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The Mystery of Napoleon's Body That Isn't

by Bruno Van de Casteele

June 21, 2015

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Donate This week we remember (especially in Europe) the 200th anniversary of Napoleon's ultimate battle (and defeat) at Waterloo, Belgium. Napoleon is a famous and infamous figure in Europe. He was both a brutal dictator—responsible for the death of thousands of people—and an enlightened despot. For instance, much of law in France and Belgium (where I live) is still based on the legal code he implemented. It sure makes for a bizarre reading when a ministerial dispatch mentions the laws applicable, and refers even to the French Revolutionary Calendar for its date of implementation!

Given the impact Napoleon had and continues to have, it is no wonder that he, too, has a fair share of conspiracy theories attached to him. I won't talk here about Napoleon's cause of death, partially because I have the impression that there a lot of complex but valid arguments in favor and against the British being directly or indirectly responsible for the demise of the former Emperor. Instead I will mention a more preposterous one, namely that Napoleon's body was switched with another body (that of his majordomo) and buried elsewhere. Some theories even have him not dying at all, but silently leaving his exile in St. Helena and going to the United States. That one makes even for a mildly enjoyable film, Monsieur N (2003).

But first the facts (as can be found on Wikipedia, Fondation Napoleon, and The Napoleon Bonaparte Podcast). Napoleon died on May 5, 1821 on St. Helena, a British territory, an Atlantic island west of present-day Angola. He was buried four days later near the house where he lived. In 1840, then-French-president, and the emperor's nephew, Louis-Napoleon asked and obtained permission from the British to move his remains to France. His body, which was remarkably (but not miraculously) preserved, was returned to France and laid to rest in Les Invalides where it still remains to this day.

According to the Fondation Napoleon, the alternative theory was first launched in 1969. Georges Rétif de la Bretonne claims that Napoleon's body was switched between 1821 and 1840 by the British. Napoleon's body would have been interred in Westminster Abbey (in an unmarked grave), and the body of his majordomo and childhood friend, Franceschi Cipriani, was put in his stead. That guy had died suddenly in 1818 and there are some theories that he, too, was assassinated. Now it would be hard to re-dress a body that was dead for several years, so some variants even claim he was still alive in 1821 and either sacrificed himself (so that the emperor could flee the island) or was killed by some other sinister plot at that moment. Given that the island was under control by the British and Napoleon was extremely well guarded (especially at the end), that seems unlikely. However, it doesn't help that Cipriani's tomb could not be located in 1840 in order to repatriate him. So this constitutes "proof," according to Rétif (and some historians after him), that it is the body of his majordomo that is interred in Les Invalides, and not Napoleon himself.

On what is the hypothesis based? Again, the Fondation Napoleon summarizes it very well:
  • Different reports on the number of coffins Napoleon was buried in. All reports mention four(!), one valet mentions only three in a log.

  • However, all reports agree that in 1840, four coffins were present. Therefore, at least according to the supposition, there had been a switch.

And that's it. The whole conspiracy is basically based on one witness account ignoring all the others. The author states that there must have been a switch, and Cipriani's body was placed in its stead. Quite shoddy evidence, accompanied with a mighty non-sequitur: an error in the number of coffins proves a switch. Furthermore, as the Fondation Napoleon points out, the valet, Louis Joseph Marchand, did not know a fourth coffin would be delivered when he wrote his log, and in his memoirs he did write about four coffins.

There is another argument, which isn't well known, and it's based on Napoleon's death mask. Multiple exemplars exist (though I don't know if they are all copies of one original, or if multiple death masks were taken), and one (at least according to historian Bruno Roy-Henry) doesn't show a scar on Napoleon's left cheek, confirmed by a painting and another death mask. Now this may be true (the mask might be a forgery or retouched), but it doesn't prove the rest of the story as Roy-Henry implied. Looks more like anomaly hunting to me.

There would, of course, be a perfect proof that Napoleon is resting in Les Invalides, and that is what these conspiracy mongers asked for. They requested in 2002 that his tomb be opened, but this was refused. Rightly so, I think. The refusal was based on a technicality, stating that only the descendants can agree to such a thing. To me, however, this would also be at an enormous cost to prove basically something we already know. We have not only detailed reports of his death and burial (so no switching possible there), but there were also very detailed reports of the 1840 exhumation by British and French officials, which found that the tomb hadn't been opened before. People who had known Napoleon (even those present at his death) did formally recognize the former Emperor. His body was quite well preserved; but given the layers of coffins and the place of burial, not exceptional. And the uniform and the decorations matched. There is also a small sample of Napoleon's face preserved in the Paris Army Museum, but for the same technicality as above, no DNA analysis has been allowed.

There are many ad-hoc arguments defending these claims. For instance, it is supposed that both French and English governments were in on the alleged switch (and still are), even the supremely unlikely culprit, Louis-Napoleon himself. But every such defense makes the initial hypothesis more and more unlikely, because at its base it's just anomaly hunting, looking for a mystery that isn't there.

by Bruno Van de Casteele

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