Leader in ExileI die prematurely, murdered by the English oligarchy and its hired assassin." Three weeks before his death on May 5, 182 1, Napoleon Bonaparte added these words to his last will and testament. Sitting up in bed with a piece of cardboard for a desk, the desperately ill former French emperor painstakingly copied in his own hand the words previously dictated to an aide, making sure that his normally illegible handwriting could be read. The words were meant as a reproach to the nation that had sent him into exile to the island of Saint Helena in the South Atlantic and an accusation against the island's governor, Hudson Lowe.
On the afternoon following the ex-emperor's death, seven British doctors gathered at the exile's residence as his personal physician, Francesco Antommarchi, performed a two-hour autopsy. Six of the British doctors were from the military establishment and thus subject to Governor Lowe. Although Napoleon's will was unknown to them, they were well aware that his death might have international ramifications. Unable to agree on the findings of the autopsy, the doctors submitted four separate reports. Dr. Antommarchi's conclusion that death was due to a cancerous ulcer of the stomach is the one generally accepted. When news of the death reached Europe, there was a collective sigh of relief that the man who had dominated the continent for a quarter century was gone. Napoleon's accusation, later divulged, was disregarded as the vengeful paranoia of a dying man.
A Sensational AccusationIn the years following Napoleon's death, innumerable books about him were published, including the memoirs of several persons who had joined him in exile on Saint Helena. The last book to document the emperor's final years was the autobiography of his devoted valet, Louis
Marchand, written for his daughter "to show you - and later your children - what the Emperor was for me" and published by a grandson in 1955. The book was eagerly read by Sven Forshufvud, a Swedish dentist, toxicologist (specialist in the study of poisons), and admiring student of Napoleon's career.
Many historians had questioned the official version of the emperor's death, but none could provide sufficient evidence to mount a challenge. Marchand's memoirs, Dr. Forshufvud came to believe, contained information that proved Napoleon had been poisoned. His investigations took him across Europe, to North America, and to Saint Helena and led to a sensational charge published in 1978, 157 years after the exile's death. Napoleon, he claimed, was the victim of arsenic poisoning. The murderer? Not Hudson Lowe, the English governor so despised by Napoleon, but rather someone from within his own entourage, a French companion in exile.
Deadly BoredomAfter conquering most of Europe, Napoleon unwisely invaded Russia in June IS 12 and was forced to retreat ignominiously with a loss of half a million men. An alliance of his enemies turned on France and forced the emperor's abdication in April 1814. A year later Napoleon left his exile on the Mediterranean island of Elba, but his attempt to regain power ended with a final, crushing defeat at Waterloo on June 18, 1815, and a second abdication.
Hoping to find asylum in England, Napoleon surrendered to his most persistent foes, the British. Instead, he was put aboard a warship for the long voyage to Saint Helena - a "death sentence," the furious ex-emperor called it.
The remains of an extinct volcano, Saint Helena is a 47-square-mile island 15 degrees south of the equator and 1,200 miles from the west coast of Africa. It had been discovered by the Portuguese but granted to the British East India Company as a water-supply stop for vessels en route to and from India. The population of 4,000 included a garrison of 1,000; the force sent to guard Napoleon would triple the number of troops on the island. Seeing the island for the first time on October 15, a British doctor aboard Napoleon's ship described it as "the ugliest and most dismal rock conceivable . . . rising like an enormous black wart from the face of the deep."
Napoleon had been allowed to take a small group of friends and servants into exile with him, including Henri-Gratien Bertrand, the former grand marshal of his palace, and Count CharlesTristan de Montholon, a member of the prerevolutionary aristocracy. Bertrand had served at Napoleon's side since 1798, but Montholon was a more recent adherent - a man who had rushed to offer his services to the restored monarchy after Napoleon's first abdication but who had switched sides again when the emperor returned from Elba. He brought with him his attractive young wife, whose attentions to Napoleon and postmidnight visits to his room soon became the subject of island gossip.
The entourage lived in the garden house of a local merchant until a 23-room yellow stucco villa called Longwood House could be made ready. Situated on an upland plateau some miles away from Saint Helena's port, Longwood was an inhospitable, dreary place, its walls covered with green mold and infested with rats. The daily routine offered little variety, with Napoleon spending most of his days dictating his memoirs or retracing his military exploits on maps and globes placed in the former billiard room. After dinner the exiles played cards and chess or listened to the ex-emperor read aloud until he would abruptly announce that it was time to go to bed. One of the attendants characterized the week as boredom from Monday through Saturday and "great boredom" on Sunday.
Napoleon's NemesisMajor General Sir Hudson Lowe arrived at Saint Helena on April 14, 1816. As the new governor, he was, in effect, Napoleon's jailor. Known for his indecision and frequent changes of mind, Lowe was characterized by his former commander as "wanting in education and judgment ... stupid ... suspicious and jealous. "Napoleon took an instant disliking to him, saying that Lowe had " a most villainous face."
For his part, Lowe seemed terrified that his famous prisoner would escape. He imposed severe limitations on Napoleon's freedom of movement, screened all visitors, censored mail and newspapers, and began cutting down on the expenses allocated for maintaining Longwood House. At a stormy interview on August 18, Napoleon told Lowe that his job was that of an executioner. A have to obey my orders," the governor said. "So, if you were ordered to assassinate me, you would obey? " Napoleon asked. "No, the English are not assassins," Lowe replied and angrily rode away. The two never met again, all further communications between captive and keeper being made through intermediaries.
The faithful Bertrand took up Napoleon's case against the governor. "Do you or do you not wish to kill the Emperor?" he wrote. "If you persist in your conduct, you will have answered in the affirmative; and, unhappily, the object will probably be obtained after some months' agony." Bertrand was referring to the restrictions placed on Napoleon's movement about the island, but the exile had a more serious charge to make.
Napoleon became convinced that he was to die a slow death from skillfully administered poison. He registered his complaints with Dr. Barry O'Meara, the Irish physician who had attended him since leaving Britain. Gout prevented him from getting exercise; he was constantly cold, but sunlight gave him headaches; his gums were sore and bled at the slightest touch.
Lowe apparently succeeded in deceiving emissaries from the European powers about the deteriorating state of the ex-emperor's health. Learning that the doctor was sending secret messages to Britain, the governor had him dismissed in July 1818. Back home, Dr. O'Meara reported that Governor Lowe had spoken to him of "the benefit which would result to Europe from the death of Napoleon."
The Final IllnessOn August 15, 1819, Napoleon turned 50, but there was no celebration at Longwood House. His entourage was shrinking and among the defectors was Count Montholon's wife, who left for Europe with her three children - the youngest of whom, a daughter named Napoleone, had been born on the island and was rumored to be the exemperor's child. The exile had grown fat and flabby and was depressed. He expected to die soon, he told his valet Marchand.
A year after Dr. O'Meara's departure, Napoleon had a new private physician. Francesco Antommarchi, a young Corsican doctor, arrived on September 19 with two priests and a cook sent from Rome by the ex-emperor's uncle, Cardinal Fesch. Napoleon told Dr. Antommarchi that his father had died of cancer and asked if it was hereditary. Trying to allay his patient's fears, the doctor prescribed gardening as exercise and for a time the exile appeared to be in improved health.
On July 19, 1820, Dr. Antommarchi noted in his diary that Napoleon was experiencing "shivering, fever, pain in the head, nausea, dry and frequent coughing, and vomiting of a bilious quality." These symptoms marked the onset of the illness that ended in death 10 months later. His deteriorating condition was recorded in the memoirs of Marchand, so avidly studied by Sven Forshufvud after publication in 1955.
Adding Marchand's eyewitness account to earlier testimony, the Swedish dentist was able to track the course of Napoleon's final illness in minute detail. In so doing, he came upon some startling new evidence that supported his charge of arsenic poisoning. Between March and May 1820 Napoleon was given a tartar emetic that would have weakened his stomach; orgeat, a drink flavored with bitter almonds; and a strong dosage of calomel, a drug that reacts fatally with bitter almonds. This was a prelude to administering arsenic, Dr. Forshufvud claimed, "the classic method of poisoning ... the killing of the weakened victim that leaves no trace of arsenic."
The Enemy Within
Among his final wishes, Napoleon had asked that his heart be removed from his body before burial on Saint Helena and sent to his wife, Marie-Louise, and that locks of his hair be bestowed on various favorites. Governor Lowe denied the first request, but snippets of the ex-emperor's hair were handed down as souvenirs in several families, including that of Louis Marchand. From Marchand's relic Dr. Forshufvud obtained hair that, subjected to testing in 1960, revealed the presence of "relatively large amounts of arsenic" in Napoleon's body prior to death.
It took Dr. Forshufvud another 14 years to identify the assassin. The murderer, he claimed, was Count Montholon, acting on behalf of the Bourbon monarchy. At Longwood House, Napoleon was invariably served a South African wine imported in casks and bottled at Saint Helena; only he drank this wine. As wine steward, Montholon kept the ex-emperor's private supply under lock and offered a half bottle at each meal. On the two occasions that the wine was given to another by mistake, both parties became ill.
In 1840, with the Bourbons gone, France sent a delegation to Saint Helena to exhume Napoleon's body for return to Europe and ceremonious reburial in Paris. Most of the surviving members of his entourage in exile were at graveside when the coffin was opened. Count Montholon was not among them
The count had squandered his legacy from Napoleon and had been received in secret by King Charles X of France. By 1840, however, he had enlisted in the service of Louis Napoleon, a nephew of the former emperor's who was later to rule France as Napoleon 111. If Montholon had been on Saint Helena to see Napoleon's coffin opened, he would have been startled. Although the clothing was in tatters, the body was well preserved. Would the count have known that arsenic prevents decay, especially of a body exposed to chronic doses of the poison?