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Posted on Jul 29, 2005 in Armchair Reading, Front Page Features

Lecture: Assassination of Napoleon, by Dr. Ben Weider

Jim H. Moreno

Sten Forshufvud met Professor Henri Griffon, Chief of Toxicology of the Paris police, who has had a lot of experience with cases of arsenic poisoning, and he asked him if he could explain why so many doctors, then and even now, could overlook arsenical intoxication as a possible cause of Napoleon’s death. Professor Griffon replied that he never found, in any case of murder by arsenic, a doctor who had correctly diagnosed arsenical intoxication as the cause of death.

Therefore, it must be conceded that none of Napoleon’s doctors can fairly be blamed for not having understood his illness. They were simply not trained to understand the symptoms of arsenical poisoning. Arsenic trioxide is tasteless and odourless — a first-rate poison.

Arsenic poisoning has many guises, and the symptoms are very misleading. That is exactly what led Dr. O’Meara to believe that Napoleon was suffering from dysentery, scurvy, gout, ulcers, and other ailments. If a doctor took two or three of the arsenic symptoms separately, he could be misled to the identity of the illness. To diagnose arsenic poisoning, a doctor must identify all of the victim’s symptoms together and compare them specifically with those of arsenical intoxication. Unless the doctor is informed or suspects in advance, there would be no reason to suspect arsenic, because the symptoms themselves taken individually, resemble those of so many other diseases.


Let me give you an example of the symptoms described by one of the eyewitnesses: Doctor Francesco Antommarchi was Napoleon’s personal physician. In his diary entry dated February 26, 1821 he writes: "The Emperor had a sudden relapse, dry cough, vomiting, sensation of heat in the intestines, generally disturbed, discomfort, burning feeling that is almost unbearable, accompanied by burning thirst."

On February 27, 1821, he writes: "The Emperor is worse yet than yesterday. The cough has become more violent and the painful nausea did not stop till 7:00 this morning."

This eyewitness report was confirmed by the nuclear analysis of Napoleon’s hair which showed another peak of arsenic content at this particular period, thereby proving that he was ingesting poisons.

Longwood House (Watercolor painting of Louis Marchand). This watercolor painting was offered to the Emperor on the 1st of January 1820. On the right we notice Vignali and Buonavita walking in the garden where 2 Chinese men worked. On the left hand side is Mrs. Bertrand with her children. Napoleon is standing at the entrance of the veranda.

It’s important to be aware that Napoleon did not die from arsenic poisoning, but instead was poisoned to death in two phases, by a method used by professional poisoners of the period. The "classical method" of killing somebody without making it appear to be a criminal act consisted of a "cosmetic phase" followed by a "lethal phase".

The "cosmetic phase" of Napoleon’s poisoning started in mid-1816, and this was done through the use of arsenical intoxication. There is, however, evidence that the intoxication by arsenic was used during the Waterloo campaign, several months before Napoleon’s exile. Arsenic is an essentially colourless, odourless and tasteless substance which is easily administered in food or wine, and the total quantity needed to carry out a planned assassination would have fitted into a small envelope.

Count Charles Tristan de Montholon following the instructions of King Louis XVIII and the Count of Artois, succeeded in poisoning Napoleon during his exile on the Island of St. Helena.

Napoleon was poisoned slowly and chronically with arsenic in order to break down his health and make it appear that he was deteriorating in a normal and natural way from disease. To kill him outright would have meant a revolution in France, because the French army was still loyal to Napoleon, as were the majority of the French people.

To be successful in this phase of the process, the assassin would have to have access to the food or wine that the Emperor was to consume, but at the same time he would have to ensure that he did not poison anyone else. The food eaten at Longwood House was shared by all of those living there, but Napoleon had his own wine supply, which was the vin de Constance, a wine brought in from Capetown especially for him. This wine was drunk only by the Emperor; the others used whatever wine was available at the time.

In their diaries and notes, the eyewitnesses record very carefully more than 30 symptoms that indicate chronic arsenical intoxication. When you list these symptoms and compare them to the arsenical intoxication symptoms described in any modern book on toxicology, you will find that they are identical.


If Napoleon was not being fed arsenic during the cosmetic phase of the poisoning, then why did these eight eyewitnesses, independently of each other, record typical arsenical intoxication symptoms? If Napoleon died of cancer, then why did he die fat and not show any symptoms of cancer? It’s simply because he didn’t die of cancer. This is clearly obvious.

THE LETHAL PHASE OF THE ASSASSINATION STARTED IN MARCH 1821 and, had it not been for modern forensic medicine and our dedicated investigation, it would have been a perfect crime. This phase was done through the introduction of toxic medications such as tartar emetic, followed by orgeat and calomel.

Dr. Antommarchi writes that on March 22, 1821, Napoleon was given a lemonade drink with an emetic. In the following days, Napoleon was given additional emetic drinks. Tartar emetic is antimony potassium tartrate; it is highly toxic and induces vomiting. Its symptoms resemble those of arsenic, and it is no longer used because of its high toxicity.

Given the limitations of medical knowledge at the time, it was quite common for doctors to prescribe a tartar emetic in the hope that, by vomiting, the body would rid itself of the ills for which the doctors had no other treatment. Antimony potassium tartrate corrodes the mucous lining of the stomach. This eventually inhibits the normal vomiting reflex by which the stomach protects itself, and the patient becomes unable to expel poisons.

This is exactly what the poisoner wanted, and what happened, because giving Napoleon the tartar emetic over a period of time ensured that mercury cyanide would not be vomited and would remain in his body in order to complete the poisoning method of the period. The mercury cyanide resulted from the combination of orgeat and calomel, and now I’ll explain how it worked to kill the Emperor.

On April 22, a new drink appeared for the first time which was served to Napoleon. It was orgeat. This is an orange-flavoured drink which includes the oil of bitter almonds. It was served to Napoleon to help quench his thirst. Thirst, incidentally, is one of the symptoms of chronic arsenical intoxication.

The last agonizing moments of Napoleon’s death. Loyal Louis Marchand, his companion in exile, is seen expressing his overwhelming grief.

In the Grand Marshall Bertrand’s diaries, page 165, he states very clearly that on April 25, 1821, a case of bitter almonds arrived at Longwood House. Bitter almonds are the ingredient in orgeat that contains hydro-cyanic acid, or Prussic acid.

Before that date, there were no bitter almonds available on the island. Apparently the poisoner was starting to be concerned that bitter almonds would not arrive on time, because the Grand Marshall Bertrand states clearly in his diary on page 166 that someone (although he does not mention his name) asked his four-year-old son, Arthur, to go out and collect some peach stones and leave them in the pantry.

Peach stones can serve the same purpose as bitter almonds, since they both contain hydro-cyanic acid. You will soon learn how this helped kill Napoleon without any tell-tale signs of criminal activity.
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