Did poisoning play a role in Napoleon’s death? A systematic review Daniela Marchetti , Francesca Cittadini & Nadia De Giovanni Clinical Toxicology Published online: 03 Dec 2020
Upon review of the contemporary and modern evidence, we classify Napoleon’s 1821 death as “unnatural” with massive gastric bleeding due to primary involvement of toxic substances that may have precipitated or exacerbated an underlying “natural” pathological condition or a disease as likely could be a stomach carcinoma; it does not imply criminal intent.
The problem with true conspiracies is that they are intrinsically secret. A truly successful conspiracy will never come to light. Romantics though love a good conspiracy, whether it’s bumping off your man or faking an execution and sprinting away to become an American schoolteacher. Medicine through time is a secondary school topic, What today would be considered medical malpractice was routine. Attitudes to euthanasia were also different, in the days before analgesia and modern palliative care, easing the passing of terminal cases was perhaps mire common than we think. With a controversial figure like Napoleon though, I’d be surprised if there wasn’t at least half a dozen suspected conspiracies. He was surrounded by (and sometimes instigated) intrigue most of his professional life. I would argue that the legend is bigger than the man anyway. Much of that was manufactured and perpetuated by Napoleon in his own lifetime, and by St Helena he really had nothing else left but his legendary status. However, I would say that it has grown and deepened considerably since, fed initially by acolytes, romantics and latterly both professional historians (who should really know better) to amateurs (including the occasional sports goods entrepreneur). What they all have in common is the belief that such an extraordinary man had to have an extraordinary end. The cognitive bias is very strong, even when they claim detachment. To them the much more commonplace incompetence or misfortune is unthinkable. Sad fact is, even extraordinary men routinely die squalid, grubby and ordinary deaths. It frightens us that the same fate awaits us. So it’s the nature of things that we retrospectively manufacture a more acceptable narrative. It’s a form of psychological safety that ultimately says more about us the historian than it does about history. In history, the observer is always part of the system, but this is nowhere more apparent than in conspiracy theories.
I believe that Napoleon, like his father, died of stomach cancer, not by anyone poisoning him. The latter is nothing but a conspiracy theory that has not been proven.
so a natural cause then, did they know then - the quaks - that they administered poison? Most likely not, in case they were bleeding people to death as well, from then and to today it proves how resilient the human being is.
When you look at the toxicology, it is right to say that the two “remedies” did combine to produce a poison, which finished him off. However, given the evidence about him and his father, there was clearly a hereditary issue with stomach cancer and so, it was just case of killing him off early and probably saving him from a lengthy and painful end. In all criminal cases, there is the actus reus (thing done) and mens rea (mental approach), so that in killing cases, there can be intent, recklessness, negligence and accident. Murder requires intent or gross recklessness, manslaughter requires recklessness or gross negligence, negligence is breach of a duty of care, but only has a civil remedy, accident is an accident. US and other jurisdictions use a system of murder in the (numbered) degree, but it is essentially the same. So, while they mixed a poison, they were trying to treat N and did not know about chemical reactions.