Painful Last Months: Napoleon’s Death, 5 May 1821

So he lost Waterloo. At least, that’s what his enemies say.

But how did he die? Did he, actually?

I quote the The Siècle blog/podcast, that researched and retold his days on St. Helens:

upon arriving in St. Helena, an exiled prisoner, the emperor had all the time in the world to strike back. Napoleon’s weapon of choice? The memoir. On St. Helena, Napoleon eventually settled into a routine: after breakfast around 10 a.m., he would meet with an aide to dictate his memoirs.

While dictating, Napoleon would pace up and down the room, head down and hands behind his back, speaking in a flurry of rapid French for his aides to transcribe. Despite the speed at which he talked, Napoleon hated being interrupted, “no matter how incoherent his thoughts were.” Later, he would go over the notes and make corrections and revisions.12 

At times, while relating his memories of his military campaigns, Napoleon would lay maps all over his billiard table, holding them open with billiard balls. A visitor once asked him how he could recall so many minute details, to which Napoleon responded, “Madam, this is a lover’s recollection of his former mistress.”

Of course, much like many other memorists and ex-lovers, Napoleon embellished, omitted, and outright lied throughout his memoirs, which were intended to rebuild and defend his reputation, not be some sort of objective history. “The historian, like the orator, must persuade, he must convince,” Napoleon said.13

According to a weird story Bonapartists plotted to rescue/kindnap him with a 19th-century submarine – the story might not be totally untrue, but probably impossible and highly exaggerated by charlatan-adventurer-criminal Tom Johnson.

From 1817 on he slowly developed (most probably) stomach cancer, just like his father and two sisters, and his illegimate son Charles Leon. Napoleon’s last year was painful, TheSiecle: “By July 1820, he suffered from constant stomach pains, regular nausea and frequent vomiting. He spent most of his time in his bed. He complained that the light hurt his eyes.” In April 1821, he had a dry cough, chills, and was vomiting blood. Lowe, his harsh British prison warden, insisted to Napoleon’s last breath that the emperor was nothing more than a hypochondriac.

He worked on his will, according to Grand Marshal Bertrand, (papers published on On the 24th of April, Napoleon spoke with Archibald Arnott, his British doctor. Arnott asked if he had dictated the will. He replied: “No, it’s entirely in my hand. I write very badly and very quickly and no one can read my writing. You, the English, you write better than we do. I scorned handwriting in my youth; I have repented of my ways since. For the rest, my head was so engaged, my pen couldn’t keep up with my thoughts. In my best days, I could dictate to four secretaries and give them a great deal of work. I’m a carthorse when it comes to work.”

The 28th Napoleon became delirious. The days after he was sometimes awake, and calm, and sometimes delirious, vomiting, or in great pain, suffering from convulsions and hiccups. On the 3rd of May “he took some wine mixed with sugar. After each sip he repeated: “Good, bon, very well” [sic]. He repeated “good, bon” [sic] three times in a row almost all day long.”

His last day: 5 May 1821

(as summarized by Shannon Selin)

Napoleon’s second valet, Louis Étienne Saint-Denis, describes the state of Napoleon’s attendants during Napoleon’s final night.

The Emperor had been in bed for forty-odd days, and we who had been constantly with him, waiting on him, were so tired, and needed rest so much, that we could not control our sleepiness. The quiet of the apartment favored it. All of us, whether on chairs or sofas, took some instants of rest. If we woke up, we hurried to the bed, we listened attentively to hear the breath, and we poured into the Emperor’s mouth, which was a little open, a spoonful or two of sugar and water to refresh him. We would examine the sick man’s face as well as we could by the reflection of the light hidden behind the screen which was before the door of the dining room. It was in this way that the night passed.

Saint-Denis does not give us Napoleon’s last words. All he says on the matter is that Napoleon “could only speak a few words, and with difficulty.”

Napoleon’s Grand Marshal, General Henri Bertrand, did hear some last words early in the morning of May 5th.

From three o’clock until half-past four there were hiccups and stifled groans. Then afterwards he moaned and yawned. He appeared to be in great pain. He uttered several words which could not be distinguished and then said ‘Who retreats’ or definitely: ‘At the head of the Army.’

Napoleon’s doctor Francesco Antommarchi confirms a couple of these.

The clock struck half-past five [in the morning], and Napoleon was still delirious, speaking with difficulty, and uttering words broken and inarticulate; amongst others, we heard the words, ‘Head…army,’ and these were the last he pronounced; for they had no sooner passed his lips than he lost the power of speech.

Napoleon’s first valet, Louis-Joseph Marchand, also records Napoleon’s last words. They differ somewhat from those heard by Bertrand and Antommarchi.

The hiccups that had appeared at intervals became much more frequent, and delirium set in; the Emperor pronounced a lot of inarticulate words that were translated ‘France,… my son,… The army…’ One can conclude with absolute certainty that his last preoccupation, his last thoughts were for France, his son, and the army. These were the last words we were to hear.

General Charles de Montholon provides yet another last word.

The night was very bad: towards two o’clock delirium became evident, and was accompanied by nervous contractions. Twice I thought I distinguished the unconnected words, France – armée, tête d’armée – Josephine….

In short, according to several witnesses, he uttered words like:

That was between 3-4.30 AM. He then started to moan. Bertrand: “He seemed already like a corpse”. 5 to 6am: easier breathing.

At 6am, Arnott struck his finger against Napoleon’s stomach, which seemed inflated and which made a sound like a drum. Arnott announced that the last moment was approaching. (…) 6.15 to 6.30am, great tranquillity and easy breathing. Eyes fixed staring open. Easy sleep, with some sighs, to 8am. Sound of air escaping from the mouth from deep in the stomach, more like an instrument than a sigh. Arnott was amazed that the Emperor was still alive.

Calm to 10.30/11am, gentle breathing, body completely still, occasional movement in the pupils, then eye three-quarter closed. As the half hours passed, certain sighs or sounds. Generally very calm and motionless. Sixteen people were present, twelve of which French.

At 11.30, Arnott placed two poultices on Napoleon’s feet, and Antommarchi set two blisters, one on his chest and the other on his calf.

At 2.30pm, Arnott placed a hot water bottle on his stomach.

At 5.49pm, the Emperor gave up the ghost.

The governor gave Arnott charge over the corpse. At 10pm, Vignali offered some prayers. At 11.30pm, the Emperor was shaved. Six hours after his death, they cleaned him and changed the linen.

Grand Marshal Bertrand,

Andrea Miniatures is, as far as I know, the only miniature company who manufactures a sick 1821 Napoleon:

Andrea Miniatures (painted by Andrea studio painter)

He lost 15 kilo in his last year. Old, frail man. Probably a good depiction of 1821 Bonaparte.

However, I prefer the immortal Napoleon that I painted last month, and the David victorious ‘Napoleon, crossing the Alps’! Napoleon the Mucho Macho!

In my humble opinion, Napoleon never died.

Like Elvis: he’s not dead, but in the Witness Protection Program….!

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