Napoleon’s legacy: ashes, tombs and DNA

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October 15, 1840: Napoleon's coffin was lifted on board La Belle Poule.

In perhaps the same way that Americans prattle on about the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the French never tire of the death of Napoleon Bonaparte.

In fairness, the circumstances surrounding the Little Corporal’s later years, death and burial are…unusual. At age 46, he was exiled to the godforsaken island of St. Helena. He was still under English custody when he died, five years later, of stomach cancer, and the Brits refused his final wish: to be buried on the banks of the Seine. So the body of Europe’s most famous emperor was buried, sans pomp, underneath three stone slabs and two droopy willow trees.

He was there for nearly two decades before the British changed their minds. On July 7, 1840, British and French representatives boarded La Belle Poule frigate—painted black for the occasion—to begin the journey that would later be called le retour des cendres: the return of the ashes. On December 15, the day after Napoleon’s body arrived in Paris, a formal funeral procession carried it from l’Arc de Triomphe, down the Champs-Élysées, and finally, to St. Jerome’s Chapel at Les Invalides. Twenty-one years later, he was moved one last time, to a new sarcophagus under the dome at Les Invalides.

Those are the facts. Now for some legends.

When the sailors reached St. Helena and dug up Napoleon, they were shocked to find his body in pristine condition. This fueled the rumors—still rampant today—that the British had slowly poisoned him with arsenic, which is apparently a fantastic preservative. (Scientists rejuvenated this theory with a chemical analysis published in Nature in 1961.)

An abbot, while delivering last rites, lopped off Napoleon’s penis (which was last bought at auction in 1969, for $38,000, by American urologist John Kingsley Lattimer, maybe).

On the two-month trip from St. Helena to Paris, the body was transferred twice to different boats, giving plenty of opportunities for a switcheroo. Some claim that the corpse lying in Les Invalides is not Napoleon, but one of his St. Helena caretakers.

Most historians dismiss the poisoning, penectomy and body-switching stories as false—conspiracy theories that just won’t die. Studies in 2007 and 2008 knocked down the poisoning story by showing that Napoleon (like many of his contemporaries) had been exposed to high levels of arsenic since childhood.

Now, a study in Investigative Genetics offers a way to dispel the other two myths.

Molecular anthropologist Gérard Lucotte sequenced the mitochondrial DNA (which lives inside the energy powerhouses of each of our cells and is passed on only through mothers) of authentic Napoleonic hairs. He found a variant—a T nucleotide in the spot where a C normally goes—that crops up in just 0.00008% of people of European descent. Lucotte found exactly the same oddity in hair samples from Napoleon’s mother, Letizia, and youngest sister, Caroline, and did not find it in hair from his lab technician, which means the results are almost certainly not spurious.

So, to prove that Napoleon really is buried in Napoleon’s tomb, all someone would have to do is exhume the body, pluck a hair from its scalp, and screen for this rare variant in the mitochondrial DNA. Pulling up the body would also reveal whether Napoleon is missing his, uh, bonaparte. If so, then Dr. Lattimer could opt for a genetic authentication of his favorite objet trouvé.

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Painting: Le transfert des cendres de Napoléon à bord de La Belle Poule, by Louis Eugène Gabriel Isabey. Available in gloriously larger resolution at Wikimedia Commons.

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7 thoughts on “Napoleon’s legacy: ashes, tombs and DNA

  1. “…all someone would have to do…”

    Might I suggest a ticket to de Gaulle, some dark clothing, a ski mask and some serious excavation equipment, with a follow-up post in 4-6 weeks?

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