The Secret Life of Napoleon Bonaparte – 10 Things You Didn’t Know About History’s Most Famous Conqueror

Napoleon Bonaparte is among the most studied figures from military history. Yet details about the private life of the Corsican conqueror continue to fascinate. Here are 10 amazing facts about the one-time French emperor.

Napoleon Bonaparte is among the most studied figures in military history. Yet details about his private life of the continue to fascinate. Here are 10 amazing personal facts about the Corsican conqueror.

By Shannon Selin

THERE’S NO SHORTAGE OF Napoleon Bonaparte facts. Here are 10 you may not be aware of. They struck me as interesting when I was researching my novel: Napoleon in America.

Napoleon couldn’t carry a tune

Louis-Joseph Marchand, Napoleon’s valet from 1814 to 1821, wrote:
“[T]he Emperor, should he start to sing, which he sometimes did while thinking of something else…was rarely in tune and would repeat the same words for 15 minutes.” [1]
Betsy Balcombe, whom Napoleon befriended when he was in exile on St. Helena, described how he regaled her with the song “Vive Henri Quatre”:
“He began to hum the air, became abstracted, and, leaving his seat, marched round the room, keeping time to the song he was singing…. In fact Napoleon’s voice was most unmusical, nor do I think he had any ear for music; for neither on this occasion, nor in any of his subsequent attempts at singing, could I ever discover what tune it was he was executing.” [2]

Napoleon had a sweet tooth. He loved one treat in particular. (Image source: WikiCommons)

Napoleon had a sweet tooth. He loved one treat in particular. (Image source: WikiCommons)

Napoleon loved licorice

Betsy Balcombe attributed Napoleon’s rather discoloured teeth to “his constant habit of eating liquorice, of which he always kept a supply in his waistcoat pocket.” [3]
According to Hortense Bertrand, the daughter of General Henri Bertrand and his wife Fanny, Napoleon carried a mixture of licorice-powder and brown sugar in his pockets as a remedy for indigestion. [4] He also used it as a remedy for colds.
When Napoleon was dying, he wanted to drink only licorice-flavoured water.
“He asked me for a small bottle and some licorice, poured a small quantity, and told me to fill it with water, adding that in the future he wished to have no other beverage but that.”[5]

(Image source: WikiCommons)

(Image source: WikiCommons)

Napoleon cheated at cards

Napoleon hated to lose at cards, chess or any other game, and took pains to avoid doing so. French diplomat Louis Antoine Fauvelet de Bourienne, Napoleon’s one-time private secretary, observed:
“In general he was not fond of cards; but if he did play, Vingt-et-un [Twenty-One] was his favourite game, because it is more rapid than many others, and because it afforded him an opportunity of cheating. For example, he would ask for a card; if it proved a bad one he would say nothing, but lay it down on the table and wait till the dealer had drawn his. If the dealer produced a good card, then Bonaparte would throw aside his hand, without showing it, and give up his stake. If, on the contrary, the dealer’s card made him exceed twenty-one, Bonaparte also threw his cards aside without showing them, and asked for the payment of his stake. He was much diverted by these little tricks, especially when they were played off undetected; and I confess that even then we were courteous enough to humour him, and wink at his cheating.” [6]

Napoleon liked snuff

Emmanuel, comte de Las Cases, one of Napoleon’s companions in exile on St. Helena, said:
“The emperor, it is well known, was in the habit of taking snuff almost every minute. This was a sort of a mania which seized him chiefly during intervals of abstraction. His snuff box was speedily emptied, but he still continued to thrust his fingers into it, or to raise it to his nose, particularly when he was himself speaking.” [7]

When he wasn't conquering European, history's best-known Corsican loved to soak in the tub.

When he wasn’t conquering European, history’s best-known Corsican loved to soak in the tub.

Napoleon loved long, hot baths

Again, this was something frequently commented on. In the diplomat Bourienne’s words:
“His partiality for the bath he mistook for a necessity. He would usually remain in the bath two hours, during which time I used to read to him extracts from the journals and pamphlets of the day, for he was anxious to hear and know all that was going on. While in the bath, he was continually turning on the warm water, to raise the temperature, so that I was sometimes enveloped in such a dense vapour that I could not see to read, and was obliged to open the door.” [8]

Napoleon reportedly had the hands of a model. So why did he always tuck one into his tunic?

Napoleon reportedly had the hands of a model. So why did he always tuck one into his tunic?

Napoleon had beautiful hands

Bonaparte was proud of his hands, and he took great care of his fingernails. Betsy Balcombe wrote:
“His hand was the fattest and prettiest in the world; his knuckles dimpled like those of a baby, his fingers taper and beautifully formed, and his nails perfect.” [9]
Napoleon’s valet Louis Étienne Saint-Denis thought his boss’ hands “were of the most perfect model; they resembled the beautiful hands of a woman.”[10] Saint-Denis also noted that Napoleon never wore gloves unless he was going out on horseback, and even then he was more likely to put them in his pocket than on his hands.

(Image source: Flickr)

(Image source: Flickr)

Napoleon couldn’t stand the smell of paint

Bonaparte had an acute sense of smell, and one of the things that bothered him was paint. In fact, he had a fit when he learned that Longwood House, to which he was to move on St. Helena, smelled strongly of paint.
“He walked up and down the lawn, gesticulating in the wildest manner,” reported Betsy Balcombe. “His rage was so great that it almost choked him. He declared that the smell of paint was so obnoxious to him that he would never inhabit a house where it existed.” [11]
Comte de Las Cases corroborates this story and adds:
“In the Imperial palaces, care had been taken never to expose him to it. In his different journeys, the slightest smell of paint frequently rendered it necessary to change the apartments that had been prepared for him; and on board of the Northumberland [the British vessel that took Napoleon to St. Helena] the paint of the ship had made him very ill…. [At Longwood] the smell of the paint was certainly very slight; but it was too much for the Emperor.” [12]

(Image source: Pixelbay)

(Image source: Pixelbay)

Napoleon was superstitious

A Corsican through and through, Napoleon believed in omens, demons and the concept of luck. He disliked Fridays and the number 13. He considered December 2 – the day of his coronation in 1804 and of his victory at the Battle of Austerlitz in 1805 – one of his lucky days. Upon the occurrence of remarkable incidents, either good or bad, he habitually crossed himself.

(Image source: WikiCommons)

(Image source: WikiCommons)

Napoleon liked to pinch people

Napoleon’s valet, Louis Constant Wairy wrote:
“He pinched hardest when he was in the best humor. Sometimes, as I was entering his room to dress him, he would rush at me like a madman, and while saluting me with his favorite greeting: ‘Eh bien, monsieur le drôle?’ would pinch both ears at once in a way to make me cry out; it was not even rare for him to add to these soft caresses one or two slaps very well laid on; I was sure then of finding him in a charming humor all the rest of the day, and full of benevolence. Roustan, and even Marshal Berthier, Prince de Neufchâtel, received their own good share of these imperial marks of affection; I have frequently seen them with their cheeks all red and their eyes almost weeping.” [13]
Not even the young were spared. Betsy Balcombe describes how, playing blind man’s bluff, “the Emperor commenced by creeping stealthily up to me, and giving my nose a very sharp twinge; I knew it was he both from the act itself and from his footstep.” [14] Betsy also writes that Napoleon handled the Montholons’ six-week old baby [Lili] “so awkwardly, that we were in a state of terror lest he should let it fall. He occasionally diverted himself by pinching the little creature’s nose and chin, until it cried.” [15]

Napoleon on his deathbed. (Image source: WikiCommons)

Napoleon on his deathbed. (Image source: WikiCommons)

Vital signs absent?

“A very remarkable peculiarity is that the Emperor never felt his heart beat,” wrote Constant. “He has often said so both to M. Corvisart [Napoleon’s doctor] and to me, and more than once he had us pass our hands over his breast, so that we could make trial of this singular exception; we never felt any pulsation.” [16]

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19320518Shannon Selin is the Canadian-based author of Napoleon in America, which imagines what might have happened if Bonaparte had escaped from St. Helena in 1821 and wound up in the United States. She blogs about Napoleonic and 19th century history at shannonselin.com. Follow her on Twitter @ShannonSelin.

If you enjoyed these Napoleon Bonaparte facts, you might also enjoy:
Who was Napoleon Bonaparte?
10 Things Napoleon Never Said
10 Napoleon Bonaparte Quotes in Context
What did Napoleon look like?
Napoleon in Alternate History

FOOTNOTES

  1. Louis-Joseph Marchand, In Napoleon’s Shadow (San Francisco, 1998), p. 88.
  2. Lucia Elizabeth Balcombe Abell, Recollections of the Emperor Napoleon, during the First Three Years of His Captivity on the Island of St. Helena (London, 1844), pp. 25-26.
  3. Abell, Recollections of the Emperor Napoleon,p. 22.
  4. Lees Knowles, A Gift of Napoleon (London, 1921), p. 18.
  5. Marchand, In Napoleon’s Shadow, p. 636.
  6. Louis Antoine Fauvelet de Bourienne, Private Memoirs of Napoleon Bonaparte (Philadelphia, 1831), Vol. I, p. 219.
  7. Emmanuel-August-Dieudonné de Las Cases, Mémorial de Sainte Hélène: Journal of the Private Life and Conversations of the Emperor Napoleon at Saint Helena (London, 1823), Vol. II, p. 232.
  8. Louis Antoine Fauvelet de Bourienne, Private Memoirs of Napoleon Bonaparte (Philadelphia, 1831), Vol. I, p. 269
  9. Abell, Recollections of the Emperor Napoleon,p. 41
  10. Louis Étienne Saint-Denis, Napoleon from the Tuileries to St. Helena, translated by Frank Hunter Potter (New York and London, 1922), p. 277.
  11. Abell, Recollections of the Emperor Napoleon,p. 90.
  12. Las Cases, Mémorial de Sainte Hélène, Vol. I, pp. 14-16.
  13. Constant Wairy, Memoirs of Constant on the Private Life of Napoleon, his Family and his Court, Vol. I, pp. 335-336.
  14. Abell, Recollections of the Emperor Napoleon,pp. 73-74.
  15. Ibid., pp. 100-101.
  16. Constant Wairy, Memoirs of Constant on the Private Life of Napoleon, his Family and his Court, Vol. 1, p. 319.

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