By Bob Elmer
Editor of the Journal of the Association of Friends of the Waterloo Committee
Napoléon undoubtedly had large quantities of arsenic in his body when he died. However, this does not necessarily mean that he was murdered. It could have been self-administered. And that does not necessarily mean suicide…
Over the last 35 years several books and a great many magazine and newspaper articles have been written, claiming that Napoléon was killed by poisoning.
The current story was started by a Swede: Doctor (of Dentistry) Sten Forshufvud, in his 1961 book Who Killed Napoléon?
Seventeen years later the story was given a new lease of life by the body-builder millionaire Ben Weider. He collaborated with Sten Forshufvud to give the theory a wider publication in the book, Assassination at St. Helena.
Four years after that – in 1982 – David Hapgood, then editor of Focus, the magazine of the American Geographical Society, wrote The Murder of Napoléon, which describes how Ben Weider learned from Sten Forshufvud how he had investigated the story.
Then a further 13 years later – in 1995 – Ben Weider and Sten Forshufvud published another book, Assassination at St. Helena Revisited. Since Sten Forshufvud has since died, this has become very much Ben Weider’s book, and he has been promoting it very vigorously around the world.
All of these books make the same assertions:
Napoléon’s body exhibited evidence of having ingested arsenic over a long period;
Nonetheless – and this is something many reviewers fail to grasp – the books claim that the arsenic did not kill Napoléon. Instead, he was given an emetic containing antimony to damage his stomach lining; calomel – mercurous oxide – as a medicine, and finally a drink made from bitter almonds. These last two combined in his stomach to form cyanide of mercury, which rapidly caused his death;
Since Napoléon died of poison, the authors reason, there must have been a poisoner – a murderer. Looking at those with opportunity and motive, they alighted on the Comte de Montholon, supposed tool of the Comte d’Artois, later King Charles X, a sworn enemy of Napoléon who had made earlier attempts on his life.
Let’s see how the thesis stands up.
The evidence for there being arsenic in Napoléon’s body when he died is pretty convincing. It is of two types, which we might term direct and indirect.
The direct evidence was provided by testing Napoléon’s hair for the presence of arsenic. Sten Forshufvud managed to acquire hair that Napoléon himself had given to a number of people, or that had been acquired in other ways:
Hair given by Napoléon to his chief valet, Louis Marchand. This was donated by Commandant Henry Lachouque, one-time director of La Musée de l’Armée at Les Invalides;
Hair shaved from Napoléon’s dead body on 6th May 1821 by Abram Noverraz, Napoléon’s second valet, and given to a Monsieur Mons. This was donated by Clifford Frey;
Hair given by Napoléon to Betsy Balcombe, the young girl at the Briars where Napoléon first stayed on St. Helena, on 16th March 1818; and hair given by Napoléon early in 1818 to Fanny Bertrand, wife of Henri-Gratien Bertrand, ex-Grand Marshal of the Tuileries, who accompanied Napoléon to St. Helena. Both of these locks were donated by Dame Mabel Brookes, grand-niece of Betsy Balcombe;
Hair given by Napoléon to Admiral Malcolm on 3rd July 1817. This was donated by Colonel Duncan Macauley, a descendant of Admiral Malcolm.
Hair retrieved from the floor by Comte Emmanuel Las Cases on 16th October 1816 whilst Napoléon was having his hair dressed. This was donated by Serge Troubetzkoy.
Short lengths of these locks, each equivalent to 15 day’s or a month’s growth, were irradiated and then tested for the presence of arsenic. The tests revealed not only the quantity of arsenic, but also approximately when it had been ingested.
The tests were carried out by Doctor Hamilton Smith, of the Department of Forensic Medicine at the University of Glasgow. He found quantities of arsenic far in excess of the levels normally present in hair; ingested from 1816 until Napoléon’s death in 1821. Arsenic may have been ingested earlier, but no hair, and therefore no evidence, exists for that.
Indirect evidence was provided by the symptoms that Napoléon exhibited: all consistent with arsenical poisoning. Another characteristic was his increasing corpulence; and tellingly, the noticeable lack of decay of his body when it was exhumed in 1840 for re-burial in the Dôme des Invalides in Paris – arsenic is known to preserve the body after death.
The Case Against
Of course, the case has its weaknesses.
In the early 19th century, arsenic was used as the basis for green dye. Could the arsenic in Napoléon’s body have come from green curtains or green wallpaper? Unlikely: otherwise it would have effected all of the inhabitants of Longwood.
Could the arsenic have come from the ground, after Napoléon was buried? Also unlikely, since he was buried in four sealed coffins, and when he was exhumed, not even the damp had got in.
However, in 1994 a more serious challenge arose. Another Noverraz lock; said to have been snipped by the wife of Abram Noverraz from the head of the dead emperor while he lay in state after his death. And this lock contained no arsenic!
However, it was surprising that a mere servant could have crept unseen into the room of one of the world’s most revered figures, and raped him of a lock. And the note to which the lock was attached had been altered. And the colour didn’t seem quite right either.
Comte Flahaut, Napoléon’s one-time aide remarked in 1862, “I have seen so many locks of hair purporting to be that of the Emperor over the last 20 years, I could have carpeted Versailles with it.”
So maybe this new ‘evidence’ could be discounted after all?
But one objection wouldn’t go away. It is this: there is evidence of Napoléon ingesting arsenic for at least 4.5 years until he died in May of 1821. Can we really imagine a poisoner continuing for such a huge amount of time before finishing off the victim? Ben Weider calls this the ‘Cosmetic Phase’, and says it was to create an impression of bad health so Napoléon’s eventual death would appear natural. But FOUR-AND-A-HALF YEARS? Surely not. There has to be a better explanation.
Accept that Napoléon’s body did indeed contain a very high level of arsenic. Does that justify the assumption that he was poisoned – murdered?
At the beginning of the 19th century, most of today’s recreational drugs were not known in Europe.
The various forms of marijuana were known in the West Indies – Indian hemp or ganja; and in the Middle East and in India – Hashish. But marijuana was hardly used in Europe.
Cocaine was known to the South American natives, who chewed Coca leaves to relieve their suffering, or simply to get high. But it was not yet used as a drug in Europe.
Lysergic acid occurred from time to time in the form of ergot in wheat, causing outbreaks of wild behaviour, gangrene and death. But its controlled use as a hallucinogen was completely unknown.
Opium was beginning to arrive, but it was chiefly restricted to ‘opium dens’ in Chinese communities: not places that were frequented by Europeans of high reputation.
Instead, the recreational drugs of Europeans were extraordinary to our modern thinking: such things as arsenic, strychnine and antimony.
These substances, and others, were widely used in the most unexpected ways. For example, ladies rubbed arsenic on their faces to make their skin white; they dropped belladonna into their eyes to dilate the pupils for a ‘wide-eyed’ look; men had their horses’ coats brushed with antimony to make them glossy. Deadly poisons all, but easily obtained.
Arsenic was also used by some as a mind-altering drug, much as marijuana or cocaine is used today. In small doses it gave the user a feeling of well-being, strength, and sexual staying power.
But arsenic was very much a drug of dependence. The user was forced to continue to ingest the substance in larger and larger quantities, both to obtain the effect, and also to stave off withdrawal symptoms. Dosages soon reached levels that would be immediately fatal to a non-user, yet to cease would bring on the terrible symptoms of acute arsenical poisoning. Inevitably, doses reached levels intolerable even to the experienced user’s body, and physical deterioration and death ensued. 
Thus we have here an explanation for Napoléon’s long term ingestion of arsenic that is much more plausible than a poisoner continuing to dose him secretly for as long as 4.5 years.
The Coup de Grace
But what about the final phase?
We know from the diary of Louis Marchand that Napoléon was indeed given tartar emetic, which contains antimony; that later he was given calomel, which contains mercurous oxide; and that he was given a drink called orgeat that may be made from lemons, but which may also be made from bitter almonds which contain traces of cyanide.
These things did indeed happen. But did they kill him? And were they done with murderous intent?
Napoléon had four doctors at various times while he was at Longwood.
His first doctor, Barry O’Meara, was an Irishman whose prior experience was as a ship’s doctor. He was no doubt very skilled at treating wounds and the results of ship-board accidents; but it is most unlikely that he had ever had to deal with the symptoms of chronic arsenical poisoning. In 1818 he was recalled to London on the advice of Napoléon’s jailer, Sir Hudson Lowe, who believed O’Meara to be overly friendly and loyal to Napoléon.
John Stokoe was the English doctor on board the Conqueror who treated Napoléon three times in 1818. He also became popular with Napoléon, who requested that he should be the replacement for O’Meara, but this was vetoed by Sir Hudson Lowe. Stokoe was then court martialled for contradicting Lowe by stating that Napoléon suffered from ‘liver disease’. He was found guilty and struck off the Navy list. There could be no hepatitis on Hudson Lowe’s St. Helena.
In 1819 O’Meara was replaced permanently by Francesco Antommarchi, a Corsican doctor who had studied in Pisa and Florence and obtained his diploma in 1812. Antommarchi had been practicing for seven years when he arrived at St. Helena. But he was not regarded as being a very good doctor.
Archibald Arnott was an English naval doctor who tended Napoléon only during his last few weeks.
Medicine was poorly understood at the beginning of the 19th century.
Doctors would bleed patients to rid them of ‘bad blood’ believed to be causing their illnesses; sometimes even bleeding men suffering shock after the amputation of a limb.
Another remedy was the application of heated water tumblers to the skin. As the air within them cooled, a suction was created that caused blood to be drawn through the pores – ridding the patient of the ‘bad humours’ thought to be causing the illness.
Magical ‘cure-alls’ were widely advertised in the newspapers and freely prescribed by Doctors who evidently believed in them.
Typical was Du Barry’s Revalenta, which claimed to cure ‘indigestion, flatulency, dyspepsia, phlegm, constipation, all nervous, bilious and liver complaints, dysentery, diarrhoea, acidity, palpitation, heartburn, haemorrhoids, headaches, debility, despondency, cramps, spasms, nausea, sinking fits, coughs, asthma and bronchitis, consumption and also children’s complaints.’
Another popular panacea was Fowlers Solution, which contained arsenic. Many ‘curatives’ contained alcohol and mild opiates.
Chemistry was equally poorly understood. Highly poisonous substances were used with little knowledge of their side effects or interactions.
Laudanum, a solution of opium in alcohol, was used to treat many disorders before it was known to be addictive. Arsenic and mercury were used to treat syphilis. Strychnine was used as a stimulant and as a tonic. Antimony was used as an emetic.
Given this paucity of knowledge, and the limited experience of the doctors and bystanders involved, should we expect them to know that the common medicine calomel contained mercurous oxide; that orgeat made with peach kernels contained hydrocyanic acid; or that these would combine in the presence of stomach acids to form cyanide of mercury? Weider says that this reaction was known to the ‘professional poisoners’ of the period, but that is not the question: would it have been known to Napoléon’s doctors and attendants?
Holmes? Or Occam?
To justify improbable ideas, supporters of conspiracy theories are fond of quoting Sherlock Holmes’ famous maxim, “when you have eliminated all which is impossible, then whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” But how do you know that all other possibilities have been eliminated?
Another maxim, of much greater age, known as Occam’s Razor , recommends economy in logic. Put another way, it tells us that we should prefer a simple explanation over an unnecessarily complex one.
Not that this article is intended to debunk Sten Forshufvud or his vigorous supporter, Ben Weider. Without the research of the former, no evidence of arsenical poisoning would ever have emerged, and without the energy of the latter, few people would have been aware of all the evidence.
Nonetheless, their assassination theory is not the only explanation of the facts, nor even the simplest.
Rather than a secret poisoner directed by a murderous heir to the French throne, how much more likely it is that the arsenic found in the fallen emperor’s body was ingested by himself, to help him through the torturous, humiliating, and mind-shatteringly boring years of his banishment.
Was the aging Napoléon simply an arsenic addict; an early 19th century ‘junkie’? And if he was, can we blame him?
- Concerning arsenic eating, Chambers Journal of Popular Literature, Science and Art, 1885 states, “When a man has once begun to indulge in it he must continue to indulge; or, as it is popularly expressed, the last dose kills him. Indeed the arsenic eater must not only continue his indulgence, he must also increase the quantity of the drug, so that it is extraordinarily difficult to stop the habit; for, as the sudden cessation causes death, the gradual cessation produces such a terrible heart knowing that it may probably be said that no genuine arsenic eater ever ceased to eat arsenic while life lasted.”
- After William of Occam, c 1285-1349.