The French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte is buried in a crypt in Paris but if you want to see his “death mask” you need only go as far as New Orleans.
Earlier this week, as a brass band was blowing a loud and cheery tune in Jackson Square, in the heart of the French Quarter, I paid my six dollar admission and entered the Louisiana State Museum’s handsome Cabildo building.
On the second floor, past exhibits on colonial hurricanes and pre-Civil War musketry is a stately room with polished wood floors and a long thin wooden table. It was in this room, some 209 years ago, that the Louisiana Purchase was signed and the United States doubled the size of its territory. It’s also in this room that rests a shiny bronze bust encased in glass. According to the museum placard, this is an exact mold of Napoleon’s face, made 40 hours after he died by Dr. Francesco Carlo Antommarchi, the emperor’s personal physician. But is it really..?
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Nearly everything about Napoleon’s death is shrouded in mystery. In 1815, Napoleon was exiled to Saint Helena, a volcanic island in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean and a British territory. Initially, he lived in an estate belonging to William Balcombe. But when Napoleon befriended Balcombe and his younger daughter, Lucia Elizabeth, British authorities grew wary and moved him to a rotting manor called the Longwood House. It was damp and windswept and Napoleon was convinced its horrendous condition was destroying his health. He was overseen by an austere man named Hudson Lowe, who barred the delivery of gifts that mentioned Napoleon’s imperial status and reduced his available income.
In 1818, London newspapers reported that Napoleon had escaped. It was a false rumor but over the years there were indeed a number of attempts to free the former emperor from his damp island prison. A British man named Lord Cochrane aimed to rescue Napoleon and install him as leader of a new empire in South America. A group of exiled Texas soldiers wanted to ferry him away to the United States, where he would lead a Napoleonic Empire in America. Others planned a harebrained rescue operation using a primitive submarine. But none of the rescue attempts ever got off the ground and Napoleon remained trapped on Saint Helena.
By 1821 his health was failing rapidly. On May 5th of that year he died, at the age of 51. Antommarchi performed an autopsy which revealed a stomach ulcer. He determined the cause of death to be stomach cancer, which is what Napoleon’s father had died of. In later years, a number of conspiracy theories blossomed, the leading one being that Napoleon was poisoned with arsenic. The results of new toxicology tests, some performed as recently as 2008, have laid the arsenic poisoning theory to rest. Perhaps the greatest mystery behind Napoleon’s death lies in his death mask.
Molds have been made from the faces of the dead since Egyptian times but the practice became particularly popular in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in Europe. Typically, it was influential thinkers and popular statesmen who prompted death masks. As the placard in the Louisiana State Museum indicates, Napoleon’s official death mask was made by Antommarchi. In 1834, the doctor moved to New Orleans and presented the death mask to city officials. They displayed it in the Cabildo, along with the instruments Antommarchi had used to conduct the autopsy. He practiced medicine in New Orleans for four years then in 1838, moved to Mexico.
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Meanwhile, Napoleon’s death mask went on a journey of its own. In 1853, city officials moved the death mask from the Cabildo to Gallier Hall. During the Civil War the mask was lost. In 1866, a former city treasurer spotted it in a junk wagon being hauled to the dump. The man took it home and displayed it on his mantle. Eventually, the death mask wound up in Atlanta, in the home of a Louisiana native named Captain William Greene Raoul, who was president of the Mexican National Railroad. In 1909, Raoul read a newspaper article about the missing mask and wrote the mayor of New Orleans, informing him of its whereabouts. Raoul gave the mask back to the city as a donation. It would be a nice and tidy story, except some experts believe the face behind Antommarchi’s mask did not belong to Napoleon at all, but a man named Francois Eugene Robeaud, who occasionally doubled for the emperor.
A website operated by a forensic artist and sculptor named Barbara Anderson explains that Antommarchi’s death mask had a “youthful look” and the shape of the face was bigger and proportionately different than that in portraits of the emperor. According to her, the face was actually that of the Emperor’s valet, Jean-Baptiste Cipriani. But her story says that this false death mask is not on display in Louisiana but at Les Invalides, in Paris, near the sarcophagus where Napoleon’s remains are held. Anderson suggests the true Napoleon death mask may have been made by another one of his physicians, Dr. Francis Burton. This cast was apparently stolen by an attendant to Napoleon named Madame Bertrand. She sailed back to England, taking the mask with her. It ended up on display at a small military museum in London, though in 1973 the museum closed and the mask was sold. The mask was then transferred to the British Museum.
And what about the death mask in the Louisiana State Museum? Nowhere on Anderson’s site is it mentioned. Could the face of Napoleon Bonaparte, frozen in time some 40 hours after his death, really be resting behind glass in a museum in southern Louisiana? I pondered this all as I stared at the shiny bronze mask. Afternoon sunlight slanted through spectacularly tall glass windows and crept across the floor. In the square below, the brass band continued their loud and cheery tune. I suppose one will never know for sure.