The Final Proof: Napoleon Was Poisoned
One of the world’s foremost experts on Napoleon weighs in with conclusive evidence of what killed the exiled emperor.
On May 5, 1821, former Emperor of France Napoleon Bonaparte died in exile on the remote island of St. Helena, only three months shy of his 52d birthday. At the time, the official cause of death was listed as stomach cancer, supposedly a «hereditary» illness in the Bonaparte family. This diagnosis of «hereditary stomach cancer» presents problems, however – not the least of which is that the disease is not hereditary, as any oncologist would confirm. While doctors may use family medical history to establish a patient’s «risk factor» for certain diseases, stomach cancer itself cannot be passed down from one generation to the next. Moreover, in Napoleon’s case, the 1821 autopsy did not note the presence of any of the pathologies that modern oncologists would expect to find in a victim who had allegedly died of stomach cancer. So if hereditary stomach cancer didn’t kill the former Emperor of France , then what did?
The text of West Point’s authoritative A Military History and Atlas of the Napoleonic Wars, used by generations of cadets to study Napoleon’s military campaigns, concludes that his «banishment to the utterly isolated, unhealthy island of Saint Helena (and) shabby treatment under a fourth-rate local commander contributed to his early death.» Yet was there something more sinister than stomach cancer or shabby treatment involved in Napoleon’s demise? The short answer to what might be history’s ultimate Cold Case File: Yes, and now we can prove it.
That’s Our Story, and We’re Sticking to It!
The Napoleonic scholars of France, however, for years have closed ranks around the original theory of death due to hereditary stomach cancer. Indeed, this early diagnosis doggedly remains the public position of the France-based community of Napoleonic historians, despite the relatively primitive state of the practice of medicine in 1821. Led by the Fondation Napoleon, the entrenched battalions of the French Napoleonic historians relentlessly launch vindictive counterattacks against anyone with the temerity to challenge their «official» position. Often these attacks degenerate into base personal assaults and character assassinations. Apparently, this in another one of the seemingly endless series of issues in which «the honor of France is at stake.»
The battle lines on the mystery of «What Killed Napoleon?» began to form in 1955 when Swedish stomatologist Sten Forshufvud became convinced that the exiled emperor was actually poisoned. After reading contemporary accounts of Napoleon’s symptoms, Forshufvud concluded that the descriptions fit the clinical signs of arsenic poisoning. In 1961, when he noted that no one seemed to have done anything about what appeared to him to be obvious symptoms of poisoning, Forshufvud obtained a sample of Napoleon’s hair and had it scientifically tested. Conducted by the Harwell Atomic Research Laboratory, one of the best scientific labs in England , the tests revealed high concentrations of arsenic. Instead of being hailed for discovering the answer to one of History’s Mysteries, the Swede was attacked by the French historians. The amateur detective immediately became a pariah and further cooperation by France ’s «Napoleon-istas» ceased.
Nevertheless, Forshufvud persevered and eventually obtained several authenticated samples of Napoleon’s hair from sources outside of France, all of which evidenced high levels of arsenic after laboratory testing. He published these findings in his book, Was Napoleon Poisoned? The Napoleon-istas ridiculed the book, its conclusion and, of course, the author.
The Cavalry Arrives – Enter Ben Weider
In 1974, Forshufvud received powerful reinforcements for his solitary battle for the truth about Napoleon’s poisoning.
The FBI lab reported conclusively that «the amount of arsenic present in the submitted hairs is consistent with poisoning by arsenic.»
Like the cavalry arriving to save the day, Canadian international entrepreneur Dr. Ben Weider brought his intellect, a lifelong interest in Napoleon, and his considerable energy to bear on the battle. The results of Dr. Weider’s own extensive investigation into the poisoning mystery are contained in his best-selling book, The Murder of Napoleon (1982), and in his Napoléon est-il mort empoisonné? (1999, Paris ). The latter book includes the results from an analysis conducted on a verified sample of Napoleon’s hair in 1995 by the Chemistry/Toxicology Unit of the renowned crime laboratory of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) in Washington, D.C. The FBI lab reported conclusively that «the amount of arsenic present in the submitted hairs is consistent with poisoning by arsenic.»
Apparently, the efforts of the top criminal investigative organization in the United States were still not good enough for the Napoleon-istas back in France, and they sarcastically rejected the FBI’s findings. In a May 2000 symposium at the French Senate, Dr. Weider presented the results of the FBI’s laboratory analysis to French toxicologists and Napoleonic historians. These fellow travelers and Napoleon-istas stonewalled the FBI findings, this time rejecting them on shaky technical grounds. Dr. Weider, however, a scrappy World War II Canadian army veteran who is the founder and president of the International Napoleonic Society, was not about to let the French historians continue to bury the truth.
The Final Proof – Death by Arsenic Poisoning!
Dr. Weider has persevered into the face of the unrelenting Napoleon-ista resistance by piling on all the scientific proof needed to convince even the most ardent skeptic of the poisoning theory. He has even had the tests conducted in French laboratories, since the critics have stubbornly rejected the findings of «foreign» labs regardless of their prestige, reputation and standing in the international scientific community. The results of his meticulously documented research were published in 2004 in a 20-page International Napoleonic Society reports titled The Poisoning of Napoleon: The Final Proof. The report contains an extensive explanation of Dr. Weider’s additional scientific tests on authenticated samples of Napoleon’s hair, including tests conducted at a French forensic toxicology laboratory, l'Institut de Médecine Légale, Strasbourg, after testing no fewer than five samples of Napoleon’s hair (significantly, they are from five separate sources), the Institute concluded «that the hairs of Napoleon present concentrations of the toxic substance (arsenic) that are 7 to 38 times the ‘normal’ » Additionally, the report evidence destroys all six of the counterarguments that have been presented by various Napoleon-istas to explain away the presence of arsenic in the emperor’s hair: arsenic that occurs naturally in humans; use of pharmaceuticals; contamination of drinking water supply; exposure to wallpaper and/or smoke; preservatives used on the hair samples; and consumption of seafood. None of these excuses can account for the high levels of arsenic found in the medulla (the core) of the hair samples.
Even in the face of such evidence, however, the Napoleon-istas continued to scoff at the poisoning theory, eventually producing their own «scientific» laboratory results based in a spurious test conducted by the Paris Prefecture de Police in 2002. This flawed test examined only the outer layers of hair, an area that easily could have been contaminated. Dr. Weider countered with one more legitimate and rigorous test in 2003. Conducted by the University of the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg using Nano-Secondary Ion Mass Spectography (NANO-SIMS), the test proved that the arsenic was «grown » into Napoleon’s hair – i.e., he ingested it over time. This test represents the final irrefutable proof in one of History’s Mysteries’ most compelling cases. Thanks to the unrelenting efforts of Dr. Ben Weider, we now know the truth: Napoleon Bonaparte’s death resulted from systematic and long-term arsenic poisoning. Instead of stubbornly refusing to acknowledge the facts, we can only hope the Napoleon-istas will at last say, «C’est vrai! Merci, Monsieur le président!»
Colonel (Ret) Jerry D. Morelock, Ph,D., is the Managing Editor and Senior Historian of ARMCHAIR GENERAL.
Armchair General readers who want to learn more about the poisoning of Napoleon are invited to visit the web-site of the International Napoleonic Society, www.napoleonicsociety.com