THE MYSTERY OF NAPOLEON’S TOMB
By Alfred Michaels
Reprinted from Mankind Magazine (1967).
The French –those unquenchably romantic believers in the conspiratorial theory of history- have momentarily turned their incredulous eyes from the wheels within wheels of the Kennedy assassination “plot” to dart some suspicious glances closer to home. So close to where every patriotic Frenchman lives is this new mystery, in fact, that it could cause an international scandal, further aggravating the already strained relations between Great Britain and Gaullist France.
This intellectual time bomb has been set ticking by a 37 year old French historian with the melodious name of Georges Rétif de la Bretonne who has written a soon to be published book entitled “I Desire That My Cinders…”These words are from the last will and testament of Napoleon Bonaparte, who expressed a whish therein that his remains repose forever among the French people. This historical who-dunit makes the shocking charge that both the Emperor and his countrymen, as well as millions of tourists who flock to his supposed tomb in Paris, were swindled in a grisly shell game by those wily inhabitants of “Perfidious Albion” the English.
The supporting case made for this thesis is certainly troubling and worthy of consideration. For almost twenty years after the Corsican’s death on his island “kingdom” of St.Helena, suc-cessive French governments made repeated requests to London for permission to take the body of their hero home. The British, undoubtedly fearing the physical presence of their great enemy –even dead- might serve as inspiration and symbolic shrine around which the still strong Bonapartist party in France could rally and possibly take power again, always stalled or refused.
Then in 1840, for no apparent reason, opposition ceased. London consented to the Emperor’s bones being dug up and turned over to an official French delegation which would bring him back to France for his long delayed and long awaited grandiose state funeral.
The exhumation took place on October 15, 1840. The French commission asked to see the remains before signing the receipt, a not unreasonable request under the circumstances. After some initial reluctance, the British military governor overcame his hesitation and grudgingly agreed. But he set a strangely inconvenient hour for this purpose –midnight- when it could only be done in the uncertain light of the flickering torches. He further forbade any sketches or daguerreotypes to be made.
The verification of identity, lasting only two minutes, took place in perfect silence. Then the several super imposed coffins, the innermost of which contained the body, were closed and carried to the waiting French ship Belle Poule –singularly inappropriate name for a vessel charged with so solemn a mission.
The Belle Poule left St.Helena on October 17, 1840. It docked at Cherbourg on November 30 when its precious cargo was unloaded and carried in suitable ceremonial grandeur to Paris to be finally interred in the magnificent marble crypt in the Invalides church so familiar to almost anyone who has visited the City of Light.
Suspicions have arisen over the difference between what was actually seen by the French funeral delegation on St.Helena and the records and recollections of the witnesses to the Emperor’s death and subsequent first burial.
The first and perhaps most significant discrepancy was noted during the opening of the superimposed caskets. Napoleon had actually been buried in three coffins –an iron one put in a lead one which was, in turn, protected by an outer one of mahogany. When his grave was opened, however, he was found enclosed within four coffins. Somehow, a second mahogany casket had been interposed between the iron and lead ones!
What happened? As of today no one can say for certain. Nevertheless, the autor of “I Desire My Cinders…” offers a hypothesis. He claims that in 1821 the workmen who made the original coffins were instructed to build four. But several eye witnesses later affirmed that only three were actually delivered due to lack of time. The English, attempting to recreate the exact circumstances of their prisoner’s funeral, were not aware of this human failure and simply followed the formal written instructions in trying to disguise a macabre switch. They did their work a bit too well and thus revealed their hand.
As for the corpse itself, several more strange differences between facts, memories, and records were obvious. It is possible to explain some of them away. However, it would be very difficult to account for others except by the conclusion that at some time between his burial and his disinterment, someone had opened the grave and either disturbed or replaced Napoleon’s remains.
The French commission reported that the features were still clearly apparent, the flesh having mummified. There was a definite physical resemblance of the Emperor. The presence of whiskers and the remains of hair on the head were noted. Within the open mouth, three very white teeth could be observed. These details were disturbingly at variance with the reports of those present at the first funeral.
When Bonaparte was laid in his coffin, his flesh, due to ill health and other factors, was decomposing rapidly. It is not likely that it would mummify in time to preserve the features since natural mummification is usually a lengthy process. Also, the Emperor’s face and head were shaved twelve hours after his death and to remove the post mortem growth, once again 24 hours after the initial shave. Thus it is highly improbable that further hair or beard growth would have occurred.
The most remarkable differences, however, were the open jaws and visible teeth. Immediately after his death, Napoleon’s mouth was held closed for several hours by a chin strap. The mouth was still closed when the coffin was sealed. Rigor mortis having set in, it is almost impossible the jaws would reopen, even under a severe shock. Further more, it was well known that the Little Corporal’s teeth were in rotten condition. How then did he become the possessor of three “gleaming white teeth” after his demise?
Then there was the position of the corpse. When he was buried, Bonaparte was laid erect in his coffin –legs together and straight, feet not touching the bottom of the casket. When this container was opened that midnight on St. Helena, twenty years later, the legs were bent apart and the soles of the boots were firmly touching the bottom of the coffin –even though the body did not appear to have shifted from its original position. Are we to conclude either that the casket had shrunk or even the dead man had grown?
Even more mysterious were the clothes. In 1821 the Emperor was buried wearing the uniform of the Mounted Chasseurs of the Guard. In 1840 the body was still clothed in this uniform but there were some strange changes. At the time of his first interment, the Corsican’s clothes had been impeccable. At his exhumation the uniform was stained though there was no indication that the superimposed caskets had allowed any moisture or soil to enter. The legs wore no white hose as were put on in 1821. Bare toes could be seen sticking out of boots whose fronts were open –perhaps not by accident.
The details of the medals and decorations are curious, too. In 1840 the body had pinned to its chest the “plaque” of the Order of the Great Eagle, the medal of an officer of the legion d’Honneur and an iron cross. But in 1821there had been one more –the Order of the Reunion- which had since disappeared. Also, in 1821 the Emperor wore the Great Ribbons of the Legion d’Honneur outside his uniform jacket. This ribbon had a terminal cross at its lower end. In 1840 the ribbon was still there, but underneath his jacket and without its terminal cross. Now cloth may rot, but metal medals do not. Nor do ribbons and jackets change places by themselves.
There were other singular discrepancies. In 1821 the Emperor’s famous two-cornered hat with its target-like tri-colored cockade had been placed over his feet, covering the toes of his boots. In 1840, the hat, without its cockade, was found on the body’s thighs. Stranger yet, two soldered lead jars containing Napoleon’s heart and stomach –removed for autopsy- had been placed in the corners of the coffin. They were found between the cadaver’s legs.
It is an interesting fact that the inventories made after Bonaparte’s baggage train was captured during the aftermath of the battle of Waterloo show that among the Emperor’s personal effects which fell into British hands were a somewhat soiled uniform of the Mounted Chasseurs of the Guard, a two-cornered hat without cockade, and a Great Ribbon of the Legion d’Honneur without terminal cross as well as various other medals and decorations.
Like the Chinese puzzle box, this mystery merely leads to others. If it is not Bonaparte in Napoleon’s tomb in Paris, who is it? And were is the true Emperor? Why was this substitution not discovered or, if it was, why did no one say anything until now? What motives did the British have for doing it –if they did it?
According to the author, the corpse in the magnificent marble tomb in Paris is that of another Corsican, a vague look-alike named Franceschi Cipriani who served the Emperor on St. Helena as his maitre d’hotel, or butler. An old and trusted friend of the Bonaparte family, he sold out to the English and acted as their spy. His treachery finally discovered, he committed suicide (or was he murdered?) by taking rat poison. This happened three years before the death of the master he betrayed.
The manner in which his remains were selected for the august role they were to play resembles the best “cloack and dagger” inventions of Ian Fleming or John le Carre. When Napoleon died the resident British physician, Dr. Burton, hoping to profit from the lucrative business of selling copies of the death masks of famous or notorious people as souvenirs, made one of the dead man as a master mold. He did this 42 hours after death and with considerable difficulty due to the already rapid deterioration of the imperial flesh. This mask, of whose authenticity there is no doubt, can be seen today at Sandhurst, the British military academy.
However, the accurate likeness of an aging, sick man was so ugly showing as it did all the ravages of fortune, time, and disease on the Emperor’s face and spirit- that the small band of faithful followers led by Marshall Bertrand, who comprised the illustrious prisoner’s pathetic court and shared his exile to its sad end, protested that to distribute copies of this mask throughout France and the rest of the world would be an injustice to the vigorous man they knew in the prime of his power.
Afraid it would tarnish the Napoleonic legend, they stole the mask from Dr. Burton. The physician appealed to St. Helena’s military governor for help only to have that official surprisingly rule that the disputed property rightfully belonged to the French. Perhaps the governor merely wished to wash his hands of a messy situation. Or may be his interests were less disinterested. For he learned that the little French group –aided by its own imperial physician, Dr. Antommarchi, had dug up the dead butler Cipriani whose resemblance to Bonaparte was well known to all of them and, finding him still well preserved, ten years less aged than the Emperor, and healthy looking, had made their own counterfeit version of Napoleon’s death mask on the dead traitor’s face. It is this second mask which was sold everywhere as the true death mask of Napoleon. It was so widely accepted it can still commonly be seen today in many museums and books labelled as such.
The English government, despite numerous statements to the contrary, had shown itself in many ways hostile to the idea of returning their great captive to his homeland even after his death. Certain letters, documents, and unguarded words from the mouths of those then in power, testify to this. In fact, London had no intention of giving up the most famous single item among the spoils of war. The British probably intended to hold the Emperor’s bones as a kind of ace in the hole –just in case. This could not be openly acknowledged without creating a major diplomatic incident with the new “friendly” French government.
Thus, switching the death masks set up a situation which was made to order for the subsequent changing of the bodies. The French, above all, Marshall Bertrand, who was also present in 1840 –could hardly deny that the corpse who obviously resembled the death mask they had officially recognized as Napoleon’s was not, in fact, who they said it was. Such a scandal could have brought down the government and ruined many a brilliant career, illustrious name, and large fortune, in addition to creating a dangerous confrontation with Great Britain.
Was it not wiser to accept what only a few “insiders” knew to be a fraud and, for personal, as well as, state reasons, say nothing? After all, wether or not the body was really Napoleon’s, mattered little, so long as everyone believed it was. So it was, that the British, waiting until they judged the time was ripe, played their hand. Calling their opposite number’s bluff, they won the pot.
As for the real prize in this high stakes political poker game, it is thought that he was removed from his grave on St. Helena in 1828. In that year, the former British military governor of St. Helena, during Napoleon’s residence there, Hudson Lowe, is known to have gone back to his earlier post for several weeks on a matter of the greatest importance and highest secrecy. Lowe then returned to England aboard a Royal Navy vessel taking with him a large box of shipping crate. The travels of this box have been traced to Westminster Abby where it ended up in a subterranean vault crypt marked “Undercroft”.
Thus, according to the interesting hypothesis advanced by a French historian –the “cinders” of England’s greatest, most dangerous, and able enemy, repose today in obscure company with many of the island kingdom’s most famous men and women. The courageous adventurer and daring genius who did not lack a sense of life’s ironies might have found his own fate the most ironical of all.”
Given by Beryl Bernardi, on site “Napoleonic-literature.com”. And now, his opinion:
“Although the idea is intriguing, I was not satisfied with the arguments, for the author did not seem to back-up any of his claims with any substantial source material. Also, much of the eye-witness accounts of both original burial and the exhumation of 1840 give different accounts from what the author claims. I am also not convinced of the motivations put forth. However, I did think that the 2nd death mask, supposedly in England, did seem to look an awful lot like Napoleon. But even in the case of this 2nd mask, it could be a sculpted creation. How would one make a solid argument with so little evidence to go on? Anyway, I just thought I would make the contribution since the subject arose.”
Great Britain. 04/29/01
The mask of London "RUSI mask"
RUSI mask with the lower jaw replaced, PlonPlon and Napoleon at Ste-Helene
Napoleon's children (clic on the image for larger format)