Napoleon Bonaparte died in 1812 at age 52 while in exile on the British island of St. Helena. According to the autopsy performed a day after he died, stomach cancer was the official cause of his death.
Others believe that he was poisoned by Hudson Lowe the English governor of St. Helena in collusion with French monarchist count de Montholon. It’s said that they were afraid that Napoleon would eventually escape St. Helena, go back to France, and reclaim the throne, bringing about another war between the two countries.
Another theory is that one of Napoleon’s loyal aides purposely made him ill to gain enough sympathy to garner public opinion and allow him to go back to France.
Arsenic is the Smoking Gun
In 2001, a study by the Strasbourg Forensic Institute examined strands of the emperor’s hair and found “major exposure to arsenic.” In fact, these scientists determined that there was at least eight times the normal amount of arsenic found on an average human. At the time of Napoleon’s death, arsenic was a murderer’s common method of poisoning because it was undetectable when administered over a long period of time.
The Poisoned Wallpaper Caper
The poisoning speculation started as far back as the end of the 19th century with Italian scientist Bartolomeo Gosio. He stated that wallpaper containing copper arsenite dye when damp releases a toxic arsenic vapor. Samples of Napoleon’s bedroom wallpaper were found to contain Scheele’s Green pigment. Since the emperor spent most of his time in his bedroom throughout his 20 years in Longwood House on St. Helena, some have concluded that continuous exposure to arsenic vapor caused his gradual death.
While this theory didn’t necessarily imply homicide, it did question the original stomach cancer cause of death findings by the emperor’s doctors. In 2003, a small scrap of Napoleon’s bedroom wallpaper, thought to be the only surviving artifact from Napoleon’s bedroom, was sold at auction. This three-inch scrap was part of an 80-year-old undertaker’s collection.
Death by Doctor?
In 2004, after studying the medical reports, forensic pathologist Dr. Steven Karch from the San Francisco medical examiner’s department contended that Napoleon’s doctors may have unintentionally killed him with daily enemas, leaving his body short of potassium and causing a deadly heart condition.
Finally, in 2007, an international medical study confirmed the original autopsy findings, eyewitness reports, and medical records. The telltale symptoms were rapid weight loss and a grainy substance found in the stomach, an indication of gastrointestinal bleeding. Also, there was family history of stomach cancer. Napoleon’s father and a sister died of the disease.
Daniel Kevles, “Don’t Chew the Wallpaper”, Slate Magazine,
“Arsenic Poisoning”, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arsenic_poisoning
CNN, “Napoleon poisoning theory revived”, http://archives.cnn.com/2001/WORLD/europe/06/01/napoleon.poisoning/
Russell Aiuto, “The Death of Napoleon”, http://www.crimelibrary.com/terrorists_spies/assassins/napoleon_bonaparte/index.html
James Randerson, “Doctors may have killed Napoleon”, http://www.newscientist.com/article.ns?id=dn6187
Ted Chamberlain, “Napoleon Death Mystery Solved”, http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2007/01/070117-napoleon.html