In March 1995 a single lock of human hair was sold to an American for £3,680.1 This was no ordinary relic. It came from the head of an exile who spent the last six years of his life upon a lonely speck of rock in the South Atlantic. For decades those frail strands of hair had kept a dark secret. Each contained minute traces of arsenic, a clear indication that the donor had been poisoned. The lock still exists today as mute testimony to the crime of the century – the murder of Napoleon.
History is written by the victors. During his time as First Consul, and then Emperor of the French, Napoleon was castigated by the British press and by its corrupt Establishment. He was the Corsican Ogre, the cause of all wars, an evil man who had to be destroyed at all costs. Mothers threatened their children with his name and his face appeared inside chamber pots.
Black propaganda has coloured innumerable subsequent histories written over a period of two hundred years and, as a result, errors, misinformation and downright lies have come to be accepted as fact. In England he has been dubbed a ‘monster genius’ by one historian and ‘a great, bad man’ by another. Many English writers dismiss him merely as the general who lost at Waterloo.2
In France, after his fall from power, the Royalists printed anything that might sully his name. During the so-called White Terror, officers and men who had fought for him were hunted down and executed without trial, at the express demand of Lord Liverpool, the British Prime Minister, who was determined to wreak a fanatical revenge upon those misguided French nationals who had dared to support Napoleon.
We know of Trafalgar and Waterloo, but how many British people know about this?
Napoleon embodied the principle that the individual mattered, that careers should be open to talent and should not just be the province of the highborn and the well-to-do. This was anathema to the British ruling class and their counterparts, the French aristocracy who clung to a belief in the divine right of kings. To them there was no such thing as the Rights of Man, only the Right of Might.
Following the spread of the doctrine of democracy after the American War of Independence, the French Revolution of 1789, the death knell of privilege, was bound to provoke a furious reaction from the courts of Europe. They would do anything to nip the concept of individual freedom in the bud. Hence common cause was made against the figurehead of the new ideas – Napoleon. The huge bribes secretly paid by the British Government to foreign powers to entice them into wars against France certainly helped this process along.
In Napoleonic France, advancement was possible for gifted people of all ranks. The Emperor was a pragmatist. He even allowed hundreds of former aristocrats back into France if they were prepared to serve him. In the process he unwittingly welcomed his would-be assassins.
The ordinary Frenchman did much better under Napoleon than they had ever done under the Bourbons. Napoleon restored peace within France; his Concordat with the Pope re-established Catholicism as the religion of the majority of the French people; his Napoleonic Code instituted a body of laws that confirmed the property rights of the millions of peasants who had gained land after the Revolution – it is still the basis of the French legal system today.
His soldiers worshipped him. One has only to read the memoirs of Sergeant Bourgogne and Captain Coignet to see that. Under Napoleon, every soldier believed there was a baton in his knapsack. Anything was possible - they had seen it happen. Men of humble birth like Ney and Murat became marshals, princes, even kings. Napoleon’s personal charisma was almost magical. When he was a boy, Heine, the German poet, saw him: ‘high on horseback, the eternal eyes set in the marble of that imperial visage, looking on, calm as destiny, at his guards as they march past. He was sending them to Russia, and the old grenadiers glanced up at him with so anxious a devotion, such sympathy, such earnestness and lethal pride: Ave Caesar, morituri te salutant!’3
Napoleon supported French industry and provided political stability after the chaos of the Revolution. As a result, the peasants and the middle-classes prospered and France became a great nation once again. Compared to the days of the old monarchy, the French people had never had it so good. What else had Europe to offer?
In England, Old Farmer George, King George III, after losing the American colonies because of his asinine inability to compromise, went mad and spent his time shaking hands with trees and talking to them. His son Prinny, the Prince Regent, convinced himself he had actually led the charge at Waterloo, when the only charge he did lead was the one for the dinner table. Prinny was loathed by the British public because of the way he treated his estranged wife, Princess Caroline. The Royals lived in a world of their own, blind to the misery endured by ordinary Britons at a time of economic hardship and depression.
Wellington was short of cavalry at Waterloo because the politicians at Whitehall relied on mounted troops to keep the people down in Britain and Ireland. They were even more concerned with quelling internal dissent than they were in defeating France. Some 78,400 people were transported to Australia in only nine years, 1816-1825, many for merely daring to question the way the country was being governed.4
Napoleon was three times acclaimed by national plebiscite in France. No one ever voted for Louis XVIII who succeeded him. If Napoleon became the heart and soul of France, Louis can be said to have been its stomach. A political lightweight, he made up for it on the personal level, weighing in at 310 lbs. Twice he returned to Paris in the baggage train of the Allies – he needed it, no horse could carry him. Waddling along, limping, plagued by gout, and with his penchant for blond young men, he was yet mystified by the fact that the populace preferred Napoleon to himself.
It was Louis’ sinister brother and heir Charles, comte d’Artois, who began making plans for the murder of Napoleon. D’Artois could execute ‘traitors’ every day of the week and still go to Mass on a Sunday. He was a true scion of the Old School.
Comte d’Artois, brother of Louis XVIII – Bowes Museum, England © John Tarttelin
In 1792, with the blessing of Pitt’s government, d’Artois began planning the Bourbon restoration from a base on Jersey. Living there were 7,500 émigré priests and nobles, all eager to regain privileges and sinecures swept away by the Revolution. There, in the greatest secrecy, with the knowledge of just a few men in the British Cabinet, d’Artois set up his infamous Chevalier de la Foi. This nest of spies and death squads was given the task of restoring Louis to the throne. From Jersey, British vessels could easily land agents on the mainland at the dead of night.5
When Napoleon overthrew the French Directory in 1799, the issue became personalized. D’Artois’ pathological hatred of the Corsican Usurper knew no bounds. To him, Napoleon was evil incarnate, the Antichrist.
Royalist guerrillas fought in Brittany and Normandy and when his troops defeated them, Napoleon had the magnanimity to offer one of their leaders, Georges Cadoudal, a commission in the Army. Cadoudal fled to Jersey instead. Once there he organized a plot to kill Napoleon with a bomb.
On December 24th 1800, Cadoudal’s man, Saint-Regent, abandoned a wine cart in the rue Saint-Nicaise in Paris. A thirteen- year-old girl was left holding the horse’s reins. Napoleon was due to pass on his way to the opera. However, his coachman was suspicious. Whipping his horses on, he careered past the cart. The people in the carriages behind were not so lucky. The innocent girl was blown to bits, more than a dozen others were killed, and over 200 were wounded. Cadoudal slunk back to Britain.
D’Artois had backed the plot. His agent, d’Auvergne, who was also the British naval commander in Jersey, provided the gunpowder, the money for the operation, and the vessel necessary to land Cadoudal on the French coast – all on the orders of William Pitt. It was nothing less than state sponsored terrorism.
Two years later, during the Peace of Amiens, Captain d’Auvergne went to Paris to meet fellow agents. He wore his British uniform in case he was arrested as a spy. He was caught and imprisoned, but when the British Ambassador intervened, Napoleon had him released after thorough questioning.
Parliament was in uproar. Napoleon had dared to arrest a British officer with a valid passport at a time of peace. The French Ambassador in London leaked the real reason for d’Auvergne’s arrest to prominent political figures. With the possibility of Chants D’Auvergne ringing in their ears, the Cabinet panicked. The thought that the British public might find out about their illicit dealings with d’Artois, which were still continuing despite the peace, terrified them. Thus, with delicious irony, Lord Liverpool was forced to speak up in Parliament on Napoleon’s behalf. Perhaps that is why, after Waterloo, he was determined to have killed as many people as possible who had ever supported Napoleon.
Napoleon’s military career is well known. More than 300,000 books have been written about him, more than any other individual in history. After his final defeat, with misplaced trust, he threw himself upon British justice, seeking asylum upon these shores. There was precious little freedom and justice for ordinary Britons, still less was there to be for the fallen Emperor.
Betrayed by numerous Frenchmen he had elevated to prominence, Napoleon surrendered to Captain Maitland of HMS Bellerophon – ‘Billy Ruffian’. He was taken to Torbay where crowds of people came from all over Britain just to catch a glimpse of him. However, it was imperative for the Cabinet that he did not land. The public, far more noble than their self-seeking politicians, had sympathy for Napoleon and would have allowed him to stay in England. On August 3rd 1815 an article appeared in The Times stating that an Act of Parliament was necessary to detain Napoleon and another would be necessary to intern him in a British colony.6 Frightened by this growing support for him, Lord Liverpool gave the order to have Napoleon transported to Saint Helena on board HMS Northumberland. With him was a certain comte de Montholon.
Montholon had attached himself to Napoleon after Waterloo and asked to share his exile. He was, in fact, d’Artois’ agent, and murder was on his mind.7
Napoleon’s death had to be seen as an accident. Any obvious action would have led to widespread insurrection in France and, at the very least, extremely awkward questions being raised in a Parliament that was already greatly concerned with the growing republican movement in Britain. So Montholon began to lace Napoleon’s wine with arsenic. The body’s natural reaction is to disperse the poison where it will do the least harm, hence it got into his hair.
Montholon arranged for the removal of most of Napoleon’s faithful companions after inveigling his way into the Emperor’s affections. Montholon was soon the only person Napoleon trusted. His fate was sealed. With his health failing rapidly, Napoleon stated in his will: ‘I die before my time, murdered by the English oligarchy and its hired assassin.’ To the very end, he never suspected Montholon. He died on May 5th 1821, leaving Montholon 2,000,000 francs in his will. For the final time, Napoleon had been betrayed by someone he trusted. A lock of hair was taken from his corpse and eventually found its way to Phillips’ Saleroom in London.
A French delegation arrived at Saint Helena to reclaim Napoleon’s body in 1840. When his grave was opened the onlookers were stunned. Napoleon’s sightless eyes stared back at them, for the arsenic which had poisoned the Emperor had also preserved his body. His remains now lie in a splendid mausoleum in Paris.
In June 1994 Professor Maury of Montpelier University announced that he had Montholon’s written confession to Napoleon’s murder. This corroborates the findings of Dr Sten Forshufvud, Ben Weider, and David Hamilton-Williams. Tests done on samples of Napoleon’s hair at Glasgow University have revealed traces of arsenic inside the hair follicles. There is no way that arsenic from wallpaper or hair pomades could get inside the hair. Furthermore, Sten Forshufvud, a trained toxicologist who had studied the Emperor’s mysterious symptoms for years, proved that the levels of arsenic inside the strands of hair, coincided with bouts of illness described in the memoir of Marchand, Napoleon’s trusted valet. Whenever the levels of arsenic reached critical levels, Napoleon became ill. The work of Sten Forshufvud and Ben Weider has proved beyond a doubt and with scientific certainty, that Napoleon was poisoned on Saint Helena.
Does Napoleon’s corpse continue with its victory over death even to this day? If a lock of hair was worth £3,680 in 1995, an intriguing question remains – what is his body worth? Napoleon’s signature alone fetched £150 back then and its value increases every year.8 His reputation meanwhile, needs to be reassessed and revalued.
© John Tarttelin 2016
M.A. History, FINS, Legion of Merit
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NOTES & BIBLIOGRAPHY
1. The Sunday Times London March 26th 1995. It also reported that there were more than 100 other Napoleon lots up for auction in March 1995 alone. In the article by Peter Johnson it says: ‘In a multitude of forms from portrait miniatures to life-sized statues, from love letters to battlefield autographs, he is revered by collectors.’ He also adds: ‘by contrast a lock of hair from the Duke of Wellington’s (head) was a snip at £598.’
Napoleon’s popularity with collectors is phenomenal. On September 18th 1988 The Sunday Telegraph London reported a: ‘Brush with history – No plaque is expected to mark the spot, but Napoleon’s silver and gold-plated toothbrush goes under the hammer next month at the Munich auction house of Herman Historica.’
2. Napoleon was called a ‘monster genius’ by the English journalist Nigel Nicholson in an article in the Daily Telegraph London of September 3rd 1988. Nicolson’s twisted portrayal of Napoleon is far too ludicrous ever to be called ‘history’. Napoleon was called a ‘great bad man’, by David Chandler in the video series called The Great Commanders. Chandler, who was a great historian, shortly before his own death came to accept that Napoleon had been murdered by Montholon – for years he would not accept the fact.
3. Quoted in Paul Britten Austin 1812 The March On Moscow (1993) 29
4. David Hamilton-Williams The Fall Of Napoleon (1994) 330
5. Ibid. APPENDIX II The Royalist Underground and the Chevaliers de la Foi 302-308
6. Ibid. 271
7. Ibid. 273
8. Peter Johnson article in The Sunday Times March 26th 1995. See above.
1. Austin Paul Britten 1812 The March On Moscow (London: Greenhill Books, 1993)
2. Hamilton-Williams David The Fall Of Napoleon (London: Arms and Armour Press, 1994)
3. Nicolson Nigel 1812 (London: Weidenfeld And Nicolson, 1985)
4. Weider Ben And Hapgood David The Murder Of Napoleon (New York: Congdon And Lattès Inc. 1982)