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Hitler’s Deputy Thought He Was Being Poisoned

Rudolf Hess’ prison food is being photographed for the first time.

Alexander Aciman
October 01, 2014
(Library of Congress ( )
(Library of Congress ( )

This month’s Smithsonian features a piece that is almost as fascinating as the final pages of Napoleon’s Memorial of Saint Helena: a glimpse into the madness of deputy Führer Rudolf Hess during his imprisonment.

For the first time since the end of the Nuremberg Trials, a few of Hess’ belongings, which were turned over to his examining army psychiatrist Douglas Kelley, have been photographed. Among them were food packets Hess had set aside from his English prison, where he was held for years after foolishly deciding to travel in the hopes of conducting diplomatic negotiations.

When Kelley finished examining Hess, he collected the food, along with a bunch of other Nazi memorabilia (some of it belonging to Hermann Göring), and stored them beside his own family heirlooms in the basement of his house.

Hess was convinced that his food had been tampered with and poisoned. He described skin peeling off his palate after drinking what felt like acid-laced milk. He tried to neutralize the milk with limestone from the cell walls. He set aside bits and pieces of his meals, wrapped in paper and sealed with wax, to be used as proof that he was being poisoned.

The deputy Führer’s paranoia drove him to extreme measures: before a meeting with Lord Chancellor Simon, Hess starved himself for days in order to flush the “brain poison” from his body. The meeting went poorly, and Hess suspected that it was due to the fact that some traces of brain poison still lingered in his system.

During his examination, Kelley found that Hess displayed the paranoid behavior typical of schizophrenia. Hess, years into the imprisonment, displayed memory loss and would stare off at times during his meetings.

Nazi loot as unique as Hess’ paranoid food packets are indeed rare gems. One Swiss envoy did test Hess’ medication and found nothing wrong. But because the food packets Kelley collected are still sealed, one nagging curiosity remains: was Rudolf Hess really being poisoned?

Alexander Aciman is a writer living in New York. His work has appeared in, among other publications, The New York Times, Vox, The Wall Street Journal, and The New Republic.