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While perusing the annals of the Athanasius Kircher Society, I came across this list of unusual deaths, as compiled by Wikipedia. Such a useful and entertaining encyclopedia. Some of the highlights:

1478: George Plantagenet, Duke of Clarence reportedly drowned in a barrel of Malmsey wine. (This is portrayed in Shakespeare’s Richard III—but actually the phrase “Drowned in a butt of Malmsey” at the time meant dying from too much to drink.)

I recently caught the excellent ‘Tower of London’(1939), starring Basil Rathbone as the deliciously villainous Duke of Gloucester. Man, if profiles could kill, Rathbone should be charged with possesion of a deadly weapon. He’s en route to becoming Richard III with the aide of his sadistic, club-footed henchman Mord, played by Boris Karloff. Together they ruthlessly knock off the successors to the throne, including the aforementioned Duke of Clarence, played by none other than Vincent Price( looking far less sinister in period pageboy curls). Richard sets them up and knocks them down with ingenious plans leaving him squeaky-clean, including inducing his brother George to challenge him to duel for a long-wanted land title. Richard being an excellent swords and gunsman, George challenges him to a drinking contest, the one thing he bests his brother at. They chug-a-lug until Richard passes out, or so George thinks as he drunkenly cheers his victory and goes to find someone to verfy . When Richard, smiling that perfect evil smirk, raises his head, George is so startled Richard easily knocks him to the ground. Mord helps Richard pop George into the giant cask of Malmsey, they hold the lid down, and that is the end of brother George. Apparently during filming, Basil and Boris decided to play a little joke on Vincent, and hold the lid down when he rose to the top for the next take. In an interview Vincent said:

“They used watered-down cola for the wine, and Basil and I had to drink quarts of it and slosh around in it….I can’t stand the stuff to this day. Like a fool, I volunteered to do the drowning scene myself rather than be doubled. Basil and Boris were kidding me before hand and took great delight in throwing their cigarette butts and other trash into the vat. The stunt coordinator told me that when they dumped me into the vat and slammed the lid down I was supposed to grab hold of a bar at the bottom and count to ten before coming up. After I did all that the lid was still closed! Then I heard the crew breaking in with axes. Boris had sat on it and Basil leaned on it and it got stuck. They managed to pull me out before I drowned.”

This apparently had no long-term reprecussions on wine tippling, as Vincent Price’s fondness for the beverage was well-known through Hollywood after. Or perhaps he exorcized his worries when, playing Richard III himself years later, he got to do the dunking.

1601: Tycho Brahe, Danish astronomer, was once thought to have died of a bladder infection after refusing to leave for the bathroom during a banquet for the sake of good manners. However, newer research suggests that he died of mercury poisoning – likely because of his metal nose prosthetic.

I had never heard of this famous alchemist and astronomer until my physics professor told us all about his namesake’s life. The Danish scientist was fond of drink and the ladies, and got into more than one barroom brawl. See, this is what’s missing from science today, that Indiana Jones-style rough and tumble bad-assness. Unfortunately, in a drunken duel at his professor’s house, his opponent whipped out a rapier and literally got his nose. Brahe made do with a prosthetic, and this incident may have sparked his interest in medicine and science. Later in life, he kept a beloved pet elk, who had his master’s proclivities: at dinner the elk imbibed too much beer, fell down the stairs, and died. Brahe himself sucked down one too many cold ones and paid the price-it was considered proper to eat after your host began, and get up when they had. Unfortunately for Brahe his host was really into long-winded diatribes.

1626: Francis Bacon, English philosopher, statesman, and essayist, died of possible pneumonia after purchasing a chicken and stuffing it with snow to see if cold could preserve meat. Pond Square in Highgate, London is reputedly haunted by the chicken’s ghost.


1695: Henry Purcell, composer, died of a chill after returning late from the theatre one night and finding that his wife had locked him out. It is also possible that he died of chocolate poisoning.
I never thought it was real, but there is such a thing as death by chocolate, aka theobromine poisoning.

1841: William Henry Harrison, ninth President of the United States, gave the longest inaugural address in the history of the United States on a particularly cold March day and subsequently caught a cold. He wore no coat, to display his virility. Despite some accounts, this address was not given in the snow, as at that time the presidential term began in March. The cold developed into pneumonia and killed him in a month.

Is it morbid to have a favorite presidential death? Yes. Probably. Well anyway, this is one of my favorites, perfectly illustrating the ridiculousness and frailty of humanity. It was also memorialized in the rollicking Simpson’s song “Mediocre Presidents”:

All: We are the mediocre presidents.
You won’t find our faces on dollars or on cents!
There’s Taylor, there’s Tyler,
There’s Fillmore and there’s Hayes.
There’s William Henry Harrison,
Harrison: I died in thirty days!
All: We… are… the…
Adequate, forgettable,
Occasionally regrettable
Caretaker presidents of the U-S-A!

I actually use this to help me remember all the Presidents.

1960: Famed baritone Leonard Warren collapsed on the stage of the New York Metropolitan Opera of a major stroke during a performance of La Forza Del Destino. The last line he sang was “Morir? Tremenda cosa.” (“To die? A tremendous thing.”)

I’m not surprised; if you’re going to have a stroke performing an opera it’ll probably be that one: this testament to fate and humanity clocks in at over 5 hours long. I had the good fortune to watch it at the Met, and it was thoroughly worth every second. It’s epic in the true sense of the word, covering humanity at its worst and best, with songs of heartbreak and torment sandwiched between rousing patriotic and joyful tunes. The entire chain of events is set into motion when Don Alvaro, a Peruvian/Indian noble and the punching bag of the piece, gets caught trying to elope with Donna Leonora, the daughter of the Marquis of Calatrava. He doesn’t think highly of this half-breed fellow and threatens them both with death, as Leonora’s dishonored the family with her indiscretion. Don Alvaro, trying to clear Leonora’s good name and pacify the Marquis, throws his pistol to the ground in surrender. Unfortunately it goes off, killing the Marquis and making him and Leonora fugitives in the process. And that’s just the first part of the first act. There’s betrayal, friendship, jealousy, battle, monks, more dueling, surprise revelations, and all the other delightful plot twists that make opera so enjoyable. The aria Leonora sings in Part II as she stands outside the monastary where she plans to spend the rest of her life in penance and seclusion, asking God for peace and forgiveness, is heartbreaking and absolutely beautiful.

1981: A 19-year-old man named Jeff Bailey died of a heart attack after scoring 16,660 on the arcade game Berzerk. This was the first known instance of a video game-related death.

A heart attack?! at 19? Is there something about how heart attacks happen that I’m missing, because that terrifies me. My only comfort is that this is a list of unusual deaths, so not many 19 year olds must drop dead of heart attacks. Perhaps it plays into my fear of suddenly dropping dead leaving a life unlived, but I think I’ve burned to memory every time someone under the age of 25 dies of some heart quirk.

And now for a cheery note on mortality:

Skeleton Dance!!!

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