Last Friday I paid a visit to ‘Firepower’, the Royal Artillery Museum, which is situated by the Thames in Woolwich, south-east London. Aside from the interesting collections of artillery pieces there was also a selection of items associated with British military campaigns throughout the centuries. In the section devoted to the Napoleonic Wars there was a pistol that once belonged to the Duke of Wellington and made by Ezekial Baker the gunsmith, although it’s unclear whether it’s a post-war piece or if it was merely gifted to the Arsenal in 1822 and had been carried by the Duke during wartime.
In the same case sits a small square of glass enclosed in a leather border to keep its contents safe. Behind the glass there is a small coil of fine brown hair cut from a man’s head. An ink-inscribed card describes its provenance:
This LOCK of HAIR of NAPOLEON BUONAPARTE was presented to me by Miss Balcomb who herself cut it from the head of the Emperor by his permission. [There follows a signature:] H Wright. Purser of the Hon EIC’s Ship Winchilsea.
On the reverse a hand-written note adds that the curio was presented to Capt A.F. Becke by C.A. Maberly 17th Lancers (QVO) in 1911, and that it was from the collection of Gen Maberly’s great-grandfather.
Elsewhere in the collections was a lock of hair sent to an Army widow during the Crimean War by nurse Florence Nightingale, who cut the hair from the head of a sergeant who had died in hospital and send it to his wife as a keepsake.
These two examples of a long-standing tradition, and the news of the recent auctioning of another lock of Napoleon’s hair in Auckland, got me thinking about the tradition of cutting and preserving locks of hair, whether of well-known individuals or merely as family keepsakes.
Naturally, one of the the earliest and most widely known stories is the biblical tale of Samson and Delilah, in which the seemingly invincible Samson is undone when he confides to the perfidious Delilah that the key to his mighty strength is his luscious, Timotei’d locks, and that without them he would be no stronger than a mere mortal. Snip snip.
And it came to pass afterward, that he loved a woman in the
valley of Sorek, whose name was Delilah.
And the lords of the Philistines came up unto her, and said unto
her, Entice him, and see wherein his great strength lieth, and by what means we may prevail against him, that we may bind him to afflict him; and we will give thee every one of us eleven hundred pieces of silver (Judges 16:5)
The tradition continued into modern times because locks of hair were ideally suited as particularly personal forms of souvenirs. The snipping started early: it was long commonplace to keep the remnants of a baby’s first haircut for good luck. Not only is the loss of a lock of hair from a living subject easily replaced and barely noticeable if cut skilfully, it is also easy to store in a locket or a simple envelope, and in the latter it is easily posted to far-off destinations as a keepsake to a friend or loved one. And the sense of owning a portion of the actual human tissue of a great individual can be too tempting for some to resist:
The Borgias have become a byword for badness: they are the great dynasty of the debauched and the depraved. Lucrezia in particular remains an icon of transgressive womanhood. Lord Byron was obsessed with her – he stole a lock of her hair.
A 1961 edition of The Alcalde, the alumni magazine of the University of Texas at Austin, expands on the October 1816 hair filching escapade:
Lord Byron frequented an Italian museum [the Ambrosian library at Milan], enraptured with the love letters of Lucrezia Borgia. In the case with the letters, resting on a glistening crystal block, was a strand of Lucrezia’s golden hair. Day after day Byron leaned over the showcase. Eventually he asked permission to copy some of the letters, but a suspicious librarian refused. The rejection fired Byron with a desire for revenge. He continued to haunt the exhibit, and once when the librarian was out of the room, he filched the hair from the case.
The lock ended up in the possession of a friend of Byron’s, the poet Leigh Hunt (here’s one of his poems read by Not The Nine O’Clock News), who collected other great writers’ hair in a collection that presumably still resides at the University of Texas.
The development of modern forms of forensic analysis has enabled some light to be shed on long-dead historical figures through the use of their hair. For example, there’s the case of the 1994 auctioning of a lock of the composer Beethoven’s hair, which was later DNA tested and was found to contain abnormally high traces of lead, which indicated that Beethoven may well have suffered the effects of lead poisoning.
For sheer extravagant financial outlay it’s hard to beat the 2002 online auction of ‘a wad of Presley's jet black hair, about the size of a cricket ball’, which returned a staggering $115,120 to its vendors. Five years later someone paid $119,500 at a Dallas auction for a lock of Che Guevara’s hair. Indeed, this suggests that modern celebrities should seriously consider banking their hair clippings as a trust fund for their heirs. But contemporary celeb Lady Gaga might be diluting the market somewhat with her possibly apocryphal 2009 plan to issue deluxe copies of her album The Fame Monster ‘packaged with a lock of the singer's hair’.
Within the voodoo superstition there is the theory that the possession of any part of a person’s human tissue can afford the bearer power over that individual if the correct rituals are performed. Although it’s fallen out of fashion somewhat in recent decades, the idea of a voodoo doll wrapped with a victim’s hair was popular in B-movies in the middle of the 20th century. Indeed, folk memories of voodoo medicine were still relatively widespread when a survey of medical professionals and patients was carried out in Louisiana in 1971, with one patient stating that ‘she knew of people who would “take cuttings from a person’s hair and fingernail clippings and little pieces of clothes to mix with a dried frog”’.
Lastly, there’s also the strange case of the Hair Museum at Chez Galip in Avanos in Turkey, in which a singular individual has collected thousands of locks of women’s hair and attached them to the cave-like ceiling of his museum. Each of the clippings is tagged with the name of the contributor and where they’re from. When my friends and I visited in 2002 my female companions contributed a small lock each for the collection, which as you might imagine is both curious and deeply creepy, particularly the sections with low ceilings, in which the collected tufts of hair dangle down and brush passers-by as they stoop.