Bizarre and Memorable Deaths from History


The Darwin Awards look at unique and dumbfounding ways that people manage to “take themselves out of the gene pool.” However, bizarre deaths are by no means a new phenomenon. History is full of eccentric ends and dubious demises and today we are going to take a look at some of the strangest.

8. The Mummy King Who Got Burned Alive

Charles II might have ruled the Kingdom of Navarre for almost four decades during the 14th century, but all people remember of him was the gruesome and unusual way he died. 

He was known as Charles the Bad because he betrayed his allies and tried playing the English and French against each other for his benefit. He wasn’t very good at being “bad,” though, and by the end of his reign, he plunged his kingdom into debt, surrendered numerous fortresses and, basically, became a client of other states. 

In 1387, the 54-year-old king fell ill. There are several similar reports on his strange demise, but we will be referring to the one provided by English author Francis William Blagdon. According to him, Charles’s physician ordered the king to be wrapped from head to toe in linen soaked in brandy at night. After he was swathed like a mummy and rendered completely imobile, one of the king’s female attendants sewed the cloth up so that Charles wouldn’t wiggle out of his wrappings during the night.

The attendant finished sewing when she reached the king’s neck. Not wanting to risk cutting his highness with the scissors, she instead chose to burn off the excess thread with a candle. As you might imagine, it was a bad idea to bring an open flame near linen soaked in alcohol. The cloth immediately caught fire. The panicked attendant fled screaming and King Charles II, unable to move, burned to a crisp in his own bed.

7. The General Who Didn’t Believe in Dodging

Many people died during the American Civil War, but none of them with the impeccable timing for irony of Major General John Sedgwick. 

During the Battle of Spotsylvania on May 9, 1864, the general admonished his men when they ducked for cover as sharpshooters opened fire on them. Refusing to join them, Sedgwick rebuffed the enemies’ efforts, saying that “they couldn’t hit an elephant at that distance.” The very next moment he dropped dead after a bullet pierced his head below his left eye. He was killed instantly and his sentence became among the most famous last words in history.

Although this is the most common version of the story, it would appear that the true demise of John Sedgwick was not so perfectly timed. Fellow officer Martin McMahon gave his side of the tale and he should know best as he was sitting next to the general when he died. 

According to him, General Sedgwick said his famous line twice – first to the entire squad, then to one particular soldier who dodged to the ground right in front of him. The soldier got up, saluted, and told Sedgwick that he “believed in dodging” because it once stopped a shell from taking his head clean off. Everybody had a good laugh and the general told him “all right, my man; go to your place.” These, according to McMahon, were Sedgwick’s actual last words. Soon afterwards, the officer heard the shrill whistle of explosive bullets and the general turned towards him with blood spurting from his cheek.

6. The Magician Who Changed Bodies

He was born Sigmund Neuberger in 1871 but to the rest of the world, he was known as the Great Lafayette, one of the most successful magicians of all time and, even in death, he performed one last illusion.

Lafayette was one of the highest-paid entertainers of his day and he lived the lavish lifestyle that his success afforded him. His best friend was a dog named Beauty which was gifted to him as a pup by Harry Houdini. Lafayette spared no expense when it came to spoiling his pooch – Beauty lived in luxurious hotel rooms, ate five-course meals and wore a diamond-studded collar. 

Then, the magician’s world collapsed – Beauty died in May, 1911 in Edinburgh, Scotland. Stricken with grief, Lafayette announced that his own demise would not be far away. He insisted that Beauty be given a human burial, but the city council agreed only if the magician would also be buried in the same plot upon his death. As it turned out, they didn’t have to wait very long.

Just a few days later, Lafayette premiered his show at Edinburgh’s Empire Palace Theater. He was performing his signature illusion, the “Lion’s Bride,” where the magician, dressed as a Turkish pasha, changed places with a real lion. An oriental lantern caught fire on stage and, soon enough, the blaze enveloped the entire theater. While the audience made it out safely, 11 performers and stagehands died in the fire, Lafayette included.

The magician’s body was identified by the colorful costume of a pasha that he was wearing. His remains were removed for cremation in order to be interred next to his beloved Beauty. 

A few days later, something peculiar happened. While sifting through the rubble, workers found another body. It had on the exact same clothes, but was also wearing some valuable rings. This was the real Great Lafayette while the first man was his body double for the “Lion’s Bride.” The two performed one final swap.

5. The Viking Who Felt Vengeance from Beyond the Grave

Sigurd Eysteinsson, better known as Sigurd the Mighty, was a 9th century Viking and the first or second Earl of Orkney in Scotland, depending on which saga you believe. After establishing his position, Sigurd and his army traveled to the Scottish mainland to expand his domain.

According to the Orkneyinga Saga, Sigurd wanted to conquer Moray, a land ruled by a nobleman named Máel Brigte, also known as Máel the Bucktoothed or Máel Tusk due to his large, protruding teeth. In 892, the two of them agreed to settle the matter in open battle where each one would bring forty of their strongest warriors. Eysteinsson cheated, however, and brought along two soldiers riding on each horse. He won the battle, killed Brigte and took his head as a trophy. 

In the end, Máel had the last laugh as he put those tusks of his to good use. While riding back, as the decapitated head bounced up and down on the horse, one of the teeth scratched Sigurd’s leg, causing a pretty nasty cut. The wound became infected and Sigurd died soon after. 

4. The Culinarian Who Didn’t Get His Fish on Time

A lot of people take cooking very seriously, but perhaps none more so than François Vatel. 

Active during the mid 17th century, Vatel is often incorrectly referred to as a chef. In truth, his position was more akin to a majordomo or a master of festivities. Although he was renowned for the grandeur and lavishness of the feasts he organized, it is unknown if he ever actually cooked any of the food.

The story of Vatel comes to us mostly courtesy of Madame de Sévigné, a marquise and prolific author who wrote well over a thousand letters. In 1671, Vatel was employed by the Grand Condé, Prince Louis II of Bourbon. In April of that year, he had to assemble a three-day banquet for Louis XIV, the Sun King, and thousands of guests on short notice.

Given the circumstances, Vatel did an amazing job, but there were still problems. Because more people turned up than expected, two of the dozens of tables did not have a roast. Even though nobody seemed to mind and even the Prince tried to console him, Vatel the perfectionist saw this as a loss of honor and a great affront. At night, things went from bad to worse for him as the firework show he organized went mostly unseen due to heavy fog.

Early morning the next day, Vatel received a delivery of fish. This was from a small local supplier who only brought two loads. When a distraught Vatel asked him “Is this all?”, he actually wanted to know if that was all the fish being delivered. Instead, the supplier thought he wanted to know if that was all the fish he had to which he replied “yes.”

This was the final straw for Vatel. Believing he would not have enough fish for his guests, he could not bear this insult. He went up to his room, stuck his sword against the door and plunged it into his heart. As he lay there dying, the rest of the fish deliveries started arriving.

3. The Musician Who Liked to Be Choked

Born in Prague, Frantisek Kotzwara was an 18th century Czech composer and virtuoso who toured Europe with multiple orchestras, mainly playing the viola and the double bass. None of this is relevant to us, however, as the main thing he is remembered for today is his bizarre death which counts among the first recorded cases of autoerotic asphyxiation. 

As the New Groves Dictionary of Music and Musicians politely put it, Kotzwara had “unusual taste in his vices.” Consequently, when he was playing in London in 1791, he visited a prostitute named Susannah Hill. The night started off as you might expect. The two had dinner and later retired to his lodgings. There, things took a turn when Kotzwara paid his companion and asked her to cut off his testicles

Unsurprisingly, Hill refused. Instead, the composer settled for something a little less messy. He tied a ligature around the doorknob and secured the other end around his neck. The two had sex and, by the end, Kotzwara was dead.

It is unclear if the musician wanted to die or if his death was an accident. Initially, Hill was arrested for his murder. She gave her side of the story during the trial and it was convincing enough that she was acquitted. Allegedly, the court records were then destroyed because the case was considered so obscene and scandalous. If this, indeed, happened, then at least one copy survived as an anonymous pamphlet titled Modern Propensities appeared soon after detailing not only Kotzwara’s unusual death, but also the trial of Susannah Hill.

2. The King Who Got Bit by a Monkey

Now we look at King Alexander of Greece. No, not the famous one from ancient times, but rather the one born in 1893 to King Constantine I and Queen Sophia of Prussia. He became king in 1917 after a political movement called the Venizelists with the aid of the Triple Entente pushed his father and older brother into exile. Alexander took the throne, but in name only, as the new Prime Minister Eleftherios Venizelos was the one with actual authority.

Alexander might have been a puppet king, but he was still allowed to reside at the Tatoi Palace in Athens. On October 2, 1920, he was walking Fritz, his German Shepherd, through the estate’s private park, when the dog started fighting with a Barbary macaque kept at the palace as a pet. King Alexander tried to break the animals apart, at which point another monkey came and bit him on the leg several times. 

Alexander and his attendants severely underestimated the gravity of the wound. They thought the bites would be cleaned and dressed and that would be that. The king was more concerned with making sure the strange incident was not publicized. 

Later that evening, the bites became infected. Sepsis set in and his doctors soon began talks of amputating the leg. In the end, none of them wanted to take that step, perhaps hoping that the king’s condition would improve without such a drastic measure. That hesitation proved fatal because on October 25, after 23 days of fever and delirium, King Alexander died of blood poisoning. 

1. The Lawyer Who Killed Himself Defending His Client

In 1871, Ohio politician and lawyer Clement Vallandigham was defending a man named Thomas McGehan who stood accused of killing another man named Tom Myers during a bar brawl in Hamilton, Ohio. 

Vallandigham had a theory that Myers had actually shot himself. After all, the gun did belong to the victim and the lawyer thought that Myers accidentally discharged the weapon while trying to pull it out during the chaos and excitement of the bar fight. Vallandigham even went so far as to obtain another pistol like that of Myers and travel to a secluded open space to perform residue tests by shooting at various distances. Crucially, when it was all said and done, the pistol still had three bullets in the chamber. 

Vallandigham returned to the Lebanon House Hotel to share his findings with the rest of the defense team. He put his pistol on a table right next to the actual gun used in the shooting which was unloaded. 

You can probably guess what happened next. Vallandigham wanted to show the other lawyers that it was possible for the gun to have discharged accidentally when Myers retrieved it from his pocket. He grabbed the loaded gun by mistake and it did, indeed, go off during his demonstration. Vallandigham had shot himself, going to extreme lengths to prove his hypothesis.

The lawyer died but, on the bright side, the jury agreed with his findings and McGehan was acquitted.

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