Atypical Deaths of these Historical Figures

Atypical Deaths of these Historical Figures

Khalid Elhassan - July 14, 2020

Death comes to all, the great and the small. For most, it comes in prosaic and unremarkable ways, meeting death in a bed of sickness or old age. For some, however, death comes in an unusual guise, with so many bells and whistles that it leaves the living scratching their heads and going “wait… what?” Following are forty fascinating things about some of the latter types of death, culled from the annals of history.

Atypical Deaths of these Historical Figures
Preamble to the US Constitution. ACLU of Ohio

40. The Founding Father Who Shoved a Comb Up His Manhood

We the People of the United States, in order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

The Preamble to the United States Constitution, above, was written by Gouverneur Morris (1752 – 1816). Although not one of the best-known Founding Fathers, Morris was probably the wildest of the bunch. Among other things, he married an accused murderess, had a thing for public “intimacy”, and lost a leg in an adultery-related accident. To cap off the wildness, he died after shoving a whalebone comb up his “private area”.

Atypical Deaths of these Historical Figures
Gouverneur Morris. Wikimedia

39. The Cool Founding Father

If there was a sitcom about the Founding Fathers, Gouverneur Morris would probably get depicted as the cool one. Benjamin Franklin was perhaps the only other Founding Father who could have competed with Morris in the coolness department. Morris was also, by his era’s standards, a pretty decent guy.

Many Founding Fathers were hypocrites when it came to stuff like slavery. E.g.; Thomas Jefferson, who penned “All men are created equal” to begin the Declaration of Independence, even as he lived in luxury off the sweat of human chattel toiling on his plantation. Over a thousand slaves were kept just between him and George Washington alone. Morris by contrast decried slavery as a “nefarious institution“. At the Constitutional Convention, he argued: “Proceed southwardly, and every step you take, through the great regions of slaves, presents a desert increasing with the increasing proportion of these wretched beings“.

Also Read: The Slave Who Escaped from George Washington.

Atypical Deaths of these Historical Figures
The Louvre Palace in the eighteenth century. Getty Museum

38. The Exhibitionist

Gouverneur Morris was a nymphomaniac who liked to get freaky. A bachelor until the age of 57, he liked the ladies, and by all accounts, the ladies liked him back. Many of the surviving accounts come from his own diary, which he filled with details about his escapades, referring to intimacy as “celebrating”. He was especially active while serving as a diplomat in France just before and after the French Revolution.

Morris’ main mistress at the time was a married noblewoman, who lived in the Louvre – now a museum, then a royal palace that housed some of the king’s favorites. Both he and his lover liked taking risks. In one diary entry he wrote about a tryst: “Go to the Louvre…we take the Chance of Interruption and celebrate in the Passage while [Mademoiselle] is at the Harpsichord in the Drawing Room. The husband is below. Visitors are hourly expected. The Doors are all open“.

Atypical Deaths of these Historical Figures
Gouverneur Morris. History Channel

37. Losing a Leg to Adultery

Gouverneur Morris’ risk-taking with a married woman in France was remarkable, considering his past negative track record when it came to affairs with married women. By the time Morris was assigned as a diplomat to France, he was hobbling around on just one leg, having lost the other because of an adulterous escapade.

It had happened a decade earlier in 1780, in Philadelphia, while fleeing from an angry husband livid at having been cuckolded by Morris. Running for his life, Morris got into an accident with a carriage that ran over and mangled his left leg, leading to its amputation above the knee.

Atypical Deaths of these Historical Figures
Whalebone comb. Medium

36. Death From Shoving a Comb Up a Man’s “Pride”

Gouverneur’s Morris extended bachelorhood ended in 1809, when at 57, he married Anne Gary Randolph, 22 years his junior. She had a history: back in 1792, she had an affair with her brother-in-law, became pregnant, and had a baby. The baby conveniently died, and Anne was tried for murder, but was eventually acquitted.

Seven years into his marriage, in 1816, Morris had a urethra blockage, which caused him trouble urinating. He went for a DIY remedy, which backfired and resulted in his death. Morris tried to unblock his urinary tract by shoving a fine whalebone comb up his… manhole. It did not work. Morris ended up injuring the insides of his urethra, which grew infected and killed him. Gouverneur Morris had already distinguished himself during his lifetime as one of the coolest Founding Fathers. He further distinguished himself as he shuffled off the mortal with the weirdest death experienced by one of the country’s leading founders.

Atypical Deaths of these Historical Figures
Clement Vallandigham’s arrest in 1863. Wikimedia

35. Lincoln’s Gadfly Meets an Odd Death

Clement Vallandigham (1820 – 1871) was a contrarian – and not of the good kind. An Ohio politician, he served two terms in the US House of Representatives and led the treasonous faction of anti-war Democrats known as Copperheads during the Civil War. In 1863, a court-martial convicted him of sympathizing with those in armed rebellion against the US, and exiled him to the Confederacy.

He headed to Canada, and ran for governor of Ohio from exile, but lost the election. He returned a year later, but while Union authorities monitored and kept tabs on his activities, they otherwise left him be. After the war, he advocated against suffrage and equality for blacks, and made a living as a lawyer while at it. It was in that capacity as an attorney that death caught up with Vallandigham in an Ohio courtroom in 1871, when he accidentally shot himself in the stomach during a trial.

Atypical Deaths of these Historical Figures
Vallandigham’s death. Pinterest

34. Shooting Oneself to Death During a Trial

Clement Vallandigham was representing a defendant, Thomas McGehean, accused of shooting Tom Myers to death during a barroom brawl. Vallandingham intended to demonstrate to the jury that the deceased had accidentally shot himself while attempting to draw a pistol, only for it to snag on his clothing and accidentally discharge.

So he picked a pistol, which he thought was unloaded, placed it in his pocket, then acted out the scenario in the courtroom. Unfortunately for Vallandigham, the pistol he used was actually loaded. When he mimicked the deceased’s drawing motion, the hammer fell on a live round, which discharged into his stomach. The demonstration convinced the jury, however, and McGehean was acquitted. Death claimed Vallandigham the following day, when the bullet wound grew infected.

Atypical Deaths of these Historical Figures
A terrible way to go. Crime Online

33. Worst Rescue, Ever?

In 1950, nineteen-year-old Pat Cogdon was living with her fifty-year-old mother, Ivy, in a suburb of Melbourne, Australia. Ivy was afflicted with a variety of nervous complaints, including night terrors. On August 11th of that year, Ivy entered Pat’s bedroom with an ax in hand, and smashed her skull, bringing about her death. When police arrived, Ivy admitted what she had done, and was duly arrested and charged with murder.

In her defense, she claimed that she was sleepwalking when she left her bedroom, and in that state, she thought North Korean soldiers had invaded her suburban home and were attacking her daughter. So she reacted by grabbing an ax and rushed to her daughter’s defense, swinging at the imaginary North Korean soldiers to fend them off, and in the process, ended up killing her daughter.

Atypical Deaths of these Historical Figures
North Korean soldiers during the Korean War. Pinterest

32. “I Dreamt the Korean War Was All Around the House

As Ivy Cogdon told detectives, she had not intended to bring about her daughter’s death: “I dreamt the [Korean] war was all around the house. I heard Pat screaming and rushed into her room, it was full of soldiers. I hit at them. I remember hitting the bed. Oh Pat, I don’t want to live now“.

While Ivy Congdon’s actions were bizarre, her underlying fear was not uncommon at the time in Australia, where there was a widespread of Asians. The country was only five years removed from WWII, when it had been threatened by Japanese invasion. More recently, Mao’s communists had won control of China, and only two months earlier, the North Koreans had crossed the 38th parallel to invade South Korea, sparking the Korean War.

Atypical Deaths of these Historical Figures
North Korean soldiers marching through Seoul during the Korean War. Pinterest

31. Taking Overprotective Mothering to New Depths

Ivy Cogdon pled not guilty to the death of her daughter on grounds that she was sleepwalking at the time, and was thus unaware of her actions. At a coroner’s inquest, a psychiatrist testified that he thought Ivy was a somnambulist or sleepwalker. As described by other doctors who had been treating her prior to Pat’s death, Ivy’s medical history included powerful night terrors, and they had described her as a “hysterical type” prone to blackouts and somnambulism. Their conclusion was that Mrs. Cogdon would not have known what she was doing when she killed her daughter.

At trial, she testified that of her many fears, her greatest was the recently started Korean War, and how she would protect her family from invading Korean soldiers. She was particularly worried that the invaders would “pollute” her daughter. On the night of Pat’s death, those fears were exacerbated and made more vivid when Ivy’s daughter told her that she would volunteer as a transport driver if the Koreans invaded Australia.

Atypical Deaths of these Historical Figures
Ivy Cogdon. Herald Sun

30. Australia’s First Successful Somnambulism Defense

As Ivy Cogdon fretted about North Korean soldiers, her daughter told her: “Mummy, don’t be silly worrying about the war. It is not at your front door“. That attempted reassurance only worsened matters, and made Mrs. Cogdon imagine what would happen if the war actually did come to her front door – and crossed the threshold.

Based on the medical evidence, Mrs. Cogdon’s mental history, and testimony by family and friends that she had been a loving mother, devoted to her daughter, the jury found her not guilty of Pat’s death. They concluded that she had been unaware of her actions at the time, and thus not responsible. It was the first time in Australia that somebody successfully used sleepwalking or somnambulism as a defense, so the case, Regina v. Cogdon, made legal history.

Atypical Deaths of these Historical Figures
Martha Mansfield. Cine Click

29. A Deadly Frilly Dress

The Warrens of Virginia was a 1924 romantic drama from the silent film era. Its plot revolved around a love story in which a man leaves his Southern sweetheart to fight for the Union in the Civil War. No known prints survive, making it a lost movie. The film is best known today for the death of its star, Martha Mansfield (1899 – 1923), in a freak accident on set, caused by a frilly dress.

Martha Mansfield was a New Yorker who set her mind from an early age on becoming an actress. At age fourteen, she secured a role in a Broadway play, and took side gigs as an artists’ model and a dancer in musicals. In 1917, she was signed up by a forerunner of Warner Bros. Studios, and performed in three short movies.

Atypical Deaths of these Historical Figures
Martha Mansfield. Pinterest

28. The Warrens of Virginia

A year later, Martha Mansfield appeared in the Ziegfeld Follies – a popular series of theatrical revue productions that ran on Broadway from 1907 to 1934, and combined music, dance, and sketches. In 1919, she relocated to California to pursue a full-time acting career. She caught her first big break the following year, when she was cast opposite superstar John Barrymore in 1920’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

By 1923, Mansfield was a rising star who had come a long way in a short time. On Thanksgiving Day that year, she was in San Antonio on the film set of her latest movie, the Civil War love story The Warrens of Virginia. It would also be her last movie, and its set would bring about her death.

Atypical Deaths of these Historical Figures
Martha Mansfield and John Barrymore in ‘Dr. Jeckyl and Mr. Hyde’. Silence is Platinum


At the end of filming on Thanksgiving, Martha Mansfield was hanging out with fellow actors. She was still in costume and clad in a frilly period dress of a Southern belle, when somebody lit a cigarette and tossed the match. It landed on Mansfield’s dress, which immediately caught fire and went up in a WHOOOSH!

Her co-star saved her face and neck by throwing his overcoat over her, while her chauffer sustained severe hand burns ripping the flaming dress off of Mansfield. However, by then she had sustained severe burns over much of her body. Mansfield was rushed to a hospital in San Antonio, but despite the treatment doctors’ best efforts, the burns were too extensive, and death claimed her the following day.

Atypical Deaths of these Historical Figures
John Sedgwick. Civil War Talk

26. When Bravado Backfires

John Sedgwick (1813 – 1864) was born into a family of Revolutionary War veterans, including a grandfather who had served as a general alongside George Washington. Sedgwick became a respected and competent Union general and corps commander during the Civil War. His kindliness and paternal affection, combined with concern for his soldiers’ well-being, won him the love of his men and the nickname “Uncle John”. Unfortunately, he is more widely remembered for his ironic last words at the time of his death – a bit of bravado that ended badly – than for his solid military career.

Sedgwick graduated from West Point in 1837 and was commissioned as an artillery officer. He served ably and was still in uniform when the Civil War broke out in 1861. He was given command of a cavalry regiment, and by August 1861, was promoted to command his own brigade in the Army of the Potomac, and by February 1862, was in charge of his own division. He fought bravely in the Peninsula Campaign and was wounded twice during the Seven Days Battles.

Atypical Deaths of these Historical Figures
Death of John Sedgwick. Wikimedia

25. “They Couldn’t Hit an Elephant at This Dist…

At the Battle of Antietam, Sedgwick was sent on a poorly planned charge. His division was shot to pieces, losing 2200 men, while he took three bullets. When he recovered and returned to duty, he was promoted to command of his own corps. He won early success with his Sixth Corps during the Battle of Chancellorsville in 1863, but the battle ended in defeat.

During the Overland Campaign in 1864, he led his corps in the Battle of the Wilderness. On May 9th, 1864, at the start of the Battle of Spotsylvania Courthouse, Sedgwick was positioning his artillery when his troops came under sniper fire and grew jittery. Chiding them for their timidity under single bullets, he wondered how they would react when they confronted the massed enemy on the firing line, and faced full volleys. The men were ashamed, but continued to flinch. So Uncle John Sedgwick continued: “Why are you dodging like this? They couldn’t hit an elephant at this dista…“, at which point his pep speech was interrupted by a sniper bullet striking him in the face, beneath his left eye. His death was instantaneous, and he earned the unfortunate distinction of becoming the highest-ranking Union battlefield death of the Civil War.

Atypical Deaths of these Historical Figures
Sigurd the Mighty. Ranker

24. Death by an Already Dead Enemy

Sigurd Eysteinsson, AKA Sigurd the Mighty (died 892) was a Viking Earl who ruled the Orkney and Shetland Islands off the northern coast of Scotland. Allied with other Vikings chieftains, he launched an invasion of the Scottish mainland, which conquered northern Scotland, and asserted Viking control as far south as Moray. Sigurd’s exploits during that conquest earned him the epithet “the Mighty” from fellow Vikings.

He gained his earldom after the Viking king of a recently unified Norway sent Sigurd’s brother, Rognvald Eysteinsson, to conquer the Shetland and Orkney Islands. They had become a troublesome refuge for Norwegian exiles, from which they raided their homeland. During the conquest, Rognvald lost a son, so the king of Norway compensated him by giving him the islands and making him an earl. Having interests elsewhere, Rognvald gave the islands, and the title, to his younger brother, Sigurd.

Atypical Deaths of these Historical Figures
Sigurd the Mighty. An Exploring South African

23. Death From a Dead Man’s Bite

Sigurd’s strange death came during the course of his conquest of northern Scotland. He challenged a local chieftain, Mael Brigte the Bucktoothed, head of the Mormaerdom, or kingdom, of Moray, to a 40 man per side battle. However, Sigurd cheated and showed up with 80 men. Outnumbered, the Scots were defeated and massacred, and Sigurd personally beheaded Mael Brigte.

Tying the defeated leader’s head to his saddle as a trophy, Sigurd rounded up his men and rode back home to celebrate the victory. However, on the way back, as the severed head tied to the saddle bounced around, the bucktooth which gave Mael Brigte his nickname cut Sigurd’s leg. The cut became inflamed and infected, leading to Sigurd’s death before he got back home.

Atypical Deaths of these Historical Figures
A dinar coin from Al Mustasim’s reign. Wikimedia

22. When Trash Talk Backfires

Al Musta’sim Billah (1213 -1258) was the last ruler of the Abbasid Caliphate, and Islam’s last Caliph. A weak ruler ruling a weak rump of what had once been a mighty empire, Al Musta’sim was surrounded by ineffectual advisors who offered conflicting advice when the Mongols demanded his submission. He rejected the demands, ignoring some and answering others with bluster and empty threats. In the meantime, he failed to prepare adequate defenses against what was sure to follow such rejection. He capped off his errors with a bout of trash talk, that ultimately brought about his death.

The Mongols first erupted into the Islamic world in the 1220s, when Genghis Khan destroyed the Khwarezmian Empire and conquered as far west as western Persia up to the edges of Mesopotamia. That outburst was followed by a decades-long relative lull, as far as the Middle East and the Islamic world were concerned. The Mongols directed their energies elsewhere, instead, against China, Kievan Rus, Eastern Europe, and in internal squabbles amongst themselves. The lull ended in the 1250s, when a new Mongol ruler, Genghis Khan’s grandson Mongke, turned his attention to the Middle East, and sent his brother, Hulagu, to assert Mongol power over the region.

Atypical Deaths of these Historical Figures
Hulagu. Pintrest

21. The Scary Mongol

Hulagu began by first destroying the Assassins, a murderous cult led by a shadowy mystic known as The Old Man of the Mountain. The cult had operated from a string of mountain holdfasts, and terrorized the Middle East for over a century and a half. Completing that task by 1256, Hulagu turned his attention to the Abbassid Caliphate, based in Baghdad, and ordered its Caliph, Al Musta’sim, to submit to Mongol suzerainty and pay tribute.

The Abbassids, once a powerful dynasty that had ruled the world’s largest, strongest, and most prosperous empire, were centuries removed from their heyday by the time Al Musta’sim became Caliph. By the 1250s, the Abbasid sway did not stretch far beyond Baghdad. The Caliph had been reduced to a mostly ceremonial figurehead, a puppet of Turkish or Persian sultans wielding real power and acting in his name. What the Caliph did have left was a remnant of spiritual and moral authority, and enough pride to refuse Hulagu’s summons to submit.

Atypical Deaths of these Historical Figures
A medieval tapestry depicting the Mongol Siege of Baghdad. History Buff

20. Trampled to Death

The Abbasids were not prepared to face the Mongols, who had conquered bigger and tougher opponents than the small rump which still remained of the Caliphate. However, Al Musta’sim believed that the Mongols would not be able to seize Baghdad, and that if the city was endangered, the Islamic world would rush to its aid. Hulagu marched on Baghdad, the Islamic world did not rush to its aid, and after a twelve-day siege, the city fell.

The Mongols sacked Baghdad, massacred its inhabitants, burned its vast libraries, and put the city to the torch. Al Musta’sim was captured, but the Mongols had a taboo against spilling royal blood. So they had him executed by rolling him in a carpet, and their army rode over him when it marched off to further conquests, their horses trampling the last Caliph to death.

Atypical Deaths of these Historical Figures
A ‘They Died With Their Boots On’ poster. Film Score Monthly

19. A Silly Movie Death

1941’s They Died With Their Boots On was a highly fictionalized depiction of the life of George Armstrong Custer, from when he first entered West Point, to his death at Little Big Horn. Starring Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland, the film was a huge commercial success, and one of the highest-grossing movies of 1941. However, the production had been marred by significant tragedy, as three people met their death on set during filming.

The film set was jinxed from early on, and misfortune stalked the production. At some point, Errol Flynn collapsed from exhaustion, and for a while, it was touch and go for the famous actor. In the opening days of filming, which entailed scenes of massed cavalry charges and melees, eighty people were injured, and three died. The first fatality was a stuntman who had a massive coronary and dropped dead on the set from a heart attack. Next was an extra with no horseback riding experience, who fell off his steed while galloping and broke his neck. The mishaps were not over.

Atypical Deaths of these Historical Figures
A still from ‘They Died With Their Boots On’. Alchetron

18. Errol Flynn’s Buddy, Budlong

The best-known death from the set of They Died With Their Boots On was that of Jack Budlong (1913 – 1941). An experienced horseman and a personal friend of Errol Flynn, with whom he frequently played polo, Budlong badgered the famous actor into getting him on set. Flynn relented, and got him a role as an extra. It did not seem problematic: Budlong was a great horseman, the movie was about a famous cavalryman, and it would have many horseback riding scenes.

However, Budlong got carried away by amateurish enthusiasm or simple stupidity. In a scene depicting a Civil War clash between Union and Confederate forces, instead of using a prop sword, he insisted on using a real saber while leading a rebel cavalry charge against Union artillery.

Atypical Deaths of these Historical Figures
Still from ‘They Died With Their Boots On’. Clio Muse

17. Killed by His Own Sword

As a coroner’s inquest described the death of Jack Budlong, he was dressed in a Confederate cavalryman’s costume when he charged across the “battlefield”. He was enthusiastically waving his saber, while prop explosions went off all around, to simulate enemy artillery rounds. However, Budlong’s horse was not adequately trained to deal with the explosions and simulated battlefield chaos and noise. It panicked, began bucking, and Budlong was thrown off the saddle 15 to 20 feet in the air. He landed on and was impaled by his saber, which ran him clean through, piercing his abdomen and exiting out his back.

Budlong was rushed to a Los Angeles hospital, but his injuries were too severe and he succumbed to them. His death brought to three the number of fatalities during production, making They Died With Their Boots On one of Hollywood’s deadlier film sets. The movie’s name was an apt descriptor of those who lost their lives during filming: dressed up in military costumes when they met their ends, they had literally died with their boots on.

Atypical Deaths of these Historical Figures
Still from a movie about Kichizo Ishida and Sada Abe. IMS

16. Choose Your Lovers Wisely

Successful Japanese businessman and restaurateur Kichizo Ishida (1894 – 1936) had a reputation as a ladies’ man. Starting off as an apprentice in a restaurant that specialized in eel dishes, he opened a highly successful restaurant when he was 24, the Yoshidaya, in Tokyo’s Nakano neighborhood. By 1936, Ishida had left the management of his business affairs to his wife, and dedicated himself to womanizing. Early in 1936, he began a torrid love affair with a recently hired employee, Sada Abe. It ended with his horrific death.

Sada Abe (1905 – 1971) had been a Geisha and former prostitute before she started working as an apprentice at Ishida’s restaurant. It did not take long for her new boss to start making advances, which she eagerly welcomed. The duo became infatuated with each other, spending days engaged in marathon intercourse sessions at hotels, not pausing even when maids came in to clean the rooms.

Atypical Deaths of these Historical Figures
Still from a movie about Sada Abe. Ozy

15. There’s Love, and There’s Obsession

Kichizo Ishida was quite pleased with the physical part of his torrid affair with his employee and girlfriend, Sada Abe. Unfortunately, her infatuation with her boss and boyfriend grew into an obsession. She started getting jealous whenever Ishida returned to his wife, and began toying with the idea of murdering him as a means of keeping him forever to herself.

She bought a knife and threatened him with it during their next marathon “session”, but Ishida assumed it was role-playing. Instead of alarming him, the knife turned him on. That threw Sada off. Later during the marathon session, she again steeled herself to kill him, this time attempting to strangle him with a Geisha belt during the act. That only turned him on even more, and he begged her to continue, which again threw her off.

Atypical Deaths of these Historical Figures
Contemporary Japanese newspaper article with photos of Ishida and Abe. Christian Phelps

14. Love Goes Sideways

Kichizo Ishida finally fell asleep, at which point Sada Abe, gathering her nerve one more time, went ahead and strangled her dozing lover to death with a Geisha scarf. Then she took out the knife and castrated him, carved her name on his arm, and with his blood wrote “Sada and Kichizo together” on the bed sheets, before fleeing.

Ishida’s body was discovered by a hotel maid the next day. When news of the murder and mutilation broke, and that a “sexually and criminally dangerous woman was on the loose“, Japan was gripped with what became known as “Sada Abe panic”.

Atypical Deaths of these Historical Figures
Sada Abe in police custody. Famous Pictures

13. Lover’s Manhood in a Purse

Police eventually caught up with and arrested Sada Abe. When they did, they discovered that she was carrying Kichizo Ishida’s genitals in her purse. When questioned why she was running around with her dead lover’s “John” and testicles, Sada replied “Because I couldn’t take his head or body with me. I wanted to take the part of him that brought back to me the most vivid memories

Sada Abe was tried, convicted, and served five years in prison before she was released. She went on to write an autobiography and lived until 1971. The Ishida-Abe love affair and painfully creepy death that ended it became a sensation in Japan, embedded in its popular culture and acquiring mythic overtones ever since. The story and variations thereof has been depicted in poetry and prose, both fiction and nonfiction, portrayed in movies and television series, and interpreted over the decades by numerous philosophers and artists.

Atypical Deaths of these Historical Figures
Medieval dancers. Imgur

12. Dance, Dance, Dance

Almost everybody gets a tune or jingle stuck in his or head from time to time, and just can’t seem to get it out, humming or mumbling it on and off for hours or maybe days on end. But what about the next level: how about a dance move that one can’t stop? Almost everyone loves a good boogie, but what happens if the boogie is so good that you just can’t quit, and end up dancing yourself to death?

That is what the good people of Strasbourg, Alsace, in what is now France, discovered in July of 1518, when their town was struck with a dancing mania, as hundreds of people started dancing nonstop, for days on end. By the time the dance fever finally broke, many had literally danced themselves to death from heart attacks, strokes, or sheer exhaustion.

Atypical Deaths of these Historical Figures
Medieval dancers. Pinterest

11. The Frau Who Kicked it Off

It all started innocently enough on a typical July morning, when a Frau Troffea started dancing in the street. Onlookers clapped, laughed, and cheered her high spirits and joie de vivre as she danced. And danced. And danced some more, without rest or respite for six days. Within a week, she had been joined by dozens in her marathon dance, mostly women.

Concerned, authorities consulted local physicians, who opined that the plague was caused by “hot blood”. They convinced officials that the dancers would recover only if they got it out of their system by dancing continuously. So musicians were hired, a wooden stage was erected, and additional dancing space was made by opening up guildhalls and clearing out a marketplace to make more room.

Atypical Deaths of these Historical Figures
Contemporary engraving of three dance plague victims being restrained. Wikimedia

10. Dance Fever

Those measures backfired, and simply ended up encouraging even more people to join the dance craze. Within a month, the number of nonstop dancers had ballooned into the hundreds, and at the height of the dance fever, 15 residents were dying each day from exhaustion and heart attacks.

The Strasbourg death dance was not an isolated incident. Between the fourteenth and seventeenth centuries, there were enough similar outbreaks for contemporaries to coin a term for the phenomena: Saint Vitus’ Dance, or Saint John’s Dance. There is no modern consensus on the cause, so it is simply categorized as an unusual social phenomenon – a mass public hysteria, or a mass psychogenic illness of unknown provenance.

Atypical Deaths of these Historical Figures
John the Blind. Wikimedia

9. Blindness and Battles Don’t Mix

John of Bohemia (1296 – 1346), also known as John the Blind after losing his eyesight ten years before his death, got himself killed by leading a charge into battle while blind. He was one of the most celebrated warriors of his era, having campaigned and fought across Europe from the Mediterranean to the Baltic. He was Count of Luxembourg from 1309, and when his father in law, the king of Bohemia, died without male heirs, John inherited that realm through his wife and became king of Bohemia from 1310 until his death.

A son of the Holy Roman Emperor Henry VII, John’s father made him Count of Luxembourg in 1309. However, when his father died in 1313, John was too young to inherit his throne, so he backed Louis the Bavarian, who became Emperor Louis IV in 1314. An early supporter of the Emperor, John fell out with Louis IV after the latter sided with England against France in the Hundred Years War.

Atypical Deaths of these Historical Figures
John the Blind’s coat of arms. Wikimedia

8. Fighting All Over Europe

During his reign, John of Bohemia fought against Hungary, Austria, England, and the Russians, campaigned in the Tyrol and northern Italy, and expanded his domain by acquiring Silesia, parts of Lusatia, and most of Lombardy. He lost his eyesight from ophthalmia in 1336 while crusading against the pagan Lithuanians. Any popularity he might have gained at home was offset, however, by heavy taxation to pay for his lavish expenses.

John had strong ties to France, and having been raised and educated in Paris, was virtually French in his outlook and sympathies. He even sent his own son to be educated in Paris, rather than in his own Bohemian capital of Prague. When King Philip VI of France asked for his help against England’s Edward III, John, despite his blindness, came to the French monarch’s aid. French and Bohemian kings met him in Paris in August, 1346, and marched off together in pursuit of the English king.

Atypical Deaths of these Historical Figures
John the Blind at the Battle of Crecy. Wikimedia

7. A Blind Charge

When the armies met at the Battle of Crecy, on August 26th, 1346, John the Blind was in command of the French vanguard and a significant contingent of the French army. The excitement, sounds, and scent of the battle must have awakened the old war dog in him. Despite his blindness, John the Blind ordered his retinue to tie their horses to his and ride into battle so he could deliver at least one stroke of his sword against the English. Doing so would satisfy his honor, by ensuring that he had taken an actual part in the battle.

Atypical Deaths of these Historical Figures
England’s Edward, the Black Prince, paying his respects to the corpse of John the Blind after the Battle of Crecy. Imgur

His knights did as commanded, and tied to their horses, the blind king rode into the fight. It did not go well. John the Blind, being blind, was unable to judge how far he had gone, and charged to his death – and that of his companions – by plunging too deep into the English ranks. John was cut off and enveloped by the enemy, and in the ensuing melee, the blind king and all of his retinue were slaughtered.

Atypical Deaths of these Historical Figures
Hammersmith, London, was swept by a ghost panic. Amazon

6. The Ghost Scare

In November, 1803, rumors flew of ghost sightings in the Hammersmith district in west London. Many thought it was the ghost of a recent suicide buried in Hammersmith’s churchyard. It was in line with a widespread contemporary belief that suicides should not be buried in consecrated grounds because their souls would then find no rest.

The ghost was described as being very tall, and dressed all in white. Some witnesses added horns and glass eyes to the description. Alarm at the sightings quickly grew to widespread panic, and then mass hysteria. More and more people stepped forward to report that they had not only seen the Hammersmith ghost, but had been attacked by it as well. In response, fearful citizens took to arms and began patrolling the neighborhood.

Atypical Deaths of these Historical Figures
The killing of Thomas Millwood. Crime Magazine

5. Getting Mistaken for a Ghost

On the night of January 3rd, 1804, one of the armed citizens, Francis Smith, was on patrol when he came across a bricklayer, Thomas Millwood, returning home from a visit to his parents. Millwood was clad in the typical clothing of his trade: white pants, white shirt, and white apron. Leveling his shotgun at what he took to be the Hammersmith Ghost, Smith shot Millwood in the face, killing him instantly.

Smith was arrested and tried for willful murder. The presiding judge instructed the jury that establishing malice was not necessary for a conviction. All killings were either murder or manslaughter, absent extenuating circumstances that were not present here. Smith was duly convicted, then sentenced to death, which sentence was subsequently commuted to a year’s hard labor. As to the Hammersmith “ghost”, it later emerged that it was an elderly local shoemaker. who wore the guise to prank his apprentice.

Atypical Deaths of these Historical Figures
A gold aureus coin depicting Emperor Valerian. Wikimedia

4. An Emperor Getting Owned

Publius Licinius Valerianus, known to history as Emperor Valerian (circa 195 – 264 AD), ruled the Roman Empire from 253 to 260. His reign came to a humiliating end after he attempted an invasion of the newly established Sassanid Persian Empire, only to suffer a crushing defeat and end up as a prisoner. He endured undignified captivity, which came to an end with an undignified death.

Born into a patrician family, Valerian was a military man who became Consul under emperor Severus Alexander (reigned 222 – 235 AD) and rose to command various armies. In 253, amidst a period of chaos that came to be known as the Crisis of the Third Century, Valerian was crowned emperor. Realizing that it was impractical for a single emperor to oversee the sprawling empire, he appointed his son to command the western half of the empire, while he headed east to deal with the newly arisen menace of Sassanid Persia.

Atypical Deaths of these Historical Figures
Valerian being used as a footstool. All Posters

3. An Imperial Foot Stool

Valerian assembled an army of about 70,000 men and marched to resolve the Persian problem. In 260, he fought an army commanded by Persian king Shapur I in the Battle of Edessa, and was decisively defeated. The remnants of the Roman army were besieged, and Valerian tried to personally negotiate a way out with Shapur. The peace talks turned out to be a trap, however, and Valerian was seized by Shapur when he showed up.

After his capture, Valerian was made Shapur’s slave, and subjected to sundry humiliations. The Persian king took particular delight in advertising his victory and demonstrating his might by using the former Roman emperor as a foot stool to mount his horse. His death was as ignominious and undignified as his captivity, and came after he offended Shapur by offering a huge ransom in exchange for his release. As punishment, and to show his disdain for the offer, Shapur forced Valerian to drink molten gold. His humiliation continued even after death, when Shapur ordered Valerian’s corpse flayed, and had his skin dyed and displayed at a temple.

Atypical Deaths of these Historical Figures
Edmund Ironside. Wikimedia

2. A Glorious King’s Inglorious Death

Edmund II, AKA Edmund Ironside (circa 993 – 1016) was England’s king from April 23rd to November 30th, 1016. The son of one of England’s worst kings, the weak and vacillating Ethelred the Unready, Edmund was a vast improvement over his father, and proved himself made of sterner stuff than his predecessor. He earned the surname “Ironside” for his staunch resistance to a massive invasion led by the Danish king Canute.

Starting in 991, Edmund’s father, Ethelred the Unready unwisely sought to buy off the Danes then occupy northern England. He attempted to stop their incessant raids into his kingdom by paying them tribute known as the Danegeld, or “Danish gold”. Unsurprisingly, that emboldened the Danes. They upped their demands for more and more gold, and fearing little from Ethelred, kept on raiding his domain. Finally, after bankrupting his kingdom and beggaring its people with the high taxes necessary to pay the Danegeld, Ethelred ordered a massacre of Danish settlers in 1002.

Atypical Deaths of these Historical Figures
Canute and Edmund Ironside. A Clerk of Oxford

1. Ironside, But Not an Iron Butt

Ethelred’s massacre of Danish settlers triggered an invasion by the Danish King Sweyn Forkbeard. He conquered England in 1013, and forced Ethelred to flee to Normandy. However, Sweyn died the following year, at which point Ethelred returned. With his son Edmund playing a leading role, Ethelred’s forces chased Sweyn’s son, Canute, out of England in 1014. Canute returned the following year at the head of a large Danish army, which pillaged much of England. However, Edmund mounted a fierce resistance which stymied the Dane. When Ethelred died in 1016, Edmund, by now known as “Ironside”, succeeded him on the English throne.

Edmund II’s strange death came seven months after he was crowned, on November 30th, 1016. That night, Edmund went to the privy to answer a call of nature. Unbeknownst to him, an assassin was waiting in the cesspit for the royal posterior to show up. When Edmund sat down to do his business, the assassin stabbed upwards with a sharp dagger. Leaving the weapon embedded in the king’s bowels, the killer made his escape. Unfortunately for Edmund, even if his sides had been made of iron, his bottom was not.


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

American Battlefield Trust – The Death of John Sedgwick

Ancient History Encyclopedia – Mongol Siege of Baghdad

Ancient History Encyclopedia – Valerian

Ancient Origins – What Really Happened to Valerian?

Argus, The, December 19th, 1950 – Mother’s Defense: “Killed In Her Sleep”

BBC – Victorian Strangeness: The Lawyer Who Shot Himself Proving His Case

Burrows, Edwin G., and Wallace, Mike – Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898 (2001)

Classic Movie Web – Facts About ‘They Died With Their Boots On’

Cracked – 6 Deaths From History You Will Got to Hell for Laughing At

Encyclopedia Britannica – Dancing Plague of 1518

Encyclopedia Britannica – John, King of Bohemia

Guardian, The, July 5th, 2018 – Keep on Moving: The Bizarre Dance Epidemic of Summer 1518

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

Horror History Net – Edmund Ironside, Murdered on His Toilet

Kierner, Cynthia A. – Scandal at Bizarre: Rumor and Reputation in Jefferson’s America (2004)

Londonist – The Time Someone Shot a Ghost Dead in Hammersmith

Military History Matters – Royal Deaths: John the Blind

Murderpedia – Sada Abe

National Park Service – John Sedgwick

War History Online – The Sack of Baghdad in 1258

We Are the Mighty – Sigurd the Mighty Was Killed by a Dead Man

Wikipedia – Hammersmith Ghost Murder Case

Wikipedia – Martha Mansfield

Wikipedia – They Died With Their Boots On