Brandon Cuatatl ’22 and Ellery Foutch (Winter 2021)
Transcription: “Bonaparte’s Hair: Procured from a sea captain when his remains were brought from St. Helena, by him given to Capt. Lot Chamberlain of Lake Champlain, his Widow gave it to J.K. Seaver of Malone N.Y.”
While most of the objects featuring hair on this website have been carefully and often intricately arranged, this specimen is instead an unruly tangle of several strands of hair that have been fitted into a narrow glass tube sealed with a cork. It has been affixed to a card by loops of string that encircle the vial and pierce the card beneath. A painstaking inscription in Henry Sheldon’s handwriting indicates it is the hair of Napoleon Bonaparte (1759-1821), the famous and infamous military leader and Emperor. While many of the works we studied were created by women who have largely disappeared from the historical record or who elude the archives, there is a wealth of archival resources, secondary scholarship, and material artifacts related to Napoleon Bonaparte. Some subjects were lucky to secure a single hit in keyword searches of databases; books and articles about Napoleon could fill dozens of library shelves, while his visage is represented in hundreds of portraits and countless caricatures and political cartoons: an overwhelming array of materials. Alternately celebrated and reviled, Napoleon’s legacy is a complex one, and Henry Sheldon no doubt relished the opportunity to have a physical artifact related to him in his museum.
This artifact certainly traveled a long way: from the remote British-held island of Saint Helena, in the South Atlantic Ocean between southwestern Africa and Brazil, making its way to rural inland Vermont, a distance of some 9,580 km or around 6000 miles. After his defeat at Waterloo and his abdication of the throne, Napoleon lived in exile on this remote island until his death on May 5, 1821, at the age of 51. Significantly, his hair has played an important role in ongoing debates about his cause of death and the possibility that he might have been poisoned with arsenic. Most historians (and forensic scientists) now agree that his cause of death was indeed stomach cancer, and although his hair contained extraordinarily high levels of arsenic, these levels were consistent in hair samples obtained over the last decades of his life, ruling out the likelihood of poisoning (Knight; Kintz et al; Hindmarsh and Savory).
According to Henry Sheldon’s label, an unnamed “Sea Captain” gave this specimen of Napoleon’s hair to Vermont native Lot Chamberlain (1810-1872), captain of many steamers that navigated Lake Champlain. Beyond his occupation, military service, and public service as onetime sheriff of Clinton County, NY, his obituary recounted, “Chamberlain was a man of great energy of character, and he possessed a heart full of tenderness and kindness for everyone. Whether in the family, social circle, on board a steamer, or at a political meeting, his presence and smiles were a perpetual sunshine. His songs, his kind words, and his kind deeds will be remembered till the present generation shall pass away.” His widow, Elizabeth Call Chamberlain (1810-1881), in turn gave the object to “J.K. Seaver” of Malone, NY: John Kinsley Seaver. Like Henry Sheldon, J.K. Seaver was born in Salisbury, Vermont (Middlebury Register 14 Aug. 1896). In 1847, he moved to Ludlow, Vermont and began work with the Genius of Liberty, an anti-slavery publication helmed by Reverend Aaron Angier (The Landmark [White River Junction], 27 Mar. 1896). By 1854, Seaver was in Malone, New York, collaborating with his brother Joel J. Seaver to publish that town’s newspaper, The Palladium (Seaver, 461). In the 1890s, he was touring Vermont with a phonograph, and he came through Middlebury somewhat frequently, often donating items to Henry Sheldon’s growing museum. The two men seem to have had a mutual interest in early New England publications; in 1885 and again in 1892, Seaver donated early books and pamphlets to Sheldon (“a Harvard College poem printed 1799,” sermons, and the like). In late August of 1892, Seaver gave Sheldon a Bronze Medal struck in commemoration of the fiftieth anniversary of photography and the daguerreotype, likely knowing Sheldon’s interest in numismatics (HLS, List of Donations, 1889-1907). And in January of 1896, Sheldon’s ledger notes that J.K. Seaver had “Loaned [him] a lock of hair from Napoleon I.”
Seaver died suddenly later that year; news reports suggested he had died in his sleep while on vacation at Lake Placid in August of 1896 (“Northern New York”). It seems likely that his widow transferred the loan into a gift; further research into archival correspondence might yield additional insights.
Dozens of collections claim to have a lock of Napoleon’s hair, and many articles about those relics include the (possibly apocryphal) observation of Comte Flahaut: “I have seen so many locks of hair purporting to be that of the Emperor over the last 20 years, I could have carpeted Versailles with it.” Indeed, in addition to the many samples found in private collections, dozens of museums and libraries boast their own locks; periodically, locks purporting to be Napoleon’s hair enter the market and claim high prices. Shortly before our Winter 2021 class began, another sample of Napoleon’s hair was sold at an auction house in Connecticut.
Many of these objects are accompanied by notes that detail how the hair was obtained, often by friends or military men visiting Napoleon in exile on St. Helena. Napoleon also specified that his hair should be shorn to make mourning jewelry for his loved ones after his death: “‘Marchand [Valet de Chambre] is to preserve my hair. He should have it made into bracelets with small gold clasps to be sent to the Empress Marie-Louise, to my mother, and to each of my brothers, sisters, nephew, and nieces, to the cardinal, and a larger one to my son'” (trans. & qtd. in Rifelj, 226). As we can see, though, these examples of Napoleon’s hair are brown or reddish-brown, in keeping with his appearance in surviving portraits. The hair in Sheldon’s glass vial is faded, nearly white. It’s possible that the hair could have faded over time. A similarly-faded or pale lock of hair is in the collection of the Saffron Waldon Museum in Essex (England).
Like the example of the Sheldon Museum, this hair is also faded to nearly white. Yet the story of Sheldon’s lock suggests a slightly different story. Rather than invoking the tale of being shorn from Napoleon’s head on his deathbed, or shortly after his death, Sheldon’s tag notes it was procured “when his remains were brought from St. Helena.” In 1840, Napoleon’s remains were removed from his burial site at St. Helena and repatriated to France, a journey that is often referred to as the retour des cendres (today, Napoleon’s body rests in Paris, at the Dôme des Invalides). As part of this process, Napoleon’s tomb was exhumed and his casket opened to reveal a surprisingly well-preserved body (likely due to his high levels of arsenic, a known preservative often used in taxidermy); illustrations of the event (likely taking some artistic license!) depict the Emperor as nearly unchanged in appearance, with his hair and uniform as they appeared during his life. Yet Napoleon’s body was under close observation and guard throughout this process, so it is unlikely that someone could furtively obtain a relic of Napoleon’s body (like a lock of hair) during this process. Furthermore, many sources indicate that Napoleon’s head was shaved shortly after his death, not only to provide for the mourning jewelry he wished to send to his family, but also in preparation for the making of his death mask.
Why do we save people’s hair? It is often a sign of endearment, with the preservation of a lock of hair of a loved one as a physical link to their presence. Yet there are also collections of the hair of famous people and historical figures: John Varden‘s “Hair of U.S. Presidents,” Peter A. Browne‘s specimens of hair (from political leaders to animals), Leigh Hunt’s Hair Book, all of which were assembled in the nineteenth century. Like collecting autographs, the drive to collect locks of hair of political leaders, authors, and scholars might be part of an attempt to gain proximity to centers of power, an almost reliquary-like connection to the physical trace of these honored human beings. Beyond their published writings or military deeds, these locks of hair are testaments to their existence, their marks on human history, and ultimately, their shared human vulnerability. Napoleon’s hair evokes the rise and fall of a grand emperor and serves as a reminder that death is the great equalizer.
Cite this essay: Brandon Cuatatl and Ellery Foutch, “Napoleon’s Hair,” in Perspectives on Hairwork: Historic Vermont, ed. Ellery Foutch (Winter 2021): https://elleryfoutch.middcreate.net/hairwork/napoleons-hair/ [date accessed]
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