How Napoleon’s death in exile became a controversial mystery


When I noticed that August 15 was Napoleon’s 253rd birthday, I remembered a dinner I had several years ago with an elderly surgeon. He had amassed a remarkable collection of medical historical artifacts, and after we had our entries, he confessed that his most treasured memento was a severed piece of Napoleon Bonaparte’s body – manners prevent me from specifying. who Part of the body. Suffice to say, I was nauseous enough not to want dessert.

The surgeon whispered his intention to analyze the anatomical specimen in an attempt to understand the cause of Napoleon’s death in 1821, which has long been one of the most controversial mysteries in French historical circles.

I thought my Napoleonic encounters were over until I found myself in Paris recently. In my spare time, I made a visit to Napoleon’s Tomb, the Dôme des Invalides and the shadow of the Eiffel Tower. Looking at the polished red quartzite sarcophagus containing the remains of the old man, the question began to plague me: what did he die of, after so many years in exile?

Napoleon was only 51 when he died on the island of Saint Helena, where he was out of power and exiled from his beloved France. On May 5, 1821, he had been increasingly ill for several months, suffering from recurrent abdominal pain, progressive weakness, and persistent constipation. Her final weeks were marked by vomiting, incessant hiccups, and blood clots, or thrombophlebitis, in various parts of her body.

Doctors who performed Napoleon’s autopsy on May 6, 1821, concluded that his death was due to stomach cancer, exacerbated by bleeding gastric ulcers, after a huge dose of calomel – a compound containing mercury which was used as a medicine – was administered to him. the day before his death. Since then, armchair pathologists have wondered if this is indeed the case. Many physicians have come up with a multitude of diagnoses that have literally filled books and journals over the past century.

Napoleon I, Emperor of France, in exile. Image via Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images

More infamously, in 1961, a Swedish dentist named Sten Forshufvud, working with Drs. Hamilton Smith from Glasgow and Anders Wassen from Sweden made international headlines with an article they published in Nature magazine. Applying the latest technology to analyze a lock of the emperor’s hair, “probably taken immediately after his death”, they announced that Napoleon may have died of arsenic poisoning.

Forshufvud and colleagues initially reported that it was impossible to tell from sample results alone “whether the arsenic was evenly distributed (as expected in continuous exposure) or localized to one point (as it would be). in one large exhibition)”. A second paper from the same team analyzed a different hair sample supposedly taken from Napoleon’s head. Again they found high levels of arsenic and suggested that he had been intermittently exposed to the poison for, possibly, four months prior to his death and that the arsenic “could not have been added by afterwards, by spraying, dusting or dipping, as suggested by some reviewers.” Later hair samples showed similar results, although the provenance of all of these samples isn’t exactly definitive and could easily be from other heads.

Decades later, chemists J. Thomas Hindmarch and John Savory wrote a refutation of the arsenic poisoning claims. It is important to note, they reminded their readers, that in the bad old days of medicine – when bleeding and cupping were still major treatment modalities – arsenic was a common, albeit ill-advised, drug. often packaged as a known tonic. as Fowler’s solution. It was also widely used in rodenticides, insecticides, clothing dyes, and “even candy wrappers.” Additionally, French aristocrats, including Napoleon, wore arsenic-based face and hair powder. There may also have been arsenic in the water supply, the wallpaper covering Napoleon’s bedroom, in the coal smoke heating his rooms, and post-mortem exposure due to the arsenic content of the ground covering his coffin, while he was still buried in Saint Helena. before being brought back to Paris. And to make matters more confusing, there was also the 19th century practice of preserving strands of hair in arsenical solutions and hair powders.

Nonetheless, journalists and history buffs have embraced various conspiracy theories involving arsenic poisoning. Some claim that the alleged murderer (perhaps by accident) was Charles Tristan, Marquis de Montholon, who was Napoleon’s favored companion when they were both on the island of Saint Helena. A motive was even worked out in that Napoleon left Montholon 2 million francs in his will.

It’s a big story, but probably just that – a story – and at the expense of the historical reputation of the Marquis. Alas, as Napoleon supposedly once said, the story is a fable that people have agreed upon. (This line, by the way, has been attributed in different forms to a number of prominent French figures.) Given the ubiquity of arsenic at this time, Napoleon’s family medical history of carcinomas stomach cancer and the advanced state of his stomach cancer and hemorrhagic stress. ulcers, exacerbated by all the prescriptions of his doctors, the first autopsy results still seem the most probable.

Napoleon was the author of several revolutionary achievements and an almost divine reputation when he was in power, but history also recognizes that he was a tyrannical despot and a warmonger. In the end, debating the cause of his death may be the ultimate fool’s errand. His giant and impressive tomb reminds us too well that it is high time to leave the man alone.


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