Evidence for the Murder
It was three a.m. Longwood House was quiet and still.
The dark-clad man held his candle over the open crate of bottles. He removed one, looked at the label — Vin d'Empereur — and with a gloved hand wiped away the thin layer of dust. Carefully, he extracted the cork. From his jacket pocket, he removed a small folded paper, unfolded it and funneled a small amount of white powder along the crease of the paper into the bottle. He replaced the cork, gently screwing it into the mouth of the bottle until only a scant inch appeared above the lip. Then, softly, he walked down the corridor to the kitchen, where he placed the bottle on a tray, next to the crystal goblet reserved for the exclusive use of Napoleon Bonaparte.
He blew out the candle and quietly returned to his room.
Ten days later, again at three a.m., he repeated the process.
Napoleon's exile on St. Helena was chronicled by a number of memoirs by those who were with him during some or all of the period of 1815 to 1821. His painful last days are most completely recorded by his valet, Marchand.
However — and this becomes pivotal to our story — Marchand's memoir was not published until 1955. In that year, a dentist and amateur toxicologist, and, most importantly, a dedicated collector of Napoleana, happened upon Marchant's recently published work. Whether the reading of this work provided the dentist, Sten Forshufvud, with a revelation, or whether it confirmed a long-held belief that Napoleon could not have died of natural causes, is not clear. What is clear is that Forshufvud began an investigation that has led to the most controversial and interesting aspect of the death of Napoleon.
In his study in his home in Goteborg, Sweden, with portraits and busts of his hero looking down on him, Sten Forshufvud systematically correlated the symptoms of Napoleon's last days with those of arsenic poisoning. Each miserable day of Napoleon's last month had been described by Marchand, and each unfortunate symptom was noted and compared. Forshufvud was sufficiently knowledgeable about poisons to recognize that Napoleon's agonies had more in common with chronic, slowly administered arsenic poisoning than with stomach cancer. Most of all, Forshufvud thought, the telling fact that Napoleon's body, 19 years after its initial burial, was miraculously preserved convinced him that the preservative powers of arsenic had saved an unembalmed body from decay.
Thus began Forshufvud's search for evidence, a pursuit that would take three years and visits to several countries. The evidence for arsenic poisoning, he believed, could be found in Napoleon's hair. He found samples. The prevailing custom in Napoleon's time was for famous people to give locks of hair as keepsakes to favored friends. Also, upon Napoleon's death, his hair was cut and his head shaved, and these samples of the great man's hair were dispersed to members of Napoleon's household. With the hair properly dated and the provenance of each sample confirmed, Forshufvud would be able to find the evidence he needed.
There were two issues: First, it was necessary to prove that arsenic levels in Napoleon's hair were higher than normal. Since the working hypothesis was that arsenic had been administered to Napoleon in small amounts over a relatively long period of time — to simulate a lingering illness — the levels did not have to be extraordinarily high. Second, if the locks of hair could be specifically dated, then the arsenic levels could be correlated with Napoleon's symptoms, recorded by Marchand on almost a daily basis.
Fortunately, a new and precise technique for detecting arsenic in minute quantities had recently been developed by Hamilton Smith of the University of Glasgow. Forshufvud prevailed upon Smith to help him. The first samples did reveal higher than normal levels of arsenic. After some additional searching for hair samples, Forshufvud and Smith proceeded on the premise that, since hair grows at the rate of three inches per month, it might be possible to examine individual sections of a hair and correlate the arsenic levels with precise dates. Using Marchand's memoir — essentially a diary — such correlations could be made. All this, over a period of a year, was accomplished.
There was no doubt in Forshufvud's mind. Napoleon had been murdered by ingesting small amounts of arsenic over a period of several years.
After the publication of these results by Smith and Forshufvud, a Canadian businessman and president of the North American Napoleonic Society, Ben Weider, became involved. First, with Forshufvud, and then with David Hapgood, Weider transformed the arsenic data into a fully rounded theory of murder.
The Murder Theory
If Napoleon was poisoned, who could have done it? What was the motive?
One fact was clear: Whoever was the murderer had to have been on St. Helena for the entire period of Napoleon's captivity. This ruled out LasCases (to whom Napoleon dictated his memoirs), who left St. Helena in 1818. It ruled out his general assistant, the cranky Gourgard, who left later the same year. Since the doctors attending Napoleon came and went with regularity, the murderer was unlikely to have been one of them (although two of them may have been unwitting accomplices, as we shall see).
That left, according to Weider's analysis, one of two possibilities: Either Hudson Lowe, representing the fear and loathing the English had for their captive, was instrumental in the plot, or someone within Napoleon's household was responsible.
The first possibility is unlikely. Lowe, bearing the burden of being Napoleon's jailor, tried time and again to suppress any indication that the English were mistreating their famous captive. The last thing that the English or the European powers needed was for Napoleon to become a martyr. Also, there was the difficulty of access to Napoleon. After 1816, the imperially minded Napoleon and the taciturn Lowe never met. The English garrison charged with observing Napoleon rarely came in actual contact with him, merely noting his presence twice daily. It might have been possible for Lowe to work through his physicians, but all of them fell under the spell of the charming Napoleon and could not be trusted by Lowe.
Lowe is an interesting character. He was reviled by Napoleon's supporters as a vindictive, small-minded bureaucrat. By the English establishment, he was a loyal commander performing difficult duties for the foreign powers who had entrusted him with the responsibility of guarding the famous prisoner. He was probably a bit of both characterizations. Giles (2001) presents two illustrations of Lowe: One, an English version, shows a gentle, almost insipid Lowe; the other, French, portrays Lowe as a scowling martinet.
So it seems unlikely that there was an opportunity for the English to administer poison to Napoleon, nor any advantage for them to make Napoleon, by killing him, a rallying point for the discontented masses of Europe.
This brought Weider to the second, more promising possibility. Someone in Napoleon's household wanted him dead.
Four individuals were with Napoleon to the last. The loyal valet, Marchant, who tenderly cared for his master, was an unlikely candidate, with very little motive — a modest inheritance from Napoleon's estate upon the emperor's death. Then, there were the Bertrands, the Grand Marshall and his wife, who lived about a mile from Longwood. Again, they could expect a small bequest, certainly not enough to kill for, although one could argue that their long service on god-forsaken St. Helena had worn down their loyalty.
No, thought Weider, there was only one possibility left: Count deMontholon.
There were several reasons for suspecting deMontholon. First, Countess deMontholon, who had left St. Helena in late 1819 with her newborn daughter (named Napoleana) might have been Napoleon's mistress during her time on St. Helena. Some thought Napoleana could have been fathered by Napoleon. The countess — and Mrs. Bertrand as well — had read a book about a murder by chronic arsenic poisoning while on St. Helena. Could deMontholon have gotten the idea for his murder from his wife?
Second, deMontholon had a very shady history. In addition to vacillating in his loyalty (from 1809 to 1815) between the Bourbon monarchy and Napoleon, he had strong ties to the most notable Napoleon-hater among the Bourbons, Louis XVIII's younger brother, the Duke of Artois, later Charles X, King of France. DeMontholon had also been charged with the theft of funds meant for his own troops, but escaped punishment. How he charmed his way into Napoleon's household, and continued to charm the exiled emperor, is a mystery. He seems to have been successful in manipulating Napoleon, eventually displacing Bertrand as Napoleon's most trusted aide.
DeMontholon was also the primary beneficiary of Napoleon's considerable estate, and helped his master draft his will. Hence, he had motives aplenty: jealousy, the pursuit of political favor, and profit.
Finally, in his position as steward of the Longwood household, he had exclusive access to Napoleon's wine, wine reserved exclusively for the emperor. Since this was the only thing that Napoleon ingested that was not eaten or drunk by anyone else, it is the most likely source for the small amount of tasteless arsenic that had to be administered over a long period of time.
But did Napoleon actually die from the administered arsenic? The story is a bit more complicated. The conclusion reached by Weider and others is that the arsenic, in combination with the antimony and mercury-based purges and emetics given to Napoleon (the mistaken but common medical practice of the time) plus Napoleon's consumption of large amounts of a sweet drink called orgeat (to slake his thirst from the arsenic) all combined to kill him. On top of the arsenic, antimony and mercury, orgeat is made from the tincture of apricots which contain prussic acid — hydrocyanic acid.
Count deMontholon, then, was Napoleon's murderer. Forshufvud and Weider were not only convinced, but their arguments have convinced a number of authorities.
But not all.