16 Glorious Historical Figures with Inglorious Deaths
16 Glorious Historical Figures with Inglorious Deaths

16 Glorious Historical Figures with Inglorious Deaths

Tim Flight - August 7, 2018

Your lifestyle determines your death-style, as the old adage goes. If you’re a warrior, you run a higher risk than most of dying in battle. If you drink or eat too much, your chances of fatal medical conditions increase. Big game hunters are but a misfire away from a fatal mauling or trampling. On the other hand, people with less dangerous jobs, such as librarians, are more likely to die peacefully (notwithstanding the unfortunate theologian, John Scottus Eriugena, by legend stabbed to death with his students’ styli in the ninth century). History and the law of averages support this theory.

But not everyone dies in the way they were expected, or in a manner befitting their lives and achievements. Here we will look at some of the big-names in history who have suffered undignified endings. Some perhaps deserved to die ingloriously, others have experienced misfortune out of their hands, and still others have simply made a preposterous error. There are stupider deaths out there, but what makes these instances particularly interesting is that they happened to famous figures in history. You will laugh, cry, and commiserate with these unfortunates on the receiving end of the caprices of circumstance.

16 Glorious Historical Figures with Inglorious Deaths
Not a clothes peg in sight… Draco carved at the US Supreme Court. Tes

Draco

Until the mid-seventh century BC, Ancient Greece was governed by oral law and blood feuds between families. This all changed when Draco (c.650-600 BC), a lawgiver, instituted a written law code enforceable only by a court of law. He was also the first democratically-elected legislator in Athens. However, the people were unaware that he would bring such harsh legislation, and thus from the name ‘Draco’ we get the adjective ‘draconian’, meaning unforgiving laws. Despite his later fame, we know very little about Draco’s life, besides his role in creating written law in Ancient Greece. His death, however, is another matter altogether.

Draco’s laws, the Draconian Constitution, meant that all literate Greeks could know their rights, rather than relying on a judge’s personality and memory in sentencing. Draco’s Constitution made the first pioneering distinction between murder and accidental homicide, but otherwise anachronistically lived up to its etymological derivation. Anyone caught stealing a cabbage, for example, would be executed, and if you owed money to someone of higher status you were forced into slavery. In fact, the most minor of crimes were punishable by death. Unsurprisingly, all of the laws besides the homicide/ manslaughter one were repealed in the early sixth-century by Solon.

Although the citizens of Athens predictably took a dim view of the lawgiver, he was immensely popular on the island of Aegina. At a reception given in his honor at the theatre, he met a bizarre end. According to a 10th-century AD Byzantine encyclopedia, ‘this man [crossed] to Aegina for lawgiving purposes and was being honored by the Aeginetans in the theatre, but they threw so many hats and shirts and cloaks on his head that he suffocated, and was buried in that selfsame theatre’. How many were prosecuted according to the Draconian Constitution is, sadly, not recorded.

16 Glorious Historical Figures with Inglorious Deaths
Pythagoras writing in a book, from Raphael’s School of Athens, Rome, 1511. Wikimedia Commons

Pythagoras

Pythagoras (c. 570 – c. 495BC) is a name that makes bored schoolchildren around the world, forced to learn his theories about triangles, groan. However, remembering him as the triangle-man does the extensive and influential work of this great man a disservice. He was born on the Greek island of Samos, the son of a gem-engraver or wealthy merchant, and left around 530 BC, either to escape the numerous responsibilities he had as an in-demand philosopher or because he disagreed with the tyranny of the ruler, Polycrates. On Samos, Pythagoras lived in a secret cave to study in silence and founded the ‘semicircle’ school.

This school was rather monastic in character, with members swearing an oath to Pythagoras and studying philosophy and religion communally. One of his most influential doctrines was metempsychosis, the belief that the soul is immortal and passes to another body after death. He is also attributed with the discovery that the planets and stars move according to mathematical equations, known as the ‘harmony of the spheres’. And let us remember his most famous contribution to mathematics: the square of the hypotenuse (the side opposite the right angle) equals the sum of the squares of the other two sides.

There were understandably many who wished to join the Pythagorean Brotherhood and to study with such a brilliant man. However, in 495 BC he refused to allow Kylon, a nobleman, enter his school. Kylon responded by rousing an angry mob, which chased Pythagoras to a bean field. Ethically, Pythagoras refused to eat beans or even to crush them, as he thought they resembled a human fetus. Thus he refused to flee through the field, lest he damage a single bean. The angry mob caught up with him, hesitating in contemplation of a single bean, and stabbed him to death.

16 Glorious Historical Figures with Inglorious Deaths
Heraclitus by Hendrik ter Brugghen, Utrecht, 1628. Wikimedia Commons

Heraclitus

Heraclitus of Ephesus (c.535-c.475 BC) was an influential Greek philosopher. We know little about his life, as Ancient Greek biographies usually comprised a system of references and aphorisms across diverse texts. We know the man chiefly through his works, which is perhaps how he would have chosen to have been remembered. From the works of others, we know that he was a child prodigy, and did not hold back on his opinions of others. He saw Hesiod and Pythagoras as learned but lacking true understanding of the world, and said that the poets Homer and Archilochus deserved to be flogged.

Heraclitus saw the world as made up of unified opposites. That is, opposite things are mutually-defining, and thus identical. As Heraclitus said, ‘the road up and the road down are the same thing.’ His pioneering ideas on the division between ordinary people and philosophers (who better understand the universe) were especially influential on Plato and his Allegory of the Cave. Heraclitus had a very low opinion of humanity in general: ‘Poor witnesses for men are their eyes and ears if they have barbarian souls’. Likewise, his ethical thought was the fundamental basis for the later philosophical school of Stoicism.

Unfortunately, Heraclitus also suffered from dropsy. He attempted to cure himself… by covering himself in manure. In one account, he then lay in the sun to dry, but became stuck, and was eaten by dogs. Other accounts state that Heraclitus buried himself in a cowshed and simply died from prolonged exposure to the dung. Diogenes Laertius remembered him thus: ‘often have I wondered how it came about that Heraclitus endured to live in this miserable fashion and then to die. For a fell disease flooded his body with water, quenched the light in his eyes and brought on darkness.’

16 Glorious Historical Figures with Inglorious Deaths
The death of Aeschylus, by Maso Finiguerra, Florence, 15th century. Wikimedia Commons

Aeschylus

Aeschylus (c.524 – c.456BC) was a great playwright of Ancient Greece. According to no less an authority than Aristotle, his work transformed Greek theater, expanding the number of characters and allowing conflict between them, rather than just with the chorus. Amongst his surviving plays, The Persians is especially interesting because it dealt with contemporary events. His trilogy, Oresteia, is the only complete trilogy of Greek plays, and includes Agamemnon, The Liberation Bearers, and The Eumenides. His work was immensely popular in his time, and a significant influence on playwrights throughout history. They are still performed around the world today.

He specialized in the genre of tragedy, which gift was given to him in a dream by the god, Dionysus. At the time, he was working in a vineyard in his home town of Elesius, near Athens. He also drew non-divine inspiration from his career as a soldier, when he fought the Persians at the triumphant Battle of Marathon and the Battle of Salamis. He was also initiated into the secret society, the Eleusinian Mysteries, which gave members secret knowledge through religious rites. He was once accused of revealing Eleusinian secrets in his plays, and narrowly escaped an angry mob.

Aeschylus’s death was unspeakably interesting, except perhaps for him. Raptors are known for eating tortoises, and break through their hard shells by dropping them from great heights onto rocks. One day, Aeschylus was visiting Sicily, and strolling through the countryside around the city of Gela. As the sun reflected from his famously bald head, an eagle (or probably a vulture, according to ornithologists) flying above mistook it for a nice rock, and dropped a tortoise it was carrying onto it. The bird was deadly accurate, and the force of a tortoise falling from a great altitude killed him instantly.

16 Glorious Historical Figures with Inglorious Deaths
Being a viking can’t always save you from a very stupid death… Vikings prepare to invade England with King Cnut, USA, 1904. Wikimedia Commons

Sigurd the Mighty

Sigurd Eysteinsson, alias the Mighty, (c.875-92) was the second Earl of Orkney. He was a Viking warrior instrumental in the Viking conquest of northern Scotland in the late ninth century. At this time, Harald Fairhair, the king of Norway, had grown tired of exiled Vikings who wintered on Orkney and Shetland (islands north of Scotland) and plundered Norway in the summer. He thus travelled west from Norway to subdue the islands, conquering other lands along the way for good measure. He granted the earldom of Orkney to his right-hand man, Rognvald Eysteinsson, in compensation for his son’s death in battle.

Rognvald didn’t fancy the title, and so passed it to his brother, Sigurd, who had served as forecastleman on Harald Fairhair’s ship. In the words of the Orkneyinga saga, ‘Earl Sigurd made himself a mighty chief… [and] won all Caithness and much else of Scotland, Moray, and Ross’. These deeds won him great acclaim and the epithet ‘Sigurd the Mighty’ (riki in Old Norse). He was understandably less popular in Scotland, and thus a feud developed between Sigurd and Máel Brigte the Bucktoothed, a Scottish nobleman. The two agreed to fight a forty-man-a-side battle to settle their differences.

Orkneyinga saga takes up the tale. ‘there was a hard battle, and not long ere Máel Brigte fell and his followers, and Sigurd caused the heads to be fastened to his horses’ cruppers as a glory for himself’. This turned out to be a moment of hubris, however. ‘Then Sigurd wished to spur the horse with his foot, and he struck his calf against the tooth which stuck out of Melbricta’s head and grazed it; and in that wound sprung up pain and swelling, and that led him to his death.’ He wasn’t called Máel Brigte the Bucktoothed for nothing.

16 Glorious Historical Figures with Inglorious Deaths
William the Conqueror depicted on the Bayeux Tapestry, Kent, UK, c.1070. H for History

William the Conqueror

The name William the Conqueror is familiar around the world. William (1028-87) began life as the bastard son of Duke Robert of Normandy by the daughter of a local tanner, but as the only male offspring of Robert he became Duke himself in 1035 upon his father’s sudden death. He famously became King of England in 1066, defeating his rival claimant to the Englsh throne, Harold Godwineson, after Edward the Confessor had died childless and unhelpfully named both as his heir. There followed a period of brutality in England, as William ruthlessly asserted his rule over his new kingdom.

Worst of this oppression was the Harrying of the North, in which Saxon noblemen rebelled against William and were savagely defeated. William did not stop there: he burned the lands owned by the rebels and indiscriminately slaughtered anyone he encountered. Modern historians have called the Harrying an act of genocide, and even contemporary biographers described it as a ‘stain upon his soul’. The destruction of the countryside was so severe that it caused famine. William also enclosed large parts of the countryside for recreational hunting, passed severe laws against his new subjects, and created an apartheid of Saxon and Norman.

In 1087, William had captured the town of Mantes, near Paris, and was smugly riding through the burning town on his horse. The horse was already straining under the weight of William — described by his contemporary, Orderic Vitalis, as ‘very corpulent’, and whose gut bulged over the top of the saddle — trod on a piece of burning wood. The horse stumbled forward, and William was thrown against the pommel of the saddle. This ruptured his internal organs, and he was carried to the town of Rouen, where he lasted another six long and agonizing weeks before succumbing to his injuries.

16 Glorious Historical Figures with Inglorious Deaths
Henry I depicted in a manuscript of Matthew Paris’s Chronicles, St Albans, UK, 1255-59. Wikimedia Commons

Henry I

Henry I (c.1068-1135) was the son of William the Conqueror, and succeeded to the throne when his brother, William Rufus, died under suspicious/ ludicrous circumstances. Rufus was struck by an arrow fired by Sir Walter Tirel that rebounded off a tree trunk whilst hunting in the New Forest. Henry had his father’s ruthlessness, but proved himself an effective ruler. He saw off several rebellions led by his vainglorious and disloyal older brother, Robert Curthouse, who had also rebelled twice against William the Conqueror. Henry utterly destroyed Robert’s army at the Battle of Tinchebrai, and imprisoned him in Cardiff Castle.

Henry was frequently called away from England to attend to matters in Normandy, but developed a system of bureaucracy that ensured England could be governed effectively by others in his absence, which set the tone for the reigns of his successors. Tragedy struck Henry in 1120, however, when his son and heir, William, was drowned in the White Ship disaster, leaving him to name his daughter, Matilda, as his successor. His death brought about a bloody civil war over the succession, despite his retainers swearing oaths to support Matilda. This period of internal strife is known as The Anarchy.

Described by the chronicler Henry of Huntingdon as ‘great in wisdom, profound in counsel, famous for his far-sightedness, outstanding in arms, distinguished for his deeds, remarkable for his wealth’, Henry still suffered a truly inglorious end. Like his father, Henry was very fond of hunting, and in November 1135 he went hunting in Lyons-la-Forêt, France, and seemed to be in good health. He sat down to dinner, where he ate ‘a surfeit of lampreys [an eel-like fish]’, which he loved despite his physicians’ warnings. Unfortunately, this killed him: Henry is most famous for dying from ‘a surfeit of lampreys’.

16 Glorious Historical Figures with Inglorious Deaths
King John depicted in a manuscript of Matthew Paris’s Chronicles, St Albans, UK, 1255-59. The National Archives

King John

It is perhaps unjust to call King John (1177-1216) a ‘glorious historical figure’, but he was nothing if not prominent, and lived his life apparently oblivious to his woeful shortcomings. John had a hunger for power that greatly exceeded his actual abilities, and unsuccessfully tried to seize the throne of England from his brother, Richard the Lionheart, during the latter’s imprisonment. John became king in 1199, but his territories in France instantly rebelled, and tried to have Richard’s son, Arthur, crowned king. Despite having the upper hand in 1200, John negotiated a weak peace, earning himself the nickname, ‘Softsword’.

Inevitably, John’s failure to capitalize on his strong position and innate lack of military skill saw him lose Normandy, Anjou, Maine, and part of Poitou by 1206, earning himself the alternative nickname, ‘Lackland’. He attempted to win them back, raising vast sums for the military campaign through punitive taxation and exploiting his feudal rights over others. John’s generally-tyrannical behavior led to civil war in 1215, and the already-unpopular John was humiliatingly forced to sign the Magna Carta the same year, giving the barons more rights and reducing his power. John thus became a pioneer of democracy, much against his will.

However, John soon went back on the promises enshrined in Magna Carta, and war broke out yet again. Things showed no signs of letting up, but in September 1216, John contracted dysentery at King’s Lynn. Ironically, the war was tilting slightly in his favor, but by October John was so ill he was unable to leave Newark Castle, Nottinghamshire. On the 18th or 19th, John died of intestinal inflammation and terrible diarrhea. The chronicler Matthew Paris gave him this wonderful epitaph in the 1230s: ‘foul as it is, hell itself is made fouler by the presence of King John’.

16 Glorious Historical Figures with Inglorious Deaths
Bronze effigy of Edward the Black Prince, Canterbury Cathedral, 1376. Wikimedia Commons

Edward the Black Prince

In his superlative career, Edward the Black Prince (1330-76) became a byword for chivalric glory. The son of Edward III, another great warrior, it was only his father’s surprising longevity that prevented him from becoming king. As Edward III’s senility made itself apparent, many wished it hadn’t. Aged just 16, Edward led the vanguard at the Battle of Crécy. Crécy was amongst the most famous English victories in the Hundred Years’ War, and saw 14,000 English decisively rout a French army numbering between 20,000 and 30, 000 men. In 1348 Edward was invested with the Order of the Garter.

Edward did not rest on his laurels. In 1349, he rescued his father at Calais, and fought at the Battle of Winchelsea in the English Channel. In 1355, he defeated the French army at Poitiers, taking the King of France prisoner for good measure. Later, he involved himself in matters in Spain, where he fought successfully to reinstate the deposed King Pedro of Castile after the Battle of Nájera. As well as winning many famous military victories, Edward added to his legend by competing at many tournaments across England, giving a public display of his fighting prowess and chivalry.

If any man were to die in battle, surely it would be Edward the Black Prince. Alas, this was not the case. Whilst greatly successful in Spain, Edward also found time to contract a disease. This was to plague him over the coming years, and seems to have weakened his immune system, for he was seldom well again after 1367. At the risk of being overly scatological, it was once again dysentery that ended this glorious historic figure. Edward’s magnificent tomb bears his own sobering words: ‘such as thou art, sometime was I/such as I am, such shalt thou be.’

16 Glorious Historical Figures with Inglorious Deaths
Charles II of Navarre oversees the execution of his enemies, France, late 14th century. Tumblr

Charles II of Navarre

Charles II (1332-87), also known as Charles the Bad, was king of the Spanish province of Navarre. He grew up in France, to whose royal family he was related. Thus when he became King of Navarre at the age of 17, he had no grasp of the local dialect. Charles viewed Navarre as a means to make himself king of France or a political powerhouse. He also felt that his mother, denied the crown after her father King Louis X’s death on the basis of her gender, had been ill-used by France, and intended to get his revenge.

Charles married the daughter of King John II of France, and then had John’s favourite, the constable Charles of Spain, brutally assassinated. Charles fled to beg the Pope for assistance, and whilst in Rome met Henry, Duke of Lancaster, and promised to help him in the Hundred Years’ War against France. Though he switched allegiance to France again in 1355, John had him arrested in 1356, but before Charles could be punished the English got the upper hand in the war, and released him from prison. Frequently switching sides, Charles earned his nickname ‘the Bad’ by ruthlessly slaughtering current enemies.

Charles eventually returned to Navarre in 1361, and orchestrated several plots against the French king from there. He fell ill in late December 1387, and his physician treated him by completely wrapping the king in brandy-soaked linen cloths. When the nurse had finished mummifying Charles, she decided to make a neat job of it by trimming excess cloth away. Fearing that using scissors would risk harming the king, she decided instead to use a candle to burn away the superfluous material. The whole swaddling burst into flame, and Charles was burned to death. Many contemporaries said he deserved it.

16 Glorious Historical Figures with Inglorious Deaths
Martin of Aragon by Pedro Núñez y Enrique Fernández, Barcelona, 1542. Wikimedia Commons

King Martin of Aragon

Martin (1356-1410) was King of Aragon, Valencia, Sardinia, Corsica and, very briefly, Sicily. Though nicknamed Martin the Humane, this says more about the standards of behavior for medieval kings than Martin’s personality, for he was an enthusiastic warrior who fought many battles in his lifetime. To control such a vast number of territories and maintain several crowns, Martin did not scruple to put down any pocket of resistance to his rule, and was really rather good at it. Yet he did not just defend his lands and titles, but looked for trouble, launching Crusades in North Africa against the Moors.

Medieval kings are renowned for their incredible appetites, hosting enormous banquets with menus that truly make one’s jaw drop and were often praised for how much they could shove down their necks in one sitting. Martin was no different in this regard. One day, at the age of 54, Martin had been enjoying a feast near Barcelona that saw him consume an entire goose on his own, probably with all the trimmings to boot. Surprisingly, he felt a bit unwell afterwards, and had to retire to his bedchamber for a bit of a lie-down to cure his indigestion.

Martin was determined not to let indigestion ruin his night, however, and invited his jester to his chamber to amuse him. Martin asked the jester where he had been, to which the latter replied: ‘in the next vineyard, where I saw a young deer hanging by his tail from a tree, as if someone had so punished him for stealing figs’. The joke was so hilarious that Martin laughed non-stop for three whole hours, then fell to the floor, stone dead. Historians debate the story, however, and suggest he may have died of plague or poisoning. Yah, boo, hiss.

16 Glorious Historical Figures with Inglorious Deaths
King Henry V, England, late 16th or early 17th century. Wikimedia Commons

Henry V

‘Cry “God for Harry, England, and Saint George!”‘ booms the titular character of Shakespeare’s Henry V. Shakespeare’s history play is a chest-thumping, patriotic romp that tells the story of King Henry V of England’s triumph over the French at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415, and the king continues to appeal to patriotic Englishmen today. Henry V was the son of Henry IV, a noble who removed his nephew, Richard II, from the throne of England. The former’s military talent was key to his father keeping his disputed throne, ably putting down the Glyndŵr and Percy uprisings and winning plaudits.

Henry’s 1413 coronation was accompanied by a heavy snowstorm, and opinion was split on how to interpret this omen. Fortunately, it turned out to be a positive one, for Henry’s diplomacy brought peace to England. Most famously, Henry’s campaigns against France during the Hundred Years’ War saw him marry the daughter of the King of France and named heir to his throne, seemingly ending the bloody conflict in England’s favour, in 1420. The aforementioned Battle of Agincourt was a real highlight, and the date is never forgotten by English schoolchildren. Unfortunately, Henry died in 1422, and the conflict resumed.

Perhaps the only thing Henry had in common with King John was how he died. Not everyone in France was happy for an Englishman (and one who had killed so many Frenchmen, to boot) to be crowned king, and in 1422 Henry had to put down an uprising in northern France. He contracted dysentery at the Siege of Meaux, and died a few months later in great pain and, probably, embarrassment. In a final irony, the French King, Charles VI, died only a few months later, which would have made Henry King of France and England. Bad luck, mate.

16 Glorious Historical Figures with Inglorious Deaths
King James II, Scotland,17th century. Wikimedia Commons

James II of Scotland

James II (1430-60) became King of Scotland at the age of just 6. He benefitted from the misfortune of his close family, in this regard, as his twin-brother, Alexander, died at the age of only 1, and his father was assassinated. Scotland was run by James’s cousin, Archibald Douglas, 5th Earl of Douglas, before James came of age to rule himself, but when Douglas died in 1439, power was precariously shared amongst other nobles. This unsuitable group treacherously assassinated the 6th Earl of Douglas and his younger brother in 1440, having invited them to dinner in the king’s name.

On this occasion, James had pled for the 16- and 12-year-olds’ lives, and when he came of age in 1449 he helped the Douglas family to get revenge on the Livingstones, who were blamed for the plot. However, he turned on the family quite horribly in 1452, when he stabbed the 8th Earl of Douglas 26 times after suspecting him of complicity in a plot. This murder aside, James was a popular king, fraternising with commoners, supporting learning in Scotland, including founding the University of Glasgow, and improving diplomatic relations with Flanders through his marriage to Mary of Guelders.

James’s fondness for artillery was to cost him dear. In 1460, he besieged Roxburgh Castle, one of the last strongholds of English resistance following the Wars of Independence. For this, he used a large number of cannon imported from Flanders. On the 3rd August 1460, he was standing near to one cannon, known as The Lion, when the fuse was lit. According to the contemporary chronicler Robert Lindsay of Pitscottie, ‘his thigh bone was dug in two with a piece of misframed gun that brake in shooting, by which he was stricken to the ground and died hastily’.

16 Glorious Historical Figures with Inglorious Deaths
Francis Bacon portrayed by Paul van Somer I, England, 1617. Wikimedia Comons

Francis Bacon

Francis Bacon (1561-1626) was a true polymath, and one of the most learned men of his day. He matriculated at Trinity College, Cambridge, at the age of 12, and also attended the University of Poitiers. At Cambridge, he came to the attention of Queen Elizabeth I of England, who called him ‘the young Lord Keeper’. After several years traveling the continent and expanding his learning, Bacon was admitted as a barrister in 1582 and became an MP. He was an outspoken and liberal politician, and his opposition to high taxation and feudal rights brought him into conflict with the Queen.

He prospered under Elizabeth’s successor, James I, and his unwavering support for the monarch’s oft-eccentric policies was rewarded with a knighthood in 1603. He later became Lord Chancellor, but his great debts saw him removed from the post and suffer public disgrace. However, it was in the field of science that Bacon truly excelled. He is credited as the founder of empiricism – the principle that knowledge only comes from sensory experience – which radically transformed scientific methodology and changed science into the rational discipline that it is today. He also published influential and much-quoted tracts on philosophy, law, and religion.

Bacon died conducting an experiment, but it was still an inglorious way for such a learned man to go. Traveling to Highgate, North London, in the snow, Bacon was suddenly inspired to test the potential of snow for meat preservation. Stopping his carriage and buying a fowl from a nearby house, Bacon stuffed it with snow. Unfortunately, according to his near-contemporary, John Aubrey, ‘The Snow so chilled him that he immediately fell so extremely ill, that he could not return to his Lodging’. He never left Arundel Mansion, where he was carried, and died of pneumonia on April 9, 1626.

16 Glorious Historical Figures with Inglorious Deaths
Engraving of Madame Blanchard by Jules Porreau, Paris, 1859. Wikimedia Commons

Madame Blanchard

Sophie Blanchard (1778-1819) had one great, dominant passion: aeronautics. She was the wife of the ballooning pioneer, Jean-Pierre Blanchard, but was not content merely to observe her husband’s interests. Madame Blanchard was of a nervous disposition, and easily startled, but she found that she was, paradoxically, free of anxiety when airborne. Her first ascent with Blanchard took place at Marseilles in 1804, and she became the first woman to work as a professional balloonist. Sadly, Jean-Pierre, the first professional balloonist of all, fell from his balloon after suffering a heart attack in 1809. Madame Blanchard however refused to be discouraged.

In all, she completed over 60 ascents. Her great fame and popularity transcended even the change of rule in France following the French Revolution: Napoleon Bonaparte named her ‘Aeronaut of the Official Festivals’, and Louis XVIII made her ‘Official Aeronaut of the Restoration’ after the monarchy was reinstated. She was also popular across Europe, and in 1810 her ascent was blamed for the poor attendance of Carl Maria von Webber’s opera, Silvana, in Frankfurt. Alongside the unusual spectacle of seeing someone go up in a balloon, Madame Blanchard also performed elaborate tricks, such as parachuting dogs from the basket.

As competition from other aeronauts increased, her routine became increasingly extravagant, and eventually incorporated firework displays. Since her balloon was filled with hydrogen, lighting fireworks was a dreadful idea, and her luck finally ran out on July 6, 1819 at the Tivoli Gardens, Paris. Shortly after she emerged from a line of trees, the balloon caught fire. The balloon plummeted towards the ground, with Madame Blanchard entangled in the netting and thus unable to escape. It crashed into a roof, flinging her to the ground, which killed her on impact. At least she died doing what she loved, however foolishly.

16 Glorious Historical Figures with Inglorious Deaths
Clement Vallandigham, photographed at Washington between 1855 and 1865. Wikimedia Commons

Clement Vallandigham

Clement Vallandigham (1820-71) was born in New, Lisbon, Ohio, and was home educated by his father, a Presbyterian minister. He had a strong commitment to justice, and the confidence to stand by his beliefs, as evidenced by a dispute with the president of Jefferson College which saw him honorably dismissed, without a degree. He then became a lawyer at his own practice in Dayton, Ohio, and almost immediately entered politics as a Democrat. His beliefs, however strong, were not always right: he was fervently anti-abolitionist, and voted against the repeal of laws restricting the civil rights of African-Americans.

After becoming a Congressman in 1858, Vallandigham was one of the government officials who interrogated the radical abolitionist, John Brown, after Harper’s Ferry. Vallandigham was also an outspoken supporter of state rights, and became one of the loudest dissenting voices in the Democrat party against Abraham Lincoln during the American Civil War. His rampant anti-war stance led to his many critics accusing him of wanting The Confederacy to win the war and his being voted out of Congress by a huge margin in 1862. Lincoln finally tired of Vallandigham’s rabble-rousing, and sent him to The Confederacy as a POW.

After the Civil War ended, Vallandigham returned to law full time, whilst maintaining his stance against African-American suffrage and equality. In 1871, Vallandigham was representing a client accused of fatally shooting someone in a barroom brawl. Taking the line that the deceased had accidentally shot himself, Vallandigham decided to give a practical demonstration of how this was possible. Unfortunately, Vallandigham did not realize that the gun was loaded, and shot himself in the abdomen, which killed him. Though the demonstration was far more practical than even Vallandigham had anticipated, it did succeed in getting his client acquitted of murder.

 

Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

Baxter, Colin, and C.J. Tabraham. The Illustrated History of Scotland. Graphic Arts Center, 2004.

Bisson, Thomas N. The Medieval Crown of Aragon: A Short History. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986.

Blackson, Thomas A. Ancient Greek Philosophy: From the Presocratics to the Hellenistic Philosophers. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011.

Edwards, Paul, and Hermann Pálsson, trans. Orkneyinga Saga: The History of the Earls of Orkney. Penguin Classics, 1981.

Jenkins, Simon. A Short History of England. London: Profile, 2011.

Klement, Frank L. The Limits of Dissent: Clement L. Vallandigham and the Civil War. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1970.

Prebble, John. The Lion in the North. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1973.

Seward, Desmond. The Hundred Years War. London: Constable, 2003.

Smith, Matthew Clark, and Matt Tavares. Lighter than Air: Sophie Blanchard, The First Woman Pilot. Somerville, MA: Candlewick Press, 2017.

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