FBI Testing Napoleon’s Hair for Poison


A forelock snipped by a maid from Napoleon Bonaparte’s head hours after his death is at the center of a debate over whether the former French conqueror was murdered, and if so, by whom.

A few hairs from the locket, to go on sale in Chicago next month, are being studied for signs of poison by the FBI laboratory in Washington. The lab is also trying to determine the DNA makeup in the follicles, said Robert Bresson, a spokesman for the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

The results will be among evidence presented at a meeting of the Napoleonic Society of America in September, said group member Bob Snibbe.

Napoleon’s official cause of death in 1821 was originally listed by English doctors as stomach cancer. But people who attended the former emperor on the remote island of St. Helena, in the south Atlantic Ocean, where he was exiled after losing the battle of Waterloo, have come under suspicion over the years, Snibbe said.


French royalist Count de Montholon is among the possible culprits and, Snibbe said, had several possible motives.

A 1982 book, “The Murder of Napoleon,” charged that Napoleon was poisoned, a result based on hair tests at the Harwell Atomic Energy Research Laboratory in England. The lab found abnormally high traces of arsenic.

Snibbe said French scholars found the book’s allegations absurd. It postulated that French royalists, afraid that Napoleon’s possible return would strip them of their power and wealth, had Count Montholon poison him.

But the author of a soon-to-be-published book on the question, Rene Maury, argues that Montholon’s motives were personal: Napoleon had cuckolded him, and the count was impatient to obtain a promised inheritance of 2 million francs.


Maury will join the debate at the meeting, Snibbe said.

Meanwhile, Snibbe said the 1,800-member group is considering whether to ask that the body of Napoleon’s nephew, Achille Murat, be exhumed from his grave in Tallahassee, Fla., where he fled after his Italian father was beheaded and his body tossed in the Mediterranean.

Achille’s body would be exhumed to determine its genetic makeup and try to match it to that of the locket.

The FBI’s Bresson said the agency partly agreed to test the hair because scientists are not sure if DNA can be recovered from hair “that had been sitting around for 200 years.”


An elderly Frenchman, Jean Fichou of Rennes, brought the locket to the FBI in Washington, Bresson said.

The locket, along with other Napoleonic items, will be on sale in Chicago during the society’s meeting.