A stupid twist of fate can bring even the most famous existence to a sudden end. Kings, philosophers and scientists experienced ridiculous deaths, too. Let’s pay tribute to them with this collection of odd and hilarious demises throughout history.
How many obscure individuals did achieve posterity through a stupid death? Probably a lot of them. But on the contrary, how many celebrities did give away their glorious legacy with a ridiculous end? Several instances in history tell us that the death, rather ironically, proves the best way to remember one’s life. The evidence being the following people.
Beware of the turtle
The Greek tragedian Aeschylus was pacing around the white beaches of Gela, Sicily in 456 B.C. He sure looked nervous: “an oracle, it is said, had predicted his death on that day by the fall of a house, upon which he took the precaution of trusting himself only under the canopy of the heavens” (Pliny the Elder). Suddenly, an eagle flew overhead: the animal was holding in its talons a rather stressed-out turtle.
According to Pliny the Elder’s own observations, “this eagle has the instinct to break the shell of the tortoise by letting it fall from aloft”. But the raptor did mistake the white rocks it usually breaks its prey on with the bald skull of the Greek stroller. Aeschylus dropped dead instantly. The oracle was right: the fall of a (tiny) house had provoked the poet’s demise — the house that the turtle carries daily on its back…
A renowned Danish astronomer, Tycho Brahe started rubbing shoulders with aristocrats and princes from a very young age. At the very top of the social hierarchy, good manners are more than welcome. Hence his refusal to go to the bathroom during a strait-laced banquet with the cream of the crop… A few hours later, his bladder burst.
This horrific death has been the subject of discussions for decades. Some argue that the Danish nobleman did not die from a burst bladder but rather from poisoning — a theory since debunked with the help of modern forensics. Recent exhumations of his body have confirmed that Tycho’s politeness was the reason for his demise. And to think that the Danish astronomer greatly influenced Johannes Kepler himself…
Facing the music
One of the most prominent composers in history, Jean-Baptiste Lully was a French musician who set the Louis XIV’s reign to music. In 1687, at a Parisian church, he had a pompous Te Deum — “Thee, O God, we praise” — played in honor of the Sun King; as was customary at the time, Lully was beating time with a heavy conducting staff, regularly striking it upon the floor.
Suddenly distracted, Lully drove his conducting staff into his foot and broke one of his toes. Still, the meticulous composer he was refused to seek medical advice; as a result, the wound got infected, but Lully wouldn’t want his legs to be amputated — he was, after all, a remarkable dancer… Gangrene followed and he passed away on March 22, 1687.
One thing is for sure: one will not remember Adolf Frederick, King of Sweden, for his military bravadoes or political skills. The only feature that earned him a spot in history books was his gargantuan appetite… On February 12, 1771, Adolf Frederick sat down for dinner at Stockholm Palace. The menu was dizzying: lobster, caviar, sauerkraut, herring, cabbage soup — all washed down with champagne. Any room left for dessert? The king exulted when a large tray of semlas — sweet rolls stuffed with whipped cream and served in hot milk — arrived before him. He helped himself to fourteen pastries. Experiencing later a terrible indigestion which he did not survive.
A bad hair day
Sited on the border between Austria and Germany, the town of Braunau am Inn surprisingly went down in history; that, not only because it was the birthplace of Adolf Hitler (1889), but also for its notorious 16th-century mayor. Hans Steininger, Stadthauptmann of the city, was wandering through its winding streets in 1567. The man was easily recognizable, for he wore a troublesome 7-feet beard he carried around in a leather pocket… But on the 15th of September, as a blaze devastated Braunau, Hans’ beard escaped and its owner unfortunately stumbled over it. A flight of stairs later, the city’s mayor laid dead with a broken neck…
- David Alliot, Philippe Charlier, Olivier Chaumelle, Frédéric Chef, Bruno Fuligni, Bruno Léandri, La tortue d’Eschyle et autres morts stupides de l’Histoire (2012), Les Arènes, Paris.
- Pline l’Ancien, Natural History, Book X, “The Natural History of Birds”, chap. 3.
- Megan Gannon, “Tycho Brahe Died From Pee, Not Poison”, Live Science, 16 novembre 2012.
- Eric Grundhauser, “Visit a Beard That Killed Its Owner”, Atlas Obscura, 26 janvier 2018.
- Henri Pigaillem, Petit dico insolite de la Mort (2007), City.