How DID Simón Bolívar die?

A lifelike reconstruction of Simón Bolívar’s face, based on the skeletal remains from his tomb. It looks recognizably close to his many official likenesses.

Further to yesterday’s evisceration of Daniel Wallis’s shitty snarkathon at the expense of one democratically elected president, one Liberator, and five proud South American countries, I present the following excerpt from the official report on the forensic investigation into the death of Simón Bolívar:

Studies were done in order to determine via molecular biology the presence of different microbiological pathogens, such as Mycobacterium tuberculosis, Mycobacterium bovis, Treponema pallidum, Brucella, Paracoccidioides brasiliensis, Plasmodium sp. Leishmania donovani and L. cutanea, all of which were negative.

Still pending is an investigation to determine the possibility of an infection by Histoplasma capsulatum. This process will permit us to compare and determine the existence of that particular pattern in ancient DNA. This fungus is the causative agent of chronic pulmonary histoplasmosis, in which there may be adenomegalies and disseminated calcifications in the lungs and spleen. This illness presets signs and symptoms very similar to those of chronic pulmonary tuberculosis with cavitations. It is most common in men of middle age, elderly persons, and patients with immune deficiencies, developing over a period of months or years, with lapses of inactivity and sometimes, spontaneous healing; or it can lead to death if not treated properly.

Chemical analyses to determine the presence of arsenic (As) were not conclusive; although there is no clinical evidence of poisoning by this element, it is a known fact that the records of the treating physician of the Liberator, Dr. Alejandro Próspero Reverend, describe a treatment in which [Bolívar] received medicaments containing arsenic.

The administration of cantharide powder, obtained from a dried insect (Lytta vesicatoria), given to the Liberator in elevated doses and in the form of plasters, is a poison which produces blisters on the skin at the site of administration, and acts on the genito-urinary system. Cantharide poisoning presents the following symptoms: difficulty urinating, more frequent urination, and blood in the urine, alterations which can progress to the point of anuria (cessation of urination) and thus, to acute renal failure, this bringing about the final chain of events in the death of the Liberator.

These clinical manifestations, added to the resurgent chronic broncho-pulmonary disease, evidenced by difficulty breathing, thoracic pain (more intense on the right side), cough with mucopurulent expectoration and fever, caused in the Liberator a hypoxia marked by diminished oxygen pressure and hydro-electric disturbances, which manifested with greater intensity at brain level, bringing about lapses of consciousness, raised capillary permeability, leakage of liquid from the intercellular and intravascular spaces into the interstitial space, with the consequent cerebral edema, which was accentuated by the hypoxia until it reached the cerebellar amygdalas and compressed the brain stem in which the centres governing respiration and cardiac function are located, leading to a cardio-respiratory cessation and, in consequence, death.

Translation mine.

And there you have it. TB didn’t kill Bolívar; someone please get Daniel Wallis on the horn and tell him that the official report found no evidence of it in the Liberator’s remains. No DNA from TB bacilli, either human OR bovine. How ’bout them apples?

But another possible cause of death is still undetermined, and its symptoms mimic those of TB. The fungal disease histoplasmosis does sound like a good candidate for the severe lung disease that is believed to have killed him. We’ll have to wait and see if indeed it is the culprit.

Meanwhile, arsenic is definitely NOT ruled out, as its use is listed in the papers of the Liberator’s treating physician. Is the exact dosage accurately listed, or was somebody fudging something? It’s hard to say for certain. The Liberator died in Colombia (home turf of his chief betrayer, Santander), waiting to get well enough leave South America and enter exile. Deliberate arsenic poisoning is a distinct possibility still. We’ll have to wait and see with this one, too.

Meanwhile, another interesting potential poison is listed: Cantharide powder, better known as “Spanish fly”. It is, as the report makes clear, a very nasty and highly toxic substance. If you’re looking to make someone horny, forget this one — unless you’re a necrophiliac, because it can cause a potentially lethal acute kidney failure, as it did in Bolívar. (Remember, this was more than a hundred years before the invention of the kidney dialysis machine, so the condition would not have been reversible, as it is today.) Bolívar’s physician gave it to him in the form of blister-raising plasters on the skin, possibly intending to draw down his fever; it ended up pulling his renal function down instead. This was one of the worst things anyone could have done to an already ailing Liberator, right up there with arsenic poisoning and bloodletting. But, like the other two, it could have been done with the best OR the worst of intentions. It’s a treatment that has long since fallen out of fashion, mercifully.

Long story short: Chavecito wasn’t wrong when he speculated that the Liberator was poisoned. He was indeed, and with more than one medicament. There is still the question of motive, and still the possibility that it was wholly unintentional. There is also the possibility that he did, in fact, die of histoplasmosis, or would have no matter how he was treated. The favored remedies of the day were all terrible, and he would have fared better without any of them.

But whatever actually killed the Liberator, tuberculosis has been ruled out. And I do believe that calls for a hearty chorus of “Suck it, Reuters!”

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