Written by London Swaminathan


Date: 21  September 2018


Time uploaded in London – 18-13 (British Summer Time)


Post No. 5454

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How did the British kill Napoleon Bonaparte?

Arsenic is an interesting element in the Periodic Table. It is linked to the death of several Popes, Napoleon Bonaparte and beer drinkers of Manchester.

Here below are given some interesting titbits

1.Napoleon Bonaparte

Napoleon I (1769-1821) was emperor of France. A general from 1796, overthrew the rulers and became dictator. From 1803 he conquered most of Europe and installed his brothers as puppet kings. After the Peninsular War and retreat from Moscow in 1812, he was forced to abdicate in 1814 and was banished to the island of Elba. In March 1815 he reassumed power but was defeated by the British and Prussian forces at the Battle of Waterloo and exiled to the island of St Helena where he died. His body was brought back to Paris in 1840. He was buried in Hotel des Invalides in Paris.

High levels of arsenic were detected in his hair when it was analysed by neutron activation analysis. It showed that he was exposed to the element. Some people think it was deliberately done to kill him. Arsenic is a slow killing poison. Modern research shows that it can happen from wall papers with fungal growth under damp conditions.
When a sample of wall paper from Longwood House, his home on St Helena, was found in a scrap book in 1980s  was analysed. The green pattern on it was an arsenic pigment.


How did they kill Popes?
In the past, Popes were also disposed of with slow killing arsenic poisoning. They called it ‘succession powder ‘ because it helped them to kill dukes, popes and kings. The average intake of arsenic in our daily food is up to one milligram. A lethal dose of arsenic oxide is generally 100 milligrams. The body can get rid of it with antidotes.

Horse Race and Charles Dickens
The stimulatory effect of arsenic was exploited by the unscrupulous race horse trainers. In small doses, arsenic stimulates the metabolism and boosts the formation of red blood cells; but prolonged exposure causes health problems

Arsenic was prescribed for all kinds of ailments, such as rheumatism, malaria, TB, and diabetes. It became popular with Dr Fowlers Solution. This was concocted in 1780 by the doctor. In the nineteenth century it was regarded a popular cure all, a general tonic and aphrodisiac, even Charles Dickens used it. It was often prescribed by doctors to aid convalescence.

For 5000 years, ancient civilisations have been using it. Even today it is used in Chinese medicines. More recently arsenic trioxide was approved by the US Food and Drugs Administration for treating a form of leukaemia.
It was used in World War I as a chemical weapon. It caused terrible blisters on skin.

In the 1900s beer drinkers in Manchester were affected by arsenic poisoning and seventy people were killed. In the Indian state of West Bengal high levels of arsenic are found in well waters. The Indian government issued chlorination tablets that will oxidise arsenic trioxide to form an insoluble salt with the iron that is present in the water.

Two more interesting titbits

Soil contaminated with arsenic can be cleaned by growing Chinese ladder fern Pteris vitiata.
According to Roman writer Pliny, emperor Caligula financed a project for making gold from Orpiment and some was produced but so small a quantity that the project was abandoned.

Source book- Natures building blocks by John Emsley.

Arsenic symbol –  As
Atomic number – 33
Atomic weight – 74.92160
Melting point – 616 C
It is a metalloid element.