The high levels of arsenic found in Napoleon’s hair have led to the assumption that he was poisoned in 1821, while exiled to the island of Saint Helena. But now scientists are saying he wasn’t poisoned after all and that the arsenic came from his hair cream, gunpowder or wallpaper paste.
In 2001, Pascal Kintz of the Strasbourg Forensic Institute in France studied hairs taken from his head after he died and found levels of arsenic seven to 38 times higher than normal and concluded he was slowly poisoned to death. Now a new team of French forensic experts has studied strands of his hair from 1805, 1814 and 1821. All had abnormally high levels of arsenic, so the researchers have decided poisoning couldn?t have been the cause of death. “If arsenic caused Napoleon’s death, he would have died three times over,” says Ivan Ricordel, head of the toxicology at Paris Police headquarters.
The researchers used X-ray synchrotron radiation to analyze the hair samples for tiny trace elements. Most human hair contains arsenic at 0.8 parts per million. The samples taken from Napoleon were all found to contain huge amounts of it, ranging from 15 and 100 parts per million. But hair absorbs arsenic easily, and historical records reveal many possible sources of the poison, including gunpowder, rat poison, wallpaper glue and hair cream.
The theory that Napoleon was poisoned first surfaced after diaries belonging to Napoleon’s valet, Louis Marchand, were published in 1955. These described Napoleon suffering from symptoms associated with arsenic poisoning. Some historians suggested that the British or a French conspirator had poisoned him and covered up his murder.
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