The Eagle and the Quill … or … Sex and the Emperor …

As you may know Napoleon lies buried in a red-marble tomb in Les Invalides in Paris. Les Invalides, its golden dome as much part of the capital’s skyline as the Eiffel Tower, does not only house the tomb but also the Church of Saint-Louis, a military hospital and the Musée de l’Armée – the Army […]

As you may know Napoleon lies buried in a red-marble tomb in Les Invalides in Paris.

Les Invalides, its golden dome as much part of the capital’s skyline as the Eiffel Tower, does not only house the tomb but also the Church of Saint-Louis, a military hospital and the Musée de l’Armée – the Army Museum.

Currently, and until March 1, the exhibition “L’Aigle et la Plume: – The Eagle and the Quill – is on in the museum. As the title makes clear, on show are hundreds of documents (the quill) either in Napoleon’s (the eagle’s) hand or which he had dictated to his aides-de-camp and secretaries. Among the documents are letters and these include love letters – and yes, the Emperor had not dictated those!

Therefore, this week when I visited the exhibition I read a letter he’d written to Josephine in which he mentions his crazy longing for her. Another letter is maybe more touching: He writes to a young girl from the French town of Valence (he was stationed there when he first arrived in Paris from his native Corsica): “A day has not passed that I have not loved you; a night has not passed that I have not held you in my arms.”

More aggressively, much more aggressively, he wrote to George 3, King of England: “George, you want war! We shall have it!” Note how he used the first name. Also, can you imagine George W. Bush and for that matter his father, George Snr, having written to Saddam Hussein like that: “Saddam, you want war! We shall have it!”

Napoleon’s handwriting is spidery – this is what one of my teachers would have said it was – but it was also neat; the lines are straight and the margins are equal. That teacher of mine would have said that that shows a good, organized mind. That Napoleon had one, we already know.

I am a Napoleon enthusiast (that’s what people are called who like and admire him and think him great) so for years I’ve been collecting information about him, and somewhere in my future (I know) is a visit to Saint Helena, the island in the Atlantic where he died in exile. I am going to stick my head out and say: in ‘such an unjust exile’.

So, being a Napoleon enthusiast, in 1977 I was smashing my Piggy Bank to see if I could buy his “penis” – yes, strange as this may sound, you’ve read right: His penis. Because you see his penis went on auction here in Paris; or what was/is said to be his penis. And in this there lies a good story, but before I tell it, know please that any other Napoleon relic would have been equally acceptable.

When Napoleon died – it was on May 5, 1821 – his doctor, Francesco Antonmarchi performed an autopsy on the body. Present were several of Napoleon’s aides, his valet, several English “witnesses”, as well as the priest Vignali. Napoleon’s heart and stomach were removed; the heart he had earlier asked to be sent to his estranged wife, Empress Marie-Louise who had returned to her native Austria, and the stomach had to be sent to England for analysis. Somehow, Napoleon’s penis was also removed and since, a little shrivelled object, said to be the penis, has intrigued many. Some describe it as looking rather like a child’s finger. I’ve seen pictures of it and to me it looked rather like a grilled frankfurter forgotten for at least six weeks on the bottom shelf of the kitchen cupboard. Author Tony Perrottet (Napoleon’s Privates: 2,500 Years of History Unzipped, published in 2008) describes it as looking “a bit like beef jerky”.

In 1916 Vignali’s descendants (a priest having descendants?: The mind boggles, but that is another story surely) sold his collection of Napoleon artefacts to a British rare book firm (I don’t have the name) which in 1924 sold it for about US$2,000 (₤1460 ; €1500) to a bibliophile named A.S.W. Rosenbach from Philadelphia. Among the objects was what Rosenbach understood to be Napoleon’s penis. He put it on show at New York’s Museum of French Art where it lay on a blue velvet cloth in a glass case. It was then described as: “looking something like a maltreated strip of buckskin shoelace or shrivelled eel”.

Over the next years the penis changed hands – no, I’ll rather say, went on sale – several times and eventually Christie’s in London auctioned it. This was in 1969. There were no buyers so one London tabloid headlined the non-sale: “Not tonight, Josephine!”

Then came 1977 and the little object was again on the block, but in Paris. Journalists speculated whether the French government may buy it, but apparently it did not want to do so; no-one from government even wanted to comment on the auction. It was then that a professor emeritus and former head of Urology at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, John K. Latimer, bought it. He paid US$3,000 (₤2200 ; €2300) for it, and it enhanced his collection of “strange” relics: Abraham Lincoln’s bloodstained collar, upholstery from the limousine in which John F. Kennedy was fatally shot in Dallas, the ring of Luftwaffe Nazi chief, Herman Goering, as well as the empty vial of poison the latter had used to commit suicide. (Prof. Latimer was the consultant urologist at the Nuremberg trials of the Nazi leaders and he was called to Goering’s cell on the morning that he was found dead. In 1999 he wrote the highly-acclaimed book “Hitler’s Fatal Sickness and Other Secrets of the Nazi Leaders”.)

The Professor would not show Napoleon’s penis to anyone, but he died aged 92 on May 10, 2007 at his home in Englewood, N.J. and in 2008 his daughter showed it to author Perrottet. The latter said: “It was kind of an amazing thing to behold. There it was: Napoleon’s penis sitting on cotton wool, very beautifully laid out, and it was very small, very shrivelled, about an inch and a half long.”

Maybe you now wonder how good a lover Napoleon was? Apparently, he was average if not mediocre. He was also one for kiss and tell. Countess Claire Rémusat who was Josephine’s lady-in-waiting and the wife of Napoleon’s chamberlain wrote in her 3-tome memoirs how he discussed his affairs with women in “the most indecent frankness”.

Napoleon himself admitted to not being a great lover. Count Horace de Viel Castel wrote in his memoirs of how Napoleon used to speak of his “feebleness in the game of love and that it did not amount to much”.

He also wrote of how once when Napoleon was told that a woman was waiting for him in the bedroom, he had replied: “Tell her to undress”.

To quote from another memoir. His valet, Louis Constant, wrote of how he would go into the couple’s bedroom early morning when the two were still in bed. He wrote that Josephine would say to Napoleon, “Oh must you get up already? Do stay a while longer”, and the Emperor would reply, “Oh, you’re not still asleep then”, and he would roll her up in a blanket, give her a little tap on a cheek or shoulder, and laugh and kiss her.

Napoleon was of course forced to divorce Josephine because she, eight years older and already in menopause could not give him the son he had to have, but the day he died in Saint Helena the very last word he spoke was … you’ve guessed it: “Josephine …”

The English biographer Christopher Hibbert in his book “Napoleon: His Wives and Women” published in 20
02 writes about Napoleon’s letters to Josephine. “He wrote every day, sometimes twice a day, his pockets stuffed with unfinished, scarcely coherent letters never sent to his ‘adorable Josephine’, his ‘sweet love’, the ‘pleasure and torment of his life’. Not a day went by without his loving her, not a night without his longing to hold her in his arms. He loved her more each day; he longed to kiss her heart and then lower on her body, much, much lower, underlining the words with such force that the point of his pen struck through the paper …”

But to get back to the little object … There ought to be no mystery as to whether it had indeed once been part of Napoleon’s anatomy. All that is needed is a DNA test. But the French won’t hear of it. Similarly, claims and accusations that the Brits had poisoned Napoleon can also finally be verified with tests but the French also do not want to hear about that. Napoleon’s descendants have also said no to such tests. I wonder why …

In any case, it is said that Napoleon had a most beautiful smile …

Marilyn Z. Tomlins

13 Responses

1-25-2009 at 22:12:00

Interesting article Marilyn, I was wondering if it were a genuine penis. I wonder why the French won’t allow anyone to find out. Same with the reputed arsenic poisoning.

I admire Napoleon, but don’t think his imprisonment to be unjust. He had the whole of Europe in a furore and caused the deaths of many men.

1-26-2009 at 11:16:00

Yes, I’m with Jo. But of course we are both English:-)

1-26-2009 at 13:35:00

Well Marilyn isn’t French either.

I would really like to know if that penis is genuine though.

1-26-2009 at 14:15:00

Well that’s a slightly more cheerful sex-life – thank you Marilyn!
Quite right, too, Napoléon originated all sorts of institutions in France, just think Napoleonic Code for starters, that you’ve got to admire him, willy-nilly.

1-26-2009 at 14:33:00

Willy nilly. Isn’t that what we are talking about LOL?

1-28-2009 at 12:24:00

Learnt about Napoleon at school. Never for one moment thought that he was actually human,to me he was just a historical name and date. That was until I read this article posted by Marilyn. She made him human and I enjoyed reading every line.

1-29-2009 at 13:28:00

Poor Napoleon! Being poisoned by the British and then on top of it ending up mutilated.

Catherine Modin

1-29-2009 at 14:35:00

If the French government won’t allow an autopsy, who’s to say he was poisoned, let alone by the British. Also, do remember that it was possible to get arsenic from cooking equipment at that time. They didn’t know such things, and I don’t suppose Elba was furnished with the greatest of facilities in the kitchen or otherwise.

Without an examination, who can be sure it was his penis either? Or anyone’s penis come to that. Sounds like a hoax to me.

1-30-2009 at 15:16:00

No, it’s a penis … but of course it could have been anyone’s. Well not anyone’s but any man’s.

I’m sure that the French know whether the little jewel is missing from Bonaparte’s body because his remains were often enough moved. Someone must have had a peep.

Tony from Bristol

1-30-2009 at 15:27:00

Damn, I thought it might have been a woman’s *g*. What makes you so sure it is a penis anyway. Has someone authenticated it. Why on earth would they chop it off in the first place?

1-30-2009 at 19:49:00

Souvenir hunters, Jo!
Imagine you have been posted to the briny back of beyond to guard some French corporal – wouldn’t the mischief come out in you too? To emphasise the connection, “Boney” doesn’t have to have a capital!

What do you mean, a woman’s Aga? Did they have them then, isn’t that a bit 20th century twee?

And about the arsenic, wasn’t one accepted way to avoid fatal consequences to take small quantities regularly. So mere traces of it would not necessarily indicate “murder”.

Now if Marilyn had only opened her “bourse” to pay for the souvenir, perhaps she could provide some hard evidence to satisfy the bloggers’aroused curiosity.

1-30-2009 at 19:51:00

Sorry, didn’t sign!

2-6-2009 at 16:33:00

Isn’t an Aga a stove?

Julien Fox

If you wish not to miss one of my blogs, do subscribe.

Enter your email address:

Delivered by FeedBurner


Should you wish to contact me you can do so by email: