Who's buried in Napoleon's tomb?

Sunday, August 18, 2002

An historian is asking for a DNA test

By Kim Housego ~ The Associated Press

PARIS -- For decades, the fate of Napoleon Bonaparte has been debated and studied. Now a French historian is locked in an uphill battle against the government over a DNA test he says could end the doubts.

Historian Bruno Roy-Henry believes British authorities may have removed Napoleon's remains before his coffin was returned to France in 1840 -- and that the body under the gilded dome of Les Invalides is that of another man.

But France's Defense Ministry has refused to allow a DNA test, which Roy-Henry contends would put an end to all questions about the identity of the body in Napoleon's Tomb.

"I have a feeling that the French authorities are very perturbed," Roy-Henry told The Associated Press in a telephone interview Friday.

Roy-Henry points to a series of anomalies surrounding Napoleon's death on the South Atlantic island of St. Helena in 1821, and the transfer of his remains to Paris 19 years later.

He cites the disappearance of the emperor's silver spurs. These were fastened to Napoleon's boots when he was buried in St. Helena, but missing when the coffin was opened in Paris in 1840. Witnesses to the opening of the coffin said the body appeared well-preserved -- not in a state of decomposition that one would expect from a body buried 19 years earlier.

To prove his theory, Roy-Henry wrote to France's Defense Ministry last month to request a DNA test on a strand of Napoleon's hair.

Doctors took the strand from the body currently lying in Les Invalides just before the coffin arrived in Paris. It was later given to Bonaparte's nephew, Emperor Napoleon III, before being put in a permanent exhibit at the Army Museum in Paris in 1936.

"The simplest way to put an end to all of this is a DNA test, but it has been refused," said Roy-Henry. "So I have deduced that there is something to hide."

In a letter to the historian on July 21, the Defense Ministry said there was insufficient evidence to warrant the test.

Ministry spokesman Yann Trehin said that "to our state of knowledge, it is effectively the emperor lying in the tomb."

The ministry also told Roy-Henry he must seek the agreement of Napoleon's descendants, some of whom live in Italy and the emperor's birthplace of Corsica, to provide a DNA sample before the case can proceed further.

"Honestly, I think that it's an alibi so that they don't have to justify themselves for their refusal," he said.

Roy-Henry said he has written to Charles Napoleon, a great-great-grandnephew who lives in Corsica, to request a DNA sample but has not yet received a reply.

But what would have been the British motive for removing the body? The circumstances surrounding Napoleon's death are a subject of fierce debate.

While textbooks say Napoleon died of stomach cancer, claims that the British poisoned him with arsenic are rife. If that were the case, they would have tried to hide the crime, Roy-Henry argued.

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