Napoleon Death Mystery Solved, Experts Say

January 17, 2007

Sorry, true-crime buffs. One of history's greatest "murder" mysteries may have just been laid to rest.

Accusations of foul play have swirled around Napoleon Bonaparte's death for nearly two hundred years, despite the original autopsy findings, which said the French emperor had succumbed to stomach cancer.

Now a comprehensive medical study says evidence for the original diagnosis—and not poisoning—is overwhelming.

"I think that is accurate," said Owen Connelly, author of several books on Napoleon and history professor at the University of South Carolina.

"The same thing killed his father and one of his sisters, Pauline," added Connelly, who was not involved in the study.

Arsenic and Cold Case

Born in 1769 on the French island of Corsica (see Corsica photos), Napoleon ascended the French military hierarchy to become Emperor of France in 1804.

During his reign of more than a decade, Napoleon at times controlled most of Europe, was defeated and exiled, escaped, reclaimed his title, met his final military defeat at Waterloo, and was exiled again to the Atlantic Ocean island of St. Helena. He died there six years later in 1821.

Ever since, the circumstances of his death have inspired spirited debate.

Some experts argue that powerful men—French, English, or maybe a combination—feared the ex-emperor might escape exile again and retake France.

Some of these conspiracy proponents suggest that Napoleon was slowly poisoned with arsenic, perhaps in his wine or food.

Studies of Napoleon's hair have revealed high levels of arsenic, but critics say medicines and even hair tonic of the era sometimes contained the toxic element.

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