Life at Court
|19th-c lithograph after A. Géniole (Wellcome Collection)|
Last illness and death
Kasten Rönnow, under instruction from Stanislas, had an autopsy performed and the remains preserved. In a letter to the Journal Encyclopédique the surgeon Nicolas Saucerotte confirms that he and one of his colleagues were invited to make a skeleton of the body. This would have been an unbelievably gruesome process, involving boiling up the corpse to remove the flesh. A mausoleum for the viscera was erected in the Church of the Couvent des Minimes in Lunéville, with a sentimental Latin epitaph composed by the comte de Tressan. The church is long gone, the monument itself destroyed in the 2003 fire at Lunéville.
Buffon, in his Histoire naturelle, includes a description of the skeleton and 48 measurements of the bones, with a short biographical note based on Tressen's observations. He provides details of the post-mortem which confirmed that Bébé had died from lung disease. The length of the skeleton was given as thirty-three inches, the same height as the dwarf in life. It showed a curvature of the spine, which had deformed the ribs and chest cavity. Nicolas probably had no teeth at the time of death - the edges of the tooth sockets were partially damaged with only one visible hole.
Bebe's personality and intelligence
|Louis Elizabeth de la Vergie, Comte de Tressan (1705-1783),|
Tressan organised his presentation around the comparison of Bébé and Józef Boruwłaski, an individual of exceptional abilities by any standards. He reported (probably inaccurately) that Bébé had been born at seven months gestation, that his skull had properly formed and that he possessed only "an intelligence that did not surpass the boundaries of instinct". Distinguished pedagogues, and even the princesse de Talmont herself, had undertaken his education but it had proved impossible to teach him his letters or to make him grasp the rudiments of religion. He was incapable of performing even the simplest dance routines without constant prompting.
In a comment calculated to strike a chord with his Enlightened readers, he notes that Descartes's theory of an "animal soul" was better proven by Bébé "than by a monkey or poodle" (In a letter, supposedly from Madame de Pompadour, Tressan's correspondent declares how she would love to meet this being who could amuse so well, but did not know the existence of God.). Tressan did not hide his distaste: "I have never looked upon Bébé without repugnance and with that secret horror that the degradation of our nature almost always inspires."
Those fonder of the dwarf, tried to revise the judgment. The princesse de Talmont, publishing a pamphlet in his defence, was readily accused of sentimentality, but she convincingly refutes the idea that Nicolas lacked normal self-awareness; she thought him sincerely attached to his prince, fond of his family and generous in giving alms. More tellingly, "he understood the full worth of his small stature". The surgeon Nicolas Saucerotte goes further: far from being morally cowed, he "had the highest opinion of his little person".
In fact, though his scholastic accomplishments were limited, it is clear that Nicolas could talk, interact normally and perform the theatrical and ceremonial tasks assigned to him with a certain panache. There is also plenty of corroboration that enjoyed ordinary close relations with his family. Geoffrey, in his 1746 memoir, was often quoted to claim he had no memory, and did not recognise his own mother when he first came to Lunéville. But he goes on to say he that he later embraced her with great affection. Guerrier, a local writer, writing in 1818, reported that he had been sad and homesick when he first arrived and had wanted his mother to stay with him permanently. Certainly he hoarded his savings for the family, unwittingly making them the wealthiest people in the village. When he fell ill Stanislas sent immediately for his mother and her brother; With his mother's encouragement, he confounded Tressan's expectations by receiving the Last Rites of the Church..
Peyre and Granat conclude that there is no evidence, either physical or documentary, that Bébé was clinically mentally handicapped. Well-informed commentators like Guerrier did not say so; Edouard Garnier noted perceptively that he would have had little opportunity for intellectual development:
[In 2018 Jean Granat & Evelyne Peyre published a book based on their research:_____, "Bébé", un nain à la cour de Lunéville: (1741-1764), 2018
With this Prince lived the famous Bébé, till then considered as the most extraordinary dwarf that ever was seen ; who was, indeed, of a perfectly proportioned shape, with very pleasing features, but who (I am sorry to say it, for the honour of our species) had, both in his mind and way of thinking, all the defects commonly attributed to us. He was at that time about thirty, his height two feet eight inches; and when measured, it appeared that I was much shorter, being no more than two feet four inches.
At our first interview he shewed much fondness and friendship towards me; but when he perceived that I preferred the company and conversation of sensible people to his own, and above all, when he saw that the King took pleasure in my company, he conceived against me the most violent jealousy and hatred; so that, had it not been for a kind of miracle, I could not have escaped his fury.
One day we were both in the apartment of his Majesty. This Prince, having much caressed me, and asked several questions to which I gave satisfactory answers, seemed pleased with my replies, and testified his pleasure and approbation in the most affectionate manner ; then addressing Bébé, said to him :---You see,' Bébé, what a difference there is between JOUJOU and you! He is amiable, cheerful, entertaining, and full of knowledge, whereas you are but a little machine. — At theSe words, I saw fury sparkle in his eyes; he answered nothing, but his countenance and blush proved enough that he was violently agitated. A moment after, the King being gone to his closet, Bébé, availed himself of that instant to execute his revengeful projects ; and slily approaching, seized me by the waist, and endeavoured to push me into the fire. Luckily I laid hold with both hands of an iron hook, by which, in chimneys, the shovels and tongs are kept upright, and thus I prevented his wicked design. The noise I made in defending myself, brought back the King, who came to my assistance, and saved me from that imminent danger. He afterwards called for his servants, put Bébé into their hands, bade them inflict on him a corporal punishment proportioned to his fault, and ordered him never to appear in his presence any more.
In vain did I intercede in behalf of the unhappy Bébé, I could not save him the first part of his sentence ; and as for the other, his Majefty did not consent to revoke it but upon condition he should beg my pardon. Bébé, with much reluctance, submitted to this humiliation, which very likely made on him a deeper impression. In effect, he fell sick a short time after, and died. Every body attributed his death to his jealousy, and to the vexation which the difference, that was said to be between us, had given him. I sincerely pitied him, and would not have related this circumstance, but to remark, that the smallness of our slature does not prevent us from experiencing the power of the passions. Happily for me, when I have been the sport of them, they never inspired me with any thing contrary to humanity and the laws.