Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Death of Napoleon

Portrait of the Murderer

Portrait of Louis Phillipe of France
Portrait of Louis Phillipe of

In October 1840 after King Louis-Phillipe had bowed to pressure from Napoleonists who were agitating for the return of their hero's remains from St. Helena, a delegation of Napoleon's companions in exile was sent to accompany his body back to Paris. All who were alive and mobile accepted the invitation. One who could not was Charles de Montholon.

Bertrand, now 67-years-old, made the trip. His wife, Fanny, had died in 1836. Las Cases, old and blind, was represented by his son, Emmanuel, who had lived at Longwood with his father when he was a boy. None of the doctors, particularly the two of longest tenure on the island, O'Meara and Antommarchi, were there, since they both had died some years before. The faithful Louis Marchand, middle-aged and prosperous, was there.

DeMontholon was not there because he was in jail.

After Napoleon's death, deMontholon carried on with his career as a political confidence man, a career that had begun well before joining Napoleon on St. Helena. Of the inheritance due him from Napoleon's will, he collected 1.5 million francs. By 1829, he had squandered the entire amount. He connected once more with Charles X, from whom Forshufvud and Weider suggest he had received his orders to murder Napoleon, but the connection was of little use, since, by 1830, the devious Charles had been ousted.

Portrait of Louis Bonaparte
Portrait of Louis Bonaparte

Early in 1840, while King Louis-Phillipe was trying to decide whether to bring Napoleon's body back to Paris, deMontholon, attached to Louis Bonaparte (who would become Napoleon III), attempted an invasion of France from his base in England. It was a grandiose, ill-conceived venture and, as with most aspects of deMontholon's life, unsuccessful. He was captured by French loyal to the government of King Louis-Phillipe, sentenced to 20 years' imprisonment, and by the time of the reunion in October on St. Helena he was beginning to serve his sentence.

In 1850, Louis Bonaparte, son of Napoleon's brother, became Napoleon III. (Of course, the famous Napoleon's son was Napoleon II, but he had died in 1832 at the age of 21.) Despite deMontholon's on-again-off-again allegiance to the Bonaparte family, there was no place for deMontholon in Napoleon III's government. After having served six years of his 20-year sentence, deMontholon died in obscurity in 1853.

Portrait of Count de Montholon
Portrait of Count de Montholon

If Napoleon was murdered, and if deMontholon was the murderer, he never told. His memoir is self-serving and reveals nothing that would implicate him. His wife's reminiscences suggest that she knew nothing of her husband's plot. No other memoirist of the era mentions deMontholon as a potential murderer. If deMontholon has any legacy, it is, at best, one of villainy and opportunism, or, at worst, as the murderer of the most important figure of the 19th century, or, in the eyes of some, the most important figure in European history.

DeMontholon may be forgotten, except by those who are captivated by the circumstances of Napoleon's death. Not so Emperor Napoleon I. He is as close to eternal fascination as we can get when it comes to the study of history and political science. No year will pass — indeed, no month — without a new consideration of Napoleon's life, career, influence and place in history.

Only a genius like Shakespeare could find the words to do Napoleon justice. Shakespeare has Cassius describe Julius Caesar. The words could apply to Napoleon.

Why, man, he doth bestride the narrow world

Like a Colossus, and we petty men

Walk under his huge legs, and peep about

To find ourselves dishonorable graves.

— Julius Caesar, Act I, scene ii

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