HistoryofScience.com Blog

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Napoleon's Penis, and Other Napoleon Memorabilia

Recently I acquired a copy of what is undoubtedly the most unusual catalogue issued by the most famous American antiquarian bookseller, Dr. A.S.W. Rosenbach: Description of the Vignali Collection of the Relics of Napoleon Brought from Saint-Helena by Napoleon's Chaplain Abbe Ange Paul Vignali (1924). You can download a color scan of this small catalogue from the Traditions section of our website at the link provided.

My interest in Napoleon had been revived by watching several excellent films on his life and times. These include Monsieur N (2002), Waterloo (1970), and Napoleon (2003). There are so many ways to approach the nearly incredible life and achievements of Napoleon. As much as I am interested in his military achievements I am interested his political reforms, his sponsorship of science and culture, as well aspects of his personal life and his medical problems. Each of these films provide different insights. Monsieur N concerns Napoleon's final imprisonment on the remote South Atlantic island of St. Helena, and the question of whether or not Napoleon was poisoned by arsenic, perhaps by the orders of the British island administrator who wanted to eliminate the risk, insignificant as it was, of Napoleon escaping from the island, or just to eliminate the costs of maintaining the private prison at Longwood.

Ever since Napoleon's death mystery has surrounded the cause of his demise. Most recently evidence has been presented to confirm that Napoleon died from stomach cancer just as his surgeon, Francesco Antommarchi wrote in the official autospy report. It has also been learned that Napoleon's father died of the same causes:

"Napoleon's physician, Francesco Antommarchi, led the autopsy which found the cause of death to be stomach cancer, though he did not sign the official report, stating, "What had I to do with... English reports?" Napoleon's father had died of stomach cancer though this was seemingly unknown at the time of the autopsy. Antommarchi found evidence of a stomach ulcer and it was the most convenient explanation for the British who wanted to avoid criticism over their care of the Emperor.

"In 1955, the diaries of Napoleon's valet, Louis Marchand, appeared in print. His description of Napoleon in the months before his death led Sten Forshufvud to put forward other causes for his death, including deliberate arsenic poisoning, in a 1961 paper in Nature. Arsenic was used as a poison during the era because it was undetectable when administered over a long period. Forshufvud, in a 1978 book with Ben Weider, noted the emperor's body was found to be remarkably well-preserved when moved in 1840. Arsenic is a strong preservative and therefore this supported the poisoning hypothesis. Forshufvud and Weider observed that Napoleon had attempted to quench abnormal thirst by drinking high levels of orgeat syrup that contained cyanide compounds in the almonds used for flavouring. They maintained that the potassium tartrate used in his treatment prevented his stomach from expellation of these compounds and that the thirst was a symptom of poisoning. Their hypothesis was that the calomel given to Napoleon became an overdose, which killed him and left behind extensive tissue damage. A 2007 article stated that the type of arsenic found in Napoleon's hair shafts was mineral type, the most toxic, and according to toxicologist Dr Patrick Kintz, this supported the conclusion that his death was murder.

"The wallpaper used in Longwood contained a high level of arsenic compound used for colouring by British manufacturers. The adhesive, which in the cooler British environment was innocuous, may have grown mold in the more humid climate and emitted the poisonous gas arsine. This theory has been ruled out as it does not explain the arsenic absorption patterns found in other analyses. A 2004 group of researchers claimed treatments imposed on the emperor accidentally caused death by Torsades de pointes—a condition in which the heart ceases to function properly.

"There have been modern studies which have supported the original autopsy finding.
Researchers, in a 2008 study, analysed samples of Napoleon's hair from throughout his life, and from his family and other contemporaries. All samples had high levels of arsenic, approximately 100 times higher than the current average. According to these researchers, Napoleon's body was already heavily contaminated with arsenic as a boy, and the high arsenic concentration in his hair was not due to intentional poisoning; people were constantly exposed to arsenic from glues and dyes, throughout their lives. A 2007 study found no evidence of arsenic poisoning in the relevant organs and stated that stomach cancer was the cause of death"
(Wikipedia article on Napoleon, Cause of Death http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Napoleon_I_of_France#Exile_on_Saint_Helena, accessed 05-23-2010).

Witnesses to Napoleon's death and autopsy collected various memorabilia which gradually found its way into the antiquarian booktrade. Here is what I wrote about this strange story for From Cave Paintings to the Internet:

In 1916 the distinguished London antiquarian booksellers Maggs Bros bought the penis of Napoleon Bonaparte from the descendants of Abbé Ange Paul Vignali, who had given the last rites to Napoleon on St. Helena. Vignali brought the penis along with a collection of more conventional mementos of Napoleon to Corsica, and died in a vendetta in 1828. He passed on the mementos to his sister, who at her death passed them on to her son, Charles-Marie Gianettini, who decided to sell the collection when he reached the age of 96. After holding the Vignali collection of Napoleon memorabilia for eight years, Maggs sold it to the legendary American antiquarian bookseller Dr. A.S.W Rosenbach for £400 (then $2000) in 1924.

Though the authenticity of the other Napoleon memorabilia in the Vignali collection was never in doubt, authenticity of the penis, which resembled something "like a maltreated strip of buckskin shoe-lace or shriveled eel," "rested mainly on a memoir by the valet, Ali (Saint-Denis), published in 1852 in the celebrated Revue des [Deux] Mondes. Ali claimed that he and Vignali had removed certain unnamed portions of Napoleon's corpse during the autopsy" (Charles Hamilton, Auction Madness [1980] 54-55).

With his characteristic flair Dr. Rosenbach received considerable publicity for this purchase. According to the May 12, 1924 issue of Time Magazine:

"The collection numbers about 40 pieces, half of which consist of documents. The most interesting are: death mask from the matrix moulded by Dr. Antomarchi, Napoleon's doctor; a letter from Antomarchi to Vignali; the last cup ever used by the ex-French Emperor, a silver goblet inscribed with the Imperial arms; a silver knife, fork and spoon also engraved with the Imperial arms; a shirt, handkerchiefs, pair of white breeches, white pique waistcoats; Church vestments from the Longwood Chapel, some marked with the Imperial cypher; last, the most gruesome relic, a mummified tendon taken from the ex-Emperor's body during the postmortem"
(http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,718332,00.html, accessed 08-02-2009).

Dr. Rosenbach had the penis "enshrined" in an elaborate blue morocco and velvet box. In 1927 he exhibited it, along with the other Vignali relics, in the Museum of French Art in New York.

Though I had heard of this most unusual purchase in Dr. Rosenbach's career I was not aware that The Rosenbach Company had issued a catalogue describing the collection until a copy of Description of the Vignali Collection of the Relics of Napoleon (1924) was offered early in 2010.

In that catalogue the description of item number 9 reads as follows:

"A mummifled tendon taken from Napoleon's body during the post mortem. (The authenticity of this remarkable relic has lately [in 1852!] been confirmed by the publication in the Revue des Deux Mondes of a posthumous memoir by St. Denis, in which he expressly states that he and Vignali took away small pieces of Napoleon's corpse during the autopsy.)"

As historic as the Vignali collection was, it was not readily salable. According to the standard biography, Rosenbach by Edwin Wolf II and John F. Fleming (1960), a work which was inspirational in my early career, the Vignali collection remained in the inventory of The Rosenbach Company for 23 years until it was finally purchased by collector Donald Hyde in 1947.

But wait, the story continues:

According to Charles Hamilton, when Donald Hyde died in 1966 his widow, Mary, also a serious collector, turned the Vignali collection over to Dr. Rosenbach's successor, John Fleming. Fleming in turn sold it to dealer Bruce Gimelson for $35,000. Finding the collection difficult to resell, as had Maggs and Rosenbach, Gimelson consigned it to Christie's in London for sale en bloc at a reserve price equal to his cost, but with no success. When the collection failed to sell London tabloids ran the naughty headline, "Not Tonight, Josephine!"

Eight years later Gimelson consigned the collection in Paris at Drouot Rive Gauche. This time the collection was dispersed, and the penis was purchased by John K. Lattimer, professor emeritus and former chairman of urology at the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, for the equivalent of $3000. The object fit in well with other historical objects in Lattimer's collection:

"Dr. John Lattimer possessed Abraham Lincoln's bloodstained collar and a treasure trove of items from his own idiosyncratic relationships to some of the most important historical events of the 20th century. He was an attending urologist to Nazi prisoners at the Nuremberg trials and had acquired Herman Goering's suicide vial. He worked on the autopsy of John F. Kennedy and possessed upholstery from the president's limousine in Dallas" ("The Twisted Story of Napoleon's Privates" http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=92126411, accessed 05-23-2010).

posted by Jeremy Norman @ 12:28 PM   30 Comments


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