10 People Who Laughed Themselves to Death

10 People Who Laughed Themselves to Death

Khalid Elhassan - July 28, 2018

Of the many ways to shuffle off the mortal coil, death from laughter is probably among the better way to go, and if it was ever offered as an option, odds are that many would prefer to spend their last moments on earth laughing. History records numerous instances in which people laughed so hard that they ended up dying as a result.

Following are ten examples of such people, who ended up laughing themselves to death.

An Indiana Farmer Died Laughing at a Joke

Laurel, Indiana, is a small farming community in Laurel Township, Franklin County, IN. Its population was 512 in the 2010 census, and is estimated today to have dipped slightly to about 500 people. It had always been a small community ever since its founding 1836, and its population has oscillated over the years between about 500 in the 1860 census, and a peak of 848 people in 1960.

In other words, Laurel is not the kind of place where a whole lot happens, or where there is an overabundance of excitement coming its residents’ way. In that kind of locale, a good joke – or probably any joke for that matter – goes a long way. One joke did just that in 1893, when it caused a Laurel farmer named Wesley Parsons to keel over, kick the bucket, and buy the farm from laughing too hard.

10 People Who Laughed Themselves to Death
Laurel, Indiana. Wikimedia

Parsons was shooting the breeze with some friends, when he heard a joke that struck him as so hilarious that he started laughing hysterically. And he went right on laughing, and laughing, and laughing some more. There is an old saw about laughter being the best medicine, but that certainly did not prove to be the case for Parsons, who was killed by the aftereffects of a fit of uncontrollable laughter.

As a contemporary newspaper described what happened: “Wesley Parsons, an aged and well-known farmer died at Laurel, Ind., under peculiar circumstances. While joking with friends he was seized with a spell of laughing, being unable to stop. He laughed for nearly an hour, when he began hiccoughing, and two hours later he died from exhaustion.” Unfortunately, history does not record the joke that was so funny that it caused the unfortunate Mr. Parsons to laugh himself to death.

10 People Who Laughed Themselves to Death
‘Zeuxis Choosing his Models for the Image of Helen from among the Girls of Croton’, by François-André_Vincent, 1791. Google Art Project

A Patron’s Request Made an Ancient Greek Artist Laugh Himself to Death

Zeuxis (flourished 5th century BC) was an ancient Greek artist from Heraclea in Magna Graecia, near today’s Toronto, Italy. Back in his day, he was considered by his fellow Greek contemporaries to be one of the greatest painters to have ever lived, and he was praised for popularizing a trend toward illusionism and pushing it to new levels.

He was innovative and broke with tradition, and departed from the usual method of filling in shapes with color, relying instead upon a clever manipulation of light and shadows to enhance the realism of his works. He often preferred to paint panels rather than the contemporary norm of wall paintings, and usually went for small compositions, often with just a single figure.

None of his works survive today, but historical records describe his paintings as exceptionally realistic. As recounted by Roman writer Pliny the Elder in his Natural History, Zeuxis entered into a competition with a rival painter named Parhassius, to see who could create the most realistic painting. When Zeuxis unveiled his entry, the grapes that he painted were so life-like, so the story goes, that birds flew down to peck at them.

However, even a master of realism like Zeuxis was trumped that day by Parhassius. Zeuxis’ rival invited him to examine the competing painting, but when he tried to push aside the cloth covering in order to unveil the painting, he discovered, to his chagrin, that the “cloth” was the painting itself. A good sport, he conceded that his rival had won, stating: “I have deceived the birds, but Parhassius has deceived Zeuxis“. Centuries later, that rivalry over realism between Zeuxis and Parhassius was viewed by Renaissance painters as a challenge and a spur in their quest to surpass the ancients.

Zeuxis’ end came because of a commission from a wealthy patroness, an elderly widow, who hired him to do painting of Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of procreation, pleasure, love, and beauty. However, she wanted the painting fashioned in her own likeness, and proceeded to pose as the model. The jarring contrast between Aphrodite, who was supposed to be the epitome of beauty, and the wrinkled old woman wanting to pose as a model for the goddess, was too much for Zeuxis. He burst into an uncontrollable fit of laughter, and kept on laughing until he dropped over, dead.

10 People Who Laughed Themselves to Death
Actor Charles Bannister as Polly Peachum. British Museum

A Theatergoer Thought ‘The Beggar’s Opera’ Was So Hilarious, She Died Laughing

Break a leg” is a one of those expressions in showbiz, wishing the addressee success during a performance, not that he or she would literally suffer an accident onstage that requires a cast and crutches. Likewise with the expression “go kill ’em” for performers of comedy, which does not urge the comic to mow down the audience with a machinegun, but to kill them with laughter.

Even said killing with laughter is meant figuratively, not literally. However, that was not the case for an eighteenth century comedic troupe whose theatrical performance in 1782 ended up literally killing an audience member with laughter. It occurred on an April evening that year, when a Mrs. Fitzherbert went out with some friends to see The Beggar’s Opera on Drury Lane, in London.

The play starred a popular actor named Charles Bannister, and when he appeared onstage in drag, portraying a character named Polly Peachum, the entire audience was thrown into fits of laughter. A print of Bannister as Polly Peachum gives a hint of what caused the extreme mirth. In the guise of the charming Polly is a lantern jawed and poorly shaved middle aged man, in a voluminous dress and holding a fan, staring deadpan.

The audience eventually collected itself, wiped the tears from its eyes, and resumed watching the play. Not so, Mrs. Fitzherbert, who was unable to suppress the laughter that seized her. As described by The Gentleman’s Magazine soon thereafter: “Not being able to banish the figure from her memory, she was thrown into hysterics, which continued without intermission until she expired on Friday morning

Another contemporary source described it in more detail: “Mrs. Fitzherbert, the widow of a Northamptonshire clergyman, had been with some friends to Drury Lane on the evening of 17 April 1782 to see the transvestite ‘Beggar’s Opera’ in which Charles Bannister played Polly. This lady was overcome by laughter to the extent that she had to leave before the end of the second act. She continued in hysterics until the morning of 19 April, when she died“.

The incident caused waves at the time, as it was pregnant with what were, for its era, several class transgressions. For one, the presence of a clergyman’s widow at a comic play was highly unusual in of itself, let alone her uncontrollable laughter in public. That might have been expected from a fishwife back then, but not from a woman whose gentility was deemed a given in those days.

10 People Who Laughed Themselves to Death
The Ecky Thump scene that killed Alex Mitchell. Pintrest

Alex Mitchell Died Laughing at an Episode of ‘The Goodies’

Few outside of Britain are probably familiar with The Goodies, a TV series that combined situation comedy with surreal sketches, and that originally aired 76 episodes on BBC from 1970 to 1980. The series is probably not the cup of tea of most Americans today, but it was pretty funny for its intended British audience, as evidenced by its decade-long run. Also, by the fact that at least one of its viewers found a Goodies skit to be so hilarious that he laughed himself to death.

The evening of March 24th, 1975, started off like many others for Alex Mitchell, a bricklayer from King’s Lynn, Norfolk. He sat down after dinner to watch an episode of The Goodies, his favorite TV show and one that he watched religiously every week. He knew to expect the show’s typical raw and physical humor, but he was not prepared for that evening’s “Kung Fu Capers” episode.

The episode featured a black belt in “Ecky Thump” – a little known martial art from Lancaster, that revolved around pelting opponents with black pudding. Something about that struck Mitchell as over the top hilarious, and he started guffawing as his wife complained that he must be the only person who found The Goodies even remotely funny.

Mitchell, who enjoyed having a good laugh, waved his killjoy missus away, but on that particular evening, he might have been better off had he gotten off the couch and romanced her instead of continuing to watch TV. When the episode’s star attacked a kilt-wearing Scotsman with a stick of black pudding, and the Scotsman defended himself with a bagpipe, Mitchell lost it. He started guffawing uncontrollably, and after 25 minutes of nonstop laughter, he slid off the sofa, having suffered a fatal heart attack. Mitchell’s death became quite famous at the time, and his widow eventually wrote The Goodies a letter, thanking them for making her deceased husband’s final moments in life so pleasant.

In 2012, it was discovered that Mitchell had probably suffered from Long QT Syndrome when his granddaughter was rushed to the emergency room after a heart attack and was diagnosed with LQTS. The disease, which is hereditary, causes the heart beat to become irregular if the afflicted person undergoes continuous exertion or stress – such as laughing nonstop for 25 minutes. The irregular heartbeat can trigger a cardiac arrest, and that is probably what did in Alex Mitchell.

10 People Who Laughed Themselves to Death
Martin I of Aragon. Wikimedia

Martin of Aragon’s Jester Told a Joke That Killed the King From Laughter

Martin I of Aragon, also known as Martin the Humane (1356 – 1410), ruled Aragon, Valencia, Sicily, Sardinia, and Corsica, from 1396, following his elder brother John I’s death without male issue – although the deceased had daughters. Martin’s reign was turbulent from the outset, rife with unrest from scheming nobles. He also had to overcome challenges to his claimed right to ascend the throne, particularly from the family and partisans of his nieces, his late brother’s daughters. He beat back invasions by his nieces’ supporters, but they kept up their claims, and so did their sons.

Martin reportedly died in 1410 after consuming an entire goose. Something about the fowl was foul and did not agree with him, and gave the king indigestion, so he retired to his chamber and summoned his court jester, who took his time in arriving. When he finally showed up, Martin asked him where he had been, and the jester replied: “in the next vineyard, your majesty, where I saw a young deer hanging by his tail from a tree, as if somebody had punished him for stealing figs“.

Something about that joke and the image it evoked struck the king as extremely funny. Apparently, while some jokes are timeless and universal, many more are time and culture sensitive, and in 15th century Aragon, deer hanging by the tail as punishment for stealing figs were deemed to be super funny. So funny, in king Martin’s case, that he laughed uncontrollably for three hours, until he finally fell out of the bed and hit the floor, stone dead.

Failing to secure the succession to an illegitimate son, Martin ended up as the last king of the Aragonite House of Barcelona (878 – 1410), and was succeeded by a nephew, Ferdinand I of Aragon. Martin however had gone out laughing, which was not a bad ending for a royal life or dynasty, considering the typically nasty historical alternatives whereby royal dynasties and noble lineages come to an end.

10 People Who Laughed Themselves to Death
A Fish Called Wanda. Amazon

‘A Fish Called Wanda’ Killed a Danish Viewer

The 1980s hit comedy A Fish Called Wanda, starring Jamie Lee Curtis, John Cleese, Kevin Kline, and Michael Palin, was a madcap crime heist flick about a gang of jewel thieves who double cross each other to find stolen diamonds hidden by the gang boss. The movie was a success, getting nominated for three Oscars and winning a Best Supporting Actor Award, as well as awards for Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor in the British Academy Film Awards (BAFTA).

[SPOILERS AHEAD] The plot revolved around a London gang boss and his sidekick, an animal lover with a stutter, who plan a jewel heist. The heist is successful and nets the criminals a trove of valuable diamonds, only for them to start double crossing each other in a quest to keep the entire haul to themselves. A series of increasingly madcap adventures and mishaps ensue, as the betrayals mount.

One scene involved a criminal invading the gang boss’ animal loving and stuttering sidekick’s home, tying him up to a chair, and trying to force him to reveal what he knew about the diamonds’ whereabouts. It entailed stuffing British chips – French fries – up the tied stutterer’s nose, then picking his beloved goldfish one by one from an aquarium, and eating them alive to force their owner to talk.

Something about that scene struck one viewer, an audiologist from Denmark named Ole Bentzen, as over the top hilarious. He started laughing uproariously, and could not get himself to stop. A subsequent coroner’s report estimated that Bentzen’s heart rate had shot up to between 250 to 500 beats per minute during his fit of uncontrollable laughter, triggering a fatal cardiac arrest.

As it turned out, a few years earlier Bentzen had been joking at the dinner table, when he stuffed cauliflower up his and every family member’s nose, then made a bet with them over who could eat their carrots without the cauliflower falling out. The scene with the chips up the nose reminded him of that dinner table incident, and caused him to laugh so hard that his heart stopped.

10 People Who Laughed Themselves to Death
Pietro Aretino. Wikimedia

The Father of Modern Literary Pornography Died From Laughing at a Dirty Joke

Pietro Aretino (1492 – 1556) was an Italian writer, satirist, poet, playwright, and blackmailer. He also created modern literary pornography – erotic literature whose main feature is accounts of sexual relationships that are intended to arouse the reader sexually. Aretino’s whole life seems to have been one long and often seedy adventure, so it was somehow fitting that he died laughing at a dirty joke.

He was born in the Tuscan town of Arezzo to a shoemaker who abandoned the family to go soldiering when Pietro was a child. When he grew up, Pietro abandoned his father’s name, and took the name Aretino, meaning “from Arezzo”. His mother became the mistress of a local nobleman, who raised Aretino and his siblings, and he spent the rest of his life pretending to be a nobleman’s bastard, rather than a shoemaker’s son.

As a youth, he went to Perugia to take up painting for a while, and eventually ended up in Rome, where a rich banker, the patron of Raphael the painter, took him under his wing. Painting was not really Aretino’s thing, however, and he eventually gave up on that. His real talent lay in words, and in 1516 he penned a satiric will of Pope Leo X’s recently deceased pet elephant, which mocked Rome’s leading figures, including the pope himself. The pope was a good sport about it, and the satire was well received, launching Aretino’s career as a satirist. He eventually ended up with the nickname “Scourge of Princes”.

After the death of Leo X, Aretino penned vicious satirical pamphlets supporting the candidature of cardinal Giulio de Medici for the papacy, which helped get him elected as Pope Clement VII in 1523. However, despite the patronage of the new pope, Aretino was forced to leave Rome in 1524 because he had grown too notorious, especially after he composed a dirty poetry collection known as the Lewd Sonnets.

Exile turned into a life on the run for a while, when a bishop who had been victimized by Aretino’s vicious pen hired assassins to take out the satirist. So Aretino hit the road and wandered northern Italy, serving various aristocrats and distinguishing himself with his wit and audacity, and making ends meet every now and then via blackmail. He eventually ended up in Venice and hit it off with the locals. He lived a grand and dissolute life amidst the Ventians for the rest of his days.

It finally came to an end at a party on October 21st, 1556 when his sister told a particularly risque joke. Pietro Aretino laughed so hard that he fell over backwards from his chair, and keeled over then and there. Another version has it that he was done in by falling into a fit of apoplectic laughter after hearing the joke, while yet another variant has it that his death was caused by suffocation from laughing so hard. Whichever version it was, all accounts agree that it was laughter that killed him.

10 People Who Laughed Themselves to Death
Thomas Urquhart. Fine Art America

Thomas Urquhart Died From Laughing at the Thought of Charles II as King

Sir Thomas Urquhart (1611 – 1660), of Cromarty, Scotland, was one of the oddest writers in the history of Scottish literature, and he ended up with a prominent position in a book titled Scottish Eccentrics. To date, it is still unclear if he was crazy, a conman, or the most gifted prankster ever produced by Scotland. He was an idiosyncratic polymath and author, best known for his original and vivid translation of the works of Francois Rabelais into English. His own writings included original work on a new system of trigonometry, which he revolutionized, mathematics, family histories, epigrams, and the invention of a universal language long before Esperanto.

Urquhart was a royalist who fought for king Charles I against the Scottish Covenanters in 1639, and was knighted by the king for his support in 1641. The following year, Urquhart’s father died, leaving him a heavily indebted estate. So Urquhart spent most of the 1640s dealing with and evading creditors, even fleeing Scotland to the continent for a time. He returned in 1645 to publish a mathematical treatise, Trissotetras, Or A Most Exquisite Table For Resolving Triangles, which he claimed could enable a student to learn a year’s worth of math in just seven weeks. However, it was written in such a cryptic way as to be nearly unintelligible.

He joined a failed royalist uprising at Inverness in 1648, and was declared a traitor by Parliament. In 1651, he joined Charles II’s long shot attempt at regaining the throne, but grew increasingly disgusted with the incompetence and mismanagement of the affair, which culminated in a decisive royalist defeat at the Battle of Worcester. Urquhart was captured and imprisoned for two years, first in the Tower of London, then at Windsor.

While locked up, he lobbied Oliver Cromwell to release him, by writing a series of increasingly bizarre pamphlets, including a detailed description of how the Urquharts were supposedly descended from Adam and Eve via a host of luminaries. One such was his great 109th grandmother, whom Urquhart claimed had discovered baby Moses in the Nile’s rushes. He also claimed that his great 87th grandmother was the Queen of Sheba; his great 66th grandfather had been a general for the mythical Fergus I of Scotland, and that one of King Arthur’s daughters had married into the Urquharts.

Cromwell eventually ordered him freed in 1653, but Urquhart lost all his manuscripts, and had to forfeit all his properties as a condition for his parole and release. He also had to leave Britain for the continent. He reportedly died in 1660 in a fit of maniacal laughter, upon hearing that Charles II – whose incompetence in the 1651 attempt to gain the throne had ended in disaster and cost Urquhart so much – had been restored and welcomed back as king.

10 People Who Laughed Themselves to Death
Chrysippus. Wikimedia

A Drunk Greek Philosopher Died From Laughing at a Donkey

Chrysippus (circa 279 – circa 206 BC), one of the most influential intellectuals and men of letters of the Hellenistic era, would probably disagree with the adage that “Laughter is the best medicine“, seeing as how laughter killed him. He greatly influenced and shaped Stoicism, and later Stoic philosophers credited him with laying much of the groundwork upon which they built. He also offered alternatives to the theories of Plato and Aristotle that did much to shape the intellectual landscape of his era. Today, however, Chrysippus is probably best known as the philosopher who laughed himself to death.

He was born in Soli, near Mersin in today’s Turkey, and was an athlete dedicated to long distance running in his youth. Then he was bit by the philosophy bug, so he packed up and moved to Athens, where he studied Stoicism under Cleanthes, head of the Stoic School. He became the school’s most gifted student, and when Cleanthes died in 230 BC, Chrysippus succeeded him as the establishment’s head.

He was a prolific writer who reportedly penned over 700 books. No full treatise remains, but fragments of about 475 of his works have survived, including summaries and critical evaluations of the Hellenistic schools. It is mostly from those sources that scholars have cobbled together the materials for a coherent picture of Stoic philosophy and philosophers.

However, Chrysippus was not just an egghead dedicated solely to intellectual pursuits: he liked partying, and partied hard, well into old age. At one party, when he was around 73 years old, he got drunk on undiluted wine (Greeks usually mixed wine with water in those days), then saw a donkey eating a fig. That struck him as hilarious, and he went into paroxysms of uncontrollable laughter, while crying out “now give the donkey a drink of pure wine to wash down the figs“, en route to laughing himself to death.

10 People Who Laughed Themselves to Death
Calchas presiding at the sacrifice of Iphigeneia in a peristyle fresco from Pompeii. Wikimedia

An Ancient Greek Soothsayer Died From Laughing at a Rival’s Failed Prediction

In ancient Greek mythology, Calchas was a gifted soothsayer who had been blessed by the god Apollo with the gift of predicting the future from the flight pattern of birds. He could else soothsay by interpreting the entrails of enemies during battle. He accompanied the Greek armies when they invaded Troy, and in the Iliad, Homer extolled his skills, stating that: “as an augur, Calchas had no rival in the camp“.

Calchas played a significant role in influencing the events of the Trojan War. Before the Greeks could even reach Troy, their assembled army was stuck on a beach, prevented from sailing by contrary winds. Calchas prophesied that the winds had been sent by the god Artemis, who had been offended by the Greek high king and army leader, Agamemnon. To appease Artemis, Calchas stated that Agamemnon would have to sacrifice his daughter, Iphigenia. It was done, and the winds shifted, allowing the Greeks to finally sail to Troy.

On another occasion during the Trojan War, the Greek armies were struck with a devastating plague, and turned to Calchas to tell them what needs doing in order to lift it. He divined that it had been sent by the god Apollo, who had been angered by Agamemnon’s enslavement of Chryseis, daughter of a priest of Apollo, and his refusal to allow her father to ransom her. Agamemnon was forced to send Chryseis back to her father, but then compensated himself by seizing from Achilles a princess whom the Greek hero had captured as a war prize. That led to a feud between king and hero that would drive much of the Iliad.

Calchas also endorsed Odysseus’ Trojan Horse stratagem, predicting that it would succeed in infiltrating the besieged city. Centuries later, the Romans glommed on to Calchas’ reputation, ascribing to him a prophecy foretelling that the Trojan prince Aeneas would survive the fall of Troy, then go on to lay the foundations of Rome.

The soothsayer reportedly met his end in Magna Graecia, laughing himself to death at what he believed to be a rival soothsayer’s incorrect prediction. Calchas had planted some grape vines, but his rival prophesied that Calchas would never drink wine produced from those grapes. The grapes ripened, however, and were made into wine. Calchas then invited the other soothsayer to the first tasting, and lifting a cup of wine made from the grapes in question, he started laughing at his rival’s failed prophecy. He ended up laughing so hard that he choked to death, before he got to drink of his vines.


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

Bathroom Reading Institute – Uncle John’s Canoramic Bathroom Reader (2014)

BBC News, December 25th, 2013 – 10 Truly Bizarre Victorian Deaths

Encyclopedia Britannica – Calchas, Greek Mythology

Encyclopedia Britannica – Zeuxis, Greek Artist

Greek Legends and Myths – The Seer Calchas in Greek Mythology

Internet Movie Database – A Fish Called Wanda: Trivia

io9, January 23rd, 2015 – Can You Laugh Yourself to Death?

New York Times, November 20th, 2009 – What Is Real, What Isn’t?

Rosenthal, Angela, et alNo Laughing Matter: Visual Humor in Ideas of Race, Nationality, and Ethnicity (2015)

Scotsman, The, April 18th, 2011 – The Curious Case of Thomas Urquhart

Unbelievable Facts – 10 People Who Died From Laughing Too Hard

Wikipedia – Calchas

Wikipedia – Pietro Aretino