Was Napoleon Bonaparte Poisoned?

The official cause of death for Napoleon Bonaparte is generally listed as stomach cancer. It is true that Napoleon did indeed have stomach cancer when he died, but there are several pieces of forensic evidence collected over the years that cast doubt on this conclusion and lead to new questions. Arsenic is the major player in this hundred-year-old death investigation.

Arsenic Poisoning

Forensic scientists cannot conclusively prove arsenic (chemical symbol, As) poisoning in the case of Napoleon Bonaparte, however using data obtained from several studies a general conclusion can be inferred. In the article by Hindmarsh and Corso, “The Death of Napoleon Bonaparte: A Critical Review of the Cause”, it has been noted that it is not possible to differentiate arsenic levels internally vs. externally when using hair as the sample. This is one major caveat with all laboratory conclusions regarding the mode of Napoleon’s death.

The Napoleon Bonaparte Death Studies

As noted in the Hindmarsh and Corso review, many tests have been run using state of the art techniques such as atomic absorption spectroscopy, neutron activation analysis, and inductively coupled plasma mass spectroscopy. All of these led to conflicting results. While most studies did find highly elevated levels of arsenic in hair samples presumed to be from Napoleon Bonaparte, they could not agree on whether the contamination was due to chronic long-term internal exposure, chronic long-term external exposure, acute internal exposure, or acute external exposure.

Natural Arsenic Contamination

It has been noted in the Hindmarsh and Corso review that external factors such as burning coal indoors or being around wallpaper containing a green pigment called Scheele’s green, which leaks arsenic fumes when exposed to a damp environment, could be the reasons behind the arsenic contamination of Bonaparte. According to the article “Who Murdered Napoleon? Probably Nobody!”, by Victor Blair, Scheele’s Green is a solution of copper sulfate mixed with a solution of sodium arsenite. When these chemicals are exposed to dampness, a mold will form on the wallpaper containing the Scheele’s Green pigment. This mold can convert the copper arsenite pigment into a vapor called arsenic trioxide, which is highly toxic when inhaled.

Chronic Arsenic Exposure

In a study done by the University of Milano-Bicocca and the University of Pavia using “Samples taken from Napoleon’s son in 1812, 1816, 1821 and 1826…”, all showed higher than normal levels of arsenic after evaluation. This convincingly illustrates that there was a source of arsenic exposure in the family and begs the possibility that Napoleon was not poisoned by arsenic, but was instead exposed to the chemical over the course of his lifetime.

Autopsy Pathology

Copies of the original autopsy survived and one authored by Francesco Antommarchi, an anatomist and pathologist, observed that “Almost the whole of the remainder of the internal surface of the stomach was occupied by a cancerous ulcer, whose center was in the upper part, along the small curve of the stomach…”. This appears conclusive, except that Napoleon was considered “fat” at the time, a characteristic not consistent with death from stomach cancer.

Napoleon’s Cause of Death

All the post mortem investigations have serious limitations. For example, the hair samples may not have been from Napoleon’s children and the arsenic levels may have contaminated the body at any type after death. In addition, the idea that Napoleon was “fat” might have been left over from his pre-cancerous days. There was absolutely no verified chain of custody of the samples, making any conclusions unacceptable in today’s courtroom. Thus, the cause of death remains inconclusive.

Mind Altering Drugs, Murder, and Ignorance

Could Napoleon have been murdered? Could he have been self-medicating himself due to high pain levels? In the article titled “Was Napolon a Junkie?” by Bob Elmer, the possibility of using arsenic as a recreational drug is described as highly probable. In addition, the article states that Napoleon was being treated with a mixture of calomel and orgeat, two chemicals that can mix together with stomach acids to produce cyanide of mercury.

There is no way to state with 100% accuracy that Napoleon was murdered, died of natural causes, or overdosed on dangerous recreational drugs, but one things remains certain; there is quite enough evidence to ensure that forensic science classes for many years to come will keep this essay question on the test.