Historical Personalities Who Suffered Comically Horrific Deaths

May 17, 2022 2 comments

Death can come in many forms. For many it is usually mundane such as passing away due to old age or due to some illness. For some it is traumatic, such as involving in an automobile accident. And for a tiny few, death is so bizarre that it beggars disbelief. Yet, I can assure you that each of these stories below is true.

Clement Laird Vallandigham

Clement Laird Vallandigham (1820—1871) was an American politician and advocate who served two terms for Ohio's 3rd congressional district in the United States House of Representatives.

In 1871, Vallandigham represented a defendant, Thomas McGehean, in a murder case for killing a man in a barroom brawl. Vallandigham attempted to prove the victim, Tom Myers, had in fact accidentally shot himself while drawing his pistol from a pocket while rising from a kneeling position. Vallandigham proceeded to demonstrate this to the jury. He took a pistol he believed to be unloaded, put it in his pocket and enacted the events as they might have happened, snagging the loaded gun on his clothing and unintentionally causing it to fire into his stomach. Vallandigham died the next day.

Although he was fatally wounded, Vallandigham's demonstration proved his point, and the defendant, Thomas McGehean, was acquitted and released from custody.

Charles VIII of France

King Charles VIII was the last king of France in the direct line of the Valois dynasty. As a child, Charles was very frail and not allowed to participate in any vigorous physical activity. As a result he grew up with a limited education and little training in the arts of war and hunting. When he became king at his father's death at the age of fourteen, he needed a regent to govern for him. By this time Charles turned 21 and was free of the regency's influence, he was ill-equipped to deal with the great difficulties of ruling.

As a king, Charles neglected his duties to political and economic problems of France. Instead, he decided to invade southern Italy, and in the process traded away most of the diplomatic advantages which France had gained in the preceding half century. In 1495 Charles briefly held Naples, but he was defeated at Fornovo and made a hasty retreat into France. In spite of his fruitless expedition into Italy, Charles VIII did not notably weaken the power of the French monarchy, thanks to the achievement of his predecessors Charles VII and Louis XI.

In 1498, two and a half years after his retreat from Italy, Charles was on his way to watch a game of jeu de paume (real tennis) in Amboise when he struck his head on the doorframe of a low door. Despite being hurt, Charles made it to the game, but while returning in the afternoon, he fell into a sudden coma and died nine hours later.

Hans Staininger

Tombstone of Hans Steininger at the Braunau parish church.

Hans Staininger was the mayor of Braunau who was famous for his extraordinarily long beard. Staininger’s beard was roughly 2 meters long, which he used to carry rolled up in his pocket. One day while hastening to meet a passing prince, Staininger tripped upon his own beard and fell down fatally injuring himself. After his death, his beard was removed and kept as a family relic. In 1911 the beard was inherited by the town of Braunau and can now be seen in the district museum.

Charles II of Navarre

Charles II was the King of Navarre from 1349 to 1387. At the age of sixty, Charles II became very lethargic, his body ravaged with diseases. His physician advised him to be wrapped up from head to foot, in a linen cloth impregnated with brandy. The night when this remedy was to be administered, one of the female attendants of the palace, sewed him up to the neck, made a knot with the remaining end of the thread and instead of cutting off the loose ends with a pair of scissors, she decided to use a candle to singe the thread. As soon as she brought the candle to the thread, Charles II’s alcohol impregneted body burst into flames. The frightened attendant fled the scene leaving the king to be burnt alive in his own bed.

Tycho Brahe

Tycho Brahe was a 16th century Danish astronomer, known for his accurate and comprehensive astronomical observations, which he did without the aid of a telescope, for the instrument hadn’t been invented yet. Instead, he designed gigantic versions of existing instruments such as the sextant and the quadrant and used these to make his observations. Despite the lack of telescope, Brahe managed to make observations of stellar and planetary positions with uncanny accuracy.

At the age of 54, Tycho contracted a mysterious bladder or kidney ailment, which he attempted to cure himself with his alchemy skills. One day, Tycho attended a banquet. In the midst of the ceremonies, Tycho had aa urgent urge to urinate, but not wishing to offend his host and other attendees he held himself up. After he returned home, Tycho was in excruciating pain and no longer able to pass urine. Before he died, Tycho wrote his own epitaph, “He lived like a sage and died like a fool.”.

His death was attributed to a kidney stone, but when is body was exhumed three hundred years later and an autopsy performed, no kidney stones were found. His death was more likely caused by either prostatic hypertrophy, acute prostatitis, or prostate cancer. A more recent research suggest that Tycho might have been the victim of mercury poisoning. He might have been poisoned by his assistant who wanted to gain access to Tycho's laboratory and chemicals, or by his friend-turned-enemy Christian IV, because of rumors that Tycho had had an affair with Christian's mother.

Angela Isadora Duncan

Angela Isadora Duncan was an American dancer who performed to great acclaim throughout Europe and the US. Born and raised in California, she lived and danced in Western Europe, the US and the Soviet Union. She died when her long flowing scarf became entangled around the open-spoked wheels and rear axle of the car she was riding, pulling her from the open car and breaking her neck.

Death from laughter

There are at least half a dozen cases from history where the victim was alleged to have died from uncontrollable laughter. According to modern science, it is indeed possible to die from laughing, although not directly. Laughter can cause asphyxiation or lead to cardiac arrest or even seizures. Here are some most notable examples:

  • Zeuxis, a 5th-century BC Greek painter, is said to have died laughing at the humorous way in which he painted the goddess Aphrodite – after the old woman who commissioned it insisted on modeling for the portrait.
  • Chrysippus, also known as "the man who died from laughing at his own joke," is a 3rd-century BC Greek Stoic philosopher who died of laughter after he saw a donkey eating his figs. He told a slave to give the donkey undiluted wine to wash them down, and then, "having laughed too much, he died".
  • In 1410, King Martin of Aragon died from a combination of indigestion and uncontrollable laughter triggered by a joke told by his favorite court jester. According to legend, Martin was suffering from indigestion on account of eating an entire goose when his favorite jester, Borra, entered the king's bedroom. When Martin asked Borra where he had been, the jester replied with: "Out of the next vineyard, where I saw a young deer hanging by his tail from a tree, as if someone had so punished him for stealing figs." Martin fell into laughter and never recovered from it.
  • In 1556, Pietro Aretino, the Italian playwright and author, is said to have died of suffocation from laughing too much at an obscene joke during a meal in Venice.
  • In 1660, Thomas Urquhart, the Scottish aristocrat, polymath, and first translator of François Rabelais's writings into English, is said to have died laughing upon hearing that Charles II had taken the throne.


  1. You learn something everyday! I knew of the death-by-scarf-and-wheel accident but I always thought it was Loïe Fuller who had perished that way.

  2. Charles VIII wasn't the only French king who died from smacking his head on a door frame. Louis III was only 16 or 17 when he ran into a lintel while chasing a young woman who was fleeing into her father's home.


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