The commanding officer at St. Helena writes his superior, the Admiralty Secretary: “General Buonaparte departed this life at a little before six P.M. on Saturday”.
Including the official copy of Bonaparte’s autopsy sent to England
For a generation, Napoleon Bonaparte strode across Europe like a colossus, inspiring people, terrorizing nation’s and governments, and forcing realignments around the globe. His shadow was cast from Russia to the New World, and his name became synonymous with an age. After...
Including the official copy of Bonaparte’s autopsy sent to England
For a generation, Napoleon Bonaparte strode across Europe like a colossus, inspiring people, terrorizing nation’s and governments, and forcing realignments around the globe. His shadow was cast from Russia to the New World, and his name became synonymous with an age. After his first capture in 1814, he had been exiled to the Island of Elba. But that could not hold him and he escaped. Reconstituting his forces, he fought and lost to the Duke of Wellington at the famed Battle of Waterloo on June 18, 1815. This proved to be the end of Napoleon's career, and on July 15, 1815, after learning that the Prussians had ordered his capture “dead or alive”, he demanded asylum from the British. They respected and feared him, and to prevent another escape, banished him to the remote island of St. Helena in the Atlantic Ocean, 1,162 miles from the west coast of Africa. He would never return to Europe, a return that would spell more tumult for a continent attempting to rebuild and re-establish stability. Napoleon was accompanied to St. Helena by a small cadre of followers, and spent his time dictating his memoirs. For poet Lord Byron, Napoleon was the epitome of the Romantic hero, the persecuted, lonely, and flawed genius.
Admiral Robert Lambert arrived at St. Helena in 1820 and was the senior military official on the island in 1821. John Crocker was his immediate superior and responsible for reporting to King George III and the British government. Napoleon was just in his 50s while on St. Helena, but his health would suffer a rapid decline there that would ultimately lead to the death of the 19th century’s most important European.
Letter signed, May 7, 1821, from Lambert to Crocker, Vigo, St. Helena, containing the momentous news. “Sir, I have to acquaint you for their Lordships' information that General Buonaparte departed this life at a little before six P.M. on Saturday the 5th Instant. My letter No. 9 of the 2nd Inst, by the Bristol Merchant Ship will have apprized you of his dangerous illness. On that day a consultation was held, in which, by the Governor's desire Dr. Mitchell, Surgeon of the Vigo, joined. He continued in attendance until the demise, and afterwards assisted at the opening of the body, the report of which, signed by all the medical attendants, I enclose [included]. From the importance of this event I have judged it proper to confide my dispatches to Captain Henry, the Senior Commander on the Station, who has visited the body with me, and can give their Lordships any further details required. I have sent him in the Heron, that vessel being the fastest Sailer, and the next for relief; and I trust these measures will have their Lordships' approbation.”
The original autopsy report, signed by Lambert, Longwood, St Helena, May 6 1821, is entitled “Report of Appearances on Dissection of the Body of Napoleon Bonaparte,” being the original copy sent to the English authorities. “On a superficial view the body appeared very fat which state was confirmed by the first incision down its centre where the fat was upwards of one inch and a half over the abdomen. On cutting through the cartilages of the ribs and exposing the cavity of the throat a trifling adhesion of the left pleura was found to the pleura costalis. About three ounces of reddish fluid were contained in the left cavity and nearly eight ounces in the right The lungs were quite sound. The pericardium was natural and contained about an ounce of fluid. The heart was of the natural size but thickly covered with fat. The auricles and ventricles exhibited nothing extraordinary except that the muscular parts appeared rather paler than natural. Upon opening the abdomen the omentum was found remarkably fat and on exposing the stomach that viscus was found the seat of extensive disease. Strong adhesions connected the whole superior surface particularly about the pyloric extremity to the concave surface of the left lobe of the liver and on separating these an ulcer which penetrated the coats of the stomach was discovered one inch from the pylorus sufficient to allow the passage of the little finger. The internal surface of the stomach to nearly its whole extent was a mass of cancerous disease or schirrous portions advancing to cancer this was particularly noticed near the pylorus. The cardiac extremity for a small space near the termination of the oesophagus was the only part appearing in a healthy state. The stomach was found nearly filled with a large quantity of fluid resembling coffee grounds. The convex surface of the left lobe of the liver adhered to the diaphragm. With the exception of the adhesions occasioned by the disease in the stomach no unhealthy appearance presented itself in the liver. The remainder of the abdominal viscera were in a healthy state. A slight peculiarity in the formation of the left kidney was observed.” The document contains clerical signatures of the attending physicians.
Included is also the original letter sent announcing the rapid deterioration of Napoleon’s health, May 2, 1821, from Lambert to Crocker.. “Be pleased to inform Their Lordships that General Buonaparte has been attacked with a dangerous illness which is expected by the medical attendants to prove fatal. In the event of his demise I shall immediately dispatch a vessel to England with the intelligence.”
This is an extraordinary group. Our records show that it sold in 1921 for an incredible $450, a huge sum at a time when you could buy George Washington letters in the 10s of dollars.
What was the cause of Napoleon’s death? That topic has been the subject of enormous controversy over the two intervening centuries. The autopsy findings, signed off by the doctors in attendance, indicate Napoleon died from a perforation of the stomach caused by stomach cancer. This is plausible, as Napoleon's grandfather, father, brother Lucien, and three of his sisters died from stomach cancer. Some believe that Napoleon was poisoned with arsenic, also possible as high levels of that poison were found in his hair.
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