Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Death of Napoleon

Evidence for the Murder

Portrait of Longwood House, St. Helena
Portrait of Longwood House, St. Helena

It was three a.m. Longwood House was quiet and still.

The dark-clad man held his candle over the open crate of bottles. He removed one, looked at the label — Vin d'Empereur — and with a gloved hand wiped away the thin layer of dust. Carefully, he extracted the cork. From his jacket pocket, he removed a small folded paper, unfolded it and funneled a small amount of white powder along the crease of the paper into the bottle. He replaced the cork, gently screwing it into the mouth of the bottle until only a scant inch appeared above the lip. Then, softly, he walked down the corridor to the kitchen, where he placed the bottle on a tray, next to the crystal goblet reserved for the exclusive use of Napoleon Bonaparte.

He blew out the candle and quietly returned to his room.

Ten days later, again at three a.m., he repeated the process.

Napoleon's exile on St. Helena was chronicled by a number of memoirs by those who were with him during some or all of the period of 1815 to 1821. His painful last days are most completely recorded by his valet, Marchand.

Portrait of Louis Marchand
Portrait of Louis Marchand

However — and this becomes pivotal to our story — Marchand's memoir was not published until 1955. In that year, a dentist and amateur toxicologist, and, most importantly, a dedicated collector of Napoleana, happened upon Marchant's recently published work. Whether the reading of this work provided the dentist, Sten Forshufvud, with a revelation, or whether it confirmed a long-held belief that Napoleon could not have died of natural causes, is not clear. What is clear is that Forshufvud began an investigation that has led to the most controversial and interesting aspect of the death of Napoleon.

In his study in his home in Goteborg, Sweden, with portraits and busts of his hero looking down on him, Sten Forshufvud systematically correlated the symptoms of Napoleon's last days with those of arsenic poisoning. Each miserable day of Napoleon's last month had been described by Marchand, and each unfortunate symptom was noted and compared. Forshufvud was sufficiently knowledgeable about poisons to recognize that Napoleon's agonies had more in common with chronic, slowly administered arsenic poisoning than with stomach cancer. Most of all, Forshufvud thought, the telling fact that Napoleon's body, 19 years after its initial burial, was miraculously preserved convinced him that the preservative powers of arsenic had saved an unembalmed body from decay.

Thus began Forshufvud's search for evidence, a pursuit that would take three years and visits to several countries. The evidence for arsenic poisoning, he believed, could be found in Napoleon's hair. He found samples. The prevailing custom in Napoleon's time was for famous people to give locks of hair as keepsakes to favored friends. Also, upon Napoleon's death, his hair was cut and his head shaved, and these samples of the great man's hair were dispersed to members of Napoleon's household. With the hair properly dated and the provenance of each sample confirmed, Forshufvud would be able to find the evidence he needed.

There were two issues: First, it was necessary to prove that arsenic levels in Napoleon's hair were higher than normal. Since the working hypothesis was that arsenic had been administered to Napoleon in small amounts over a relatively long period of time — to simulate a lingering illness — the levels did not have to be extraordinarily high. Second, if the locks of hair could be specifically dated, then the arsenic levels could be correlated with Napoleon's symptoms, recorded by Marchand on almost a daily basis.

Fortunately, a new and precise technique for detecting arsenic in minute quantities had recently been developed by Hamilton Smith of the University of Glasgow. Forshufvud prevailed upon Smith to help him. The first samples did reveal higher than normal levels of arsenic. After some additional searching for hair samples, Forshufvud and Smith proceeded on the premise that, since hair grows at the rate of three inches per month, it might be possible to examine individual sections of a hair and correlate the arsenic levels with precise dates. Using Marchand's memoir — essentially a diary — such correlations could be made. All this, over a period of a year, was accomplished.

There was no doubt in Forshufvud's mind. Napoleon had been murdered by ingesting small amounts of arsenic over a period of several years.

After the publication of these results by Smith and Forshufvud, a Canadian businessman and president of the North American Napoleonic Society, Ben Weider, became involved. First, with Forshufvud, and then with David Hapgood, Weider transformed the arsenic data into a fully rounded theory of murder.