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He is one of history's most controversial figures. To his detractors he was the anti-Christ. To his supporters he gave birth to modern Western civilization. But 186 years after his death, scholars are finding more to argue about than his legacy. They can't even decide on his appearance, let alone the location of his remains or the circumstances of his death.

Napoleon Bonaparte, a small but ambitious Corsican, became France's greatest general in the mid-1790s while terror and turmoil gripped post-revolutionary France. He crushed the armies of Europe and rebuilt the French empire, only to be defeated in battle and exiled to the South Atlantic in 1815.

There, it's said, he took to gardening before he died in mysterious circumstances at age 51. Theories of his alleged murder - was it cancer or arsenic poisoning? - have abated since his death, but now they seem to be growing deeper than the ranks of his once grande armée.

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Bruno Roy-Henry, a French lawyer and amateur historian, has published a book saying Napoleon not only was poisoned by his English captors, but that his body was also switched with that of his valet, who was then buried in a massive coffin in Les Invalides, the French army museum in Paris.

That coffin, which rests beneath a golden dome, is one of Paris's most visited attractions. But could it be that tourists have been paying respect to the wrong man for more than a century?

Mr. Roy-Henry said he has new evidence linked to Napoleon's death mask, indicating the body at rest in the emperor's tomb is actually that of Jean-Baptiste Cipriani, Napoleon's childhood friend, valet and alleged illegitimate half-brother, who died on the island of Saint Helena three years before Napoleon.

The emperor died on May 5, 1821 after nearly six years in exile on Saint Helena. Two days later, a death mask was taken of his features by Francis Burton, a British army doctor. But that death mask soon vanished.

Mr. Burton was dead 10 years later when another mask surfaced in Paris. It was authenticated by the man who performed the autopsy on the emperor, and was positively identified by Napoleon's mother, then in her 80s.

In 1840, the British government agreed to exhume the emperor's body and return it to France. At the time of his initial burial in Saint Helena, Napoleon's body is said to have already been decomposing, but the body exhumed by the British was in excellent condition.

The exhumed body was boarded onto a French frigate and returned to France, where it lay in St. Jerome's Chapel in Paris before being placed in Les Invalides in 1861.

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Witnesses to the exhumation said the face on the corpse matched the one from the death mask in Paris, but almost immediately, questions arose among Napoleonic scholars.

The face in the "Paris" mask, with its long pointed nose, high cheekbones and delicate lips, didn't seem to match the official portraits of the emperor. They did, however, match known portraits of Mr. Cipriani.

Years later, a second mask was handed to British authorities by a man who bought it from a known fraud who called himself Prince Louis Charles of Bourbon, and claimed to be the descendant of the French monarchy.

The "London" mask was claimed by some to be the lost mask made by Mr. Burton on May 7, 1821. But it showed an older, plumper man than the "Paris" mask, and was discounted as a forgery by the French army museum.

However, Mr. Henry-Roy said he believes the "London" mask, which was sold in 2004 by a New York auction house for $50,000 to an unknown buyer, is the real death mask. He said his claim is proved by a newfound connection to a 19th-century English artist named Charles Locke Eastlake.

The connection to Mr. Eastlake is this: After his defeat at Waterloo, Napoleon fled France by sea, only to be captured by the HMS Bellerophon. He was taken to Plymouth Sound but was not permitted on British soil while politicians in London decided his fate. Residing in harbour, Napoleon became a major attraction as hordes of British subjects rowed small boats out to sea for a glimpse of the deposed emperor.

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Among those who caught his glimpse was Mr. Eastlake, who painted Napoleon on the Bellerophon's deck. In that painting, a small scar can be seen on Napoleon's cheek. The scar does not appear in any of the emperor's official French portraits, but did feature on the "London" death mask.

According to Mr. Henry-Roy, this revelation debunks the authenticity of the "Paris" mask currently in Les Invalides, and calls into question the identity of the body resting in the lavish imperial tomb.

Meanwhile, spokespeople for the French military museum said they give no credence to claims that the man in their tomb could be anyone but the late emperor, and disregard the recent allegations about the death masks.

However, the French government's ongoing refusal to allow DNA tests on Napoleon's remains has only added to the conspiracy theories.

That, however, may be endemic to the emperor's legacy.

Michael Rowe, a Napoleonic historian at London's King's College, said the romantic nature of Napoleon's character has always made him popular among weekend historians.

"Napoleon does, more than most historical characters, attract the attention of amateur historians, and also of conspiracy theories," he says.

"The more people involved in any conspiracy, the less likely it will be kept secret. Presumably, faking Napoleon's death mask would have involved several people, and it does seem unlikely that none of these would have subsequently revealed what happened."

Faces frozen in time

A death mask is a wax or plaster cast of a person's face taken while he or she is alive, or after death.

Making a reproduction of the face of a dead person is an ancient practice with origins that date from the periods of the ancient Romans and Egyptians. The process served as a reminder of the deceased for the family, as well as a protector from evil spirits, and is associated with a belief in the return of the spirit. In the modern method of mask-making, oil or grease is applied to the face, followed by a coat of plaster of Paris, which is permitted to harden and then removed. This results in a mould that is used to cast the mask.

Sources: BBC, Milwaukee Public Museum

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