Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Death of Napoleon

Explaining the Arsenic

An interesting study by David Jones of the University of Newcastle casts doubts on the arsenic poisoning theory. An examination of the wallpaper at Longwood House reveals a relatively high level of arsenic, used at that time to produce a green pigment, "Scheele's Green." In the damp environment of St. Helena, it would be possible to speculate that mold, forming on the clammy walls, would metabolize the green pigment releasing arsenic in the form of gas. Such exposure could produce a condition known as "Gosio's Disease," with symptoms of chronic arsenic poisoning. This would explain the high levels of arsenic in Napoleon's hair. Whether this theory would explain the intermittent levels of arsenic found by Smith is problematic, since one would expect a constant level. A counter argument to this would be that the intermittent levels could be correlated with seasonable changes of alternating periods of damp and dry. The wallpaper theory remains interesting, but inconclusive. If it were possible to obtain hair samples from others who were living at Longwood during that period, and if those samples also contained high levels of arsenic, then the theory would be more credible.

It has been noted by Karlen and others that many medicines used at the time contained small amounts of arsenic, as well as mercury and antimony. Could these have been the sources for the arsenic in Napoleon's hair? Further, the presence of mercury and antimony can confuse an analysis designed to assay for arsenic.

There is a dispute about the relative amounts of arsenic. Is it possible that, considering the wallpaper and arsenic-based medicines, the arsenic levels are not all that much higher than normal? After all, it is argued, arsenic may have been more prevalent in the environment of St. Helena than has been formerly recognized.

Finally, there is dispute over the accuracy of dating the hair samples purportedly from Napoleon. One difficult finding is that a sample identified as being from 1808 — well before the period of exile — contains higher than normal levels of arsenic. Either Napoleon was ingesting arsenic well before any plot to poison him, or the dating of the samples is wrong.

There seems to be a distaste for the arsenic murder theory, as if it is an unseemly interpretation of history. There are some perplexing issues, nonetheless. If the issue is one of general environmental poisoning by arsenic, why was Napoleon the only one seriously afflicted? If poisoning was not going on, what killed — suddenly and painfully — Cipriani and the two servants? Apart from Cipriani and the two servants, there is no evidence for symptoms of arsenic poisoning among other members of the household.

The most reasonable conclusion, given the circumstantial evidence and Napoleon's symptoms, is that arsenic poisoning was the cause of Napoleon's death, and that it was most likely administered by Montholon.

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