Unusual Deaths From History: Atypical Deaths of these Historical Figures
Atypical Deaths of these Historical Figures

Atypical Deaths of these Historical Figures

Khalid Elhassan - July 14, 2020

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