What Happened to Napoleon’s Penis?

May 18, 2021 0 comments

The diminutive French military leader Napoléon Bonaparte lies buried in a crypt under the dome at Les Invalides, in Paris, sans many vital body parts, one being his penis.

After the Little Corporal died on 5 May 1821, his autopsy was witnessed by no less than seventeen people, eight of them physicians, so it must been an act of extreme stealth, as the story goes, when Francesco Antommarchi, the lead doctor, snipped off the love appendage from its owner. Another theory is that the genitalia was cut-off by Napoleon's priest Ange-Paul Vignali, while conducting the last rites upon the Emperor's body. And it was not the only body part that was so unceremoniously stolen from the Emperor. Napoleon’s second valet, Louis-Étienne Saint-Denis, who was also present during the autopsy, confessed to have stolen two little pieces from a rib “taking advantage of a moment when the eyes of the English were not fixed on the body”. These two body parts also went to Vignali.

“Napoleon Crossing the Alps” by the French artist Jacques-Louis David.

The penis passed into the possession of Napoleon's chaplain, who smuggled it out of St. Helena to his home on Corsica. It remained in the priests' family until 1916, when Maggs Bros Ltd, a bookselling company based in London, purchased it. Eight years later, it went into the possession of Dr. Abraham S.W. Rosenbach, a Philadelphia-based bookseller, when he acquired all the Vignali’s heirlooms including the mummified penis for only $2,000.

Related: Galileo’s Missing Fingers

In 1927, the shriveled body part went on display for the first time at the Museum of French Art in New York. A New York newspaper covering the event observed observed that “Maudlin sentimentalizers sniffled; shallow women giggled and pointed. In a glass case they saw something looking like a maltreated strip of buckskin shoelace or shriveled eel.”

Two decades later, Dr. Rosenbach sold the appendage to Donald Hyde, a collector of the books and letters. When Hyde died, his wife returned the desiccated tendon to Rosenbach's successor, John Fleming. Some time later, a wealthy collector named Bruce Gimelson acquired the Vignali collection for a reported $35,000.

The opening of Napoleon’s casket on St. Helena in October 1840, by Nicolas-Eustache Maurin

In 1972, the putative penis was put up for sale at a London auction house, but having failed to reach its reserve price was withdrawn, causing a British tabloid to scream in a raunchy headline: “NOT TONIGHT, JOSEPHINE!”,

The “tendon” was eventually sold in 1977 to American urologist Dr. John K. Lattimer. Upon Lattimer’s death, his daughter inherited the object.

While forensic analysis conducted on the specimen confirms that it is a penis, it's still not certain whether its owner was Bonaparte. Some historians doubt that the priest could have managed the organ heist when so many people were passing in and out of the emperor's death chamber. Others suggest he may have removed only a partial sample.

The alleged penis is still in the possession of Evan Lattimer, Dr. Lattimer’s daughter. She has been offered north of $100,000 for the penis, but refuses to sell it.

# Stanley M. Bierman, The Peripatetic Posthumous Peregrination of Napoleon's Penis, The Journal of Sex Research
# Judith Pascoe, Meanwhile: The pathos of Napoleon's penis, NY Times
# Shannon Selin, What happened to Napoleon’s body?, shannonselin.com
# Ishaan Tharoor, The strange journey of Napoleon’s penis, Washington Post


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