10 People Who Laughed Themselves to Death
10 People Who Laughed Themselves to Death

10 People Who Laughed Themselves to Death

Khalid Elhassan - July 28, 2018

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.

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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

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