Napoleon was arguably the greatest general in history. Even the Duke of Wellington, who famously defeated him at the Battle of Waterloo, claimed “his presence in the field made the difference of 40,000 men”. But there are many myths about Bonaparte ‒ who conquered most of Europe before his downfall in 1815 ‒ and the fate of his penis is one such myth.
The story goes that after Napoleon died in 1821, Dr Francois Antommarchi concluded the autopsy by removing his penis.
He is then said to have given the general’s member to Father Ange-Paul Vignali, the priest responsible for giving Napoleon his last rites.
Vignali’s relatives are said to have sold the penis and, in 1977, it came into the possession of urologist Karl Lattimer, from Philadelphia.
Only 10 people have been allowed to see Napoleon’s penis since it was acquired by Lattimer, although X-rays have been conducted and his son, Evan Lattimer, claimed that the penis is “very small”.
The penis, which was not properly preserved, has been compared over the years to a piece of leather, a shriveled eel and even beef jerky.
In 1927 when it went on display in New York, TIME Magazine compared it to a “maltreated strip of buckskin shoelace”.
However, the story is merely an example of a mistranslation.
Historical author Shannon Selin points out that the auction catalogue, when Napoleon’s penis was originally listed in 1924, claimed that the object was verified by a memoir called Revue des Deux Mondes.
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She notes that: “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.
“‘Une côte’ is a rib.
“Nowhere in the memoir does it say that Napoleon’s penis was removed.”
The fate of his penis is not the only myth about Bonaparte, though.
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He is also largely portrayed as having been a short, stubborn tyrant ‒ but this is a result of British propaganda.
After all, the Frenchman’s European conquests represented the greatest single threat to British global hegemony after the Industrial Revolution.
Britain and France were the two great powers of the age, the former with its booming industrial economy and world-leading navy and the latter with its intellectual superiority in the form of Enlightenment thinking.
The late 18th and early 19th century, then, saw a period of almost perpetual war between Europe’s two dominant forces.
And before 1805, with French armies running rampant across Europe, the threat of a Napoleonic invasion of Britain was very real.
This was convincingly nullified after the Battle of Trafalgar, when Nelson decimated the French fleet and landlocked Napoleon’s forces to continental Europe.
But the threat remained ‒ and Napoleon was the living, breathing embodiment of opposition to the British Empire in this period.
Just as Adolf Hitler was before and after World War 2, Napoleon was the butt of jokes, cartoons, games and political point-scoring.
British cartoonists such as James Gillray often mocked him, depicting him dwarfed by a cocked hat.
This is originally where the image of his short physique came from as he was nicknamed ‘Le Petit Corporal’ or the Anglified ‘Little Boney’.
The infamy of his small frame even gave birth to the ‘Napoleon Complex’ ‒ the idea that people of short stature might compensate by becoming more aggressive.
But Napoleon was 5’7” and actually a tall man for the era as he was above average height.
Like the fate of his penis, the myth of his short stature was solidified by a mistranslation.
At the time of his death, the French definition of a foot was larger than Britain’s.
So when a French doctor conducted Napoleon’s autopsy he registered Le Petit Corporal’s height as 5’2”.
British newspapers reported this directly, even though an accurate translation would equate to 5’7”.
But that was it, the myth was born, and Napoleon will forever be remembered as the short, stubborn French general who had all of Europe in his grasp but ultimately failed at Wellington’s hand.
He died in exile on the island of Saint Helena in the South Atlantic on May 5, 1821.
In 1840, Louis Philippe I obtained permission from the British to return Napoleon to France.
His remains are now entombed in a porphyry stone sarcophagus in the crypt in the dome of Les Invalides in Paris.
For legendary English poet Lord Byron, Napoleon was the epitome of the Romantic hero ‒ the persecuted, lonely, and flawed genius.