This Is The Color That Killed Napoleon

By Debra Kelly on Monday, March 10, 2014
napoleon
“All great events hang by a hair.” —Napoleon in a letter to the Minister of Foreign Affairs

In A Nutshell

The death of Napoleon Bonaparte has long been a point of contention. Some say he was killed by a stomach ulcer and others say it was murder, but a new discovery points to the fact that the real culprit may have been a particular shade of green. This green, called Scheele’s green, was the invention of a Swedish chemist and was used in the wallpaper that covered many rooms of Napoleon’s exile home. Unfortunately, when the dye gets damp it also gets moldy and releases arsenic into the air.

The Whole Bushel

After being handed his final defeat by the Duke of Wellington, Napoleon Bonaparte was sent to exile on the tiny, South Atlantic island of St. Helena. When he died, the cause wasn’t certain. There were a number of people on the island with him who had reason to want him dead (not least of all the head of his household, whose wife reportedly became Napoleon’s mistress and bore his child). Murder seemed likely, but so did the chronic illness that he had longed complained of.

The first examination of his body found a cancerous stomach ulcer that was reported to be the reason for his death. That reason stood comfortably until the 1960s, when advances in toxicology allowed some of Napoleon’s hair to be tested. High amounts of arsenic were found, along with a book that had been on the island that detailed how to poison someone.

But a closer examination of Napoleon’s surroundings has singled out an unlikely culprit for administering the arsenic: the color green.

More specifically, a type of green pigment called Scheele’s green. Invented by a Swedish chemist named Scheele, the coloring was cheap and easy to process, making it a popular pigment to use in a wide variety of household items starting in the 1770s. It wasn’t until more than 100 years later that an Italian chemist took a closer look at the pigment. When items containing the pigment got damp and were allowed to mold, a reaction began that produced copper arsenic. The presence of the copper arsenic then started another reaction in which the arsenic was vaporized and released into the air.

Wallpaper samples taken from the house at the time Napoleon lived there still exist and are stamped with floral patterns in Scheele green.

Finding the deadly pigment in the wallpaper suddenly made a lot more of the circumstances surrounding Napoleon’s last day make much more sense.

Napoleon wasn’t the only one suffering from the symptoms of poisoning. Those who lived with him recorded their rather considerable physical distress, from stomach pains to swelling in their extremities. Several people—including a child and Napoleon’s personal butler—also died.

One of the places that the offending wallpaper was found was in Napoleon’s bathroom, where he also had a large copper bathtub which he would spend hours in. And even today, the Longwood House needs to be re-wallpapered every few years because of the humidity on the island—making it (and the bathroom) a perfect place for the chemical reaction that would release arsenic into the air.

While the existence of his stomach ulcer is undeniable, it’s highly possible that the presence of arsenic helped speed up his death as well as impacted the health of those around him. The head of his household complained of symptoms similar to those of arsenic poisoning, including five long weeks of extreme pain leading up to the death of Napoleon.

Napoleon’s body was originally interred on the island, only later moved back to France to be buried. When he was moved, it was found that there was little to no decomposition even after the 19 years he had been entombed. Arsenic could be partially reprehensible for aiding in the preservation process; similar to mummification, preservative chemicals work best when applied to both the inside and outside of the body, suggesting that the arsenic hadn’t been entirely consumed (as was a trend at the time), but also present in the air as well.

Show Me The Proof

Scheele’s green approximated using this color chart and this RGB/hex converter.
Napoleon.org: The wallpaper that killed Napoleon
Who Murdered Napoleon? Probably Nobody!
Arsenic poisoning and Napoleon’s death