The Waterloo Association: Members Area
Napoleon and Death
By David Chandler
"Death is nothing," wrote Napoleon to General Lauriston in 1804, "but to live defeated is to die every day."  Like any many -- especially an active soldier -- the Emperor was aware of the possibility of violent death. Many soldiers are killed in the hot, desperate confusion of fighting. Relatively few die from coldly planned murder - but such was the fate of Napoleon Bonaparte in May 1821 after six years at St. Helena, barren rock in the midst of the distant Southern Atlantic.
Napoleon was fatalist, "All that is to happen is written down. Our hour is marked, and we cannot prolong it a minute longer than fate has predestined."  He was, therefore, aware of his destiny -- but he was determined to "use" his future to the full. It is incredible that the Emperor still remains so popular and fascinating to us today in the mid-1990s. He must at least have been very skillful at using propaganda. This fascination continues from 1821 to the present.
As an author, it was never my ambition to attempt to prove that Napoleon was murdered. That was left to Dr. Ben Weider, who in this regard has made treat advances over the last five years -- far more than we would have expected. Careful skepticism may be better than enthusiastic belief - but this compulsive interest over Napoleon's fate at St. Helena has yielded results, Forshufvud (and now Weider) are challenging the skeptics - many of whom are French. Many eminent individuals, including the historian André Castelot, Dr. Paul Ganière, Dr. Guy Godlewski (former president of this important journal), Baron Gourgaud and Comte de Las Cases (descendants of the companions at St. Helena) and Professor Jean Tulard (president of l'Institut Napoléon)  have argued why Napoleon could not have been murdered. They may well need to revise their arguments. The "conceivable" theory of Napoleon's murder has already passed through to the "possible" and Dr. Weider now clearly believes he has discovered the truth.
There is no doubt that the Emperor, whose fate it was to live out the last six years of his life as a captive on an isolated South Atlantic island, had his fair share of near brushes with the "grim reaper" on the battlefield. Indeed, his great military career might well have been stifled at a very early stage, for at the siege of Toulon in late 1793, he suffered all of three wounds -- having his forehead gashed by a bayonet on 15 November, his chest slightly injured when a horse was killed under him, one month later (16 December), and then, that very same day, receiving quite a serious injury to his left inner thigh -- again from a British bayonet - during the fierce fighting on Pointe L'Egulletter overlooking the inner harbor of the naval arsenal. 
Over the following 22 years of his active military career, he had a further 18 horses killed beneath him in battle. At the battle of Marengo in June 1800, he sustained a glancing blow from a spent ball on his left riding booth which tore away the leather and removed some of the skin beneath. Nine years later, at the storming of Ratisbon, he received a painful but very serious injury to the Achilles tendon just below his left heel, and later that same campaign on the second day of the Battle of Wagram (6 July), his left leg was again grazed by a cannon ball.
Over the years, he also survived two shell bursts. A shell fell beneath him in the siege-lines before Acre, but he was saved on that occasion by the prompt action of two soldiers standing close to him who unceremoniously flung their general to the ground and covered him with their bodies. All three escaped, save for being covered with sand, and Napoleon promoted his human shields to officer rank on the spot. He was probably never closer to death in action than at Arcis-sur-Aube on 20 March 1814. A howitzer shell, its fuse smoldering, plunged into the earth a few feet from the Emperor, who calmly rode his mount straight over the smoking missile. "The shell exploded, the horse, disemboweled went plunging down, taking his rider with it. The Emperor disappeared in the dust and smoke, but he got up without a scratch..." 
Some might consider that Napoleon bore a charmed life on the battlefield but, from first to last, his own attitude to death was that of a fatalist as has already been mentioned.
In addition to the perils of the active service, he also survived several assassination attempts. At the coup d'état of Brumaire in November 1799, an infuriated member of the Conseil de Cinq-Cent drew a dagger upon him, but was restrained by a grenadier before he could strike his blow. In September 1800, a second attempt on his life was narrowly foiled on the steps of the Paris Opéra, and Christmas Eve the same year saw the explosion of the "infernal machine" on his way to (again) the Opéra. But, fortunately, his vehicle had passed the critical spot before the detonation occurred, causing havoc behind him. 
According to his valet Constant - whose recollections are not invariable accurate - the year 1800 also saw an attempt to eliminate the First Consul by the placing of poison in his favorite snuffbox. What is absolutely certain is that he narrowly escaped a plot to kidnap and possibly murder him in late 1803 - the notorious George Cadoudal affair in which General Charles Pichegru (strangled in prison on 5 April 1704) and the famous General Jean Moreau (1763-1813, killed at Dresden) were implicated; and in 1809, in Austria, he was almost stabbed by the 18 year old student fanatic, Stapps, whose knife was narrowly deflected by the watchful General Rapp when the would-be assassin was merely an arm's length from his intended victim.
Clearly, Napoleon had his bitter enemies, amongst them a number of members of the exiled House of Bourbon. For a number of years, Louis XVIII apparently hoped that Napoleon might restore him to the throne of his ancestors, but this illusion was shattered after Napoleon's coronation on 2 December 1804. It may well be that the Emperor was in greater peril than he knew over the next decade - not so much from the known perils of the battlefield or from the pistol or dagger of the straightforward assassin - but from the concealed hand of the poisoner.
Napoleon's personal health was generally sturdy and sound. His energy was both immense and sustained. To cite only two examples from the mass of evidence recorded by his contemporaries, this bursting energy was both physical and mental. On 1 March 1805, he reputedly covered over 50 kilometers on horseback during a whirlwind tour of the battlefield and environs of Marengo, exhausting horses in the process, not to mention his accompanying staff and friends. 
Napoleon could be equally demanding - of himself and others - in the council chambers. On September 18 and 19, 1806, he is known to have dictated 102 letters to successive teams of perspiring secretaries almost without pause, as he prepared the final details for the launching of his devastating campaign against Prussia. 
"Work is my element," Napoleon once asserted. "I was born and made for work. I have recognized the limit of my eyesight and of my legs, but never the limits of my working power,"  As a result, therefore, the Emperor felt severely trapped on St. Helena, its being so small.
We know again from the recollections of his closest associates, that he was very moderate in his eating and drinking habits, and rarely would accept any form of medicine. And yet, at a number of very critical moments during his military career, he was abruptly afflicted by incapacitating and transitory illness. At Austerlitz, he was suffering from a severe attack of conjunctivitis - but on 10 December 1805, he could write to Josephine "...my eye trouble is cured." In May 1809, after the close of the unsuccessful battle of Aspern-Essling, he reached quarters at Kaiser-Ebersdorf, at 3:00 a.m. on 23 May, and sank into a deep depressed and totally lethargic daze for the space of fully 36 hours, during which time his staff could obtain no orders from him.
This was very untypical of him, but worse was to follow three years later. Before the battle of Borodino, he was afflicted by an attack of acute dysuria and swelling of the legs, which he attributed to the dampness of his bivouac area. Next day, (6 September 1812), he developed a persistent dry cough, hoarseness, difficult and irregular breathing, and an irregular pulse rate. Most accounts attribute this to a severe cold, but there may have been more to it than that. James Kemble is of the opinion that he was suffering from coinciding attacks of acute cystitis and pyelitis. 
Next year, after the battle of Dresden, fought amidst pouring rain, he was afflicted by severe vomiting and diarrhea, which was at the time put down to some garlic in a mutton stew or some off-color pâté-de-foie-gras that he had eaten, but once again the timing and nature of the indisposition gives one cause to wonder, as toxicologists will declare the odor of garlic under certain conditions is barely distinguishable from that of arsenic.
Throughout the following month, Napoleon was plunged into despondency and relative inactivity, finding it hard to make firm decisions. Then at Leipzig, on the night of 17-18 October, he was again attacked by severe stomach pains and lay doubled-up on his camp bed. "I feel bad. My mind resists but my body gives in." Was this, as Kemble asserts, duodenitis arising from a prolonged anxiety state ... or due to something much more sinister?
The most frequently discussed indisposition occurred within the period of the climactic series of engagements that ended Napoleon active career. It was an illness that struck on the night of 16-17 June, 1815, immediately after the battle of Ligny, when it required the ministrations of Prince Jerôme, Baron Larrey and Marchand to get their imperial master over the crisis. This may have been linked to prolapsed piles associated with complete exhaustion, as some have speculated, although important evidence exist that Napoleon did not, in fact , suffer from this complaint, as his faithful valet attested.  Whatever the cause of his illness that night, its effect on his power to reach decisions on the morning of the 17th proved critical. Instead of issuing effective orders for the proper pursuit of the defeated Prussians and the coordination of efforts with Marshal Ney required to trap Wellington at or near Quatre Bras, the Emperor spent the whole morning viewing the battlefield of Ligny, the scene of his considerable victory that previous day. This period of hesitation or at least inactivity proved of the utmost importance in determining the outcome at Waterloo and Wavre on the 18th.
On a number of very important occasions, therefore, Napoleon was very much off-form. It would be a bold man who would assert that one of these highly inconvenient lapses in the Emperor's state of well-being was due to other than natural cause. The strains of high command in any war are immense, and many in general has succumbed to one form of trouble or another on the eve of, actually during, or immediately, after a major engagement.  It was that Napoleon seems to have had rather more than his share of such misfortunes, giving his normally excellent state of health, which persisted through his middle as well as his earlier years.
One way and another, therefore, Napoleon was no stranger to the thorough and near-reality of death. The actual circumstances of his demise on St. Helena have been shrouded by doubt and surmise ever since that fateful day, 5 May 1821. Today the most generally-held belief is that he succumbed to carcinoma of the stomach  the supposed cause death of his father in 1785. But the evidence of the post-mortem reports- there were three independent accounts of the autopsy findings - is in some ways conflicting and not all medical authorities are in agreement with this finding. Some, including the French historian, Dr. Godlewski (as already mentioned above), postulates a death due to hepatitis and a gastric lesion rather than a cancer. It is hard for the inexpert layman to judge the purely medical evidence and the inclination for the modern scholar to accept the most generally held view is extremely strong, until some positive evidence to the contrary is produced and carefully tested. In the current context, the recent research of the FBI have greatly strengthened Dr. Weider's case.  Academic caution is at once traditional and very necessary, but is equally important to hold an open mind.
Of course the hypothesis that Napoleon did not die a natural death, strong rumor circulated particularly but exclusively in Bonapartist circles, that Emperor was being subjected to the attention of a poisoner - as indeed Napoleon so believe in his will. Some accused Sir Hudson Lowe of his villainy, but however unpopular and possibly misunderstood that person was, relatively few contemporaries gave such accusations much credence. It is now clear that the British government, far from trying to cause or hasten Napoleon's demise, took positive steps to guard against any such occurrence. The posting of sentries around Longwood which Napoleon so bitterly resented - and the insistence the he should be accompanied by a British office whenever he went riding - were measures dictated at length as much by a genuine concern for the safety of his person as by a wish to ensure that he did not attempt to escape from the island.
Those who argued that the need for such security precautions was baseless, given the presence of a Real Naval flotilla of the island, ready to intercept any such attempt, are not on very strong ground; even at the present time, despite the resources of electronic surveillance and other scientific measures, it is very hard to devise a fool-proof system as the deaths of the Baader-Mainhoff terrorists in the custom-built German prison in October 1977, serves to illustrate. To shield Napoleon from a possible assassination attempts, the authorities attempted to keep a tight control over all individuals arriving at and departing from the island, although they realized that only a Draconian policy of protection and supervision had much chance of shielding their distinguished prisoner from a assassin's bullet, or knife-blow, This the author of the book freely accepts as truth.
However, how could they hope to guard Napoleon from an enemy place, hidden, within his personal entourage? Forshufvud thesis is that Napoleon was administered arsenic, in calculated dose, over a number of years and finally succumbed to poisoning by the hand of one of two closest associates, Charles Tristan, count of Montholon - the coup de grâce being in the form of poisoning with mercuric cyanide in a lethal dose, just prior his death.
The evidence of the hair samples from Napoleon's head is of central importance to these allegations which the late - Sten Forshufvud and Ben Weider have now long set out to prove - and to my mind the latter has now almost proved his statement.
The arsenical content of hair samples which had been preserved by Napoleon's valets, Marchand and Noverraz, was demonstrated to be abnormally high by tests conducted in the early 1950's. When Sten Forshufvud first produced this thesis  it was received with strong resistance in French academic circles. The evidence was dismissed on hypothetical grounds that there were many ways other than poisoning, whether accidental or deliberate, which could account for the presence of the high content of arsenic. Doubt was also cast on the authenticity of the hair samples. But that they contained an abnormal arsenical content could not be denied following the publication of the findings of Dr. Hamilton Smith, head of the Department of forensic Medicine at Glasgow University. He had subjected individual hairs to an irradiation examination at the Harwell Atomic Research Centre situated near London (England) but the evidence reached was not to be conclusive as to numbers or dates of poisonings - only that arsenic had been received into the system of the subject.
For many years, the author shared the common view, doubting the validity of the evidence produced. A meeting with Ben Weider, whom I know and respect as a serious Napoleonic historian, in the course of a shared pilgrimage to the battlefields of Waterloo in 1975 - during which he revealed his total conviction that Napoleon had been intoxicated by arsenic and had finally succumbed to mercuric poisoning - caused me to reconsider all the available evidence. This by that year included an important development - the discovery of a technique by Dr. Smith, whereby the arsenical content of a single hair could be accurately measure in a series of small segments, By this method, it had proved possible to date with considerable accuracy the timing of the various dosages of arsenic that had been introduced into Napoleon's system, and this closely fitted a pattern with the more circumstantial evidence that will here be found treated at length. Calculations of the time involved in the growth of a hair could be made and compared with the arsenic-altered characteristics of the sample under analysis. Thus a sharp picture of some accuracy could be built up for the period 1820 - 1821, when the hair was shaven from Napoleon's head.
For the evidence of the state of the hair at the time of death, reliance had to be placed on, amongst others, the sample that had come down from the Emperors valet, Abram Noverraz. The evidence of the intake of cumulatively a large amount of arsenic at different times is impressive. The indication would seem strong that Napoleon's malady at St. Helena was caused by poison deliberately administered. It is well worth noticing that many of the symptoms that Napoleon evidenced on the island belong to the syndrome of arsenical poisoning.
The attribution of the deed to Count Montholon is of prominent consideration. Inevitably, if one accepted that Napoleon died from poison, the finder of suspicion and indeed of accusation, must point in the direction of this somewhat enigmatic figure. The progressive changes in the composition of the Longwood entourage - and the deliberately provoked quarrels and in-fighting amongst members of Napoleon's staff that led to them - would fit well with such a belief.
The sudden death of the majordomo Franceschi Cipriani, on 26 February 1818, closely followed by those of a woman and a child (both members of the Montholon household) also merits close examination as some historians have accepted it as fact that these deaths were caused by acute arsenical poisoning.
Certainly Montholon had opportunity to administer poison on numerous occasions. Equally, as a major beneficiary by Napoleon's will  (as he was no doubt fully aware, having been present at the drafting and as one of the three executors appointed by its terms), Montholon did indeed stand to benefit personally by his master's death; this regardless of whether or not he was an agent of the Bourbon government, as Dr. Weider is convinced was the case.
This aspect of the Forshufvud thesis,  as it was first propounded in 1961, has been particularly hard for scholars, especially French ones, to accept. Many historians, indeed, declare themselves to be wholly unconvinced, amongst them Napoleon's biographer, who wrote as follows:
"De quoi est mort Napoléon? Sten Forshufvud a imaginé un véritable roman policié fondé sur l'empoisonnement à l'arsenic et désigné le coupable: Montholon"
Tristan de Montholon is, indeed, an enigmatic and sinister figure. Many historians have tended to accept at face value the bland autobiographical sketch that Montholon included in the introduction to his Récits de la captivité de Napoléon à Sainte-Hélène.  According to this, he was a soldier of some experience (correctly). He claims to have received five wounds during the Austrian campaigns of 1809, subsequently promoted to " Général-de-Brigade" in 1811, and ultimately, after escorting Napoleon from near Fontainebleau to Paris in march 1815, and thereafter serving as an Imperial aide-de-camp with " l'Armée du Nord," attaining the rank of " Général-de-division" on 15 June of that year.
Few of these particular claims are supported by the records. Although Montholon did serve as an aide to Joubert, Championnet, Augereau, MacDonald and Berthier in turn between 1800 and 1809 - thanks in large measure to his step-father's ( the Count de Sémonville's) influence with Maret, the confident of Napoleon - there is no record of either his wounds or his claimed promotions in the dossiers held by the Ministry of War.  It would indeed seem that he never advanced beyond the rank of full colonel during the Napoleonic Wars. He earns no entry in Six's famous " Dictionnaire Bibliographique...".(Paris, 1934) as no generals are listed from 1792 - 1814 and he was not included in the further additional volume covering 1815. However we discover Montholon was promoted to a " Maréchal de Camp" (the equivalent to junior general) on 23 August 1814 by King Louis XVIII - having joined the Bourbons. 
Montholon, made Member of the Legion of Honor on 14 March 1806, was also made a Chevalier de Saint-Louis on 8 July 1814 ( a Royal promotion). He was given the title of Count of the Empire in 1809 when Napoleon also gave him a gift of 4,000 francs - but there is no clear mention of Montholon's wounds. It is true that Montholon switched back to Napoleon in early 1815 - and of course stayed with the Emperor, joining H.M.S. Bellerophon on 16 July and Later H.M.S. Northumberland from 7 August to 17 October 1815 when the French party disembarked at St. Helena. Nevertheless, it is certain that Montholon joined the Bourbons from April 1814 until early in February 1815. Except for Dr. Weider's, there is no other clear explanation for Montholon's movements.
There are some earlier periods of Montholon during his years in the Empire. He was, as he claimed, sent as Minister-Plenipotentiary to the Grand Duke of Wurzburg in early 1812, but the Emperor removed him of his secret and unacceptable marriage to Albine de Vassal. Similarly, Montholon had held a junior court post from December 1809 under the Empress Josephine - thanks to his step-father's influence, but he did not carry out many duties.
Following his disgrace in 1812, he spent a long spendthrift period, dissipating his step-father's money, before briefly holding a National Guard command on the Loire for one month from March 1814.
It is beyond the realms of reason that such a suave but unscrupulous and unprincipled man could also have been an agent of the sinister count d'Artois, who was brother to King Louis XVIII. The Bourbons, more than any other party, had reason to fear the possibility of a Napoleonic restoration as their popularity waned in France and Europe. A desire to remove, once and for all, the exile of St. Helena and the perils he represented much have been tempting. 
This is not to deny that Montholon's subsequent career and activities deserve to earn him a further measure of suspicion. His sale of many of St. Helena documents, in direct contravention of Napoleon's known wishes, indicates his desperate desire for ready cash in the years that preceded his eventual receipt of 2,200.000 francs - or more - from the emperor's bequest. Indeed, he was declared bankrupt in 1829 and had to flee to Belgium to escape his creditors. Moreover, his attitude towards Sir Hudson Lowe  and to the reasons for Napoleon's death were ambivalent - he shifted his ground inexplicable on these matters over the years. If he had been liked by Dr. Henry, Montchenu and Sturmer (and to a lesser degree by Marchand)  he was very much disliked by Bertrand, Gourgaud, Balmain and Dr. O'Meara and by the valet Ali ( born Saint Denis) whose forthright criticisms of both Montholon and his supposed recollections form an important part of the case against him.  The Récits are in large part - at least for the period 1815 - 1818 lifted from the writings of O'Meara and Las Cases. Only a quarter of the book - the least convincing part - is devoted to the three lost years of Napoleon's life, being based on Montholon's own writings.  By any standards Montholon appears to have been a scheming and unscrupulous man. His accusers though they are, Ben Weider (and the late Sten Forshufvud) are at some pains to examine the self-justification by which Montholon or any other agent of royalty could have pursued the King's wish against a man categorized as an outlaw and the enemy of peace in Europe. 
Dr. Weider has "...produced and reproduced a fascinating and deeply researched book. it could well lead to considerable changes being written into the history of Napoleon's last years on St. Helena", as I wrote in 1978.  Certainly the matter of Napoleon's illnesses and death have never been more exhaustively scrutinized. The story unfolds and the scientific evidence they furnish at the end of the volume are more than enough to provide justification for careful thought and reconsideration. There was a great fuss for several years before the Emperor's death at St. Helena as was recounted in The Observer (London) on Sunday 30 June 1816:
It is truly ridiculous to read the contradictory accounts with which the newspapers are crammed respecting Napoleon many of which contain gross falsehoods; and one would suppose at first they had never been written by persons in the island. Such are the stories of his recounting to two young ladies the history of his campaigns, with all the loquacious vanity of a schoolboy describing the hair-breadth escapes he had encountered in his first fox chase: when the fact is that it is a subject which he scarcely ever touched on, and never without having been asked some question concerning them, It is a piece with the Munchausen accounts of his breakfast, which modestly states that he drinks a pot of porter and two bottles of claret at that meal, when the fact is that there are few men more temperate than he in the use of wine. 
Although Napoleon in fact only drank white Chambertin, the writer prophetically mentions in the same paragraph both the instrument of Napoleon's poisoning and the means of its discovery. Little did the writer, so many years ago guess that Napoleon's fate and destiny might be linked with a "...hair-breadth"... bottles of wine". But then, of course, Montholon was already devastatingly at work.
It is now almost certain that Napoleon died by foul means, and that Count Montholon was guilty of murder.