By Maria Cox, MMTA
Ever since the defeated French emperor, Napoleon Bonaparte’s death in 1821, on the island of St. Helena, where he lived in exile for nearly six years, there has been speculation as to the cause.
Theories of British assassination plots could be less realistic than one of the most everyday substances in the 19th Century home—the wallpaper.
But why the wallpaper? During the first half of the 19th Century, many changes were happening in the home, and in the 1850’s oil lamps replaced candles as the main source of domestic light, providing greater light levels. As a result, the fashion for interior decoration changed. With greater illumination, darker shades became fashionable—with green being a great favourite, for example Scheele’s Green and Schweinfurt Green. Described by Jessica Haslam in Deadly Décor as an ‘accidental killer’, Grace Elliot, a historical blogger, states that it was estimated that in 1858 there were 100 million squares miles of green wallpaper in Britain alone, not to mention various other home furnishings using shades of green.
Scheele’s green (copper arsenite) was discovered in 1778 by Karl Scheele, a Swedish chemist. Like the IKEA home furnishings of today, it was cheap and vibrant in colour and became extremely popular in the manufacture of a wide range of home goods in homes of all levels of wealth.
In ‘Deadly Décor’, Haslam explains that “suspicions regarding the safety of such arsenic wallpaper date back as far as 1839, when Leopold Gmelin, a famous German chemist, noted that damp rooms with green wallpaper often possessed a mouse-like odour, which he attributed to the production of dimethyl arsenic acid within the wallpaper. He reported his concerns in Karslruher Zeitung, a German daily paper of the time, warning the population against applying papers containing Scheele’s green pigments to the walls of their homes.
Paper manufacturers, including William Morris, disputed the growing body of evidence, and the government, which enjoyed the tax revenue such industrialised home expenditure brought with it, remained very silent on this growing public health scare. However, it slowly became clear that not only arsenic dust from inferior wallpapers, but also arsenic fumes—released due to warm, damp conditions—were leading to breathing difficulties and in some cases death.
The problem was made worse by the fact that the sick were commonly confined to darkened rooms with the windows and doors closed to keep the patient warm and prevent chills from the cold air. So anyone complaining of headaches, fatigue, chest complaints and nausea (symptoms of arsenic poisoning) would be enclosed in their green bedroom to recover.
The first major cases—4 children in Limehouse, a poor area of London—were initially diagnosed as diphtheria. But the supposed infection did not spread, which confused doctors. Haslam explains that “it was not until Henry Letheby, a public health officer at the time, discovered that the children’s bedroom had recently been papered with green wallpaper that the true cause of death was discovered.
His examination of the paper found that it contained three grains per square foot of arsenic; a lethal dose”.
Anyway, back to Napoleon: he could have been exposed to the poison through the toxic fumes given off by wallpaper at Longwood, his prison home on St Helena.
A sample of the paper had been secured by a visitor to the site in the 1820s and tucked into a family scrapbook. It surfaced in Norfolk, England, in the 1980s and, when tested by British scientists in the 1990s, was found to contain arsenic.
According to the American Museum of Natural History, “other evidence suggests that Napoleon’s exposure to arsenic was likely life-long. In 2008, an Italian team widened the inquiry by testing not only strands of Napoleon’s hair from four points in his life— including his boyhood, his exile, the day of his death, and the day after—but that of his son, Napoleon II, and his wife, Empress Josephine. All samples were found to have similarly high arsenic levels, roughly 100 times that of living people whose hair was included in the analysis for comparison.”
So, although not proven, death by wallpaper is definitely a viable theory in the death of the former Emperor!
Haslam, J. C., Res Medica, Volume 21, Issue 1, Journal of the Royal Medial Society, Deadly décor: a short history of arsenic poisoning in the nineteenth century