A Lost Heart: Napoleon and the Rats

A Lost Heart: Napoleon and the Rats napoleon deathbed

A Lost Heart: Napoleon and the Rats

6-7 May 1821: Napoleon Bonaparte is autopsied, embalmed, and coffined.

There have been numerous stories—some true, some not–about Napoleon’s death: that he was deliberately poisoned, that there were four or so different attempts to take a death mask, that the man who died on St. Helena was actually the Emperor’s double, and that the Imperial penis was removed and eventually sold at auction.

Today we shake up the sealed jar of clouded liquid that is history and look at one more Napoleonic body-part rumor: the story that Bonaparte’s heart was eaten by a rat and the heart of a sheep substituted.

There are several accounts of the autopsy, performed on 6 May:

There is a good deal of controversy about the autopsy, its attendees, its conclusions and chroniclers. The official cause of death was stomach cancer, something that seems eminently logical to us today, as his grandfather, father, brother and several of his sisters died of it. Napoleon had himself requested an autopsy to confirm his suspicions and so his son could be warned if cancer was actually found.

Napoleon had wished to have his heart preserved and sent to his estranged wife, Empress Marie- Louise. Sir Thomas Reade wrote Sir Hudson Lowe that, as he had no instructions on this point, he allowed the heart to remain outside the body and awaited Sir Hudson’s instructions.  The heart was said to have been ultimately enclosed in Napoleon’s coffin, along with other organs in sealed containers.

Here is the sensational revelation about the cardiac catastrophe—as syndicated in the US Press:


A Ghastly Story About Napoleon the Great

At Plougastel[-Saint -Germain], in Brittany, there is living an English physician named Thomas Cartwell, aged eighty-two years, who tells travelers a strange story, in which he says he figured as a principal actor.

On the 5th of May, 1821, Napoleon the Great died at Longwood, St. Helena, after causing Sir Hudson Lowe so much unhappiness that he went crazy, and, returning to England, lost all his fortune in extravagant speculations in stocks. The Emperor’s last companions, Bertrand, Montholon, Gourgaud, and Las Cases, immediately made a demand for a physician expert in the science of embalming. Sir Hudson Lowe, who shrank from no expense, sent a physician, an Italian named Antomarchi, who had attended the Emperor when he was troubled with a sty in his eye [Actually Antommarchi was one of Napoleon’s primary physicians.] The doctor hastened to his work, but certain instruments were needed. He required at least two assistants, &c., Sir Hudson Lowe made haste to supply all his demands. He sent a boat to an English frigate, at anchor in the offing, with a request for two naval surgeons, supplied with everything required of the embalming process.

One of the two persons sent was a youth of twenty years, well educated and full of ambition, and he was received on the island as Assistant Surgeon Thomas Cartwell. He and his comrade hastened to assist Dr. Antomarchi. About four in the afternoon of May 6th the work was begun. The corpse of Napoleon I. was lifted from the little bed where he had died and placed on a  long-marble-topped able which was still intact when, in 1858, Napoleon III bought, with Government funds, the small house in which had died the man whom he persisted in making the public believe to have been his uncle. [There were rumors that Napoleon’s brother, Louis Bonaparte, was not really Napoleon III’s father.] The embalming was begun when night came and interrupted it. Antomarchi and his assistants agreed that the completion of it must be postponed until the next morning. They determined to go to bed and resume their work at daybreak. First they covered the Emperor’s body with a white cloth which they sprinkled and saturated with certain liquids to prevent putrefaction. The various internal organs that had been removed were placed in metal cups on the operating table. Then the three operators went to their room and slept profoundly.

They had hardly been asleep an hour when Marchand, the valet of the dead Emperor, knocked at Cartwell’s door, calling out: “Come down, sir, quick! A great misfortune has just happened.?

“What is it?” said the young surgeon, appearing in his uniform.

“Oh, sir, the Emperor’s heart has been eaten up by rats!”

It was true the island was infested with rats. They were as thick as the English. While Marchand was out of the room rats had rushed in, and finding the heart of the conqueror of Austerlitz in a basin, had made but a mouthful of it. The valet, on returning to the room, saw them scamper away, and all he could do was to announce the irreparable loss.

What was now to be done? The physicians met and consulted. It was impossible to conceal the absence of the organ that had been eaten up, the operation of embalming having been begun before witnesses, who had seen it. To confess the accident was to expose Marchand to severe rebuke, and the poor fellow was already wretched enough. A happy though occurred to Cartwell.

“If we could only get a sheep’s heart,” he suggested to Antomarchi with excessive caution. All the four persons present looked at one another nervously, hesitated, and then began to laugh together like four Roman augurs. They understood one another. Marchand ran to a neighboring farm, killed a sheep, and brought back its heart still warm and palpitating.

On the next day, the 7th of May, Antomarchi and his assistants, in the presence of General Bertrand and M. De Montholon, finished the embalming of the Emperor without any person among his suite in the least suspecting the extraordinary performance of the night before. If the story is true, and if the old retired English Ex-Surgeon of Plogastel is not a joker, the heart of the sheep of St. Helena has been resting for thirty-three years under the dome of the Invalides!

Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 18 October 1879: p. 12

Another, perhaps more plausible story, introduces Dr. Archibald Arnott, one of Napoleon’s physicians, who assisted at the autopsy and embalming.


When Bonaparte died at St. Helena, it is well known that his heart was extracted, with the design of being preserved. The British physician who had charge of that wondrous organ, had deposited it in a silver basin, among water, and retired to rest, leaving two tapers burning beside it in his chamber. He often confesses to his friends, while narrating the particulars, that he felt nervously anxious, as the custodian of such a deposit; and though he reclined, he did not sleep. While lying thus awake, he heard during the silence of the night, first a rustling noise, then a plunge among the water in the basin; and then the sound of an object falling with a rebound on the floor, all occurring with the quickness of thought.

Dr. A sprang from his bed, and the cause of the intrusion on his repose was soon explained—it was an enormous rat dragging the heart of Bonaparte to its hole. A few moments more, and that which before had been too vast in its ambition to be satisfied with the sovereignty of continental Europe, would have been found, even in a more degrading position than the dust of Caesar stopping a beer barrel—it would have been devoured as the supper of a rat.

The Adams Sentinel [Gettsyburg, PA] 5 February 1844: p. 4

Napoleon and the Rats on St. Helena.

Napoleon and the Rats on St. Helena.

There is no question that the rats of St. Helena were notorious. In addition to theories about murder and green wallpaper, it has been suggested that the arsenic found in Napoleon’s hair came there through exposure to rat poison. Here is an extract from the memoirs of Dr. O’Meara, one of Napoleon’s physicians, who left the island before Napoleon’s final days.

“Went along with Captain Poppleton, Capt. Fuller, Impett, and other officers of the 53rd to a rat hunt in the camp, which was conducted in the following manner. Some soldiers had been furnished with spades and began to dig close by a ditch and a wall, which were infested with rats. Two dogs were in waiting and we were provided with sticks. As soon as the rats found their premises moving about them, they sallied out and endeavoured to make their escape. They were then attacked by the dogs and men, and a most animated scene of confusion took place, the rats trying to get into other holes, and the others pursuing and striking at them in every direction, and hitting each other’s legs in their eagerness to reach their prey. Some of the rats turned upon the assailants, and made a desperate resistance. Fourteen of them were killed in less than half an hour. The rats were in numbers almost incredible at Longwood. I have frequently seen them assemble, like broods of chickens, round the offal thrown out of kitchens. The floors, and wooden partitions that separated the rooms, were perforated with holes in every direction. The partitions being fur the most part double, and of one inch deal, afforded a space between them, sufficiently large to admit a rat to move with facility. It is difficult for any person who has not actually heard it, to form an idea of the noise caused by these animals running up and down between the partitions, and galloping in flocks in the garrets. At night, when disturbed by their entrance into my chamber, and by their running over me in bed, I have frequently thrown my boots, the bootjack, and every thing I could readily reach, at them, without intimidating them in the slightest degree, to effect which, I have been, at last, obliged to get out of bed, to drive them away. We amused ourselves sometimes in the evening by removing the pieces of tin which were nailed over their holes, and allowing them sufficient time to enter, when the servants, armed with sticks, and followed by dogs, rushed in, covered the holes, and attacked the rats, which frequently made a desperate resistance, and bit the assailants severely. However good the dogs may have been at first, they generally became indifferent or unwilling to attack those noxious animals; and the same may be said of the cats. Poisoning them was impracticable, as the smell of their putrid carcasses would render the rooms uninhabitable. Indeed in more instances than one, it has been necessary to open a partition for the purpose of extracting the body of a rat that had died there, and had caused an insupportable stench.

Napoleon in Exile: Or, A Voice from St. Helena, Barry Edward O’Meara, Esq., His Late Surgeon, 1885.

The story of the sheep’s heart apparently did not originate with Cartwell/Carswell.

“It is related in several books and contemporary volumes narrating the gossip of the period, though how it originated is not certain. Our Paris correspondent mentions Doctor Bremond’s “Hygiene Pour Tous” as the authority at present quoted. But it is believed that the scandal was in circulation not many years after Napoleon’s death, and as it is now impossible either to confirm or refute the assertion, the tale may be taken for what it is worth.”

The Irish Times [Dublin, Ireland] 30 September 1887: p. 6

The story was circulating in US newspapers as early as the 1840s. There were also reports in the 1880s about the O’Squar affair, which is related in this 1912 article about two medicos who demanded that Napoleon’s tomb be opened.

Dr. Raspall, grandson of the noted physician after whom a Parisian boulevard is named, and Dr. Cabanes, author of several interesting medico-historic works, have gathered together considerable evidence for the substitution. Dr. Cabanes is the author of “The Unknown Marat” and “The Secret Cabinet of History,” among other works.

The two doctors have just sent to M. Millerand, Minster of Public Works a demand to open the tomb of Napoleon before a commission of noted scientists to determine if the heart of the Emperor is that of a human being or that of a sheep.

The mystery of the heart has been agitated more than once since [the burial at Les Invalides.] In 1887 an Englishman named Charles O’Squar, a friend of Dr. Carswell, wrote to Gen. [Louis-Joseph] Sumpt, Governor of the Invalides asking him to have the sarcophagus opened, basing his request on his friend’s “Memoirs.” The French General on receiving the request almost exploded with indigation, and, considering himself insulted, sent his seconds to the audacious O’Squar. The affair was hushed up and the tomb remained closed.

This time Doctors Raspall and Cabanes are taking up the matter in earnest. They claim that the report of the Prince de Joinville contains much that tends to verify the memoirs of Carswell and also of Captain Alexander.

Those who are clamoring to have the tomb opened are willing to pay all the expenses. Will the Government consent?

The Salt Lake [US] Tribune 27 October 1912: p. 1 Magazine section

The government did not consent. Dr. Augustin Cabanes was well-known for his interest in the medical histories of famous people. He may have been trying to drum up sales for Le cabinet secret de l’histoire, (1897), “The Secret Cabinet of History Peeped into By a Doctor” or one of his upcoming books such as Les Morts mysterieuses de l’histoire (1900).

While a story about a timid sheep’s heart sewn into the breast of the Ogre seems an overly-transparent propaganda image [Napoleon Baaaaa-naparte?], for me, the big question here is “Who is Dr. Thomas Cartwell?” He is also called Carswell or Dr Charles Thomas Carswell in other articles. He did not sign the official autopsy. He is not listed in Dr Arnold Chaplin’s meticulous compilation A St. Helena Who’s Who, or A Directory of the Island During the Captivity of Napoleon, (1914) or in Arnott or Antommarchi’s memoirs. Perhaps I’m looking in the wrong places, but I can’t find him listed as a Royal Navy Surgeon. If he existed, he may very well have been  an “I-was-there” fantasist or prankster. Does anyone know how Carswell/Cartwell got introduced into the story?  [Chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com]

We finish with another third-hand account:

The Heart of Napoleon.

“I noticed,” writes Mr. J.H. Duncan, from Kedmuir Hants, “a paragraph as to Napoleon’s heart quoted in your paper two days ago, which I believe is incorrect. My grandfather (Dr. Duncan, of Ruthwell) knew intimately one of the doctors in attendance on Napoleon –a Dr. Arnot—who was one of those engaged in the embalming of the body. It is quite true that the heart disappeared, and great was the dismay of the doctors to find the basin in which they had left it quite empty and never a trace of the heart. At last a trace of blood on the floor led them to a rat’s hole where was the object of their search, too big to get through. The addition about a lamb’s heart being substituted is evidently an embellishment of the enemy. Pall Mall Gazette, 1887.

Unless that great sarcophagus at Les Invalides is opened and DNA testing is done (which would also lay to rest the question of a double), these diverting stories will remain just that. I suspect that Dr. Arnott, who seems the most reliable of any of the tale’s narrators, told the true story—that rats attempted—unsuccessfully—to carry off one of the most celebrated hearts in history. It is perhaps as well it rests at Les Invalides. The Empress Marie-Louise, whose heart remained her own in her marriage to the Ogre, would have found it an embarrassing souvenir.

Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the Dead, The Ghost Wore Black, The Headless Horror, The Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle. Indexes and fact sheets for all of these books may be found by searching hauntedohiobooks.com. Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead. And visit her newest blog, The Victorian Book of the Dead.

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