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Who poisoned Napoleon Bonaparte?

Posted in Famous crimes, Famous Last Words, Historical articles, History, Mystery, Royalty, War on Saturday, 26 January 2013

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This edited article about Napoleon originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 110 published on 22 February 1964.

Napoleon, picture, image, illustration

Napoleon on his deathbed clutching the cross of the Legion d’honneur which he had himself founded

The storm which came sweeping in from the sea battered at the doors and windows of Longwood House on the lonely island of St. Helena. Draughts crept in through cracks in the badly-built walls and made the candles flicker.

Weak light played over the face of the man who lay on the little curtained bed. Only the faintest suggestion of movement under the blankets showed that he was alive.

The merest whisper came from the delicate, half-open lips: “At . . . the head . . . of the . . . army . . .”

And then no more.

At ten minutes to six on the evening of May 5, 1821, Napoleon Bonaparte died, and the people gathered around his bedside wept.

So ended the life of the greatest soldier the world has ever known. For six years Napoleon had been living in exile on St. Helena, an island in the middle of the Atlantic, where he had been sent by his British conquerors. And for the whole of that time he had been guarded night and day, for fear that he might escape and plunge Europe into war again.

The day after he died a number of British surgeons examined Napoleon’s body and reported that death was due to cancer of the stomach.

That seemed like the end of the story. Until, that is, the year 1961. Then a Swedish doctor named Sten Forshufvud wrote a book which made a stunning announcement. Napoleon, he said, did not die of cancer, he was poisoned.

For proof of his theory, Dr. Forshufvud* pointed to a lock of hair taken from Napoleon’s head at the time of his death. When it was analysed, the hair was found to contain thirteen times the amount of arsenic usually found in human hair.

When the doctor made this discovery, a number of people questioned the value of the hair as evidence. They pointed out that it could have been sprayed with arsenic.

Dr. Forshufvud replied by testing another two locks of Napoleonic hair obtained from different sources, and they, too, were found to contain an enormous amount of arsenic. He argued that while it was possible that one lock had been sprayed with arsenic, it was unlikely that the other two locks, obtained from different places, could have been so treated.

That was not the only evidence the doctor found. It is known that when Napoleon’s tomb was opened in 1840, before the removal of the body to Paris, onlookers were startled to discover that the Emperor was preserved in a near-perfect condition.

And it is a medical fact that arsenic acts as a preservative in corpses.

“Ah,” retorted Dr. Forshufvud’s critics, “but arsenic from the soil tends to accumulate in buried corpses.”

Again Dr. Forshufvud had an answer. The body had been placed in three coffins and laid in a tomb lined with masonry. It was impossible for arsenic to have reached the corpse through four protective walls, so it must have been there when Napoleon died.

It was also found that while Napoleon was on St. Helena he showed the symptoms of nineteen different diseases. If all the symptoms of these diseases are added together, they are a sign of arsenical poisoning.

If the twentieth century doctor believed that the Emperor was murdered, the nineteenth century victim himself seems to have suspected it. For in his Will he wrote:

“I have been assassinated by the English. . . .”

What did Napoleon mean by this enigmatic statement? Was it just another expression of his frequently-voiced complaint that the English had put him on St. Helena because they knew the climate there would ruin his health?

Or did he mean, more sinisterly, that he was aware someone was slowly poisoning him?

Let us assume for a moment that he was poisoned. Now who would want to kill a man who was a prisoner with practically no hope of escape?

The first suspect is the Governor of St. Helena, Hudson Lowe.

There are two pieces of evidence which make this strict disciplinarian suspect. After Napoleon’s death an English doctor named O’Meara said that the Governor had invited him to assist in Napoleon’s murder. Then there is the fact that Lowe had been involved in a plot to kill Napoleon’s brother Joseph before he came to St. Helena. Could he have been sent to the island as Governor to arrange Napoleon’s murder?

The other obvious suspects on the island are the doctors who attended the Emperor during his exile. But none of them spent six years on St. Helena, and the Swedish doctor claims that the slow poisoning took just that time.

But there were other suspects in Europe.

The French Royalists had the best motive of all for wanting Napoleon dead. A restoration of the Empire would mean ruin for those who supported King Louis XVIII. The Bonapartists were active in France, but they needed a leader – and the obvious choice was Napoleon himself. So the Emperor presented a very real threat to the Royalists, who would only feel safe when he was dead.

Who could kill the Emperor for the supporters of Louis XVIII? The Marquis de Montchenu, the commissioner the Royalists were asked to send to St. Helena to keep watch on the exile? But although he was on the island, that nobleman very rarely met Napoleon.

The other European suspects are the Austrians and the Russians. But they seemed quite content to let the Emperor eke out his life in exile.

Who, then, could have murdered Napoleon – if he was murdered at all?

Dr. Forshufvud has provided scientific evidence to show that Napoleon might have been poisoned.

But he has failed to find the murderer.

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