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Charles Joseph Bonaparte was born in Baltimore, Maryland, on June 9, 1851. He was the son of Jérôme Napoleon Bonaparte (1805–1870) and Susan May Williams (1812–1881), and a grandson of Girolamo Bonaparte, the youngest brother of French Emperor Napoleon I. He graduated from Harvard University, where he was a brilliant scholar, graduating in 1872; two years later, he completed his work in the Cambridge Law School and on September 1, 1875, he married Ellen Channing Day of Newport, R.I. Public cases appealed to him, so he allied himself with the local reform rings: he became a member of the Baltimore Reform League and helped found the Civil Service Reformer, organ of the Maryland Civil Service League.

Bonaparte and Ellen had no children; their beautiful mansion, Bella Vista, was designed by the architects Wyatt & Nolting in 1896. Bonaparte disliked technology: he refused to have electricity or telegraph lines installed and used a horse-drawn coach until his death. As most wealthy Catholics of his times, who were afraid that the Church would lose its power, Bonaparte was opposed to the public school system. "As ridiculous the State should provide free schools," he argued, "as that it should supply free soup houses!" A newspaper’s satirist took up the phrase and he became "Souphouse Charlie."

He was a member of the Board of Indian Commissioners from 1902 to 1904, chairman of the National Civil Service Reform League in 1904 and appointed a trustee of The Catholic University of America.

In 1905, President Theodore Roosevelt appointed Bonaparte Secretary of the Navy. In 1906 Bonaparte moved to the office of Attorney General, which he held until the end of Roosevelt's term. He was active in suits brought against the trusts and was largely responsible for breaking up the tobacco monopoly.

In 1908, Bonaparte founded the Bureau of Investigation (BOI). Its name was changed to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) in 1935. He was also one of the founders, and for a time the president, of the National Municipal League.

He was fond of the life of a gentleman farmer, and on his 300-acre place, stocked with blooded horses, 33 cows, fine sheep, hogs and poultry, he maintained a studious neatness, from stable to dog houses. For seven months of the year, from May to December, he lived as a Maryland farmer, in a grass-covered valley. He rose punctually at 5:30, walked an hour, then drove to Baltimore, silent on the trip. He habitually retired at 9 in the evening and, a fresh-air "fiend," insisted on open windows and doors.

Bonaparte died on June 28, 1921, at his home, Bella Vista, after a year suffering from a heart affection complicated by kidney disease.

As a neighbor once said, "sensible folks like him, and the damn fools don't."