Some of this document has been adapted from part of Hendrik Ball's web site Grand Illusions. His work appears in the Victorian Web with the kind permission of the author, who of course retains copyright of both the text and illustrations. [Marjie Bloy Ph.D., Research Fellow, Victorian Web, National University of Singapore]
Arsenic had been a popular way of poisoning people since the Middle Ages. Arsenic itself is not very poisonous but another form of arsenic - arsenic oxide - is extremely poisonous. The symptoms of arsenic poisoning could be confused with those of many other illnesses, and it was also very difficult to detect arsenic after the death so it provided a practical way of murdering someone. Indeed white arsenic became known as 'inheritance powder'.
In 1815, after being defeated by the Duke of Wellington at the Battle of Waterloo, Napoleon Bonaparte was exiled to the tiny and remote volcanic island of St Helena in the south Atlantic. During most of his exile, Napoleon lived in Longwood House with a retinue of about twenty people who included
- Merchand, his valet, whose diaries were not published until 1950
- the Comte de Montholon, head of household, whom Napoleon regarded as the most faithful of the faithful
- the Comte's wife, Albine de Montholon, who was reported to be Napoleon's mistress and also the mother of his illegitimate child
- Dr Antommarchi, the Emperor's personal physician
- Hudson Lowe, the Governor of the island
Several of these people had a motive for wanting to murder Napoleon.
Napoleon's tomb at Les Invalides in Paris (courtesy of Chris Waits, originally posted on Flickr, slightly modified here (CC BY 2.0 licence)).
A few days prior to his death Napoleon had requested that his doctor make a full examination of his body, particularly of his stomach. The Emperor died at Longwood House in 1821. The doctors who carried out the post-mortem on Napoleon said that a perforated stomach ulcer that had turned cancerous was the main cause of his death. Initially Napoleon was buried on St Helena but his body was later removed and re-buried in Paris at the Invalides.
In 1952 Swedish dentist Sten Forshufvud read the recently published account of Napoleon's death by Merchand. Based on his knowledge of toxicology, Forshufvud came to the conclusion that Napoleon had been murdered. Fortunately, a number of Napoleon's staff had kept locks of the Emperor's hair, which were passed down the generations, sometimes coming up for auction. In the 1960s this happened and in order to prove this theory Forshufvud turned to Glasgow University forensic scientist Professor Hamilton Smith, who had developed the nuclear techniques to record very small levels of arsenic. Using these techniques it was shown that small quantities of arsenic were present in Napoleon's hair. It was possible to poison a person without detection by slowly exposing him/her to small quantities of arsenic. This technique was known and was described in a book that Albine de Montholon had with her in St Helena. Forshufvud concluded that Napoleon had been murdered by the Comte de Montholon.
However, in 1980, Dr David Jones made a radio programme, broadcast by the BBC, in which he asked if anyone knew the colour of Napoleon's wallpaper on St Helena. As part of the programme, one of the stories that Dr Jones had told was one about Gosio's Disease. During the nineteenth century there had been a number of cases of arsenic poisoning that had caused some bewilderment. Some people became ill but others died. Arsenic was found in their bodies and foul play was sometimes suspected although in many cases it did not seem possible that the person had been poisoned deliberately. In 1893 an Italian Biochemist called Gosio worked out what was happening.
Scheele's Green was a colouring pigment that had been used in fabrics and wallpapers from about 1770. It was named after the Swedish chemist Scheele who invented it. The pigment was easy to make and was a bright green colour but under certain circumstances the copper arsenite could be deadly. Gosio discovered that if wallpaper containing Scheele's Green became damp and then became mouldy, the mould could carry out a chemical process to get rid of the copper arsenite. It converted it to a vapour form of arsenic, normally a mixture of arsine, dimethyl and trimethyl arsine which was very poisonous. If Napoleon's wallpaper had been green, it could possibly have contained arsenic, and this could have been the source of the arsenic in the hair sample. Napoleon might have been an early victim of Gosio's disease.
Shirley Bradley who lived in Norfolk, England, had a piece of the wallpaper itself. The wallpaper showed a single star, the principal of which were green and brown although it is possible that the brown had faded, and had originally been gold. Gold and green were the Imperial colours.
The green pigment did contain arsenic and it began to look as if Napoleon might have been a victim of Gosio's disease, poisoned not by the British authorities, but inadvertantly by the British wallpaper makers. Many of the other people who were with Napoleon on St Helena also became ill and complained of the 'bad air'. Arsenic poisoning causes stomach pains, diarrhoea, shivering and swollen limbs; Napoleon's butler did actually die. Dr Jones' conclusion was that the amount of arsenic in Napoleon's wallpaper was not particularly great and consequently the amount of arsenic vapour in the air would not have been large, otherwise more people would have become sick or died. Although the arsenic was not enough to have killed Napoleon, once he was already ill with a stomach ulcer, the arsenic would have exacerbated his condition. Certainly some of the symptoms he complained about do correspond to those of arsenic poisoning.
Jones, DEH, Ledingham, KWL "Arsenic in Napoleon's Wallpaper" Nature, Vol. 299 Oct. 14, 1982 p. 626-7.
New Scientist, 14 October 1982, pp. 101-104.
Weider, Ben, & Sten Forshufvud, Assassination on St Helena Revisited, John Wiley & Sons, 1995.
Last modified 22 December 2020