Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Forensic Toxicology

Conspiracy and Napoleon

As forensic science acquired increasingly more sophisticated means for analysis, revisiting history to see if anything more could be learned from seemingly unsolved cases became irresistible.   As long as hair, bone or tissue remained, it was possible to make a more definitive report than had been done using the primitive means of the past.

A case in point was Napoleon, the French Emperor who died in May 1821.   A man who had made his mark across Europe as a military genius and whose life and death are still the subject of fascination, he was exiled to the island of St. Helena to live out his days as a captive of England.  Some say he died there of stomach cancer or a liver disorder.  Others insist there was a conspiracy to bring about his end with the gradual introduction of poison.  Some even believe that he did not die, but had an impersonator die in his place.   

Napoleon, says Robert H. Goldsmith, was 47 and in good health when he arrived for his second term of exile after the 1815 defeat at the Battle of Waterloo, but he deteriorated fairly quickly.   Since he'd escaped from his first exile residence on Elba and had roused an enthusiastic following for three months in an effort to reclaim his throne, people had reason to fear that he might do so again.  But his health soured as his legs swelled up, he suffered numerous aches and pains, and experienced headaches, diarrhea, and sleep disorders.  It went on like this for about six years, with jaundice setting in, and during the weeks prior to his death he experienced episodes of severe vomiting.  He hinted that he was being poisoned, a claim not so far-fetched in light of the fact that one of his companions and two of his servants died there.

Painting of Napoleon Bonaparte
Painting of Napoleon Bonaparte

In 1840, Napoleon's grave on the island was opened, and his body was quite well-preserved.   He was moved from there to his current entombment in Paris.

During the early 1960s, a team made up of a dentist, an amateur toxicologist and a Napoloana collector who had read the memoir of an eyewitness (Napoleon's valet) reviewed Napoleon's symptoms and noticed that they were consistent with those of gradual arsenic poisoning.   So was the preserved condition of his unembalmed body after nineteen years in the grave.  The team obtained samples of his hair, which were reputed to have been removed on the day after he died. 

Applying neutron activation analysis, they found what they believed was a higher than normal level of arsenic in the hair sample, as well as evidence of gradual introduction of the arsenic over time.   That seemed to close the case: Napoleon had been murdered.

Yet 20 years later, a hair sample taken from a staff officer present on the island with Napoleon and subjected to different technology, found normal arsenic levels but elevated levels of antinomy.   Mercury and antinomy had been found to complicate an analysis for arsenic.

Others jumped in with explanations about how arsenic could have been present in Napoleon without necessarily being administered by a secretive murderer.   Arsenic was commonly used in wallpaper, says one.  Also, many medications at the time contained arsenic.  Medical examiner Cyril Wecht points out that samples of Napoleon's hair taken at different times during his life, not just on the island, had shown elevated arsenic readings, and that a 2002 article indicates that arsenic was commonly used in hair products at the time. 

Yet there are problems with these counter-arguments, and the case of Napoleon has not yet been definitively resolved.   Perhaps some technology yet in the future will do the trick.

Besides arsenic, other poisons have been used in murders, and a recent case showed how essential the time line developed from the hair growth can be.   The circumstances don't always yield the whole story.


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