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

On September 20, 1817, for the first time he complained of a dull pain in the area of the torso roughly parallel to his right elbow. From that day forward — other than a period of remission from October 1819 to June 1820 — he was never completely free from the symptoms, which included nausea, vomiting, sleeplessness, constipation, and depression.

In July 1820, he grew fatigued from the slightest exertion. His pulse was irregular, his hands and feet freezing cold. By the spring of 1821, he could no longer walk without assistance and could barely eat, merely sucking the juice out of meat. The pain in his right side had spread over his entire abdomen.

Indeed, many powerful people wanted Napoleon dead.

The emperor lost at least twenty pounds in a few months. When his Italian doctor, François Carlo Antommarchi, urged him to take medications, Napoleon snorted, “Keep your medicines, I don’t want to have two diseases, the one I have already and the one you’ll give me.”

On April 2, he told his English physician, Archibald Arnott, “I have here a sharp pain that, when I feel it, is like being cut with a razor; do you think the pylorus [the bottom of the stomach connected to the duodenum] is affected? My father died of that. Is it not hereditary?” In 1785, the physician who performed Carlo Buonaparte’s autopsy had found in the stomach a “tumor of semi-cartilaginous consistency, which was of the shape and size of a large potato or a large elongated pear."

Dr. Arnott reassured him that it was merely gas, and if he took his medication it would go away. The emperor refused.

On April 15, 1821, he wrote in his will, “I die prematurely, assassinated by the English oligarchy and its hired killer: the English nation will not be slow in avenging me.”

After two more weeks of agony, he added, “After my death, which cannot be far off, I want you to open my body...I recommend that you examine my stomach very carefully, make a precise, detailed report on it...I bequeath to all the ruling families the horror and shame of my last moments.”

Indeed, many powerful people wanted Napoleon dead. King Louis XVIII of France — the old, cowardly, unpopular brother of Louis XVI — sat uneasily on a sagging throne. Many Frenchmen longed for Napoleon to come back with the energizing spirit of the Revolution.

Britain, which had taken custody of Napoleon, feared he would escape the island, round up another army and attack England, despite the fortune they spent annually on keeping him in exile. And the ruler of Germany, Austria, Spain, Italy, and Russia would have loved to see him safely buried — if, that is, his death seemed natural. News of his murder would surely cause revolutions to spring up in Napoleon’s name.


About the Author

Eleanor Herman Unknown History

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