INS: J. David Markham


"Murder by Death?"

Napoleon's Demise Reexamined

New FBI tests show arsenic levels "consistent with arsenic poisoning."

Assassination at St. Helena Revisited cover

Assassination at St. Helena Revisited
By Ben Weider, C.M., and Sten Forshufvud.
544 Pages. John Wiley & Sons. $30.00.

I die prematurely, murdered by the English oligarchy and its hired assassin. [Napoleon's will.]

Twenty years ago, if you suggested to serious historians that Napoleon had been murdered while in exile on the remote South Atlantic island of St. Helena, and that he was murdered by one of his most trusted French companions in exile, you would likely have been laughed out of the room. No more. Beginning with the research of amateur Swedish toxicologist Sten Forshufvud in the 1950s, the idea that Napoleon was murdered began to become a respectable theory. With the publication of Ben Weider and David Hapgood's book The Murder of Napoleon in 1982, the theory had become a serious assertion. Weider's latest book on the subject, written with the now deceased Sten Forshufvud, is designed to convince the skeptics. Moreover, publication of this book coincides with the release of new arsenic tests of two of Napoleon's hairs by the Chemistry and Toxicology unit of the FBI. They used Graphite Furnace Atomic Absorption Spectroscopy to determine the levels of arsenic remaining in the hairs. These hairs, given to the young Betsy Balcombe in 1818, three years before Napoleon's death on St. Helena, showed levels of arsenic that were, in the words of the FBI, "consistent with arsenic poisoning."

On the surface, this would not appear to be all that great a controversy. After all, Napoleon said as much in his will, and the treatment of Napoleon by the British in general, and the island governor Sir Hudson Lowe in particular, was bitterly criticized by Napoleon's defenders both before and after his death, up to the present day. But Weider and Forshufvud does not lay the blame upon the British. They claim that the murderer of Napoleon was one of his most trusted French aides on St. Helena, Count Charles-Tristan de Montholon. They assert that Montholon was acting under the direction of the French king Louis XVIII's brother, the Count d'Artois (later to become Charles X, one of France's worst kings), who wanted to insure that Napoleon would never be able to return to reclaim his throne.

Briefly, here is what Weider says happened on St. Helena. Over a period of some six years (Napoleon was on St. Helena from 1815 to 1821), Napoleon was given dosages of arsenic. Contrary to popular belief, it is not the arsenic that is claimed to have killed Napoleon. It was given to weaken Napoleon's system and to give the world the impression of numerous bouts of sickness, either brought on by the poor climate of the island or by cancer, that would eventually lead to Napoleon's demise. Death itself was brought on by a combination of other common ingredients that produced deadly mercurial salts in the stomach. The stomach's natural defenses had been weakened by the previous administration of certain beverages. This method of poisoning, according to Weider, was commonly used in those times. Moreover the autopsy performed on Napoleon is said to have found conditions in his stomach that were consistent with those that would be expected from an administration of this type of poisoning.

What kinds of evidence, almost 200 years after the fact, can be found to support these assertions? The evidence can be found in a combination of modern technology and eyewitness accounts on St. Helena itself. The most important of these accounts are the published memoirs of Louis Marchand, Napoleon's ever loyal chief valet, and, to a lesser extent, Henri Bertrand, the grand marshal of the palace. It is Marchand's work in particular that is useful, providing day by day accounts of Napoleon's condition and virtually everything that he ate or drank. These two memoirs were only published in the 1950s. The eye witness accounts also include the autopsy report mentioned above.

The technology can show varied degrees of intake in different time periods by measuring arsenic levels in the hair. This testing, using irradiation testing procedures, was done by Dr. Hamilton Smith at the University of Glasgow. The real detective work begins when the indications of high arsenic content are matched to symptoms reported by various eye witnesses on St. Helena, especially Marchand. Weider presents convincing evidence that Napoleon exhibited symptoms of arsenic poisoning at the same time that the hair samples indicated high arsenic content.

One of the more controversial aspects of Weider's thesis is that the murder was accomplished by Montholon. It is this assertion that probably prevents French historians from being more open to the results of Weider's research. Yet, the case for Montholon's involvement is strong. It was Montholon who was the least likely of all of Napoleon's companions in his final exile. An aristocrat, he had been out of favor with Napoleon, and rallied to his cause only at the last moment, after Waterloo. And it was Montholon who ultimately controlled the food and drink given to the emperor; a level of control necessary if one is to poison someone over a long period of time. As for Montholon's motive, Weider has previously suggested the possibility of blackmail, and in this work suggests that his loyalty to the king was sufficient for him to undertake this ignominious deed.

One may well ask why it was necessary to go to all of this trouble; why not just poison him and get it over with? Weider's answer is strikingly logical. Napoleon was still very popular with many of the French, especially the army. An obvious murder might well have sparked an uprising. Moreover, Napoleon's son was still alive and in Austria and, presumably, ready to claim his right to the throne.

This is a well written and fascinating book. If you are unfamiliar with the research done on this issue, it is a must read. Even the more knowledgeable historian will find the additional details and arguments most rewarding. Weider is nothing if not confident in his work, but it is a confidence born of careful research and strong logic.

Weider on occasion digresses from his consideration of events on St. Helena, suggesting other times when Napoleon and others close to him may have been poisoned. This is stuff for further research. But regarding his main point he provides very strong arguments. Reasonable scholars may well disagree with his thesis. A 1994 debate on the subject at the Napoleonic Society of America's conference in Chicago featured both passionate and reasoned presentations on both sides. Yet Weider's evidence is strong, and difficult to disprove.

In his forward, David Chandler, one of the giants of 20th century Napoleonic research, states that Weider and company's research is "more than enough to provide justification for careful thought and reconsideration." This may well be a conservative reaction. This research, based as it is on eyewitness accounts and modern technology, now stands as more than a simple theory or thesis. It stands as a well based, reasonable interpretation of history; those who disagree with it will need to counter with research of equal quality and arguments of equal strength.


J. David Markham
International Napoleonic Society


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