Some of this document has been adapted from part of Hendrik Ball's web site
Grand Illusions. His work appears in the Victorian Web with the kind permission of the author, who of course retains copyright of both the text and illustrations. [Marjie Bloy Ph.D., Research Fellow, Victorian Web,
National University of Singapore]
Arsenic had been a popular way of poisoning people since the Middle Ages. Arsenic itself
is not very poisonous but another form of arsenic – arsenic oxide – is extremely
The symptoms of arsenic poisoning could be confused with those of many other illnesses, and it was also very difficult to detect arsenic after the death so it provided a practical
way of murdering someone.
Indeed white arsenic became known as 'inheritance powder'.
In 1815, after being defeated by the Duke of Wellington at the Battle of Waterloo, Napoleon Bonaparte was exiled to the tiny and remote volcanic island of St Helena in the south Atlantic. During most of his exile, Napoleon lived in Longwood House with a retinue of about twenty people who included
- Merchand, his valet, whose diaries were not published until 1950
- the Comte de Montholon, head of household, whom Napoleon regarded as the most faithful of the faithful
- the Comte's wife, Albine de Montholon, who was reported to be Napoleon's mistress and also the mother of his illegitimate child
- Dr Antommarchi, the Emperor's personal physician
- Hudson Lowe the Governor of the island
Several of these people had a motive for wanting to murder Napoleon.
Napoleon's tomb at Les Invalides in Paris
A few days prior to his death Napoleon had requested that his doctor make a
full examination of his body, particularly of his stomach. The Emperor died at
Longwood House in 1821.
The doctors who carried out the post-mortem
on Napoleon said that a perforated stomach ulcer that had turned cancerous was the main cause of his death.
Initially Napoleon was buried on St
Helena but his body was later removed and re-buried in Paris at the Invalides.
What Killed Napoleon Bonaparte?
“My death is premature. I have been assassinated by the English oligopoly and their hired murderer.”
These were the spiteful words of Napoleon Bonaparte when he dictated his last will and testament in April 1821. One of history’s most accomplished manipulators, Napoleon was a man who took his vendettas to the grave. The day after his death in British custody (on 5 May), 16 observers attended the autopsy, seven doctors among them.
They were unanimous in their conclusion: Napoleon had died of stomach cancer.
Nevertheless, the doubts Napoleon had fomented about what ‘really’ happened have never quite gone away: did the British government hasten his death? Did French rivals slip poison into his wine? Was it even Napoleon who died in Longwood House in May 1821? For nearly two centuries, all these questions and more have been discussed, disputed and recycled.
Born to a Corsican family of modest means in 1769, by 1811 Napoleon Bonaparte ruled 70 million people and dominated Europe.
Four years later, his dynastic, political, imperial and military dreams were shattered and he was exiled to the remote South Atlantic island of St Helena under British guard.
There, until his death he and his cooped-up, fretful household lived in a rambling villa called Longwood House.
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A slow death
That death did not come suddenly. For months Napoleon suffered from abdominal pain, nausea, night sweats and fever. When he was not constipated he was assailed by diarrhea; he lost weight. He complained of headaches, weak legs and discomfort in bright light. His speech became slurred. The night sweats left him drenched.
His gums, lips and nails were colourless. Briefly, he got it into his head that he was being poisoned, but then he decided he had the same cancer that had killed his father, and that all medical help was useless. On 4 May 1821, he lost consciousness.
On 5 May, news went out to a shocked world that the great man was dead – and the questions began.
A priest and a group of officers gather round Napoleon’s coffin. (General Photographic Agency/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
The first conspiracy theorist was the Irish doctor Barry O’Meara, who had been ship’s surgeon on HMS Bellerophon when Napoleon surrendered to her captain after Waterloo, and became Napoleon’s personal physician.
O’Meara tended the ex-emperor for three years, until he made the bombshell claim that the British governor of St Helena, Sir Hudson Lowe, had commanded him to “shorten Napoleon’s life”. He was, unsurprisingly, sacked.
Sir Hudson was eminently well-cast as a sneering British villain, which is the version that has come down through history and, not by coincidence, the version that Napoleon wanted the world to believe.
Napoleon had a cunning plan to escape St Helena by claiming its unhealthy climate was fatally weakening him, and using Dr O’Meara’s medical authority in support.
O’Meara fell for his patient’s famous charm and obediently backed up his claims: in 1818, he accused Governor Lowe of attempting to hasten Napoleon’s death, and in 1822, he published a book claiming the British government had been determined to eliminate all possibility of another Napoleonic comeback.
Many people suspected O’Meara was right, but nobody could prove it.
No method yet existed to prove the presence of arsenic in a corpse, and Napoleon’s was, in any case, buried in four coffins and under a large slab of rock.
If Napoleon had been murdered, it looked as if the killer had got away with it – until, that was, a pipe-smoking Swedish dentist came across the story some 100 years later and took up where O’Meara had left off.
When the private papers of Napoleon’s valet de chambre were published in the 1950s, offering intimate accounts of the emperor’s final days, Dr Sten Forshufvud believed he had spotted a smoking gun.
Of 31 symptoms of arsenic poisoning discovered by scientists since 1821, Napoleon presented 28, so Forshufvud asked a Scottish university to conduct a newly-invented arsenic-detection test.
Neutron activation analysis (NAA) was carried out on hairs from Napoleon’s head dated to 1816, 1817 and 1818 – he was a prodigious gifter of locks – and revealed fatally high levels of arsenic in his system. O’Meara, it seemed, had been right: Napoleon had been murdered – but by whom?
Canadian bodybuilding millionaire Ben Weider (discoverer of the young Schwarzenegger) was arriving at the same conclusion by means of a different method. Convinced that Napoleon had been ‘done in’, Weider had combed the many memoirs written by members of the Longwood household for clues.
When he and Dr Forshufvud collated evidence of the symptoms described in the memoirs and compared them with the peaks and troughs of arsenic absorption displayed by the NAA analysis, they believed they had evidence of doses administered at intervals over several years.
Their uncompromisingly-titled book Assassination at St Helena also named a new suspect: Napoleon’s old companion Charles Tristan, marquis de Montholon, a shady character whose wife Napoleon had seduced, who was desperate to get off the island and who stood to gain personally from the will.
The restored Bourbon kings of France (who had as much interest as the British in keeping Napoleon down) had (they claimed) threatened to make Montholon’s embezzlement of military funds public if he did not agree to slip Napoleon an arsenical Mickey Finn [a laced drink].
The arsenic debate
This colourful theory did not convince everyone, however: even if arsenic had killed Napoleon, this did not mean someone had killed Napoleon with arsenic.
In the 1980s the poisoning debate veered in a different direction, theorising that Napoleon could simply have absorbed enough arsenic from his environment to kill him off.
A 19th-century house was saturated in arsenic: cosmetics, hair tonic, cigarettes, sealing wax, cooking pots, insect-repellent powders, rat poison, cake icing – all were toxic.
When a Newcastle University chemist experimented on a scrap of Longwood wallpaper stolen by a 19th-century tourist, he discovered poisonous gases exhaled by a mould growing behind it could even have contributed to napoleon’s fatal decline.
Later researchers tested hairs from Napoleon’s son; his first wife, the Empress Josephine; and 10 living persons, and concluded that Europeans in the early 19th century had up to 100 times more arsenic in their bodies than the average person living now.
Inanimate guilty parties suddenly swarmed the crime scene.
The ‘murder school’ was having none of it.
For several years, the two schools of thought slugged it out with tests and counter-tests: the FBI, Scotland Yard, the Strasbourg Forensic Institute, the laboratories of the Paris police – all carried out tests, and all confirmed that high levels of arsenic had been present in Napoleon’s system, but still no one could definitely answer the question of how the poison had got there.
A French print depicting Napoleon’s funeral cortege on St Helena. (Art Media/Print Collector/Getty Images)
The substitution theory
Meanwhile, a second debate rumbled away in the background: substitution. The idea of the substitute emperor has been used in films and novels and certainly, Napoleon’s more besotted admirers were (and are) sure that he lived on – and that the man who died on 5 May was someone else.
The most startling version of the substitution theories claims that Napoleon never went to St Helena at all: that a double was dispatched in his place while the ex-emperor retired to Verona and peaceably sold spectacles, until he was shot attempting to scale the walls of an Austrian palace to see his young son. Sadly, the tale has no documentary basis whatsoever.
A second substitution theory revolves around Jean-Baptiste Cipriani, butler at Longwood until his death in February 1818 during a hepatitis epidemic, and buried nearby.
The ‘Cipriani school’ claims that the British secretly dug up Napoleon’s body in the late 1820s for inexplicable reasons of their own.
When faced with a French request in 1840 to disinter Napoleon and bring him back to Paris, the British therefore hurriedly dug Cipriani up and dropped him into Napoleon’s empty tomb.
Why, the ‘Cipriani school’ has demanded, did the British officer in charge allow the French observers present to see the body only at midnight, by torchlight? Why would he not allow sketches to be made? Why was the coffin only opened for two minutes before it was shut up again and taken aboard the French frigate?
Fake death masks, rotting socks, disappearing facial scars, the position of viscera-holding vases – the details claimed and denied are too many to go into here, but kept Napoleonic studies happy for years.
In 1969, the bicentenary of Napoleon’s birth, a French journalist even published a deliberately sensational ‘appeal’ to the British: Anglais, rendez-nous Napoleon! (Give us back Napoleon!) His startling contention was that the British royal family had had Napoleon reburied in Westminster Abbey, the ultimate insult.
The more prosaic truth is that Napoleon’s body (almost) certainly lies under the dome of Les Invalides in Paris. However, until French authorities allow the coffin to be opened for tests, theories will continue to swirl – some in respectable books and some in the more excitable corners of the internet – about the ultimate fate of one of history’s most fascinating characters.
Siân Rees is author of The Many Deaths of Napoleon Bonaparte.
This article was first published by History Extra in July 2016.
Napoleon poisoned with arsenic during St. Helena exile, toxicologist says
New scientific evidence supports the theory that Napoleon Bonaparte was poisoned with arsenic during his second exile, a French toxicologist…
PARIS — New scientific evidence supports the theory that Napoleon Bonaparte was poisoned with arsenic during his second exile, a French toxicologist said yesterday.
Pascal Kintz said he found traces of the poison in two strands of the French emperor’s hair, supporting the conclusions of past tests.
Napoleon died May 5, 1821, on the island of St. Helena, where he had been banished after his defeat at Waterloo. He was 52.
- The official cause of death is stomach cancer.
- Kintz did the tests at the request of the head of the International Napoleonic Society, Ben Weider.
- Weider claims Napoleon died of arsenic, arguing the British and French wanted to ensure he would not make a second comeback, as he had done after his exile on the island of Elba.
- Conspiracy theories took on new seriousness a decade ago after the FBI and Britain’s Scotland Yard discovered that clippings of Napoleon’s hair were tinged with poison.
- Kintz and colleagues said they previously examined and dismissed the possibility that the traces of poison could have come from other sources such as seafood.
- “I’m simply saying that the arsenic found in his hair is mineral — thus, there was poisoning,” Kintz said yesterday.
The strands Kintz studied were purchased at a Paris auction 30 years ago. In other tests, Napoleon’s hair samples came from a number of sources to ensure accuracy.
- Weider hopes to gain access to Napoleon’s body, buried in the gilded Invalides monument in Paris.
- French toxicologist says he
- found traces of arsenic in two strands of Napoleon’s hair
The "Poisoning" of Napoleon: an update
The story of Napoleon's fatal illness has fascinated and divided historians, medical experts and even lay observers, for the best part of two centuries.
It has always been a great temptation for the French to blame the British for the emperor's death, be it through a deliberate plot on the part of Hudson Lowe, or on account of the appalling living conditions Napoleon had to endure at Longwood House. Disagreement with this theory, on the other hand, would appear to have led others to interpret his death as a settling of old French scores.
The time has come, therefore, to take an objective look at the facts and findings as they stand, taking care to steer clear of speculation, as difficult as this may be when dealing with the life and personality of the Emperor.
I. THE ILLNESS AND ITS BACKGROUND
In the five and half years that he spent on St. Helena, Napoleon did not, as is often supposed, contract a single and subsequently fatal illness; rather it was a series of ailments and conditions which caused his general state of health to deteriorate gradually.
Although Napoleon's condition did worsen during the course of 1816 and the first half of 1817, it does not seem to have been any worse than that of his companions. As a result of the difficult climate, inadequate food resources and poor sanitary conditions on the island, many of the people arriving from Europe succumbed to serious ailments, particularly bowel disorders.
The death rate among the ranks of the British army and navy was as high as 7% a year. General Gourgaud was the first to be affected although in his Journal (Diary) he does not give a detailed description. From May 1816 onwards, Napoleon began to consult the O'Meara for insomnia, head aches and “gouty” pains.
This in turn took its toll on the Emperor's morale and he became melancholy and irritable. The periods of work and sickness alternated until September 1817, when the symptoms became more marked and Napoleon started to complain of pain on the right side of his abdomen. All witnesses reported significant swelling of the ankles and general weakness in his legs.
O'Meara diagnosed hepatitis, administered calomel (a common medicine at the time made from mercury chloride) and began drafting reports; the sending of these to the governor greatly angered the Emperor.
Hudson Lowe then came into direct conflict with O'Meara, accusing him of deliberately dramatising the situation in a bid to obtain Napoleon's repatriation on health grounds by ascribing the hepatitis to the living conditions on St. Helena. On 25 July 1818, Hudson Lowe managed to have O'Meara recalled to London.
On the night of 16 and 17 January 1819, Napoleon was taken so seriously ill that Bertrand and Montholon feared the worst. Dr John Stokoe was called in. His diagnosis of hepatitis diagnosis was much disputed and this criticism simply served to confirm the governor's suspicion that Napoleon's illness was in all probability a complete fabrication.
Antommarchi, a Corsican doctor, who arrived at Longwood in September 1819, similarly diagnosed a liver disease and recommended that the Emperor should take more physical exercise. This he did and there was a marked improvement. However, he was not in remission for long and by the middle of 1820 the illness had begun to return.
The horse ride he attempted in early October but could not finish, was to be his last. The illness was now advancing at any alarming rate, with Napoleon suffering pain on the right side of his abdomen, pain in his shoulder, fevers, coughs, chills in his legs, gingivitis, and alternating diarrhoea and constipation, etc.
On New Year's Day 1821, it was clear to all the Emperor's closest companions that Napoleon would not live to see the next. On 17 March he was confined to his bed, where he remained, apart from a few occasions, until his death on 5 May.
Antommarchi, whom the Emperor accused of not attending to his needs with sufficient care, prescribed tartar emetic (a vomiting agent containing antimony) which further weakened the patient. Napoleon then called for a drink made with bitter almonds, which should not have been administered. The English naval doctor Arnott was then called for. To begin with, he did not consider the illness to be that serious, but ultimately agreed that Napoleon was nearing the end. After consulting with two English colleagues and despite Antommarchi's opposition, Arnott prescribed a massive dose of calomel (10 grains compared with the normal one or two), causing severe haemorrhaging and death.
II. THE AUTOPSY
Antommarchi, assisted by seven British doctors, performed the autopsy at 2 pm on 6 May. The doctors were not, however, in agreement with Antommarchi's report and produced their own; Antommarchi then wrote a second report which differed slightly from the first.
In one of his reports, Antommarchi stated that “the liver was swollen and of an unnaturally large size”; and in another that “the spleen and hardened liver were extremely large and swollen with blood; the liver tissue, red and brown in colour, showed no other significant alteration in structure.
[ … ] the liver, which had suffered chronic hepatitis”. The organ that was found to be worst affected was the stomach. In addition to being heavily corroded with a “cancerous ulcer”, the stomach lining also contained a hole “some three lines in diameter” (7 mm).
The autopsy also reported significant annular swelling near the pylorus muscle, which was described as a malignant cancerous growth.
The discussion which ensued between the various doctors and with Hudson Lowe, Bertrand and Montholon, was extremely heated: ultimately the general consensus of the various reports and correspondence sent back to Europe centred on the “cancerous growth near the pylorus”; this conveniently had Napoleon dying of the same causes as his father and sister Élisa, thus suggesting hereditary predisposition. The British and French, having reached this compromise and being duly satisfied, met on 12 May at Plantation House for a reconciliatory tiffin, according to Major Gorrequer's Diary. Of course, once back in Europe, each member of the respective camps was to take the liberty of speaking his mind and giving his own opinions.
III. THE REACTIONS
For some one hundred and fifty years, the Emperor's illness continued to be the focus of wide-ranging speculation, some of it “extravagant and fantastic in the extreme” (Ganière). Indeed, what these interpretations did have in common was the fact that the illness diagnosed by the doctors examining the case was generally the one they specialised in.
Another key source of controversy stems from a problem of language and usage: in 1821, the words ulcer and cancer were used to describe the same condition. For it is clear that, far from being emaciated, Napoleon had simply lost weight through several weeks of not eating, and did not die of cancer as we understand it today.
Only the swelling around the pylorus muscle could be considered a developing tumour, its presence being connected with the effects of the earlier hepatitis condition and above all a serious corrosion of the stomach lining, leading to its perforation. For the lay observer, all of this may seem more than enough to explain Napoleon's death.
For an explanation of why this stomach ulcer developed, we need only look at the psychosomatic studies conducted over the last few decades. “During periods of anxiety, inner turmoil and serious vexation, the stomach lining changes structure and swells.
These findings show [ … ] that nervous dyspepsia can quite easily develop where worry, irritation, hostility and other difficulties of this nature are present, and that secondary organic changes, notably ulcers, can then occur; it is ulcers of this kind, when aggravated by constant nervous tension, which deteriorate until there is haemorrhaging and perforation of the stomach lining” (Gilbert Martineau). The Emperor's physical inactivity, imprisonment, continual ruminating over of the past and failed attempts to obtain repatriation – all factors present to a large extent in his exilic writings – are alone sufficient justification as to why the above process developed as it did.
IV. THE POISONING THESIS
Was Napoleon Bonaparte Poisoned? | AMNH
This question has plagued historians since the defeated French emperor’s death in 1821, on the island of St. Helena in the South Atlantic.
Since then, debate has raged about the cause of death — among several prominent and puzzling poisonings, including the death of Cleopatra, highlighted in the exhibition The Power of Poison.
The Emperor Napoleon in his study at the Tuileries. Via Wikimedia Commons/National Gallery of Art
Napoleon himself fueled suspicion, writing in his will a mere three weeks before his demise at age 51, “I die before my time, murdered by the English oligarchy and its assassin.
” Chief among the theories for the exiled emperor’s death is arsenic poisoning—an idea reinforced by the remarkable condition of his body when it was exhumed in 1840 for reburial in Paris.
Because it is also toxic to microorganisms, arsenic slows down the decomposition of human tissue, a phenomenon described as “arsenic mummification.” Subsequent 20th-century tests of preserved locks of Napoleon’s hair tested positive for arsenic.
But even if arsenic was the cause of death—which has not been proven with certainty—Napoleon’s charge of foul play may not be justified. A less dramatic but nonetheless plausible alternative is that Napoleon could have been exposed to the poison through the toxic fumes given off by wallpaper at Longwood, his prison home.
Longwood, the residence of Napoleon while in exile on St. Helena, from 1815 until his death in 1821 Via Wikimedia Commons/Michel Dancoisne-Martineau
A sample had been secured by a visitor to the site in the 1820s and tucked into a family scrapbook. It surfaced in Norfolk, England, in the 1980s and, when tested by British scientists in the 1990s, was found to contain arsenic. The discovery was not entirely surprising given that arsenic-based pigments were widely used to create brilliant greens in the 19th century.
In a hot and damp room, the wallpaper would give off arsenical vapors—enough to account for what was found in his hair, though perhaps not enough to kill him.
Napoleon Death Mystery Solved, Experts Say
Accusations of foul play have swirled around Napoleon Bonaparte's death for nearly two hundred years, despite the original autopsy findings, which said the French emperor had succumbed to stomach cancer.
Now a comprehensive medical study says evidence for the original diagnosis—and not poisoning—is overwhelming.
“I think that is accurate,” said Owen Connelly, author of several books on Napoleon and history professor at the University of South Carolina.
“The same thing killed his father and one of his sisters, Pauline,” added Connelly, who was not involved in the study.
Born in 1769 on the French island of Corsica (see Corsica photos), Napoleon ascended the French military hierarchy to become Emperor of France in 1804. [Learn about Napoleon's legacy].
During his reign of more than a decade, Napoleon at times controlled most of Europe, was defeated and exiled, escaped, reclaimed his title, met his final military defeat at Waterloo, and was exiled again to the Atlantic Ocean island of St. Helena. He died there six years later in 1821.
Ever since, the circumstances of his death have inspired spirited debate.
Some experts argue that powerful men—French, English, or maybe a combination—feared the ex-emperor might escape exile again and retake France.
Some of these conspiracy proponents suggest that Napoleon was slowly poisoned with arsenic, perhaps in his wine or food.
Studies of Napoleon's hair have revealed high levels of arsenic, but critics say medicines and even hair tonic of the era sometimes contained the toxic element. [Arsenic used to be in many everyday items].
To attempt to solve the puzzle, the international team behind the new study used current medical techniques to analyze the writings of Napoleon's doctors, his family's medical records, and eyewitness reports—some of which have only recently come to light.
The researchers found nothing to indicate arsenic poisoning, such as hemorrhaging inside the heart, in the historical data.
What they did find was strong evidence of gastric cancer: rapid weight loss, a stomach filled with a grainy substance indicative of gastrointestinal bleeding—and something of a smoking gun.
The 19th-century doctors had detailed a large lesion on the exile's stomach.
After cross-referencing the old descriptions with modern pictures of 50 harmless ulcers and 50 gastric cancers, the researchers reached their conclusion.
“It was a huge mass from the entrance of his stomach to the exit,” said Robert Genta, a pathology and internal medicine professor at the University of Texas, in a statement.
“It was at least ten centimeters [four inches] long. Size alone suggests the lesion was cancer,” said Genta, senior author of the new study, which appears in this month's issue of the journal Nature Clinical Practice Gastroenterology and Hepatology.
Now the question remains: What caused the cancer?
Despite Connelly's suggestion of genetic predisposition to the ailment, study author Genta says the jury is out on what exactly killed Napoleon's father and sister.