Enough Hair to Carpet Versailles?

Artifact labeled “One Lock of Hair From The Emperor Napoleon” in the Rollins Archives

For many years, the Archives has preserved a relic labeled “One Lock of Hair From The Emperor Napoleon,” accompanied by a testimonial vouching for its authenticity. This document, written by Capt. Frederick Lahrbush in 1861, is also signed by Rev. John Cotton Smith, rector of the Church of the Ascension in New York, who vouched for “the venerable Capt. Lahrbush,” someone “I believe to be worthy of entire confidence.” But was he?

Who was Capt. Lahrbush, and what was his connection to Napoleon? According to his testimonial, he had been a member of the H.B.M. 60th Rifles Regiment and served for three months in St. Helena, “together with other corps as a guard over the Exiled Emperor and his faithful followers.” During that time, he “became acquainted with a Mr. Geo. Balcombe,” a government employee who “had in charge the supplying of provisions, etc. to the French Exiles.” Several years later, the two men met again in Sydney, Australia, where their “former acquaintance soon ripened into an intimacy.” As Lahrbush tells the story, Mr. Balcombe became ill, and on his deathbed, “lifted himself up a little and after searching for a little while under his pillow, he brought out from there a parcel and handed it to [the] Deponent saying; here my Friend, I leave them to you a few hair [sic] from the Emperor Napoleon given to my daughter by Monsieur Marchant [sic] first valet des Chambres to the Emperor at St. Helena who himself did cut them from of [sic] said Emperors [sic] Head, Keep them in remembrance of me.” This is the story Lahrbush wrote down for Rev. Smith, his “Real Friend and Pastor.”

                                       An excerpt from Mr. Lahrbush’s letter

Can this account be verified?  It turns out that our relics are not unique:  in 1980, Kathleen Roussac purchased a lock of hair and a testimonial letter–also written by Frederick Lahrbush–at an auction in Vermont. In 2002 she co-authored an article with Dr. David Andrew Roberts for The Gazette, the journal of the Napoleonic Alliance. The article notes that “there are very few authentic samples of Napoleon’s hair in existence,” “many more samples in circulation whose authenticity is suspect,” and “many that are clearly fake.” The authors also cite Napoleon’s former aide, Comte Flahaut, who, noting the proliferation of these mementos, “once famously remarked” that “he’d seen enough hair since Napoleon’s death to carpet the floors of Versailles.”

Left:  Charles de Flahaut, perhaps best known “for his exploits in gallantry” and his “elegant manners,” according to the 11th edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. (Image:  Wikimedia Commons)

The complete Gazette article, “Authenticating a Lock of Napoleon’s Hair:  The Bizarre and Dubious Career of Frederick Lahrbush,” is available online at http://bit.ly/1uDkT1J . As the subtitle suggests, Capt. Lahrbush’s true claim to fame may have been as “one of the greatest story tellers” in nineteenth-century New York. Military records show that his regiment was never stationed on St. Helena, and furthermore, that he was “court-martialled on two charges of fraud” in 1818. He did actually go to Australia, but made the trip on board a convict transport. While serving his sentence there, “he succumbed inevitably to what was either an habitual proclivity to dishonesty or an unfortunate susceptibility to misfortune when he was convicted in the local petty sessions in 1834 for stealing government property” (though the authors point out that, in this case, someone else may have been the actual culprit).

He came to New York circa 1848, where he lived until his death in 1877, “making his mark as an unusually old and eccentric war hero,” who claimed to have been born in 1766. Some had their doubts, however:  a few years before Lahrbush’s death, a librarian in the House of Lords, suspicious of the Captain’s alleged age and “the even more extraordinary aspects of his life,” looked into his background. He later announced “that he had exposed the most barefaced case of pretended centenarianism which has ever come under my notice.” Luckily for Lahrbush, his fraud convictions had not been discovered; unluckily, the revelation that he was not even an Englishman meant that an offer from the Prince of Wales “to have Lahrbush returned to England with a pension” was most likely revoked.

Left: Librarian  and author William J. Thoms. “His iconoclastic treatise on ‘Human Longevity, its Facts and its Fictions’ . . . raised a storm of dismayed protest by its forcible contention that the authentic cases in which human life had been prolonged to a hundred years and upwards were extremely rare.” (From The Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900. Image from Wikimedia Commons)

Despite the evidence, Mr. Thoms found himself “rebuked by anonymous correspondents assuring him that in New York Captain Lahrbush’s wonderful adventures, and yet more wonderful longevity, are universally accepted for truth by the very best people,” according to Roussac and Roberts. Contemporary accounts in The New York Times and other publications reveal that Lahrbush’s amazing stories still found an audience. In 1877, for example, a Brooklyn doctor wrote to a medical journal, recapping Lahrbush’s career (elevating him to “Governor of a convict station in Australia” when he was actually an inmate) and claiming that Lahrbush’s age was “well authenticated.” The doctor’s “professional interest” stemmed from the story that “Capt. L. has been an opium habituate for seventy years!  A statement so extraordinary may seem incredible, but it is well attested.” (His letter may be read at http://bit.ly/1s4WE9Z .)

Napoleon’s hair remains newsworthy, making headlines even today. In 2008, The New York Times reported that a team of scientists analyzed several samples and concluded that the high levels of arsenic they contained were not unusual for his time. This would seem to rule out arsenic poisoning as the cause of the Emperor’s death, though the circumstances are still in dispute (http://nyti.ms/1wkVHOG ).

As for Lahrbush, Roussac and Roberts write that “we are left with the unavoidable conclusion that the sample of Napoleon’s hair bequeathed by Frederick Lahrbush is a fake. That he was an exceptional character who saw and lived more than most is beyond dispute.”

A photo of Frederick Lahrbush may be seen at http://bit.ly/1m6kfKB .

~ by D. Moore, Archival Specialist

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