Category Archives: Cold Case Examinations

Cold Case Examinations – Alexander the Great

In 323 BC, Alexander the Great fell ill following a banquet held in Babylon (modern day Iraq) at his conquered palace.  Ten days later, he was dead just a month short of his thirty-third birthday.  His death has been suspicious for over two thousand years and even the sources of the time differ greatly.  What actually happened to the great king?

Alexander‘s body has not been identified, so it is impossible to know for certain what caused his early death, but here is what we know: in the ten days before he succumbed to death’s embrace, he suffered from agonizing stomach pains, chills, sweats, exhaustion, and a high fever.  According to an ancient source called the Macedonian Royal Diaries, the ailment started as a fever, which he apparently already had ten days before his death. Although Alexander was still drinking wine and eating at this time, he was in a weakened state and as the days went by he grew even weaker and ate less.  When it became clear that he king was dying, his generals gathered at his bedside and prayed, but it was no use.  He breathed his last on the 10th of June.

In 1998, David W. Oldach, an infectious disease expert at the University of Maryland Medical Center, was stated in an article published in the New England Journal of Medicine stated the most likely cause of death to be typhoid fever, which is brought on when someone drinks or comes into contact with contaminated water.  Exploring this possibility, there are similarities to the disease that match Alexander’s symptoms well, however, the problem I see with this is that typhoid fever is highly contagious, so why was no one else affected?  There are no records of anyone else in Alexander’s close circle or his army falling ill, which begs the question of why only the king was affected.

Malaria has also been put forward as a likely cause of death and this is most commonly accepted by historians.  Malaria is an infection caused by a bite from an infected mosquito bite.  The disease was rampant at the time, and has even been stated as having brought down King Tut a thousand years earlier (this is even said to have been the real Curse of the Pharaohs).  It can remain dormant in the body for several weeks after a person is bitten, so if this is the case, Alexander could have already been sick for a long time before he died.  The symptoms fit, but there are holes in the diagnosis.  Does it account for the stomach pains that had him all-but screaming in distress?  Perhaps not.  Severe cases of malaria also include convulsions and gas buildup in the lungs, often leading to cardiac arrest, and these are not mentioned in the Diaries.  And again, why was Alexander the only one affected?  It may not be a contagious disease, but surely there would have been other fatalities among the Macedonian army at the time, and none were reported.

Now comes the drama that everyone seems to jump to in a case like this: murder.  In this case, poison.

The Macedonians were a people prone to violence, much like Alexander himself, so poison seems a bit unlikely to be used as a weapon to kill someone, even a king.  In fact, thirteen years before, Alexander’s father Philip II was assassinated in broad daylight while attending a wedding.  Despite his title of Megas Alexandros (literally The Great Alexander in ancient Greek) the king was not well liked.  Particularly towards the last few years of his reign, he seems to have become increasingly paranoid, executing those he believed to have been plotting against him, including the nephew of his old tutor Aristotle.  After the death of his best friend and lover Hephaestion, his paranoia grew worse and he slipped into a depression.

My belief is that Alexander died due to poisoning, whether accidental or intentional.  If he was poisoned, it certainly was not by use of anything common such as arsenic or cyanide.  The most common suggestion put forward is Hellebore, specifically white hellebore.  Though the root of this plant is highly toxic, it was sometimes used in ancient medicine, often to treat ailments such as depression, gout, epilepsy, tremors, and even demonic possession.  Perhaps Alexander was prescribed white hellebore as a treatment for his own depression following Hephaistion’s death.  What bothers me, however, is that when taking the plant medicinally, patients where strongly cautioned not to drink wine for at least three days leading up to treatment.  As stated earlier, Alexander was drinking in excess just before collapsing with stomach pains.  This leads me to believe that if hellebore was used, it was slipped into his wine at the banquet where he fell ill.  It would not have taken much to affect him.  Maybe he was given even more hellebore in order to cure him and his doctors unknowingly overdosed him.  This is the theory I used for a short story I wrote in college for a historical project called Killing Alexander.  

Whatever the case may be, Alexander the Great died in Babylon on 10 June 323 BC and his lengthy empire, which stretched thousands of miles from Europe deep into Asia, was split into pieces.  The king had left no heirs, only his pregnant wife Roxana and an unstable half brother named Philip Arrhidaeus.  When at last Roxana gave birth to a son, Alexander was already cold in his tomb in Alexandria, Egypt, where his general Ptolemy has buried him and established a dynasty in Egypt that would later end with Cleopatra.  Philip Arrhidaeus was murdered on orders of Alexander’s power-hungry mother Olympias, who was later executed, and before he could exercise full power over the empire, Alexander’s son was murdered by another of his father’s generals, Cassander, along with Roxana.  This time period is called the War of the Successors, which resulted in the vast territory being cut into pieces as the generals fought each other for full control over a former empire that would later be overtaken by Rome.  Alexander’s tomb became a popular destination for pilgrims who sought to kneel at his coffin and pray, including Octavian Augustus, the first Emperor of Rome.  Later, the tomb was lost and part of the city of Alexandra was lost to the sea, leaving no trace of the last resting place of the man once known as the greatest conqueror in the ancient world.


Cold Case Examinations – The Princes in the Tower

The Tower of London is thought of today with a shudder and an image of the chilling world of British execution and torture.  When one hears the name of this castle, the first thing one remembers is that the infamous Anne Boleyn was executed here after several alleged affairs against her husband, King Henry VIII, same as Katherine Howard soon after.  Lady Jane Grey was also killed here, after nine days on the throne of England so that the crown could pass on to the Queen who would be forever known as Bloody Mary.  But the most controversial story involving the Tower does not involve an execution of a monarch, but the disappearance of two.


In 1483, a twelve-year-old boy became Edward V of England, but his crown would instead be passed to his uncle, Richard III, who would place both him and his younger brother in the Tower, after which neither of the so-called Princes in the Tower were seen or heard from again.  The assumption is that both boys were murdered in captivity, but by whom?  Why?  The mystery is over five centuries old and the tangled threads that separate fact from fiction are so blurred that it still remains without a definite answer.  The plot thickened when renovations in the White Tower uncovered bones under a staircase there in 1674.  They were believed to be the Princes themselves and were reburied in Westminster Abbey under orders of Charles II.  Although the bones have not been positively identified as the missing boys, they were exhumed in 1933 and tests confirmed that the bones belonged to two children, one aged eleven to thirteen and the other seven to eleven years of age (whereas the children in question were aged twelve and nine).  Could it be coincidence?

To draw any conclusion, we must go back to the beginning of the story.  Let us look at the facts first.

In 1470, Prince Edward was born into the Plantagenet Dynasty, the son of Edward IV and his power-hungry queen Elizabeth Woodville on the 28th of April.  He would be the eldest surviving son and heir to the English crown when Edward IV died in the spring of 1483.  Soon after, the Princes’ uncle and Edward IV’s brother, Richard, the Duke of Gloucester, persuaded Parliament to declare all of Edward and Elizabeth’s children illegitimate on the grounds that their marriage was never legal, as it had been conducted in secret.  This allowed the Duke to usurp the throne as Richard III, one of the most controversial kings in European history.


Richard III

Richard III had Edward V and his nine-year-old brother, the Duke of York who was also named Richard, taken to the Tower, which doubled as a royal residence at the time.  The boys were last seen playing there that summer, after which they simply vanished.  No funeral was given according to records.  The king was killed at Bosworth Field two years later and the throne passed on to Henry Tudor (Henry VII), who would become the first monarch of the short-lived Tudor Dynasty.  They would take their secrets to the grave and leave behind only strings of rumors.

For those who favor the murder theory, Richard III seems like the most likely culprit, but there is nothing to prove or disprove this, and there are several other suspects who have been brought forward by historians and witnesses.  Before we throw Richard under the sword, we must examine every source with an objective eye.  So let us profile our suspects.

William Shakespeare specifically fingered a knight by the name of James Tyrrell, whom was arrested and hanged by Henry VII in 1502.  Though no official record was made of this, it was whispered that Tyrrell confessed under torture to the Princes’ murder by orders of Richard III shortly before his death.  Historian Sir Thomas More wrote fifty years later that Tyrrell hired two men to smother the boys in their sleep, after which they were buried under a set of stairs in the castle, which, if true, would account for the bones found during the 1674 renovations.

Then we have Henry Stafford, the Duke of Buckingham and Richard III’s ambitious right-hand man.  Though loyal to his master, Buckingham himself had royal blood as second cousin of Edward IV in addition to having three grandparents descend from Edward III.  According to a text discovered in the early 1980s in the College of Arms collection, the Princes were murdered “be [by] the vise” of the Duke of Buckingham, however, there is some argument over whether “vise” means advice or devise.  From this standpoint, if Buckingham had indeed killed the Princes and blamed Richard, he could provoke a rebellion, putting the throne into play with Henry Tudor as his sole rival (Tudor was also Buckingham’s cousin).  Indeed, he was one of the leaders of a revolt, ostensibly in favor of Tudor, in October 1483.  However, the rebellion was quickly crushed and Buckingham was executed that year on November 2nd.  Tudor would succeed in defeating Richard III in battle two years later.

This returns us to Richard III once again.  He had succeeded in removing his nephew from the seat of power, but despite this, his grip on the monarchy was far from secure.  He showed no proof that the Princes were alive or dead when rumors of their deaths began that fall, and in turn did not open any investigations on the matter either.  He was also heard claiming “his innocence concerning the murder of his nephews”, which strongly suggests that the Princes were dead by this time and that they had indeed been killed.  The only problem with most evidence against Richard III is that most of it is biased rumor and nothing concrete.

Henry Tudor

Henry Tudor

Personally, my belief is that Richard III is innocent.  If they had been removed from the line of succession, neither of the Princes were a threat to Richard’s reign.  Tudor, however, was.  Tudor had an army of his own and the support of several prominent noblemen, including the Duke of Brittany and the Woodvilles.  Tudor even married Elizabeth of York, Edward IV’s eldest daughter, to cement his claim to power, however, Elizabeth’s right to inherit the throne would depend on both of her brothers being dead already.  As they say, history favors the winners, and in this case, it is especially true.  The Tudors won the war.  They wrote the history of the decisive Battle of Bosworth and had the power to tarnish their predecessor’s name, which they most certainly did.  Richard III was far from the tyrannical ruler that the Tudors painted him to be; he certainly does not seem the type to murder two young boys, let alone his own nephews, even if it meant he might gain the position of King of England.  The Tudor monarchy had created propaganda against Richard after and maybe even before his death, creating the image of a tyrant with a hunched back and evil temperament, cold eyes, claw-like hands, and a sneer.  There is even a portrait that has been doctored to fit this image, bringing down the king’s reputation all the more over the centuries, namely in the well-known words of William Shakespeare himself in his famous play.

We have not even accounted for whether the Princes’ deaths were accidental.  They could simply have died of disease, couldn’t they?  Everyone loves the murder theory, the drama of it, but it is not without possibility that there was no murder at all.  And even then, there is the theory that one or even both boys survived and were taken away to safety.  Indeed, there were many men who claimed to be the young Duke of York and his brother.  The most prominent of these was Perkin Warbeck, who had the support of James IV of Scotland and the Duchess of Burgundy, Edward IV’s sister, Margaret of York.  She recognized the man who called himself Richard IV as her nephew, though since Margaret harbored a deep resentment towards Henry VII for what she saw as the murder of her youngest brother Richard III, it is not known if her claims were true and she truly believed that the young man was indeed her nephew.  Either way, Warbeck, backed by the Scots and Burgundians, attempted to overthrow Henry VII, but he was captured and under torture, confessed to be, not the missing Prince, but an imposter, and was executed at Tyburn in 1499.

Thus the question is left open for debate: who or what really killed the Princes in the Tower?  You decide.