Research Subjects: Napoleon Himself



Who Murdered Napoleon? Probably Nobody!

By Victor Blair

The majority of history books point out that Napoleon Bonaparte died of cancer of the stomach, which took the lives of two of his sisters and his father.  Hereditary factors do play some role in stomach cancer.

Wallpaper from Napoleon's Bathroom

Wallpaper from Napoleon's Bathroom

The Island of St. Helena has again revealed another piece of Napoleon's wallpaper; this time from his bathroom where he relaxed in  steaming waters, soothing the stress of his captivity.  I feel that I can now summarize all the possible ways that he might have ingested the arsenic that is profiled in samples of his hair without involving a 'supposed' poisoner! 

This piece of green wallpaper, appears to be colored in Scheele's green and gold, (the Imperial colors of France) that, when exposed to heat and dampness from his frequent lengthy hot soakings in his deep copper bathtub, would exude arsenical fumes. 

This wallpaper can now be added to the green flock paper with a star pattern, that was used in his drawing room, which was tested and proven to be Scheele's green. 

During the 18th century, the Swedish chemist, Scheele, invented a new color pigment, a solution of copper sulphate mixed with a solution of sodium arsenite which was named Scheele's green.  It has been proven that this 'green' was used in the wallpaper at Longwood House as well as in the green dye in the drapes that enclosed his camp bed. 

Wallpaper from Napoleon's Drawing Room

Wallpaper from Napoleon's Drawing Room

In 1893, it was found that when this 'green' wallpaper was combined with a damp environment, a mould formed.  This mould converted the copper arsenite pigment into an arsenical vapor called arsenic trimaythal, which is highly poisonous to inhale.  A physicist using X-ray florescent spectroscopy, which measures the copper atoms and arsenic atoms in any substance, proved that the original wallpaper had enough arsenic to stimulate Napoleon's other illnesses and hasten his death, and did not need the activities of any poisoner.  Even today, the walls ofLongwood House have to be re-wallpapered every two years, because of the dampness on St. Helena, though the Scheele's green pigment is not used nowadays.]

Walking from room to room, Napoleon would be now breathing a steady flow of these arsenical vapors on a daily basis for the five and three quarter years that he was to live in Longwood House, and where he remained indoors for most of the last two years of his life, mainly because of the ever prying eyes of his British captors. 

If this 'new' piece of wallpaper proves to be Scheele's green, I am convinced that the scales of logic would be tipping in the direction of the 'inhalation' of arsenical vapor.  { If it proves not to be Scheele's green, the evidence presented in this paper still overshadows any poisoner from this hypothetical crime scene.}

The poisoning theorists point out that there is a high concentration of arsenic in some preserved locks of Napoleon's hair and that the Count de Montholon was the culprit in feeding these dosages of arsenic to Napoleon by slipping it into his wine during his sojourn at St. Helena.  Surely Napoleon would have noticed the bitter flavor of rat poison in his wine that he liked watered down by fifty percent.  (Which reminds me, wouldn't the poisoner have had to takethat fact into account when feeding the arsenic powder to 'the' Napoleon who seemed to lack taste buds?)

Barring the wine, and of course the arsenical vapors from the wallpaper, where else could Napoleon have gotten the arsenic that showed up in his hair in the laboratory tests?  [The accepted natural level of arsenic in our hair/body is one nanogram per milligram.]

At that time, arsenic was readily available in many forms and the frequency of its use was unconstrained.

Arsenic was used in hair tonic s and doctors used it routinely in many of their remedies for cures of common illnesses.

Fish, which are in abundance around St. Helena, contain high levels of arsenic even today, and you can bet that fish was a staple, though not a favorite, on the dinner table at Longwood House.    

It should also be pointed out that, souvenirs of hair samples of famous people were common gifts to persons desiring a keepsake.  To preserve it for posterity, the hair was sprinkled with arsenic powder and then sealed in a vial or compact to prevent parasitic    damage.  Thus, it was natural that after a certain length of time, the hair would absorb the arsenic powder and give a high arsenical reading when tested in a laboratory.  There is no way of proving that the arsenical count found in the hair, had been ingested through the stomach or if it had been absorbed outwardly through the 'preservation' method, or for that matter, breathing it in through vapors. 

In Napoleon's era, arsenic was taken orally in small doses as a 'recreational drug' by Europeans in general, as was strychnine and antimony.  The user got a feeling of well being, strength and sexual staying power.  Is it possible that Napoleon was using arsenic before going to St. Helena and continued its use after his arrival, just to help get himself through the stress of captivity, boredom, melancholy and perhaps his suicidal tendencies?  This is a possibility that seems logical to me!

In 1805, ten years before St. Helena, a lock of Napoleon's hair owned by Isabey, the famous miniature portraitist, was tested and found that it had the same arsenic count as hair samples dated, 1821.  Who was poisoning Napoleon 16 years before his death?  Montholon certainly was not available in 1805 to be serving Napoleon glasses of wine.  Maybe the Emperor was just continuing his 'habit' or possibly, just having another helping of fish!

The poisoning theorists have recanted that Napoleon was poisoned to death by arsenic.  They point out that he was 'weakened' by the arsenic dosage and that some other malady would eventually take over and end his life. 

The most important component in poisoning is patience!   But, to take all those years to end the Emperor's life, one has to wonder where the sanity of the supposed poisoner, Montholon, was all this time.   After all, his wife Abiline, left him on July 2, 1819, and took their children (almost two years before Napoleon's death) and returned to the continent alone!   Montholon wanted to leave with his wife, but Napoleon coaxed her to persuade him, to stay on and look after his affairs.

In a recent auction at Sothebys (see attachment #3) of Montholon's unpublished personal letters, he writes to his wife in France, 'constantly begging her to find someone to replace him in his post at St. Helena and enable him to return to France, as he is missing her and their children so badly.  After Abiline had left the island, he noted that he has been ill for five weeks.  The description of his own symptoms is not dissimilar to those of Napoleon.  He suffers pain on his right side and is treated with vesicatories, (blister producers) the same treatments which were administered to Napoleon at the end of his illness.'  The poisoning theorists came that close to almost losing their poisoner!

These same theorists also point out that, Napoleon was fat when he died.  In fact, this has become their litany!

They emphatically purport that he could not have died of stomach cancer if he was fat, as people with cancer wither away and lose much body fat.  (Though, it must be pointed out that, the eight British doctors at the autopsy all diagnosed that Napoleon died of stomach cancer and signed the official report accordingly.  In fact, the hole found in Napoleon's stomach was called, "a cancer-related perforation of the stomach.")

Let's read a few quotes relating to Napoleon's weight from various authors in their books  

Walter Geer from his book, Napoleon the First, An Intimate Biography

"During the first weeks of 1821, his disease made rapid progress, but even his physician did not realize that it was mortal until a few days before his death.  He (Napoleon) became faint and weary, lay upon his bed or reclined on his sofa all day, and gave up dictation.   He could hardly retain any food, and lost flesh perceptibly."

James Kemble Napoleon Immortal  stated that in Napoleon's last months of life

"His face presented an unmistakable appearance; its aspect was anxious, his complexion had a gray cadaverous tint, his eyes were sunken and dim.  This surely wasthe cachexia of cancer, and all the symptoms pointed plainly to the stomach as the seat of the disease."

William Hazlitt's well-researched 1854 book, The Life of Napoleon Bonaparte

"He had grown considerably thinner in person in the last few months.  Several scars were seen upon his body.  On opening it (the body), it was found that the liver was not affected, but that there was that cancer of the stomach which he himself suspected, and of which his father and two of his sisters had died."

Even CaptainNicholls, the British orderly to Longwood House in 1818, wrote in his memoirs,

"At his dressingroom window with a red handkerchief round his head, he continued there a considerable time talking to Madame Montholon and the children. . .his countenance appeared cadaverous."

Where do the poisoning theorists get, 'fat when he died' point of view? When Napoleon arrived on St. Helena in 1815, a pencil drawing by a British captain showed his stoutness, and the report by the British doctors present at the autopsy mention 'a layer of fat' in their findings, though the physical autopsy was done 'only' by Dr. Antommarchi, Napoleon's personal physician.  Dr. Antommarchi's report read  "The heart is in a good state, enveloped in its pericardium, and covered with a little fat."

Where should we turn to for physical verification?  Why not go to the written word of the only five persons who stayed with Napoleon until his death

Let's look at their names and their personal memoirs .

Louis Etienne Saint Denis or also known as Ali, the librarian at Longwood House From the Tuileries to St. Helena

"As soon as he had shaved, I observed that the Emperor's face was no longer what it had been a fortnight or 3 weeks before; it was greatly changed and much thinner.  He was not the same man.  His limbs had lost their roundness; his thighs had diminished by a good third, his calves had melted away and his fingers were more slender."

Henri-Gratien Bertrand, Grand Master of the Palace and his wife Fanny Napoleon at St. Helena Fanny Bertrand just four days before Napoleon died,

"What a change has occurred in the Emperor since the last time I saw him.  Those emaciated features, that long beard hurt me to see."

Count Bertrand four months after Napoleon died, wrote the following letter to Joseph Bonaparte, Napoleon's eldest brother .       

"Toward the middle of March 1821, fever came on.  From that time he scarcely left his bed, except for about half an hour in the day; he seldom had the strength to shave.  He now for the first time became extremely thin The fits of vomiting became more frequent.  He then questioned the physicians on the conformation of the stomach, and about a fortnight before his death, he had pretty nearly guessed that he was dying of cancer."  

And from Bertrand's own diary 6 days before Napoleon died,

"The Emperor had lain down on his right side, something he had rarely done since he had been ill.  Usually he has lain on his left side, with his face to the wall ..In this new position, his face was lit up by the light filtering through the shutters, which revealed a profile more emaciated and altered than I had ever seen." 

Louis-Joseph Marchand, personal valet and most trusted servant who had no scruples to gain except his dedication, wrote In Napoleon's Shadow wrote on the 18th of March 1821

"He (Napoleon) ate a biscuit, and drank a little Malaga wine, and as he was getting ready to go into the garden, he called for Count de Montholon   On reaching his bench he vomited everything he had swallowed, but nevertheless insisted on staying there until he was forced to go back in .The Emperor's features were very drawn."

Dr. Francesco Antommarchi, physician to Napoleon for just under two years until his death, wrote in The Last Days of Napoleon

"The face is handsome and with eyes closed, he appears more to be asleep than dead   His lips are slightly pinched in a sardonic smile.The Emperor has grown considerably thinner, and is not now one quarter of what he wasbefore my arrival.

Chosen by Napoleon's mother, Laetitia, Dr. Antommarchi would have noticed and reported symptoms of arsenical poisoning, had they been apparent

Count Charles Tristan de Montholon, aide-de-camp to Napoleon and the person fingered to be the actual poisoner History of the Captivity of Napoleon

February of 1821 "The Emperor would receive no more visits, he felt no inclination for anything and it was with great difficulty that I (Montholon) could persuade him to drive round Deadwood Plain in the caleche.  He was growing thin so rapidly, that the reports of the orderly officer gave real uneasiness to Sir Hudson Lowe."

Here, it must be noted, that in all five memoirs without exception, a weight loss is noted, and in some cases, it is very perceptible.

I have personally conversed with a few doctors about the ravages of cancer without mentioning Napoleon's name.  They all agreed that a fatty layer around an abdomen in a cancer patient, could be intact internally, even after a considerable weight loss due to a cancerous atrophy to the exterior.  (I have their affidavits as proof!)

So, the recurrent perpetuation of the poisoning theorists saying, 'Napoleon was fat when he died' goes in my deaf ear! 

What also amazes me is, these same 'theorists' seem to never have any doubts or questions which might throw light on any contradiction to their 'so-called facts,' like saying, 'this is a possibility, not a certainty.'  In my opinion, a lot of their theorem is based mainly on supposition, speculation, and some conjecture.

They repeatedly point out that, when Napoleon was disinterred from his tomb at St. Helena in 1840 in preparation to take his remains back to France, the four caskets were opened and his body was observed to be in a remarkable state of preservation after being buried for 19 years. 

[Momentarily, let's move ahead to this century, in fact to March of 2001 "When the coffin of Pope John XXIII was opened after 38 years, the Pontiff looked as if he had 'died yesterday.'  None of the body had decomposed and the entire body was uncorrupted by time.  His body was not embalmed."  (Neither was Napoleon.)]  

These same theorists explain that arsenic is a preservative.  But, to be a preservative, Professor Molinaro, a toxicological specialist from the Gendarmerie criminal investigation department in France points out "For arsenic to preserve a body, it is NOT to be swallowed, but rather used externally. (applied to the skin)  What is more, large quantities are required."  Neither of these two conditions was fulfilled in any way in the death of Napoleon!

An explanation for Napoleon's preservation, can be explained by the following references

From Marchand's memoirs

"The Emperor, placed in a tin casket lined with white quilted satin, could not have his hat on his head for lack of space.  The head had rested on a pillow of the same material, and the hat was placed on his legs The same man who soldered the vases containing Napoleon's heart and his stomach, carefully soldered his first casket.  It was placed inside another mahogany casket, which in turn, was placed inside a third leaden shell that was also soldered.  Finally, it was set within a fourth mahogany casket, which was sealed with sliver-headed iron screws." 

And from the Hudson Lowe Papers

"A pit was dug sufficiently capacious to allow a wall of masonry, two feet in thickness, to be built within it round the sides.  The dimensions were, depth twelve feet, length eight feet, and breadth five feet.  At the bottom of the pit, where was also a layer of masonry, a large white stone was placed and the coffin on eight stones one foot in height .  Four other large white stones were placed on each side of the grave, and the whole cemented together.  The top was enclosed by an additional large white stone let down by pulleys and firmly cemented with the other portions of the grave, so as to form a stone coffin or sarcophagus; two layers of masonry were then built over, joined, and even clamped to the side walls.   The remaining depth of eight feet to the surface of the ground, was filled up with earth, and above the surface, flat stones were laid over the grave, the length of which was .. twelve feet, and the breadth . eight feet."

From Julia Blackburn's book, 'The Emperor's Last Island'

"His coffin was lowered into the ground; hot cement was poured over the cracks in the stones to make them airtight."

After travelling to St. Helena myself, I found Napoleon's original  grave was nestled in a deep valley where it was naturally 'cool' for this fort-like sepulchre of a tomb. 

All the preceding narratives were contributing factors in the preservation of Napoleon's remains.  You be the judge! 

Why the poisoning theorists picked Montholon as the assassin, can onlybe justified to me as:

They looked upon him as the weakest link of Napoleon's entourage as well as being unscrupulous and unprincipled.  They speculated that he was an agent of the Count d'Artois, brother to King Louis XVIII and was the 'designated' poisoner.   Though he was the provider and purchaser of the wine from Capetown for the Longwood household, there is no evidence to believe that he would be serving it to Napoleon, as there were appointed wine stewards that alternated from day to day at the dinner table.  In fact, if Montholon was serving the wine to Napoleon, it would have appeared suspicious and surely one of the 'St. Helena authors' would have mentioned this within their memoir pages over the years, but didn't.  That, would seem logical to me!

For the moment, let's just assume that Montholon was the server of the 'spiked' wine.  An incongruity of logic is the sudden death of Napoleon's majordomo, Franceschi Cipriani on February 26, 1818, closely followed by a woman and child, both members of the Montholon household.  Some historians backing the arsenic poisoning theory, are now even accepting these deaths as 'acute arsenical poisoning.'  Now, if in your wildest imagination, this be the case, then Montholon was freely handing out his 'doctored wine' to everyone! 

Here are some facts that support Montholon's reputation and dedication to Napoleon

Alan Palmer's An Encyclopedia of Napoleon's Europe

'It was Montholon who addressed a 'Remonstrance' to Hudson Lowe, Governor of the Island of St.Helena, complaining of the indignities inflicted on Napoleon; the remonstrance was smuggled to England and published by sympathizers with the fallen Emperor in March 1817."

Would Montholon have taken the time to write the following well thought out statement and send it to Sir Hudson Lowe??? 

"Are your ministers not aware that the spectacle of a great man faced with adversity is the most sublime of them all?  Do they not know that Napoleon at St. Helena, in the midst of persecutions of all sorts to which he opposes nothing but serenity, is greater, more sacred, more venerable than the foremost throne in the world, where he was for so long the arbiter of kings?  Those, who in this position, do not show Napoleon respect, only debase their own character andthe nation they represent."

On page 641 of Marchand's memoirs  In Napoleon's Shadow

"Count Montholon was urging the Emperor to see a British doctor in addition to Dr. Antommarchi."  Now I ask you, would Montholon foolishly ask for a second doctor to be called in who might discover his poisoning tactics?  Common sense says, I don't think so!

From his prison cell in the Citadel of Ham, 1844, Montholon wrote in his own memoirs about his stay on St. Helena

"The recollections of those 6 years passed in close intimacy with Napoleon, in conversing with him upon the events of his reign, or in writing from his dictation, the commentaries of this second Caesar --- the memory of forty-two nights passed in watching by his deathbed, upon that political Golgatha ofSt. Helena---and finally, the reward granted me by his formally expressed desire that I should be the person who should close his eyes and receive his last sigh, are not only the ruling thought, but continue to be the richest consolation of my declining years."

If Montholon really was a Royalist hired assassin, why would he be in prison?  Wouldn't the Royalists be a little concerned that he might verbally open up and 'spill the beans' on the clandestine poisoning on St. Helena?  In my opinion, if he was the poisoner, a financial payoff would be a more fitting reward, than a prison cell!

Lastly, Montholon supported Napoleon III's campaign to power as a Bonapartist.  Does this make any sense if he was really on the Royalist's payroll?

So, if Napoleon was NOT poisoned to death by arsenic, (and even the poisoning theorists admit to this) how did he really die? 

More than likely, he was misdiagnosed by the British doctor, Dr. Arnott who administered an excessive dose of the purgative, calomel. (mercurous chloride)  This dosage, (five times greater that normal) was approved by two other British doctors, Doctors Shortt and Mitchell.  In his last few days of life, Napoleon had been sipping an orange flavored drink, orgeat, (hydro-cyanic acid) to quench his thirst.  Add these two liquids together, combined with the stomach acids and you get, mercury cyanide ..a deadly poison! 

It is hard to believe that the British doctors conspired to eliminate Napoleon from life, as it was Britain's position to keep him alive as long as possible because they didn't want to be accused of murdering and making a martyr of him.  [The British doctors even recorded on paper the amount of calomel given to Napoleon a strange way to cover up a murder. . . or was it just a medical foul-up? .Probably so!]

I'm sure that this is a disappointment to those of you who are romantics like myself, who would prefer a mysterious enigma to accurate history!

Now that all of the above, relating to an arsenic count found in Napoleon's hair, has been made 'much ado about hardly nothing,' where does that leave us?  After all, no one is implying that he was 'murdered' by arsenic it only made him miserable and ill.

If you want to create your own conspiracy theory, then Montholon gave Napoleon the drink of orgeat for his thirst, and Dr. Arnott gave Napoleon a large dose of calomel to purge him.  If that was the case, why did Montholon wait all those years to complete his poisoning mission, when in fact it was done in one combined shot, and it was even recorded with the exact amount of purgative administered for the world to see?  A 'bungle up?'  It was more than likely!

The piece of wallpaper from Napoleon's bathroom on St. Helena that I alluded to at the opening of this writing, is presently being tested to see if it is Scheele's green.  If this proves to be so, then I feel that the evidence is overwhelmingly pointing to Napoleon breathing in arsenical vapors.

I feel that Napoleon died of cancer of the stomach that was hurried along by a misjudged dose of calomel.  (He probably only had a few more months to live.)

With this 'paper', I have been trying to bring out the facts from under the clouds of uncertainty, to show them in the sunlight of truth!

For a plausible finale, if the poisoning theorists want to do something constructive, they could 'dig up' one or two of Napoleon's other compatriot residents at Longwood House and check the locks of their hair for arsenical readings.  If they find nothing,--- nothing is lost!  But, if they find high arseniclevels in their tests,--- a sincere apology to the descendants of Count Charles Tristan de Montholon, is definitely in order!

Bibliography

Napoleon the First, An Intimate Biography  by Walter Geer.

Napoleon Immortalby James Kemble.

The Life of Napoleon Bonaparteby William Hazlitt.

St. Helena by Octave Aubry

The Hudson Lowe Papers

The Emperor's Last Islandby Julia Blackburn.

An Encyclopedia of Napoleon's Europeby Alan Palmer.

The Last Moments of Napoleonby Dr. Antommarchi.

In Napoleon's Shadow  byLouis-Joseph Marchand.

History of the Captivity of Napoleon by Count Montholon.      

Napoleon at St. Helenaby Henri-Gratien Bertrand.

From the Tuileries to St. Helena by Louis Etienne Saint Denis.

The Strange Case of Napoleon's Wallpaper by Hendrik Ball.

The Life of Napoleon Bonaparteby P.C. Headley

 

 Placed on the Napoleon Series: January 2002

                         

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