Saturday, May 19, 2007

The Man Who Owned Napoleon's Penis

Those who think fame has grown grotesque in our time may want to read an obituary in the New York Times last Sunday headlined: John K. Lattimer, Urologist of Varied Expertise, Dies at 92.

Dr. Lattimer was a department chairman at the Columbia University medical school who wrote 375 scientific papers and was the first non-government expert to examine the medical evidence in the assassination of John F. Kennedy. (He concluded that Oswald did it alone.)

But Dr. Lattimer undoubtedly will be most remembered as the possessor of Napoleon’s penis, allegedly removed by a priest administering last rites, which he bought at an auction in 1969. An avid collector of memorabilia, he also owned Lincoln’s blood-stained collar, Hitler’s drawings and the ampoule that held the cyanide with which Hermann Goring committed suicide.

There were headlines in the 1980s when Michael Jackson was said to have offered $50,000 for the Elephant Man’s skeleton. Now there are thousands of web sites auctioning objects the famous have worn or touched, but apparently no body parts.

Such widespread and intense traffic in celebrity leavings may express a longing to connect with history or immortality, but then again it may simply reflect the inner poverty or perversity of those with the money to buy them.

The seventeenth century scientist-philosopher Blaise Pascal described but did not explain it by observing, “The charm of fame is so great that we like every object to which it is attached, even death.”

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