Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Death of Napoleon

Events Leading Up to Death

Portrait of Sir Hudson Lowe
Portrait of Sir Hudson Lowe

From the Fall of 1820, Napoleon's health had not been good. He complained of severe abdominal pains, experienced weakness and vomiting, and seemed like a man slowly proceeding to death. Hudson Lowe rejected these complaints, when they were reported to him by Napoleon's physicians, accusing Napoleon of continuing to promote his propaganda of mistreatment at the hands of the English. Indeed, Lowe had dismissed two physicians for suggesting that Napoleon suffered from hepatitis, associated with the dysentery rife on St. Helena, and, according to some, symbolic of the unhealthy conditions existing on the island of Napoleon's exile.

Earlier, in 1819, Napoleon's faithful fellow Corsican, Cipriani, suddenly fell ill and died, as did two other Longwood servants. The circumstances were mysterious, and the rapid onset and decline of the three suggested poisoning. Napoleon hinted that he suspected as much, and that he would also be a target for the poisoner.

Portrait of Dr. Francesco Antommarchi
Portrait of Dr. Francesco
Antommarchi

Napoleon's decline proceeded into 1821, and after an extremely painful month, he died on May 5. The autopsy was conducted by Antommarchi and five English doctors, the conclusion that the cause of death was stomach cancer, the same disease from which Napoleon's father had died in 1785. Some conflicting observations were made, particularly concerning the size and condition of his liver. One English doctor stuck to the diagnosis of liver disease complicated by hepatitis, but that portion of the autopsy report was deleted by Lowe. The relative hairlessness of Napoleon's body, as well as his soft, feminized, rather fat condition was also noted. None of the doctors at the autopsy seemed to note that the general wasting of the body associated with cancer was not present.

Portrait of Last Hours of Napoleon
Portrait of Last Hours of Napoleon

The next day, accompanied by full military honors by the English garrison, Napoleon was buried in a grave situated in a small grove of trees a short distance from Longwood. He was encased in four coffins, much like a set of Russian dolls: a mahogany coffin containing the body, inside another mahogany coffin, these two placed in a lead coffin, and the three of these placed inside an outer lead coffin. Even in burial, there would be no escape. There was no headstone, since Napoleon's household refused to have him identified simply as "Napoleon Bonaparte" and Lowe refused to have the headstone state "The Emperor Napoleon."

Nineteen years later, in 1840, Napoleon's grave was opened in the presence of several of the men who had been with him in exile. The body was in a remarkable state of preservation. The coffin lids were again sealed, and Napoleon's body was returned to Paris, there to be finally interred in the magnificent tomb at the church of the Invalides, where it rests today, as a shrine and tourist attraction.

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