dr. Thomas W. Evans, Ambulance and Sanitary Material forming part of a report on Class Xl, Group II, Paris Exposition of 1867, Paris, 1867

(11) For Evans' involvement with the American Church see: Joseph W. Cochran, Friendly Adventurers, Paris: Brentano's, 1931.

(12) See pp. 149-160 in Cameron Allen, The History of the American Episcopal Church of Paris, from its Origins until 1918, [an unedited thesis submitted to Rutgers University around 1985. A copy is in the Archives of the American Cathedral of Paris and at the Museum of Blérancourt.

(13)Ibid, pp. 213-249.

(14)Memoirs of Thomas W Evans: Recollections of the Second French Empire, edited by Edward A. Crane, London, 1906, 2 vols.

(15) See Henri Mondor and Lloyd James Austin, editors of Stéphane Mallarmé, Correspondance, Paris, 1975-85, in ten volumes. In their Histoire illustrée de l'art dentaire, Paris, Dacosta, 1977, p. 602, M. Dechaume and P. Huard make this cryptic comment: "He is more discreet concerning his relations with Méry Laurent, one of Manet's former models, and concerning the villa where he had installed her on Boulevard Lannes, frequented by Mallarmé, Coppée, Becque and numerous writers and artists. "

(16) See, for example Mondor and Austin, op. cit., p. 246

(17)Ibid, pp. 168, 280-281.

(18) "A Franco-American Committee had been organized in Paris under the direction of the Ministry of Public Instruction, with the aim of creating university degrees for American students in Paris. In a meeting at the home of Dr. T. W. Evans, July 8, 1895, it was decided to form a local committee of Americans to promote this movement. This committee was named 'The Paris-American University Committee', at a meeting held at Dr. Evans' Wednesday, July 19, 1895. Evans was named president of this committee, founded to cooperate with the Franco-American Committee, in order to extend French university privileges to American students and to promote their interests in their relations with universities in France. [. . . ] Debate continued throughout the year 1896 and beyond. According to the American Register of December 26, 1896: 'The University Council, at its meeting of last Monday [December 21] adopted a resolution that a committee be named to study the establishing of a diploma to be conferred to foreign students, more particularly to American students, which they might take away as proof of their studies and knowledge gained in Paris. ' All these discussions would lead to the creation of the Doctorate degree at the University of Paris. " Mondor and Austin, op. cit., vol. Vll, p. 307 ff

(19) "The Figaro of January 8, 1898, gives this news: The fortune of their recently deceased Thomas Evans, a fortune evaluated at around 25 million francs, will certainly not go to the City of Paris, as the deceased had recently led it to be hoped. " Ibid., vol. X, p. 83 ff.

(20) See Milton Asbell, op. cit., pp 51-55.

(21) Here is the Evans family tree, with the American dentists indicated in boldface: William Milnor Evans (1792-1862) and Catherine Ann Wiltberger (1792-1873) had six children: 1. Rudolph Henry Evans (dates), married to Elizabeth J. Doyle (1818-1866) of whose six children, two came to France John Henry Evans (1838-) and Louis Rudolph Evans (1840-1866); 2. Anna Frances Evans (1817-1858) married to Don Carlos Enos;3. Catherine Roland Evans (1819-1892) married to Charles A. Muller; 4. Theodore Sewell Evans, (1821- 1890), married to Frances Howard; 5. Thomas Wiltberger Evans (1823-1897) married to Agnes Josephine Doyle (d. 1897); 6. Julia Evans (1827-1854) married to Thomas L. Hewitt.

(22) And the perseverance of another Paris Philadelphian, Meredith Martindale Frapier, of the Société historique d'Auteuil et de Passy, as well as to expert legal advice generously contributed by the Florence Gould Foundation, the financial support of the Amis and the Friends of Blérancourt, and finally to the support given by the French Museum Administration.

(23) See Louis Judson Swinburne, op. cit., p. 181

(24) Gerald Carson has written an entertaining biography of Dr. Evans in The Dentist and the Empress, Boston, 1983. In 1971, Anthony Douglas Branch submitted am unpublished thesis at the University of California at Santa Barbara, called "Dr. Thomas W Evans, American Dentist in Paris, 1847-1897". Other biographical articles include: Milton B. Asbell, A Century of Dentistry, A History of the University of Pennsylvania School of Dental Medicine, 1878-1978, Philadelphia, 1978; Henry Rainey, Dr. Thomas W Evans, America's Dentist to European Royalty, Philadelphia 1952. A very complete bibliography and the Evans papers themselves may be found at the University of Pennsylvania School of Dental Medicine, 4001 Spruce Street, Philadelphia, PA.


  • Creation Date: 1993
  • Creator: Albright, Alan
  • When: Roots
  • Where: France, USA
  • Category of People: other
  • Language: English