Was Napoleon Murdered by his Wallpaper?

By the time the former French emperor Napoleon died in exile at age 51 on the remote island of St. Helena, plenty of people had motive for wanting him dead. He had terrorized Europe for years, ever since becoming emperor in 1804. Napoleon himself, when he knew he was dying, even accused blamed the English for his impending death in his will.

At his autopsy, the doctors concluded that a perforated stomach ulcer killed him. Everyone who mattered seemed okay with this explanation, and there the matter rested for over 100 years.

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In the 1960s, people started to question Napoleon’s cause of death after his valet’s memoirs were published, which reignited the controversy. Fortunately, there were plenty of locks of his hair scattered about, kept by devoted servants and family members and preserved throughout the years. When tested, the hair was shown to contain significant levels of arsenic, a poison. Now people began to believe that he might have been poisoned, though no one was sure who to blame.

A new and astonishing theory about the source of the poison was put forward in the 1990s, when a scrap of wallpaper from Napoleon’s St. Helena home was discovered in a scrapbook in England. The wallpaper was originally a brilliant green color, called Scheele’s green, so historians and scientists were not surprised when it also tested positive for arsenic.

Scheele’s Green was a popular dye for both textiles and papers in the 18th and 19th centuries. Unfortunately, one of the ingredients that gave it its brilliant hue was a compound called copper arsenite.  When this compound was subjected to hot and damp conditions, like those present on St. Helena, it gave off a poisonous arsenic vapor. The dye was later implicated in the illnesses and deaths of hundreds of people in Europe.

But if it killed Napoleon, wouldn’t it have affected the servants and staff who lived with him in the St. Helena house? As it turned out, many of the people who lived in the house also complained of symptoms that sound a lot like arsenic poisoning, such as stomach pains, swollen limbs, and diarrhea. Napoleon’s butler even died after experiencing these symptoms.

But other than Napoleon and his butler, no one else died. So, did the wallpaper kill him, or was it something more sinister, like intentional poisoning? A recent study has shown that the levels of arsenic in the wallpaper would not have been enough to kill Napoleon alone. However, if he had developed a stomach ulcer, as we have been told he did, the arsenic vapor could have made it worse. Additionally, many medicines during those years also contained arsenic, which would certainly have exacerbated the condition even further.

We will probably never know for sure if arsenic poisoning was the cause of Napoleon’s early demise, or if it was accidental or deliberate. If the arsenic theory is true, it would be the only known incident of wallpaper killing a world leader.

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