Napoleon's Coffin Maker: Eyewitness British Account of Sealing Up the Emperor's Body on St. Helena, Ex-Nicholson Napoleon Collection
A 2pp autograph manuscript presumably in the hand of Abraham Millington, who signed it as "Abraham Millington / Sergeant St helena Artillery" on the top of the second page verso. Undated, but notes regarding two disasters--a fire in Boston and an earthquake in Martinique--are dated 1839. Inscribed on both sides of a single sheet of paper. Expected paper folds, wrinkles, and chipped edges. Minor closed tears and paper loss near the bottom have been backed with paper. Else very good to good. 6.375" x 7.875." Provenance information is included and further discussed below. From the Nicholson Napoleon Collection.
Abraham Millington felt compelled to record his impressions of an unforgettable 2-day period, May 6-7, 1821, when he assisted in funeral preparations for Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821) on the island of St. Helena. Bonaparte had been in exile on the tropical island in the south Atlantic Ocean since October 1815, and he had died there of suspected stomach cancer on May 5, 1821 at the age of 51.
Millington's eyewitness account proves sensational reading. After Napoleon expired on the evening of May 5th, his body was cleaned, an autopsy was performed, and various postmortem rituals were undertaken, including the removal of certain organs and the taking of plaster and wax masks. The body was then dressed in the white and green Imperial Guard cavalry uniform that Napoleon loved so much. Millington recalls firsthand details of preparing and sealing Napoleon's body in not one, but three nesting coffins.
Millington was an armorer and Sergeant of the St. Helena Artillery, which was affiliated with the East India Company. He, along with a few others, soldered a tin coffin lined with silk satin in which Napoleon's body was placed. This in turn was nested within a mahogany coffin, and then within a lead coffin. (Although not mentioned by Millington, these three coffins were finally placed in a more substantial mahogany casket, which was then sealed on May 9th and buried a stone-slabbed tomb on the island.)
The entirety of this remarkable manuscript is reproduced below. Paragraph breaks have been added for improved legibility, though punctuation, spelling, and capitalization remain unchanged.
on Sunday the sixth of may 1821 I was sent for while attending divine service to make a tin coffin for General Napoleon Bonaparte on monday the seventh I was ordered to attend at longwood house for the purpose of soldering up the body of general Bonaparte in the tin coffin which was performed in the following manner in the presence of Generals Bertrand and Montholon madame Bertrand the french chaplain the french surgeon Mr A darling Dr rushop hm 20th regiment of foot several of the french domestics and S lee private in the 20 regiment.
the body of the late General napoleon Bonaparte in full dress was deposited in a tin coffin lined with white silk and cotton his cocked hat was laid across his thighs and on his left breast of his coast was a gold star and cross and several other medals of the same metal several pieces of 5 coin of various sizes and different value were also put into the coffin his heart was deposited in a silver urn filled with spirits to which I soldered a lid or cover of the same material which was placed between the small parts of his legs his stomach was deposited in a silver mug in which there was spirits which was also put into the coffin a silver plate knife fork and spoon and a silver cup were also deposited in the coffin subsequent to placing the Body of the General in the coffin
the tin lid of the coffin being lined with silk and stuffed with cotton was put in its place and I soldered it on the coffin enclosing the late General Napoleon Bonaparte and all the above mentioned articles this tin coffin with its contents was then enclosed in a mahogany coffin and they were enclosed in a lead coffin which made in all three coffins
Sergeant St. helena Artillery
Great fire in boston Jan 23 1839
Great Earthquake at Martinique 1839."
Millington's account can be corroborated by other firsthand accounts of the coffin sealing, as well as accounts of the opening of the tomb on October 15, 1840. The account of Darling, the upholsterer who had worked with Millington, was reproduced in Hubert N.B. Richardson's "A Dictionary of Napoleon & His Times" (London: Cassell & Company, Ltd., 1920. (See attached images of Richardson's biographical entries of Millington and Darling attached.) The same details as Millington's can be found there, even to the placing of coins within the coffin. Nineteen years later, in 1840, the opening of Napoleon's tomb was also extensively documented in print and in visual image; Millington's description of the coffin and its contents can be confirmed by these also.
According to Millington, individuals who were present at the placing of Napoleon's body into the three coffin shells on May 7, 1821 included:
- "General[s] Bertrand" - Henri Gratien, Count Bertrand (1773-1844), who had served with Napoleon in Egypt in the 1790s, then continued on to as Napoleon's aide-de-camp, general, regional governor, and after 1813, Grand Marshal of the Palace. Bertrand followed Napoleon to Elba in 1814 and to St. Helena in 1815. In 1840, Bertrand retrieved Napoleon's remains from St. Helena for interment in Les Invalides in Paris.
- "madame Bertrand" - Françoise-Elisabeth Bertrand aka Fanny Dillon, Countess Bertrand (1785-1836), married in 1808.
- "General[s]…Montholon" - Charles Tristan, Marquis de Montholon (1783-1853), an ex-soldier personally devoted to Napoleon. He served as Napoleon's amanuensis on the island, and later published his "Accounts of the Captivity of the Emperor Napoleon on St. Helena" (1847).
- "french chaplain" - Abbé Ange Paul Vignali (1789-1836), Napoleon's Corsican chaplain on St. Helena.
- "the french surgeon" - Dr. François Carlo Antommarchi (1780-1838), a fellow Corsican and Napoleon's personal physician between 1818-1821.
- "Mr A darling" - Andrew Darling, the upholsterer of Napoleon's innermost tin coffin.
- "S lee" - Samuel Ley, who assisted Abraham Millington.
- "Dr rushop hm 20th regiment of foot" - Probably Dr. George Rutledge (1789-1833), assistant surgeon of the 20th Regiment of Foot after 1815, reporting to Dr. Archibald Arnott (1771-1855). One account maintains that Dr. Rutledge relieved Dr. Arnott, while another argues that Dr. Rutledge had been personally pledged to safeguard Napoleon's corpse until it was sealed by Colonel Sir Thomas Reade.
- "several of the french domestics" - This almost certainly included Napoleon's First Valet Louis-Joseph Marchand, and his butler Coursot.
The letter was once owned by Dr. Alfred J. Kaiser (1919-2003), a Brown University alum, anesthesiologist, and autograph collector. Provenance material includes:
1. A retained copy of a typed letter written by Dr. Kaiser originally submitted to Stuart C. Sherman, a librarian and bibliographer at Brown University Library. Undated, but ca. February 14, 1977. Dr. Kaiser inquired whether Sherman knew more information about Abraham Millington, and whether Millington had possibly lived in the United States. Dr. Kaiser wrote in part: "If the Mss. be unknown to Biographers and historians, the Mss. is certainly an important find, and it is my hope that some reader may have all the answers…"
2. A 1p typed letter signed by Stuart C. Sherman on "Brown University Library / The John Hay Library" letterhead. Dated March 2, 1777, in the hopes of "offer[ing] a clue to your letter…"
3. A typed half page, comprising a Brown University memorandum dated February 18, 1977, and addressed to Stuart C. Sherman from Lance J. Bauer. Bauer located a reference to Millington in a twentieth-century Napoleon biography as "an Armourer who soldered up N.s coffin on the evening of 17 [sic] May 1821."
4. An invoice from Alexander Autographs (Greenwich, Connecticut) dated February 22, 2006 showing that this letter was purchased for $926.50 including buyer's premium and shipping costs.
5. Photocopy of a typed transcript of the original manuscript.
6. Excerpts from Richardson's biographical index of Napoleon; along with an image showing Napoleon's coffin as it appeared on October 15, 1840.
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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