Snuffing out Napoleon

An Irishman’s Diary about one of Dublin’s cult tourist attractions

The Royal College of Physicians in Kildare Street boasts two of Napoleon’s snuff boxes. More impressively, maybe, it also houses a toothbrush that served the deposed emperor during his exile.

The Royal College of Physicians in Kildare Street boasts two of Napoleon’s snuff boxes. More impressively, maybe, it also houses a toothbrush that served the deposed emperor during his exile.

Thu, Aug 28, 2014, 01:00

On foot of yesterday’s column about killer wallpaper in the 19th century, a reader reminds me that the same menace was, and in some quarters remains, a suspect in the death of Napoleon.

This is true. Officially, the exiled emperor died from stomach cancer. But rumours persisted long afterwards that he was poisoned, deliberately or otherwise. And it is known that the wallpaper in his St Helena bedroom contained one of the arsenic-based green dyes – Scheele’s Green – that in certain conditions give off a toxic gas. This might well have been the “bad air” that Napoleon and his retinue blamed for their various ailments on the South Atlantic island. Furthermore, analysis of the emperor’s surviving hair samples have indeed since found high levels of arsenic.

But as far as I can establish, these were attributed to chronic accumulation over a long period, including some from what was then standard medical treatment. Also, the levels were not enough to kill, although suggestions to the contrary still emerge now and then, especially when pieces of the St Helena wallpaper turn up for auction, as one did again earlier this year.

Arsenical gases aside, Napoleon was famous for inhaling things. The historian Norman Davies has called him an “unabashed odomane”: a French term whose meaning eludes any of the dictionaries I own, but for which Davies offers several helpful hints.

One is the fact that, in a letter home to Josephine once, Bonaparte begged her “not to bathe for two weeks before they met, so that he could enjoy all her natural aromas”.

Another of his favourite smells, not quite so personal, was of a certain cologne water made from orange flowers. He loved it so much that, in a single year (1810), he ordered 162 bottles. And his olfactory passions extended to violets too. When Josephine died, he planted a bunch on her grave and simultaneously had some put into a locket, which he wore for the rest of his life.

On a less romantic note, his imperial nose was also much given to the intake of snuff. Or at least he bought prodigious amounts of the powdered tobacco. And he had a large collection of boxes to hold it, even if, as it appears, very little of their contents ended up in his nostrils. Witnesses reported that he would always merely hold a pinch of snuff under his nose and, after inhaling, drop it, leaving a tobacco trail everywhere he went. He also amused himself by feeding it to the deer at his chateau. So they may have had more of a nicotine habit than he did.

In any case, it is to this habit that Dublin owes part of one of its more curious tourist attractions. The Royal College of Physicians in Kildare Street boasts two of Napoleon’s snuff boxes. More impressively, maybe, it also houses a toothbrush that served the deposed emperor during his exile.

The items were presented by him to his then surgeon, the Dubliner Barry O’Meara, whom he first encountered aboard the HMS Bellerophon, the ship on which Napoleon surrendered after Waterloo. O’Meara subsequently accepted his invitation to St Helena, and for three years provided him not just with medical supervision but with the cultivated company that was otherwise in short supply on the island.

Their friendship cost O’Meara in the short term. The enmity of the island governor forced his early departure and then deprived him of his state job. But in the interim, as well as the aforementioned gifts, he had inherited two things from Napoleon that proved valuable in his future career.

One was a tooth, extracted after it caused the former emperor months of suffering. The other was a book, based on a diary that Napoleon had suggested he keep, predicting it would one day make his fortune.

Published after the emperor’s death (as requested), the book was indeed a best-seller and also made O’Meara a big success on the lecture circuit. In the meantime, he had reinvented himself as a London dentist, displaying the Napoleonic denture in his surgery window as a letter of reference.

The tooth, or something purporting to be the tooth (there were doubts about provenance), sold at auction in the UK a few years ago for £11,000. The toothbrush and snuff boxes, however, remain safely in a display box in Kildare Street. You can see visit them whenever the Royal College of Physicians is open. But today, as part of National Heritage Week, there are a series of escorted tours, for which you may still book via the college website, at rcpilibrary.blogspot.ie

@FrankmcnallyIT

fmcnally@irishtimes.com

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