Napoleon centenary: Two centuries of conspiracy theories

Paris, France: Two hundred years after his death in exile, conspiracy theories concerning Napoleon Bonaparte's death on the windswept South Atlantic island of St. Helena continue to circulate.

On May 5, 1821, he died of stomach cancer at the age of 51, according to the official verdict, which was supported by an autopsy performed by his British captors.

Even so, several people, not just in France, were skeptical, giving rise to a slew of colorful conspiracy theories.

Was Napoleon poisoned? 

The most common French conspiracy theory is that Napoleon was slowly poisoned by the British or by his confidante, Count Charles de Montholon, who was allegedly paid by French royalists opposed to the emperor's return home.

A chemical examination of a lock of hair cut from Napoleon's corpse in 2001 revealed that it contained extremely high levels of arsenic.

Also read | Napoleon: A sexist, slaving autocrat or army genius?

The poison hypothesis was questioned the following year by the French publication Science et Vie, which used arsenic readings from 19 hairs taken from Napoleon in 1805, until his first defeat in 1814 and again in 1821.

All of the samples contained high levels of arsenic, ranging from 15 to 100 parts per million (ppm), compared to a typical level of 0.8 ppm. The healthy upper limit is three parts per million (ppm).

The most likely explanation was hair restorer. The balding emperor most likely used a product that contained high levels of arsenic in the early nineteenth century.

His lethal enema 

Doctors gave Napoleon an enema every day to alleviate his sick stomach and abdominal cramping, according to forensic pathologist Steven Karch at the San Francisco Medical Examiner's Department in 2004.

This, combined with daily doses of an antimony potassium tartrate to cause vomiting, may have left him dangerously low on potassium.

This can result in a fatal heart attack in which blood supply to the brain is interrupted by rapid pulse bursts.

The tell-tale trousers 

In 2005, the US National Centre for Biotechnology Information backed the stomach cancer theory based on a study of the emperor's trousers.

Researchers from the University Hospital of Basel and the University of Zurich examined 12 separate pairs of Napoleon's trousers worn between 1800 and 1821 to assess his dead weight and how it had changed over the last two decades of his life.

"Napoleon's terminal weight loss of more than 10 kilos (22 pounds) is suggestive of a severe progressive chronic illness and is highly consistent with a diagnosis of gastric cancer," the authors concluded.

A late British plank?

Napoleon's remains were returned to Paris in 1840, where he is interred in a large marble tomb underneath the gilded dome of the Invalides military hospital.

However, some people, led by lawyer Bruno Roy-Henry, claim that the British switched the corpses as a farewell to their old enemy so that the French would end up honoring someone who didn't exist.

Meanwhile, some of the emperor's most devoted supporters believe he fled from St. Helena, just as he did from his first exile on the Mediterranean island of Elba. They assume he moved to America to start a new life.

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