“My death is premature. The English oligopoly and its hired assassin murdered me.”
Such were the malicious words of Napoleon Bonaparte when he made his last will in April 1821. Bonaparte, one of the most talented strategists in history, was a man who took his revenge from the grave.
The day after his death in British custody, May 5, 1821, sixteen observers attended the autopsy, including seven doctors. They were unanimous in their conclusion: Napoleon had died of stomach cancer.
However, Napoleon’s doubts about what “really” happened never completely disappeared. Did the British government precipitate his death? Have your French rivals poured poison into your wine? Was it really Napoleon who died at Longwood House in May 1821?
For nearly two centuries, all of these questions and more have been debated and contested.
Born in 1769 into a Corsican family of modest means, Napoleon Bonaparte reigned in 1811 over 70 million people and dominated Europe.
Four years later, his dynastic, political, imperial and military dreams were shattered and he was exiled to the remote island of Saint Helena.
Until his death, he and his family lived in a village called Longwood House.
Napoleon’s death did not come suddenly.
For months, he suffered from abdominal pain, nausea, night sweats and fever. When I wasn’t constipated, I had diarrhea. He lost a lot of weight. He complained of headaches, weak legs and discomfort in bright light. His speech was confused. Night sweats soaked him. Her gums, lips and nails were colorless.
It occurred to him that he was poisoned, but then he decided he had the same cancer that killed his father and that any medical help would be useless.
On May 4, 1821, he lost consciousness. On May 5, news of the great man’s death caused a worldwide shock and questions began to arise.
The first conspiracy theorist was Irish physician Barry O’Meara, who had been a surgeon on the ship HMS Bellerophon when Napoleon surrendered to his captain after Waterloo and became the personal chef of the French leader.
O’Meara cared for the ex-emperor for three years, until he explosively claimed that the British governor of St Helena, Sir Hudson Lowe, had ordered him to “shorten the life of Napoleon”. As expected, O’Meara was fired after that.
Lowe was the perfect guy to take on the role of the British villain, which is the version that went down in history and, no coincidence, the version Napoleon wanted the world to believe.
Napoleon had a clever plan to escape St Helena, claiming the weather was mortally weakening him and using Dr O’Meara’s medical authority as protection.
O’Meara was enchanted by the famous charm of his patient and supported his claims: in 1818 he accused Governor Lowe of trying to hasten Napoleon’s death and, in 1822, published a book in which he said the British government was determined to eliminate all possibility. of another Napoleonic comeback.
Many people suspected O’Meara to be right, but no one could prove it. There was still no method to identify the presence of arsenic in a dead body.
If Napoleon was assassinated, the murderer apparently escaped with impunity. Until a Swedish dentist found out the real story about 100 years later and took back everything O’Meara had left behind.
When Napoleon’s servant’s diaries were published in the 1950s, offering intimate accounts of the Emperor’s last days, Swedish dentist Sten Forshufvud believed he had found compelling evidence.
Of the 31 symptoms of arsenic poisoning discovered by scientists since 1821, Napoleon presented 28. So Forshufvud asked a Scottish university to do a newly invented arsenic test.
Neutron Activation Analysis (NAA) was performed on Napoleon’s head hair dating from 1816, 1817, and 1818, and revealed fatally high levels of arsenic in his system. O’Meara, it seemed, was right: Napoleon had been killed, but who had killed him?
Canadian millionaire Ben Weider (discoverer of young Arnold Schwarzenegger) came to the same conclusion using a different method.
Convinced that Napoleon had been assassinated, Weider reviewed the countless memoirs written by those who lived at Longwood’s for clues.
He and Forshufvud gathered evidence for the symptoms described in the memoir and compared it to the peaks in arsenic uptake shown by the NAA analysis. Based on this, they believed they had evidence of doses of the substance administered at intervals of several years.
Ben Weider’s book “Murder on Saint Helena” also mentioned a new suspect: Napoleon’s ex-friend, Charles Tristan, the Marquis de Montholon, a dark figure whose wife Napoleon had seduced, who desperately wanted to leave the city. island and who would personally benefit. of the death of the ex-emperor.
The restored Bourbon kings of France (who were just as interested as the British in keeping Napoleon under control) had threatened (according to Weider and Forshufvud) to publicize Montholon’s embezzlement of military funds if he did not agree to poison Napoleon. with arsenic. .
The arsenic debate
However, this elaborate theory did not convince everyone: even if arsenic was the cause of Napoleon’s death, it did not mean that someone would have killed the former French emperor with this substance.
In the 1980s, the poisoning debate took a different direction: Napoleon could simply have absorbed enough arsenic from his environment to die.
Every 19th-century house was saturated with arsenic: cosmetics, hair tonic, cigarettes, sealing wax, jars, insect repellents, rat poison, cake topping. Everything was toxic.
When a Newcastle University chemist tested a piece of Longwood wallpaper, stolen by a 19th century tourist, he discovered that the poisonous gases exhaled by a mold growing behind him could have contributed to Napoleon’s fatal decline. .
Researchers later compared the hair of Napoleon’s son with his first wife, Empress Josephine, to that of 10 living people, and concluded that Europeans in the early 19th century had up to 100 times more hair. arsenic in their body than a person alive today.
But those who were convinced that Napoleon had been assassinated did not accept this hypothesis.
For several years, the two schools of thought struggled with evidence and counter-evidence: the FBI, Scotland Yard, the Strasbourg Forensic Institute, the Paris police laboratories … they all made tests and they all confirmed high levels of arsenic in Napoleon. system.
However, neither has managed to definitively establish how the poison got there.
The theory of substitution
Meanwhile, a second debate broke out: on substitution.
The idea of the replacement emperor has been used in films and novels and certainly the most avid Napoleon fans were (and are) sure that the man who died on May 5 was someone else.
The most surprising version of replacement theories asserts that Napoleon never went to Saint Helena: that they sent a duplicate in his place. The former emperor is said to have retired to Verona and became a salesman of glasses, but was shot dead while attempting to climb the walls of an Austrian palace to see his youngest son.
This story, however, has no basis in the documents.
A second substitution theory revolves around Jean-Baptiste Cipriani, butler of Longwood until his death in February 1818 during a hepatitis epidemic and buried nearby.
The Cipriani school claims that the British secretly dug up Napoleon’s body in the late 1820s for unexplained reasons.
Faced with a French request in 1840 to unearth Napoleon and bring him back to Paris, the British quickly dug up Cipriani and threw him into Napoleon’s empty tomb.
Why, say the proponents of this theory, did the British officer in charge not allow the French observers present to see the body until midnight, by torchlight? Why didn’t he allow sketches? Why was the coffin opened for only two minutes before closing it and taking it aboard the French frigate?
Deadly faux masks, rotten socks, faded facial scars, position of the vessels that hold the viscera: the details raised and denied are too numerous to list here, but they have kept Napoleon’s scholars happy for years.
In 1969, on the occasion of the bicentenary of Napoleon’s birth, a French journalist even published a deliberately sensationalist “appeal” to the British: “English, give us back Napoleon!” (Brits, give us back Napoleon!).
His surprising charge was that the British royal family had re-buried Napoleon at Westminster Abbey, which would have been a final insult.
The most prosaic truth is that Napoleon’s body is (almost) certainly under the dome of the Invalides in Paris.
However, until French authorities allow the coffin to be opened to exhume the body, the theories about the final destination of one of history’s most fascinating characters will continue to haunt.
It is not only the death of Napoleon – who is celebrating his 200th birthday this Wednesday (5) – that is causing controversy. Almost all aspects of his life have been intensively analyzed and discussed over the past two centuries.
Discover three other curiosities you probably didn’t know about Napoleon’s life.
1. Rescue plan
After being defeated in 1814, Napoleon Bonaparte escaped from the Mediterranean island of Elba, where he had been exiled. When putting him in prison after the Battle of Waterloo, his enemies chose one of the most remote places on the planet: Saint Helena, a 121 km² island more than 1900 kilometers from the nearest land in the South Atlantic, an ocean that was controlled by the British Royal Navy.
Despite these precautions and Napoleon being under armed surveillance, there were plans to rescue him, including one drawn up by a group of former French soldiers living in Texas (then a province of Mexico), who wanted to resuscitate the Napoleonic Empire in America. from South. North.
2. Shorty … but not so much
One of Napoleon’s best-known nicknames was “the little Corsican” and one of the biggest myths is precisely this: that he was small.
The image of Napoleon as a tough, stocky military leader was so prevalent in the 20th century that there is even a psychological complex named after him.
When he died, the nail in the coffin came with the doctor’s report that his body measured “five feet, two inches and four lines, top of head to heels.” This would equate to 1.57 meters.
But … this measurement was made on the “metric foot”, a metric system established by Bonaparte himself in 1812 which was equivalent to a third of the meter.
In other words, adjusting this measurement to the metric system we use today, it was 1.68 meters, a little higher than the average at the time.
On July 13, 1815, 25 days after his defeat at Waterloo, Napoleon wrote a letter to King George IV of the United Kingdom, then Prince Regent, begging mercy.
Signed by the Emperor himself, the letter defends “the hospitality of the British people” and calls on the prince – “the most powerful, the most constant and the most generous of my enemies” – to protect him. Seeking refuge, the emperor compared himself to Themistocles, a Greek statesman who came under the Persian ruler Artaxerxes and was later received with honors.
However, Napoleon’s request for protection was rejected.