The Strange Story of Napoleon's Wallpaper - Page 1

In 1815, after his defeat by the British at the battle of Waterloo, Napoleon Bonaparte was exiled to the remote island of St Helena. Just six miles by eight, St Helena is a tiny volcanic island south of the Equator, lost in the vastness of the South Atlantic Ocean. The nearest land is Ascension Island, 700 miles to the north. Africa lies a thousand miles to the east, South America a thousand to the west.

During most of his exile, Napoleon lived in Longwood House with his small retinue of about 20 people - as well as servants, some of his generals had chosen to go into exile with him. He passed the time by dictating his memoirs, and by playing billiards, which he did rather badly.

Although Napoleon often dreamed of escape, he was never to leave the island, and he died there six years later in 1821. Napoleon was initially buried on St Helena, but his body was later removed and re-buried in Paris on the banks of the Seine, as had been his wish.

The doctors who carried out the post-mortem on Napoleon were of the opinion that a perforated stomach ulcer which had turned cancerous was the main cause of his death. And there the matter might have rested, except that a number of his staff had kept locks of Napoleon's hair, which were subsequently passed down the generations, sometimes coming up at auction. Unbeknown to their owners, these treasured locks of hair contained something of a small historical time bomb.

One of those samples of Napoleon's hair, when analysed using modern scientific techniques in the 1960s, was found to contain significant quantities of arsenic. Suddenly the cause of Napoleon's death was being debated all over again. 'The Murder of Napoleon' was the title of one book that was published. But had the British really poisoned their most famous prisoner? Or were the French Bourbons so unwilling for Napoleon to return that they had had him poisoned? Did one of his staff have a secret grudge?

True, Napoleon had got on very badly with the British Governor of St Helena, Sir Hudson Lowe. And in his will Napoleon claimed that he had been 'murdered by the British Oligarchy'. But was that claim just part of his long standing 'war of words' with Hudson Lowe? Certainly for a man who had conquered most of Europe it must have been very galling to be confined on a tiny island in the middle of nowhere. But for all the speculation, there was very little actual evidence of any murder plot other than the fact of the arsenic in the hair.

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