Prelude: In 2007, National Geographic published an article stating that Napoleon Bonaparte’s manner of death was solved. But was it really? Here are the facts of the case for you to judge.
Who Was This Man?
First, a bit of who he was. We all know that he was France’s first Emperor, but before that he was a military General and a genius at strategic battle. He was one of the greatest Commanders in history and because of that expertise, he is known throughout the world. He won the majority of his 60 major battles. He also revolutionized military organization and training. He sponsored what is known as the Napoleonic Code, which according to Wikipedia, “forbade privileges based on birth, allowed freedom of religion, and specified that government jobs should go to the most qualified.” At that time, this was a total departure from the usual way a country did business. It has since been incorporated all over the world as proper; allowing non-family members to qualify for government jobs.
Napoleon had conquered the greatest part of Europe and there was angry opposition against the installation of his brother, Joseph Bonaparte as King of Spain. Factions against him felt France was extending its power too far and they wanted Napoleon and his brother stopped. Since there are so many stories written dissecting Napoleon’s military might, and his eventual defeat at the Battle of Waterloo by the Duke of Wellington, I will leave that to military battle buffs and proceed to the question of what caused his death.
In 1814, Napoleon abdicated and was exiled to the island of Elba. Under the terms of the Treaty of Fontainebleau, he retained his title of Emperor and sovereignty over the island but he was miserable and lonely for his wife and son. He also heard rumors that he was going to be moved to a more remote island, after which he made an escape attempt. He was successful to an extent; landing on the French shore two days later. He was met by the 5th Regiment who were there to turn him back, but Napoleon dismounted his horse, held out his arms and yelled, “Here I am. Kill your Emperor if you wish.” Not a shot was fired, and the regiment responded with “Vive L’Empereur!”
The Second Exile
Had the troops wanted him dead, he could’ve been killed outright at that moment, but he was too popular with them and the general population. This popularity actually sealed his fate, because it made him extremely dangerous to the English authorities. After a period in which he was again Emperor of France, a time known as The 100 Days, his last bid for freedom was over and he was once again exiled. His defeat by Wellington at the Battle of Waterloo saw him living out his last days on St. Helena in the Atlantic Ocean, in a dilapidated residence known as Longwood House. The island was damp, windswept and uncomfortable. The London Times reported that Britain was attempting to hasten his death with this arrangement.
When Napoleon sent his memoirs and grumbled about conditions on the island, Britain reduced his allowance and prevented him from receiving gifts if they referred to his Imperial title. They also forced his supporters to sign an oath that they would stay with him indefinitely, so that they were never able to communicate his plight to others away from the island. His personal physician warned his captors of his declining health, saying that it was mainly caused by the harsh treatment he received. Little did the physician know there was something even more sinister in progress.
The Mystery Begins
Here’s where the mystery begins and the story gets confusing: Napoleon was healthy on his arrival to St. Helena, but soon his health began to decline. By February 1821, there was a sudden acceleration of his illness and he wasted away, becoming more sick by the hour. In the space of four months he’d be dead, dying on May 5, 1821. His death was attributed to stomach cancer, but there are those in the many years since who suspect Britain’s hated foe was slowly poisoned.
To bolster the claim of those who suspect poisoning, they cite several puzzling instance:
- Arsenic was a common poisoning method in that era and Napoleon’s valet put forward the possibility of this method used to slowly kill Napoleon.
- Because of the cumulative effect of arsenic, slow poisoning can go on for weeks or months, then when the perpetrator wants it to be over, a whopping dose of arsenic is given, causing a sudden acceleration of illness to the point of death.
- Arsenic was undetectable in the body in those days.
- Arsenic is known to be a strong preservative. When Napoleon’s body was removed from St. Helena and re-buried in France in 1840, it was remarkably well preserved.
- Napoleon had an unquenchable thirst in the months before his death, indicative of arsenic poisoning.
- Arsenic mineral was found in Napoleon’s hair, indicating poisoning.
- The original cause of death was never signed on the autopsy report by the attending physician.
Those who believe he died from stomach cancer cite the following:
- History of stomach cancer in the family.
- All family members had high levels of arsenic in their bodies.
- People in that era were exposed to high levels of arsenic in glues and dyes.
- A peptic ulcer was confirmed in further studies.
- The conclusion was stomach cancer.
As with most powerful men he also had powerful enemies.But was he poisoned or did he die from stomach cancer? National Geographic says stomach cancer, but what do you say?