Previously, we have taken a look at some of the oddest deaths in history, but there are plenty more dubious demises left to examine. The past is filled with examples of people who shuffled off their mortal coil in ways that either shocked, surprised, or confused those who came after them.
8. Durable Mike Malloy
The story of “Durable” Michael Malloy, also called Iron Mike, took place in New York City, during the early 1930s. Malloy was an alcoholic homeless man down on his luck. Not much was known about him, except that he was born in County Donegal, Ireland, he was in his late 50s and he occasionally worked odd jobs in exchange for liquor. Because of his situation, Malloy became the ideal target for a shady group of men who intended to trick him into signing several life insurance policies made out to them, arrange his death and then collect the money.
The first part was easy. One of the men, Tony Marino, owned a speakeasy where Iron Mike came almost every day to drink himself into a stupor. They put some papers in front of him, told him to sign them and receive all the booze he wanted for free. Unsurprisingly, Malloy eagerly complied.
Given his precarious health, the criminals expected Malloy to drink himself to death shortly. But that didn’t happen. Every night, the homeless man got so drunk that he passed out, but then the next day, he always returned looking to wet his whistle, oblivious to the fact that his so-called “friends” were trying to kill him.
The gang was forced to up the ante. They started mixing the alcohol with antifreeze, turpentine, and even rat poison, but to no effect. Iron Mike wanted more. One night, they waited until Malloy passed out, they stripped him naked, poured gallons of cold water on him and dumped him outside in the freezing winter snow. They thought surely this would do him in, but Mike returned the next day, same as before, a bit confused about what happened the previous night, but ready for a drink.
Next up, the gang paid a cab driver to run over Malloy’s unconscious body. When he did not return the following day, they thought that Iron Mike was finally dead, but couldn’t find any trace of him in any of the local morgues. That’s because he was in the hospital, recuperating from a few broken bones. A few weeks later, he returned to the speakeasy, good as new and thirsty.
This finally drove the gang to desperate measures. That night, they got him blackout drunk again and simply stuck an open gas pipe down his throat. Durable Mike Malloy was dead, but the killing method was pretty obvious. A police investigation revealed the murder and all five men were convicted.
7. Mary Ward
Mary Ward was a distinguished scientist, who studied both the miniature world under the microscope and the astronomical dimensions of our Universe. She also found success as an illustrator, and books of her microscopic sketches remained in print for decades. Unfortunately, she died young, at just 42 years old, in a fatal automobile crash.
Now we know what you must be thinking – dying in a car accident is not exactly bizarre or rare. As sad as it is, it happens every day but, in Mary’s case, it happened on August 31, 1869, giving Mary Ward the ignoble distinction of being the first motorcar fatality in the history of Ireland and, possibly, the world.
We say “possibly” because it really depends on what you mean by “motorcar.” Three decades earlier, four people died when the boiler exploded on a steam carriage built by Scottish engineer John Scott Russell. On the other hand, Mary Ward was riding as a passenger in a vehicle which better resembled the car as we know it today.
The automobile had been built by her cousins, Richard and Charles Parsons, both skilled engineers. According to the Red Flag Act, the vehicle could only go four miles per hour, and only as long as a man waving a red flag walked in front of it. You would think it would be pretty difficult to kill someone under those circumstances, barring some kind of explosive engine failure like in Russell’s case, and yet, it happened. When the vehicle went round a bend, Mary Ward fell out and was crushed by the back wheels. A doctor pronounced her dead at the scene from a broken neck.
6. Kurt Gödel
Unfortunately for Gödel, his genius also came with numerous eccentricities that were exacerbated as time went on, especially after the death of his friend. Einstein passed away in 1955. Gödel published his last paper in 1958, even though he lived for two more decades. He became a recluse who avoided almost all gatherings, including the ceremony where President Gerald Ford was supposed to award him the National Medal of Science.
More than that, though, he began suffering from a deepening paranoia that eventually led to his slow and painful death. Gödel developed an intense fear of being poisoned, which manifested itself to such an extreme degree that he would not eat anything that had not been prepared and tasted by his wife, Adele. In late 1977, she could no longer do that after being hospitalized following a stroke.
In response to this, Gödel simply refused to eat anymore and began withering away. Eventually, he was hospitalized, as well, due to severe malnutrition, but even in the hospital, he would still not eat and, inevitably, the 71-year-old logician succumbed to starvation.
5. Jack Budlong
As finished products up on the silver screen, movies often showcase a lot of action, violence, and even death. However, when they are made, the movie sets themselves are supposed to be safe. Occasionally, an intense fight scene or a dangerous stunt might result in a busted lip or a few bruises, but the people on set are generally expected to be able to go home at the end of the day.
However, we know that’s not always the case. Infamous examples from the modern era include the actor Brandon Lee, who was accidentally shot & killed while filming The Crow, and The Twilight Zone: The Movie, where a genuine helicopter crash led to the gruesome deaths of Vic Morrow and two child actors. But for this entry, we are going much further back in time, to the 1941 western They Died with Their Boots On.
It was a highly fictionalized account of the life of General Custer, starring Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland. It featured a lot of horse riding and fighting, a lot of it performed by extras who weren’t particularly good at either. Consequently, there were dozens of injuries during filming.
There were also three deaths, all while shooting horse riding scenes. The first rider died of a heart attack. The second rider broke his neck by falling off his horse, either due to inexperience or being drunk.
The third death was the most bizarre of all. It belonged to a man named Jack Budlong who was neither an actor or a stuntman. He was one of Errol Flynn’s polo buddies, who kept pestering the actor to get him in the movie. Eventually, Flynn relented. After all, Budlong was a skilled rider and they needed more of those on set. What could go wrong?
For reasons known only to himself, Budlong insisted on carrying a real saber while filming a charge, instead of a wooden one from the props department. Unfortunately for him, his horse was not used to all the explosions going off in the background, so it bucked and threw Budlong into the air, causing him to impale himself on his saber which had somehow gotten wedged between two rocks and was standing blade side up.
4. Bobby Leach
In 1901, a woman from New York named Annie Edson Taylor made history when she became the first person ever to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel and survive. She did this dangerous stunt in an attempt to make money from the fame and publicity that followed, but things didn’t exactly go according to plan. Taylor wasn’t very business-savvy and her manager ripped her off, running away with her money and her barrel.
Things went decidedly better for Bobby Leach who, in 1911, became the second person in history to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel. It was actually a metal cylinder, if we’re being technical, but the point is that Leach was more successful in capitalizing on his newfound fame and reputation as a daredevil. He went on publicity tours all over the world, he got a job with the Barnum and Bailey Circus, and still attempted other dangerous stunts well into his 60s.
Bobby Leach died in a somewhat ironic manner ill-befitting a daredevil. In 1926, while on a tour of New Zealand, Leach slipped on a peel (some say orange, others say banana) and broke his leg. The injury became infected and gangrene set in. Eventually, the leg was amputated, but it was already too late, and Bobby Leach died from complications a few months later.
3. Nicolas Chamfort
When it comes to unusual and excruciating suicides, few people can hold a candle to 18th century French writer Nicolas Chamfort. Known primarily for his aphorisms and epigrams, Chamfort appeared to be an extraordinarily skilled conversationalist, and for the first years of his adult life, he mainly survived from the hospitality of people willing to offer him room and board just for the opportunity of having him as their guest.
His list of patrons grew larger and larger, until word of Chamfort reached King Louis XVI. The king brought him to his court and the Prince of Condé even gave Chamfort a position as his secretary.
The writer enjoyed the life of a courtier for a while, but eventually grew disillusioned with the royals. Therefore, at the outbreak of the French Revolution, he turned republican and joined the Jacobin Club. However, during the Reign of Terror under people like Robespierre and Marat, he came to regard the extremist Jacobins as no better than their predecessors and advocated for moderacy.
This got him in trouble and, in early 1793, he was arrested. Chamfort only spent a few days in prison, but it was enough to make him realize he never wanted to return there again. Later that same year, he heard that he was about to be arrested again, so he decided to take drastic measures.
In September 1793, Chamfort locked himself in his office. He took a pistol and shot himself in the face, but that didn’t get the job done. Either it misfired or he simply missed, because the writer only blew away part of his jaw and nose. In agony, Chamfort grabbed the only other weapon he could find, which was a paper cutter, and started cutting his neck. Still, he lived, so he stabbed himself repeatedly in the chest.
He passed out from blood loss and his butler found him unconscious, but still alive. Next to him was a declaration which said “I, Sébastien-Roch Nicolas de Chamfort, hereby declare my wish to die a free man rather than to continue to live as a slave in a prison.”
He didn’t get his wish. Chamfort survived that night, albeit greatly debilitated, and was arrested. He lingered on in prison for seven more excruciating months before he finally died of his injuries in April, 1794.
2. Archduchess Mathilde of Austria
A lot of teenagers got in trouble when their parents caught them smoking, but probably none of them faced consequences as grave as Archduchess Mathilde of Austria.
The daughter of Archduke Albert and Princess Hildegard of Bavaria, Mathilde was born in Vienna in 1849. As members of the House of Habsburg, the family was quite close to Empress Elisabeth of Austria, and often resided at her palace, Schloss Hetzendorf. That is where Mathilde met her ghastly end in 1867, when she was only 18 years old.
The young archduchess was a smoker. Her father had forbidden the practice but, like any other teenager, she disobeyed. On the evening of May 22, the family was getting ready to go to the theater but, before they left, Mathilde thought she could sneak in a quick smoke. As she stood by a window with her cousin, Archduke Friedrich, she saw her father approach, so she quickly tried to hide the cigarette behind her back.
Unfortunately for Mathilde, her dress was made mainly out of gauze, a highly flammable material that quickly went up in flames. In front of her shocked family, the archduchess caught fire and, by the time it was extinguished, she had suffered serious burns on her back, neck, and arms. She died of her injuries a few weeks later.
Arius was a 3rd century Roman theologian who gained notoriety in his time for his Christian doctrine of Arianism, which asserted that Jesus Christ was separate and subordinate to God. Following the First Council of Nicaea which took place in 325 AD, this idea went against the official stance of the Church, so Arius was deemed a heretic and he and his followers were exiled.
Despite the punishment, Arius didn’t disappear into obscurity, and he kept preaching his doctrine for over a decade, until he finally passed away in 336 AD. His death was particularly gruesome as the theologian, basically, suffered from gastrointestinal problems which resulted in a violent and explosive evacuation of his bowels. Whether or not this truly happened, we cannot say, but the death of Arius was recorded in graphic detail because the Church used it as an example of divine punishment for heresy. Here is the account as presented by Socrates of Constantinople who, just for the sake of clarity, was different from the famous Socrates, who lived 800 years earlier:
“It was then Saturday, and Arius was expecting to assemble with the church on the day following: but divine retribution overtook his daring criminalities. For going out of the imperial palace, attended by a crowd of Eusebian partisans like guards, he paraded proudly through the midst of the city, attracting the notice of all the people. As he approached the place called Constantine’s Forum, where the column of porphyry is erected, a terror arising from the remorse of conscience seized Arius, and with the terror a violent relaxation of the bowels: he therefore enquired whether there was a convenient place near, and being directed to the back of Constantine’s Forum, he hastened thither. Soon after, a faintness came over him, and together with the evacuations his bowels protruded, followed by a copious hemorrhage, and the descent of the smaller intestines: moreover portions of his spleen and liver were brought off in the effusion of blood, so that he almost immediately died.”