There is no mystery here. Of course, Napoleon died. Some time on or before May 5, 1821, Napoleon Bonaparte, Emperor of France, died.
The questions are "How did he die?" and "When did he die?"
Somehow, it is unacceptable to think that a man compared only to Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar could have prosaically died of stomach cancer on a god-forsaken island in the South Atlantic. Better to have died in battle, at Waterloo, or to be assassinated by jealous rivals, or to have fallen on one's sword rather than surrender to one's enemies. But to have slowly withered away in a sodden, dark house as a captive, to have been reduced to the level of a forgotten exile after a decade and a half of virtually ruling Europe — that seems unthinkable.
We are not dealing with a trivial figure of history. Napoleon is a man who continues to fascinate us. Military genius, dictator (benevolent or otherwise), administrator, law-giver — he was all of these. He was believed to be short in stature — 'The Little Corporal' — but seemed to be one of those rare individuals who could fill a room with his presence. (He has been reported in various works as being five-feet, five-inches tall, and five-feet, seven-inches tall — not significantly different from the average height of men in his time.) He could be charming, cruel, unreasonable, generous, insightful and periodically incompetent. He solidified the aspirations of the French Revolution and then retracted some of the freedoms that had been gained from it. He fought the English but admired them. He sought to create an empire in Europe and North America, and then gave away 800,000 square miles of it for four cents an acre to Thomas Jefferson. Paintings and statues of him abound. Such men do not simply "die."
So, as with many inconceivable ideas of history, theories of conspiracy surround the demise of Napoleon the Great. Did he really die of cancer? Could he have been poisoned? If so, by whom? Was it really Napoleon who died that day in 1821 on St. Helena, or some skilled impersonator? And, if not, what happened to Napoleon?
The cast of characters in this drama is interesting. There is the faithful valet, whose memoirs of his master were not published until the 1950s. There are the diverse — and in the eyes of some, devious — loyal retainers, four in particular who are intriguing personalities. Doctors, some of whom seem incompetent, even by the primitive medical standards of the time, enter and exit at various times in the story. There is the strange, paranoid, haunted prison warden who constantly feared that his famous charge would once more escape his exile, as he had when first exiled to the island of Elba, and once more inflame Europe. There is even a mistress or two to add color to the story. And, more than a century after the fact, there are a curious dentist, a single-minded manufacturer of exercise equipment, and numerous conspiracy-minded historians who stir the plot.
Most of all, there is the vast literature on Napoleon, thousands and thousands of books, covering every aspect of Napoleon's life and career, more books than on any other historical personage except Jesus Christ.
The issues are clear. Either Napoleon died of natural causes or was murdered. Either Napoleon was the corpse lying on the autopsy table in Longwood, his residence of exile on St. Helena, or he wasn't.
Let us begin
In the simplest of terms, the Duke of Wellington defeated Napoleon Bonaparte at the Battle of Waterloo in June, 1815. Thus ended the magnificent career of the Emperor of France, the scourge of Europe, the military genius who had Russia, Great Britain, Prussia, and most of the rest of the continent as his enemies. With his defeat, the Bourbon dynasty was restored to the rule of France, and Napoleon was faced with a number of choices.
The Battle of Waterloo was the culmination of the famous Hundred Days, the period from the time of Napoleon's escape from exile in Elba and his return to reclaim his throne of France, to his ultimate defeat at Waterloo. Now defeated, Napoleon had a limited number of options. He contemplated fleeing to America, where his brother Joseph had fled. He considered surrendering to the British, imagining himself to live out his days as an English country squire, a respected guest of his former enemy.
Unwisely, he chose the latter. He never set foot on British soil, but was confined to a ship off the coast of Portsmouth, and eventually transported as a prisoner to the island of St. Helena. There, in the most uncongenial part of the island, he was confined to a property that had a large, reconstructed agricultural building as its principal structure, Longwood House. At Longwood and its surrounding acreage, Napoleon spent the next five years of his life. He was 47 years old when he went into exile.
Napoleon took a retinue with him to St. Helena. Of his loyal followers, six are of particular importance. Three of the six were with him during the entire period of the exile, 1815-1821. These were his loyal valet, Louis Marchand; his Grand Marshall, Henri Bertrand; and his principal adviser, Count Charles deMontholon. Bertrand's and deMontholon's wives accompanied them. Portraits of Marchand, Bertrand and de Montholon reveal three handsome men, and Fanny Bertrand and Albine deMontholon are strikingly beautiful. Even allowing for the flattery common to 19th century portraitists, they are an attractive group of actors in this drama. The remaining three significant servants are Franceschi Cipriani; Napoleon's jack-of-all-trades, Emmanuel Las Cases; his literary adviser, and Gaspard Gourgaud; an artillery officer and general assistant.
A number of physicians parade through the period of exile, the most interesting of which (in order) are Barry O'Meara, Francesco Antommarchi, and Alexander Arnott.
This cast of characters is important because it is from them that we have the record of Napoleon's exile and death. Four of them (Marchand, Bertrand, deMontholon, and O'Meara) wrote detailed memoirs. From the others, we have various documents, letters, reports and snatches of observations. If we are to presume that Napoleon did not die of natural causes, it is from among these players that we must hunt for our murderer.
Finally, we have the strange governor of St. Helena, Napoleon's jailor, Sir Hudson Lowe.