The Color That May Have Killed Napoleon: Scheele’s Green

“Either the wall­pa­per goes, or I do.” —Oscar Wilde

Look­ing to repel bed bugs and rats?

Dec­o­rate your bed­room à la Napoleon’s final home on the damp island of Saint Hele­na.

Those in a posi­tion to know sug­gest that ver­min shy away from yel­low­ish-greens such as that favored by the Emper­or because they “resem­ble areas of intense light­ing.”

We’d like to offer an alter­nate the­o­ry.

Could it be that the crit­ters’ ances­tors passed down a cel­lu­lar mem­o­ry of the per­ils of arsenic?

Napoleon, like thou­sands of oth­ers, was smit­ten with a hue known as Scheele’s Green, named for Carl Wil­helm Scheele, the Ger­man-Swedish phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal chemist who dis­cov­ered oxy­gen, chlo­rine, and unfor­tu­nate­ly, a gor­geous, tox­ic green pig­ment that’s also a cupric hydro­gen arsen­ite.

Scheele’s Green, aka Schloss Green, was cheap and easy to pro­duce, and quick­ly replaced the less vivid cop­per car­bon­ate based green dyes that had been in use pri­or to the mid 1770s.

The col­or was an imme­di­ate hit when it made its appear­ance, show­ing up in arti­fi­cial flow­ers, can­dles, toys, fash­ion­able ladies’ cloth­ing, soap, beau­ty prod­ucts, con­fec­tions, and wall­pa­per.

A month before Napoleon died, he includ­ed the fol­low­ing phrase in his will: My death is pre­ma­ture. I have been assas­si­nat­ed by the Eng­lish oli­gop­oly and their hired mur­der­er…”

His exit at 51 was indeed untime­ly, but per­haps the wall­pa­per, and not the Eng­lish oli­gop­oly, is the greater cul­prit, espe­cial­ly if it was hung with arsenic-laced paste, to fur­ther deter rats.

When Scheele’s Green wall­pa­per, like the striped pat­tern in Napoleon’s bath­room, became damp or moldy, the pig­ment in it metab­o­lized, releas­ing poi­so­nous arsenic-laden vapors.

Napoleon’s First Valet Louis-Joseph Marc­hand recalled the “child­ish joy” with which the emper­or jumped into the tub where he rel­ished soak­ing for long spells:

The bath­tub was a tremen­dous oak chest lined with lead. It required an excep­tion­al quan­ti­ty of water, and one had to go a half mile away and trans­port it in a bar­rel.

Baths also fig­ured in Sec­ond Valet Louis Éti­enne Saint-Denis’ rec­ol­lec­tions of his master’s ill­ness:

His reme­dies con­sist­ed only of warm nap­kins applied to his side, to baths, which he took fre­quent­ly, and to a diet which he observed from time to time.

Saint-Denis’s recall seems to have had some lacu­nae. Accord­ing to a post in con­junc­tion with the Amer­i­can Muse­um of Nat­ur­al History’s Pow­er of Poi­son exhib­it:

In Napoleon’s case, arsenic was like­ly just one of many com­pounds tax­ing an already trou­bled sys­tem. In the course of treat­ments for a vari­ety of symptoms—swollen legs, abdom­i­nal pain, jaun­dice, vom­it­ing, weakness—Napoleon was sub­ject­ed to a smor­gas­bord of oth­er tox­ic sub­stances. He was said to con­sume large amounts of a sweet apri­cot-based drink con­tain­ing hydro­cyan­ic acid. He had been giv­en tarter emet­ic, an anti­mon­al com­pound, by a Cor­si­can doc­tor. (Like arsenic, anti­mo­ny would also help explain the pre­served state of his body at exhuma­tion.) Two days before his death, his British doc­tors gave him a dose of calomel, or mer­curous chlo­ride, after which he col­lapsed into a stu­por and nev­er recov­ered. 

As Napoleon was vom­it­ing a black­ish liq­uid and expir­ing, fac­to­ry and gar­ment work­ers who han­dled Scheele’s Green dye and its close cousin, Paris Green, were suf­fer­ing untold mor­ti­fi­ca­tions of the flesh, from hideous lesions, ulcers and extreme gas­tric dis­tress to heart dis­ease and can­cer.

Fash­ion-first women who spent the day corset­ed in volu­mi­nous green dress­es were keel­ing over from skin-to-arsenic con­tact. Their seam­stress­es’ green fin­gers were in wretched con­di­tion.

In 2008, an Ital­ian team test­ed strands of Napoleon’s hair from four points in his life—childhood, exile, his death, and the day there­after. They deter­mined that all the sam­ples con­tained rough­ly 100 times the arsenic lev­els of con­tem­po­rary peo­ple in a con­trol group.

Napoleon’s son and wife, Empress Josephine, also had notice­ably ele­vat­ed arsenic lev­els.

Had we been alive and liv­ing in Europe back then, ours like­ly would have been too.

All that green!

But what about the wall­pa­per?

A scrap pur­port­ed­ly from the din­ing room, where Napoleon was relo­cat­ed short­ly before death, was found by a woman in Nor­folk, Eng­land, past­ed into a fam­i­ly scrap­book above the hand­writ­ten cap­tion, This small piece of paper was tak­en off the wall of the room in which the spir­it of Napoleon returned to God who gave it.

In 1980, she con­tact­ed chemist David Jones, whom she had recent­ly heard on BBC Radio dis­cussing vaporous bio­chem­istry and Vic­to­ri­an wall­pa­per. She agreed to let him test the scrap using non-destruc­tive x‑ray flu­o­res­cence spec­troscopy. The result?

.12 grams of arsenic per square meter. (Wall­pa­pers con­tain­ing 0.6 to 0.015 grams per square meter were deter­mined to be haz­ardous.)

Dr. Jones described watch­ing the arsenic lev­els peak­ing on the lab’s print out as “a crazy, won­der­ful moment.” He reit­er­at­ed that the house in which Napoleon was impris­oned was “noto­ri­ous­ly damp,” mak­ing it easy for a 19th cen­tu­ry fan to peel off a sou­venir in “an inspired act of van­dal­ism.”

Death by wall­pa­per and oth­er envi­ron­men­tal fac­tors is def­i­nite­ly less cloak and dag­ger than assas­si­na­tion by the Eng­lish oli­gop­oly, hired mur­der­er, and oth­er con­spir­a­cy the­o­ries that had thrived on the pres­ence of arsenic in sam­ples of Napoleon’s hair.

As Dr. Jones recalled:

…sev­er­al his­to­ri­ans were upset by my claim that it was all an acci­dent of decor…Napoleon him­self feared he was dying of stom­ach can­cer, the dis­ease which had killed his father; and indeed his autop­sy revealed that his stom­ach was very dam­aged. It had at least one big ulcer…My feel­ing is that Napoleon would have died in any case. His arseni­cal wall­pa­per might mere­ly have has­tened the event by a day or so. Mur­der con­spir­a­cy the­o­rists will have to find new evi­dence! 

We can’t resist men­tion­ing that when the emper­or was exhumed and shipped back to France, 19 years after his death, his corpse showed lit­tle or no decom­po­si­tion.

Green con­tin­ues to be a nox­ious col­or when humans attempt to repro­duce it in the phys­i­cal realm. As Alice Rawthorn observed The New York Times:

The cru­el truth is that most forms of the col­or green, the most pow­er­ful sym­bol of sus­tain­able design, aren’t eco­log­i­cal­ly respon­si­ble, and can be dam­ag­ing to the envi­ron­ment.

Take a deep­er dive into Napoleon’s wall­pa­per with an edu­ca­tion­al pack­et for edu­ca­tors pre­pared by chemist David Jones and Hen­drik Ball.

via Messy Nessy

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

Why Is Napoleon’s Hand Always in His Waist­coat?: The Ori­gins of This Dis­tinc­tive Pose Explained

Napoleon’s Eng­lish Lessons: How the Mil­i­tary Leader Stud­ied Eng­lish to Escape the Bore­dom of Life in Exile

Napoleon’s Dis­as­trous Inva­sion of Rus­sia Detailed in an 1869 Data Visu­al­iza­tion: It’s Been Called “the Best Sta­tis­ti­cal Graph­ic Ever Drawn”

Ayun Hal­l­i­day is an author, illus­tra­tor, the­ater mak­er and Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine. She most recent­ly appeared as a French Cana­di­an bear who trav­els to New York City in search of food and mean­ing in Greg Kotis’ short film, L’Ourse.  Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

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