Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Death of Napoleon

The Murder Theory

Portrait of Emmanuel Las Cases
Portrait of Emmanuel Las

If Napoleon was poisoned, who could have done it? What was the motive?

One fact was clear: Whoever was the murderer had to have been on St. Helena for the entire period of Napoleon's captivity. This ruled out LasCases (to whom Napoleon dictated his memoirs), who left St. Helena in 1818. It ruled out his general assistant, the cranky Gourgard, who left later the same year. Since the doctors attending Napoleon came and went with regularity, the murderer was unlikely to have been one of them (although two of them may have been unwitting accomplices, as we shall see).

That left, according to Weider's analysis, one of two possibilities: Either Hudson Lowe, representing the fear and loathing the English had for their captive, was instrumental in the plot, or someone within Napoleon's household was responsible.

Portrait of Fanny Bertrand
Portrait of Fanny Bertrand

The first possibility is unlikely. Lowe, bearing the burden of being Napoleon's jailor, tried time and again to suppress any indication that the English were mistreating their famous captive. The last thing that the English or the European powers needed was for Napoleon to become a martyr. Also, there was the difficulty of access to Napoleon. After 1816, the imperially minded Napoleon and the taciturn Lowe never met. The English garrison charged with observing Napoleon rarely came in actual contact with him, merely noting his presence twice daily. It might have been possible for Lowe to work through his physicians, but all of them fell under the spell of the charming Napoleon and could not be trusted by Lowe.

Lowe is an interesting character. He was reviled by Napoleon's supporters as a vindictive, small-minded bureaucrat. By the English establishment, he was a loyal commander performing difficult duties for the foreign powers who had entrusted him with the responsibility of guarding the famous prisoner. He was probably a bit of both characterizations. Giles (2001) presents two illustrations of Lowe: One, an English version, shows a gentle, almost insipid Lowe; the other, French, portrays Lowe as a scowling martinet.

Portrait of Countess de Montholon
Portrait of Countess de

So it seems unlikely that there was an opportunity for the English to administer poison to Napoleon, nor any advantage for them to make Napoleon, by killing him, a rallying point for the discontented masses of Europe.

This brought Weider to the second, more promising possibility. Someone in Napoleon's household wanted him dead.

Four individuals were with Napoleon to the last. The loyal valet, Marchant, who tenderly cared for his master, was an unlikely candidate, with very little motive — a modest inheritance from Napoleon's estate upon the emperor's death. Then, there were the Bertrands, the Grand Marshall and his wife, who lived about a mile from Longwood. Again, they could expect a small bequest, certainly not enough to kill for, although one could argue that their long service on god-forsaken St. Helena had worn down their loyalty.

No, thought Weider, there was only one possibility left: Count deMontholon.

Portrait of Count  de Montholon
Portrait of Count de Montholon

There were several reasons for suspecting deMontholon. First, Countess deMontholon, who had left St. Helena in late 1819 with her newborn daughter (named Napoleana) might have been Napoleon's mistress during her time on St. Helena. Some thought Napoleana could have been fathered by Napoleon. The countess — and Mrs. Bertrand as well — had read a book about a murder by chronic arsenic poisoning while on St. Helena. Could deMontholon have gotten the idea for his murder from his wife?

Second, deMontholon had a very shady history. In addition to vacillating in his loyalty (from 1809 to 1815) between the Bourbon monarchy and Napoleon, he had strong ties to the most notable Napoleon-hater among the Bourbons, Louis XVIII's younger brother, the Duke of Artois, later Charles X, King of France. DeMontholon had also been charged with the theft of funds meant for his own troops, but escaped punishment. How he charmed his way into Napoleon's household, and continued to charm the exiled emperor, is a mystery. He seems to have been successful in manipulating Napoleon, eventually displacing Bertrand as Napoleon's most trusted aide.

DeMontholon was also the primary beneficiary of Napoleon's considerable estate, and helped his master draft his will. Hence, he had motives aplenty: jealousy, the pursuit of political favor, and profit.

The Duke of Artois, later Charles X
The Duke of Artois, later
Charles X

Finally, in his position as steward of the Longwood household, he had exclusive access to Napoleon's wine, wine reserved exclusively for the emperor. Since this was the only thing that Napoleon ingested that was not eaten or drunk by anyone else, it is the most likely source for the small amount of tasteless arsenic that had to be administered over a long period of time.

But did Napoleon actually die from the administered arsenic? The story is a bit more complicated. The conclusion reached by Weider and others is that the arsenic, in combination with the antimony and mercury-based purges and emetics given to Napoleon (the mistaken but common medical practice of the time) plus Napoleon's consumption of large amounts of a sweet drink called orgeat (to slake his thirst from the arsenic) all combined to kill him. On top of the arsenic, antimony and mercury, orgeat is made from the tincture of apricots which contain prussic acid — hydrocyanic acid.

Count deMontholon, then, was Napoleon's murderer. Forshufvud and Weider were not only convinced, but their arguments have convinced a number of authorities.

But not all.