“Able was I ere I saw Elba” is a famous palindrome attributed to Napoleon Bonapart. However, there is no concrete evidence that Napoleon himself created this palindrome. The Quote Investigator argued that Napoleon didn’t make this palindrome since it first appeared in the July 8, 1848, issue of The Gazette of the Union, Vol. 9, 27 years after the death of Napoleon, and it was credited to someone from Baltimore, Maryland named “J.T.R”. Here is the excerpt which contained the palindrome:
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.
The passage above stated that Napoleon didn’t come up with the palindrome, though his exile was clearly the inspiration the creator of the palindrome used. After the publication of the Gazette of the Union’s article, many more articles containing the palindrome has appeared over the years. Unsurprisingly, many variations of how the palindrome had come to be were developed. For instance, one variation in the March 22, 1858, issue of the Daily Dispatch, claimed that Napoleon told this palindrome to Dr. Barry Edward O’Meara:
AN EXTENDED ANAGRAM.—It is said that Napoleon, when he was asked by Dr. O’Meara, if he really thought that he could have invaded England at the time he threatened to do so, answered in the following extended anagram:
“Able was I ere I saw Elba.”
Whether this is true or not, we should like to see a more ingenious and extended anagram.
It may be true that the palindrome first appeared in 1848 since I can’t find an earlier reference and the Quote Investigator is quite reliable when it comes to this kind of things. However, I found another form of the palindrome which appeared much earlier, specifically, in the March 1820 issue of Journal Optique. It’s also an anecdote about Napoleon’s exile, and note that the context of the palindrome is quite different:
As Napoleon was approaching his island of exile, a sympathetic sailor offered him an old telescope to preview the site. This instrument was worn, dirty, and rusty, and as Napoleon used it, he received a permanent eye infection. When people later asked him if his bad eye was congenital, he gave them his stock answer: Able was eye ere eye saw Elba.