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.
25. “They Couldn’t Hit an Elephant at This Distâ¦“
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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”.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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