Was Napoleon Poisoned?

Chris Schluep on June 26, 2018

poison.jpgThe story of poison is the story of power. For centuries, royal families have feared the agony of a little something added to their food or wine by an enemy. To avoid poison, they depended on tasters, unicorn horns, and antidotes tested on condemned prisoners. Servants licked the royal family’s spoons, tried on their underpants, and tested their chamber pots.

Eleanor Herman's The Royal Art of Poison: Filthy Palaces, Fatal Cosmetics, Deadly Medicine, and Murder Most Foul is a lively and often surprising account of history as seen through acts of poisoning--not just intentional but unintentional as well. As an example, read Herman's essay below about why Napoleon had so much arsenic in his hair, and what it just might mean.

The Mystery of Napoleon’s Arsenic Hair
By Eleanor Herman

What killed Napoleon Bonaparte? In 1821, after six years of exile on the island of St. Helena in the South Atlantic, as Napoleon grew deathly ill, he insisted someone was slowly poisoning him. And, indeed, many European rulers would have loved to see the still-popular former emperor kick the bucket. But had they paid one of his servants to add a little something to his cognac?

To quash the rumors of poisoning, Napoleon’s physicians performed an autopsy within hours of his death. He had died, they said, from a huge cancerous tumor in his stomach. But had they, too, been in the pay of the emperor’s powerful enemies?

In the 1960s, a Swedish dentist and Napoleon buff, Dr. Sten Forshufvud, studying Napoleon’s illness, recognized twenty-two out of thirty symptoms of arsenic poisoning. He obtained numerous locks of Napoleon’s hair from his time on St. Helena, given by the emperor to friends as mementoes. Tests revealed arsenic content up to one hundred times the normal amount—proof of poisoning, he believed. But since Dr. Forshufvud’s research, Napoleon’s hair from his pre-St. Helena days has been tested by research institutes around the world, going back to his earliest years in Corsica. Always, he had arsenic levels about one hundred times normal. How had his hair become so full of poison?

Arsenic was common in medications and cosmetics of the time. But Napoleon never took medications and certainly didn’t wear make-up. He probably used an arsenic hair tonic to kill lice, a perennial problem in those days, especially for an army on the march. The emperor had always been a stickler for hygiene; on campaign he even carted a bathtub around so he could scrub himself every morning. It seems the arsenic in the emperor’s hair is not evidence of a sinister assassination plot but merely of a fastidious person’s efforts to kill nasty critters.

-- Eleanor Herman

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