These 10 Americans All Died in Tragic, But Entirely Avoidable Accidents
These 10 Americans All Died in Tragic, But Entirely Avoidable Accidents

These 10 Americans All Died in Tragic, But Entirely Avoidable Accidents

Larry Holzwarth - February 4, 2018

Accidents are something that happen to other people we tell ourselves, but then we are often shocked when they do. In life some attain a stature which surpasses the average person, and accidental death is beneath their status. Sometimes its just the strangeness of the circumstances. Some lived lives defying death in situations requiring inspiring courage, with danger all around them as a matter of course. Some helped inspire and encourage the public to face trying times and situations by their own selflessness, to have them taken away by the same dangers everyone faces every day is almost unimaginable.

But it happens, and it serves as a reminder that the loftiest among us, the heroes who have led others, or who have entertained us, are as human as any other, and are subject to the same vagaries of fate and luck. Some have been taken in accidents which were a result of their own folly, some from the folly of others involved, simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time. For some, the idea of their being susceptible to something as mundane as an accident has led to theories of conspiracy, based more on the disbelief that someone so above the common herd could die in an accident than evidence of foul play.

These 10 Americans All Died in Tragic, But Entirely Avoidable Accidents
Will Rogers stands on the wing of a seaplane in Alaska shortly before it crashed, causing the deaths of Rogers and pilot Wiley Post. Library of Congress

Here are ten examples of famous accidental deaths which have shocked Americans in history.

These 10 Americans All Died in Tragic, But Entirely Avoidable Accidents
George S Patton in his M3A Scout car in 1943. US Army

George S. Patton

Most Americans know George Patton from the George C. Scott portrayal in the motion picture Patton and other media portrayals of the general, who throughout his life and career was a controversial, polarizing figure. During his lifetime Patton was an Olympic athlete, competing in the modern pentathlon, where he finished fifth overall in 1912. He studied at both the Virginia Military Institute and the United States Military Academy at West Point, dealing with the challenging curriculum at both schools despite being seriously dyslexic.

He learned to lead his men from the front early in his military career while serving under Black Jack Pershing, a habit he continued throughout his career. He was part of the first attack using vehicles powered by engines during the expedition against Pancho Villa, from then on his career focused on mechanized warfare. During World War I he started the US Army’s Light Tank School in France and later led the First Provisional Tank Brigade in combat on the Western Front. Wounded in the leg in 1918, Patton came out of the First World War with the reputation of fearlessness.

Between the wars he added to his reputation by saving several children from drowning following a yachting accident. He was instrumental in the development of the US Army’s armored doctrine, took part in the dispersal of the Bonus Army of veterans (under MacArthur, of who’s conduct he disapproved) and also began his long relationship with the press. During the Second World War his exploits became famous through the reports about his actions as well as the actions themselves, and he became highly controversial. In combat, his troops were successful, and his leadership was seldom questioned, though his attitudes towards his superiors often was.

Following the war in Europe Patton requested duty against the Japanese, which was rebuffed by George C. Marshall. Patton was assigned as Military Governor of Bavaria, again creating controversy from his remarks and actions regarding the denazification of Germany. After Eisenhower relieved him he was assigned command of a unit designated to write the history of the war in Europe. While in command and awaiting a departure for leave date the car in which he was riding in the back seat collided with an Army truck on December 8 1945, and Patton’s neck was broken. He died on December 21 and was buried in Europe.

The idea that one of America’s foremost soldiers could die from a slow speed auto accident triggered disbelief among some, who postulated that the American OSS wanted him dead and staged the accident, or that the Russians poisoned him while he was hospitalized, with American knowledge, and other theories which fail to take into account the extent of his injuries and the inability of then medical science to stabilize him. Death from pulmonary edema, which coupled with congestive heart failure is what killed Patton, was common for those paralyzed from the neck down, as he was.

These 10 Americans All Died in Tragic, But Entirely Avoidable Accidents
Will Rogers was one of the most famous men in the world at the time of his death in 1935. Library of Congress

Will Rogers

Will Rogers was by the mid-1930s one of the highest paid film stars in Hollywood, a wit noted for his homespun adages and commentary, a widely read syndicated columnist, a sage political observer, and one of the most recognized men in the United States. He was a former cowboy and rodeo star, demonstrating roping skills which amazed his audiences. Rogers’ fame extended to Europe, and during his career he performed around the world, including Asia. He once ran a mock campaign for President. He was a radio star, a film star, a highly regarded and attended lecturer, a widely read writer, and internationally loved.

Rogers was famous for acerbic comments regarding politics and politicians, skewering those of both political parties, and claimed that as the member of no organized political party he was a Democrat. One observation he made during his own mock campaign for President in 1928, in which he promised that he would celebrate winning by resigning, remains relevant. He ran his campaign by writing both questions and answers in Life Magazine and to a question asking how voters should consider a candidate’s image he wrote, “I hope there is some sane people who will appreciate dignity and not showmanship in their choice for the presidency.”

In 1935 Rogers was an aviation fan, having observed the progress being made by Europe during his trips there. He was a friend of Charles Lindbergh, and in 1935 he began visiting Wiley Post, another famed aviator, at the airport in Burbank where Post was modifying an airplane. Post was combining the wing from one Lockheed aircraft with the fuselage of another, seeking a long distance seaplane which would be suitable for flying mail from the United States to Russia, using a water landing at various stops.

Rogers was interested in Alaska, still largely frontier at the time, as a possible source of material for his lectures and newspaper columns. He asked Post if he could accompany him to Alaska, writing columns along the route, and Post agreed. In early August the pair left for Alaska, making several stops across the then US territory. On August 15 they were bound for Point Barrow from Fairbanks when inclement weather forced Post to touch down to ascertain their whereabouts. Upon taking off again the airplane crashed and both men were killed.

The loss of one of America’s most skilled and admired aviators and its arguably most beloved celebrity in the same accident was a shock which roiled the public. Rogers was eulogized across the nation in newspapers, magazines, newsreels, and radio broadcasts. Aviation experts still argue over what caused the fatal accident, but the public mourning over the death of Will Rogers was beyond debate. He is memorialized across the United States.

These 10 Americans All Died in Tragic, But Entirely Avoidable Accidents
William Holden and his wife Ardis with then actor Ronald Reagan and his bride Nancy. Wikimedia

William Holden

William Holden was an actor whose career spanned over four decades, appearing in films such as The Bridge on the River Kwai, Stalag 17, The Horse Soldiers, and The Towering Inferno. During his career he was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actor three times during his career, winning the award for Stalag 17. Later in his career he won an Emmy Award for Best Actor in a Television Movie for his role in The Blue Knight.

When later President Ronald Reagan married Nancy Davis in 1952, Holden was his Best Man. During his career Holden was linked romantically with several women, including Audrey Hepburn, with whom he co-starred in Sabrina, and later actress Stephanie Powers, in whom he sparked an interest in animal rights and wildlife conservation. Holden was a managing partner of an animal preserve in Africa, the Mount Kenya Safari Club, which he helped found in 1959.

Holden was also a noted heavy drinker throughout his career. In the early days of his success the naturally shy actor drank before going to work, and during the 1950s, the years of his greatest success as an actor, he began drinking on set, usually continuing after shooting long into the night. As his drinking increased the number of his successes began to wane, and the resulting insecurities and frustrations led to ever more drinking. The heavy consumption began to affect his looks and his availability for the types of roles which had made him famous.

Holden was a notoriously private person, and had little interaction with his neighbors, so it took several days of his not being seen nor heard from before the manager of the building in which he lived investigated his absence. He was found dead on the floor of his apartment, partially robed, with bloody tissues on the floor surrounding the body and a gash on his forehead. The linen on the nearby bed was likewise bloody, and there was a large amount of blood on the floor. Several empty beer bottles and a partially empty bottle of vodka were in the apartment as well.

It was the determination of the medical examiner that Holden had tripped over a throw rug and hit his head on a nearby night table with sufficient force to drive the table into the wall and damage the plaster. Attempting to stop the bleeding he had passed out from the loss of blood, and died from exsanguination from the wound which resulted from the fall. There was a telephone within reach, leading to the theory that Holden was not aware of the seriousness of the accident. He was 63.

These 10 Americans All Died in Tragic, But Entirely Avoidable Accidents
John Purroy Mitchel, center in top hat, reviews troops with General Leonard Wood. Wikimedia

John Purroy Mitchel

John P. Mitchel was only 34 years of age when he was elected Mayor of New York in 1913, the second youngest mayor in the city’s history after Hugh Grant. A Republican, Mitchel entered office determined to clean up the corruption and undue influence in the city government and what he viewed as a corrupt police department. New York had endured increases in all forms of crime in the city, and Mitchel believed this to be the result of protection schemes involving numerous gangs in the city bribing officers to look the other way.

His appointment of an aggressive police commissioner – Arthur Woods – and his efforts to bring New York’s government into the twentieth century in terms of administration and management techniques brought results. Crime was reduced due to the removal of corruption within the police force and the modernization of crime fighting. Arrests went up and the rates of several crimes within the city dropped during Mitchel’s term as mayor, leading to an attempt on his life. Mitchel was known to carry a gun while serving as Mayor, which did not prevent an attempted assassination in 1914, in which a bystander and the city’s corporate counsel were slightly injured.

Although he was successful in revamping the police force he did not do as well with the city’s educational system and his popularity began to wane. The forces of Tammany Hall also worked against him, and his strong advocacy of military preparedness and universal conscription during the months preceding American entry into World War I were not well received by the majority of voters. By the time he ran for reelection in 1917 the United States was at war, but the patriotic fervor did not bring back the voters he had already alienated.

He was defeated in the Republican primary for mayoral candidates in 1917, and ran for reelection as a Fusion Party candidate, with a pro-war anti-German campaign. He drew more votes than the Republican candidate but lost the mayoralty to the Tammany backed Democrat John Hylan. Mitchel joined the newly formed Air Service after leaving office, receiving the rank of major after completing flight training, and was stationed in Lake Charles, Louisiana for further training in the summer of 1918.

On July 6, 1918 Mitchel was on a training flight when his airplane went into a sudden dive, possibly caused by his flying through a thermal current. Mitchel had not fastened his seat belt and the sudden movement created a lifting sensation similar to that attained at the top of a roller coaster. He was thrown from the plane, falling more than 500 feet to the swamp below. He was buried in the Bronx’s Woodlawn Cemetery five days later.

These 10 Americans All Died in Tragic, But Entirely Avoidable Accidents
The John A. Roebling Suspension Bridge across the Ohio River at Cincinnati in 1907. Library of Congress

John Augustus Roebling

John Roebling was a German born engineer who emigrated to the United States in the 1830s, intent on establishing a Utopian community in Pennsylvania. The community he started was named Saxonburg, in Butler County Pennsylvania. Roebling tried his hand at agrarian pursuits, found them unsatisfying, and by the end of the 1830s was working surveying railroad routes. Roebling had trained as an engineer in his native Prussia, and in the early 1840s he was working in that discipline, manufacturing wire rope in Saxonburg and corresponding with bridge designers.

By the end of the 1840s Roebling was designing and building suspension bridges across canals and rivers, including the first suspension bridge over the Monongahela River at Pittsburgh. In 1851 he began construction of a railroad bridge over the Niagara River, connecting the New York Central Railroad with Canada’s Great Western. This project was still underway when he began the construction of a stone anchored suspension bridge across the Ohio River at Cincinnati. Roebling’s bridges were considered engineering marvels and although the work on several of his projects was halted due to the Civil War, his business was financially successful.

In 1867 the bridge at Cincinnati was completed (it still stands and carries automobile and pedestrian traffic between Cincinnati and Covington, Kentucky) and Roebling began design work on what would be his masterwork, a suspension bridge, modeled after the Cincinnati bridge, to connect Brooklyn and Manhattan. The Cincinnati Bridge was the longest suspension bridge in the world when it was completed, and Roebling believed that the engineering principles used in it would work for his Brooklyn Bridge as well.

Roebling was surveying possible sites for the spot where the Brooklyn Bridge would span the East River in late June 1869. While at Fulton Ferry Roebling was standing on the dock when a ferry arrived and his foot was crushed by the ferry against the pier. The injury to his right foot was severe enough to require the amputation of several toes, which Roebling insisted be done without the use of anesthetic, which he distrusted. Against the advice of his doctors, he elected to use a fad curative of the day known as the water cure to recover.

The water cure consisted of the continuous flow of water across an injury or open wound. Roebling rapidly developed tetanus around the damaged tissue, but refused any further treatment by doctors, and within less than a month he was dead from the infection which ensued from the accident. Accidents would take many more lives during the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge he envisioned, the construction of which was taken over by his son, Washington Roebling. His grandson Washington Roebling II would die in another accident, that of the Titanic striking an iceberg in 1912.

These 10 Americans All Died in Tragic, But Entirely Avoidable Accidents
A publicity still of actor Jack Cassidy taken in the 1960s. CBS Televison

Jack Cassidy

Actor and singer Jack Cassidy was a major performer on television in the 1960s and 1970s. The father of actor/singers David Cassidy and Shaun Cassidy, Jack first made his name on Broadway, winning a Tony Award for his role in the play She Loves Me, which was the basis for the Jimmy Stewart film, The Shop Around the Corner; the musical In the Good Old Summertime; and the Tom Hanks/Meg Ryan film You’ve Got Mail. Cassidy made but a handful of motion pictures for theatrical release, but appeared in several dozen television productions as a guest star.

He specialized in playing suave characters, often as the villain, and did occasional voice over work. His two marriages, the first to Evelyn Ward (mother of David Cassidy) and Shirley Jones (mother of Shaun) both ended in divorce. Years later David Cassidy reported in his autobiography that his father was bisexual, Shirley Jones later confirmed her stepson’s statements, writing in her own memoirs that Jack had numerous affairs with people of both sexes, and listing Cole Porter as one his male lovers.

Cassidy was bipolar, and reports of his behavior have described him being discovered by his neighbors standing on his front lawn naked, watering the grass from a garden hose. In December of that same year, 1974, he was briefly admitted to a psychiatric facility; it was then that he revealed to his recently divorced wife, Shirley Jones, that he had previously been diagnosed with bipolar disorder. She later wrote that he once claimed to be Jesus Christ.

He was also a noted drinker of great proportion, and although evidently disciplined when working, was prone to drunken binges when he was not. Throughout the early 1970s he was on television as a guest star in sitcoms and dramas, mysteries and westerns. He later claimed that the role of Ted Baxter on The Mary Tyler Moore Show was originally written for him and he turned it down, though he did appear on the show as the inept newsman’s brother.

On the night of December 11, 1976 Cassidy drank at several bars in Hollywood before arriving home alone. By all accounts Cassidy was drunk when he got home. He passed out on his couch while smoking a cigarette, causing a fire beginning in the couch upon which he sat. The blaze wasn’t discovered until just after six in the morning, at which time Cassidy’s body was found in the doorway to the apartment, charred beyond recognition. He was 49 years old at the time of the fatal accident.

These 10 Americans All Died in Tragic, But Entirely Avoidable Accidents
The charred Apollo Command Module following the fire which killed three astronauts. NASA

Gus Grissom, Edward White, and Roger Chafee

Grissom, White, And Chafee were the crew selected by NASA to fly the first Apollo mission in 1967, after years of success with the Mercury and Gemini programs. Although Chafee had not yet flown in space, the other two had spaceflight experience, with Grissom having flown in both the Gemini and Mercury programs. Edward White had, during Gemini, been the first American to have left his space capsule while in orbit, called by NASA an extravehicular activity or EVA, and by the press and other media a spacewalk.

Chafee was no stranger to high stress flights however. During the years leading up to and throughout the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, Chafee was one of the pilots of U2 aircraft which detected the missiles and other Soviet activity on the island. Still Chafee was only selected for Apollo One after the original choice, Donn Eisele, injured a shoulder in training and was forced to undergo surgery. Chafee was a Navy pilot prior to astronaut training, White and Grissom flew for the United States Air Force.

The Apollo One mission was to have been a test of the spacecraft lasting up to two weeks, depending on system and astronaut performance. Rather than testing the massive Saturn V launch vehicle, which would be used for a lunar launch, the test was to have used the smaller Saturn IB to place the Apollo Command and Service module in earth orbit. The test did not include a Lunar Module either. The main purpose of the flight was to work on communications and tracking systems, and crew living conditions in the previously never manned Command Module.

Various communications problems occurred during on-ground simulations and tests at Cape Canaveral. The crew had expressed concerns with the Command Module to NASA and to the prime contractor, and the mission fell behind schedule. Originally scheduled for late 1966, delays in development and problems in testing pushed the flight back to a scheduled third week of February 1967. On January 21, 1967 the crew was in the capsule, in their space suits, performing a test when one of the astronauts, likely Roger Chafee, reported the presence of a fire. Within seconds an explosion cracked the capsule from within, and the heat prevented personnel outside the capsule from opening the hatch.

All three of the astronauts were killed, the first fatalities for Americans in a vehicle intended for space flight, and although it occurred on the ground the American public was stunned at what was perceived as America’s first failure in its space program. NASA’s image of infallibility was shattered. The accident was caused by an electrical short which triggered the fire, fed by the pure oxygen atmosphere. All three astronauts were badly burnt, but the burns were found to have occurred after death from asphyxiation. The heat was great enough to have melted portions of their space suits.

These 10 Americans All Died in Tragic, But Entirely Avoidable Accidents
From the mind of Thomas Midgley came leaded gasoline and Freon, as well as the lifting device which killed him. Wikimedia

Thomas Midgley

Thomas Midgley was an American engineer, chemist, and inventor who over the course of his lifetime was awarded over 100 patents. Midgley worked for most of his career at the Dayton Research Laboratories, which later became the Dayton Electronics Laboratories (Delco), under inventor, engineer, and entrepreneur Charles F. Kettering. The Dayton Research Laboratories were a subsidiary of the General Motors Corporation.

Midgley gained fame beginning in the late 1960s, when it became apparent that lead in the air was largely the result of automobile exhaust emissions, created from burning leaded gasoline. In the early 1920s Midgley was tasked with finding a way to cure the common knocking created by the internal combustion engine, and he discovered that the addition of tetraethyllead to gasoline prevented engine knock. Midgley and Kettering received a patent for the fuel additive, which they called simply Ethyl, and Midgley took an extended vacation shortly after to cure himself of lead poisoning. Leaded gasoline remained in common use for over five decades.

Midgley further contributed to the well-being of the earth and its people when he was assigned to a team to work with GMs Frigidaire division on a better compound to be used for air conditioning and refrigeration. Refrigerants of the time were usually ammonia, propane, or chloromethane based. All were toxic, they could explode or cause fires if leaked and a safer alternative was in demand. Midgley’s team developed what they called Freon, the first chlorofluorocarbon, or CFC. CFC’s damages to earth’s ozone layer would be discovered decades later.

For his work Midgley was granted, in addition to his many patents, numerous awards and recognition, including the Priestly Medal, the highest recognition of the American Chemical Society. In 1940 the inventor contracted polio, at the time a disease for which there was no vaccination and no cure. Midgley recovered from the initial onset of the disease but was disabled. He was 51 at the time.

Wanting to retain some form of independence, the inventor designed and had built a system of cables and pulleys over his bed which would allow him to pull himself out of bed unaided. This system worked for a time, but in November of 1944 Midgley accidentally became entangled in the cables and while struggling to get free he strangled himself with his invention. He was 55 at the time of his death.

These 10 Americans All Died in Tragic, But Entirely Avoidable Accidents
Sonny Bono, with actor Telly Savalas performing on The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour in 1973. CBS Television

Sonny Bono

Sonny Bono was an American singer, songwriter, actor, performer, comic, and politician who achieved fame as one half of the pop duo Sonny and Cher. With his wife Cher he had several top forty hits in the early and mid-1960s. By the end of the decade their popularity as a duo on records had faded and Sonny reinvented the couple as a television variety show host and hostess, on The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour. In 1975 the couple divorced, a year after their variety show had ended, but they returned to television together in 1976 with another variety show.

Throughout the 1970s Sonny appeared in several television shows, usually in small roles, and he appeared in the comedy film sequel Airplane II. Many of his appearances were on programs which featured a different ensemble cast each week, such as The Love Boat and Fantasy Island. He also occasionally appeared as himself on sitcoms. Late in the decade he began to explore opportunities away from show business, and it was this which led to his political career.

When he tried to open a restaurant in Palm Springs, California he encountered what he described as bureaucratic incompetence and unnecessary and repetitive regulations and permits. Frustrated, he campaigned for the office of Mayor of Palm Springs, winning the office and serving as Mayor from 1988-1992, a single term. He attempted to obtain nomination as a Republican to run for the US Senate in 1992 and when that failed he ran for the House of Representatives from California and won in 1994.

In Congress Bono applied himself to the extension of copyright protections, and although the law was passed in the House it was never sent to the Senate floor. The Senate would pass its own version after Bono’s death. He also dedicated himself to environmental concerns. Bono sponsored or co-sponsored several bills with his interest primarily directed towards commerce and government operations. He served on several committees, including the House Judiciary Committee, and told The New York Times that he favored cutting the budget for the National Endowment for the Arts, having never needed subsidies for his own artistic career.

In January 1998 Bono was on a ski trip near South Lake Tahoe, at Heavenly Ski Resort. He was on the Nevada side downhill run when he hit a tree. According to the Douglas County Sheriff he suffered massive head injuries and death was immediate. Nobody reported witnessing the accident, and Bono’s body was found hours later in a stand of trees just off the ski trail.

These 10 Americans All Died in Tragic, But Entirely Avoidable Accidents
A ticket for a screening of the staged bout between Muhammad Ali and Rocky Marciano. Wikimedia

Rocky Marciano

The movie character Rocky Balboa created and portrayed by actor Sylvester Stallone drew a great deal from Rocky Marciano. The character kept a photograph of Marciano on the wall of his apartment and later received a boxing glove necklace from his trainer which had been originally owned by Marciano. Rocky Marciano held the heavy weight title of the world from 1952-1956. Years after his retirement Marciano and Muhammad Ali staged a filmed fight based on a computer simulation of what would happen if the two had ever faced each other in the ring. In two versions of the film each fighter won.

Marciano’s style was one of a brawler, throwing heavy punches and missing frequently, another trait shared with the character Rocky Balboa, at least in the earlier films of the Rocky franchise. Marciano was undefeated as a professional heavyweight, winning all 49 of his fights, 43 of them by knockouts. Among his opponents was an aging Joe Louis, Jersey Joe Walcott, Ezzard Charles, and Archie Moore.

Marciano was a veteran, serving in the United States Army during the Second World War. He began his amateur boxing career in the Army, and in 1946 won the Armed Forces Amateur Boxing Tournament. After he retired from boxing he appeared on the television show Combat which depicted US troops in Europe during the war. He hosted a televised boxing program for a time and served as a referee and commentator for several boxing matches, both amateur and professional. He also sometimes worked as a wrestling referee.

In his entire professional career Marciano was knocked down only twice, once by Jersey Joe Walcott, and the other time by Archie Moore. Both times Marciano got up and went on to win the fight. Of the six fights he won by decision only one of them was a split decision, meaning one of the judges believed his opponent had won. Despite his impressive record, few boxing experts consider him to be the greatest of all time, largely due to the paucity of great fighters during his career, with many of the then best known fighters near the end of their careers.

On the day before what would have been his 46th birthday Marciano was a passenger in a small plane heading to Des Moines, Iowa. They were flying through bad weather at night and the pilot of the aircraft had little experience in the conditions. Attempting to land at Newton, Iowa the aircraft came down well short of the runway, hitting a tree. The pilot, another passenger and Marciano were killed instantly. The NTSB attributed the cause of the crash to the inexperience of the pilot.

 

Sources and where to learn more:

Patton: A Genius for War by Carlo D’Este

Patton: The Man Behind the Legend by Martin Blumenson

Adventure Marked Life of Humorist (obituary) The New York Times August 17, 1935

Weekly Articles by Will Rogers. The Will Rogers Museum

William Holden on IMDb

William Holden on Turner Classic Movies

The New York Times July 7, 1918. (John Purroy Mitchel)

The Great Bridge by David McCullough

Shirley Jones: A Memoir by Shirley Jones.

NASA website

Sonny Bono Biography

Sonny Bono Killed in Skiing Accident – CNN

A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson

Sports Illustrated Archives.

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