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Illinois university gives France letter from Napoleon's brother, dozens of other documents

Special delivery from Northwestern University to France: a letter from Napoleon Bonaparte's brother.

The suburban Chicago school has planned a ceremony this week to hand over a letter dated April 27, 1792, and signed by Joseph Bonaparte. The letter, which will be given to M. Graham Paul, consul general of France, was discovered a few years ago by a school archivist going through a collection of donated documents.

Also to be returned are a total of 250 documents spanning more than four centuries, as well as a letter from Napoleon's nephew, Napoleon III, the ruler of the Second French Empire.

The letter signed by Joseph Bonaparte is about a military skirmish involving his then-22-year-old younger brother, Napoleon, who was beginning his military career in Corsica, the island where he was born.

The letter apparently didn't get far. In the waning days of World War II, Jack McBride, a dancer and magician stationed with a USO troop on the island, came upon a group of soldiers burning documents. According to the story told to Northwestern by McBride's niece and daughter, the soldiers were "foreign," though nothing else is known about them.

Somehow, McBride prevented the destruction of the documents and then "mailed them home while he was still on tour to his mother," said Northwestern archivist Jason Nargis.

After McBride died in the 1980s, the family decided to put the letter on deposit at Northwestern in Evanston, where, Nargis said, a relative of McBride was working at the time. Nargis said the items were stored.

"We have a huge backlog and it was waiting until four years ago when I was hired as a manuscript librarian," he said. Because Nargis speaks French, the job of going through the documents fell to him.

Nargis said the collection, which he believes was once the property of a "noble Corsican family," includes military orders newspapers, invitations to balls, police reports and other documents. There are also some things that don't seem to fit, starting with the paper-and-cardboard swastika and documents appointing justices to the Oregon Territory's Supreme Court.

"We don't know how they found their way into (the rest of the collection)," he said. "McBride's family ended up living in Alaska and they may have been added to the collection later."

Nargis said decision to return the documents to France was made after talking to lawyers, scholars and others.

"Once we realized ... they were removed during war time, we sort of had this ethical dilemma," Nargis said.

Since the documents were "on deposit," the school spoke with the McBride family, who agreed with the decision. The McBride family will be on hand at Thursday's repatriation ceremony to give the documents to the Consul General.

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