10 Interesting Facts About Napoleon Bonaparte

Napoleon as First Consul, by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres. Napoleon is hiding one of his beautiful hands (see Napoleon Bonaparte facts, #6.)

Napoleon as First Consul, by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres. Napoleon is hiding one of his beautiful hands.

There’s no shortage of Napoleon Bonaparte facts. Here are 10 you may not be aware of. They struck me as interesting when I was researching Napoleon in America.

1. Napoleon couldn’t carry a tune.

Louis-Joseph Marchand, Napoleon’s valet from 1814 to 1821, wrote:

[T]he Emperor, should he start to sing, which he sometimes did while thinking of something else…was rarely in tune and would repeat the same words for 15 minutes. (1)

Betsy Balcombe, whom Napoleon befriended when he was in exile on St. Helena, described how he regaled her with “Vive Henri Quatre”:

He began to hum the air, became abstracted, and, leaving his seat, marched round the room, keeping time to the song he was singing…. In fact Napoleon’s voice was most unmusical, nor do I think he had any ear for music; for neither on this occasion, nor in any of his subsequent attempts at singing, could I ever discover what tune it was he was executing. (2)

 2. Napoleon loved licorice.

Louis Constant Wairy, Napoleon’s valet from 1800 to 1814, notes that every morning, after Napoleon finished washing, shaving and dressing, “his handkerchief, his snuffbox, and a little shell box filled with licorice flavored with aniseed and cut very fine, were handed to him.” (3)

Betsy Balcombe attributed Napoleon’s rather discoloured teeth to “his constant habit of eating liquorice, of which he always kept a supply in his waistcoat pocket.” (4)

According to Hortense Bertrand, the daughter of General Henri Bertrand and his wife Fanny, Napoleon carried a mixture of licorice-powder and brown sugar in his pockets as a remedy for indigestion. (5) He also used it as a remedy for colds.

When Napoleon was dying, he wanted to drink only licorice-flavoured water.

He asked me for a small bottle and some licorice, poured a small quantity, and told me to fill it with water, adding that in the future he wished to have no other beverage but that. (6)

3. Napoleon cheated at cards.

Napoleon hated to lose at cards, chess or any other game, and took pains to avoid doing so. Laure Junot wrote:

It was usually the most laughable thing in the world to see him play at any game whatever: he, whose quick perception and prompt judgment immediately seized on and mastered everything else which came in his way, was, curiously enough, never able to understand the manoeuvres of any game, however simple. Thus, his only resource was to cheat. (7)

French diplomat Louis Antoine Fauvelet de Bourienne, Napoleon’s one-time private secretary, observed:

In general he was not fond of cards; but if he did play, Vingt-et-un was his favourite game, because it is more rapid than many others, and because, in short, it afforded him an opportunity of cheating. For example, he would ask for a card; if it proved a bad one he would say nothing, but lay it down on the table and wait till the dealer had drawn his. If the dealer produced a good card, then Bonaparte would throw aside his hand, without showing it, and give up his stake. If, on the contrary, the dealer’s card made him exceed twenty-one, Bonaparte also threw his cards aside without showing them, and asked for the payment of his stake. He was much diverted by these little tricks, especially when they were played off undetected; and I confess that even then we were courteous enough to humour him, and wink at his cheating. (8)

Napoleon’s mother Letizia would call him on such stunts, as noted in this description of evenings during Napoleon’s exile on Elba:

When Napoleon was losing at cards he cheated without scruple, and all submitted with such grace as they could muster, except the stern Corsican lady, who in her decided tone would say, ‘Napoleon, you are cheating.’ To this he would reply: ‘Madame, you are rich, you can afford to lose, but I am poor and must win.’ (9)

The young Betsy Balcombe also challenged Napoleon during a game of whist:

Peeping under his cards as they were dealt to him, he endeavoured whenever he got an important one, to draw off my attention, and then slyly held it up for my sister to see. I soon discovered this, and calling him to order, told him he was cheating, and that if he continued to do so, I would not play. At last he revoked intentionally, and at the end of the game tried to mix the cards together to prevent his being discovered, but I started up, and seizing hold of his hands, I pointed out to him and the others what he had done. He laughed until the tears ran out of his eyes, and declared he had played fair. (10) 

4. Napoleon liked snuff.

This was commented on by many observers, though they differed as to whether Napoleon was a prodigious snuff-taker or simply a sloppy one.

Constant wrote:

It has been said that His Majesty took a great deal of tobacco, and that in order to be able to take it more quickly and frequently, he put it in a waistcoat pocket lined with skin for this purpose; these are so many errors; the Emperor never put tobacco in anything but his snuff-boxes, and though he consumed a great deal, he took but very little. He brought his pinch to his nostrils as if simply to smell it, and then he let it fall. It is true that the place where he had been was often covered with it; but his handkerchiefs, incontrovertible witnesses in such matters, were scarcely soiled…. He often contented himself with putting an open snuff-box under his nose to breathe the odor of the tobacco it contained…. His snuff was raped very large and was usually composed of several kinds of tobacco mixed together. Sometimes he amused himself by feeding it to the gazelles he had at Saint-Cloud. They were very fond if it.” (11)

Count de Las Cases, one of Napoleon’s companions on St. Helena, said:

The Emperor, it is well known, was in the habit of taking snuff almost every minute: this was a sort of a mania which seized him chiefly during intervals of abstraction. His snuff-box was speedily emptied; but he still continued to thrust his fingers into it, or to raise it to his nose, particularly when he was himself speaking. (12)

 5. Napoleon loved long, hot baths.

Again, this was something frequently commented on. In Bourienne’s words:

His partiality for the bath he mistook for a necessity. He would usually remain in the bath two hours, during which time I used to read to him extracts from the journals and pamphlets of the day, for he was anxious to hear and know all that was going on. While in the bath, he was continually turning on the warm water, to raise the temperature, so that I was sometimes enveloped in such a dense vapour that I could not see to read, and was obliged to open the door. (13)

 6. Napoleon had beautiful hands.

Napoleon was proud of his hands, and he took great care of his fingernails. Betsy Balcombe wrote:

His hand was the fattest and prettiest in the word; his knuckles dimpled like those of a baby, his fingers taper and beautifully formed, and his nails perfect. (14)

Napoleon’s valet Louis Étienne Saint-Denis thought Napoleon’s hands “were of the most perfect model; they resembled the beautiful hands of a woman.” (15) Saint-Denis also noted that Napoleon never wore gloves unless he was going out on horseback, and even then he was more likely to put them in his pocket than on his hands.

Even Germaine de Staël – a notable opponent of Napoleon – commented:

I recollect once being told very gravely by a member of the Institute, a counsellor of state, that Bonaparte’s nails were perfectly well made. Another time a courtier exclaimed, ‘The first consul’s hand is beautiful!’ (16)

7. Napoleon couldn’t stand the smell of paint.

Napoleon had an acute sense of smell, and one of the things that bothered him was paint. When he learned that Longwood House, to which he was to move on St. Helena, smelled strongly of paint:

He walked up and down the lawn, gesticulating in the wildest manner. His rage was so great that it almost choked him. He declared that the smell of paint was so obnoxious to him that he would never inhabit a house where it existed. (17)

Las Cases corroborates this story and adds:

In the Imperial palaces, care had been taken never to expose him to it. In his different journeys, the slightest smell of paint frequently rendered it necessary to change the apartments that had been prepared for him; and on board of the Northumberland [the British vessel that took Napoleon to St. Helena] the paint of the ship had made him very ill…. [At Longwood] the smell of the paint was certainly very slight; but it was too much for the Emperor. (18)

8. Napoleon was superstitious.

Napoleon was superstitious and he did not like people who regarded superstition as a weakness. He used to say that none but fools affected to despise it. (19)

A Corsican through and through, Napoleon believed in omens, demons and the concept of luck. He disliked Fridays and the number 13. He considered December 2 – the day of his coronation in 1804 and of his victory at the Battle of Austerlitz in 1805 – one of his lucky days. Upon the occurrence of remarkable incidents, either good or bad, he habitually crossed himself.

9. Napoleon liked to pinch people.

Constant writes:

M. de Bourrienne, whose excellent Memoirs I have read with the greatest pleasure, says somewhere that the Emperor in his moments of good humour would pinch his intimates by the tip of the ear; I have my own experience that he pinched the whole of it, and often both ears at once; and that with a master hand. (20)

[H]e squeezed very roughly…he pinched hardest when he was in the best humor. Sometimes, as I was entering his room to dress him, he would rush at me like a madman, and while saluting me with his favorite greeting: ‘Eh bien, monsieur le drôle?’ would pinch both ears at once in a way to make me cry out; it was not even rare for him to add to these soft caresses one or two slaps very well laid on; I was sure then of finding him in a charming humor all the rest of the day, and full of benevolence. Roustan, and even Marshal Berthier, Prince de Neufchâtel, received their own good share of these imperial marks of affection; I have frequently seen them with their cheeks all red and their eyes almost weeping. (21)

Laure Junot adds,

When Bonaparte indulged in raillery he did not use the weapon with a very light hand; and those he loved best often smarted under the blow. Though Junot was a particular favourite of his during the consulate and the first years of the empire, yet he frequently selected him as the object of some coarse joke; and if accompanied by a pinch of the ear, so severe as to draw blood, the favour was complete. (22)

Even the young were not spared. Betsy Balcombe describes how, playing blind man’s bluff,

The Emperor commenced by creeping stealthily up to me, and giving my nose a very sharp twinge; I knew it was he both from the act itself and from his footstep. (23)

Betsy also writes that Napoleon handled the Montholons’ six-week old baby (Lili) “so awkwardly, that we were in a state of terror lest he should let it fall. He occasionally diverted himself by pinching the little creature’s nose and chin, until it cried.” (24)

10. Napoleon never felt his heart beat.

According to Constant:

A very remarkable peculiarity is that the Emperor never felt his heart beat. He has often said so both to M. Corvisart [Napoleon’s doctor] and to me, and more than once he had us pass our hands over his breast, so that we could make trial of this singular exception; we never felt any pulsation. (25)

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  1. Louis-Joseph Marchand, In Napoleon’s Shadow (San Francisco, 1998), p. 88.
  2. Lucia Elizabeth Balcombe Abell, Recollections of the Emperor Napoleon, during the First Three Years of His Captivity on the Island of St. Helena (London, 1844), pp. 25-26.
  3. Louis Constant Wairy, Memoirs of Constant on the Private Life of Napoleon, his Family and his Court, translated by Elizabeth Gilbert Martin (New York, 1907), Vol. I, p. 331.
  4. Abell, Recollections of the Emperor Napoleon, p. 22.
  5. Lees Knowles, A Gift of Napoleon (London, 1921), p. 18.
  6. Marchand, In Napoleon’s Shadow, p. 636.
  7. Laure Junot Abrantès, Memoirs of the Duchess D’Abrantès (New York, 1832), p. 208.
  8. Louis Antoine Fauvelet de Bourienne, Private Memoirs of Napoleon Bonaparte (Philadelphia, 1831), Vol. I, p. 219.
  9. Norwood Young, Napoleon in Exile: Elba (London, 1914), p. 233.
  10. Abell, Recollections of the Emperor Napoleon, p. 49.
  11. Constant Wairy, Memoirs of Constant on the Private Life of Napoleon, his Family and his Court, Vol. II, p. 10.
  12. Emmanuel-August-Dieudonné de Las Cases, Mémorial de Sainte Hélène: Journal of the Private Life and Conversations of the Emperor Napoleon at Saint Helena (London, 1823), Vol. II, p. 232.
  13. Bourienne, Private Memoirs of Napoleon Bonaparte, Vol. I, p. 269.
  14. Abell, Recollections of the Emperor Napoleon, p. 41.
  15. Louis Étienne Saint-Denis, Napoleon from the Tuileries to St. Helena, translated by Frank Hunter Potter (New York and London, 1922), p. 277.
  16. Anne-Louise-Germaine de Staël, Ten Years’ Exile (London, 1821), p. 60.
  17. Abell, Recollections of the Emperor Napoleon, p. 90.
  18. Las Cases, Mémorial de Sainte Hélène, Vol. I, pp. 14-16.
  19. Armand Augustin Louis de Caulaincourt, Napoleon and His Times (Philadelphia, 1838), Vol. I, p. 173.
  20. Constant Wairy, Memoirs of Constant on the Private Life of Napoleon, his Family and his Court, Vol. I, p. 210.
  21. Ibid., pp. 335-336.
  22. Laure Junot Abrantès, Memoirs of the Duchess D’Abrantès, p. 54.
  23. Abell, Recollections of the Emperor Napoleon, pp. 73-74.
  24. Ibid., pp. 100-101.
  25. Constant Wairy, Memoirs of Constant on the Private Life of Napoleon, his Family and his Court, Vol. I, p. 319.

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Napoleon’s voice was most unmusical, nor do I think he had any ear for music; for neither on this occasion, nor in any of his subsequent attempts at singing, could I ever discover what tune it was he was executing.

Betsy Balcombe