A Conspiracy Theory of Napoleonic Proportions

May 7, 1821, 189 years ago, on the island of St. Helena, the great Napoleon Bonaparte died. An autopsy at the time declared that Le Empereur died of stomach cancer, as had his father. Case closed. He was buried in an unmarked grave on the island, unmarked because the English wanted the marker to say merely “Napoleon Bonaparte” and his faithful entourage refused to allow that.

But did he die of stomach cancer? An important man like that, just getting sick and dying? Who would believe that?

Bring on the conspiracy theorists!

In the 1950s the memoirs of Napoleon’s valet were discovered and it led one man to question whether Napoleon might have been poisoned. Technology even offered proof. An article in Nature in 1961 offered the evidence that high levels of arsenic was found in samples of Napoleon’s hair which had been taken as keepsakes upon his death.

Some even claimed to have discovered his murderer– an opportunist named Count de Monthelon. The plot thickens when it came to light de Montheon’s wife left St. Helena shortly before Napoleon’s death, after having given birth to an infant surmised to be Napoleon’s. A Love Triangle, perhaps? Or part of the plot to get Napoleon to put de Monthelon in the will?

Then others offered other reasons for high levels of arsenic– the pomade he used on his hair, the wallpaper at his estate on St. Helena.

In 2007, scientists took another look at the physicians’ descriptions of Napoleon’s autopsy and Bingo! The descriptions were consistent with stomach cancer…Most likely Napoleon died of what the officials said he died of 189 years ago.

But! Does that prove there wasn’t a conspiracy???

It was known that Napoleon, in his lifetime, occasionally used stand-ins. One of his stand-ins, Pierre Robeaud, disappeared in 1818. Robeaud purportedly had stomach cancer and traveled to St. Helena to switch places with Napoleon. This version has Napoleon flee to Verona and assume the name Revard. It even gives him a tragic, heroic end–Falling to his death in 1823 die trying to climb the walls of Castle Schonbrunn in Austria in an attempt to see his ill son.

Yeah. That’s a lot more credible than the great Napoleon merely dying of cancer….

So, tell me? Why do we so easily believe Conspiracy Theories? You know we do. We’re much more interested in intrigue, secrecy, drama, and conspiracy than common sense. Explain this to me, please!

(Don’t forget! I’m Blogging at Diane’s Blog on Thursday and giving away a signed copy of Gallant Officer, Forbidden Lady to one lucky commenter)
Blogging at DianeGaston.com

About diane

Diane Gaston is the RITA award-winning author of Historical Romance for Harlequin Historical and Mills and Boon, with books that feature the darker side of the Regency. Formerly a mental health social worker, she is happiest now when deep in the psyches of soldiers, rakes and women who don’t always act like ladies.
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15 Responses to A Conspiracy Theory of Napoleonic Proportions

  1. Alison says:

    People just love conspiracy theories, don’t they? I have to say, having worked in a office for more than twenty years, most of the times it’s cock-up, not conspiracy – but that doesn’t stop people trying to make it sound as intriguing as possible…

  2. I’ve read that as a species we’re wired to find patterns based on sketchy evidence…which is a good thing for a hunter-gatherer, because it’s better to assume that a shadow and a rustling is a predator and prepare to fight or flee accordingly than to wait till you’re absolutely SURE, but the lion is about to make one bite of you. But the same tendency makes us believe conspiracy theories, because we’re so busy looking for patterns that we make them up even when they aren’t there.

    Not that that perfectly applies in this case, since “man with family history of cancer dies of cancer” actually DOES fit a pattern…just a very mundane one. We’re also a species of storytellers, and I think it’s natural to want to believe whatever option makes the best story. 🙂

  3. I think if someone has lived a spectacular, notable, infamous life the theory is that they must die in a similar fashion. Stomach cancer is none of those things, but a poisoning over a love triangle or some similar scandal is a much more palatable way to end a life like Napoleon’s.

    I think it appeals to the storyteller in all of us. We don’t like the ending so we rewrite it.

  4. Jane Austen says:

    I really think that conspiracy theories create more trouble than anything else. I had to listen to one of my employees go off about how the United States really blew up the World Trade Center and that the planes that went down really didn’t go down. That those people are still alive somewhere and it just angered me.

    I will say that Susanna Fraser’s explanation does seem to be quite apt and I agree with it.

  5. The Emperor’s New Clothes, one of my favourite films in the universe takes up this conspiracy theory and runs with it, quite movingly and charmingly. Ian Holm is terrific. Highly recommended!

  6. Diane Gaston says:

    I agree! Susanna, that’s a good explanation. Also the one you and Louisa suggest, that we like to rewrite the story in a more exciting way. (Have you ever “rewritten” a book to end better than the way the author wrote it???)
    Alison, I guess people like to make gossip sound more exciting than it really is, too.
    I do wish as hunter/gatherers we also looked at the lion and figured, “Yes, that’s a lion” and not one’s enemy who dressed up as a lion to scare one to death, or trained a lion to attack and knew at that very moment one would be in the forest at that exact spot.

  7. Diane Gaston says:

    Margaret, I’ve put The Emperor’s New Clothes in my Netflix Queue!

  8. (Have you ever “rewritten” a book to end better than the way the author wrote it???)

    Not just books, but the last two seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. And I’ve written alternative history, but I wouldn’t say my version ends better, just different.

  9. Susan/DC says:

    I understand why we need to find patterns in seemingly disparate events, but sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, a coincidence is just a coincidence, and a single evil or sick person does act alone. Also, as Susanna Fraser points out, sometimes there is a pattern, but it’s so boring and commonplace that we prefer to believe the more dramatic conspiracy theory.

    I’m so tired of books or films that have government conspiracies as their catalyst. Anyone who’s worked in the government (or for any large organization) knows how hard it is to keep anything a secret when it involves large numbers of co-conspirators. Plus, today’s government conspiracy is just the most recent incarnation of the Jewish/Trilateral Commission/Main Stream Media/Whatever conspiracy theories of the past, and as such smacks of prejudice of one sort or another to me.

  10. azteclady says:

    Because we want our larger-than-life heroes (or historical figures) to actually be larger-than-life.

    I mean, really, garden variety deaths just take all the glamour off, don’t they?

    Isn’t that why, as a rule, we (romance readers) prefer our fictional heroes to be soldier, mercenaries, Navy SEALs, spies, dukes, etc, rather than the shop keeper down the street?

  11. I hate to say it, but the way our government works – slowly and sometimes with no discernible direction, makes me wonder why anyone would think this same government could manage even a bad conspiracy, let alone a good one!

  12. Judy says:

    I find myself coming at it from a few different directions. As a missionary, I well remember speculating where we would be moved and with whom we would be paired. It gave us a sense of control over the unknown and a way to prepare for the worst and anticipate the best. If we felt like we knew what was going on, then it wasn’t quite as unnerving. A way to control fear. It was more comforting to speculate about someone else because it took our minds off our own worries for the future.

    From another direction, growing up in the home I did, the tag line from Will Smith’s Enemy of the State rang true. “It’s not paranoia if they’re really after you.” Learning to see the patterns, such as sociopathic behavior or psychotic behavior, became a matter of survival.

    One must consider the world we live in. It’s made up of imperfect people. There are still those who believe the earth is flat, despite the evidence.

    It seems to come down to a need to protect oneself, from danger, from being hurt, from feeling foolish (for not seeing a problem sooner), from wanting to feel important because you have information others do not. I fear a great deal of it is a matter of laziness, simply passing along what is heard as opposed to taking the time to find out for ones self. Whatever the reason, it’s vital to learn the truth for oneself, as opposed to passing along the sound bites that are taken out of context or blatantly misinterpreted.

    I was never prouder than when the California judge declared that the Holocaust could not be called into question. It did happen.

  13. Diane Gaston says:

    Judy, this is very wise. I think you are describing using those skills of pattern recognition and prediction in very adaptive ways. But when people assume the Holocaust didn’t really happen, or that the astronauts didn’t really land on the moon, it defies intelligence!

    Susan/DC, that quote from Freud, “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar” is so apt!!! It came to my mind, too.

    azteclady, I think you are right about our liking our heroes in stories (real or fiction) to be larger than life. And Susanna, I was thinking of fan fiction being another way of writing our own version of the story. (I always wanted to rewrite the story of Romeo and Juliet – they don’t die!)

    Louisa, Your remind me of something my husband said to a relative who refused to use an ATM because he assumed it was the government’s way of keeping track of your money. My husband said, “I work for the government and, believe me, they’re not that organized.” (Still makes me laugh!)

    And, Louisa, a relative of mine persists in sending me websites that tell about something so sensational that he figures I must be told. They are all nonsense, of course.

  14. Judy says:

    But Diane, it was on the internet, so it must be true! *Yes, sadly, there are really people who think that. Just as there are those that believe if it’s on the news it must be true. i’ve lost count of the number of times I “Reply All” including a link to a site like snopes where it shows the “report” is false. It takes less than 30 seconds.*

  15. librarypat says:

    I don’t think we are ever satisfied with easy answers. When famous people meet an untimely, mysterious or unexpected death, we just know there has to be more to it than illness or accident. Some feel there has to be more to it than mere happenstance.

    Man’s general mistrust of authority probably has something to do with it too.

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