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Napoleon: a tale of life and death – the unkindest cut

MyFrenchLife™ – MyFrenchLife.org – Napoleon: a tale of life and death - the unkindest cutDespite his derogatory nickname ‘Little Boney’, Napoleon was of average height. It was his arch enemy, Horatio Nelson, who was very short. However, there is some evidence pointing to Napoleon having been cut down to size.

Napoleon reportedly lost a few centimetres during an autopsy performed prior to the return of his remains to France. But, more on this later.

Firstly, let’s get to know ‘Little Boney’…

Napoleon: reputation

The warmonger:

  • Anti-French propaganda has muddied the water around many of Napoleon’s military exploits, his private life, and his undoubtedly huge contribution to civil law in France and worldwide.
  • He is invariably portrayed as a warmonger. But, war was declared on him far more often than he declared it on others.

The romantic:

  • Napoleon and Josephine are amongst the world’s most famous lovers. But, their relationship didn’t exclude them having their respective affairs.

MyFrenchLife™ – MyFrenchLife.org – Napoleon: a tale of life and death - the unkindest cut

  • The Emperor was one of the very first victims of British tabloid humiliation. A letter he wrote about an affair Josephine was intercepted and found its way into London newspapers. Napoleon was red-faced—Londoners loved it.

The clichés:

  • Then, there’s the Emperor’s ‘don’t wash’ letter:

Ne te lave pas, j’accours et dans huit jours je suis là.

 This message to his wife has become a mildly risky cliché.

  • And so has the story of Josephine’s dog. During a bout of passion with Napoleon, the dog tried to protect Josephine by biting Bonaparte on the bum. (Some say the leg, but the alliteration sounds better).

Napoleon: civil law

However, there is widespread (but sometimes rather reluctant) agreement that Napoleon’s ideas on civil law underpin much of our modern world.

MyFrenchLife™ – MyFrenchLife.org – Napoleon: a tale of life and death - the unkindest cut

  • He championed, consolidated, and codified meritocracy, property rights, religious toleration, sound finances, and legal divorce.
  • The power of church courts and religious authority was sharply reduced.
  • Ghettos were abolished and equality under the law was proclaimed for all men—including Jews. (Women, however, have had to wait a lot longer for any kind of equality).
  • Secular, scholarly, and academic reforms laid the foundation of a modern system of education in France and much of Europe.
  • L’Hexagone also benefitted from a reformed tax code, modern road and sewer systems, and the centralised Banque de France. 

Napoleon: the de-sizing

Now, let’s return to Napoleon’s de-sizing…

In 1840, nineteen years after Napoleon’s death in custody on St Helena, King Louis Philippe arranged to have the body returned to France. A magnificent sarcophagus at Les Invalides in Paris was the destination.

MyFrenchLife™ – MyFrenchLife.org – Napoleon: a tale of life and death - the unkindest cut

The event was known as le retour des cendres.

Huge crowds watched the spectacle. But, something was missing when the body was put in the coffin.

Cutting criticisms of Napoleon by his enemies are legion. But, the unkindest cut of all occurred at Napoleon’s autopsy on St Helena. A vital part of his anatomy was apparently removed and given to a priest ‘for safekeeping’.

The Emperor had just lost what Barry Humphries, in a 1970s smutty ditty, said that men fear losing most:

God help me if I ever lose me one-eyed trouser snake.

So, Bonaparte was now short of what was later called a “mummified tendon”.

Napoleon: on full display

In 1927, it was on display at New York’s Museum of French Art until the facility closed in the 1930s. The ‘tendon’ was then up for sale in Paris, but Napoleon’s ‘willy’ didn’t attract much interest in France.

It returned to America where it passed through the hands of various collectors until it was acquired by an American urologist in 1977.

MyFrenchLife™ – MyFrenchLife.org – Napoleon: a tale of life and death - the unkindest cut

Since then, viewing the ‘zizi’ has been highly restricted and photographs are prohibited. But those who’ve seen it have described it variously as a “maltreated strip of buckskin shoelace” or “a shrivelled eel”.

Although it is difficult to be conclusive, The Washington Post (and several other reputable publications) have covered the history and provenance of Napoleon’s penis and its remarkable journey from St Helena to Connecticut.


What do you think? More anti-French propaganda—or is the matter of Napoleon’s privates now irrefutably cut and dried? Share your thoughts in the comment box below.


Image credits
1. Napoleon in colonel dress, via Wikipedia
2. Joséphine Bonaparte, via Wikipedia
3. Crossing the Alps, via Wikipedia
4. Napoleon’s tomb, via Flickr
5. Napoleon’s deathbed, via Wikipedia


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