This Is The Color That Killed 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. The wallpaper that killed Napoleon
Who Murdered Napoleon? Probably Nobody!
Arsenic poisoning and Napoleon’s death

  • CSisonweb

    Floral patterns? Sounds like some whack decor.

    • Andy West

      Love that, ‘whack decor’. If I owned an island I’d name it that.

  • Andy West

    I’ve been staring at the damn thing for 15 minutes and I can’t make out a damn thing, wait a minute, is it a horse, no, two horses, and a dragon!

    • CSisonweb

      No a bird….wait no..a plane? OMG can it be it’s SUPERMAN!

      • Check

        It’s the Hulk, silly. It’s green. Duh!

    • lbatfish

      You’re correct on all three. But you quit too soon — you could fill an ark with all the critters you can see after 30 minutes!

    • Check

      I jump on one of the horses. *rolls d20* I make my Ride Check with a 32. I pull out my +5 long sword of dragon slaying. I attack the dragon. *rolls d20* I rolled a 45! Do I hit?

  • Check

    It’s a friggin’ Rothko painting.

    • Pas DeNom

      It’s the Libyan flag under Gadaffi!

      • Andy West

        I still can’t see anything. Whereabouts? I think I make out a scowl in the bottom right corner, and the flag you say is on top of him?

  • Lisa 39

    “Arsenic could be partially reprehensible”, i think that was supposed to be responsible.

    • lbatfish

      And if it was indeed foul play, the person that was responsible for the poisoning would also be reprehensible.

      • Lisa 39

        Hells yeah!

      • Andy West

        And superlatively reprimandable.

  • TheMadHatter

    You might be a bit off, that’s a red shape.

  • Eric Cauldhame

    Uh, nothing new here, I was taught this in school 30 years ago.

  • Christopher Hopkins

    I was definitely taught at schoolo that the arsenic in the wallpaper most likely killed him. That was nearly 20 years ago.

    • Marozia

      Interesting! We were taught that Montholon had slipped small doses of arsenic into his meals or wine and poisoned him slowly. With the Paris Green wallpaper (copper-arsenate), it probably lasted longer than Napoleon.
      When Napoleon was disinterred and reburied, his uniform was found decayed, but not him.

  • Scott

    I was taught that he died from a sexual mishap. Apparently Napoleon was into gerbling big time, often times putting multiple small animals in his rectum at the same time. Well, during one particularly kinky night with his mistress he inserted no less than 4 gerbils into his butt. Unfortunately, two of the animals retreated into his bowels and got stuck. Despite the efforts of his personal doctor, they were unable to get the animals out. The decomposing bodies of the gerbils both clogged up the ex-emperor’s bowels while also causing him to fall deathly ill, and ultimately it killed him. At least, that’s what we were taught.

    • Nathaniel A.

      Did you go to comedic school?

      • Scott

        American public school, actually.

        • Nathaniel A.

          Ah, that explains it.

          • Lisa 39

            I went to american public school and i didn’t learn that, wait, i don’t remember learning about napoleon at all, i’ll bet it was in high school, i was probably in the girls room having a smoke 😉

          • lbatfish

            See? Your teachers always told you that if you cut classes, you might miss out on something good. And now here’s the PROOF! Complete with gerbils, even.

          • Lisa 39

            Umm, i don’t remember hearing that, i may have been at the zoo or the metroparks smokin the local shrubbery!

  • percynjpn

    Fascinating – I’d never heard of this.

  • HerthaWilcox

    whats colour for killed the Napoleon?

  • Napoleon’s lifa has always interested me. He was the most influential historic figure in 19th century. Interesting to know a bit more about the cause of hus death. Anyway, his glory days ended when he was exiled to Saint Helena.

  • Forum Krucil

    I was taught that he died from a sexual mishap. Forum Krucil

  • Uh, nothing new here, I was taught this in college grade 10 years ago.