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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.

By
Eleanor Herman,
Episode #51
napoleon bonaparte

By the end of April, he was delirious and vomiting material that looked like coffee grounds—a sign of what we now know to be gastro-intestinal bleeding. Periodically, he fell into comas.

On April 26, he saw his beloved first wife Josephine, who had died of pneumonia seven years earlier. “She told me that we were about to see each other again,” he said, “never more to part; she assured me that — did you see her?”

On the night of May 4, he mumbled about France, the army, and Josephine. The following day he fell into a coma and died at the age of 51.

Louis Marchand, the emperor’s faithful valet who had been by his side every day on St. Helena, washed the body with eau de cologne and, with two assistant valets, laid it out on a trestle table in the billiard room where the emperor had studied maps.

This was, perhaps, the most important autopsy ever performed. At three p.m., Napoleon’s physician Dr. Antommarchi, in the presence of seven other surgeons, all British, and ten French followers of Napoleon, sliced open the body. 

So how did so much arsenic get into the emperor’s hair throughout his life?

The postmortem report stated, “An ulcer which penetrated the coats of the stomach was discovered one inch from the pylorus sufficient to allow the passage of the little finger. The internal surface of the stomach to nearly its whole extent was a mass of cancerous disease, or hard tumorous portions advancing to cancer, this was particularly noticed near the pylorus…The stomach was found nearly filled with a large quantity of fluid, resembling coffee grounds…”

Months earlier, Napoleon’s stomach ulcer had burst open, causing a hole through which a man could fit his finger. But his liver had glued itself to his stomach, acting as a kind of cork and preventing the stomach acids and food from flooding his body and killing him within hours, as a ruptured gastric ulcer normally would. Though his rupture had sealed, the ulcer developed into cancer. Modern research has shown that untreated gastric ulcers become malignant in about six to nine percent of cases.

Napoleon was buried in his favorite spot on St. Helena, a tranquil grove, but in 1840, he was exhumed in preparation for his return to France. Oddly, though his uniform had decayed, the emperor’s body was perfectly preserved, and he looked as if he was sleeping, which many believed was a sign of arsenic poisoning.

In the 1960s, a Swedish dentist and Napoleon buff, Dr. Sten Forshufvud, studied Napoleon’s illness and recognized twenty-two out of thirty symptoms of arsenic poisoning. Though the French were reluctant to lift the thirty-five tons of highly polished porphyry covering their emperor in Les Invalides in Paris and submit the body to testing, Dr. Forshufvud found numerous locks of Napoleon’s hair from his time on St. Helena. Over the years, Napoleon’s staff, residents, and visitors to St. Helena had begged for them as keepsakes. When he died, his valet, Marchand, had shaved his head and made many more gifts of Napoleon’s hair.

Dr. Forshufvud obtained strands of hair from a variety of provenanced sources and submitted them for testing, which revealed arsenic content up to one hundred times the normal amount—proof of poisoning, he believed. But since Dr. Forshufvud’s research, Napoleon’s hair from his pre-St. Helena days has been tested by research institutes around the world, going back to his earliest years in Corsica. Always, he had arsenic levels about one hundred times normal. So did his first wife, Josephine, and his son, Napoleon II.

People of Napoleon’s time ingested arsenic in several ways that had nothing to with poison. Many medications contained arsenic, but Napoleon kept as far from doctors as possible and, as far as we know, never took any medicine until his final weeks. Arsenic was a popular ingredient in cosmetics, which may account for Josephine’s high levels, but Napoleon would never have worn cosmetics.

Napoleon’s green wallpaper on St. Helena contained arsenic, sending bits of the stuff into the air with every breeze, but his levels did not increase on the island.

So how did so much arsenic get into the emperor’s hair throughout his life?

I believe the arsenic came from Napoleon’s hygiene regimen. Unlike most men of his time, especially soldiers, Napoleon bathed every day, carting around a bathtub on campaign. He was an absolute stickler for cleanliness. Since lice were a perennial problem of an army on the march, he may have used an arsenic-based hair tonic to prevent infestations; tiny bits of the toxin are fatal to insects. Over time, regular use of such a hair tonic may have killed someone else, but Napoleon’s genetics and lifestyle were such that he had excellent health until he developed stomach cancer.

Thank you for listening. I hope you have enjoyed the discussion from The Royal Art of Poison, which is available at booksellers everywhere.

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