Thierry Lentz: three questions on the "mysteries" of St. Helena

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Napoleon was poisoned! Despite historians' best efforts, Rumour continues to flourish, endlessly seeking to make the transition between Myth and History. Faced with the media's continuous undermining, it has become necessary once again to take the matter in hand and redress the balance. The new publication by Thierry Lentz and Jacques Macé, La Mort de Napoléon: Légendes, mythes et mystères (published by Perrin, out 16 April 2009) does just that.
Interview edited by Irène Delage, April 2009 (tr. & ed. H.D.W.).

Why come back once again to the "mysteries" of St. Helena?

In recent years, the poisoning and substitution hypotheses have resurfaced, driven by the death of Ben Weider, increased coverage in the media, and rumours circulating regarding the opening of Napoleon's tomb at Les Invalides. The subsitution theory in particular, championed most recently by Franck Ferrand, has featured in interviews and programmes on Europe 1, France Inter and elsewhere.
It is partly in reaction to these programmes that Jacques Macé and I decided to step back into the fray with a book aimed at reaching the widest possible audience. We also decided that we had to be as definitive as possible: we want to close these debates, once and for all. That is why, without getting hung up on the minute details, we wanted to get to the bottom of things: the defining elements of the substitution and poisoning theories. I would also like to add that the President of the Fondation Napoléon, M. Victor-André Masséna, has supported and encouraged us throughout, for he, I think I can safely say, is also of the opinion that it is time that these so-called “mysteries” were addressed using historical methodology.

History is full of mysteries or pseudo-mysteries, and the Napoleonic period is no different. Why get involved in these particular debates?

Jacques Macé and I have nothing against historical “mysteries” nor those who are interested in them. Whether serious or not, such “mysteries” often get the general public interested in history, even if this sort of history is not really to our own personal tastes. What is important, and certainly the most worrying, about the substitution and poisoning theories is the way that the media coverage surrounding them has given them an air of validity, of incontrovertibility. As a consequence, these “false truths” have painted and continue to paint historians who do not believe in them as “has-beens” or members of some sort of conspiracy of silence.
If you were to do a quick straw poll amongst your work colleagues, or the people in your apartment block, or your friends in the pub, a significant minority would say that there was something “fishy” about the death of Napoleon, and mention poison in the wallpaper or indeed in the hair. What proof do they have? The newspapers and TV programmes have been talking about it, based on books that appear so well done that there is no need to actually read them and check whether they are right or not. In any case, according to some particularly keen conspiracists, we will never know the truth because it is not the emperor that lies buried in Les Invalides, but an imposter, a squatter who needs to be evicted. All this would be amusing, just one more conspiracy theory to be added to the already overflowing vaults of historical mysteries, were it not for the absurd idea of opening up Napoleon's tomb at Les Invalides. Before going to this extreme, it would have to  be proven beyond any reasonable doubt that there was something truly mysterious about the death and exhumation of Napoleon. And yet this is simply not the case, as we demonstrate in our book. Opening the coffin of the Emperor is not just something one decides to do. 

How do you explain the success of the poisoning and substitution theories?

It can be explained by the vast media circus that surrounds them. Nothing else is required. The media naturally tends towards the sensational. It is hardly surprising, considering the sort of questions that this case poses. If we were to go into the press-room and say “Napoleon died of a serious illness and is buried at Les Invalides”, there would be no reaction. Those of a more polite disposition might say “how interesting”, before popping out for their morning coffee. The more frank would say “Yeah, so what? Do you really think that my editor's going to be interested in such banality?” But if the guy who knows how to play the press were to go in, a well-presented argument under his arm, and say “I've got the truth right here: Joan of Arc was burned at the stake by the Russians. And the real scoop? Napoleon Bonaparte was poisoned, and someone stole his body!”, everyone would sit up and get out their notebooks. The headlines would already be written, the two columns-worth done and dusted, without even taking the time to check the facts or investigate further. Job done: the editor's happy, the paper sells, people make up their minds and the door is wide open for further development. It's not going to change the world, but it creates a buzz, and the story can be propagated or even redeveloped, depending on the “needs” of a readership, thirsty for “revelations”. As a story, it's a journalist's dream.
It is our refusal to allow such a noble and useful discipline as history to be taken hostage by these manipulators of public opinion that has driven us to write this book. We make no attempts to hide our surprise, nor our displeasure, in seeing those who at the same time as crying out “Freedom for History!”, manipulate it for their own media-driven ends.
No historian who believes strongly in their profession or their passion, having looked at the various arguments and seriously investigated the documents, can believe a word of these poisoning or substitution theories. On a secondary level, our book is a book “for” History and the profession of the historian, for historical method against personal conviction, and for the historical approach rather than the spectacle.

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