It’s been a while, but bizarre historical deaths are back on the menu. Today we take a look at some strange ways in which people met their ends through sex, fire, flowers, baseball, lampreys, and, of course, man’s oldest foe, gravity.
10. Death by Potpourri
We start off with a tale of a lethal prank from Ancient Rome played by one of the most controversial Roman emperors in history, Elagabalus. There are many sordid stories about the young emperor’s penchant for hedonism and opulence, so many that it makes it hard to tell which ones are real and which ones are not. This particular tale comes from the Historia Augusta, which doesn’t exactly have a stunning track record when it comes to accuracy but, if true, it might represent the only known case of mass murder by potpourri.
Elagabalus often liked to throw lavish banquets and play pranks on his diners. On this occasion, he used a reversible ceiling to dump tons of flowers on his unsuspecting guests. Some of them were completely overwhelmed by the blooming avalanche and “were actually smothered to death, being unable to crawl out to the top.”
9. Death by Snu Snu
Dying during sex is not something particularly noteworthy, but it does raise the stakes a bit when the person in question is a pope.
John XII is widely considered one of the worst popes in history, remembered today for his many vices, chief among them being his love of married women. Just to give John his fair due, we should point out that, like with Elagabalus, most of the stories about him were written by men who weren’t exactly members of his fan club. The tale of his demise, in particular, is told by Liutprand of Cremona, who was partisan to John’s political opponent, Holy Roman Emperor Otto I.
Now that we got the disclaimers out of the way, let’s move on to the good stuff. Pope John XII died on May 14, 964 AD, following a bout of adultery with an unnamed mistress, but the exact cause of death is uncertain. Although all versions of events claim that the pope died “whilst enjoying an adulterous sexual encounter,” some say that John suffered a stroke during the act and lingered for a few days before finally biting the dust. Other versions claim that John XII’s demise was faster and more violent, and that he was simply beaten to death by the angry husband who caught him in flagrante delicto with his wife.
8. Death by Excessive Politeness
It is important to display good manners whenever you are out in public, but not to the extent where you are literally killing yourself in order to do it. Take, for example, the strange case of Tycho Brahe, Denmark’s most famous astronomer. His scientific work aside, there are two notable trivia facts about him. First is that Brahe wore a prosthetic metal nose because he lost his real one in a duel. And the second is that he died in 1601 following a strange and sudden illness.
In 1901, 300 years after Brahe’s death, his body was exhumed and traces of mercury were detected in his beard hairs. This immediately raised the possibility that he had been poisoned, and historians even pointed their collective finger at a suspect – Brahe’s assistant, none other than Johannes Kepler who, of course, went on to become a famed scientist in his own right. Could it be that Kepler killed his mentor in order to further his own career?
Not so fast. More recent tests done with modern technology showed that Brahe had normal levels of mercury in his system, way below a lethal dose. Instead, it seems that the astronomer’s demise was brought on by a severe bladder infection that caused uremia. During a banquet with the Danish emperor, Brahe enjoyed copious amounts of alcohol, but could not get up to pee because it would have been impolite to leave the table before the king. Therefore, he just sat there and suffered in silence, and by the time he got home, his bladder had burst and Tycho Brahe died 11 days later.
7. Death by Skin Chair
We travel back in ancient times for the most gruesome entry on this list. It is another story of dubious veracity, this time courtesy of good ol’ Herodotus who tells us of the grisly way in which King Cambyses II of the Achaemenid Empire decided to punish a judge named Sisamnes for corruption.
After Cambyses found out that Sisamnes had taken a bribe, the king had his throat cut and his skin flayed. So far, pretty standard for that time period, but afterward, Cambyses draped the skin over the judge’s chair where Sisamnes used to sit to pass sentence. He then promoted Sisamnes’s son, Otanes, as the new judge, and made him sit in that same chair whenever he passed judgment, as a reminder of what happened to corrupt officials.
6. Death by Car
One summer night, 44-year-old Bridget Driscoll from Croydon and her 16-year-old daughter, May, were walking to Crystal Palace Park in southeast London to attend a fete. While crossing the street, a speeding car ran over Mrs. Driscoll, fatally injuring her. Now we know what you’re thinking. This is an unfortunate, but all-too-common tragedy. However, the death of Bridget Driscoll stands out because it occurred on August 17, 1896, thus giving her the regrettable distinction of being the first pedestrian ever killed by an automobile.
Back then, cars on the road were such a rare occurrence that Mrs. Driscoll became simply “bewildered” by the event and didn’t know how to react. All she could do was hold up her umbrella for protection before being struck down.
The driver claimed that his automobile was limited to 4 mph, but witnesses insisted that the car went at a “tremendous pace, like a fire engine,” or as fast as a horse’s gallop. Ultimately, the death of Bridget Driscoll was ruled an accident, with the coroner remarking with an overabundance of hope that “such a thing would never happen again.”
5. Death by Ungratefulness
On September 10, 490 BC, Athenian general Miltiades led the Greek forces to victory at the Battle of Marathon, thus driving back the First Persian invasion of King Darius the Great. Unsurprisingly, Miltiades became the talk of the town back in Athens, but his mission was not finished yet. He was then tasked with leading an expedition to the Cyclades Islands and punishing some of the Greek city-states that had sided with Persia during the war.
Everyone assumed this would be a walk in the park, especially for the great Miltiades who had just bested the mighty Persian Empire. And yet, it wasn’t. Not only was the Athenian army vanquished, but Miltiades injured his leg during the battle.
When Miltiades returned to Athens a defeated man, nobody could believe it. His service against the Persians was immediately forgotten and one of Miltiades’s political opponents, Xanthippus, seized the opportunity and accused the general of treason. Not only that but Miltiades was found guilty and sent to prison. His leg injury was never treated, so it got infected and the great hero of the Battle of Marathon died of gangrene, imprisoned by the very people he had saved.
4. Death by Flying Pinto
There’s a pretty long list of inventors who were killed by their own creations and, although unfortunate, it is not surprising. After all, when you are trying something completely new, it can oftentimes be dangerous, even fatal.
Take, for example, Henry Smolinski and Harold Blake, two aeronautical engineers who founded the Advanced Vehicle Engineers or AVE company in 1971. Their goal was to build a roadable aircraft, or, in other words, a flying car.
Unfortunately, the two engineers decided that the car they would use for their invention would be the Ford Pinto, an automobile with a safety record that is just one step above riding around on the back of a hungry alligator. They strapped to it the rear end of a twin-engine Cessna Skymaster and, in 1973, the AVE Mizar was born.
Unfortunately, it was doomed from the start. During the first test flight, the mounting attachment to the right wing strut failed almost immediately after takeoff, but the experienced pilot Charles “Red” Janisse prevented it from ripping off completely and brought the Mizar down in a field for a rough landing.
Undeterred, Smolinski and Blake built another prototype and, on September 11, 1973, it was time for another test flight. Janisse wasn’t available that day so the engineers went up themselves. The Mizar was airborne for about two minutes before the wings failed and the car fell from 800 feet, bursting into flames upon impact and instantly killing both men.
3. Death by Surfeit of Lampreys
The 12th-century historian Henry of Huntingdon is considered one of England’s most important scholars, mainly due to his seminal work Historia Anglorum, which was a detailed account of the history of England up until that point. One of the main reasons why his book became so popular was because Huntingdon knew how to weave in entertainment with his history. This might have had an adverse effect on its credibility, but it did provide us with memorable episodes such as when King Cnut tried to stop the tides or when King Henry I died from a “surfeit of lampreys.”
Surfeit, by the way, means excess or abundance, which indicates that Henry gorged himself on so many lampreys that he fell ill and died. How many lampreys it took to kill the king, we cannot say, but Huntingdon did specify that Henry did this against the explicit orders of his court physician.
The king and the chronicler were contemporaries. Henry died in 1135 and Huntingdon published a revised edition of his book that same year. This means that the historian provided us with a firsthand account of the king’s demise, but whether the “death by lampreys” story holds water or not is still a matter of debate.
2. Death by Wardrobe Malfunction
Martha Mansfield was a silent-era actress whose career highlight probably came when she played the female lead in the 1920 adaptation of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde starring John Barrymore. Unfortunately for her, the thing she is best remembered for today is the grisly and extraordinary way in which she died.
In 1923, Mansfield was, again, playing the female lead in the drama The Warrens of Virginia. The movie was set during the Civil War so, unsurprisingly, Mansfield had to wear a period costume with hoopskirts. After a day’s shoot, she walked to her car still wearing her Civil War dress. She got inside the vehicle, only to immediately jump out engulfed in flames. Her flimsy colonial dress proved to be highly flammable, and it wasn’t until her co-star, Wilfred Lytell, jumped on her with his heavy overcoat that the flames had been extinguished. Unfortunately, it was too late, and the 24-year-old actress died of her burn injuries the following day.
Although the culprit had never been determined, most people on set believed that a careless crewman discarded a lit match in Mansfield’s direction and set her hoopskirt on fire.
1. Death by Baseball
Finally, we end this list with a look at the incredibly strange and unlikely demise of 20-year-old Stanton Walker, who died on October 25, 1902, during a baseball game between two local teams from Morristown and Bethesda, Ohio.
Walker wasn’t a player. Instead, he was a spectator seated in the stands between two friends named Frank Hyde and Leroy Wilson. At one point Hyde, who was scoring the game, asked Wilson to borrow his penknife so he could sharpen his pencil. Without giving it a second thought, Wilson took out his knife and gave it to Walker to pass it along to Hyde.
Several improbable things then occurred in quick succession which led to the tragedy at the ballgame that day. For starters, Wilson passed the knife with the blade out, for whatever reason. Then, Stanton Walker took the knife with the blade facing toward him and, at that exact moment, a foul ball struck him on the hand and forced him to plunge the knife directly into his chest. Walker started gushing blood and died within minutes.