The facts about Napoleon Bonaparte’s life— his awesome military achievements against the united powers of Europe, his sweeping reforms of law and bureaucracy across an entire continent—are extraordinary. But Napoleon Bonaparte's final years were just as extraordinary, with humiliating exile, a mysterious death at age 51, and a bizarre postmortem chain of events.
After Napoleon was finally defeated at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, he abdicated his throne and surrendered to the British. Rather than execute him and potentially turn him into a martyr, the British placed him in exile on one of the most isolated places on earth—the British-held island of Saint Helena in the South Atlantic Ocean.
Exile on Saint Helena Island
A tiny island measuring only about 10 by 5 miles, its jagged cliffs must have seemed a grim sight when the former emperor first laid eyes on it. After initially enjoying two pleasant months living at the home of a former friend William Balcombe, Napoleon was then moved to nearby Longwood House, a property that had fallen into disrepair, and which was particularly damp and riddled with mold.
His servants were said to have complained of “colds, catarrhs, damp floors and poor provisions.” One of the entourage of 28 people who accompanied Napoleon was the Comte de Las Cases, who described Longwood House as “a wretched hovel, a few feet square.”
The island also appears to have been infested with rats, a feature that political satirists from all over Europe took as an opportunity to poke fun at the vanquished former emperor. A German political cartoon from the period mocked his situation, with a battalion of rats serving him instead of courtiers. A French cartoon showed the former Emperor sleeping in a tent while rats on the shore plot a rebellion—the caption read “Not even the rats want him.”
It would only get worse. The new British governor of the island, Hudson Lowe, was determined that Napoleon would not escape from this exile as he had done from his first one in Elba, and so restricted his movement, monitoring his correspondence, and ordering that Napoleon be seen in the flesh by British officers several times a day.
This led to the ex-emperor going into a bizarre form of rebellion, closing the shutters of the house and carving tiny peepholes into them so that he could look out without being seen. He also designed sunken pathways in the garden to make it harder for the officers to spot him. And despite Lowe’s orders that gifts were not permitted if they made mention of Napoleon’s imperial status, the former emperor continued to preserve royal protocol, with men in military dress and women in bejewelled gowns.
He also took up a few pastimes: he dictated his memoirs, wrote a book on Julius Caesar, studied English, and played cards. In fact, he played cards so much that a range of versions of solitaire (the card game also known as “patience”) have been named after him.
Eventually, the living conditions—and especially his lack of exercise—began to take their toll, and Napoleon’s health began to decline precipitously. He suffered from abdominal pain, constipation, vomiting and overall weakness. By February 1821, about four years after his arrival on St Helena, Napoleon knew his end was nigh. He reconciled with the Catholic Church after a most tumultuous relationship (which had included at one point kidnapping the pope), and made his confession and took the final sacraments. On May 5, 1821 he passed away at age 51.
What Killed Napoleon Bonaparte?
Shortly after Napoleon died, an autopsy was carried out by his physician Francesco Antommarchi. During this procedure, his heart and intestines were removed and put into sealed vessels, a standard treatment for the bodies of monarchs. However, Antommarchi also cut off Napoleon’s penis—no one knows why.
It was then smuggled out of the island by his chaplain and would end up being bought and sold over the years by various parties, eventually ending up on display in 1927 at New York City's Museum of French Art, where TIME magazine compared it to a “maltreated strip of buckskin shoelace.” An inglorious end for one who had in a matter of years managed to conquer almost all of Europe.
So what killed “Old Bony,” as the English liked to call him? That has been the matter of historical debate and medical science for the last 200 years.
Antommarchi said it was stomach cancer. In 1961, a Swedish amateur toxicologist claimed that Napoleon had in fact been poisoned with arsenic and pointed the finger at one of his French entourage.
Other researchers have pointed out that, in that era, arsenic was found in a range of materials in daily use and people were constantly exposed to it. Yet others have claimed it was either a peptic ulcer or gastric cancer. Whatever the true cause, fascination with this extraordinary historical figure shows no sign of waning.