Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Bonaparte's Gastric Distress

What a myth never contains is the critical power to separate its truths from its errors. ~ Walter Lippman

History is confusing enough, what with trying to sort out the reality behind to various spins placed by the descendants of interested parties. It's even more difficult when people inject supposition and even mysticism. Nowadays, the CSI-mentality has added a new twist with “forensics” being applied to find conspiracies and treachery behind every historical death.

For example, there's the matter of King Tutankhamen's death. For years, an X-ray of Tut's skull was thought to imply a blow to the head might have been the cause of the boy king's death. Recently, Tut got the forensic treatment in a big way, with “evidence” gathered by some private detectives at the behest of the Discovery Channel. The “evidence” showed almost beyond a shadow of a doubt that Tut had been whacked by one of his close associates. Then came the CT scan that showed Tut's fractured leg, with clear evidence that he lived for a short time after the break. The conclusion of people who actually understand these things was that the broken leg almost surely caused Tut's demise.

Oh, shucks.

Of course, that didn't stop the private eyes from offering that he still could have been poisoned after his leg was broken. Why you poison someone who is dying from an serious injury is problematic, but logic doesn't seem to figure into these things very strongly.

Then there was the Bonaparte Poisoning Case.

After defeating Napoleon at Waterloo, the Allies realized that they had to put the Emperor somewhere very far away. If he had any opportunity to raise a force, he would find his way back. After all, he had left Elba with a handful of men and subsequently regained the loyalty of the entire French Army. Definitely not a man to be trifled with. So this time, he was exiled to a small pile of rocks called St. Helena in the South Atlantic, where he lived for about six years, until his death in 1821.

An autopsy conducted immediately after his death determined that the cause of death was stomach cancer, a disease that is supposed to have claimed Napoleon's father. Since then, a popular myth has popped up asserting that Napoleon was poisoned with arsenic by someone in cahoots with the imprisoning powers, by someone who hated his guts, or by someone who just wanted the exile to end so he could get off that gawd-awful island. The fact that the autopsy found none of the signs associated with arsenic poisoning was not particularly important. Last year, sometime, we were treated to another one of the “forensic” evaluations that “clearly” indicated that poisoning could have occurred.

Sorry, people, it just ain't so.

A for-real pathologist has led a team that has determined that Napoleon died of gastric cancer, probably caused by the persistent gastritis that plagued Bonaparte through much of his adult life. Bang goes another illusion. But, why have the illusion if the evidence wasn't there to begin with?

I think part of it is that people are reluctant to imagine a titanic force like Napoleon succumbing to the weakness of his own body. Oh, dying of a heart attack during a critical moment would have been okay, but to simply pass on because of a disease probably brought on by heartburn seems so futile.

In the case of Tutankhamen, it's the youth of the victim that seems to fire our imaginations, plus the fact that, thanks to his intact tomb, we have such a vivid picture of a very human Tut, as opposed to gigantic figures carved on walls or in front of temples. Add to that the natural assumption of political intrigue in turbulent times, and a natural death seems unlikely. Unlikely or not, it appears to have been the case.

Or maybe it's just that most people would rather imagine some sort of sinister, conspiratorial scenario than attempt to examine the actual facts.

It's not that there haven't been conspiracies in history, but we normally have a pretty good idea what they were and how they worked. Occasionally, some new information comes to light that sheds a new perspective on some event, but most often the new information or analysis leads to a more prosaic interpretation. The sinking of the Maine, which was the excuse for the Spanish-American war was supposed to have been the result of a Spanish mine. Instead, it appears to have been caused by a coal fire within the ship itself. The U.S. government was pleased to have the excuse, so they didn't look very deeply into any cause beyond that of a mine. I guess that would count as some sort of conspiracy, but, then it was no secret that the U.S. was looking for an excuse to fight Spain.

And what fun is a conspiracy that everyone knows about?

No comments: