Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Death of Napoleon

Who's Buried in Napoleon's Tomb?

Napoleon's Tomb at Les Invalides, Paris
Napoleon's Tomb at Les
Invalides, Paris

At first blush, the idea that Napoleon did not die on May 5, 1821, and that he escaped from St. Helena, is much like the bizarre theory that Hitler survived to a ripe old age in the mountains of Argentina. It is the wishful thinking of conspiracy buffs.

But there may be more to such a theory than mere wishful thinking. It has been established that Napoleon used impersonators throughout the years of ruling France. Could this be the case of the ultimate use of a double?

Several authors, most notably Thomas Wheeler (1974), have proposed that sometime in the early years of exile on St. Helena, one of Napoleon's doubles was recruited to take his place. Wheeler's analysis suggests that Sgt. Pierrre Robeaud (elsewhere identified as Francois Eugene Robeaud), while in the first stages of stomach cancer, was induced to take Napoleon's place. It is he, Robeaud, who eventually succumbed to stomach cancer and it is he who is buried in the church of the Invalides.

There are just enough strange facts to give impetus to such a theory. Robeaud, impoverished and living with his sister in the French village of Baleycourt, disappeared sometime in 1818. Reportedly, he was visited by Gourgard, who had left St. Helena in that year, suggesting that Gourgard was given the task of making the switch. His sister relocated to Tours, and lived in much more comfortable circumstances. In the small cemetery in Baleycourt is a modest monument — it is not clear if it is over a grave — that states "Francois Eugene Robeaud, born 1771, died on St. Helena (illegible date)". 

Wheeler notes that the various memoirs suggest marked changes in Napoleon's behavior from 1819 on. He was no longer the defiant emperor, no longer active and energetic. Wheeler gathers a series of coincidences to produce, in 210 pages, a plausible scenario. Ley's novel and the Ian Holm film (as described in the next chapter) use this premise — the substitution of a double for Napoleon — as the basis for their entertaining artistic endeavors.

As a bittersweet conclusion to the story, Wheeler suggests that Napoleon, having fled to Verona and living under an assumed name ("Revard"), was killed in 1823 when he attempted to scale a wall outside the Castle Schonbrunn in Austria, hoping to see his son who was confined there and reportedly ill with scarlet fever.

To accept this theory and its variations, one has to assume a plot of elaborate proportions. A significant number of the members of the Longwood household would have to have been involved, and would have to have held their silence. The complications of getting Napoleon off the island and to Italy, of secreting his double onto St. Helena and into Longwood House, were many. It is difficult to imagine that his exchange could be successfully accomplished.

All in all, as romantic and appealing as this theory is, it seems an unlikely explanation for the fate of Napoleon.

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