In November 2005, a tooth described as having been the one extracted by Dr O'Meara from the very mouth of Napoleon at St. Helena was sold at an auction in Wiltshire for the handsome price of £11,000. Given the high price of this item, we can only take an interest in the history of this napoleonic "relic".
A "Napoleon's tooth" on auction
To start with the facts about this tooth, the following details have been published by the BBC:
- Napoleon would have suffered from toothache in 1816
- The inflammation was diagnosed as scurvy
- The tooth that was extracted and sold in 2005 would have been a canine from the upper right jaw
- At a later time, the tooth would have been given by O'Meara to General Maceroni, a former ADC to Murat when he was King of Naples
A dentist toolbox from the 19th century, France
Let's take a look at these points, one by one.
First, about the year given as 1816. It was the year when Napoleon started to experience tensions with the new Governor of St. Helena, Sir Hudson Lowe, who arrived in April 1816. But in that year, Napoleon had no complain about his health. He was rather angered about the new restrictions imposed on him. His personal physician, the Navy surgeon Barry O'Meara, started to issue health bulletins about the illustrious captive after the summer of 1817. This is when, for the first time, Napoleon started to complain about his health. The lack of physical exercise, for a man like him who had crossed Europe back and forth on horseback for many years, was started to take a toll. The small "freedom" perimeter allocated to him for riding would not answer to the need. Rightfully, his doctor insisted that he should take some physical exercise. But the ongoing vexations caused by his "gaoler", and the feeling of a lack of generosity from the British Government towards a fallen enemy who surrendered voluntarily to them, would prove too much a barrier to overcome. As a consequence, Napoleon prefered to lock himself up in his tiny damp abode which was infested by rats and mosquitos. Beside some initial health issues described by O'Meara in his bulletins, Napoleon started to suffer from toothache in that period. On 27 September 1817, O'Meara reported to the Governor:
The gums who present a spongy appearance and bleed upon a slight touch, [...] (source: Lowe Papers, ADD 20119)
To come back to our relic, it was indeed in 1817, and not in 1816, that Napoleon started to suffer, for the first time in his life, from teeth and gums.
Napoleon's physician, Barry O'Meara
What about the diagnosis of scurvy inflammation? O'Meara didn't immediately diagnose that Napoleon was in fact suffering from a tooth. He looked at the gums, describing them as "spongy" and bleeding at a slight pressure. He thought this was caused by scurvy (a.k.a. scorbut), as he explained himself in a follow-up report to the Governor:
The scorbutic appearances in the gums are ameliorated. (source: Lowe Papers, ADD 20120, report dated 5 October 1817)
A tooth extraction
But the real cause of Napoleon's suffering was a tooth. On the 16th November 1817, O'Meara finally extracted it, after two months of pain in the mouth.
Which sort of tooth was it then? The relic sold in 2005 mentioned that it was a canine, from the upper right jaw. Looking at the Cahiers written by Grand-Marshal Bertrand, a companion of Napoleon during the captivity, there is no mention of such detail. At the time, other important issues mattered more. But Gourgaud, another companion who would leave St. Helena and Napoleon a few months later, gave us the answer in his diary:
Sa Majesté s'est fait arracher une dent de sagesse. (Source: Gourgaud, Journal de Sainte-Hélène)
Translation: We extracted a wisdom tooth from His Majesty.
Dental anatomy showing the position of the canine compared to the wisdom tooth ("dent de sagesse")
Gourgaud went on by further providing some gory details about how this tooh was extracted:
Il [Napoléon] nous a raconté qu'O'Meara l'a fait asseoir par terre pour lui arracher la dent, l'instrument a provoqué des vomissements, puis le docteur a pris des pinces. O'Meara est tout fier de son opération; c'est une dent du fond, qui a deux trous à la hauteur de son enchâssement avec les gencives, l'un extérieur, l'autre en arrière.
Translation: He [Napoleon] told us that O'Meara made him sit down to snatch the tooth; the instrument has caused vomiting, then the doctor took pliers. O'Meara is all proud of his operation; it is a back tooth, which has two holes at the level of its embeddedness with the gums, one being on the outside one, and the other at the back.
A third companion, Montholon, provided similar details in his Récits, and he even added that the pliers used by the doctor were rather rusty. Poor Napoleon, Fate was dogging him !
Une extraction... caricaturale
This operation was of course reported by the men of the Art, including the Head of the medical establishment in St. Helena, Dr. Alexander Baxter. In a report he sent to the Governor, on 19 November 1817, he wrote:
Napoleon Bonaparte has suffered a good deal from a toothache on the night of the 15th and, in consequence, was at last induced to permit Mr O'Meara to extract the dens sapientice of the right side of the upper jaw. This is the first surgical operation that has ever been performed upon his body. The tooth was carious in two places. (source: Lowe Papers, ADD 20120)
The sort of rudimentary tools that O'Meara would have used
From Baxter's report, one would not fail to notice that he wrote "Napoleon Bonaparte" and not "General Buonaparte", the title that Governor Sir Hudson Lowe had to adopt for his captive by order from the Government. We can also understand why Napoleon was reluctant for anyone to perform such operation in his mouth, when we take a look at the "instruments" typically used in those days.
But we must also recall that Napoleon liked sweets, and, in particular, he loved liquorice... We can only be bemused that he never experienced any toothache before 1817 ! Only one tooth extraction is not a high price to pay in exchange of some indulgence for the affection for liquorice. Although, in those times, liquorice was not the manufactured type but rather a raw material in the form of sticks that can still be found in exotic countries or in specialised shops.
So what happened to this Imperial Tooth extracted with so little delicacy?
O'Meara kept it as a relic and brought it back to England with him in 1818. The article from the BBC mentions that he offered it to General Maceroni. This officer was a former ADC to Murat, and had the rank of Colonel, not General. He was the one who wrote the pamphlet published in 1817, the Appel à la nation britannique, and signed by Santini a former servant of Napoleon at Longwood who was removed from the island at the end of 1816 (on this pamphlet, Santini and Maceroni, see Inside Longwood, letter of 17 July 1817). The publication caused a question from the opposition, lead by Lord Holland, to the Government. Lord Bathurst, who was the Minister in charge of Napoleon's captivity, had to explain to the Lords his policy towards the captive.
There is little doubt that O'Meara met Maceroni when he was back in London from 1818. Did he give him such precious relic? Apparently he didn't, because, after O'Meara's death in 1836, an auction was arranged to sell his belongings. In the list of these items, we can find the extracted tooth mentioned above. At the time, it fetched seven guineas and a half. We could guess that, in these times, nobody would fight tooth and nail at auction for such rotten item, being Imperial or not. Today, things are different.
To conclude, we can be certain that the Napoleonic canine sold in 2005 was not the wisdom tooth from Napoleon ! But maybe this canine indeed came from O'Meara and that he indeed gave it to Maceroni. Or maybe this canine was from Maceroni himself, that O'Meara extracted in London. Whatever. One thing is sure: it is hard to believe it comes from Napoleon.
Unfortunately auction sales are not free from mistakes carried over time from owner to owner, and, at times, it is difficult to assert the trueness of an item without getting to the root of the sources, original testimonials and manuscripts in this particular case. Not an easy task for auctioneers to do.