More Bizarre and Mysterious Deaths from History


In the past, we examined some of the strangest ways in which people had met their ends. Truth is that we’ve barely scratched the surface on this topic. History is still full of extraordinary expirations and peculiar passings and today we are going to look at ten more of these unusual cases.

10. The Sweet Kiss of Death

The story of Frank Hayes would make for a good sports drama with a twist ending that nobody would see coming. 

Hayes was a jockey from Brooklyn who was either 22 or 35 years old based on differing contemporary reports. On June 4, 1923, he rode a horse called Sweet Kiss at New York’s Belmont Park. To say that he was the biggest underdog would still be an understatement. For you see, Frank was not actually a jockey. He was a horse trainer and stableman by trade, but on that fateful day, he filled in as a stand-in jockey. 

It was his first race ever. Of course, nobody expected him to win, but the unthinkable happened. Frank and Sweet Kiss came in first place, beating the 20-to-1 odds against them. 

After the horse crossed the finish line, people ran up to congratulate the winning duo. At that point, Hayes tumbled over the horse and fell down to the ground. He was dead. He had suffered a heart attack during the race but somehow managed to stay in the saddle. It wasn’t until they came to a stop that his body fell over. To make matters even more impressive, the race he took part in was a steeplechase, meaning that there were obstacles along the track that the horses had to jump over.

At first, people thought that all the excitement proved too much for Frank’s heart, but the most likely culprit was the drastic weight loss measures he had undertaken to drop over 10 lbs in just a few days.

9. The Bearded Burgomaster

Braunau am Inn is a little town in Austria that straddles the border with Germany. Today, it can only be remembered for one thing – being the birthplace of Adolf Hitler. But go back a few hundred years and it had other claims to fame. Walk around town for a bit and you will see the carved relief of a man with a very, very long beard.

That man was Hans Steininger, and he served as town mayor or burgomaster during the mid 16th century. According to him, at least, he had the longest beard in the world at that point. It was over four-and-a-half feet long and Steininger usually rolled it up and carried it in a leather pouch so as not to drag it on the ground. 

On the night of September 28, 1567, he forgot to do that, though, because a fire had caused a great panic in town. Steininger was running around chaotically with his hirsute accessory flowing wildly. He tripped on his beard and fell down a flight of stairs, dying from a broken neck.

The townspeople were so fond of Steininger’s facial hair that, after his death, they cut off the “murder weapon,” if we may call it that, and preserved it. Even today, it is still on display at the local museum in Braunau.

8. The Fatal Flaw of the Founding Father

If you ever needed convincing that self-surgery is a bad idea, then look no further than Gouverneur Morris, one of the Founding Fathers of the United States. He has been hailed as the “Penman of the Constitution” for writing the preamble to the document starting with the famous words “We the People…”

Morris died on November 6, 1816, following an infection and injuries he sustained while trying to clear a blockage in his urinary tract using a piece of whalebone. That’s right. He took the whalebone and shoved it up his own urethra during the impromptu medical procedure. Suffice to say that it didn’t work.

The question that remains is “Why did he do it?” Medical catheters existed back then. They were flexible and soft and, while still an unpleasant experience, they were definitely better than a piece of whalebone. Perhaps it was embarrassment that prevented him from seeking professional help or, perhaps, the pain was so intense that he could not wait. Either way, it proved to be a poor decision and only ensured that Morris spent his last moments in far more agonizing pain.

7. The Killer Staff

Another man who decided that he knew better than medical professionals was Jean-Baptiste Lully, a 17th century composer in the service of King Louis XIV of France. 

In January 1687, the king had recovered from surgery and Lully decided that it was cause for celebration. He organized a performance of one of his most famous works called Te Deum. During the show, Lully did not conduct using a short, thin baton like you see modern conductors use. Instead, he employed a long staff. Caught in the heat of the moment, Lully smashed his toe with the point of the staff during the performance.

The injury was so bad that the court physicians wanted to amputate his toe, but the composer refused, allegedly because he thought that he would not have been able to dance anymore. Instead, he carried on and endured the pain. The injury did not go away, though. Instead, gangrene set in as the infection spread throughout the body, killing Lully two months later.

6. The Blind Botanist

David Douglas was a pioneering Scottish botanist primarily remembered for his multiple expeditions to North America. He was the first to introduce into cultivation numerous plants found only on this continent, primarily pine trees such as the Douglas fir which carries his name.

His last expedition took him to Hawaii, where he was keen to explore the Mauna Kea volcano and its surroundings. Even though he was only 35 years old, his eyesight had degenerated badly. Douglas was blind in one eye and losing vision in the other and this may have contributed to his demise. 

The botanist died while exploring on July 12, 1834, when he fell into a pit trap designed to capture wild cattle. The fall didn’t kill him, but the bull that was also trapped inside the pit did. It remains unclear if the large animal fell in later and landed on Douglas or if it was already inside and proceeded to trample him out of anger.

5. How Not to Paint a Goddess

Is it possible to die from laughing too much? Albeit a very rare instance, it is, indeed, a possibility, as a fit of laughter can bring on cardiac arrest, or asphyxiation, or a loss of consciousness called syncope. Chrysippus, the ancient Greek philosopher, is usually presented as the most famous case of this bizarre hazard. Allegedly, he laughed himself to death after seeing a donkey eating figs and jocularly suggesting that it should be given some wine to wash them down.

However, there is supposedly an even older example which dates back to the 5th century BC – that of Zeuxis the painter. 

We can’t tell you much about his work since none has survived. However, we can tell you that, according to legend, he was commissioned by an old woman to paint a portrait of Aphrodite. More than that, though, the customer insisted that she pose as the model for the goddess. And so Zeuxis painted a painting where Aphrodite, the very embodiment of love and beauty, was portrayed as an old woman.

When he was finished, the artist took a step back to admire his work and, upon seeing it completed, burst into a fit of laughter that caused his demise. Some then proclaimed his death as punishment from the gods for mocking Aphrodite.

4. A Foul Deed

Edmund II was King of England for only 222 days, but it was still enough to earn him the moniker “Ironside” for the valor and bravery with which he fought the invading Danes led by Cnut the Great. In the end, Cnut was triumphant and, following the Battle of Assandun, the two sides signed a peace treaty heavily in the Dane’s favor. According to the terms, all the lands north of the River Thames now belonged to Cnut, while Edmund Ironside kept the territory south of the river, with the understanding that those lands would also go to the Danish prince after Edmund’s death.

Cnut did not have to wait long. On November 30, 1016, just a few weeks after the signing of the treaty, Edmund was dead. Now, there are several differing accounts of his death, but we are going to go with that of 12th century historian Henry of Huntingdon because it is the most original and disturbing.

In this case, King Edmund was assassinated by the son of an alderman named Edric. With the help of his father, the killer managed to conceal himself inside the foul, noxious pit below the royal privy. In the night, the king went to obey the call of nature and, as soon as he sat down, the assassin started stabbing him from below. Supposedly, he thrust the dagger so hard that it remained fixed in the king’s bowels.

There is some karmic retribution, though. Afterwards, Edric the alderman went to King Cnut and informed him of his deeds. As it turned out, this was a bad move as Cnut had been impressed by his former foe and did not appreciate what had been done to him. As reward, he told Edric that he would be exalted higher than all the nobles in England. By that, of course, Cnut meant that he would be decapitated and his head placed on a pole on the highest battlement of the tower.

3. The Sausage Vat Murder

During the late 19th century, Adolph Luetgert became known as the “Sausage King of Chicago” because he ran a business called the A.L. Luetgert Sausage & Packing Company. His personal life wasn’t doing so well, though. He and his wife, Louisa, fought often and were always at odds with one another. Allegedly, Luetgert had his eye on a rich widow he wanted to marry and, consequently, on May 1, 1897, Louisa disappeared. 

Luetgert told police that his wife ran away with another man, although it probably won’t surprise you to find out that he murdered her. The only problem he still faced was getting rid of her body.

Now, we know what you’re thinking. Here is a man who needed to dispose of a corpse and who also had unrestricted access to a sausage factory. The story almost writes itself, but the truth was not quite as gory as you would expect. Adolph Luetgert did not turn his wife into sausages, even though this became a popular local legend. Instead, he dissolved her body in a vat of caustic potash, or potassium hydroxide to give it its chemical name.

Fortunately, he did not do a very thorough job of cleaning up. Police were able to find bits of clothing, small bone fragments, strands of hair, and even a gold ring engraved with the initials “L.L.” Adolph Luetgert was arrested and charged with his wife’s murder. The trial, besides being quite notorious in its day, was also important in American history as it marked one of the earliest instances where a forensic expert (in this case, anthropologist George Amos Dorsey) was brought in to give testimony in a murder investigation.

2. Daniel in a Modern Lion’s Den

English priest Harold Davidson was at the center of controversy in the early 1930s when he stood accused of multiple charges of immorality stemming from his time spent with prostitutes and homeless girls whom he, allegedly, was trying to save. Davidson was defrocked in 1932 but, since then, his defenders have tried to restore his good name by claiming that he was “unfairly vilified.”

Whether they are right or wrong is actually irrelevant to us at the moment. What we are concerned with is Davidson’s life after he was kicked out of the church. He spent the next few years in Blackpool performing at a sideshow on the waterfront. In 1937, he received what he considered to be a better offer to join an animal show in the resort town of Skegness.

Davidson performed an act billed as “Daniel in a modern lion’s den.” It consisted of him giving a sermon outside a lion’s cage and, afterwards, entering the cage and spending some time with the beasts, protected only by a 16-year-old female liontamer.

The act was popular but, eventually, the predictable happened. On July 28, 1937, Davidson was mauled by a lion. He gave his usual speech and then entered a cage with two lions, Toto and Freddie. One of the animals knocked the priest over, grabbed him by the neck and dragged him around the cage as thousands of people in attendance watched helplessly. Some said the lion became agitated due to the cracking of the whip. Others claimed the former priest accidentally stepped on his tail. Either way, Davidson was taken to the hospital, but he died of his injuries a couple of days later. 

There is an apocryphal story which says that Davidson’s last request was to quickly inform the London press of his demise so that his death would make the first edition newspapers.

1. The Great Whiskey Fire of Dublin

On June 18, 1875, the city of Dublin experienced one of its greatest disasters when part of it was set on fire by a raging river of flaming whiskey. 

The source of the blaze were two adjacent businesses called Reid’s malt house and Malone’s bonded warehouse where a few thousand casks of whiskey were stored. When the flames reached the wooden barrels, they caused them to burst open, simultaneously lighting the liquid contents and sending tens of thousands of gallons of whiskey down the streets of Dublin.

The blaze primarily affected a working-class area of the city known as the Liberties. The fire brigade was unable to use water to put out the fire so, instead, they kept on piling large amounts of manure and sand in its way to staunch the flow of the scorching river. When it was all said and done, anywhere between 4 and 13 people died, and dozens more were sent to the hospital.

Here is the unusual part: in this case, not a single victim died due to burning injuries or smoke inhalation. Instead, they all succumbed to alcohol poisoning. As the river of whiskey flowed and the fire brigade was working to extinguish the flames, the people of Dublin came rushing in with pots, buckets, pans, boots, and every empty receptacle they could find to fill them up with the intoxicating liquid.

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