Is it true what happened to Napoleon's penis? That after he died it was cut off and sold, and now someone has it in their collection?
Illustration by Slug Signorino
Maybe yes, maybe no. Why does someone who calls herself MudGirl want to know?
Unlike John Dillinger’s penis, whose postmortem pilgrimage appears to be pure legend, Napoleon’s penis (or an object reputed to be Napoleon’s penis) has in fact circulated among collectors for some decades and is currently in … well, I was about to say in the hands of an American urologist, but perhaps “in the possession of” would be a better way to put it. The owner claims it’s authentic, and I guess a urologist ought to know. However, given the frequency with which the death of a famous male is followed by claims that (a) he didn’t really die or (b) someone has his penis, we’re entitled to some doubt.
Napoleon Bonaparte died in exile on the southern Atlantic island of Saint Helena on May 5, 1821. The following day an autopsy was conducted by the emperor’s doctor, Francesco Antommarchi, in the company of 17 witnesses, including seven English doctors and two of Napoleon’s aides, a priest named Vignali and a manservant, Ali. Antommarchi removed Napoleon’s heart (the deceased had requested that it be given to his estranged wife, the empress Marie-Louise, though it was never delivered) and stomach (the medical authorities present agreed that cancer thereof was the cause of death, although this verdict has long been disputed). But the good doctor did not, if one may trust contemporary accounts, remove the penis. Some speculate that it might’ve been lopped off accidentally during the proceedings — the penis was described at the time as small, and hey, shit happens. However, in a 1913 lecture, Sir Arthur Keith, conservator of the Hunterian Collection at the Museum of the Royal College of Surgeons (certain Napoleonic organs were supposedly in the museum’s possession), ventured what seems to me the indisputable opinion that, given the number of witnesses, the brevity of the autopsy (less than two hours), and the fact that the guy was, come on, Napoleon, the loss of the penis would not easily have escaped notice.
A detailed account by an eyewitness, Thomas Reade, states that the body was closed up, dressed, and remained attended while lying in state — although Napoleon biographer Robert Asprey concedes that both Antommarchi and Vignali might’ve been alone with the imperial corpse at some point. Vignali, who had administered the last rites and conducted the funeral, was bequeathed 100,000 francs and for his trouble was also given (or at any rate came into the possession of) some of Napoleon’s knives and forks, a silver cup, and other personal effects–some of them really personal, it seems. In a memoir published in 1852 in the Revue des mondes, Ali the manservant claimed that he and Vignali had removed bits of Napoleon’s body during the autopsy. It’s unclear whether Ali specified the penis as one of the abstracted organs, but everyone now assumes that’s what he meant.
In 1916 Vignali’s descendants sold his collection of Napoleonic artifacts to a British rare book firm, which in 1924 sold the lot for about $2,000 to a Philadelphia bibliophile, A.S.W. Rosenbach. Among the relics was “the mummified tendon taken from Napoleon’s body during the post-mortem.” A few years later Rosenbach displayed the putative penis, tastefully couched in blue morocco and velvet, at the Museum of French Art in New York. According to a contemporary news report, “In a glass case [spectators] saw something looking like a maltreated strip of buckskin shoelace or shriveled eel.” The organ has also been described as a shriveled sea horse, a small shriveled finger, and “one inch long and resembling a grape.”
The Vignali collection changed hands a few more times — I get all this from Charles Hamilton’s Auction Madness (1981) — and eventually was put on the block at Christie’s in London. It didn’t sell, leading a scandalmongering British tabloid to trumpet, “NOT TONIGHT, JOSEPHINE!” Eight years later, in 1977, the penis was put up for sale again at a Paris auction house, this time offered separately from the rest of the collection. John K. Lattimer, professor emeritus and former chairman of urology at the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, bought it for $3,000, acknowledged having it in 1987, and, as far as I can discover, still does.
Is the penis Napoleon’s? Is it even a penis? Who knows? Given the march of science one presumes it’d be easy to establish the item’s provenance conclusively, but understandably no one seems to be in any hurry to do so. After you’ve paid three grand for a dead man’s penis, who wants to be told it’s a grape?
Send questions to Cecil via email@example.com.