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Huge Lock of Napoleon's Hair Collected Around 1819

A generous lock of hair, over 50 strands, belonging to French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821), accompanied by a piece of paper inscribed "1819 / Napoleon's Hair / from Mr Captain" and "Capt Nagle." The lock of hair is pressed between two pieces of clear glass taped at the edges. Additional inscriptions found along the borders of the glass mount include: "Given Capt Nagel w[ho] was one"; "--gaurd"; and "H.L. Howe." Overall, the display measures 3.625" x 4.25" x .25." The hair strands are light brown and rest together in a c-shaped curl measuring approximately 4.5" in length. Expected wear to the paper and mount, where the border has in some places become chipped and brittle. The rear glass plate is cracked, but this damage is concealed by the placement of the paper under the hair lock. Else very good to near fine. Accompanied by provenance information from an heir, further elaborated below.

This mysterious family heirloom deserves hours and hours of more research. The basic information provided, however, indicates that this lock of Napoleon's hair was collected from life sometime around 1819. Napoleon lived on the island of St. Helena between 1815 and his death on May 5, 1821.

Who was the "Capt Nagle" referred to on the piece of paper? In theory, it could be any officer with that surname serving within either the British regimental colonial troops, the St. Helena Regiment, or the Royal Navy vessels guarding the island. Several British units were dispatched to St. Helena to guard its famous prisoner, including over various periods, the 53rd Regiment of Foot, the 20th Regiment of Foot, the 66th Regiment of Foot, and the 21st Lancers. A census of St. Helena taken in 1817 recorded a little over 800 soldiers garrisoned on the island. In addition, British naval officers would have been in proximity. St. Helena, along with two other far-flung Atlantic outposts, Acension and Tristan de Cunha, formed part of the Royal Navy Cape Station. Royal Navy vessels from the slavery-patrolling West Africa Squadron frequently took on provisions at St. Helena.

One excellent candidate for "Capt Nagle" might be a certain Lieutenant Michael Nagle (1795-1841) who served in the 53rd Regiment of Foot on St. Helena during Napoleon's exile. A veteran of the Peninsular War, Nagle was a career soldier. Lieutenant Nagle and his wife Emma née Valentine are mentioned in a wonderful resource for Napoleon scholars, Arnold Chaplin's "A St. Helena Who’s Who, or, A Directory of the Island During the Captivity of Napoleon" (New York: E.P. Dutton and Company, 1919). Chaplin tells us: "In 1815, in company with his wife, he [Lieutenant Nagle] proceeded to St. Helena with his regiment, and they soon became on friendly terms with the inhabitants of Longwood [Napoleon's residence on St. Helena after December 1815], especially Gourgaud. They were also noticed by Napoleon…" (p. 105.)

Could this Nagle be the "Capt Nagle" of our hair relic? If so, then the cryptic inscription on the glass border "--gaurd" may be a slightly misspelled portion of the name "Gourgaud," as in Gaspard Gourgaud (1783-1853), Napoleon's confidant and an intimate of Michael Nagle and his wife. Several points complicate this attribution, however. The first is the difference in rank, Lieutenant vs. Captain, which any layman could have mistaken. The second is that Chaplin tells us the Nagles left St. Helena in October 1816 after a contentious slander lawsuit. Could this hair lock have been collected before they left, and then afterwards dated and preserved between glass?

The 53rd Regiment of Foot, also known as the Shropshire Light Infantry, was assigned to St. Helena in August 1815. The regimental officers--including almost certainly Lieutenant Nagle mentioned here--were formally presented to the Emperor in late December 1815. By all accounts, Napoleon's relationship with the regimental officers and their spouses was extremely cordial, extending so far as dinner invitations. The 2nd Battalion of the 53rd Regiment was withdrawn from St. Helena in the summer of 1817 and later disbanded in England in October 1817.

Provenance

The hair lock was passed down from the "H.L. Howe" inscribed on the glass border through family descent to Henry L. Howe IV (1947-1997) formerly of Potsdam, New York. The Howe family originated in England. Provenance material includes:

1. A photocopy of the owner's handwritten notes on the back of a business card.

2. A printout of email correspondence with the owner discussing family history and possible research leads.

This item comes with a Certificate from John Reznikoff, a premier authenticator for both major 3rd party authentication services, PSA and JSA (James Spence Authentications), as well as numerous auction houses.

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