Where did we get the idea crazy people think they're Napoleon? Plus: Did tin disease contribute to Napoleon's defeat in Russia?

May 2, 2008

Dear Cecil:

How did it come to be that the comedic stereotype of the crazy person is someone who thinks they're Napoleon?

Cecil replies:

The delusion that you're someone famous is encountered at least as often in the comedy writer's imagination as on the shrink's couch. For all we know, delusions-of-grandeur gags predate the written word — there may be some ur-joke back there about believing you're the guy that discovered fire — but it makes sense that they'd find full flower in the 19th century, when the study of mental illness came into its own.

Now, to make a D.O.G. joke work, you need as a reference point an extremely famous person with some easily recognizable shtick, and as of the mid-1800s, that's Napoleon Bonaparte. Two centuries on, Napoleon is remembered a bit imprecisely by most — mainly as a dynamic little guy with a strong forehead and a long to-do list — but in the years following his roller-coaster run as emperor of France, Napoleon was arguably as famous as it was possible to be in a pre-mass-media world. Well, maybe Jesus was more famous, but Napoleon was funnier — the hand in the coat, the temper, the hat, etc. Adding to Napoleon's legend was his penchant for eccentric behavior: British political cartoons savaged him as unstable from the time he invaded Egypt until after his exile to Saint Helena.

So on one hand you've got the notion of the crazy person who thinks he's someone famous, and on the other you've got a staggeringly famous person who happens to have a rep for being crazy. Comedywise it's peanut butter and jelly.

By the end of the century the thinking-you're-Napoleon concept had clearly made it into the popular consciousness. In his landmark 1890 treatise The Principles of Psychology, William James describes a typical exhibition of hypnotism in which a subject is for comic effect led to believe that he's Napoleon; a character in William De Morgan's 1907 novel Alice-for-Short thinks he's Napoleon but is counseled to keep it to himself lest he get locked up.

The earliest filmed version of the gag is almost certainly found in the 1917 Stan Laurel short Nuts in May. No complete print survives, but film historian F. Gwynplaine MacIntyre says the story involves Laurel wandering the grounds of an insane asylum doing the Napoleon bit — hat, hand tucked in shirt. (Some of this footage made it into a later Laurel vehicle, Mixed Nuts.) To the extent that thinking you're Napoleon remains with us, I'd bet Napoleon Bunny-Part (1956), starring one B. Bunny, did plenty to keep the premise alive.

Did tin disease contribute to Napoleon's defeat in Russia?

This idea has been around a while but gained new oomph with the 2003 publication of the science-history book Napoleon's Buttons, by Penny Le Couteur and Jay Burreson. The story says the army Napoleon led into Russia in June 1812 had been outfitted, possibly as a cost-cutting measure, with uniforms held closed by tin buttons. When temperatures dropped during the French retreat later that year, the buttons crumbled, leaving troops exposed to the murderous elements.

Why would this happen? Well, stuff that's made mostly of tin is susceptible when subjected to cold to what's known as tin disease or tin pest, which causes regular metallic tin (also called white tin) to become gray, powdery, and brittle; when gray tin comes into contact with previously uncontaminated white tin, the condition can spread like a fungus. This change in the bonding structure of tin atoms starts very slowly at 13.2 degrees Celsius (56 degrees Fahrenheit) and speeds up as the temperature decreases, reaching a peak between -30 and -40°C.

So tin disease is real, but is the buttons story true? (Don't ask Le Couteur and Burreson, who are pretty terse and noncommittal on the topic considering it's the name of their book and all.) Me, I'd say probably not. Consider: (1) Tests performed with tin ingots suggest it'd take maybe 18 months at lowered temperatures to result in appreciable flaking. Napoleon's Russian campaign lasted less than half that long and didn't encounter severe cold until the very end. (2) It's not like tin disease was a big secret in 1812; it had been observed for centuries. Tin alloys like pewter were commonly used for buttons, and alloying tin with just 5 percent lead is enough to keep the problem at bay. (3) A mass grave of Napoleon's soldiers was discovered in Vilnius, Lithuania, in 2002. Helping to identify the 2,000-odd bodies as casualties of the hellish 1812 retreat were numerous regimental buttons, many made of tin alloy and still legible after 190 years in the ground.

You also sometimes see tin disease blamed for the failure of Robert Scott's South Pole expedition in 1912; the idea here is that tin solder used on kerosene cans deteriorated, allowing precious heating fuel to leak away. Again, not impossible, but unproven.

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