11 Unbelievable Ways People Have Actually Died In History
I’ve mentioned a few times before that I have some… uh… interesting hobbies. One of those hobbies is weird history — and, perhaps unexpectedly, a lot of the time, studying weird history involves learning about the many unbelievable ways people have actually died throughout our time on this planet. I mean, don't get me wrong; I am all for treating death with respect. At the same time, though, I think it’s also good for us to acknowledge that death is messy and weird — and that it's OK that it's messy and weird. It’s just like life in that respect — and indeed death is, in fact, a part of life, so it all comes full circle.
For what it’s worth, most of us aren’t going to die in a strange or unusual fashion. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), those of us in the United States are most likely to go due to heart disease, cancer, or chronic lower respiratory diseases; those are the top three causes of death in America. (For the curious, 633,842 people died of heart disease in 2016; for cancer, the number was 595,930; and for chronic lower respiratory diseases, it was 155,041.) The top three leading causes of death worldwide are similar — according to the World Health Organization (WHO), Ischaemic heart disease tops the list at 8.76 million, followed by stroke at 6.24 million and lower respiratory infections at 3.19 million.
All of which is to say that, by and large, we have bigger things to be concerned about than, say, falling prey to a dancing plague. Like whether or not we'll all still have health insurance this time next year.
That said, though, it’s not totally out of the realm of possibility that some of us will go by more… unconventional means. The kinds of means that will make people reading about you some time in the future do a double-take and say, “NO!... Really?!?! WOW.” Like, for example, these 11 types of deaths we’ve actually seen recorded in history.
You know what they say about the truth versus fiction.
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1. Death By Dancing
In 1518, an incredibly strange affliction descended upon the people of Strausbourg, France: They couldn’t stop dancing. It started with Frau Troffea; one day in July, she started cutting a rug in the middle of the street — sans music — and kept going at it for a week without stopping. By the end of that week, she had been joined by 34 others; by August, the numbers had risen to 400.
When I say “without stopping,” by the way, I mean it — which, ultimately, is what was responsible for all the deaths that occurred that summer: The nonstop exertion, day in, day out, resulted in an average of 15 people a day collapsing from heart attacks, strokes, and exhaustion when the Dancing Plague of 1518 was at its height.
We still don’t totally know what triggered the whole thing, but we have theories. It’s possible, for example, that Catholic superstition surrounding St. Vitus — who was said to be able to curse people with a dancing plague — combined with conditions of disease and famine may have put the people of Strasbourg under so much stress that it prompted an instance of mass hysteria; or, it could have been the resulted of ergot poisoning, which we also now believe was responsible for the Salem Witch Trials. You be the judge.
2. Death By Spontaneous Human Combustion
On July 2, 1951, Mary Hardy Reeser of St. Petersburg, Fla. decided to smoke a cigarette before she headed to bed. She sat down in an armchair with it and relaxed. But the next morning, she was discovered — or, perhaps more accurately, not discovered — in a shocking state: She had burned to ash. All that remained was one foot, still in its slipper, and her skull, which had shrunk somewhat. The apartment, however, was largely untouched; there was soot on the ceiling and in one corner of the room — the corner where the armchair had been — but oddly, it hadn’t been gutted by the fire that apparently burnt up Mary Hardy Reeser.
To be fair, it’s debatable whether spontaneous human combustion actually exists; indeed, the FBI’s report on Reeser posits that the woman fell asleep with a lit cigarette, which then set fire to her nightgown — a perfectly rational explanation. Still, though: Questions about the Reeser case remain. Why was the apartment itself basically unharmed? Why was the fire so localized? Why didn’t it spread? It’s… weird, to say the least. (The podcast Lore has an excellent episode addressing spontaneous human combustion in general and the Reeser case specifically, by the way; I highly suggest checking it out.)
3. Death By Bitten Tongue
OK, so it wasn’t actually the act of biting his tongue that killed Allan Pinkerton, founder of the Pinkerton National Detective Agency; it was the infection that followed, because, well… it was the 19th century, and that happened a lot back then. According to Pinkerton’s obituary in the New York Times, which is dated July 1, 1884 and ran on Wednesday, July 2, he died at home in Chicago several weeks after his bitten tongue became gangrenous. Here’s what the opening paragraph says:
Allan Pinkerton, the head of the famous detective agency, who has been dangerously ill for the last three weeks, died at 3:05 o’clock this afternoon at his residence., No. 554 West Monroe-street. Some time ago Mr. Pinkerton fell and bit his tongue, and gangrene, which set in, resulted in his death.
I mean, honestly, I have tripped enough times in my life and caused weird injuries to myself that I wouldn’t be surprised if I ultimately go out like Pinkerton did. It is the fate of the klutzy.
4. Death By Circus Clown
No, not Pennywise; technically, It’s not a clown (It’s an eldritch being that often takes the form of a clown). But in 1854, 13-year-old William Snyder was — I kid you not — “killed by being swung around by the heels by a circus clown,” according to the boy’s official record of death. Reported the Sacramento Daily Union on Jan. 13, 1854, “A post-mortem examination was held upon the body, the result of which proved to be that death was caused by a rupture of the left pulmonary artery. The Coroner's Jury returned a verdict of death being produced by accident.”
Although William was born in Cincinnati, the accident occurred in San Francisco; he was originally buried in Yerba Buena Cemetery, but was later moved to Cypress Lawn Cemetery in San Matero after Yerba Buena ceased operations.
5. Death By Tripping On Your Own Beard
This one might be apocryphal, but it also might not be — we’re actually not totally sure. It’s one heck of a story, though, so let’s take a look, shall we? According to a “Quite Interesting” column that ran in the Telegraph in 2008, an Austrian man named Hans Steininger died in 1567 at the hands (hairs?) of his own beard. Steininger’s beard was over six feet long; as such, he typically kept it rolled up and stored it in a leather pouch. On the one day he didn’t tuck it away, however, a fire broke out in his home town. Steininger ran from the fire — and tripped on his own beard in the process. Sources are conflicting, but it’s believed he subsequently either broke his neck or failed to escape the blaze.
Note: Hans Steininger is not to be confused with Hans Langseth, who died in North Dakota in 1927. Langseth was also possessed of magnificent facial hair; as of 2014, he was still the holder of the Guinness Book of World Records title for longest beard in the world: Said beard measured in at 17 feet, six inches long. It was on display at the Smithsonian from 1967 to 1991; now it’s kept in storage.
6. Death By Carrot Juice
In 1974, a man named Basil Brown who was super into “health food” died by “carrot-juice addiction.” According to the New York Times, a coroner’s inquest determined this very specific cause of death. During the course of the investigation, it was discovered that Brown had taken 70 million units of Vitamin A in the space of 10 days; what’s more, during that 10-day period, he also drank approximately one gallon of carrot juice per day. His skin had — as is wont to happen when you overdo it on Vitamin A — turned bright yellow prior to his death.
Brown's liver was shot. Wrote the Times, “Dr. David Haler, the pathologist who performed an autopsy, said that the effect of the enormous intake of Vitamin A from carrots and tablets was indistinguishable from alcoholic poisoning. It produces the same result, he said — cirrhosis of the liver.” It’s true: Vitamin A is toxic to the liver if taken in large quantities. And, well… Brown’s intake certainly qualified as a large quantity.
7. Death By Laughing
If you’re already prone to certain health issues or affected by certain conditions, prolonged, extreme laughter can trigger them: As io9 noted in 2015, cataplexy (that is, being conscious, but unable to move), syncope (fainting), and gelastic seizures can all be set off by laughing. What’s more, Dr. Martin Samuels, then a neurology professor at Harvard Medical School, told NBC in 2011, “Extreme excitement, whether that be sadness or happiness activates the part of the brain that’s responsible for the flight or fight response to threats in the wild. This releases a natural chemical — adrenaline — which in large animals can be toxic to various organs, in particular the heart.”
I think the most astonishing part of the whole death-by-laughter thing is the fact that a weirdly huge number of people have reportedly perished this way. Mental Floss has a whole list of ‘em, ranging from Greek philosopher Chrysippus, who allegedly found the sight of a drunk donkey trying to eat some figs so hilarious he laughed himself to death, to a British bricklayer in 1975, who seemingly found a sketch on a British comedy show so funny he laughed himself into a heart attack. Yikes.
8. Death By Trying To Achieve Immortality
Alexander Bogdonov was one of the founders of the Bolshevik party in Russia and a rival of Vladimir Lenin. He also studied a wide variety of subjects beyond politics: Medicine, economics, philosophy… he dabbled in it all. When it came to medicine, though, he was particularly interested in blood transfusions. The ABO blood groups were discovered by Karl Landsteiner in 1901, and by 1924, Bogdonov was all about blood transfusion experimentation — mainly because he was convinced that blood transfusions could rejuvenate humans, extend their lives, and possibly even make them immortal.
He really, really wanted to be immortal.
In fact, he was so intent on achieving that goal that Bogdonov performed a number of transfusions on himself in pursuit of it— but when he was 54 years old, he made a gigantic mistake: He swapped blood with a physics student who had been exposed to both tuberculosis and malaria.
He, uh… didn’t survive.
The student ended up fine, though.
9. Death By Beer Flood
In 1814, a vat at the Horse Shoe Brewery in London holding 610,000 liters of beer ruptured. It set off a chain reaction of beer vats, all rupturing one after another, ultimately resulting in a flood of nearly one and a half million liters of beer rushing through the streets. It left a huge swathe of destruction in its wake — including the bodies of eight people, five whom were actually at a wake when the flood struck. (Oh, the irony. The horrible, horrible irony.)
Eight people may seem like small potatoes when you compare it with the 21 who lost their lives in the Great Molasses Flood in Boston about a century later — but eight lives is still eight lives, and death by beer flood sounds like an enormously unpleasant way to go.
10. Death By Robot
On Jan. 25, 1979, Robert Williams became the first human to be killed by a robot. He worked as an assembly line worker in an auto plant; Williams had gone to a storage area to pick up some parts, when a robot — which also gathered parts from the same area — hit him in the head with its arm. Williams’ family sued the manufacturer who made the robot and was awarded $10 million in damages.
Ironically, Jan. 25 was also the day the play R.U.R by Czech writer Karel Čapek premiered, albeit decades earlier — in 1921. Is's a science fiction tale which introduced the word “robot” to colloquial language. The word is based on the Czech word for “forced labor.”
11. Death By Toilet Assassination
Did you think Tywin Lannister’s fate on Game of Thrones was entirely fictional? Surprise! It wasn’t. A surprising number of people have allegedly been murdered or otherwise died while they were on the toilet, including but not limited to:
- King Edmund II, known as “Edmund Ironside,” who was reportedly killed while sitting on a privy in 1016, either by multiple stab wounds or by crossbow;
- King Vaclav III ofBohemia, who was allegedly assassinated with a spear in a garderobe in 1306;
- And King George II, who, according to Horace Walpole’s memoir, “rose as usual at six, and drank his chocolate; for all his actions were invariably methodic. A quarter after seven he went into a little closet. His German valet de chambre in waiting heard a noise, and running in, found the King dead on the floor” in 1760.
Just, y’know… think about that the next time you go to take care of your business.