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Curtis Eriksmoen, Published April 21 2012

Eriksmoen: ND woman saved empress from suicide

In 1880, seven years before becoming the wife of a North Dakota farmer, Marie Downing reportedly saved the life of the widow of a European emperor.

Almost 80 years later, a journalist/author reconstructed the events leading up to Marie’s life-saving decision in Africa.

After interviewing people in Rolla, N.D., and St. John, N.D., who knew her, Charles E. L’Ami wrote an article for the Winnipeg Free Press, published Oct. 5, 1957, declaring that Marie “saved the life of the empress.”

Marie Downing was born Dec. 23, 1853, in Ipswich, England, and her family later moved to Snetterton, northeast of London. At one time, Marie’s father had served as a riding instructor for Queen Victoria. Marie found employment at a fabric and sewing shop.

One day, Marie delivered finished garments to Windsor Castle, and the queen asked her if she would like to work for her as a personal attendant. Marie replied, “I should be very pleased.”

After signing on with the queen, Marie was sent to Europe to learn French and German, and then became the “queen’s dresser.” Her duties included not only dressing the queen for state occasions but also shopping for the monarch, sealing her mail and other duties. For eight years, rugged, brave and clear-thinking Marie was a favorite in Queen Victoria’s castle.

A close friend of Victoria was Empress Eugenie, the widow of Louis Napoleon, the last emperor of France. After his defeat in the Franco-Prussian War, Louis, his wife and only child, Napoleon Eugene Bonaparte, took refuge in England.

Louis died in 1873, and Eugenie raised her son with the belief that one day he would return to France and restore the Bonapartes to the throne. Napoleon volunteered for service during the Anglo-Zulu War and was killed in July 1879. Eugenie went into a deep depression, and Victoria sent Marie to assist and help care for her.

After months of mourning, Eugenie became insistent that she needed to travel to the former Zulu kingdom in South Africa to see the spot where her son had died. Victoria “sentimentally supported the idea of a pilgrimage” and agreed to pay for an expedition led by Gen. Evelyn Wood, one of the supreme commanders during the Zulu War.

As Eugenie prepared to go to the former Zulu kingdom, her own maids were too afraid to go, so “she asked Queen Victoria if she could have one of hers.” Victoria agreed, and Marie was the obvious choice. Gen. Wood tried to dissuade Eugenie, but the empress was insistent.

The expedition left England on March 25, 1880, and arrived April 16 at Cape Town, South Africa. After a stay in Durbin, the group took a train to the interior of South Africa, arriving at the outskirts of the old Zulu kingdom by carriage. On May 25, the expedition reached the region where Eugenie’s son was killed, and the empress and Marie both were given revolvers for their protection.

Eugenie maintained a brooding silence for days, when suddenly she became nervous and wildly excited. Wood wrote, “The empress began acting erratically, and that concerned me a great deal.” She stopped eating and gave orders to Wood, Marie and other members of the expedition that were totally unreasonable. When her commands were not immediately addressed, the empress accused them of “disobedience.”

L’Ami wrote that one night the empress began “pacing restlessly up and down, breaking now and then into storms of anger and tears.” Marie believed the empress had become “deranged.”

When Eugenie was asleep, Marie “slipped across the floor where her companion’s belt and holster hung on the tent pole. She removed the revolver, stuffed the empty holster with heavy things and hid the weapon.”

The next day, the expedition arrived at the spot where the son of Eugenie was killed. “She fell on her knees, hands clasped, eyes closed.” Marie saw “her hand move swiftly, the white fingers fumble with the flap of the holster, clutch and fall away. The empress turned a face contorted with rage and grief on her companion, then fell sobbing face downward on the grass.”

It was then that Marie realized that she “had saved the empress from suicide.”

After several days experiencing the wrath of Eugenie, the two became very close. When they left South Africa, Eugenie took Marie with her to visit the island of St. Helena, where Napoleon Bonaparte was exiled in 1814. Eugenie told Marie she was the only Bonaparte to visit the place where the emperor died.

On July 27, 1880, Eugenie and Marie returned to England, and the now uplifted empress expressed her gratitude to Queen Victoria. Marie then gave her report to the monarch, relating the action she needed to take to keep Eugenie from harming herself. Marie later commented about Victoria, “I remember how tears came into her eyes and she sat silent for a long time before bending over to embrace and kiss me.”

Marie received a number of priceless mementoes from Eugenie that she kept in her home in North Dakota and treasured her whole life. She called Eugenie “The loveliest woman she ever seen.”

We will conclude our story about Marie Downing Williams next week when we examine her transition from living in Windsor Castle to moving to a log cabin on the North Dakota prairie.


“Did You Know That” is written by Curt Eriksmoen and edited by Jan Eriksmoen of Fargo. Send your suggestions for columns, comments or corrections to the Eriksmoens at: cjeriksmoen@cableone.net.