Napoleon Bonaparte ricocheted to power in the early 19th century, rapidly rising through the ranks during the French Revolution and crowning himself emperor in 1804, when he was 35 years old.
Comparatively, the statesman and military leader’s death was a subdued affair: Exiled on Saint Helena, a rocky island in the South Atlantic Ocean, the former emperor suffered agonizing symptoms for years before finally succumbing to illness in 1821, at the age of 51.
A rare doctor’s note recently sold at auction offers a new glimpse into Napoleon’s fragile health during his final years. As Sara Spary reports for CNN, Irish surgeon Barry Edward O’Meara handwrote the letter, which Heritage Auctions sold to an unnamed British citizen for $2,000. Dated to June 4, 1818, the letter outlines its subject’s “ill health” in detail.
“I found [Napoleon] laboring under a considerable degree of fever, his countenance displaying anxiety and being evidently that of a man who was experiencing severe corporeal sufferings,” O’Meara observed.
He added that the politician’s symptoms included “great increase of pain in the Right side, rending headache, general anxiety and oppression, skin hot and dry, pulse quickened,” all of which signaled a “crisis of a serious natures.”
O’Meara also noted that he had removed one of Napoleon’s wisdom teeth the previous fall.
Napoleon’s stay on Saint Helena marked his second—and final—exile. He’d first been exiled to the island of Elba but had escaped in 1815, only to be defeated at the Battle of Waterloo later that year and forced to abdicate once again.
According to researcher and gynecologist Hubert O’Connor, who wrote a book on the physician’s unlikely link with the famous emperor, O’Meara hailed from a wealthy Dublin family and studied medicine at Trinity College. Because he was Napoleon’s close confidante and had a record of espousing conspiracy theories about his friend’s demise, O’Meara’s account may not be wholly reliable.
As O’Connor noted in a blog post for Trinity College, the pair met aboard the H.M.S. Bellerophon, where O’Meara was senior physician, following Napoleon’s surrender in July 1815. When the French leader learned that he would be imprisoned by British officials, he requested that O’Meara be allowed to accompany him as his personal doctor.
O’Meara sparked the initial rumor that the emperor had been killed by arsenic poisoning (a claim that persists, however unfounded, to this day). In 1818, writes History Extra’s Siân Rees, the physician made a “bombshell claim” that the British governor of Saint Helena, Sir Hudson Lowe, had ordered him to “shorten Napoleon’s life.”
According to History Extra, Napoleon had plotted to escape Saint Helena by claiming that the climate was weakening his health and “using … O’Meara’s medical authority” as support. After O’Meara leveled accusations against Lowe, the governor fired the doctor and replaced him with a different physician. But O’Meara continued to defend his theory and, in 1822, even published a book detailing the supposed conspiracy.
Today, the most widely accepted explanation holds that Napoleon died a slow and painful death due to stomach cancer—a verdict agreed upon by the seven doctors who attended his 1921 autopsy. In 2007, a team of researchers reported that the emperor likely died of gastrointestinal bleeding caused by untreated stomach cancer.
Sandra Palomino, director of historical manuscripts at Heritage Auctions, tells CNN that the doctor’s note provides “a fresh and unique look inside the life of the great French statesman and military leader, so its historical importance cannot be understated.”
Palomino adds, “It’s a rarity for certain.”
Another artifact linked to the famed emperor’s final years—a steel key believed to be the one that unlocked the bedroom where Napoleon died—will soon go under the hammer, too.
“We see things associated with Napoleon all the time, important pictures or furniture from one of his amazing houses or homes,” David Macdonald, senior specialist at Sotheby’s, tells Sherna Noah of the Scotsman. “But there’s something about a key which, particularly as it comes from where he was incarcerated, is quite powerful, especially as it’s the key to the room where [Napoleon] died.”