A joke that kills is usually a figure of speech for a really funny bit of humor. Sometimes, though, it’s quite literal. Take the time an emperor cracked a joke about a woman’s age, and paid for it with his life. Or the time when an ancient Greek tyrant made a vulgar joke at his lover’s expense, and was stabbed to death for his trouble. Below are twenty five things about those and other historic humor moments.
Why It Has Long Been Considered Ungentlemanly to Ask a Woman Her Age
It has long been understood in polite society that to ask a woman her age is rude. To joke about a woman’s age, especially if the would-be comedian is a man, is deemed not only ungentlemanly, but outright boorish. To be sure, when examined logically, it is ridiculous to consider one’s age an embarrassment. However, in a society that extols youth and degrades age, and even often (illegally) values youth over experience at the workplace, the existence of such hangups is understandable. As Miss Manners of The Washington Post put it: “that question should not be asked of anyone except children“.
Throughout much of history, women have often been judged based on their looks and physical appeal. It was generally taken that with the passage years, a woman’s beauty, fertility, and desirability, diminished. Such perceptions often engendered feelings of insecurity on the part of many women. Those same perceptions were also often seen by some men, of the more ungentlemanly sorts, as an opportunity to make fun of and crack cruel age-based jokes at women’s expense. Sometimes those jokes backfired. As seen below, an emperor met an untimely death at the hands of a woman whose age he made fun of, when she failed to see the humor in his joke.
Emperor Xiaowu (362 – 396) ascended the throne of Jin Dynasty China when he was ten-years-old. For the first few years of his reign, the realm was governed by a council of regents. When he was thirteen, he wed a sixteen-year-old, who was either a lush or became one after she was married to Xiaowu, and drank heavily until her death five years later. Xiaowu himself was no stranger to the bottle. He liked to party and booze it up, and left the affairs of state to his advisers. Xiaowu did not remarry after he became a widower, but he did have numerous concubines. Of those, his favorite was the Honored Lady Zhang. One time while drunk at a party in 396, Xiaowu cracked a joke about the then-thirty-year-old Zhang’s years: “Based on your age, you should yield your position. I want someone younger“.
The emperor thought that was hilarious, but Lady Zhang did not. Her power and status depended on her relationship to the emperor, and if he ditched her, she would lose it all. She was also quite angry at the public humiliation. She kept her cool at the party, but later that night, got her revenge. When the emperor passed out drunk as he often did, Lady Zhang escorted him to his chambers. She bribed his guards to look the other way, then had her maids strangle and suffocate Xiaowu to death. Lady Zhang claimed that the emperor had died in his sleep, but the truth came out soon enough. Luckily for her, nobody who mattered cared. Xiaowu had been a dissolute sort who caused his courtiers more trouble than he was worth. They swiftly appointed a child emperor in his place, and ruled as regents.
A Tyrant Who Made a Gay Joke at the Wrong Guy’s Expense
In ancient Greece and Rome, some homosexual relationships between men were accepted, or at least tolerated. However, the ancients were not tolerant of these preferences in its entirety, as we understand that term today. Intimacy between men did not carry much of a stigma in of itself – at least not for the top, or the one who did the penetration. Exclusive bottoms – the ones penetrated – were often reviled, though. Effeminate behavior on the part of men jeopardized their social status. Tough and manly warriors who preferred men were respected. Those perceived as girlie, were not.
Many rulers engaged in relations with other men, with no loss of prestige. A prominent example was the Roman Emperor Hadrian. He was so passionate about a young lover, Antinous, that he had him made into a god after his unexpected accidental demise. However, such emperors were all tops, and refrained from effeminate behavior. Emperors who broke that taboo, such as the flamboyantly effeminate Elagabalus, came to a bad end. So huge was the taboo against effeminacy that to even joke about it could get one offed. One ruler who found that out the hard way was Periander, a seventh century BC Greek tyrant of Ambracia. As seen below, he paid dearly for a joke that he cracked at the expense of his lover.
One time, Periander of Ambracia drank too much, and joked to his young lover: “aren’t you pregnant by me yet?” As seen above, ancient Greek attitudes towards submissive acts were complicated. To do it was often OK, but to talk about it, as in kiss and tell, was not. Especially when it came to other free Greek men, as there was a heavy stigma of effeminacy attached to receptive partners, or bottoms who were penetrated. Ancient Greek culture was a macho one, in which masculinity and martial prowess were highly esteemed. In such a society, perceptions of effeminacy could greatly harm a man’s status within the community.
To make matters worse, Periander cracked his drunken joke in the presence of others at his court. That immediately elevated things from what could have been handled as a private lovers’ quarrel, and into a public humiliation. Periander thought his joke was hilarious, and so did many of those present. One person who did not think it was funny was the tyrant’s young lover, the butt of the joke. Shamed that his lover had accused him of effeminacy, and enraged that he had done so publicly, he grabbed a knife and ended Periander right then and there.
In 1955, the voters of Jaboatao, a Brazilian industrial town eleven hundred miles north of Rio de Janeiro, were disgusted with their municipal officials. To express their disdain for the incumbents, they elected a goat named Fragrant to the city council. Four years later, in 1959, the voters of Sao Paulo, Brazil’s most populous city, did them one better. As befit their status as the country’s biggest metropolis, they elected a much bigger quadruped: a rhinoceros. Sao Paulo’s voters were fed up that year. Corruption was rampant, garbage went uncollected, sewers overflowed, inflation was on the rise, even as supplies of basic foodstuffs such as meat and beans dwindled.
As elections loomed that October, the voters faced a choice of a crowded field of 540 candidates who competed for 45 seats on Sao Paulo’s City Council. Few inspired confidence, and many were corrupt or outright criminal. Faced with such dismal options, some local students decided to nominate a five-year-old female black rhinoceros as a candidate. As they put it: “Better elect a rhinoceros than an ass“. Named Cacareco, the new politician was a local celebrity on loan from Rio de Janeiro’s zoo to the recently inaugurated one at Sao Paulo. So the students printed and distributed 200,000 ballots with her name on them. It was a joke – but then she actually won.
On election day, not only did Cacareco win, she charged to first place and won in a landslide: the rhino garnered over 100,000 votes, 15% of the total cast. As The New York Times reported, Cacareco “earned one of the highest totals for a local candidate in Brazil’s recent history“. It was actually the highest ever total won by any city council candidate up to that date. A sore loser party leader complained bitterly: “A ridiculous vote for a ridiculous rhinoceros. Nowhere, and never before, have 100,000 literate adult voters cast their ballots for a silent, absent, and nut brained quadruped“.
The joke candidate’s victory had some real life not-so-funny consequences. One of the failed candidates was so humiliated that he lost to a beast, that he committed suicide. Cacareco’s victory caused significant concern and hand wringing in Brazil’s intellectual and political circles, as some worried it indicated the country was on the verge of revolt. In the meantime, the Sao Paulo zoo’s director asked the city to pay Cacareco’s City Councilman salary. However, the fix was in, and election officials nullified her ballots. Rather than sit on Sao Paulo’s City Council, Cacareco was returned to Rio de Janeiro’s zoo, and died in 1962 while on exhibition in another zoo.
Sir Thomas Urquhart (1611 – 1660) was one of the oddest writers in the history of Scottish literature. So odd that he ended up with a prominent position in a book titled Scottish Eccentrics. To date, it is unclear if he was crazy, a conman, or the most gifted prankster ever produced by Scotland. He was an idiosyncratic polymath and author, best known for his original and vivid translation of the works of Francois Rabelais into English. His own writings included original work on a new system of trigonometry, which he revolutionized, mathematics, family histories, epigrams, and the invention of a universal language long before Esperanto. Urquhart was a royalist who fought for King Charles I against the Scottish Covenanters in 1639, and was knighted by the king for his support in 1641. A year later, Urquhart’s father died, and left him a heavily indebted estate.
Urquhart had to deal with and evade creditors for years, and even fled Scotland to the continent for a time. He returned in 1645 to publish a mathematical treatise, Trissotetras, Or A Most Exquisite Table For Resolving Triangles. He claimed could enable a student to learn a year’s worth of math in just seven weeks. However, it was written in such a cryptic way as to be nearly unintelligible. He joined a failed royalist revolt at Inverness in 1648, and was declared a traitor by Parliament. In 1651, he joined Charles II’s long shot attempt to regain the throne. However, he grew increasingly disgusted with the incompetence and mismanagement of the affair, which culminated in a decisive royalist defeat at the Battle of Worcester. Urquhart’s life finally came to an unexpectedly funny end: he died from laughter.
The Idea of Charles II as King Was a Fatal Joke to Thomas Urquhart
Urquhart was captured and imprisoned for two years, first in the Tower of London, then at Windsor. While locked up, he lobbied Oliver Cromwell to release him. He went about it in a weird way: a series of increasingly bizarre pamphlets, with a detailed description of how the Urquharts were supposedly descended from Adam and Eve via a host of luminaries. One such was his great 109th grandmother, whom Urquhart claimed had discovered baby Moses in the Nile’s rushes. He also claimed that his great 87th grandmother was the Queen of Sheba; his great 66th grandfather had been a general for the mythical Fergus I of Scotland, and that one of King Arthur’s daughters had married into the Urquharts.
Cromwell eventually ordered him freed in 1653. However, Urquhart lost all his manuscripts, and had to forfeit all his properties as a condition for his parole and release. He also had to leave Britain for the continent. In 1660 Urquhart heard that Charles II – whose incompetence in the 1651 attempt to gain the throne had ended in disaster and cost Urquhart so much – had been restored and welcomed back as king. That struck him as such an unlikely joke that he died from laughter. As it turned out, it was all too real. Charles II reigned for twenty five years, until his death in 1685. All things considered, at least Urquhart died from laughter at the idea of Charles as monarch, rather than die from heartbreak at the reality that a man he so despised had been crowned.
Washington Crossing the Delaware, painted by German -American artist Emanuel Gottleib Leutze in 1851, is one of the most iconic images of the American Revolution. It depicts George Washington and a flotilla of Patriots in boats as they cross the Delaware River on the night of December 25 – 26, 1776, for a surprise attack against enemy forces. The event was dramatic and worthy of commemoration. As 1776 drew to a close, the war and the Americans’ armed bid for independence had not been going well for Washington and his forces.
They had been outgeneralled, outfought, and soundly drubbed. Most notably in New York City, where it took a near-miraculous escape to save them from annihilation. Morale was low, so Washington planned an ambitious raid to score a quick victory and restore some confidence to the cause. From his base in Pennsylvania, he would cross the nearly frozen Delaware River, to suddenly descend upon and destroy Hessian forces on the opposite bank, in Trenton, New Jersey. Leutze’s portrayal of Washington as he stands at the boat’s prow and stares determinedly at the enemy shore, while flanked by other Patriot-laden boats, has captured imaginations then and since.
The painting’s portrayal of Washington is true to the essence of what is known of the man. The Patriot’s chief general routinely projected an aura of detached dignity, and maintained a wall of formality that separated him from subordinates. It was not true, however, to Washington’s actual conduct on that particular occasion: he let down the formality, and cracked jokes. His cold, hungry, and demoralized trooped clambered into boats on a frigid winter night, made even more miserable by driving sleet. When it was Washington’s turn to get into a boat, he looked at Henry Knox, his overweight artillery chief, and said: “Shift your fat ass, Harry! But don’t swamp the damn boat!”
All things considered, the joke was not a comedic gem. But any levity from George Washington in public, especially on such a serious occasion, was highly unusual. At first, the men were stunned, and looked at each other in shocked disbelief. Then somebody chuckled, and before long, contagious laughter rippled throughout the assembled force, as Washington’s comment was spread and repeated. With their spirits lifted, the Revolutionaries crossed the river with elevated morale. They fell upon the enemy in Trenton, to kill, wound, and capture about a thousand men, for the loss of only two dead and five wounded.
King Martin I of Aragon, also known as Martin the Humane (1356 – 1410), ruled Aragon, Valencia, Sicily, Sardinia, and Corsica. He ascended the throne in 1396, after his older brother John I died without male issue – although the deceased had daughters. Martin’s reign was troubled from the outset, rife with unrest from turbulent nobles. He also had to overcome challenges to his claimed right to ascend the throne, particularly from the family and partisans of his nieces, his late brother’s daughters.
Martin beat back invasions by his nieces’ supporters, but they kept up their claims, and so did their sons. Martin reportedly died in 1410 shortly after he consumed an entire goose. Something about the fowl was foul and did not agree with him, and gave the king indigestion. So His Highness retired to his chamber and summoned his court jester, who took his time to get there. When he finally showed up, Martin asked him where he had been, and the jester replied with a joke that, as seen below, took the audience down.
King Martin I’s jester explained his tardiness by stating that he had been: “in the next vineyard, your majesty, where I saw a young deer hanging by his tail from a tree, as if somebody had punished him for stealing figs“. Something about that joke and the image it evoked struck the monarch as extremely funny. Apparently, while some jokes are timeless and universal, many more are time and culture sensitive. It seems that in fifteenth century Aragon, deer hanged by the tail as punishment for the theft of figs were deemed to be super funny.
So funny, in Martin’s case, that he laughed uncontrollably for three hours at the joke, until he finally fell out of the bed and hit the floor, stone dead. Because Martin had failed to secure the succession to an illegitimate son, he became the last ruler of the Aragonite House of Barcelona (878 – 1410). He was succeeded by a nephew, Ferdinand I of Aragon. Martin however had gone out laughing. That is not a bad end for a royal life or dynasty, especially in light of the typically nasty alternatives whereby royal dynasties and noble lineages often came to an end throughout history.
The Prankster Who Got a Legislature to Honor a Serial Killer
In a long and productive life, Tom Moore garnered plenty of accolades as a Texas District Attorney, compassionate lawyer, and reformist legislator. He practiced law into his 90s, and in Mclennan County, he received the highest honor bestowed upon any attorney: judges no longer required him to wear ties in their courtrooms. As one of them put it: “He has such vast experience and has lived so long and has seen so much. He is the only lawyer that practices in front of me that I don’t require to wear a tie. I am quite certain that is a privilege he has earned“. Another side of Tom Moore was his sense of humor.
When he served in the Texas House of Representative, Moore grew annoyed with the numerous resolutions that were passed, even though nobody had read them. So he decided to have some fun with that. On April 1st, 1971, as a joke, Moore proposed a resolution to honor an esteemed American, Albert DeSalvo. It praised him for: “his dedication and devotion to his work … He has been officially recognized by the state of Massachusetts for his noted activities and unconventional techniques involving population control and applied psychology“. The name of the honoree might ring a bell for some. After the resolution passed by a unanimous vote, Moore let his colleagues know that they had just officially honored the Boston Strangler.
Painting was not really Pietro Aretino’s thing, and he eventually gave up on that. As it turned out, his real talent lay in words – especially, dirty words. In 1516, he penned a satiric will of Pope Leo X’s recently deceased pet elephant. In it, Aretino mocked Rome’s most prominent figures, including the pope himself. The pope was a good sport about it. The satire was well received, and it launched Aretino’s career as a satirist. He eventually ended up with the nickname the “Scourge of Princes”.
After the death of Leo X, Aretino penned vicious satirical pamphlets in support of the candidature of cardinal Giulio de Medici for the papacy. They helped get him elected as Pope Clement VII in 1523. However, despite the patronage of the new pope, Aretino was forced to leave Rome in 1524 because he had grown too notorious. That notoriety peaked after he penned a dirty poetry collection known as the Lewd Sonnets. They were composed to accompany explicit drawings sketched by Giulio Romano, and engraved by Marcantonio Raimundo.
It finally came to an end at a party on October 21st, 1556 when his sister told a particularly risque joke. Aretino laughed so hard that he fell over backwards from his chair, hit his head on something, and passed then and there. Another version has it that he was done in when he fell into a fit of apoplectic laughter after he heard the joke. Yet another variant has it that his death was caused by suffocation from too much laughter. Whichever version it was, all accounts agree that it was laughter at a dirty joke that ended him.
The Renaissance’s Greatest Architect Was Also a Master of the Practical Joke
The modern world owes much to Filippo Brunelleschi (1377 – 1446). Early in his career, this Italian architect and designer rediscovered the principles of linear perspective. They had once been known to ancient Greek and Roman builders, but were lost in the Middle Ages. He is considered the father of Renaissance architecture, and was the first modern planner, engineer, and sole construction supervisor. His major work is the Duomo in Florence – the dome of the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore.
Brunelleschi’s creativity was not limited to architecture. The man was also a prankster who mastered the practical joke like few had before or since. His most famous practical joke targeted a cabinet maker named Manetto, also known as il Grosso, or “The Fat”. Manetto was prosperous and good natured, but to his misfortune, he ticked off Brunelleschi when he missed a social event. So the famous architect got him with an elaborate prank: he screwed with Manetto’s mind and got him to believe that he had switched bodies.
Attention to Detail Was a Hallmark of This Renaissance Giant’s Career
Filippo Brunelleschi was known for thorough preparation. The man paid great attention to detail in his career as an architect. He was equally thorough and attentive to details when it came to his practical jokes. That was unfortunate for Manetto. First, Brunelleschi assembled a wide cast of characters. He then coached them on what was needed to convince the mark that he had metamorphosed into somebody else: a well-known Florentine, named Matteo. Finally, one day in 1409, Brunelleschi set things in motion.
By the time Manetto closed his shop that day, Brunelleschi had gone to his house, picked the lock, entered, and barred the door behind him. When the mark got home, he discovered that the door was barred from within. When he rattled the door, Manetto was alarmed to hear his own voice – actually Brunelleschi’s, doing an impersonation – ask who it was. When he identified himself, he was called a liar by the voice on the other side of the door, who declared that he was Manetto.
Filippo Brunelleschi’s assertion that he was Manetto so confused his mark, the real Manetto, that he retreated to a nearby piazza. There he met an acquaintance, Donatello, who addressed him not by his given name, but as Matteo. Then a bailiff passed by, addressed Manetto as Matteo, and despite his protestations that he had the wrong man, promptly arrested the cabinet maker for debt. The now thoroughly bewildered Manetto was taken to prison, where his name was entered into the register as Matteo. Thrown into lockup, his fellow prisoners – all of whom were also in on the prank – addressed him as Matteo.
The bewildered cabinet maker spent a sleepless night in jail. He probably solaced himself with the notion that it was all a case of mistaken identity, that would soon get cleared up. The next day, things got worse. After a night in jail, Manetto’s mental health took another hit when two “relatives” – the real Matteo’s brothers – arrived at the prison, and claimed him as their kin. They paid his debt and freed him, and berated his gambling and wastrel ways. More confused now than ever, Manetto was escorted to Matteo’s home in the other side of Florence.
The Victim of This Practical Joke Felt So Humiliated That He Moved to Another Country
Once in Matteo’s home, the cabinet maker’s protests that he was Manetto, and not Matteo, were dismissed with derision. In the course of that day and evening, he was nearly convinced that he had, indeed, morphed into somebody else. Eventually, Manetto was put to sleep with a potion supplied by Brunelleschi, and carried unconscious back to his own home, for the final bit of the practical joke. When he came to a day later in his own home, Manetto discovered that his house was in disarray, with furniture, tools, and other items rearranged.
His confusion grew with the arrival of Matteo’s brothers, who now addressed him by his real name, Manetto. They shared a strange story about the previous evening, when their sibling got it in his head that he was Manetto. The story was confirmed when Matteo arrived, and described a weird dream in which he had been Manetto. That nearly drove the real Manetto around the bend. He became convinced – at least for a while – that he had morphed into Matteo for a couple of days. When he eventually discovered what had actually happened, Manetto felt so humiliated, that he left Florence and moved to Hungary.
The Goodies was a British TV series that combined situation comedy with surreal sketches, and originally aired 76 episodes on BBC from 1970 to 1980. It is probably not the cup of tea of most Americans today, but it was pretty funny for its intended British audience, as evidenced by its decade-long run. Also, by the fact that at least one of its viewers found a Goodies skit to be so hilarious that he laughed himself to death. It began on the evening of March 24th, 1975, which started off like many others for Alex Mitchell, a bricklayer from King’s Lynn, Norfolk.
He sat down after dinner to watch an episode of his favorite TV show, which he watched religiously every week. Mitchell knew to expect the show’s typical raw and physical humor. However, he was unprepared for that evening’s “Kung Fu Capers” episode. It featured a black belt in “Ecky Thump” – a little known martial art from Lancaster, that revolved around pelting opponents with black pudding. Something about that struck Mitchell as over the top hilarious. He began to guffaw uproariously, as his wife complained that he must be the only person in the world who thought The Goodies was funny.
Alex Mitchell, who enjoyed a good laugh, waved his killjoy missus away. However, on that particular evening, he might have been better off had he gotten off the couch and romanced her rather than continue to watch the TV. When the episode’s star attacked a kilt-wearing Scotsman with a stick of black pudding, and the Scotsman defended himself with a bagpipe, Mitchell lost it. He began to laugh uncontrollably, and after 25 minutes of nonstop laughter, he slid off the sofa, the victim of a fatal heart attack.
Mitchell’s death became quite famous at the time. His widow eventually wrote The Goodies a letter, to thank them for making her deceased hubby’s final moments so pleasant. In 2012, it was discovered that Mitchell had probably suffered from Long QT Syndrome when his granddaughter was rushed to the emergency room after a heart attack and was diagnosed with LQTS. The disease, which is hereditary, causes the heart beat to become irregular if the afflicted person undergoes continuous exertion or stress – such as nonstop laughter for 25 minutes. The irregular heartbeat can trigger a cardiac arrest, and that is probably what did in Alex Mitchell.
The Discovery of Human Evolution’s “Missing Link” in England
In 1912, an amateur English archaeologist named Charles Dawson announced the discovery of human-like fossils in Piltdown, East Sussex. In a Pleistocene gravel bed, Dawson had found fossilized fragments of a cranium, jawbone, and other bones. Britain’s premier paleontologist pronounced the fossils evidence of a hitherto unknown proto-human species. They were also deemed the “missing link” between ape and man, evidence of the then-still controversial theory that man descended from apes. The pronouncements were accepted uncritically by many prominent British scientists. Further excavations in the vicinity were made in 1913 and 1914, in which stone tools were discovered.
Two miles away, teeth and additional skull fragments were unearthed. So were animal remains, and a mysterious carved bone that looked like a cricket bat. The excitement mounted with each new find. At the time of the Piltdown discovery, there was a growing, and as it ultimately turned out, correct, scientific belief that human evolution from ape to man had occurred in Africa. It was there that fossils of homo erectus, an early hominid, had been discovered. As seen below, that was problematic for many of the era’s British scientists.
Humans Originating in Africa Was too Jarring for Early 20th Century British Scientists
The discovery of homo erectus fossils in Africa meant that the cradle of mankind was in Africa, and that all humans were of African origin. The notion that they were ultimately African was hard to swallow for many Europeans, including many British scientists. The day’s prevalent racism and ethno-nationalism buttressed Britain’s scientific community’s confirmation bias. It made them interpret the Piltdown “evidence” in the light most favorable to their prejudices. Piltdown Man offered a feasible alternative, and thus a convenient out, from the challenge posed to the era’s racist theories by humanity’s African origins. As a result, prominent British scientists embraced the discovery, and defended it against all critics.
If the Piltdown discovery in England was accurate, it would mean that Britain had played a prominent role in human evolution. The “missing” link between man and ape would have occurred in Europe, not Africa. That would buttress the belief that Europeans – or at least the British – had evolved separately, and were not of African origins. Thus, the racist assumption that Europeans were a distinct and superior branch of the human tree could continue unchallenged. In actuality, the Piltdown discovery was a practical joke and a crude hoax. However, because of a combination of ineptness, ethno nationalism, and racism, the discovery was strongly embraced and defended by much of the British scientific establishment.
A Practical Joke That Roiled and Set Back Archaeology for Decades
It took four decades before Piltdown Man was debunked. That made it one of history’s most successful scientific hoaxes. It was also a hoax that seriously delayed the progress of science and archaeology. In those decades, few resources were directed at the study of human evolution in Africa, where the actual missing links were ultimately discovered. Despite the dearth of funds for African archaeological exploration, more proto-human fossils were discovered in Africa in the 1930s. Those finds, coupled with additional Neanderthal finds, left Piltdown Man as an odd outlier in human evolution.