Thursday, October 17, 2013

How Napoleon's Hair Turned up in Sydney

Unfolding story ... historian Margaret Betteridge with a letter that included a lock of hair taken from the dead Napoleon.

Josephine Tovey

Thirty-odd little strands of hair, one big mystery.
Nobody knows how a tawny-coloured lock of hair, apparently snipped from the head of Napoleon Bonaparte on his deathbed, found its way into the bowels of Sydney Town Hall.
Attached to a letter claiming it was a cut from the ''illustrious dead'', the tuft has sat in underground storage for decades among the kitsch international gifts and relics accumulated by the City of Sydney, while councillors debated suburban development applications and muddled over planning laws above. But Sydneysiders will get a chance to have a brush with this piece of history this weekend when the strands, along with a collection of the city's other curios, go on display.
The heritage consultant Margaret Betteridge, who has curated the show, said the collection was not your average museum assemblage.

''That's what the appeal of the collection is, it's a bit quirky and random,'' she said.
The show, Unvaulted, is part of a series of events this weekend celebrating the reopening of the building, which has undergone a $40 million renovation.
Other objects include a medallion presented to a sailor on HMAS Sydney nine months before the ship went down, and a coffin plate belonging to convict Mary Stoydell - buried in 1797 in the cemetery that once existed where the Town Hall now stands - that is more ornate than what might be expected for someone of her social standing.
But it is the Napoleonic lock that has attracted the most questions, the foremost being, did it really belong to him?
Genetic testing has never been carried out, but there are two historical facts in its favour.
Firstly, that Napoleon's head was shorn in the moments after his death and locks were distributed.
Secondly, that a man mentioned in a letter that accompanied the lock, Captain William Crockat, was at the deathbed of the deposed emperor, and therefore would have had an opportunity to take a lock or two for himself.
The letter, from a Scotsman named Ned Todd, states he was given the hair by a woman:
''If I mistake not she said that her brother [Major Crockat] had himself cut the lock from the head of the illustrious dead.''
Ms Betteridge said she looked forward to the task ahead of discovering exactly how it found its way to Sydney.
''I don't want it to be a fait accompli,'' she said. ''It's nice to have a story that unfolds.''

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