Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Death of Napoleon


Portrait of Napoleon
Portrait of Napoleon

There is no mystery here. Of course, Napoleon died. Some time on or before May 5, 1821, Napoleon Bonaparte, Emperor of France, died.

The questions are "How did he die?" and "When did he die?"

Somehow, it is unacceptable to think that a man compared only to Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar could have prosaically died of stomach cancer on a god-forsaken island in the South Atlantic. Better to have died in battle, at Waterloo, or to be assassinated by jealous rivals, or to have fallen on one's sword rather than surrender to one's enemies. But to have slowly withered away in a sodden, dark house as a captive, to have been reduced to the level of a forgotten exile after a decade and a half of virtually ruling Europe — that seems unthinkable.

We are not dealing with a trivial figure of history. Napoleon is a man who continues to fascinate us. Military genius, dictator (benevolent or otherwise), administrator, law-giver — he was all of these. He was believed to be short in stature — 'The Little Corporal' — but seemed to be one of those rare individuals who could fill a room with his presence. (He has been reported in various works as being five-feet, five-inches tall, and five-feet, seven-inches tall — not significantly different from the average height of men in his time.) He could be charming, cruel, unreasonable, generous, insightful and periodically incompetent. He solidified the aspirations of the French Revolution and then retracted some of the freedoms that had been gained from it. He fought the English but admired them. He sought to create an empire in Europe and North America, and then gave away 800,000 square miles of it for four cents an acre to Thomas Jefferson. Paintings and statues of him abound. Such men do not simply "die."

Drawing of Napoleon in defeat
Drawing of Napoleon in defeat

So, as with many inconceivable ideas of history, theories of conspiracy surround the demise of Napoleon the Great. Did he really die of cancer? Could he have been poisoned? If so, by whom? Was it really Napoleon who died that day in 1821 on St. Helena, or some skilled impersonator? And, if not, what happened to Napoleon?

The cast of characters in this drama is interesting. There is the faithful valet, whose memoirs of his master were not published until the 1950s. There are the diverse — and in the eyes of some, devious — loyal retainers, four in particular who are intriguing personalities. Doctors, some of whom seem incompetent, even by the primitive medical standards of the time, enter and exit at various times in the story. There is the strange, paranoid, haunted prison warden who constantly feared that his famous charge would once more escape his exile, as he had when first exiled to the island of Elba, and once more inflame Europe. There is even a mistress or two to add color to the story. And, more than a century after the fact, there are a curious dentist, a single-minded manufacturer of exercise equipment, and numerous conspiracy-minded historians who stir the plot.

Most of all, there is the vast literature on Napoleon, thousands and thousands of books, covering every aspect of Napoleon's life and career, more books than on any other historical personage except Jesus Christ.

The issues are clear. Either Napoleon died of natural causes or was murdered. Either Napoleon was the corpse lying on the autopsy table in Longwood, his residence of exile on St. Helena, or he wasn't.

Let us begin.

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