“There are six coffins in all,”
the English woman said looking up from a dog-eared travel
guide book over half-framed glasses as I stared out over
the railing down at the ornate and well polished tomb
of Napoleon in the Eglise du Dome in Paris. I was trying
to figure out what exactly it was I was looking at and
apparently it showed.
“There are six coffins in all,” she said again.
Her tone was educational and emphatic. “And the
covering is red Finnish Porphyry…feldspar actually.”
“Ah yes, feldspar,” I echoed.
“Over the green granite base,” added my unofficial
guide reading further into its history. She was a pleasant
looking woman in her mid-40s, casually dressed, carrying
a half-filled canvas book bag over her shoulder and looking
very much like what I would imagine a College History
Professor on holiday would look. Either that or she easily
could have been a MI-6 spymaster waiting to pass important
secrets over at just the right meeting place, at just
the right time and to a foolish looking tourist who could
restate the obvious.
“Mmm, over green granite,” I said, fulfilling
my role. “So, what exactly is feldspar anyway?”
“Rock forming mineral, from the German Feld for
field and Spat for Spar, which is common cleavable material,
“Ah yes, of course.”
“You knew that, did you?”
“Nope. No clue at all.”
“An honest Yank. No hope for you in politics, I’m
“Nor in too many other professions either. So I
take it that it isn’t the original tomb that was
on St. Helena? ” “Napoleon was buried on St.
Helena in 1821 and was dug up 19 years later and brought
back to France for a proper state burial…well, most
of him anyway.”
“Most of him? What? There wasn’t enough Elba
room on the ship for the trip back?”
“Clever but no,” said the learned woman. “Bits
and pieces of him were removed on the island at the time
of his death.”
“Huh? That must have been some souvenir shop?”
“As I recall his heart was removed for his wife,
the empress Maria-Louise of Austria...”
“I thought he was married to Josephine?”
“Yes, Marie Josephe Rose Tascher De La Pagerie,
to be precise. His first wife, who was the former wife
of a chap named de Beauharnais, who was executed during
the Revolution. Later, she became the mistress of the
revolutionary Paul Barras.”
“She’d be M. Barras by that, would she?”
She stared back up at over the guide book and glasses
and sighed. The puns to the front of her were blasting
away and she decided she needed to steel herself amidst
the onslaught. She repositioned her army of facts and
“Napoleon’s stomach was removed by the British
authorities, quite possibly because some speculate that
they might have poisoned him…”
“Goddems got ‘em, did they?” The historical
line was hit again but still holding. “It’s
a pun…Goddems got ‘em. You know, Goddems,
how Joan of Arc referred to the English for all the swearing
“Yes and I believe sonnebiches was how the French
referred to American GIs in the First War.”
“Nice to know we can add to the culture of a country,
isn’t it?” I said and then lowering my voice,
I added. “So did your guys whack him or what?”
“There are those who believe that British Intelligence
agents might have poisoned him with arsenic.”
“Hmm? I didn’t realize Sean Connery was that
“However, more recent studies indicate that the
arsenic levels found in samples of his hair could very
well have been his hair tonic. Arsenic was one of the
standard ingredients then.”
“Takes a way to the grave in five easy minutes.”
The Professor/spymaster dodged the latest salvo and charged
on. “Finally, a young Corsican priest named Ange
Paul Vignali removed much of the Emperor’s body
hair and made it into bracelets,” she said.
“Bracelets?” “For keep sakes, actually.”
“Yes, very traditional at the time. But what is
somewhat disturbing is that there is a rumor that Vignali
also removed several pieces of Emperor’s rib and
allegedly his testicles and penis as well...”
“Gotta have charms for the bracelets and I suppose
it beats the enfer out of the ‘My-parents-visited-St.
Enfer’s a hell of a word, don’t’cha
think, especially for someone who takes a bone apart?”
The English woman leaned her head back and smiled.
“Have you ever heard the saying that ‘the
pun is the lowest form of humor’.”
“Frequently,” I replied.
“Yes, I imagine you have,” she said chuckling
her return fire as she went brought up her educated reserves.
“At least that’s one of the popularly accepted
stories although there is some argument that the French
wouldn’t have buried their Emperor without them.
Authorities do know that the priest Vignali was left alone
with Napoleon’s body for a brief period of time
after his demise which is when he allegedly went about
his business of collecting what some felt were sacred
“Most men I would imagine,” I admitted and
then in the interest of posturing I tried to sound scholarly
as well. “You know, I read somewhere that the word
‘testimony’ comes from the ancient Roman tradition
of a man placing a hand over his testicles when he swore
to tell the truth. Rap singers too, apparently. So where
“The what?” “The General’s privates.
I know a few politicians I can think of who could probably
use his testicles. They on sale or display around here
somewhere, are they?”
“The book says they are enshrined in a country church.”
“A stone’s throw away, perhaps.” The
chucking turned to an actual laugh.
“No, quite a distance, actually,” she said.
“A pity. And the Grande baton?”
“Ah, that!” she said. “Viganli’s
family sold the penis at auction in 1916.”
“Well, that’s one way to prick up some interest,”
I said while she closed her book and removed her glasses
and waved them by one stem like a white flag.
“I give up because I imagine next you’ll be
making some sort of pun about this draining some water
from the old loo?”
“Well, he did have a beef with Wellington.”
“And there you go,” she said.
So I did.