Was Napoleon Murdered?

Dr Ken Ledingham 15 January 2001

On 15 January 31 members and friends of Lanark and District Archaeological Society met in Lanark Library to hear an illustrated talk by Glasgow University physicist Dr Ken Ledingham. Ken was asking the question "Was Napoleon Murdered?" He began by recalling that after his brilliant military career and after one period of imprisonment from which he escaped Napoleon was finally defeated and captured at Waterloo in 1815. In order to ensure that he could not escape again from his imprisonment Napoleon was sent to the remote island of St Helena in the Atlantic Ocean. It was here that Napoleon was to die of a chronic illness in 1821.

Napoleon's Tomb, Invalides

Napoleon's Tomb, Invalides

Ken explained that a few days prior to his death Napoleon had request that his doctor make a full examination of his body, particularly of his stomach. He also drew attention to the cast of characters with whom Napoleon spent his final days; Merchand his valet whose diaries were not published until 1950. The Comte de Montholon head of household who Napoleon regarded as the most faithful of the faithful, the Comte's wife, Albine de Montholon, who was reported to be Napoleon's mistress and also the mother of his illegitimate child, Dr Antommarchi his personal physician and Hudson Lowe the Governor of the island. Ken explain why each of these characters had motive to murder the Emperor

Ken then explained the conspiracy theory of Napoleon's death. In 1952 Swedish dentist Sten Forshufvud read the recently published account of Napoleons death by Merchand. He can to the conclusion based on his knowledge of toxicology that Napoleon had been murdered. In order to prove this theory Forshufvud turned to Glasgow University forensic scientists Professor Hamilton Smith who had developed the nuclear techniques to record very small levels of arsenic. Using these techniques it was shown that small quantities of arsenic were discovered in Napoleon's hair. Ken explained how it was possible to poison someone without detection by slowly exposing someone to small quantities of arsenic. This technique was not only known at the time, but it was described in a book that Albine de Montholon had with her in St Helena. It was concluded by Forshufvud that Napoleon had been murder by the Comte de Montholon.

Ken explained that his involvement in the story had begun in 1980 when he heard a radio program by scientist and broadcaster Dr David Jones. In this program "A Touch of the Vapours" Jone's had discussed how in Victorian times people had become ill when in rooms with wallpaper containing the Scheele's Green pigment. This pigment was copper arsenite and becomes toxic in damp conditions because fungus growing on the paper excretes the poison as arsine gas. At the end of this program Dr Jones had comment that if anyone had a sample of Napoleon's wallpaper then maybe they could shed light on the matter of his death. Ken commented that it was very uncommon for such a query made in the media not to result in the require artefact being found. In this case a Norfolk lady proffered a sailor's scrapbook containing a section of the wallpaper. This book was taken to Ken's lab in East Kilbride where he was able to use the technique of X-ray induced fluorescence to show that there was a significant level of arsenic in the paper. Ken explained that in fact much higher levels of arsenic had been found in other wallpapers, but that these high levels would be fatal to any fungus and so would not lead to the emission of the toxic gases. The level found in Napoleons wallpaper, together with the periodic damp conditions found in the tropical island would explain the varying levels of arsenic found in his hair. Ken was at pains to point out that he did not believe that the wallpaper would have kill the Emperor, but if he had did of natural causes the wallpaper could have caused the poison to be present in his hair.

Ken concluded by showing a number of slides of the island. These included Longwood house where Napoleon died, where the wallpaper still has the same pattern. Many members of the Society asked questions and one member of the audience recalled knowing of wallpaper of this time in the 1960's. Ian Borthwick then proposed a vote of thanks for a very comprehensive and fascinating lecture.

References

Jones, DEH, Ledingham, KWL "Arsenic in Napoleon's Wallpaper" NATURE Vol. 299 Oct. 14, 1982 p. 626-7.

New Scientist, 14th October 1982, pages 101-104.

The Strange Story of Napoleon's Wallpaper