The Poison Chronicles: The Arsenic Poisoning of Napoleon Bonaparte

Eleanor Herman describes the role of arsenic in Napoleon Bonapartes's rapid health decline and eventual death while under imprisonment at St. Helen. This is part 2 of discussions from her new book, The Royal Art of Poison: Filthy Palaces, Fatal Cosmetics, Deadly Medicine, And Murder Most Foul.

Eleanor Herman
7-minute read
Episode #51
napoleon bonaparte

The unrelenting abdominal pain was like a knife slicing through flesh and muscle and organs, again and again, day after day, week after week, without the relief of death.

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Napoleon Bonaparte had risen from nowhere to become the most powerful person on earth. He had ruled an empire of his own making which, at its apogee, stretched from the Atlantic Ocean to Russia, from the icy Baltic to the sapphire-blue Ionian Sea, and comprised some seventy million souls. But, having lost the great battle of Waterloo in June 1815, he became emperor of two rooms in a rat-infested, mildewed house on a rock in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, the island of St. Helena, a 70-day sail from France. Soon, his empire would shrink even further, to a wooden box six feet long, two-and-a-half feet wide, and two feet high.

British army surgeon Walter Henry said St. Helena was “the ugliest and most dismal rock conceivable of rugged and splintered surface, rising like an enormous black wart from the face of the deep.”
The island was a port of call for ships traveling to India or South Africa to take on fresh water and supplies. In 1815, it had a population of 4,000, including a garrison of 1,000 men. Napoleon’s flotilla brought an additional 2,000 soldiers to guard him. His new home, Longwood House, was a sprawling, one-story building of pale yellow stucco and twenty-three rooms. About fifty people lived there, including Napoleon’s servants and British guards.

Now, his biggest enemy wasn’t the duke of Wellington or the czar of Russia; it was the stultifying boredom. Though he had brought 1,500 books with him, he remarked that he needed 60,000 to keep him occupied. Up to six hours a day, he dictated his memoirs to a secretary.
Every evening at eight, a servant in an embroidered green coat and black silk knee breeches announced, “His Majesty’s dinner is served.” Napoleon, his aides, and their wives sat down to a formal dinner on silver platters and Sèvres china. Periodically, a giant rat skittered across the room as the diners politely ignored it. After dinner, everyone played cards. Then they listened as Napoleon relived his greatest battles or read out loud. If he managed to stay up until eleven, he would say, “Another victory over time.”

Perhaps his wisest step in staying healthy, however, was keeping far away from doctors.

Throughout his life, Napoleon had enjoyed excellent health. He exercised regularly, drank alcohol in moderation, and scrubbed himself in a hot bath every morning. Perhaps his wisest step in staying healthy, however, was keeping far away from doctors. Whenever he met a physician, his first question was invariably, “Monsieur, how many patients have you killed in your practice?” He rarely, if ever, took medication or submitted to bleeding, purging, and puking.

His first year on St. Helena, Napoleon was allowed to ride around the island and walk into the port of Jamestown, conversing freely with those he met. However, a new British Governor, Sir Hudson Lowe, arrived in October 1816, fretting day and night about the dishonor he would suffer if the most important prisoner in the history of the world escaped on his watch. He placed more and more insulting restrictions on Napoleon. Refusing to be guarded by babysitters in red coats, Napoleon stopped riding and walking all together. With the sudden cessation of exercise, he rapidly gained weight and began to suffer swollen feet, headaches, bleeding gums, and a cough.


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