Napoleon Bonaparte – the Emperor of France who was ultimately defeated in the 1815 Battle of Waterloo – is pretty much one of the most studied historical figures of all time.
Scores of textbooks have been written about him… about his role in the French Revolution, his 1799 coup d’état and his disastrous invasion of Russia. But these textbooks never seem to answer perhaps THE most important question about the military leader, the one you’ve all been asking: What happened to Napoleon’s penis?
After Napoleon’s forces were defeated by the British and Prussians, he abdicated power and was placed in exile on the remote isle of St. Helena in the South Atlantic Ocean.
In 1821, Napoleon died – aged 52. Most historians agree that he died of stomach cancer, although alternate theories have been suggested – for example, the idea that he died mysteriously of arsenic poisoning.
An autopsy followed his death, during which many of his vital organs were removed, including his heart, stomach… and penis.
Nobody knows exactly why Napoleon’s penis was removed during the autopsy. One line of thought is that the physician did it out of spite for not being included in the ruler’s will. Another idea is that the priest ordered it because Napoleon had often called him impotent and he wanted revenge.
Either way, he’d angered someone and his penis paid the price…
Perhaps unsurprisingly for such an iconic and celebrated figure, Napoleon’s organs swiftly became highly sought-after collectibles.
As is traditional for members of the Habsburg house, his heart and intestines were transferred to Vienna to be kept in a crypt there. His penis – however – is somewhat harder to trace.
Contemporary accounts noted its initial passage into the possession of his priest, followed by it changing hands on numerous occasions over the next few decades.
The priest’s family sold it to a London bookseller, whose inventory very delicately listed it as a ‘mummified tendon’. It then moved to an owner in Philadelphia, before ending up on display in the New York Museum of French Arts in 1927.
People came from miles around to see Napoleon’s boney-part in all its glory, although journalistic accounts describe it as somewhat underwhelming. A Time magazine column described it as like ‘a maltreated strip of buckskin shoelace.’, whilst another journalist called it a ‘shriveled eel’. Nice.
This is perhaps not that surprising, as the penis only measures a meagre 3.8 centimetres, probably due in part to poor preservation. However, there is also an argument that the inaccurate rumours concerning Napoleon’s diminutive stature could have been a reference to the leader being small in an altogether different way…
At a 1969 auction, private collector and urologist John J. Lattimer bought the penis for approximately $3,000. Lattimer had wide-ranging historical interests and his collection contained medieval armor, Civil War rifles and even drawings by Adolf Hitler.
There are, however, a number of questions as to the penis’s authenticity. Because it is so small, has changed hands so many times and has decayed so much, it is practically impossible to conclusively test any DNA evidence that it may wield.
Nevertheless, most documentation seems to map out a journey that would have quite plausibly led to the Lattimer family.
Stories of historical body parts travelling the world are not all that unusual.
After his execution in September 1658, the disembodied head of English Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell became a similarly in-demand collectable. It was sold to various collectors and museums, with one owner – Josiah Wilkinson – bringing it out at dinner parties to shock and impress guests.
There is also a story about the penis of Russian ‘Mad Monk’ Gregori Rasputin. It is known that Rasputin was castrated after his death, either by his assassins or as part of his autopsy but it is not known what happened to it afterwards.
In 1994 a man in California came forward saying that he had found the mystic healer’s penis. However, it later emerged that the item in question was just a dehydrated sea cucumber. Awkward.
Napoleon’s penis, on the other hand, is safely in the possession of the Lattimer family. After John Lattimer died in 2007, aged 92, it passed into the ownership of his daughter. Well, that’s a bequeathment you don’t hear about every day.
Sources: History.com, The Washington Post, BBC, ‘Napoleon’s Privates: 2,500 Years of History Unzipped’ (Tony Perrottet), New York Times, Historic UK.