How Did Napoleon Die: Stomach Cancer, Poison, or Something Else?

Napoleon died of stomach cancer, but there were still many conspiracy theories and controversies surrounding the handling of his body after his death. While today’s historians do not believe he was poisoned, they still have much to learn about the circumstances of the emperor’s health in his final days.

How Did Napoleon Die?

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Napoleon most probably died of stomach cancer. He had often complained of ulcers, and his father had died of that same affliction. Upon autopsy, a recognizable ulcer was found that may or may not have been cancerous.

However, other theories do exist. Napoleon was known to drink large quantities of “Orgeat Syrup,” which contained minor traces of cyanide. Combined with the treatments for his ulcer, it is theoretically possible that he may have unintentionally overdosed.

Another popular theory, first suggested by Napoleon’s valet on the island, was that Napoleon was intentionally poisoned, possibly with Arsenic. Arsenic, known for being a rat poison, was also used in medicinal potions of the time, such as “Fowler’s solution.” So popular was it as a murder tool, that it was known in the 18th century as “inheritance powder.”

There was a lot of circumstantial evidence to support this theory. Not only did Napolean have personal enemies on the Island, but his murder would be a political blow to those who still supported him in France. When his body was viewed decades later, doctors noted it was still well-preserved, a phenomenon that occurs in some arsenic poisoning victims. High levels of arsenic have even been found in Napoleon’s hair during 21st-century studies.

However, researchers point out that other contemporaries, including his family members, also had high levels, and these might not be caused by arsenic poisoning but by long-term exposure to the substance as a child. Finally, many historians suggested that Napoleon’s illness and death were both long-term consequences of his attempted suicide when he was previously exiled to Elba.

For the modern historian, however, there is no question. While arsenic poisoning might make for a more compelling tale and be useful for propaganda, all evidence, both historical and archeological, suggests that Napolean Bonaparte died of stomach cancer.

The death of Napoleon Bonaparte is one filled with strange happenings and not a small bit of controversy. Why was Napoleon on an island off the coast of Africa? What was his health like in his final days? And what happened to his penis? The story of Napoleon’s final days, death, and the final resting place of his body is a fascinating story almost as worth knowing as the rest of his life.

When Did Napoleon Die?

On the 5th of May 1821, Napoleon died peacefully at Longwood House on the island of Saint Helena. At the time, Duc de Richelieu was Premier of France, where the press was more strongly censored, and detention without trial had been reintroduced.

Due to the complexities of travel and communication in the early 19th century, Napoleon’s death was not reported in London until July 5, 1821. The Times reported, “Thus terminates in exile and in prison the most extraordinary life yet known to political history.” The day after, the liberal newspaper, Le Constitutionnel, wrote that he was “ the heir of a revolution that exalted every good and evil passion, he was elevated as much by the energy of his own will, as by the feebleness of parties[..].”

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The death of Napoleon Bonaparte at St Helena in 1821

READ MORE: The French Revolution

How Old Was Napoleon When He Died?

Napoleon was 51 years of age at the time of death. He had been bedridden for a number of days and had the opportunity to be given the last rites. His official final words were, “France, the army, head of the army, Joséphine.”

Life Expectancy during these times was generally 30 to 40 years, with Napoleon being considered to have lived a long and relatively healthy life for a man exposed to many battles, illnesses, and stress. Buonaparte had been wounded in battle in 1793, taking a bullet to the leg, and, as a child, had likely been exposed to large quantities of arsenic.

What Happened to the Body of Napoleon?

François Carlo Antommarchi, who was Napoleon’s personal physician since 1818, would conduct the autopsy of Napoleon and create his death mask. During the autopsy, the doctor removed Napoleon’s penis (for reasons unknown), as well as his heart and intestine, which were placed in jars in his coffin. He was buried on St Helena.

In 1840, the “Citizen’s King,” Louis Philippe I, petitioned the British to obtain the remains of Napoleon. An official state funeral was held on 15 December 1840, and the remains were held at St Jérôme’s Chapel until a final resting place was built for the late emperor. In 1861, Napoleon’s body was finally interred in the sarcophagus that can still be seen at the Hotel Des Invalides today.

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Plaster cast of the death mask of Napoleon Bonaparte housed at the Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield, Massachusetts.

What Happened to Napoleon’s Penis?

The story of Napoleon Bonaparte’s penis is almost as interesting as that of the man himself. It has traveled around the world, moving between the hands of clergy, aristocracy, and collectors, and today sits in a vault in New Jersey.

Abbé Anges Paul Vignali was Napoleon’s chaplain on St Helena, and the two rarely saw eye to eye. In fact, rumors later spread that Napoleon had once called the father “impotent”, and so the doctor was bribed to remove the emperor’s appendage as posthumous revenge. Some 20th-century conspiracy theorists believe the Abbe had Napoleon poisoned and requested the penis as proof of this power over the frail emperor.

Whatever the motivation was, the penis was definitely placed into the keeping of the priest, and it remained in his family’s possession until 1916. Maggs Brothers, a well-established antiquarian bookseller (that still runs today) bought the “item” from the family before selling it to a Philadelphia bookseller eight years later.

In 1927, New York City’s Museum of French Art was lent the item to be put on display, with TIME magazine calling it a “maltreated strip of buckskin shoelace.” For the next fifty years, it was passed around between collectors until, in 1977, it was purchased by urologist John K. Lattimer. Since purchasing the penis, only ten people outside of Lattimer’s family have seen the artifact.

Where is Napoleon Buried?

The body of Napoleon Bonaparte currently resides in an ornate sarcophagus which can be visited at the Dôme des Invalides in Paris. This former Royal Chapel is the tallest church building in Paris and also contains the bodies of Napoleon’s brother and son and a number of generals. Under the church is a mausoleum that contains almost a hundred generals from the history of France.

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On What Island Did Napoleon Die?

Napoleon Bonaparte died in exile on the remote island of St Helena, a part of the British commonwealth in the middle of the South Atlantic Ocean. It was one of the most isolated islands in the world and was without people until it was discovered in 1502 by Portuguese sailors on their way to India.

St Helena lies two-thirds of the way between South America and Africa, 1,200 miles from the nearest major land mass. 47 square miles in size, it is made almost entirely of volcanic rock and small pockets of vegetation. Before it was used to hold Napoleon, St Helena had been run by the East India Company as a place for ships to stop for rest and resupply on their long journeys between continents.

St Helena had many well-known visitors during its history before Napoleon. In 1676, renowned astronomer Emond Halley set up an aerial telescope on the island, on the site now known as Halley’s Mount. In 1775, the Island was visited by James Cook as part of his second circumnavigation of the world.

When Napoleon arrived to begin his exile in 1815, 3,507 people lived on the island; the population was primarily agricultural workers, over 800 of them slaves. For most of Napoleon’s stay, he was kept at Longwood House in the center of the island. The British authorities kept a small garrison of troops nearby, and Bonaparte was allowed to have his own servants and even receive occasional visitors.

Today, the buildings used by Napoleon, as well as a museum, are owned by France, despite being on land under the control of Britain. They have become a popular tourist destination.

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Napoleon Bonaparte on Saint Helena

What Was Life at St Helena Like for Napoleon?

Thanks to his memoirs and other documents from the time, we are able to get a clear idea of what day-to-day life on St Helena would have been like for the exiled emperor. Napoleon was a late riser, having his breakfast at 10 am before setting himself up in the study. While he had permission to travel freely across the island if accompanied by an officer, he rarely took the opportunity to do so. Instead, he dictated his memoirs to his secretary, read voraciously, took lessons to learn English, and played cards. Napoleon had developed a number of versions of solitaire and, in the final months of his life, began to read the daily newspaper in English.

Occasionally, Napoleon would accept visits from some of the people that moved to the Island to be near him: General Henri-Gratien Bertrand, grand marshal of the palace, the Comte Charles de Montholon, aide-de-camp, and General Gaspard Gourgaud. These men and their wives would attend the 7 pm dinner at the house before Napoleon retired at eight to read aloud to himself.

Napoleon ate well, had a large library, and received correspondence from abroad regularly. While depressed by the lack of communication with his wife and concerned by not hearing from his young son, Napoleon had a life far better than any ordinary prisoner would have at the time.

Napoleon did not get on well with Sir Hudson Lowe, the governor of the Island. This animosity turned bitter when Lowe had Bonaparte’s secretary arrested and expelled for crimes unknown. Lowe also removed the first two of Bonaparte’s doctors, both of who recommended that the drafty house and lack of modern medical facilities be rectified for the benefit of Napoleon’s health. While modern scholars do not believe the governor killed Napoleon, it is fair to suggest that he may have lived more years still if not for Lowe.

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