Napoleon's Last Strands

updated 09/12/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/12/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

IT WAS SNIPPED SURREPTITIOUSLY by a linen maid on May 5, 1821, as the body of Napoleon Bonaparte, the 51-year-old exiled Emperor of France, was about to be laid out for burial on the remote South Atlantic island of St. Helena. For the past 173 years, the S-shaped souvenir has been carefully preserved as one of the big little man's last relics. At least that is what Frenchman Jean Fichou believes about the hair-loom that he has owned for the last 30 years. "It's not just any ordinary lock of hair," he says. "It's a portion of Napoleon's forelock, of which he was so vain."

Fichou, 71, a retired tax inspector and amateur historian from the city of Rennes, bought the famous forelock from a French dentist in 1964. Fichou won't divulge how much he paid ("It was the price of a nice new car"), but he does admit the hairs became an obsession. He dated the paper and ink of the maid's note accompanying the forelock, documented its ownership through the years and had it compared to other Napoleonic strands in a Swiss museum.

Now the heralded hairs may help determine whether Napoleon really died of stomach cancer—or, as some recent historians have suggested, of arsenic poisoning, perhaps at the hands of the cuckolded Count de Montholon, whose wife was a suspected mistress of Napoleon's. Last June, Fichou delivered nine of his 223 Napoleonic hairs to FBI headquarters in Washington, where scientists conducted atomic absorption tests to look for arsenic residue. The results will be announced at the annual convention of the Napoleonic Society of America in Chicago on Sept. 11.

Fichou then plans to auction his beloved bangs—for a minimum of $250,000—in order to leave an inheritance for his two sons. Potential buyers, he figures, might use the locks for advertising. The Hair Club for Conquerors perhaps?

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