Some people's amazing accomplishments live on long after they themselves die; other folks get to remain known long after their time on this earth has ended simply because they died an incredibly strange death (R.I.P., people who died in the Boston Great Molasses Flood). And some folks get to have it both ways — they stay lodged in our cultural consciousness long after they pass from this mortal coil, not only due to their impressive accomplishments in their own eras or lasting contributions to our culture at large, but also because they died from...well, died from stuff you probably didn't know could kill you.
You may have already heard of the five famous historical folks below — you may have even already heard about the unusual ways that they, uh, ventured beyond the veil. But seeing their stories all collected in one place, it's almost impossible not to feel humbled as you think about the fragile nature of existence — no matter what we achieve in this life, no matter how rich we become or how impressive our body of work is, we can still end up dead from accidentally eating a toothpick. It's way existential.
Are you ready to get morbid/ possibly ruin dinner tonight because you can't stop telling your dining companions about how it's scientifically possible to die from holding your pee? So am I! So let's get down to it, and check out five historical figures who had some historically odd deaths.
1. Tennessee Williams, Killed By A Bottle Of Eye Drops
Williams — the ground-breaking playwright who redefined modern drama with plays like A Streetcar Named Desire, The Glass Menagerie and Cat On A Hot Tin Roof — died at the fairly advanced age of 71, in 1983. But, unfortunately, he did not die from one of the usual things that might take the life of a 71-year-old. When he was found dead in a New York City hotel room, the official coroner's report claimed that Williams had choked to death on the cap from a bottle of eye drops, as reported in the New York Times.
Some of those who knew Williams – including his friend Larry Myers, who went to the New York Post with his story in 2010— believed that the real culprit was drugs, not bottle caps. But until we hear definitively otherwise, we can all keep believing that it was an eye drops cap (and keep giving our medicine chest a weary side-eye).
2. Hans Steininger, Killed By His Own Beard
Hans Steininger was a high-ranking government official in the 1500s, in the area of Europe that is now Austria. However, if you google him, that'll probably be the second thing you'll find out about him — because Hans Steininger has gained historical immortality due to his death by beard. Steininger died in 1567 after tripping on his own massively long beard and breaking his neck.
How long does a beard have to be for you to trip on it, you are almost definitely asking yourself right now? Steininger's beard was 4.5 feet long and usually kept hidden inside a pouch. Of course, this information just creates more questions — like, why was his beard out of the pouch that day? Did he take it out for special occasions, or whenever he was feeling fancy? Was having a five-foot-long beard normal for men in 1500s proto-Austria? Are beard pouches going to, like, become a thing, like those old-timey conductors caps that so many guys were wearing for a while? Guys, I'm no beard expert, but I do have to say, I think we're staring at a real untapped money-making opportunity here.
3. Sherwood Anderson, Killed By A Toothpick
You may have read some of Anderson's novels or short stories in school — his story collection, Winesburg, Ohio , is considered one of the greatest literary works of the 20th century. But the literary giant was killed by something very, very small — a toothpick.
While on a cruise ship with his wife in 1941, Anderson complained of abdominal pains. The couple disembarked in Panama, where Anderson entered a hospital and died a few days later. Though Anderson died of peritonitis — an inflammation of the tissue lining the abdomen — his autopsy found that infection developed after Anderson accidentally swallowed a toothpick, which punctured his internal organs. The toothpick was thought to have been accidentally consumed while Anderson was eating hors d'ouevres. Is there a lesson to be learned from this horrible, needless tragedy? Probably not. But I will take this moment to point out that deviled eggs, in addition to being delicious, do not contain any potentially sharp objects that could become lodged in your guests' soft tissues. Serve them at your next party!
4. Harry Houdini, Killed By A Punch
Harry Houdini was the first celebrity magician, and an edgy one at that; he was famous for death-defying tricks that left him trapped under water for minutes at a time or chomping on a mouth full of razor blades.
However, a far more innocuous illusion took Houdini's life. Houdini commonly performed a trick which involved inviting an audience member on stage to punch him in the stomach. This trick was one that he had performed many times, and not a terribly complex one — Houdini simply tensed his stomach muscles to absorb the blow.
But while talking to some young fans in October of 1926, one of them asked to act out the famous punching trick — and then punched before Houdini was ready, while his body was in an unusual position. Houdini's health deteriorated from this moment out, and he died of appendicitis several days later. Though some historians now take issue with the idea that Houdini was "punched to death," the odds that he had an already inflamed appendix that was made far worse by the punch is very likely.
5. Tycho Brahe, Killed By Holding His Pee
Though his name might not ring any bells, this 16th century Danish nobleman is known for his innovative views on astronomy — he's considered by many to have been nearly as important as Copernicus in terms of developing our modern understandings of space and planets. He also had a tame elk as a pet, which you've gotta admit is totally sick.
But despite his extensive knowledge of celestial bodies (and ability to charm forest creatures, Snow White-style), he did not necessarily know that much about how the human body functioned — because, according to accounts from the time, he died from holding his pee at a dinner party.
Brahe thought it would be rude to get up and use the facilities while at a banquet; according to observers, this set off a bladder ailment that killed him shortly thereafter in 1601. A 2010 autopsy by Danish scientists revealed that, despite rumors that he had been poisoned, Brahe did most likely die from a burst bladder.
Also, his elk reportedly died after drinking too much beer at dinner and then falling down some stairs. Which is a bummer, but also probably makes that party you had where your cousin Deb somehow puked into her own underpants seem way better by comparison, right?
Images: Wikimedia Commons, Giphy (5)