New Orleans History -- Lake Pontchartrain
Saturday, June 15, 2024
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1909 Napoleon's Death Mask...

On May 5, 1821, on the Isle of St. Helena, Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte lay on his death bed. At his side was Dr. Francesco Antommarchi, the man who shared his exile, as well as being a friend and personal physician. When Napoleon took his last breath, it was Dr. Antommarchi who pronounced him dead and closed his eyes for the last time. To preserve the moment for all eternity, Dr. Antom-marchi made plans to construct a mold for a death mask. Plaster necessary to make the mold was not immediately available because of a severe storm.

It was 40 hours after Napoleon’s death that proper materials were available. This unfortunate incident, along with Napoleon’s lingering and painful death, were the main reasons for the death mask looking more like Caesar than the Emperor Napoleon.

In 1824, Dr. Antommarchi reached France with his cherished mold. He was able to obtain a royal mandate to the French mint to make three bronze castings of Napoleon’s death mask. The first of the three to be cast was brought to New Orleans by Dr. Antom-marchi in November of 1834; the other two were placed in a museum and a hotel in Paris.

The good doctor was received by the people of New Orleans with great enthusiasm. He was profoundly impressed by the generous sentiments of the populace, and he was moved to the point of donating the original casting of Napoleon’s death mask to the City of New Orleans.

After a fitting parade, the mask was put display in the illustrious Cabildo. It was appropriately placed in the same room where Louisiana, through Napoleon’s maneuvering, was transferred to the United States in 1803.

The mask of the dead exiled emperor remained at the Cabildo until 1852 when it was moved to the newly constructed City Hall on St. Charles Street – now Gallier Hall.

The war between the states brought destruction as well as confusion. In 1866, after the war had ended, Mr. Adam Griffin of New Orleans, while walking on Canal Street, saw the Napoleon death mask being carried away in a junk wagon. He purchased the mask from the junk dealer, took it home and displayed it on his library table. Upon his death in 1890, it was given to Mrs. Robert Griffin, the widow of his son. She sold it to Captain William G. Raoul, president of the Mexican National Railroad, who brought it to his home in Atlanta.

When New Orleans city officials finally found out where the mask was, they contacted Captain Raoul, who generously agreed to sell it back to the city of New Orleans for the price he paid plus interest. His only other request was that a fitting inscription of his act be placed beside the relic. Mayor Martin Behrman agreed to his terms, and the mask was returned to New Orleans on February 8, 1909. It was once again placed in the Cabildo after a 57-year absence.

From Cabildo to City Hall to who knows where before being put on a junk wagon, to two private homes, and then back to the Cabildo, where it survived the 1988 fire, the death mask of Emperor Napoleon, like the man himself, is well traveled, controversial and has remained very much in the news.

Source: Buddy Stall at