Napoleon Bonaparte? J.T.R. of Baltimore? Apocryphal?
Dear Quote Investigator: A famous palindrome is attributed to the renowned French leader Napoleon Bonaparte who was once exiled to the island of Elba:
Able was I ere I saw Elba.
Supposedly Napoleon said this reversible phrase to Barry Edward O’Meara who was his physician during his captivity on the island of Saint Helena. Is there any truth to this entertaining piece of folklore?
Quote Investigator: Napoleon Bonaparte died in 1821, and the earliest appearance of this palindrome located by QI was published in a U.S. periodical called “Gazette of the Union” in 1848. The article credited someone with the initials J.T.R residing in Baltimore, Maryland with the creation of the palindrome. Here is an extended excerpt discussing three palindromes. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1
Among other things worthy of note, our friend J.T.R. called our attention to the following ingenious though somewhat antique, arrangement of words by the “water poet,” Taylor:
“Lewd did I live & evil I did dwell.”
He remarked that this sentence had attracted considerable attention, and that challenges had been frequently given in the papers for the production of a combination of words, that would so perfectly “read backward and forward the same,” as this line does.
During some moments of leisure, he had produced the following line. In our opinion it is much more perfect than Taylor’s because there are no letters used or dispensed with, which are not legitimate, as in his, in the first and last letters—”lewd” and “dwell:”
“Snug & raw was I ere I saw war & guns.”
With the exception of the sign &, which is twice substituted for the properly spelt conjunction, which it represents, the sentence is perfect. By the way, there is couched in the sentence a fact, which many a soldier who has just returned from the battle fields of Mexico will fully appreciate.
But our friend was not satisfied with this near approach to perfection, but determined to produce a line which would require the aid of no sign to justify it as a correct sentence, and the following was the result of his endeavor:
“Able was I ere I saw Elba.”
Those who are acquainted with the career of Napoleon, will readily recognize the historical force of the sentence in its application to that distinguished warrior. Although our friend has cut more than one figure in the world, in all of which he brought credit to himself, we know he did not desire to figure in our paper to the extent we have caused him to do; he merely submitted the above sentences for our personal amusement, and we take the liberty of giving them to our readers; challenging any of them to produce lines of equal ingenuity of arrangement with the same amount of sense.
According to the text above, Napoleon did not construct the palindrome; however, the person who did craft the phrase employed the historical episode of exile as an inspiration for his wordplay.
Within a decade the palindrome had been reassigned directly to Napoleon Bonaparte. An illustrative citation in a Virginia newspaper in 1858 is given further below.
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.