The year was 1840, and a small group of Frenchmen gathered at a lonely graveyard in the South Atlantic off the coast of West Africa, to witness the opening of a 19-year-old grave on the Island of St. Helena. In 1821, many of them had been present at this site when its occupant---Napoleon I, Emperor of the French---had been interred after dying under mysterious circumstances at age 52 following a six-year exile in a rat-infested villa given him by his hated enemies, the English: Longwood House.
The great French Emperor’s domestic foes---the House of Bourbon---had once again been overthrown in France (as Napoleon always predicted they would be, since they “Learned nothing and forgot nothing!”), and the new regime decided, with British assent, that it was time to bring France’s greatest son (by way of Corsica, his birthplace) home at last, to be buried with pomp and ceremony along the banks of his beloved Seine River in Paris, the capital of his former First Empire.
Now, the men huddled around his grave were the aged lieutenants of that exile on St. Helena, or---if dead---were their offspring. At the Emperor’s death, his body was not embalmed, but buried just as it was after a controversial autopsy in which the French and English doctors had disagreed over the exact cause of his demise. His body was encased in four coffins---two of them metal, but none of them airtight---so the 1840 onlookers expected to see, after the passage of close to two decades, a skeleton.
Imagine their utter astonishment, therefore, when his body appeared perfectly preserved before their very eyes, as if he were---in fact---only sleeping! “His face had
changed less in those 19 years than the faces of those who were now gazing down into the grave,” wrote one source. The Emperor’s uniform was decayed, but not his body, and scientists in recent years have speculated that the reason was that he died of---and was, indeed, murdered by---slow, chronic arsenic poisoning, allegedly administered by one of the members of his own Imperial Household-in-Exile.
As authors the late Ben Weider and David Hopgood wrote in The Murder of Napoleon (one of several studies in the last decades), “Arsenic the destroyer is also a preservative of living tissue---museums often use it to preserve specimens, and a human corpse will decay much more slowly if the person was exposed to chronic arsenic poisoning, and so, Napoleon’s body was mutely testifying to the fact of his assassination,” the latter being a political, and not a medical, term, however.
Napoleon---the target of several assassination attempts while he was still living---was suspicious of everyone in his retinue, distrusted doctors all his life, and routinely refused to take their prescriptions for him. Fearing that he was, in fact, being poisoned---but by the English---on St. Helena, he directed before his death that there be an investigation when he passed away.
The week before he died---on Apr. 28, 1821---Napoleon told his Corsican doctor, Francesco Antommarchi, “After my death----which cannot be far off---I want you to open my body. I also want---I demand!---that no English doctor will lay a hand on me…I want you to remove my heart, which you will put in spirits of wine and take to Parma to my dear Louise (his second wife)…I recommend that you examine my stomach
particularly carefully, making a precise, detailed report on it, and give it to my son (the King of Rome)…I charge you to overlook nothing in this examination…When I am gone, you will go to Rome, to my mother, my family…Tell them I bequeath to all the ruling families (of Europe) the horror and shame of my last moments…”
It may be that the Emperor was right, that he was murdered, but by an agent of the Bourbons’ restored monarch, King Charles X, the brother of the executed Louis XVI of the French Revolution in 1789. To them, Napoleon was “The Revolution personified in one man,” who could return at any time to topple them from their shaky throne. After all, hadn’t he done just that in March 1815, when he was 46, with possibly many decades of healthy life left to him? Who could say that the English might one day set him loose to bedevil some future French government? One must also recall that the Emperor’s nephew---Prince Louis Napoleon----was elected President of France, and later assumed the throne as Napoleon III, ruling the Second Empire until his own fall in 1870, so the fears of the Bourbons were not at all unfounded---but very real, indeed.
Motive, therefore, was present---but was there opportunity for the crime? Again, the answer seems to be yes, as a Royalist supporter joined the Emperor’s retinue after Waterloo expressly to go into exile with him for---perhaps?---decades. His name was Count Charles-Tristan de Montholon, and historical sleuths have pointed to him as the Emperor’s probable assassin.
According to them, he accomplished the deed over the six years by slowly poisoning Napoleon by introducing arsenic into his wine, later including tartar emetic into the wine, then orgeat at the patient’s condition worsened over the final months. Finally, bitter
almonds and calomel were put in, and these were the fatal elements that chemically reacted with the others to kill the Emperor in what otherwise appeared to be a natural death over time by stomach cancer (the English claim.)
For their part, Montholon’s alleged secret murder also deceived the French, who always maintained that the Emperor was killed by life itself on unhealthy St. Helena, rainy and overcast much of the time. Napoleon had been a house prisoner at Longwood, guarded by 3,000 British troops on the island that was also surrounded by the Royal Navy. Rats scurried about the house, and the Emperor tripped over them many times during his last, seven-month-long illness of 1820-21.
In 1960, a Swedish dentist named Dr. Sven Forshuvud---who was also an expert on poisons---obtained some authentic strands of Napoleon’s hair from Henri Lachouque, a well-known Napoelonic historian. When analyzed, the hair was found to have 13 times the normal amount of arsenic contained in human hair. Thus began the trail to find out how and why the Emperor was killed in a conspiracy that was allegedly both successfully executed and then covered up for more than a century and a half.
The historical sleuths’ additional theory was that---should the current French government agree now to once again open Napoleon’s Tomb, in Paris since 1840 within the Hotel Les Invalides and examine his body---encased now inside six coffins----it would be found still preserved now as it was then! That isn’t likely to happen, however, so the theories may remain just that---educated guesses never substantiated, but still, the case has been made.
And what of the Count de Montholon, the alleged assassin---what happened to him? Ironically, he later joined the cause of Louis Napoleon —after the overthrow of Charles X, and was arrested in that same year of 1840, when he led an abortive sea-borne invasion of France from England in a coup to restore the Bonapartes to power! It failed, and he was imprisoned for six years, and died seven years later, in 1853, without ever saying anything about being the possible murderer of Napoleon I.
To me, his later known history as a Bonapartist would seem to mitigate against his being the assassin. Also---as a former US Army Military Policeman, American newspaper crime reporter, biographer, and medical journal managing editor---the long, drawn-out period of time used to commit the murder seems far too convoluted a process to have actually happened. Things like that are generally much simpler. It is we humans who make them more difficult than they need to be, were, or are.
But that’s only one man’s opinion, and so, the mystery of what really happened continues still…
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