Death is a regrettable but nonetheless unavoidable element of the human condition. Whilst most people pass into the great abyss of the unknown in an unremarkable, if sometimes undignified fashion, other individuals garner a more unusual end to their life stories. Whether caused by their own personal foibles or mistakes, the failings of others, or mere chance and misfortune, these persons have solidified their existence into the annals of history via the bizarre means by which their lives arrived at their inevitable conclusions.
Here are 20 of the most bizarre and incredulous deaths from throughout history:
20. To prove his client innocent of murder, Clement Vallandigham inadvertently shot himself whilst demonstrating how the victim unintentionally killed himself with his own pistol
An Ohio politician and a leader of the Copperhead faction within the Democratic Party – who were opposed to the Civil War and sought instead to make peace with the Confederacy – Clement Laird Vallandigham served for two terms as the Representative for Ohio’s 3rd District between 1858 and 1863. Returning to Ohio in 1867, following defeat in campaigns for Congress on an anti-Reconstruction platform, continuing to oppose the expansion of the franchise to African-Americans Vallandigham remained active in politics but nevertheless resumed his previously abandoned legal career.
Defending Thomas McGehean in 1871, who had been charged with murder for killing a man in a barroom brawl, Vallandigham embarked on a unique effort to convince the jury of his client’s innocence. Attempting to prove the victim, Tom Myers, had accidentally shot himself whilst drawing his pistol from a pocket, Vallandigham was reenacting the event during a practice session when he unintentionally discharged a loaded gun into his belly. Lodging in Vallandigham’s bladder, surgeons were unable to properly locate or remove the bullet and the lawyer tragically died the following day of peritonitis. Not in vain, however, the jury accepted Vallandigham’s abortive demonstration as evidence and McGehean was duly acquitted of the charge.
19. Sigurd Eysteinsson, Earl of Orkney, was felled by the severed head of his enemy after he contracted an infection from a resultant scratch on his leg
Sigurd Eysteinsson, also known as Sigurd the Mighty, reigned as the second Earl of Orkney from 875 until his death in 892. With the island becoming a popular refuge for exiled Vikings after the Battle of Hafrsfjord and the unification of Norway under Harald Fairhair, Orkney served as a base from which to conduct raids against their former homelands until King Harald pacified the inhabitants and granted an ally dominion over the territory. Seeking to expand his holdings, Sigurd repeatedly attempted to acquire a foothold on the northern Scottish mainlands, garnering a fearsome reputation as a warrior and raider during his lifetime.
Challenging a native ruler, Máel Brigte the Bucktoothed, to a 40 versus 40 man battle, Sigurd, in an act of great dishonor and deceit, secretly brought 80 men to the field. Easily besting his opponent and winning the unfair battle, he beheaded his defeated opponent. Strapping the head of Máel Brigte to his saddle as a trophy, at some point during his ride home the famed buck-tooth of his enemy scratched Sigurd’s leg. The resultant wound became infected as a result of intimate contact with the necrotic tissue, with Sigurd dying soon after from the contracted illness in an apropos display of karmic vengeance.
18. Attributed to two figures from the ancient world – Charondas and Zaleucus – both men wrote laws proscribing the carrying of arms into the public forum and, upon forgetting to disarm, committed ritual suicide
Commonly identified as a student of Pythagoras, Charondas is widely attributed as the author of the ancient code of laws used by the Rhegians during the 5th century BCE. Written originally in verse and adopted by the wider Chalcidic colonies across modern-day Italy, among the many precise laws dictated by Charondas was the strict rule that no person may entire the public assembly whilst wearing a sword. Entering one day after hunting whilst inadvertently still carrying his knife, according to legend Charondas committed suicide upon the blade in a demonstration of his devotion to the equal application of the law.
Possibly apocryphal, the story of Charondas likely draws inspiration from the older character of Zaleucus. A Greek lawgiver from the 7th century BCE, Zaleucus is often credited with being the author of the first written Greek law code: the Locrian Code. Stipulating numerous harsh punishments for a variety of offenses, Greek folklore told of how Zaleucus, to spare his son, blinded himself in one eye in accordance with his own law after his progeny committed adultery. Equally, after forgetting to remove his blade at the entrance, Zaleucus likewise entered the Senate House bearing arms and consequently threw himself upon it as a public sacrifice to the sovereignty of the law.
17. Qin Shi Huang, the founder of a unified China, died after consuming mercury in an attempt to circumvent the human condition and attain immortality
Qin Shi Huang, born Ying Zheng in 259 BCE, was the first emperor of a unified China and founder of the short-lived Qin dynasty. Inheriting the Kingdom of Chin at the age of thirteen, the young ruler unleashed campaign after campaign against his neighboring rivals. Gradually assimilating smaller and weaker components of larger China, by 230 Zheng initiated the final campaign of the Warring States period. Conquering Zhao in 228, Yan in 226, and Wei in 225, by 221 he had achieved his dream: a unified China. Proclaiming himself “First Emperor” and possessing a “Mandate from Heaven”, Zheng set about organizing his new dominion.
Continuing to expand the size of the Chinese state, including the annexations of Hunan and Guangdong, the reign of Qin Shi Huang was also marked by extreme political repression. Scholars were executed en masse, philosophical texts burned, and the creation of the Great Wall of China and his city-sized mausoleum entailed the use of slave labor on an unprecedented scale. In 211, after the fall of a meteor, a prophecy was made foretelling the death of the emperor. Fearing his own mortality, it is believed the emperor ingested mercury pills in the mistaken belief they could prolong his life; instead, he died suddenly on September 10, 210 BCE.
16. The first known human victim of a robot, Robert Williams was killed after an industrial accident at the Ford Motor Company’s plant in Flat Rock, Michigan, in January 1979
An American factory worker employed at the Ford Motor Company’s Flat Rock Casting Plant in the eponymous town in Michigan, Robert Williams became the first known human to be killed by a robot after an industrial accident on January 25, 1979. One of three operators of the parts retrieval system – a five-story robot built by the Unit Handling Systems division of Litton Industries – the machine was designed with the intent of fetching castings from storage shelves at the plant. Equipped with one-ton transfer vehicles possessing mechanical arms, following an inaccurate reading on inventory Williams was forced to climb the racks to retrieve the parts manually.
Clambering into the third level of the storage rack, Williams was suddenly struck from behind and crushed by one of the transfer vehicles. Believed to have been killed instantly, his body remained on the shelf for more than thirty minutes until his co-workers discovered it after growing concerned by his disappearance. Suing Litton Industries for negligent design, William’s family were ultimately awarded ten million dollars, increased to fifteen on appeal, by a jury four years later, with the company forced to settle for a larger unidentified sum out of court to avoid admittance of guilt and avert a litany of subsequent claims.
15. George Plantagenet, of the English House of York, elected to die by drowning in a vat of wine after being sentenced to death in 1478 following successive treasons
George Plantagenet, Duke of Clarence, was a member of the House of York and brother to the English Kings Edward IV and Richard III. Despite being the third son of Richard Plantagenet, Duke of York, George initially decided to support the rival House of Lancaster in the War of the Roses. Believing he could potentially leverage himself into a position to inherit the English crown, George allied with Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick. However, after Neville married a daughter to the son and heir of Henry VI in 1470, George realized that he was not as favored as he had previously assumed and fled back to the Yorkists.
Initially benefiting from this reconciliation, being named Earl of Warwick after the death of Neville in battle, ultimately George had chosen the wrong side in the dynastic conflict. Arrested and imprisoned in the Tower of London, George was charged with treason. Found guilty of “unnatural, loathly treasons”, aggravated by his betrayals against his own brothers, George was privately executed at the Tower on February 18, 1478. Accepting that he was to die, George resolved to meet his maker in what he thought would be an appropriate and dignified fashion. Consequently, and supposedly by his own request, the English aristocrat was luridly drowned in a vat of claret wine.
14. The highest ranking Union officer to die in the American Civil War, John Sedgwick was shot dead after bragging the enemy “couldn’t hit an elephant at this distance”
A career military officer in the United States Army, upon the breakout of the American Civil War John Sedgwick sided with the Union and was elevated to the rank of brigadier general. Wounded three times at the Battle of Antietam whilst personally leading his division, Sedgwick remained a prominent figure throughout several other major battles of the conflict. Encountering Confederate sharpshooters at the onset on the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House on May 9, 1864, targeting members of his staff and artillerymen from over one thousand yards away, the shots were nevertheless causing panic and disruption among the soldiers.
In a display of defiant bravery, Sedgwick began marching around in the open in an effort to ease their concerns. Flaunting his bravado, exclaiming “men dodging this way for single bullets? What will you do when they open fire along the whole line?”, following the loud pronouncement that “they couldn’t hit an elephant at this distance” Sedgwick was struck beneath the left eye and killed instantly. A beloved commander and the highest-ranking Union officer to perish in the course of the Civil War, his loss was felt severely among both his men and colleagues, with Ulysses S. Grant reportedly despondent at news of his death.
13. William Adelin, a spoiled prince of England, drowned after leaping into and capsizing a lifeboat after his companions drunkenly crashed the royal yacht
William Ætheling, also known as William Adelin, was the son of Henry I of England and heir apparent to the throne until his untimely death in 1120. Born 1103, a product of the marriage between Henry and Matilda of Scotland, designed to appease objectors to Norman rule of Anglo-Saxon England, his father placed enormous hopes on his only son to unite the divisions in his kingdom. As a result of this preferential treatment, however, William became “a prince so pampered” that, according to contemporary chroniclers, he seemed “destined to be food for the fire” and was totally unprepared to inherit the contested throne.
Invested as the Duke of Normandy from 1115, William partook little in the minutiae of ruling. Whilst crossing the English Channel aboard the Blanche-Nef, the fastest ship in the royal fleet, William was killed as part of the White Ship incident. After a night of drinking ashore in France, William and his retainers sought to navigate the still seas. The helmsman, drunk, unintentionally rammed the ship in a rock, resulting in the ship filling with water. Launching a life-dinghy, the drunken prince leapt from the ship into the emergency vessel and in so doing caused it to capsize. Killing all aboard, the death of William precipitated a major succession crisis in England.
12. Believed to be the first and only jockey to claim victory after dying mid-race, Frank Hayes remained in the saddle to clinch victory at Belmont Park in June 1923
By profession not a jockey but rather a horse trainer and stableman, thirty-five-year-old Frank Hayes had never won a race before entering at Belmont Park, New York, on June 4, 1923. Riding Sweet Kiss, owned by A.M. Frayling and rated at odds of twenty to one, Hayes dramatically produced the best performance of his career. Winning by a head over his closest competitor, upon hurrying over to congratulate her rider Frayling discovered, to her immense horror, that the triumphant but unmoving Hayes was dead. Believed to have suffered a heart attack mid-race, by remaining atop the horse Hayes became the first, and to this day only, jockey believed to have won a competitive race posthumously.
Forced to lose a dangerous amount of weight in the days prior to the event, the rapid slimming is believed, in combination with stress and exertion, to have triggered a fatal heart attack in the young man. As a sign of respect, all post-race formalities were overlooked by the Jockey Club, including the customary weighing in and presentation ceremony. Hayes, dressed in his racing silks, was afforded a decent funeral three days later, whilst Sweet Kiss was retired from racing. Less admirably, becoming associated with her final ride, the unfortunate horse was allegedly nicknamed “Sweet Kiss of Death” for the remainder of her life.
11. John of Bohemia, despite being blind for more than a decade, led an ill-advised charge at the Battle of Crécy which unsurprisingly cost him his life
The Count of Luxembourg from 1309, John of Bohemia simultaneously reigned as the King of Bohemia from 1310 until his death in 1346. The eldest son of Holy Roman Emperor Henry VII, with the support of his powerful father John, who had been raised in Paris, was able to capture Prague in December 1310 and depose the reigning monarch Henry of Carinthia. Attempting to succeed his father, John was passed over in favor of Louis IV of Wittelsbach in 1314. Nevertheless, John was loyal to his triumphant competitor, supporting him in the Battle of Mühldorf in 1322 and was rewarded with the Egerland for his dispassionate committal of duty.
Widely disliked inside Bohemia, viewed as a foreign ruler, John lost his eyesight from ophthalmia in 1336 whilst in Lithuania. Refusing to let his disability prevent him from discharging his office, John allied himself with Philip VI of France in the Hundred Years’ War. Commanding the vanguard at the Battle of Crécy in 1346, the blind fifty-year-old king was killed fighting the English. According to chroniclers, the courageous king demanded he be allowed at least one strike to bloody his sword and charged into the midst of the battle. However, in the course of this foolhardy attack John, along with his bodyguard retinue, were slain to the last man.
10. One of the most influential philosophers from Ancient Greece, Chrysippus of Soli is reputed to have died after laughing too hard whilst watching a donkey eat figs
Born in 279 BCE, Chrysippus, slight in stature, is thought to have initially trained as a long-distance runner. Moving to Athens following the confiscation of his family’s property in Soli, Chrysippus became a student of Cleanthes at the Stoic school. Acquiring a reputation for his intellect and learning, upon the death of his teacher in 230 Chrysippus succeeded Cleanthes as the head of the Stoics. A prolific writer, said to have produced at least five hundred lines per day and allegedly composing more than seven hundred works throughout his lifetime, sadly none of these philosophical treatises have survived to the modern day other than in fragments quoted by the works of others.
Dying at the age of seventy-three during the 143rd Olympiad, two separate accounts of Chrysippus’ death are offered. The first and more commonplace, recorded by Diogenes Laërtius, contends Chrysippus was seized with dizziness following drinking at a feast and died soon after. The alternative, which has since become an indelible aspect of his legacy and character, is far more bizarre, claiming Chrysippus was watching a donkey eat figs whereupon he exclaimed: “now give the donkey a drink of pure wine to wash down the figs”. Believing he had made a hilarious joke, the philosopher collapsed in an unending fit of laughter and subsequently died.
9. The thirty-seventh and final ruler of the Abbasid Caliphate, Al-Musta’sim Billah was killed by the Mongols by being wrapped in a rug and trampled to death by horses
Succeeding his father in 1242 CE, al-Musta’sim-Billah Abu-Ahmad Abdullah bin al-Mustansir-Billah – more commonly known as Al-Musta’sim Billah – ruled as the thirty-seventh and final Caliph of the Abbasid Caliphate. Notable for opposing the ascension of Shajar al-Durr to the Egyptian throne, as Caliph Al-Musta’sim rejected the authority of the second Muslim women to claim a crown and provided soldiers to force her abdication. However, despite enjoying a period of power and prosperity, Al-Musta’sim’s rule also saw the caliphate face the greatest threat since its creation in 632: the Mongol invasion. Having already annihilated opposition in Transoxiana and Khorasan, the forces under Hulagu Khan compelled the Abbasid to provide military aid for their campaign against Alamut in 1255.
Once completed, Hulagu subsequently invaded the reduced caliphate in 1258. Laying siege to Baghdad, those who sought to flee were massacred whilst the city was breached and sacked on February 10. Seeking to avoid the shedding of royal blood, one narrative of the event describes the Mongols wrapping Al-Musta’sim in a rug and trampling him to death with horses. An alternative and less subscribed to account, depicted in The Travels of Marco Polo, claims Hulagu locked the Caliph in his treasure room, mocking him to “eat of thy treasure as much as thou wilt, since thou art so fond of it.”
8. Henry I of England died after consuming an excessive quantity of lampreys whilst on campaign in France
Henry I, also known as Henry Beauclerc, was the fourth son of William the Conqueror and King of England from 1100 until his death in 1135. Left landless after the death of his father, passed over for inheritance in favor of his elder brothers, Robert Curthose and William Rufus, Henry was even deposed as Count of Contentin by his brothers in 1091 after purchasing the title from Robert. Gradually building a coalition of support, Henry, present during the mysterious circumstances surrounding the “accidental” death of his brother William in 1100, seized the throne of England. Although challenged by Robert, who invaded in 1101, Henry repelled his brother.
Returning the challenge, Henry invaded the Duchy of Normandy in 1105. Capturing his brother, Robert was imprisoned until his death in 1134 and Henry successfully reunited the family possessions of Normandy and England under a singular ruler. After the death of his pampered heir, William Adelin, the heirless Henry faced sustained challenges to his authority in Normandy. During a military campaign in 1135, after overindulging in a feast of lampreys, the king fell seriously ill. Although trying to rectify his stubborn refusal to name successors before his terminal illness took effect, his death precipitated a protracted civil war lasting until 1153.
7. A one-term Representative who opposed American involvement in the First World War, Michael F. Farley died suddenly in 1921 after contracting anthrax from his shaving brush
Born in Birr, County Offaly, Ireland, in 1863, at the age of eighteen Michael F. Farley emigrated to the United States. Settling in Brooklyn, Farley quickly established himself as a prominent local businessman following his acquisition of a tavern on West 22nd Street in New York City. Becoming President of the Wine and Liquor Dealers Association of New York County, in 1914 Farley was elected to the 64th United States Congress as Representative for his district. A proponent of the Gore-McLemore Resolution in 1916, intended to prevent the United States being dragged into World War I, the bill was defeated after opposition by President Woodrow Wilson.
Defeated after a single term, losing the 1916 election to Fiorello H. La Guardia, Farley returned to his profitable business ventures. However, in October 1921, Farley became exposed to anthrax contracted from his shaving brush. Seeking treatment at a hospital and receiving an anti-anthrax serum, Farley’s condition was too advanced for his physicians. Tragically succumbing to the infectious disease, Farley’s death helped publicize an ongoing effort by New York public health officials to prevent the importation of infected hides and animal hair products from certain regions after already causing eleven other deaths in the New York area.
6. Adolph Frederick of Sweden, a weak and powerless ruler, was so gluttonous he literally killed himself by eating too much
Adolph Frederick (b. 1710) was King of Sweden from 1751 until his death twenty years later. The first Swedish king from the House of Holstein-Gottorp, Adolph was installed as monarch after the death of Frederick I, of the House of Hesse-Kassel, after the latter’s disastrous performance during the Russo-Swedish War and failure to recover lost lands in the Baltic. However, due in part to the nature of his enthronement, Adolph enjoyed little power as the nation’s ruler. Rather than an absolute monarch, Adolph reigned in a highly restricted constitutional role, permitted to make few decisions and instead governed by parliament.
Attempting on two occasions to claim greater power, including the Coup of 1756 and the December Crisis of 1768, Adolph failed to acquire any political benefit from these moves. On February 12, 1771, having enjoyed a large meal comprised of lobsters, kippers, caviar, and champagne, Adolph completed his gluttonous engorgement with fourteen servings of semla and hot milk. Suffering from a severe bout of indigestion due to this binge eating, Adolph would swiftly succumb to his stomach. He was followed by his son, Gustav II, who succeeded in claiming absolute power in less than a year through a military coup.
5. Affecting hundreds of residents of Strasbourg and resulting in numerous fatalities, the “dancing plague” caused afflicted persons to dance continuously until they dropped from exhaustion
A most bizarre incident from history, reputedly beginning in July 1518 when a woman, Mrs. Troffea, started frantically dancing in a street in Strasbourg, within a week a further thirty-four others had joined in with the inexplicable activity. Continuing to dance unceasingly, after a month contemporary accounts record a crowd of around four hundred, predominantly female, dancers on the streets. Claiming the lives of some involved, with one chronicler asserting around fifteen people per day were killed by the so-called “dancing plague”, most likely from heart attacks, strokes, or exhaustion, local physicians were at a loss to explain the ongoing epidemic affecting the town.
Causing mass panic, rather than prescribing the usual treatment of bleeding, civic authorities instead encouraged more dancing in the hopes people would tire themselves out. Hiring musicians and setting up stages, this plan was a disaster and simply augmented the size of the hysterical dancing crowds. Ending as suddenly as it began, concluding after a period of just over a month, several modern theories have been suggested for the incredible occurrence. Ranging from mass food poisoning following consumption of psychoactive fungi, most likely ergot which contains structural similarities to LSD, to stress-induced psychosis, and even mass hysteria, it is unlikely a precise explanation will ever be provided for the lethal dancing plague.
4. The “father of tragedy”, the ancient playwright Aeschylus is traditionally held to have died after a large bird dropped a tortoise onto his bald head after mistaking it for a rock
An acclaimed playwright from Ancient Greece, Aeschylus is widely regarded as the father of tragedy from whom academic knowledge of the genre begins. Described by Aristotle as being responsible for expanding the number of characters in Greek theater, as well as permitting conflict among them rather than merely interactions with the chorus, only seven of the legendary authors estimated seventy to ninety works have survived to the modern day. Presenting the first known trilogy in human history – the Oresteia – his plays were celebrated by both his contemporaries and modern scholars as masterpieces of the discipline.
Returning to Sicily for the last time in 458 BCE, at the age of almost seventy, the circumstances of Aeschylus’ death remains a subject of controversy within classical scholarship. According to tradition, whilst visiting the city of Gela in either 456 or 455, Aeschylus was slain after a bird – most likely an eagle, lammergeier or Cinereous vulture – dropped a tortoise onto his head after mistaking his bald pate for a rock suitable for breaking the reptile’s shell. Whether true or not, Aeschylus was sufficiently respected by his peers and lamented in death that only his plays were admissible in subsequent dramatic competitions in the city-state of Athens.
3. Philip, the teenage co-king of France between 1129 and 1131, was killed when a pig hiding in dung tripped his horse and caused him to fall from the saddle
Philip, known colloquially as Philip, Crown Prince of France, was King of France from 1129-1131. Ruling as co-regent along with his father, Louis VI, known as Louis the Fat, he was the favorite son of Louis who insisted his son was enthroned with him upon turning thirteen. However, Philip failed to demonstrate his father’s trust and faith in him was well-placed, refusing to pay attention at court or adhere to the standards expected of a French monarch. Chronicler Walter Map recorded the young ruler “strayed from the paths of conduct traveled by his father and, by his overweening pride and tyrannical arrogance, made himself a burden to all”.
Conveniently, perhaps, Philip’s tenure at co-ruler did not last long. Just two years after his coronation, whilst riding at speed with companions along the banks of the Seine in Paris, his horse was suddenly tripped by a black pig emerging from a dung heap on a quay. Falling forwards, the teenager was flung over the top of his steed, with the fall fracturing many of the bones in his body. Falling into a coma, the wayward ruler would die the following day having never regained consciousness. His younger brother, seeking to fulfill the deceased Philip’s dream, succeeded him as co-king and embarked on the disastrous Second Crusade in his place.
2. A composite character drawn from several Vikings, Ragnar Lodbrok is believed to have been killed after being thrown into a pit of snakes at the order of King Ælla of Northumbria
An uncertain character from Norse history, Ragnar Lodbrok was a legendary warrior-king of Denmark and Sweden during the Viking Age. Appearing in several Old Norse sagas, the figure of Ragnar is repeatedly associated with numerous distinguished events, including raids against Francia and Anglo-Saxon England during the 9th century. Most prominently, the character – widely considered a composite of several leaders from throughout the age – is attached to the Siege of Paris in 845, which saw the Viking forces successfully occupy the city and extract vast sums in plunder from the conquered Franks.
Although no evidence exists for Ragnar beyond the mythology associated with the figure, several features of his life remain constant across these many stories. Famously, the death of Ragnar at the hands of King Ælla of Northumbria in 865 is one of these elements, with Viking tradition holding the legendary warrior was slain after being captured and thrown into a pit of snakes. The death of Ragnar at the hands of Ælla, unlike other aspects of Ragnar’s story, is strongly corroborated, with the Great Heathen Army invading Northumberland soon after, led by the Ragnarssons, claiming vengeance against those responsible and wreaking havoc throughout Anglo-Saxon England for generations.
1. King Bela I of Hungary suffered fatal injuries after his throne collapsed beneath him whilst he was preparing to abdicate and flee his enemies
Bela I, also known as Bela the Champion or Bela the Wisent, was briefly King of Hungary between 1060 and his death shortly after in 1063. Invited by his brother, Andrew I, who had been crowned King of Hungary, to return from exile and become a prominent duke, Bela ultimately rebelled against his generous relative in 1060. Succeeding with Polish assistance, Bela dethroned Andrew, who would die of battle-inflicted wounds, and claimed the crown himself. Introducing numerous reforms, including of monetary policy and religious practices, Bela also ended pagan revolts in Hungary.
Attempting to conclude a protracted conflict with the Holy Roman Empire, Bela released German prisoners in a show of good faith. However, undeterred, the German princes launched an expedition in 1063 to overthrow Bela. In the course of making plans to abdicate in favor of his cousin, Soloman, who enjoyed the backing of the Germans, Bela suffered a fatal injury when “his throne broke beneath him”. Enduring in a “half-dead” condition, Bela was carried into exile with his sons before dying at the western border of Hungary on September 11. His children were forced to continue their exodus, with Soloman ascending to the vacated throne.
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