Some celebrities can't escape the limelight, even when they're six feet under. Whether it's extracting their DNA, carbon dating their remains, or bombarding their hair with subatomic particles, scientists have pulled out all the stops to find and examine these historic dead. Although a bit voyeuristic, these investigations also help to distinguish likely reality from speculative rumors. So what have we learned?1. NAPOLEON VS. ARSENIC
When Napoleon Bonaparte died in exile in 1821 an autopsy hinted that stomach cancer killed the former emperor. But when a 1961 study
found high levels of arsenic in Napoleon's hair, some historians wondered if poison had hastened his end. Some speculated
(pdf) that enemies who feared Napoleon poisoned the fallen French leader; others suggested that exposure to wallpaper colored with arsenic-based dye did him in. But for many scientists, these possibilities remained farfetched. A 2002 French analysis called the poisoning theory harebrained, and a 2005 study
added support to the cancer camp by recording the decreasing waist sizes of Napoleon's final pairs of pantaloons--evidence that he underwent stomach cancer's rapid weight loss, the authors argued.
In 2008, Italian researchers asked museums for locks of Napoleon's hair snipped during his childhood in Corsica, during an earlier exile in Elba, and after his death. The team placed the keepsakes in a nuclear reactor
, bombarding them with neutrons to transform elements in the hair into temporarily radioactive isotopes
. Measuring the radiation the isotopes released, the researchers could determine the exact arsenic concentrations. They found the levels were much higher than today's standards, but did not vary throughout Napoleon's life. The arsenic levels were similar to those found in hair samples from his wife and child--suggesting mundane arsenic sources (the stuff appeared in everything from makeup to tonics) rather than skulduggery.