5 Things You Probably Didn't Know About Napoleon

Napoleon Bonaparte, the former French ruler, died on this day in 1821 as a British prisoner on the remote island of Saint Helena in the southern Atlantic Ocean.  Here are five things you probably didn't know about Napoleon...


Napoleon Didn't Die of Arsenic Poisoning—but He Definitely Had Some in His System. # Napoleon Bonaparte likely died of undiagnosed and untreated cancer, rather than arsenic poisoning. Photo credit: Dennis Jarvis/Flickr. For years, people thought Napoleon had died from arsenic poisoning because someone tested a hair sample from him and found the deadly element. And there were certainly people who had good reason, politically speaking, to do him in. But further testing of additional hair samples, some dating back to his childhood, revealed that those levels of arsenic stayed pretty steady throughout his life. (Had he been poisoned, the amount of arsenic would have increased in his later years.) It wasn't unusual to find traces of arsenic in people from his time because arsenic was used in everyday items like wallpaper. Anyway, the current thinking is that he died from undiagnosed stomach cancer.

People on Elba—His First Place of Exile—Seemed to Have Actually Liked Him. # Saint Helena may look peaceful, but it's isolated even considering modern technology and transportation. Photo credit: David Stanley/Flickr. "Napoleon complex" is seen as a negative condition for a reason, but Napoleon's ego and demands don't seem to have fazed the inhabitants of Elba at all. Saint Helena was Napoleon's second exile; his first was on Elba, in the Mediterranean. Not only did Napoleon and his family lead a pretty good life there, but the inhabitants still mark his death with a memorial parade.


He Was Likely of Average Height. So, Napoleon was supposed to be ridiculously short, right? Turns out that may have been British propaganda as well as a misunderstanding of French measurement. Napoleon was measured for his coffin at 5 feet 2 inches, but the records from the doctor note that the 5 foot 2 inches used French measurements and not British. In British terms, he was closer to 5 foot 6 inches, which was pretty average for the time.

He Was a Wannabe Romance Novelist. This is not a joke. Napoleon wrote a romance novel, and you can find it on Amazon. His novel was not published when he was alive, and in fact the manuscript was portioned and auctioned away. But in 2009, the parts were put back together. The book is called Clisson et Eugenie, and it's gotten decent reviews.

The Russian Orthodox Church Called Him the Antichrist. Normally, conspiracy theorists call someone the antichrist because of a specific feature of the person's birth, like a birthdate or birthmark. Napoleon got labeled an antichrist for a much more mundane reason: He annoyed the Russian Orthodox church by treating Jews fairly. It was typical for cities and countries to restrict Jewish populations to certain sections of town (the Italian versions of these sectors are where the term "ghetto" comes from; the term was expanded in the United States in the 1900s to encompass any deprived area populated by a single group, ethnicity, and so on) and place really heavy restrictions on the people there. However, Napoleon was the first to end the ghetto restrictions and make Jews equal members of society. Other countries soon followed.