Much has been speculated about the death of Napoleon Bonaparte. Was he murdered? Did he die of natural causes? In her latest blog post, Villa Finale Interpretive Guide, Sara Taylor explores this “mysterious” topic.
Napoleon in Exile
To understand the circumstances of the death we need to look at the last few years of Napoleon’s life.
After his defeat at the Battle of Waterloo, the British and their allies decided that they would not return Napoleon to St. Elba, from where he had escaped from captivity. While they would have preferred that he had died in battle or had been executed after trial by the French authorities, they decided that a far more removed location was best suited for the deposed emperor. St. Helena, a British controlled island off the coast of Africa would be the new home of Napoleon. Napoleon arrived in the fall of 1815 with several followers and aides-de-camp and lived at Briars Pavilion.
His life on the island was quiet and honestly rather boring. Where on St. Elba he was given the governance of the island and kept busy by reforming the islands militia and infrastructure, on St. Helena he was isolated and any news from the continent was tightly controlled. He wasn’t allowed to move about the island without the presence of a British officer which he greatly resented and so just restricted himself to the grounds of his newly renovated home of Longwood House.
For a man who had been so active in politics and in military affairs for the majority of his life, who had an almost manic work ethic, this new sedentary life must have been a maddeningly boring and no doubt contributed to his health.
On top of this, his second wife, Maire-Louise of Austria, had chosen not to follow her husband into exile and did not communicate with him, instead taking up with the Austrian officer who was supposed to watch over her (and who she secretly married before Napoleon’s death). His son, Napoleon Francis, who now lived in Vienna with the title Duke of Reichstadt, also did not correspond with his father.
A New Opponent
In 1816, the new governor of St. Helena arrived, Sir Hudson Lowe, and Napoleon had a new opponent.
Lowe and Napoleon did not get along from the moment they met and they avoided meeting if at all possible.
In most Bonapartist depictions of Napoleon’s exile, Lowe is portrayed as the evil jailor and his own actions and personality does not help matters. Described as lacking tact, Lowe’s enforcement of restrictions and sometimes petty rules further led to friction between the two men.
In 1816 when rumors were floating around of a possible rescue attempt by Bonapartists in the US, Lowe tightened security around Napoleon. Lowe also refused to call Napoleon by his imperial titles, and even restricted firewood to Longwood House so that Napoleon and his followers and servants were reduced to burning furniture for warmth. Even the representatives of Austria and France on the island thought Lowe’s behavior was awful.
Longwood House itself also did not help Napoleon. One scholar has said “it was as insalubrious place for a person with ill health as you can get.”
Longwood House was a large rambling villa, and while St. Helena has a very good climate, Napoleon, his doctors, and his followers often complained that the house, was damp, cold, and windswept. Napoleon’s doctor, Barry O’Meara, said that the house was mold infested and it had a rat problem.
An Ill Emperor
Toward the end of 1817, Napoleon began to show signs of illness. It was rumored that he had been diagnosed with hepatitis, which does not have the same medical implications it does today. Hepatitis at the time was a catch all term for gastric issues or gastric distress.
But these new signs greatly troubled Napoleon’s doctor at their intensity.
In June 1818, in a letter, Dr. Barry O’Meara described having found Napoleon “laboring under a considerable degree of fever…great pain in his right side, rending headache, general anxiety and oppression, skin hot and dry, his pulse quickened.” O’Meara repeatedly asked for Napoleon’s residence to be moved.
Later that year, in The Times Newspaper in London, O’Meara accused Lowe of trying to hasten Napoleon’s death. As a result, he was fired by Lowe, which did nothing to improve his image with those sympathetic to Napoleon.
His successor, Dr. John Stokoe, also found Napoleon’s living conditions to be too harsh and also petitioned them to changed. In August 1819 he was court martialed on ten counts of giving the ailing emperor “favored treatment” and for spreading rumors that Governor Lowe wanted to end Napoleon’s life.
For Napoleon himself, he complained of stomach pain, nausea, night sweats, and fever. He complained of headaches, his legs were weak, and he was sensitive to bright light. He lost weight and when he wasn’t constipated he was assailed with diarrhea. These symptoms continued for the next two years.
In July 1820, Napoleon “complained of nausea after eating, a severe pain in his upper abdomen, fever and pain in his legs.” By December the pain in his abdomen was much more acute. He barely could keep any food down.
In February 1821, Napoleon’s health took a dive for the worst.
In March, he was confined to bed.
In April, he dictated his last will “I wish my ashes to rest on the banks of the Siene, in the midst of the French people who I have loved so much…I die before my time, killed by the English Oligarchy and its hired assassins.”
Finally, on May 5th he spoke a few broken phrases, “France, the army, head of the army, Josephine.” He died at 5:49pm that evening.
His wish to be buried on the banks of the Siene was ignored and he was buried in the Valley of Willows on St. Helena at the orders of Lowe. Buried in five caskets, one of mahogany, one of ebony, two made of lead, and the final one of tin.
His tombstone bearing no name, just “Ci Git” – French for “Here Lies.”
What was the Cause?
There are two leading theories as to what killed Napoleon, depending on whose camp you follow: stomach cancer or arsenic poisoning. Both are compelling arguments but which one is more likely?
Stomach cancer is the official cause of death and judging from the autopsy report there is little speculation as to why so many agree that it was likely stomach cancer that caused Napoleon’s death. During the autopsy conducted May 6th by no fewer than seven doctors with sixteen in attendance, Dr. Francis Antommarchi, who had served as Napoleon’s personal physician, found an ulcer in the stomach causing a perforation of the stomach wall, “sufficient to allow for the passage of the little finger.” And that the whole interior of the stomach was “a mass of cancerous disease,” and “the liver was obstructed and of unusual size.”
Dr. Antommarchi did not sign the official autopsy report. Though he did find sign the report sent to Napoleon’s family on May 8th.
It is worth noting that Napoleon’s grandfather, father, brother, and three sisters all died due to stomach cancer. And Napoleon himself alternated between believing he was poisoned or suffering from the same disease that had killed his father and grandfather.
What’s your Poison?
The case for arsenic poisoning is flimsier, but makes for a better story, framing our emperor as a tragic hero.
In 1822, our old friend Dr. O’Meara published a book claiming that Napoleon had been killed at the hands of the British via arsenic poisoning.
Arsenic was used in a variety of ways in the 19th century and its poisonous nature was not fully understood. Arsenic and chalk were mixed together in the later Victorian era and was eaten by women to improve their complexion. Arsenic was also used as a wood preservative and winemakers would use it to dry their barrels and basins.
Copper and arsenic were mixed to create a beautiful green color called Scheele’s Green or Paris Green, and which was used as wallpaper color, dyes for clothing and candles, and even for candies and cakes. Newspapers and journals of the day tell stories of children and ladies wasting away in bright green rooms and dresses.
Reportedly the rooms at Longwood House were painted a bright green color, which was Napoleon’s favorite color. This could have been the source of arsenic poisoning.
St. Helena also had a well-known rat infestation like many populated areas at the time. There was even a story of a rat jumping out of Napoleon’s hat after dinner one evening.
Arsenic in high concentrations was used at rat poison and as your go-to standard poison for people, but in small doses it had been used for medical purposes in the 18th 19th and even into the 20th century, though there doesn’t seem to be any reports from Napoleon’s doctors of the use of arsenic as one of his medical treatments.
Symptoms can vary depending on level of exposure or how much is swallowed or inhaled and some of the symptoms of chronic arsenic poisoning are, just to name a few:
- Chronic headache and vision issues
- Change in fingernail pigmentation
- Thickening skin and warts.
- Changes in behavior such as aggression or depression.
Many of these symptoms Napoleon suffered from while in exile.
Rat poison was reportedly used extensively in the small vegetable garden that Napoleon created and worked in at Longwood and used to provide fresh vegetables for his table. Toward the end of his life, if he was feeling well he would sit and read in the garden. Another possible source of arsenic poisoning!
When Napoleon’s grave was opened in 1840, prior to his body’s return and eventual reburial at Les Invalides in Paris, his body was found to be in remarkably well preserved with very little evidence of decay. Arsenic is known to have preservative properties, but being sealed in five different coffins might have also had something to do with how well he was preserved.
Physical empirical evidence is also lacking in this regard though. The publication of Napoleon’s manservant’s diaries led to a series of tests being performed on several hair samples. At least seven hair samples purportedly Napoleon’s have undergone testing for levels of arsenic.
One hair sample did contain high levels of inorganic arsenic (rat poison) while the rest only showed natural levels of arsenic. It is also worth noting that none of the hair strands were 100% verifiably from Napoleon as no DNA testing was conducted and without exhuming Napoleon’s remains, we might never know.
So, it seems more likely that if arsenic is to blame for Napoleon’s death, it is due to it being in his environment rather than due to any deliberate attempt by Napoleon’s British captors to kill him.
What killed Napoleon? Was it a deliberate arsenic poisoning, or stomach cancer, or a combination of factors that led to his death? We may never really know.
The lack of exercise and boredom most certainly affected his overall health and mental well-being and probably played a hand in exacerbating his poor health. His medical history of abdominal pain and a family history of cancer presents a strong case for the official cause of death being stomach cancer. But being surrounded by and eating food from his arsenic-laced garden doesn’t clear up the case very much either.
Could the combination of the stomach cancer and being surrounded by and eating food contaminated by arsenic have hastened an already slow and painful end for the man who was once the Master of Europe?
What do you think?
CORSO, PHILIP F., and THOMAS HINDMARSH. “Further Scientific Evidence of the Non-poisonous Death of Napoleon.” Science Progress (1933- ) 79, no. 2 (1996): 89-96. Accessed April 24, 2021. http://www.jstor.org/stable/43421606.