by Christoph Niemann
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By JUDITH PASCOE
Published: May 17, 2007
THE owner of Napoleon’s penis died last Thursday in Englewood, N.J. John K. Lattimer, who’d been a Columbia University professor and a collector of military (and some macabre) relics, also possessed Lincoln’s blood-stained collar and Hermann Göring’s cyanide ampoule. But the penis, which supposedly had been severed by a priest who administered last rites to Napoleon and overstepped clerical boundaries, stood out (sorry) from the professor’s collection of medieval armor, Civil War rifles and Hitler drawings.
The chances that Napoleon’s penis would be excised so that it could become a souvenir were improved by his having lived and died at a moment when the physical remains of celebrities held a strong attraction. Shakespeare didn’t become Shakespeare until the dawn of the romantic period, when his biography was written, his plays annotated and his belongings sought out and preserved. Trees that stood outside the bard’s former homes were felled to provide Shakespearean lumber for tea chests and tobacco stoppers.
After Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo, his possessions toured England. His carriage, filled with enticing contents like a gold tongue scraper, a flesh brush, “Cashimeer small-clothes” and a chocolate pot, drew crowds and inspired the poet Byron to covet a replica. When Napoleon died, the trees that lined his grave site at St. Helena were slivered into souvenirs.
The belief that objects are imbued with a lasting essence of their owners, taken to its logical extreme, led to the mind-set that caused Mary Shelley to keep her husband’s heart, dried to a powder, in her desk drawer. Of course, relic collecting long predates the romantic period; medieval pilgrims sought out fragments of the True Cross. In the aftermath of the Reformation, religious relics that had been ejected from monasteries joined secular collections that freely intermingled belemnites with saints’ finger bones. When Keats died, his hair took on the numinous appeal of a religious artifact.
Napoleon’s penis was not the only Napoleonic body part that became grist for the relic mill. Two pieces of Napoleon’s intestine, acquired by the Museum of the Royal College of Surgeons of England in 1841, provoked a long-simmering debate beginning in 1883. That year, Sir James Paget called the specimens’ authenticity into question, contrasting their seemingly cancerous protrusions to the sound tissue Napoleon’s doctor had earlier described. In 1960, the dispute continued in The Annals of the Royal College of Surgeons of England, long after the intestine pieces had been destroyed during a World War II air raid.
Dr. Lattimer, a urologist, could claim a professional interest in Napoleon’s genitalia. Not so its previous owner, the Philadelphia bookseller and collector A. S. W. Rosenbach, who took a “Rabelaisian delight” in the relic, according to his biographer, Edwin Wolf. When Rosenbach put the penis on display at the Museum of French Art in New York, visitors peered into a vitrine to see something that looked like a maltreated shoelace, or a shriveled eel.
Whether the object prized by Dr. Lattimer was actually once attached to Napoleon may never be resolved. Some historians doubt that the priest could have managed the organ heist when so many people were passing in and out of the emperor’s death chamber. Others suggest he may have removed only a partial sample. If enough people believe in a possibly spurious penis, does it become real?
The pathos of Napoleon’s penis — bandied about over the decades, barely recognizable as a human body part — conjures up the seamier side of the collecting impulse. If, as Freud suggested, the collector is a sexually maladjusted misanthrope, then the emperor’s phallus is a collector’s object nonpareil, the epitome of male potency and dominance. The ranks of Napoleon enthusiasts, it should be noted, include many alpha males: Bill Gates, Newt Gingrich, Stanley Kubrick, Winston Churchill, Augusto Pinochet. Nevertheless, the Freudian paradigm has never accounted for women collectors, nor does it explain the appeal of collections for artists like Lisa Milroy, whose paintings of cabinet handles or shoes, arrayed in series, animate these common objects.
It’s time to let Napoleon’s penis rest in peace. Museums are quietly de-accessioning the human remains of indigenous peoples so that body parts can be given proper burial rites. Napoleon’s penis, too, should be allowed to go home and rejoin the rest of his captivating body.