The Strange Story of Napoleon's Wallpaper - Page 3

The Wallpaper

The story of Napoleon's wallpaper really begins in 1980 when Dr David Jones, a chemist at the University of Newcastle, was making a radio programme that was broadcast on the BBC. 'I wonder if anyone listening', David Jones asked the radio audience, 'knows the colour of Napoleon's wallpaper on St Helena. Because if we knew, it might just help to clear up a scientific mystery'.

Why did David Jones want to know the colour of Napoleon's wallpaper? He wanted to know if it could have contained arsenic!

The subject of the radio programme had been vapour chemistry, and one of the stories that David Jones, himself a chemist, had told was the intriguing one of Gosio's Disease. During the 19th century there had been a number of cases of arsenic poisoning that had rather puzzled everyone. Some people just became sick, but others laid low with a lesser malady became sicker still, and died. Arsenic was found, using the Marsh Test, foul play was sometimes suspected, and relatives accused. But in many cases it just didn't seem possible that the person had been deliberately poisoned. Until in 1893 an Italian Biochemist called Gosio worked out what was happening.

Scheele's Green was a colouring pigment that had been used in fabrics and wallpapers from around 1770. It was named after the Swedish chemist Scheele who invented it. The pigment was easy to make, and was a bright green colour. But Scheele's Green was copper arsenite. And under certain circumstances it could be deadly. Gosio discovered that if wallpaper containing Scheele's Green became damp, and then became mouldy (this was in the days of animal glues) the mould could carry out a neat chemical trick to get rid of the copper arsenite. It converted it to a vapour form of arsenic. Normally a mixture of arsine, dimethyl and trimethyl arsine. This vapour was very poisonous indeed. Breathe in enough of the vapour, and you would go down with a nasty case of arsenic poisoning.

This was the reason for David Jones's question to the radio audience. David Jones knew of the arsenic found in Napoleon's hair. But if Napoleon's wallpaper had been green, it could possibly have contained arsenic, and this could have been the source of the arsenic in the hair sample. Napoleon might have been an early victim of Gosio's disease. It was rather a long shot, and David Jones didn't really expect anything to come of it.

But a few days after the broadcast David Jones received a letter from a woman called Shirley Bradley who lived in Norfolk, UK. The contents of her letter were to prove, according to David Jones, 'the greatest piece of scientific good fortune of my career'.

Shirley Bradley didn't have a theory or a story about the colour of Napoleon's wallpaper. She had an actual piece of the wallpaper itself. In fact, what Shirley Bradley had was a scrapbook, which had been handed down to her. The person who had owned the scrapbook had filled it with little poems and religious reflections. All the pages were dated. And one page was all about St Helena. The author of the scrapbook appeared to have visited St Helena in 1823. There was a leaf, taken from the tree that stood above Napoleon's grave. There were various observations about the island. And there, stuck to the page, was a small scrap of paper.

Next to the scrap of wallpaper, the old fashioned copper-plate handwriting reads:- 'This small piece of paper was taken off the wall of the room in which the spirit of Napoleon returned to God who gave it'.

The wallpaper showed a single star. The principal colours of this star were green and brown. It is possible that the brown had faded, and had originally been gold. Gold and green were the Imperial colours. The first question David Jones had was whether the wallpaper did actually contain arsenic. Shirley Bradley gave permission for the fragment of paper to be removed from the book, and subjected to the same non-destructive scientific tests that had originally found the arsenic in the hair sample. And yes, the green pigment did contain arsenic. David Jones remembers clearly standing in the lab with a colleague watching the arsenic peak appear on the print-out. As he says,'It was a crazy, wonderful moment'.

So it began to look as if Napoleon might have been a victim of Gosio's disease, poisoned not by the British authorities, but inadvertantly by the British wallpaper makers, with their drop-dead sense of decor. What other evidence was there for this hypothesis? Ten years after David Jones made his radio programme, I had the pleasure of making a television programme with him, all about this story. For the television programme we were able to do something that David Jones had not been able to do before - travel to the scene of the crime, and visit St Helena itself.

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