Historical Unusual Deaths: 10 Bizarre Deaths Weirder Than the Movies
10 Historical Deaths Weirder Than the Movies

10 Historical Deaths Weirder Than the Movies

Khalid Elhassan - July 4, 2018

10 Historical Deaths Weirder Than the Movies
Eleazar Avaran’s exploit at the Battle of Beth Zechariah, 162 BC. Wikimedia

Hero Kills War Elephant, Dies When it Falls On Him

Not that many people shuffle off the mortal coil in such a remarkable way that it ends up getting mentioned in the Bible, but Eleazar Avaran managed to pull that off in 162 BC. Eleazar, whose death is described in 1 Maccabees, was the younger brother of Judah Maccabee, who led the 167 – 160 BC Maccabean Revolt against the Seleucid Empire.

The revolt erupted when Antiochus IV, the Seleucid king, issued a series of decrees banning Jewish religious practices and ordering the worship of Zeus instead. Understandably, that did not sit well with the Jews, and particularly not with Mattathias the Hasmonean, a rural Jewish priest and the father of Eleazar and Judah Maccabee. He sparked the uprising by killing a Hellenized Jew who sacrificed to Greek idols, in violation of the First and Second Commandments – although in killing him, Mattathias probably ran afoul of the Sixth Commandment. The priest then fled into the wilderness with his five sons and began a guerrilla campaign against the Seleucids. When Mattathias died, his son Judah took over the revolt, continued his father’s guerrilla campaign, and in 164 BC, he succeeded in entering Jerusalem and restoring Jewish worship at its temple – an event commemorated in the feast of Hanukah.

His younger brother Eleazar Avaran’s remarkable death came at the Battle of Beth Zechariah in 162 BC, two years after Judah Maccabee had defeated Judea’s Seleucid overlords and entered Jerusalem. However, the conquest of Jerusalem was incomplete, as a Seleucid garrison retained control of a fortress inside the city, near the Temple Mount. Judah Maccabee besieged that fortress, but a Seleucid army of 50,000 men, accompanied by 30 war elephants, marched to its relief. So Judah lifted the siege and marched out at the head of 20,000 men to meet the foes.

For once, Judah decided against the guerrilla tactics that had won him victories and served him well so far and formed his men to meet the Seleucids head on, in formal battle. It did not work out well. Judah’s forces were outmatched by the Seleucid heavy infantry, professional cavalry, and armored war elephants. The last was particularly terrifying for the defenders, who began to panic and break in fear of the pachyderms.

Seeing the Jewish battle lines unraveling, Eleazar Avaran sought to encourage his comrades by demonstrating the elephants’ vulnerability. So he charged at the biggest elephant he could find, got beneath it, and thrust his spear into its unarmored belly. He killed the beast, but he did not get to enjoy his feat of derring-do for long: the dying elephant collapsed on top of Eleazar and crushed him to death. His comrades did not rush in to try and replicate the feat, and the brave demonstration failed to keep the Jewish army from breaking and taking to its heels soon thereafter.

However, while Eleazar’s tragicomic death was not rewarded with victory, it was rewarded with a mention in the Bible, thus earning him everlasting fame – 1 Maccabees, 6:43-47: “43 When Eleazar Avaran saw that one of the elephants was larger than the others and that it was covered with royal armor, he thought that the king was riding on it. 44 Eleazar sacrificed his life to save his people and to gain eternal fame. 45 He ran boldly toward the elephant, which was in the middle of a battalion of infantry. He rushed forward killing men to the right and left, so that the enemy soldiers fell back before him on both sides. 46 He slipped in under the elephant and stabbed it to death, and it fell on him and killed him. 47 But when the Jews realized how strong the royal army was and how determined it was to fight, they retreated“.

10 Historical Deaths Weirder Than the Movies
Bust of Aeschylus, and his demise. Ancient Origins

Inventor of Tragedy Dies a Tragicomic Death

Aeschylus (525 – 455 BC) was a farmworker in Ancient Athens, when he had a vision in which the god Dionysius ordered him to write plays. So Aeschylus downed his farming implements, gave his notice, and started writing plays. It was a good career move. He ended up becoming Ancient Greece’s greatest playwright, and penned more than 90 plays, most of them winning prizes in Athens’ great drama festivals, and many of them are still performed in theaters around the world to this day. Aeschylus is credited with founding serious drama, and is frequently referred to as the “The Father of Tragedy”.

He practically invented acting, as we understand the term today. Before Aeschylus, theater consisted of a narrator telling a story, interrupted at intervals with a chorus performing a song and dance. He was not satisfied with following in the same rut and simply letting a narrator recount his plays, so Aeschylus used actors instead to play out the story with distinct roles and an exchange of dialogue. He raised production values by using striking imagery and extravagant costumes, and his innovations also included a wheeled platform to change stage scenery. He also used a crane to lift actors in scenes involving flight or descent from the heavens.

Aeschylus’ main themes were conflicts between men and the gods, between the individual and the state, and the inevitability of divine retribution for sins. Back then, playwrights submitted three tragedies for competitions at drama festivals, and Aeschylus became the first to link his three plays into a unified trilogy. His trilogies usually followed a family over several generations, such as the Oresteia, about king Agamemnon during the Trojan War, and his descendants in its aftermath.

He was also a citizen-soldier, and he fought in the Battle of Marathon, in which his brother was killed. He also fought in the naval battles of Artemisium and Salamis, and his wartime experiences found expression in his play, The Persians. For all his literary accomplishments, Aeschylus’ self-penned epitaph did not mention his success as a playwright. Instead, it stated what he was proudest of in his life and what he most wanted to be remembered for: that he had fought at the Battle of Marathon.

Aeschylus’ dramatic life came to a dramatic – or more like tragicomic – end in 455 BC, while he was visiting Gela, in Sicily. He received a prophecy that he would be killed by a falling object, so he left the city and stayed outdoors to avoid that fate. A common theme in Greek drama is the futility of trying to avoid one’s fate, and the dramatist’s attempt to avoid his prophesized fate proved futile as he sat in a field outside Gela. An eagle, clutching a tortoise in its talons and seeking something with which to break the shell, mistook Aeschylus’ bald head for a rock. It dropped the tortoise on his shiny dome, and killed him instantly.

10 Historical Deaths Weirder Than the Movies
Franz Reichelt on the front page of Le Petit Parisien the day after his jump. Le Petit Parisien

Idiot Inventor Jumps From Eiffel Tower to Demonstrate Parachute Suit

Early airplanes were extremely hazardous to their pilots, whose only hope for surviving mechanical troubles or failure was to figure out how to land their airplanes safely. Jumping out was not an option, as the parachute had not yet been invented. So in 1911, the Aero Club de France offered a 10,000 Franc prize to the first inventor of a successful parachute.

That caught the attention of Franz Reichelt (1879 – 1912), a French tailor who had been fascinated with flight since childhood. So he set out to claim the prize by inventing a device that would allow pilots to parachute safely to the ground. Being a tailor, Reichelt gravitated towards a clothing solution, and designed a suit featuring a cloak with a big silken hood. It weighed about 20 lbs and had a surface area of around 340 square feet. Reichelt tested the design several times on dummies thrown out of his fifth-floor apartment, but without success.

Despite the repeated failures, Reichelt requested permission from the Paris police to test his invention on a dummy from the Eiffel Tower. Upon securing a permit, he advertised to the press and public that he would test his parachute suit at 8 AM, February 4th, 1912. That day, Reichelt arrived at the Eiffel Tower wearing his special suit, and was met by a crowd of onlookers, cordoned away from the drop zone.

He ascended the tower, accompanied by journalists, while two film crews positioned themselves, one on the ground to catch the drop from the tower, and another at the tower to film the dummy being thrown. People were perplexed however because they could see no dummy. It gradually dawned upon them that the dummy was Reichelt, who had not brought one, but intended to test his invention by jumping off the tower himself.

Reichelt was stopped by a guard, but he persuaded him to let him proceed. Friends and journalists also tried to talk him out of it, but he was adamant. Climbing the stairs, Reichelt paused to give onlookers a cheery “A bientot!“, before continuing to the tower’s first deck. There, as people shouted at him to stop while the cameras rolled, Reichelt climbed on a stool placed atop a table adjacent to the guardrail and jumped at 8:22 AM.

10 Historical Deaths Weirder Than the Movies
Franz Reichelt’s leap from the Eiffel Tower. Imgur

The suit was a flop. Reichelt fell about 200 feet to his death on the frozen ground below, with an impact that left a six-inch crater and crushed his spine and skull. Unbeknownst to him, just two days earlier, an American inventor had successfully parachuted 225 feet from the Statue of Liberty, using what would become the standard half-spherical backpack parachute.

10 Historical Deaths Weirder Than the Movies
Francois Vatel doing himself in. Le Parisien

French Chef Kills Himself Because He Was Ashamed of a Banquet

Fussy and histrionic French chefs have long been a comedic trope, but few people have embodied that fussiness and histrionics in real life as much as French chef Francois Vatel (1631 – 1671). Born Fritz Karl Watel, later gallicized to Francois Vatel, he apprenticed as a pastry cook, then went to work for Nicolas Fouquet, who became King Louis XIV’s finance minister. Vatel became a celebrated master chef, often credited (inaccurately) for inventing Chantilly cream, and rose within Fouquet’s household to become his majordomo – the highest-ranking employee in an aristocrat’s household.

Vatel supervised the grand inauguration fete of Fouquet’s chateau Vaux-le-Vicomte – now a famous tourist site southeast of Paris – in 1661. He did such a great job, and the inauguration was so splendid, that Louis XIV grew jealous of his finance minister’s display of opulence. So the Sun King fired Fouquet and threw him in jail, charged with maladministration of state funds and lese majeste. Foquet was kept behind bars until his death in 1680.

With his employer in jail, Vatel was out of a job, but he did not remain unemployed for long: throwing a party so great it made Louis XIV jealous and ruined one’s boss was a positive rather than a negative in the French aristocracy’s eyes. Vatel was quickly snatched up by prince Louis II de Bourbon-Conde, who made him his master chef and majordomo.

In1671, Vatel was put in charge of a grand banquet for 2000 people scheduled for April 25th, in honor of Louis XIV, who was to visit prince Louis’ Chateau de-Chantilly that month. The banquet was scheduled on short notice, and Vatel, who had only 15 days to prepare, grew increasingly stressed by a series of minor mishaps in the runup to the royal banquet.

A preliminary dinner a few days before the banquet saw more guests than expected, and two out of twenty-six tables had to go without roast. Vatel was mortified, and he wept that he had lost honor and could not bear the shame. Despite reassurances that the dinner had been a success, and that Louis XIV had been pleased, Vatel was inconsolable, and he kept obsessing about the tables that had gone without roast. Later that night, a fireworks display flopped because fog and low clouds descended, which lowered Vatel’s spirits even further.

In the early morning of April 24th, one day before the banquet, Vatel encountered a supplier bringing two loads of fish, and asked him if that was all. The supplier, unaware that Vatel was referring to all fish from all suppliers, not just himself, replied that it was. That was the final straw for a frazzled Vatel, who had hardly slept in the preceding fortnight. He broke down, crying “I won’t survive this insult. My honor and reputation are at stake“. Unable to endure what he thought would be a royal humiliation when the royal banquet turned into a flop, the master chef grabbed a sword and ran himself through. As it turned out, the fish misunderstanding soon resolved itself, as fish from other suppliers began arriving soon after Vatel had stabbed himself. Wagonloads of fish arrived at the Chateau de-Chantilly, even as the master chef lay dying of his self-inflicted wound.

10 Historical Deaths Weirder Than the Movies
Propaganda poster of North Korean soldiers celebrating a victory during the Korean War. Pinterest

Australian Mother Kills Daughter to Save Her From Imaginary North Korean Soldiers

In 1950, many Australians were fearful of Asians in general, and Asian communists in particular. The country was only 5 years removed from WW2 when it had been threatened by the Japanese invasion. More recently, Mao’s communists had won control of China in 1949, and in June of 1950, the North Koreans had crossed the 38th parallel to invade South Korea, initiating the Korean War.

Those fears were particularly intense for Patricia Cogdon’s mother, Ivy Cogdon, a 50-year-old woman from a Melbourne suburb, who suffered from night terrors. On August 11th of that year, Ivy entered her 19-year-old daughter’s room with an ax, and smashed Patricia’s skull. When police arrived, Ivy admitted what she had done, and was duly arrested and charged with murder.

Ivy claimed that she left her bedroom in a somnambulistic state, in which she imagined that North Korean soldiers had invaded her suburban home and were attacking her daughter. So she reacted by grabbing an ax and rushed to her daughter’s defense, swinging at the imaginary North Koreans to fend them off, and in the process, ended up killing her daughter. As she told detectives: ” I dreamt the [Korean] war was all around the house. I heard Pat screaming and rushed into her room, it was full of soldiers. I hit at them. I remember hitting the bed. Oh Pat, I don’t want to live now“.

Ivy pled not guilty on grounds that she had been sleepwalking, and was thus unaware of her actions. A psychiatrist testified that he thought Ivy was a somnambulist or sleepwalker. Other doctors who had been treating her before she killed Patricia testified that Ivy had a history of night terrors, and had been diagnosed as a “hysterical type” prone to blackouts and somnambulism. They concluded that she would not have known what she was doing when she killed her daughter.

Ivy testified at trial that of her many fears, her greatest was of the recently sparked Korean War, and of how she would protect her family from invading North Korean soldiers. She was particularly worried that the invaders would “pollute” her daughter. On the night of the killing, those fears were exacerbated and made more vivid when her daughter told her that she would volunteer as a transport driver if the Koreans invaded Australia. As Ivy lay worrying, Patricia told her: “Mummy, don’t be silly worrying about the war. It is not at your front door“. That attempted reassurance only worsened matters, and made Mrs. Cogdon imagine what would happen if the war actually did come to her front door.

Based on the mental history, medical evidence, and testimony by family and friends that she had been a loving mother, devoted to her daughter, the jury returned a not guilty verdict: Ivy was unaware of her actions, and was thus not responsible. It was the first time in Australia that somebody successfully used sleepwalking as a defense, so the case, Regina v. Cogdon, made legal history.

10 Historical Deaths Weirder Than the Movies
Hammersmith Ghost. Pintrest

Construction Worker Gets Mistaken For a Ghost

Hysteria swept London in November of 1803, when rumors began circulating about a ghost wandering through the Hammersmith district in the city’s west. It was widely speculated that the ghost was that of a recent suicide buried in Hammersmith’s churchyard. That tracked with contemporary beliefs that suicides should not be buried in consecrated grounds because their souls would find no rest there.

Witnesses described the ghost as being very tall, and dressed all in white, with some adding horns and glass eyes to the description. Alarm at the sightings quickly grew to widespread panic, and then mass hysteria. Before long, people were reporting that they had not only seen the Hammersmith ghost, but had been attacked by it as well. Soon, fearful armed residents were patrolling the neighborhood.

That led to tragedy on the night of January 3rd, 1804, when Francis Smith, a vigilante customs officers, was patrolling the neighborhood while armed with a shotgun. Smith, who had been drinking in a pub before going out on patrol, came across a bricklayer, Thomas Millwood, returning home while wearing the typical outfit of his trade: white flannel clothes, with a white apron. Smith leveled his shotgun at what he took to be the ghost, and shot Millwood in the face, killing him instantly.

Smith was arrested and tried for murder. The judge instructed the jury that establishing malice was not necessary for a conviction and that all killings were either murder or manslaughter, absent extenuating circumstances that were not present here. Smith was convicted and sentenced to death, but his sentence was subsequently commuted to a year’s hard labor. As to the Hammersmith “ghost”, it later turned out that it had all been a prank that got out of hand, perpetrated by an elderly local shoemaker who wore the guise to frighten his apprentice.

10 Historical Deaths Weirder Than the Movies
The assassination of Russian Emperor Alexander II. Fine Art America

Emperor Alexander II Thanks God For Narrow Escape From One Assassin, Is Immediately Killed by Second Assassin

19th century Russia was marked by great discontent and political turmoil, as reformers ran against the oppressive instincts of Russia’s imperial government. Without political freedom, and with free expression severely restricted, many reformers grew disgusted with the system and turned into revolutionaries dedicated to its overthrow. One such group formed a secret organization, Narodnaya Volya (People’s Will), which sought to overthrow the autocratic Russian government by acts of violent propaganda calculated to spark a mass revolt. A terrorist organization, in short.

People’s Will emerged from radical student study circles in the 1870s, which tried to spread socialist ideas to peasants and industrial workers. However, they were easily repressed by the imperial secret police, the Okhrana, who swiftly arrested and jailed the agitators. That led the radical students to rethink their strategy and tactics. Eventually, a consensus emerged that the only way to overthrow the imperial government was via revolutionary violence. More clandestine and aggressive tactics were called for – specifically, “propaganda of the deed”, or terrorism.

The result was Zemlya i Volya (Land and Liberty), a radical organization that preached political assassinations as self-defense, and justified revenge against oppressive officials. However, it stopped short of deeming terror a means of political struggle against the government. Some members had no such scruples, and in 1879 they splintered off to form People’s Will after Zemlya i Volya was almost wiped out by the secret police following a failed assassination attempt on the Emperor. People’s Will was far more radical, and saw terrorism as a proactive tool for overthrowing the regime, not simply as a reactive means of retaliation.

People’s Will called for violence, announced an ambitious program of terrorism and assassination to break the government, and decreed a death sentence against Emperor Alexander II, who was to be executed as an enemy of the people. They established clandestine cells in major cities and within the Russian military, and began publishing underground revolutionary newspapers and leaflets targeted at industrial workers.

People’s Will tried to kill the Emperor in December of 1879 with explosives on a railway but missed his train. They tried again two months later, by planting a bomb in his palace. However, Alexander II was not in the room when the explosives went off. A frightened Emperor declared a state of emergency and set up a commission to repress the terrorists. Within a week, a People’s Will assassin attempted to kill the commission’s head. The repression mounted, and People’s Will activists caught distributing illegal leaflets were hanged. Undaunted, the group doggedly persisted with its relentless efforts to kill the Emperor.

They finally got their chance on March 1st, 1881. A People’s Will assassin waited in ambush along a route taken by the Emperor every week, and threw a bomb under his carriage when it passed by. The explosion killed a guard and wounded others, but the carriage was armored, and the Emperor was unhurt. A shaken Emperor emerged from the carriage, and crossed himself as he surveyed the damage. Unbeknownst to him, there was a second assassin concealed in the gathering crowd. Shouting at the Emperor “it is too early to thank God!“, the second assassin threw another bomb, which landed and went off directly beneath Alexander II’s feet. There was a third assassin in the crowd, ready with yet another bomb if the first two failed. However, his explosives proved unnecessary.

Alexander II died of his wounds, and the assassins were arrested and hanged. In the aftermath, intensified repression effectively wrecked People’s Will, as nearly all its members were rounded up and executed or jailed. Terrorism in Russia was kept in check for years afterward, but the repression created even more enemies for the regime. Lacking legal means for expressing dissent, many opponents were driven into underground clandestine resistance, as the Russian Empire was transformed into a pressure cooker. It finally erupted into revolution in 1905, and into an even greater revolution that finally did away with the imperial government in 1917. Surviving veterans of People’s Will, who began emerging from prisons at the turn of the century as their sentences expired, played important roles in both revolutions.

10 Historical Deaths Weirder Than the Movies
Still from a scene of ‘They Died With Their Boots On’. Alchetron

Jack Budlong’s Fatal Fake Cavalry Charge

Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland starred in 1941’s They Died With Their Boots On, a highly fictionalized depiction of the life of George Armstrong Custer. The movie was a huge commercial success, but its production had been marred by tragedy, as three crew and cast members had died on set during filming, while dozens more were injured.

If any film’s set was ever jinxed, it was They Died With Their Boots On. Early on, Errol Flynn collapsed from exhaustion, and for a while, it was touch and go for the famous actor. In the opening days of filming, which entailed scenes of massed cavalry charges and melees, 80 personnel were injured, and 3 died. The first fatality was a stuntman who had a massive coronary and dropped dead from a heart attack. Next was an extra with no horseback riding experience, who fell off his steed while galloping and broke his neck.

However, the best known of the film set’s deaths was that of Jack Budlong (1913 – 1941). An experienced horseman and a personal friend of Errol Flynn, with whom he frequently played polo. Budlong badgered his famous buddy into getting him on set, until Flynn relented, and got him a role as an extra. Budlong was a great horseman, the movie was about a famous cavalryman, and it would have many horseback riding scenes, so it did not seem problematic.

However, it did become problematic when Budlong got carried away by amateurish enthusiasm. In a scene depicting a clash between Union and Confederate forces, instead of using a prop sword, Budlong insisted on using a real saber while leading a rebel cavalry charge against Union artillery. As a coroner’s inquest described what happened next, Jack Budlong, dressed in a Confederate cavalryman’s costume, charged across the “battlefield”, wildly waving his saber while prop explosions went off all around, to simulate enemy artillery rounds. His horse was not adequately trained to deal with the explosions and simulated battlefield chaos and noise, however. It panicked and started bucking, and Budlong was thrown off the saddle 15 to 20 feet in the air. He landed on and was impaled by his saber, which ran him clean through, piercing his abdomen and exiting out his back.

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Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources & Further Reading

History Collection – 20 Unusual Deaths from the History Books

All That is Interesting – Franz Reichelt: The Man Who Died Jumping Off the Eiffel Tower

All That is Interesting – Is Death From Laughter Real? Chrysippus and Others Say Yes

British Museum – The Hammersmith Ghost

Cooks Info – Francois Vatel, the Chef Who Killed Himself Over a Fish Delivery

Cracked – The 5 Historical Figures Who Died the Weirdest Deaths

Encyclopedia Britannica – Aeschylus, Greek Dramatist

Guardian, The, January 3rd, 2004 – Ghostly Murder Haunts Lawyers 200 Years On

Herald Sun, January 1st, 2014 – Night Terrors: The Sleepwalking Murder of Patricia Cogdon

Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy – Chrysippus

Internet Movie Database – Jack Budlong

TCM – They Died With Their Boots On

Unofficial Royalty – Assassination of Alexander II, Emperor of All the Russias

Wikipedia – Felix Faure

History Collection – 12 Unusual Deaths in the 20th Century

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