Two hundred years after his death in exile, conspiracy theories continue to swirl about how Napoleon Bonaparte met his end on the windswept South Atlantic island of Saint Helena.
The official verdict, supported by an autopsy performed by his British captors, was that he died at 51 from stomach cancer on May 5, 1821.
But even then, many – not just in France – were skeptical, leading to many of the often colorful conspiracy theories.
– Poisoned? –
Strongest among French conspiracy theories is the belief that Napoleon was slowly poisoned either by the British or by his confidant, Count Charles de Montholon, supposedly in the pay of French royalists opposed to the Emperor’s return home. .
Scientific proof of this is a chemical analysis carried out in 2001 on a strand of hair cut from Napoleon’s corpse which contained enormous levels of arsenic.
The following year, the poison theory was challenged by the French publication Science et Vie, which took arsenic readings from 19 hairs taken from Napoleon in 1805, before his first defeat in 1814 and again in 1821.
All samples contained massive doses of arsenic, ranging from 15 to 100 parts per million (ppm), compared to a normal level of only 0.8 ppm arsenic. The maximum limit considered safe is three ppm.
The most plausible source for this was the hair restorer. The Bald Emperor probably used a product which by the early 19th century usually contained large amounts of arsenic.
– His fatal enema –
Others blame the ill-treatment inflicted by overly enthusiastic doctors on his untimely demise.
According to medical examiner Steven Karch of the San Francisco Department of Forensic Pathologists in 2004, doctors gave Napoleon an enema every day to relieve his sick stomach and intestinal cramps.
This, combined with regular doses of a chemical called antimony potassium tartrate to induce vomiting, would have left him dangerously low on potassium.
This can lead to fatal heart disease in which blood flow to the brain is disrupted by flares of irregular heartbeats.
– The revealing pants –
In 2005, the US National Center for Biotechnology Information supported the stomach cancer theory based on a study of the Emperor’s pants.
Researchers at the University Hospital of Basel and the University of Zurich studied 12 different pairs of pants worn by Napoleon between 1800 and 1821 to determine his weight at death and to see how he had evolved over the last two decades of his life.
“Napoleon’s terminal weight loss of more than 10 kilos (22 pounds) suggests severe progressive chronic disease and is quite consistent with a diagnosis of gastric cancer,” the authors concluded.
– One last British farce? –
In 1840, Napoleon’s remains were brought back to Paris where they rest in a vast marble tomb under the golden dome of the Invalides military hospital.
But some people, led by lawyer Bruno Roy-Henry, believe the British traded the corpses as a farewell joke about their old nemesis so that the French would end up honoring a certain non-entity.
Some of the emperor’s most ardent supporters meanwhile claim that he escaped from St. Helena as he did during his first exile on the Mediterranean island of Elba. They believe he has started a new life in America.
© 2021 AFP