When Napoleon Attempted Suicide
Having lost his empire, his throne, his wife and son, and his followers, Napoleon Bonaparte tried to commit suicide in the early hours of April 13, 1814, rather than resign himself to a life in exile on Elba.
Napoleon’s thoughts on suicide
When he was young, Napoleon occasionally expressed suicidal thoughts. In May 1786, as a 16-year-old artillery officer with the La Fère Regiment at Valence, he wrote a short essay entitled “On Suicide.”
Always alone in the midst of men, I come back to my rooms to dream with myself, and to surrender myself to all the vivacity of my melancholy. Towards which side is it turned today? To the side of death. …
What is there to do in this world? Since I must die, is it not just as well that I should kill myself? If I had already passed my sixtieth year, I should respect the prejudices of my contemporaries, and wait patiently till nature had finished me in its course; but since I begin to experience misfortune, and since nothing is a pleasure to me, why should I support a life in which nothing prospers for me? (1)
During his exile on St. Helena, Napoleon told Charles de Montholon that he had seriously contemplated taking his own life when he was in Paris after the December 1793 siege of Toulon. His mother and his younger siblings were living in poverty in Marseilles. They needed money, but Napoleon was broke.
I went outside as though driven by an animal instinct towards suicide, and I walked along the quays feeling my weakness, but without being able to overcome it. A few more moments, and I would have thrown myself into the water. (2)
He was saved by a chance encounter with a former classmate and fellow officer, Alexandre des Masis, who gave him 30,000 francs to send to his mother.
In August 1795, again in Paris as an under-employed general of brigade, Napoleon described himself in a letter to his brother Joseph as “little attached to life, contemplating it without much solicitude, constantly in the state of mind in which one is on the day before a battle, feeling that, while death is always amongst us to put an end to all, anxiety is folly – everything joins to make me defy fortune and fate; in time I shall not get out of the way when a carriage comes.” (3)
As a commander, however, Napoleon sought to deter his men from committing suicide. In May 1802 he issued the following order when two men in his guard killed themselves within a month of each other owing to disappointments in love.
That a soldier ought to know how to overcome the grief and melancholy of his passions; that there is as much true courage in bearing mental affliction manfully as in remaining unmoved under the fire of a battery. To abandon one’s self to grief, without resisting, and to kill one’s self in order to escape from it, is like abandoning the field of battle before being conquered. (4)
Napoleon expressed similar thoughts to Irish physician Dr. Barry O’Meara on St. Helena.
It has always been my maxim, that a man shows more real courage in supporting and resisting the calamities and misfortunes which befall him, than by making away with himself. That is the action of a losing gamester, or a ruined spendthrift, and is a want of courage, instead of a proof of it. (5)
I do not like to commit suicide; it is a thing that I have always disapproved of. I have made a vow to drain the cup to the last draught. (6)
Nonetheless, after nearly being captured by Cossacks at Maloyaroslavets in October 1812, Napoleon asked his doctor to make up a suicide potion that he could swallow if he were taken prisoner. During the remainder of the Russian campaign, and the subsequent military campaigns in Germany and France, Napoleon wore a mixture of belladonna, white hellebore and opium, “the size and shape of a clove of garlic,” in a black silk pouch around his neck. (7) Whenever he stayed in Paris, the pouch was locked in his travelling case.
Napoleon’s suicide attempt at Fontainebleau
By early 1814, Napoleon and his army had been driven back to France. British forces pushed northward from Spain, while Russian, Prussian and Austrian forces invaded from the east. Paris surrendered to the Allied Coalition on March 31. On April 2, the French Senate passed a resolution that declared Napoleon deposed. Napoleon, who had advanced as far as Fontainebleau with an army of about 70,000 men, wanted to march on Paris, but his marshals and senior officers refused. On April 4, Napoleon abdicated in favour of his three-year-old son, the King of Rome, with his wife, the Empress Marie Louise, as regent. This was unacceptable to the Allies. On April 6, Napoleon abdicated unconditionally.
Napoleon remained at the Palace of Fontainebleau while his representatives, General Armand de Caulaincourt, Marshal Jacques MacDonald and Marshal Michel Ney, negotiated the terms of his removal with the representatives of Austria, Russia and Prussia. On April 11, the negotiators signed the Treaty of Fontainebleau in Paris. It stripped Napoleon of his powers as ruler of the French Empire, but allowed him to keep his title of Emperor and made him ruler of the island of Elba. It also made generous financial provisions for the Bonaparte family. Napoleon’s signature was required for ratification.
On the afternoon of April 12, Caulaincourt and MacDonald brought the treaty to the Palace of Fontainebleau for Napoleon to sign. By this time Napoleon had been deserted by most of his soldiers, court and servants.
Those to whom he had distributed riches, honors, dignities in the time of his power, on whose fidelity he had a right to count, these had disappeared little by little and had gone to Paris, to salute the new power which had arrived at the tail of the baggage wagon of the enemies of France. (8)
Napoleon’s wife and son – whom he had not seen since January and would never see again – were at Orléans, soon to depart for the Château de Rambouillet, where Marie Louise’s father, Emperor Francis I of Austria, was to join them.
In the course of a lengthy conversation, Napoleon told Caulaincourt:
I have lived too long… Poor France… I don’t want to see her dishonored… A little more energy, a few more months of suffering, and she would have triumphed over all her enemies…. When I think of her situation, of the humiliation imposed upon her by foreigners, life is intolerable. (9)
Though he was supposed to dine with Caulaincourt and MacDonald, Napoleon went to bed before dinner, saying he felt unwell. His chamberlain had taken the precaution of removing the gunpowder from his pistols. Sometime after midnight, Napoleon called the valet on duty, a man by the name of Hubert, and asked for his dressing gown.
Hubert, after placing the light on a table, helped the Emperor to put on his dressing gown, his trousers with feet, and his slippers. Having done this, the valet uncovered the fire and fed it. The Emperor, intending to write to the Empress, told him to go and get some paper. Hubert hurried down to the study and brought back paper, pens, and ink, which he placed on the little table; he moved this up to the sofa which was before the fireplace and on which the Emperor was sitting, and withdrew to the antechamber, but leaving the door ajar in order that he might hear the better if the Emperor should happen to call him, and also in such a manner as to be able to see the Emperor without being seen.
The Emperor began to write, but, dissatisfied with the lines which he had written, he tore up the paper and threw it into the fire. He took up the pen again, wrote once more, and, as little satisfied as the first time, the leaf was likewise torn up and thrown into the fire. Finally, a third letter was begun and met the same fate as the two which preceded it. Shortly afterward the Emperor rose and went toward the chest of drawers opposite the fireplace. At this moment Hubert, seeing the Emperor standing up, closed the door a little further, in order not to be seen.
On this chest of drawers there were usually two glasses on a plate, covered with a napkin, a little teaspoon, a sugar bowl, and a beside it a carafe full of water. But by chance the sugar bowl was not there, because, as the servant had delayed too long in having it refilled the day before, it was in the room where Hubert was. It should be added that there was usually melted sugar in one of the two glasses, but that from forgetfulness or some other reason there was nothing in the glass. While Hubert was listening in order to answer the Emperor, he heard water being poured into a glass and then the noise of the little spoon which was being stirred about in order to melt something. Knowing that there was no melted sugar in the glass, Hubert could not imagine what it was that the Emperor was stirring, but after a moment’s consideration he thought that the Emperor, not seeing the sugar bowl which was usually with the two glasses, had taken some sugar out of his dressing case.
When the Emperor had stopped stirring the glass there was a moment of silence, after which the Emperor came to the door and told Hubert to send for the Duke of Vicenza [Caulaincourt], the Duke of Bassano, the Grand Marshal [Henri Bertrand], and M. Fain. At that moment…the Emperor’s features were as calm as though he had just drank a glass of water. (10)
When Caulaincourt arrived around 3 a.m., Napoleon asked him to deliver a letter he had just written to Marie Louise. He foresaw that the Empress and his son would be separated from him, that there were all kinds of humiliations in store for him, that someone would try to assassinate him, that life on Elba would be dismal. He couldn’t resign himself to being at the mercy of a conqueror. He said, “Soon I will exist no more.” Napoleon told Caulaincourt he had taken some opium mixed with a bit of water. He said he had a repugnance for other means of dying, which could leave blood or a mutilated face. He wanted his Old Guard to be able to recognize him. (11)
Caulaincourt sent for Dr. Alexandre Yvan, who had prepared the poison for Napoleon during the campaign of 1812. Either because Yvan administered an emetic, or of his own accord, Napoleon began to vomit up everything he had swallowed in a series of violent spasms. By 7 a.m., his pangs had eased. Those present surmised that Napoleon survived because the poison was old and had lost its potency. Others later suggested that Napoleon simply took an overdose of opium, not intending to kill himself, but rather to help him sleep.
When Marshal MacDonald went to Napoleon’s apartments at 9 a.m. on April 13 to collect the signed Treaty of Fontainebleau, Caulaincourt and the Duke of Bassano were still there.
[Napoleon] was seated before the fire, clothed in a simple dimity [lightweight cotton] dressing-gown, his legs bare, his feet in slippers, his neck uncovered, his head buried in his hands, and his elbows resting on his knees. He did not stir when I entered, although my name was announced in a loud voice. … his complexion was yellow and greenish. (12)
When Napoleon did acknowledge MacDonald, he appeared to have woken from a dream. He said “I have been very ill all night.” (13)
According to Montholon, Napoleon later provided the following explanation for his suicide attempt.
My life no longer belonged to my country. The events of the last few days had again rendered me master of it. ‘Why should I endure so much suffering?’ I reflected, ‘and who knows that my death might not place the crown on the head of my son?’ France was saved. I hesitated no longer, but leaping from my bed, mixed the poison in a little water, and drank it with a sort of feeling of happiness. But time had taken away its strength; fearful pains drew forth some groans from me; they were heard, and medical assistance arrived. God didn’t want me to die yet. Saint Helena was my destiny. (14)
In my novel Napoleon in America, Napoleon again puts a pouch of poison around his neck, resolving never to allow himself to be taken prisoner again.
You might also enjoy:
- Oscar Browning, Napoleon, the First Phase: Some Chapters on the Boyhood and Youth of Bonaparte, 1769-1793 (London, 1905), p. 283.
- Charles de Montholon, Récits de la captivité de l’empereur Napoléon à Sainte-Hélène, Vol. II (Paris, 1847), p. 413.
- The Confidential Correspondence of Napoleon Bonaparte with His Brother Joseph,” Vol. I (London: John Murray, 1855), p. 13.
- “Napoleon on Suicide,” The Standard (London, England), October 10, 1834.
- Barry O’Meara, Napoleon in Exile, Vol. I (London, 1822), p. 54.
- Ibid., p. 131.
- Louis Étienne Saint-Denis, Napoleon from the Tuileries to St. Helena, translated by Frank Hunter Potter (New York and London, 1922), p. 66.
- Ibid., p. 66.
- Armand de Caulaincourt, Mémoires du Général de Caulaincourt, Duc de Vicence, Grand Écuyer de l’Empereur, edited by Jean Hanoteau, Vol. III (Paris, 1933), p. 343.
- Saint-Denis, Napoleon from the Tuileries to St. Helena, pp. 66-67.
- Caulaincourt, Mémoires du Général de Caulaincourt, Vol. III, pp. 360, 363.
- Camille Rousset, ed., Recollections of Marshal MacDonald, Duke of Tarentum, translated by Stephen Louis Simeon (New York, 1893), pp. 327-328.
- Ibid., p. 328.
- Montholon, Récits de la captivité de l’empereur Napoléon à Sainte-Hélène, Vol. II, pp. 418-419.
What is there to do in this world? Since I must die, is it not just as well that I should kill myself?