These People All Met a Tragic and Slightly Comedic End

These People All Met a Tragic and Slightly Comedic End

Khalid Elhassan - February 15, 2021

Shuffling off the mortal coil is tragic, but such is the circle of life. However, the tragedy of some demises is often mixed with a hefty dose of comedy. Such as that time when dozens of medieval nobles and high-ranking clergy gathered for a meeting, only for the floor to collapse and send them plummeting into a latrine below. Dozens drowned in liquid excrement. Following are thirty things about that mishap and other tragicomic deaths from history.

These People All Met a Tragic and Slightly Comedic End
King Heinrich VI. Heidelberg University

30. The Peace Meeting That Ended in Tragicomic Disaster

Voltaire once quipped: “The Holy Roman Empire is neither holy, nor Roman, nor an Empire“. In the twelfth century, the Holy Roman Empire might not have been holy or Roman, but it was an empire… of sorts. Back then, it was a bewildering patchwork of territories ruled by often-competing nobles and clergy. Counts ruling one area had to watch their backs against neighboring archbishops, who in turn dreaded the machinations of nearby landgraves (the German equivalent of English dukes) with designs on the church’s lands. Unsurprisingly, that unholy jumble of territories and rulers bred conflict.

These People All Met a Tragic and Slightly Comedic End
Woodcut of medieval Erfurt, from The Nuremberg Chronicle. Wikimedia

Holy Roman emperors and those subbing in for them could not keep feuds from flaring up, so they often settled for trying to at least keep the conflicts from getting out of control. In 1184, one feud between Archbishop Konrad I of Mainz and Landgrave Ludwig III of Thuringia threatened to destabilize the empire – beyond its usual level of instability. So King Heinrich VI called a meeting at the city of Erfurt to try and hash things out. The medieval peace conference came to a premature tragicomic ending when dozens of leading nobles and clergy died by drowning in liquid excrement.

These People All Met a Tragic and Slightly Comedic End
Erfurt’s Saint Peter’s Church, in green. All That Is Interesting

29. “If I Fail, May I Die in Excrement!

King Heinrich VI invited leading nobles and clergy from across the Holy Roman Empire to meet for a peace conference at the city of Erfurt. Dozens of bigwigs from across the empire answered his call, and on July 25, 1184, they gathered at a meeting room in Erfurt’s Church of Saint Peter. Their numbers included a Count Heinrich I of Schwarzburg, who was often given to emphasizing his determination to do something by stating: “If I fail, may I die in excrement!

These People All Met a Tragic and Slightly Comedic End
A gathering of medieval elites. Imgur

Beneath the church meeting room where the empire’s greatest assembled in all their finery, was the monks’ latrine. Unfortunately for the attendees, the room was not as structurally sound as they had assumed. No sooner had the meeting started than the supporting beams holding the floor gave way, and the glittering gathering plummeted into the liquid excrement below. Dozens died, either from drowning in the fecal pool, or from the collapsed structure. They included Count Heinrich I, who met his end just as he had often said: drowned in sh*t.

These People All Met a Tragic and Slightly Comedic End
Christians crucified, burned, and fed to the beasts at Rome’s Colosseum. Effectual Grace

28. The Saint of Comedians Turned His Martyrdom Into a Tragicomic Event

The Roman Catholic Church’s Saint Lawrence (225 – 258) was martyred during a wave of Christian persecutions that was ordered by the Roman Emperor Valerian. Lawrence is the patron saint of cooks, firefighters, and for good reason, as seen below, of comedians. He was born in Valencia, in the then-Roman province of Hispania. In his youth, Lawrence traveled to Zaragoza, where he met the future Pope Sixtus II, a famous and highly esteemed teacher in the Church of the third century.

Sixtus became Lawrence’s mentor, and when he left Hispania for Rome, Lawrence accompanied him. When Sixtus became Pope in 257, he appointed his young protege archdeacon, or first of the Church’s then-seven deacons. In that position, Lawrence was entrusted with safeguarding the Church’s goods and properties, and with distributing alms to the poor and needy. That set the stage for his tragicomic demise when, in 258, Emperor Valerian ordered a persecution of Christians, and decreed that all bishops, priests, and deacons, should be executed.

These People All Met a Tragic and Slightly Comedic End
The martyrdom of Saint Lawrence. The J. Paul Getty Museum

27. Aptly, The Patron Saint of Comedians Cracked Jokes During His Execution

Saint Lawrence’s mentor and patron, Pope Sixtus II, was arrested and sentenced to be executed. A weeping Lawrence followed him to the execution site, crying “father, where are you going without your deacon?” Sixtus replied, “I am not leaving you, my son – in three days you shall follow me“. Rather than feel terrified by such an ominous prediction, Lawrence was cheered by the condemned man’s prophecy. He returned to the church and emptied its coffers to distribute the contents to the poor. He also began selling what Church assets he could in order to give even more to the needy.

A Roman prefect, believing that the Church had a fortune stashed away, ordered Lawrence to bring him the Church’s treasure. Promising to do so in three days, Lawrence gathered Rome’s poor and sick. Returning on the appointed day, he told the prefect that they were the Church’s treasure. The prefect was not impressed and ordered Lawrence executed. To prolong his agony, he ordered Lawrence secured to an iron grill and placed over a slow fire. Lawrence, burning with religious zeal, seemed impervious to pain. He even joked at some point: “turn me over, I think I am done on this side“.

These People All Met a Tragic and Slightly Comedic End
Ormer Locklear in 1919. Library of Congress

26. The Daredevil Who Took It Too Far

Early in the twentieth century, airplanes and all things having to do with flight fascinated the public. Indeed, they did so in a manner and to an extent that is difficult today, accustomed as we are to flight as just another routine aspect of modern life, to grasp. Most people back then had never seen an airplane before. As a result, paying crowds gathered in the hundreds and thousands to watch the era’s pioneering pilots put on aerial displays for them.

These People All Met a Tragic and Slightly Comedic End
Ormer Locklear dangling from a wing. National Air and Space Museum

Ormer Locklear (1891 – 1920) was a daredevil aerial pioneer who learned to fly with the US Army Air Service. He then went on tour as a barnstormer pilot, putting on aerobatic displays for crowds across the country. Locklear is credited with developing the stunt of wing walking. It was highly popular with air show audiences in the 1920s, as a means of enabling pilots to make repairs in flight. He also came up with the trick of jumping from one airplane to another mid-flight, and of clambering aboard a low flying plane from a moving car. Unfortunately, he took things too far and ended up perishing in a tragicomic way.

These People All Met a Tragic and Slightly Comedic End
Ormer Locklear preparing to climb a rope ladder from one plane to another. New York Tribune

25. Hollywood Came Knocking to Snag the World’s Most Famous Daredevil Pilot

Ormer Locklear had become the most famous daredevil pilot in the world by 1919, and it did not take long before his fame attracted the attention of Hollywood – and set the stage for his tragicomic demise. To get him to sign on to a two-movie series, Universal Studios inked a contract to buy all his future air show dates. The first film, The Great Air Robbery, was a 1919 drama about airmail pilots, which showcased Locklear’s aerobatic antics. It received favorable reviews and was a commercial success at the box office.

Locklear followed up that success with The Skywayman, about an amnesiac shell-shocked veteran returning from The Great War. Filming began in 1920, and from early on, disaster came calling and was narrowly avoided on more than one occasion. A stunt involving Locklear knocking over a church steeple with his airplane almost ended in a plane crash. Soon thereafter, Locklear narrowly avoided meeting the Grim Reaper during the filming of a scene in which he was to jump from an airplane onto a moving train.

These People All Met a Tragic and Slightly Comedic End
Ormer Locklear in a still from ‘The Skywayman’. How Stuff Works

24. The Aptly Named “Suicide Dive” Produced a Tragicomic Demise

A final stunt during the filming of The Skywayman called for a tailspin, known as a “suicide dive”, to be performed for a nighttime scene. It was initially supposed to flown during the daytime, with special camera filters to simulate night. However, Ormer Locklear insisted on performing the stunt at night. The studio agreed, and as news leaked out of what Locklear planned, a crowd gathered on the night of August 2nd, 1920, to watch the filming of the death-defying “suicide dive” stunt. It would have a tragicomic ending.

Searchlights were to focus on Locklear’s airplane to make it visible for filming in the dark as it entered its tailspin. However, the searchlights’ glare would force Locklear to fly blind. So after the airplane descended to a specific height, the searchlights were supposed to get switched off to allow Locklear to see, and to let him know that it was time to pull out of the tailspin. However, something went wrong, and the searchlights stayed on. Before the gaze of horrified onlookers, Locklear’s floodlit airplane began its “suicide dive” – and remained brightly lit within the searchlights’ glare, as it continued its dive straight into the ground. Locklear and a fellow pilot were instantly killed in the crash.

These People All Met a Tragic and Slightly Comedic End
George II became the last British king to lead his soldiers into battle, on the field at Dettingen in 1743. The Book Palace

23. The Last British Monarch Born Outside of Great Britain

George II (1683 – 1760) was King of Great Britain, Elector of Hannover, and a Prince-elector of the Holy Roman Empire from 1727 until his demise in 1760. This George was a constitutional monarch who exercised little control over British policy, which was controlled by Parliament. He had more direct control over Hanover and spent twelve summers there running things. Although he had little direct power in Britain, he had a calming and stabilizing presence, and the British Empire prospered and grew during his reign.

George II was born in Hanover, and among other things, he holds the distinction of being the last British monarch to have been born outside of Great Britain. He also holds the distinction of being the last British monarch to have personally led an army into battle. The latter took place in 1743, during the War of the Austrian Succession. At the Battle of Dettingen that year, George commanded his troops in person, as British, Hanoverian, and Austrian forces took on a French army.

These People All Met a Tragic and Slightly Comedic End
George II. Wikimedia

22. The Tragicomic Demise of the Last British King to Lead His Own Troops Into Battle

Other than a brief scare in 1745, when Jacobins staged a failed uprising to restore the Stuart Dynasty to the throne, George II’s reign was relatively stable. He was not well-liked in Britain, as he spoke with a thick German accent, had a short temper, and was widely viewed as boorish. Still, his years as monarch saw tremendous growth in British prosperity and prestige, as the British Empire grew to become a globe-straddling entity. His death, though, was less regal than his reign, and gave fodder for amusement at the time and ever since.

George II’s death on October 25th, 1760, was tragicomic and undignified. That morning began like all others, with the king following his usual routine: he woke up at 6 AM, had a cup of hot chocolate, then went to the toilet. However, while answering nature’s call, he ended up overstraining himself and suffered a fatal aortic aneurism. When his valet heard a loud crash in the restroom, he rushed in to discover that the king had fallen from his… throne. He passed away soon thereafter.

These People All Met a Tragic and Slightly Comedic End
Alex Mitchell. The Daily Record

21. The Goodies Episode That Did Not End So Good for Viewer Alex Mitchell

The Goodies was one of those British TV shows that few outside of Britain are familiar with. It combined situation comedy with surreal sketches and aired 76 episodes on BBC from 1970 to 1980. The series 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, the fact that at least one of its viewers found a Goodies skit to be so hilarious that he laughed himself to death: a tragicomic demise in the most literal sense.

The evening of March 24th, 1975, 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 The Goodies, his favorite TV show and one that he watched religiously every week. He knew to expect the show’s typical raw and physical humor, but he was not prepared 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.

These People All Met a Tragic and Slightly Comedic End
The Ecky Thump scene that did in Alex Mitchell. Pintrest

20. “Ecky Thump” Leads to a Tragicomic Demise

As Alex Mitchell guffawed uproariously at “Ecky Thump”, his wife, no fan of The Goodies, complained that he must be the only person who found the show even remotely funny. Mitchell, who enjoyed having a good laugh, waved his killjoy missus away. He might have been better off had he gotten off the couch and romanced her instead of continuing to watch 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 started laughing uncontrollably, and after 25 minutes of nonstop laughter, he slid off the sofa, having suffered a fatal heart attack.

Mitchell’s tragicomic death became quite famous, and his widow eventually wrote The Goodies a letter, thanking them for making her deceased husband’s final moments in life 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 an irregular heartbeat if the afflicted person undergoes continuous exertion or stress – such as laughing nonstop for 25 minutes. That can trigger a cardiac arrest, which is probably what did in Alex Mitchell.

These People All Met a Tragic and Slightly Comedic End
Pietro Aretino, as portrayed by Titian. Wikimedia

19. The Creator of Modern Pornographic Literature Perished From Laughing at a Dirty Joke

Pietro Aretino (1492 – 1556) was an Italian writer, satirist, poet, playwright, and blackmailer. He was among the influential writers of his era and wielded influence in contemporary arts and politics. He also created modern literary pornography – erotic literature whose main feature is accounts of intimate relationships that are intended to arouse the reader. Aretino’s whole life seems to have been one long and often seedy adventure, so it was somehow fitting that he met a tragicomic ending by dying from laughing too hard at a dirty joke.

He came from a humble background, born in the Tuscan town of Arezzo to a shoemaker who abandoned the family to go soldiering when Pietro was a child. When he grew up, Pietro abandoned his father’s name, and took the name Aretino, meaning “from Arezzo”. His mother became the mistress of a local nobleman, who raised Aretino and his siblings. That left a mark, and Aretino spent the rest of his life pretending to be a nobleman’s bastard, rather than a shoemaker’s son.

These People All Met a Tragic and Slightly Comedic End
Pietro Aretino. Smart History

18. “The Scourge of Princess” and the Author of “The Lewd Sonnets

In his youth, Pietro Aretino went to Perugia to take up painting for a while. He eventually ended up in Rome, where a rich banker, the patron of the painter Raphael, took him under his wing. Painting was not really Aretino’s thing, however, and he eventually gave up on that. His real talent lay in words, and in 1516, he penned a satiric will of Pope Leo X’s recently deceased pet elephant. In it, he mocked Rome’s leading figures, including the Holy Father.

The pope was a good sport about it, and the satire was well-received. It launched Aretino’s career as a satirist, and he eventually ended up with the nickname “Scourge of Princes”. After the death of Leo X, Aretino penned vicious satirical pamphlets supporting the candidature of Cardinal Giulio de Medici for the papacy, which 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. Especially after he composed a dirty poetry collection known as the Lewd Sonnets.

These People All Met a Tragic and Slightly Comedic End
An 1854 painting by Anselm Feuerbach, depicting the demise of Pietro Aretino. Wikimedia

17. Renaissance Italy’s Most Lethal Joke?

Pietro Aretino’s exile turned into a life on the run when a bishop, who had been victimized by Aretino’s vicious pen, hired assassins to take out the satirist. So Aretino hit the road and wandered northern Italy. He served various aristocrats and distinguished himself with his wit and audacity. While at it, he also made ends meet every now and then with blackmail. Aretino eventually ended up in Venice, and hit it off with the locals. He spent the rest of his days living a grand and dissolute life amidst the Ventians.

It finally came to an end at a party on October 21st, 1556 when Aretino’s sister told a particularly risque joke. Her brother laughed so hard that he fell over backward from his chair, and keeled over then and there. Another version has it that he was done in by falling into a fit of apoplectic laughter after hearing the joke. Yet another variant has it that his tragicomic demise was caused by suffocation from laughing so hard. However it happened, all accounts agree that laughter was what brought Pietro Aretino to his tragicomic end.

These People All Met a Tragic and Slightly Comedic End
Return of the Musketeers poster. Alchetron

16. Pushing a Middle-Aged and Overweight Actor Beyond His Physical Limits Backfires

1989 saw the release of The Return of the Musketeers, a film loosely based on Alexandre Dumas’ Twenty Years, depicting events two decades after the original Three Musketeers story. The movie was middling. It opened to mixed reviews, which remain mixed to this day, with a current Rotten Tomatoes rating in the 60% ballpark. Filming was marred by the tragicomic demise of character actor Roy Kinnear (1934 – 1988), who played the role of Planchet, the servant of the Musketeer D’Artagnan.

These People All Met a Tragic and Slightly Comedic End
Roy Kinnear in ‘The Return of the Musketeers’. Pintrest

On September 19th, 1988, on a film set in Spain, a scene called for Planchet to gallop on horseback at speed across a wooden bridge. Kinnear, who was 54-years-old and considerably overweight, had not expected to perform such a strenuous stunt. He also had little to no experience in horseback riding. Indeed, he was described by fellow actors and the filming set’s stunt coordinator as a “nervous” and “incompetent” horseman. That did not stop the film’s director, Richard Lester, from instructing the aging and obese actor to “thunder” at high speed across the Alcantara Bridge near Toledo.

These People All Met a Tragic and Slightly Comedic End
Roy Kinnear, right, in ‘The Return of the Musketeers’. Wikimedia.

15. A Tragicomic Fall That Killed an Actor and a Director’s Career

The results of director Richard Lester’s demands on actor Roy Kinnear were tragicomic. As might have been expected, ordering an inexperienced, overweight, and out-of-shape rider with next to no equestrian skills to charge at top speed across a bridge was a bad idea. Kinnear fell off his horse, and suffered severe pelvic injuries, which led to massive internal bleeding. He was rushed to a hospital, but the doctors were unable to save him, and he expired from his injuries the following day.

Kinnear’s family sued the movie’s director, Richard Lester, and a producer, for exposing the actor to unnecessary risks while filming. On the first day of the trial, witnesses testified that although the scene was known to be hazardous, Kinnear was not offered a stunt double. That was then compounded by Lester ordering Kinnear to ride at speed across the bridge, despite knowing that the actor was a poor horseman. The following day, the defendants settled the case for 650,000 British pounds. Director Lester was forced to quit the filmmaking business because of his role in the accident.

These People All Met a Tragic and Slightly Comedic End
The Beggar’s Opera. Metropolitan Museum of Art

14. When “Go Kill ‘Em” as an Encouragement to Actors Turns Literal

Break a leg” in showbiz wishes the addressee success during a performance, not that he or she would literally suffer an accident onstage that requires a cast and crutches. Similarly, the expression “go kill ’em” for comedians does not urge the comic to murder the audience, but to kill them with laughter – figuratively, not literally. However, that was not the case for an eighteenth-century comedic troupe whose theatrical performance in 1782 ended up literally killing an audience member with laughter.

These People All Met a Tragic and Slightly Comedic End
Actor Charles Bannister as Polly Peachum. British Museum

The tragicomic event occurred during an April evening that year when a Mrs. Fitzherbert went out with some friends to see The Beggar’s Opera on Drury Lane, in London. The play starred a popular actor named Charles Bannister, and when he appeared on stage in drag, portraying a character named Polly Peachum, the entire audience was thrown into fits of laughter. A print of Bannister as Polly Peachum gives a hint of what caused the extreme mirth. In the guise of the charming Polly is a lantern-jawed and poorly shaved middle-aged man, in a voluminous dress and holding a fan, staring deadpan.

These People All Met a Tragic and Slightly Comedic End
A scene from The Beggar’s Opera, by William Hogarth. Tate Museum

13. The Tragicomic Demise of Mrs. Fitzherbert

The Beggar’s Opera’s audience eventually collected itself after bursting its stitches laughing at Polly Peachum, wiped the tears from their eyes, and resumed watching the play. Not so, Mrs. Fitzherbert, who was unable to suppress the laughter that seized her. As a contemporary source described it: “Mrs. Fitzherbert, the widow of a Northamptonshire clergyman, had been with some friends to Drury Lane on the evening of 17 April 1782 to see the transvestite ‘Beggar’s Opera’ in which Charles Bannister played Polly. This lady was overcome by laughter to the extent that she had to leave before the end of the second act. She continued in hysterics until the morning of 19 April, when she died“.

The Gentleman’s Magazine put it more succinctly soon thereafter: “Not being able to banish the figure from her memory, she was thrown into hysterics, which continued without intermission until she expired on Friday morning“. The incident caused waves at the time, as it was pregnant with what were, for its era, several class transgressions. The presence of a clergyman’s widow at a comic play was highly unusual in of itself, and her uncontrollable laughter in public even more. That might have been expected from a fishwife back then, but not from a woman whose gentility was deemed a given back then.

These People All Met a Tragic and Slightly Comedic End
‘They Died With Their Boots On’ poster. Microsoft

12. A Hit Movie With a Jinxed Production – and One of Hollywood’s Most Tragicomic Demises

1941’s hit movie 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, production was marred by significant tragedy, as three crew and cast members perished on set during filming – some in unfortunately tragicomic ways.

These People All Met a Tragic and Slightly Comedic End
Jack Budlong. Classic Movie Hub

A jinx seemed to have settled upon the movie set early on, and misfortune stalked the production. At some point, Errol Flynn collapsed from exhaustion, and for a while, it seemed 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 heart attack and keeled over on the set. Next was an extra with no horseback riding experience, who fell off his steed while galloping and broke his neck. More was to come.

These People All Met a Tragic and Slightly Comedic End
A cavalry scene from ‘They Died With Their Boots On’. YouTube

11. An Expert Horseman Turned Amateur Actor

The best known of the deaths occurring on the set of They Died With Their Boots On – and a tragicomic one at that – was the unfortunate demise 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.

Unfortunately for all concerned – and especially for Jack Budlong – Errol Flynn’s buddy got carried away by amateurish enthusiasm, or perhaps more accurately, by simple stupidity. It occurred while filming a scene that depicted a Civil War clash between Union and Confederate cavalry. Instead of using a prop sword, Budlong insisted on using a real saber while leading a Rebel cavalry charge against Union artillery. As seen below, a coroner’s inquest put the blame for Jack Budlong’s demise squarely on the shoulders of the deceased would-be actor.

These People All Met a Tragic and Slightly Comedic End
Still from ‘They Died With Their Boots On’. Clio Muse

10. A Tragicomic Demise by an Actor’s Sword, in an Overly Enthusiastic Display of Zeal

Jack Budlong, dressed in a Confederate cavalryman’s costume, charged across the “battlefield” on the set of They Died With Their Boots On. He rode headlong, enthusiastically waving his saber while prop explosions went off all around, to simulate enemy artillery rounds. Unfortunately, Budlong’s horse was not trained to deal with the explosions and battlefield chaos and noise. Not sharing its rider’s enthusiasm for battle, it panicked and started bucking. Budlong was thrown off his saddle 15 to 20 feet in the air, resulting in one of the more tragicomic ways of shuffling off the mortal coil.

Budlong landed on and was impaled by his own saber – the one he had insisted on using instead of a prop. It ran him clean through, piercing his abdomen and exiting out his back. Budlong was rushed to an LA hospital, but his injuries were too severe to survive. His demise brought to three the number of deaths 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.

These People All Met a Tragic and Slightly Comedic End
Zeuxis’ contest with Parhassius. The Collector

9. The Great Ancient Greek Artist Zeuxis

Zeuxis (flourished 5th century BC) was an ancient Greek artist from Heraclea in Magna Graecia, near today’s Taranto, Italy. He was considered by contemporaries to be one of the greatest painters to have ever lived, and he was praised for popularizing a trend toward illusionism and pushing it to new levels. He was innovative and broke with tradition, and departed from the usual method of filling in shapes with color. Instead, he relied on clever manipulation of light and shadows to enhance the realism of his works.

Zeuxis often preferred to paint panels rather than the contemporary norm of wall paintings, and usually went for small compositions, often with just a single figure. None of his works survive today, but historical records describe his paintings as exceptionally realistic. As recounted by Roman writer Pliny the Elder in his Natural History, Zeuxis entered into a competition with a rival painter named Parhassius, to see who could create the most realistic painting. When Zeuxis unveiled his entry, the grapes that he painted were so life-like, so the story goes, that birds flew down to peck at them. Nonetheless, as seen below, Zeuxis was trumped that day.

These People All Met a Tragic and Slightly Comedic End
‘Zeuxis Choosing His Models’, 1858, by Victor Mottez. Anarkasis

8. Ungallant Behavior Leads to a Tragicomic Death

Although Zeuxis was a master of realism, he was trumped in his artistic competition with Parhassius, who invited Zeuxis to examine the competing painting. When he tried to push aside the cloth covering in order to unveil the painting, Zeuxis discovered, to his chagrin, that the “cloth” was the painting itself. A good sport, he conceded that his rival had won, stating: “I have deceived the birds, but Parhassius has deceived Zeuxis“. Centuries later, the rivalry over realism between Zeuxis and Parhassius was viewed by Renaissance painters as a challenge and a spur in their quest to surpass the ancients.

These People All Met a Tragic and Slightly Comedic End
‘Zeuxis Choosing His Models for the Image of Helen From Among the Girls of Croton’, by Francois Andre Vincent, 1791. The Collector

Zeuxis’ tragicomic end came because of his ungallant conduct towards a wealthy patroness. A rich elderly woman hired him to do painting of Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of procreation, pleasure, love, and beauty. However, she wanted the painting fashioned in her own likeness and proceeded to pose as the model. The jarring contrast between Aphrodite, who was supposed to be the epitome of beauty, and the wrinkled old woman wanting to pose as a model for the goddess, was too much for Zeuxis. He burst into an uncontrollable fit of laughter and kept on laughing until he dropped over, dead.

These People All Met a Tragic and Slightly Comedic End
An anticipated battle between God and Satan led Margaretha Peter and her disciples into craziness. Pintrest

7. The Young Swiss Preaching Prodigy

Around 1794, Margaretha Peter was born into a large Swiss family, and from an early age, she displayed remarkable religious zeal. By the time she was six years old, Margaretha was a preaching prodigy who captivated congregations with impassioned sermons. Indeed, she sometimes demonstrated a better grasp of the Bible than many grown ministers and men of the cloth. She also had an exceptionally strong personality. That allowed her to spiritually dominate her family and neighbors, whom she turned into her disciples.

When Margaretha turned twenty, she announced that she was a prophetess, and established a small congregation in her village. She also took to wandering and preaching, gaining a reputation and following across Switzerland. In 1823, Margaretha began harping on Satan, warning her followers that he was all around them. Soon, she was experiencing prophetic visions of demons taking over the world. Then one day, she told ten devoted followers to gather weapons and pray, because the final battle between Satan and God was about to begin. What began was a tragicomic chain of events that would lead to multiple fatalities.

These People All Met a Tragic and Slightly Comedic End
Margaretha Peter convinced her followers that they were being attacked by invisible demons. Wikimedia

6. To Beat Back the Devil, This Congregation Beat Itself Black and Blue

Following Margaretha Peter’s instructions to prepare for the final battle between good and evil, her disciples gathered axes and clubs, and whatever other weapons they could get their hands on. They then barricaded themselves in a farmhouse attic. Margaretha told them that invisible demons had surrounded the house, then, as the suspense built, she shrieked that they had broken in. Her followers were so much under her control that they began to wildly swing their weapons at imaginary devils only she could see.

That went on for hours, during which they destroyed the attic. Then they descended to the ground floor and began hitting each other, on the theory that pain would ward off the demons. They kept at it, until neighbors finally called the police. They arrived to find Margaretha’s followers senseless on the floor, while she continued pummeling them. Things got more tragicomic the following day, when Margaretha told her congregation that more pain was needed to fend off the Devil. She then grabbed an iron wedge and began bludgeoning her brother, while her followers resumed beating each other up.

These People All Met a Tragic and Slightly Comedic End
Margaretha Peter told her followers that she would return to life three days after they killed and crucified her. Ancient Origins

5. The Tragicomic Ending of a Prophetess Who Ordered Her Followers to Kill and Crucify Her

After beating up her congregation and getting them to beat themselves up, Margaretha Peter announced that her deceased mother’s ghost had ordered her to sacrifice herself. Her sister stepped up and insisted that she be sacrificed instead. Margaretha accepted and began beating her sister with an iron wedge. The rest of the congregation joined in, and soon, the sister had gone to meet her Maker. When a follower protested, Margaretha assured her that her sister would rise from the dead in three days. Margaretha then ordered her followers to crucify her. They were reluctant at first, but she assured them that she would return to life in three days.

These People All Met a Tragic and Slightly Comedic End
Margaretha Peter’s followers crushed her head and nailed her to a cross. Ancient Origins

So they made a cross, and with Margaretha urging them on, nailed her to it by her hands, elbows, feet, and breasts. She then ordered them to stab her through the heart. They tried, but couldn’t get it right. So they took a hammer and crowbar, and smashed Margaretha’s head. Then the congregation gathered around the bodies, and prayed while waiting for them to come back to life in three days. Needless to say, three days came and went, but the dead Margaretha and her dead sister stayed dead. Her disciples were tried for murder, and eleven were convicted and given prison sentences ranging from six months to sixteen years.

These People All Met a Tragic and Slightly Comedic End
Ancient Greek vase depicting a fight during the Trojan War. Pintrest

4. Ancient Greece’s Greatest Soothsayer

In ancient Greek mythology, Calchas was a gifted soothsayer, blessed by the god Apollo with the gift of predicting the future from the flight pattern of birds. He could else soothsay by interpreting the entrails of enemies during battle. He accompanied the Greek armies when they invaded Troy, and in the Iliad, Homer extolled his skills, stating that: “as an augur, Calchas had no rival in the camp“. Calchas played a significant role in influencing the events of the Trojan War. Before the Greeks could even reach Troy, their assembled army was stuck on a beach, prevented from sailing by contrary winds.

These People All Met a Tragic and Slightly Comedic End
Calchas overseeing the sacrifice of Iphigeneia in a fresco from Pompeii. Wikimedia

Calchas prophesied that the winds were sent by the god Artemis, who was angry at the Greek High King and army leader, Agamemnon. To appease Artemis, Calchas stated that Agamemnon had to sacrifice his daughter, Iphigenia. It was done, and the winds shifted, allowing the Greeks to finally sail to Troy. On another occasion during the Trojan War, the Greek armies were struck with a devastating plague and turned to Calchas for advise on how to lift it. He divined that the plague was sent by the god Apollo, who was angered by Agamemnon’s enslavement of Chryseis, daughter of a priest of Apollo. Agamemnon was forced to send Chryseis back to her father.

These People All Met a Tragic and Slightly Comedic End
The Seer Calchas. Wikimedia.

3. A Tragicomic Demise From Laughing Too Hard at a Rival Soothsayer’s Failed Prediction

To compensate himself for having lost Chryseis, Agamemnon seized from Achilles, a princess whom the Greek hero had captured as a war prize, Briseis. That led to a feud between king and hero that drove much of the Iliad. Calchas also endorsed Odysseus’ Trojan Horse stratagem, predicting that it would succeed in infiltrating the besieged city. Centuries later, the Romans glommed on to Calchas’ reputation and ascribed to him a prophecy foretelling that the Trojan prince Aeneas would survive the fall of Troy, then go on to lay the foundations of Rome.

The soothsayer reportedly met a tragicomic end in Magna Graecia, laughing himself to death at what he believed to be a rival soothsayer’s false prediction. Calchas had planted some grapevines, but his rival prophesied that Calchas would never drink wine produced from those grapes. The grapes ripened, however, and were made into wine. Calchas then invited the other soothsayer to the first tasting, and lifting a cup of wine made from the grapes in question, he started laughing at his rival’s failed prophecy. He ended up laughing so hard that he choked and perished by asphyxiation before he got to drink from his vines.

These People All Met a Tragic and Slightly Comedic End
A fifth century BC vase depicting a pankratist trying to gouge an opponent’s eye, and a judge preparing to strike him for the foul. Wikimedia

2. Ancient Greece’s Greatest Fighter

Pankration, which means “all force”, was an ancient Greek sport that combined wrestling and boxing. It was a no-holds-barred event, in which just about everything intended to inflict harm was allowed, except for gouging and biting, or attacking an opponent’s genitals. It is widely viewed today as the ancestor of modern Mixed Martial Arts (MMA). The ancient Greek world’s most famous pankratist was Arrhachion of Phigalia (died 564 BC), who was crowned champion of that sport in the 572 BC and 568 BC Olympiads.

These People All Met a Tragic and Slightly Comedic End
Pankratists. Ancient Origins

He returned to the Olympics in 564 BC, seeking a threepeat a third consecutive championship. Arrhachion advanced through the early rounds and made it to the title bout. There, perhaps with age catching up with him and slowing him down, he got into trouble. His opponent outmaneuvered Arrhachion, got behind him, and with legs locked around his torso and heels digging into his groin, applied a chokehold. Arrhachion was too much of a competitor to accept defeat, however, and managed to turn things around. Unfortunately, the result was his own tragicomic demise.

These People All Met a Tragic and Slightly Comedic End
Fourth century BC vase depicting pankratists. Wikimedia

1. A Great Fighter’s Tragicomic Demise at the Moment of Victory

When Arrhachion of Phigalia found himself locked in a chokehold in the pankration title bout at the 564 BC Olympics, the situation seemed hopeless for him. However, the two-time returning champion was a wily competitor and had a few tricks up his sleeve. Feigning loss of consciousness, Arrhachion tricked his opponent into relaxing a little. When his opponent eased off, the wily title holder snapped back into action, and snapped his opponent’s ankle while shaking and throwing him off with a convulsive heave.

These People All Met a Tragic and Slightly Comedic End
Copy of a third-century BC statue depicting ancient Greek pankratists. Wikimedia

The sudden excruciating pain made his opponent do the Ancient Greek equivalent of tapping out, and he made the sign of submission to the referees. However, in throwing off his opponent while the latter still had him in a powerful chokehold, Arrhachion ended up with a broken neck. His opponent having already conceded, the dead Arrhachion’s was declared the title bout’s winner – perhaps the only time in the history of the Olympiads that a corpse was crowned an Olympic champion. He thus added a wrinkle to the athletic ideal of “victory or death” by gaining victory and death.


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

History Collection – History’s Weirdest Deaths, From Antiquity to the Middle Ages

Classic Movie Hub – They Died With Their Boots On

Encyclopedia Britannica – Calchas, Greek Mythology

Encyclopedia Britannica – Pietro Aretino

Encyclopedia Britannica – Zeuxis, Greek Artist

History Collection – Atypical Deaths of these Historical Figures

Independent, The, October 11th, 2011 – Actor’s Family Get Pounds 650,000 Over Fatal Stunt

Internet Movie Database – Jack Budlong

Journal of Medical Biography, Vol. 7, Issue 4, 1999 – The Death of King George II, With a Biographical Note on Dr. Frank Nicholls, Physician to the King

National Catholic Register – Saint Lawrence Laughed in the Face of Death

Providentia – The Crucifixion of Margaretta Peter

History Collection – Historical Deaths Weirder Than the Movies

Richmond Palladium and Sun-Telegram, September 30th, 1920 – One Year Locklear’s Limit; Daredevil is Killed in Stunt

Unbelievable Facts – 10 People Who Died From Laughing Too Hard

Wikipedia – Erfurt Latrine Disaster

Wikipedia – The Skywayman

History Collection – Most Unbelievably Strange Deaths of the Renaissance