What happened to Napoleon’s body?

Napoleon Bonaparte died on May 5, 1821 at the age of 51 on the remote South Atlantic island of St. Helena. His tomb is in the Dôme des Invalides, but that is not where Napoleon was first laid to rest. How did his remains end up in Paris? And why are there reports of Napoleon’s penis being in the United States? Here’s what happened to Napoleon’s body after he died.

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

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

The autopsy

Napoleon died at 5:49 p.m. on May 5. At midnight, his servants removed him from the bed on which he had died, washed his body using cologne mixed with water, shaved him, and then returned him to the freshly made up bed. On the afternoon of May 6, an autopsy was conducted by Napoleon’s physician Dr. François Antommarchi, assisted by seven British doctors, including army surgeon Dr. Archibald Arnott. Nine other witnesses were present – six Frenchmen from Napoleon’s suite, and three British officers. The doctors concluded that Napoleon died from a cancerous growth in his stomach.

In addition to the stomach, Antommarchi removed Napoleon’s heart, intending to comply with Napoleon’s wish that it be sent to his wife Marie Louise. The stomach and the heart were placed in separate silver vessels filled with wine. One of the witnesses, Napoleon’s valet, Louis-Joseph Marchand, wrote:

The inside of the body was wiped and washed with an aromatic fluid. As Sir Hudson Lowe had declared his government opposed to any kind of embalming, needle stitching by Dr. Antommarchi restored everything to its original state. (1)

Napoleon’s second valet, Louis-Étienne Saint-Denis, who was also present, observed:

Before sewing up the body, Antommarchi, taking advantage of a moment when the eyes of the English were not fixed on the body, had taken two little pieces from a rib which he had given to M. Vignaly [Napoleon’s priest] and Coursot [Napoleon’s butler]. (2)

Marchand and Saint-Denis dressed Napoleon’s body in his uniform of the mounted chasseurs of the imperial guard. The body was then returned to the bed for mourners to come and pay their last respects. Dr. Arnott was assigned to keep watch over Napoleon’s body and to guard the vessels containing his heart and stomach. British governor Hudson Lowe insisted that these be buried with Napoleon.

These two silver vases filled with wine spirits were hermetically closed and soldered by a British plumber, and entrusted to Dr. Arnott’s keeping. He felt he had fulfilled his assignment only when they were put in the casket. (3)

On May 7, Napoleon’s hair was shaved off and entrusted to Marchand, to be given to Napoleon’s family. A plaster cast of Napoleon’s head was taken by English surgeon Dr. Francis Burton, aided by Antommarchi (see the controversy over Napoleon’s death masks). Then Napoleon’s body and the vases containing his heart and stomach were placed in a tin casket lined with white quilted satin. This was soldered shot. The tin casket was placed inside a mahogany casket, which was screwed shut. This in turn was set inside a lead casket, which was soldered shut. At dawn on May 9, the whole works were put into a fourth casket, made of mahogany and sealed with silver-headed iron screws.

Burial on St. Helena

In a codicil to his will dated April 16, 1821, Napoleon requested that his body be buried “on the banks of the Seine, in the midst of the French people whom I loved so well.” (4) One of Napoleon’s companions on St. Helena, General Henri Bertrand, expanded on this.

By the banks of the Seine, he meant, of course, somewhere in France.

He thought that the Bourbons would raise no objection to this. He would prefer above all to be buried in the Cemetery of Père Lachaise in Paris, where his body could be placed between the graves of Masséna and General Lefebvre, and in the center of their small memorial, a column might be put up to him. He would much prefer that to being buried at St. Denis among all the Bourbon kings. … Or else, let his body be buried on an island formed by the junction of the Rhône and Saône rivers near Lyons. Or lastly, let them bury him at Ajaccio in Corsica, which was still a part of France. In that case, let him be buried in the Cathedral of Ajaccio, by the side of his ancestors, where he had had his uncle Lucien interred.

The Emperor did not think that his body would be left at St. Helena. He thought that provision had been made for such an eventuality. But should it happen, he preferred to be buried, not at Plantation House [the governor’s residence], but near the fountain which had provided him with water throughout his sojourn. (5)

On May 9, following a mass and a service for the dead, Napoleon was buried in the requested spot – Geranium Valley – at the foot of some willows, near a spring of cool water. The grave, approximately 10 feet deep, was lined with brick. Inside was a tomb made of slabs of stone. After Napoleon’s casket was lowered by means of pulleys, the tomb was sealed with another enormous stone. This was topped with bricks, cement, clay and more stones. There Napoleon’s body remained for 19 years.

Return of the ashes (retour des cendres)

Although Britain regarded its custody of Napoleon’s body as temporary, French King Louis XVIII and his successor, Charles X, had no desire to revive Bonapartist sentiments by bringing the Emperor’s remains to France. Even after 1830, when Charles X was overthrown and Louis Philippe, the Duke of Orleans, became King of the French, there was little official appetite for Napoleon’s return. It took the pressure of historian Adolphe Thiers, who in 1840 was serving as French prime minister and foreign minister, to convince a reluctant Louis Philippe to support the repatriation of Napoleon’s remains. Thiers was writing a 20-volume history of the Consulate and Empire. He regarded the “retour des cendres” as an opportunity to rehabilitate the period’s reputation, unite the French people, and increase the government’s popularity. (See “The Death of Napoleon Bonaparte and the Retour des Cendres: French and British Perspectives” by Fiona Parr on Napoleon.org for the political considerations involved in the return of Napoleon’s remains.)

On October 8, 1840, the frigate La Belle Poule, painted black and escorted by the corvette Favorite, arrived at St. Helena. The expedition was led by King Louis Philippe’s son, the Prince of Joinville. It included a number of people who had been with Napoleon on St. Helena: Marchand, Saint-Denis, Bertrand and his son Arthur, General Gourgaud, the young Emmanuel de Las Cases, and the servants Pierron, Noverraz, Coursot and Achille Archambault.

On October 15, Napoleon’s grave was opened in the presence of witnesses who had been present at the original burial. Excavators worked through the night to break through the layers of stone, cement and brick. On October 16, the coffin was lifted out. Each of the four caskets was opened. The official report noted:

The cover of the third coffin having been removed, a tin ornament, slightly rusted, was seen, which was removed, and a white satin sheet was perceived, which was detached with the greatest precaution by the doctor, and Napoleon’s body was exposed to view. His features were so little changed that his face was recognized by those who had known him when alive. The different articles which had been deposited in the coffin were found exactly as they had been placed. The hands were singularly well preserved. The uniform, the orders, the hat, were very little changed. His entire person presented the appearance of one lately preserved. The body was not exposed to the external air longer than two minutes at most, which were necessary for the surgeon to take measures to prevent any alteration. (6)

Dr. Remi Julien Guillard, surgeon of La Belle Poule, provided the following account of the state of Napoleon’s body.

The body of the Emperor had an easy position, the same as when he was placed in the coffin; the superior members were stretched out, the lower part of the arm and the left hand resting on the corresponding thigh; the inferior members somewhat depressed. The head, a little raised, rested on a cushion; his skull, of ample volume, and his high and broad forehead, were covered with yellowish teguments, hard and very adherent. The orbs of the eyes offered the same appearance, and the upper part was lined with eyelids; the balls of the eyes were entire, but had lost some of their volume and shape. The eyelids, completely closed, adhered to the under parts, and were hard; the bones of the nose, and the teguments which covered them, were well preserved; the tube and the sides alone had suffered. The cheeks were full. The teguments of that portion of the face were remarkable for their soft supple feel and their whitish colour; those of the chin were slightly bluish, and derived that colour from the beard, which appeared to have grown after death. The chin itself was not in the least altered, and still preserved the character peculiar to Napoleon’s countenance. The lips were thinned and asunder, and three of the front teeth, extremely white, were seen under the upper lip, which was slightly raised to the left. The hands were perfect, and did not exhibit any sort of alteration; if the articulations had lost their motion, the skin appeared to have preserved the colour of life; and the fingers bore long, adherent, and very white nails; the legs were enclosed in boots, but in consequence of the threads of the latter being worn, the four last toes were visible on both sides. The skin of those toes was of a dull white, and the nails were still adherent. The front region of the thorax was strongly depressed in the middle; the coats of the abdomen hard, and fallen in; the members appeared to have preserved their shape under the clothes which covered them. I pressed the left arm, it was hard, and had lost somewhat of its volume. (7)

After this confirmation that Napoleon’s body was still there, the tin and wood caskets were closed, the lead casket was closed and resoldered, and all were placed in a new lead casket, sent from Paris, which was also soldered shut. These were all placed inside a new ebony casket, which was locked and put in an oak case, to protect the ebony. The whole thing weighed 1,200 kilograms.

On October 18, La Belle Poule left St. Helena with Napoleon’s body. On November 30, the ship reached Cherbourg in France, where the casket was transferred to La Normandie, which took it to Val-de-la-Haye, near Rouen. Here the casket was transferred to the steamer La Dorade, to be carried up the Seine. On December 14, La Dorade moored at Courbevoie, a village just northwest of Paris. On December 15, 1840, Napoleon’s body was transferred to an enormous funeral carriage drawn by 16 black horses. It proceeded in a funeral procession across the Neuilly bridge to the Arc de Triomphe, and from there along the Champs-Élysées and across the Pont de la Concorde to a funeral service at the Invalides.

Napoleon’s body remained in the Chapel of Saint-Jérôme at the Invalides for over 20 years. The well-known tomb beneath the dome of the Invalides – a sarcophagus of red quartzite, designed by Louis Visconti – was not completed until 1861. On April 2 of that year, Napoleon’s body (still in all the caskets) was transferred to the new tomb in a private ceremony attended by Emperor Napoleon III (Napoleon’s nephew), his immediate family, government ministers and senior officials.

Napoleon’s intestine?

In 1841, the Museum of the Royal College of Surgeons in London acquired two pieces of what was alleged to be Napoleon’s intestine. They came from surgeon Dr. Astley Cooper, who had acquired them from Dr. Barry O’Meara, Napoleon’s physician on St. Helena from 1815 to 1818.

They are two small pieces of the human bowel suspended in sealed bottles filled with alcohol. A superficial observer might easily believe that he is looking at two small oblong tags of dusky skin, each with a curious wart-like raised patch in its centre. (8)

The authenticity of these relics was called into question by pathologist Dr. James Paget in 1883. He noted the differences in appearance between the specimens and the description of the corresponding body part in Antommarchi’s report on Napoleon’s autopsy. He observed that O’Meara had left St. Helena nearly three years before Napoleon’s death. He also said “the steps taken by Napoleon’s personal attendants to prevent the abstraction of the heart and stomach also show the improbability of these specimens having had the source ascribed to them.” (9) However, others continued to argue in favour of the specimens’ authenticity, even after they were destroyed in an air raid during World War II.

Napoleon’s penis?

In 1927, an object described as a “mummified tendon taken from Napoleon’s body during the post-mortem” was displayed at the Museum of French Art in New York.

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. (10)

The “tendon,” purported to be Napoleon’s penis, was allegedly cut off by Antommarchi during Napolon’s autopsy and given to the priest, Ange-Paul Vignali. Vignali brought it back to Corsica along with other effects from St. Helena. After Vignali’s death, it was passed down through his family until sold, as part of a Napoleonic collection, to the British rare books firm Maggs Bros. in 1916. In 1924, the collection was acquired by Dr. Abraham S.W. Rosenbach and kept in Philadelphia. After passing through a few more owners, the tendon was sold in 1977 for $3,000 to American urologist Dr. John K. Lattimer. Upon Lattimer’s death, his son inherited the object.

A catalogue put out by the Rosenbach Company in 1924 claimed:

The authenticity of this remarkable relic has lately been confirmed by the publication in the Revue des Deux Mondes of a posthumous memoir by St. Denis, in which he expressly states that he and Vignali took away small pieces of Napoleon’s corpse during the autopsy. (11)

As noted above, the English translation (1922) of Saint-Denis’s memoir claims that Vignali was given a little piece from a rib. The French version of that passage in the Revue des Deux Mondes (1921) says Antommarchi “avait extrait d’une côte deux petits morceaux,” which he gave to Vignali and Coursot. (12) “Une côte” is a rib. Nowhere in the memoir does Saint-Denis say that Napoleon’s penis was removed. It is hard to believe that such a significant part of Napoleon’s anatomy could have been cut off without any of the other people present at the autopsy noticing and eventually remarking on it.

If you would like to try imagining that some part of Napoleon wound up in the United States, read Napoleon in America, which is clearly fiction.

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  1. Louis-Joseph Marchand, In Napoleon’s Shadow (San Francisco, 1998), p. 692.
  2. Louis Étienne Saint-Denis, Napoleon from the Tuileries to St. Helena, translated by Frank Hunter Potter (New York and London, 1922), p. 280.
  3. Marchand, In Napoleon’s Shadow, p. 697.
  4. Charles de La Bédoyère, Memoirs of the Public and Private Life of Napoleon Bonaparte, Vol. II (London, 1827), p. 1034.
  5. Henri Bertrand, Napoleon at St. Helena: The Journals of General Bertrand, January-May 1821, deciphered and annotated by Paul Fleuriot de Langle, translated by Francis Hume (Garden City, 1952), p. 164.
  6. Laurent de l’Ardeche, History of Napoleon, Vol. II (London, 1841), Appendix, p. 18.
  7. Ibid., Appendix, pp. 19-20.
  8. Arthur Keith and S.G. Shattock, “An Address on the History and Nature of Certain Specimens Alleged to have been Obtained at the Post-Mortem Examination of Napoleon the Great,” The British Medical Journal, Vol. 1, No. 2715 (January 11, 1913), p. 53.
  9. Ibid., p. 53.
  10. “Napoleon’s Things,” Time, February 14, 1927, p. 18.
  11. Description of the Vignali Collection of Relics of Napoleon (Philadelphia and New York, 1924), p. 5.
  12. “Souvenirs de Saint-Denis dit ali Second Mameluck de l’Empereur; V – La Mort et les Funérailles de l’Empereur,” Revue Des Deux Mondes, Vol. 65, No. 5 (September-October 1921), p. 40.

8 commments on “What happened to Napoleon’s body?”

  • Pim Waakop Reijers says:

    Interesting article. I enjoyed reading it.
    You mentioned the controversy of the death masks. It reminded me of a work by the surrealist Rene Magritte, L’Avenir des Statues, a copy of Napoleon’s death mask with a blue sky and clouds painted on it. There is an analysis of the artwork on Napoleon.org

  • Michael says:

    This is fascinating. They did a lot to his body after death. One day I would like to visit his tomb in France.

    • Shannon Selin says:

      Thanks, Michael. I hope you can make that trip someday. Napoleon’s tomb is very impressive and the Army Museum at the Invalides is excellent.

  • James Arnott says:

    There is an account in ‘The House of Arnott’ of Dr. Arnott being awoken during the night, after the heart and stomach had been removed, by a rat attracted by the smell and knocking the lid off the vessel. Arnott ordered the casket to be sealed immediately.

  • Shannon Selin says:

    Oh my! Thanks, James.

  • Geoffrey says:

    I’ve skipped quite a lot of this, I’m afraid! Weak stomach.
    I have a ticket to the funeral in Paris.

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The cover of the third coffin having been removed, a tin ornament, slightly rusted, was seen, which was removed, and a white satin sheet was perceived, which was detached with the greatest precaution by the doctor, and Napoleon’s body was exposed to view. His features were so little changed that his face was recognized by those who had known him when alive.

Philippe de Rohan-Chabot