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Bizarre Ways of Dying

Updated on October 16, 2017
Rupert Taylor profile image

I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

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Sometimes real life (and death) can produce stories that are as strange as the fictional fodder served up by supermarket tabloids, whose creative writers might stand in awe of the inventiveness surrounding the end of life experiences of some people. The odd ways in which some poor unfortunates die should not be amusing, but somehow they are, at least to those of us with a distorted sense of humour.

Man Killed by a Mouse

As Tom and Jerry cartoons informed us in a pre-gender-neutral age, some women are terrified of mice.

In December 1857, The Manchester Evening News reported on a tragic death that occurred in a factory in south London.

A mouse scampered across a worktable surrounded by women. Amid the shrieking and tumult a young man leapt forward and grabbed the rodent. But, his grip was loose and the mouse escaped, ran up his sleeve, and emerged at his shirt collar.

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The gallant young man opened his mouth in astonishment and the, no doubt equally surprised intruder, seeing a suitable hiding place, dashed in.

Now, this is where the story takes a gruesome twist and the squeamish may want to skip the ending (But, you know you’re not going to).

In a state of panic, the young man swallowed the mouse.

The newspaper picks up the narrative: “That a mouse can exist for a considerable time without much air has long been a popular belief and was unfortunately proved to be a fact in the present instance, for the mouse began to tear and bite inside the man’s throat and chest, and the result was that the unfortunate fellow died after a little time in horrible agony.”

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Alarming Clock Accident

Sam Wardell was a lamplighter in Flatbush, New York. Lamplighters had a schedule that could not be missed; they had to light a city’s gaslights at dusk and extinguish them at dawn. To ensure that he kept to his assigned schedule, Sam Wardell invented a unique wake-up system.

The San Francisco Bulletin reported in January 1886 that “On the top of his clock he (Wardell) adjusted a heavy stone, so nearly evenly balanced that the natural shaking of the clock occasioned by the striking of the bell would cause it to roll off to the floor and thus awaken the sleeper by its crash.”

Then came the fateful party of Christmas Eve, 1885. Wardell and his friends moved his bed to make room for the festivities. Late at night and tired he went to sleep without noticing he was lying right underneath the alarm clock.

The Bulletin ends the story: “True to its perfect mechanical arrangement the little bell tinkled; the heavy stone rolled slowly in its place and fell, striking the sleeping man on the skull – the stroke that cost him his life.”

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No Laughing Matter

Farmer Wesley Parsons of Laurel, Indiana was shooting the breeze with some friends in 1893. Someone told a joke and that got Wesley laughing, and laughing, and laughing.

As BBC News reports “He laughed for nearly an hour, when he began hiccupping. Two hours later he died from exhaustion.”

David Wallechinsky and Amy Wallace (The Book of Lists) count nine other victims of terminal laughter, but there are many more.

In 1782, a Mrs. Fitzherbert went to see a production of The Beggar’s Opera in London. A bout of uncontrollable laughter was triggered by the appearance of a male actor dressed as a woman.

The Gentleman’s Magazine reported that poor Mrs. Fitzherbert had to leave the theatre and “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.”

More recently, a Danish doctor, Ole Benzen, was watching the film A Fish Called Wanda in 1989. He started laughing at one scene so hard that he went into cardiac arrest and died.

The World's Funniest Joke

Accidental and Not-so-Accidental Passing

Sacramento, California radio station KDND-FM held a contest in 2007 under the title “Hold Your Wee for a Wii.” Entrants had to drink as much water as they could without draining the tank in order to win a Nintendo gaming console. Jennifer Strange, 28, downed almost two gallons in three hours and complained of being in pain. She died a few hours later of water intoxication.

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Charles II of Navarre (also known as Charles the Bad) was very ill in 1387. His physician ordered that he be stitched up in a cloth that was soaked in brandy. The needlewoman charged with this duty had thread left over when the sewing was complete. Instead of cutting the thread with scissors she burned through it with a candle. Charles the Bad was killed and cremated in a single operation.

Denver St. Clair died from an “atomic wedgie” in December 2013. The 58-year-old man from McLoud, Oklahoma, allegedly got into an argument with his stepson after boozing it up most of the night.

The disagreement ended in punches and Mr. St. Clair fell to the ground unconscious. The stepson stands accused of pulling St Clair’s under-shorts up and over his head. Denver St. Clair died of suffocation caused by the elastic in the extreme wedgie.

In August 2010, a man was smuggling a juvenile crocodile in a large sports bag aboard a flight in the Congo. The reptile escaped and caused a panic aboard the small plane with passengers and crew rushing to the cockpit.

The aircraft became unbalanced and crashed just short of its runway, killing 20 people.

Only one passenger survived to tell the story.

The crocodile also escaped the crash unhurt but was killed on the ground by a man with a machete.

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Fatalities in Tudor Britain

Dr. Steven Gunn is an Oxford University historian, and he’s been leafing through coroner’s reports from the 16th century. He’s unearthed some strange ways in which folks in the Tudor era contrived to bring about their own demise.

Spare a thought for poor Henry Pert, gentleman. In 1552, he was practicing his archery skills. He drew back his bow and let loose the missile. But the arrow didn’t wing into the air as expected; it didn’t move at all. Henry leaned over to inspect his misfiring weapon when it turned into a firing weapon. Henry died the following day.

In March 1557, a man was ambling through a field near Hogsthorpe, Lincolnshire when the resident cow took exception to his presence and speared him with her horn. The victim’s name, and you can’t make this stuff up, was Robert Calf.

Bonus Factoids

The Darwin Awards are handed out posthumously to people who remove themselves from the gene pool by finding creatively stupid ways of killing themselves. It is the mother lode of bizarre deaths. In June 2007 a cab driver in South Carolina came upon a naked and injured couple lying in the road. They died without regaining consciousness. It seems they had decided to express their love for one another on the sloping roof of a four-storey building. In the throes of passion they lost their purchase on the tiles and proved that safe sex has more than one meaning.

A young man called Maqsood climbed over a fence into a tiger enclosure in a Delhi zoo during his lunch break in September 2014. Well, you can see what’s coming, as Maqsood became the tiger’s lunch break. Maqsood was 19 years old.

More Darwin Award Winners

Sources

“Man Dies after Swallowing a Mouse.” Manchester Evening News, December 30, 2013.

“Inventive Deaths: How to Die in a Better Mousetrap.” Chris Woodyard, Haunted Ohio, (San Francisco Bulletin, January 8, 1886).

“10 Truly Bizarre Victorian Deaths.” Jeremy Clay, BBC News Magazine, December 24, 2013.

“9 People Who Died Laughing.” David Wallechinsky and Amy Wallace, Book of Lists, Random House, 1977.

“Jury Rules Against Radio Station after Water-Drinking Contest Kills Calif. Mom.” Suzan Clarke and Rich McHugh, ABC News, November 2, 2009.

“Aircraft Crashes after Crocodile on Board Escapes and Sparks Panic.” The Telegraph, October 21, 2010.

“Death by Wedgie: Stepdad Suffocates after Underpants Pulled over his Head.” Christopher Bucktin, The Mirror, January 9, 2014.

“10 Strange Ways Tudors Died.” Seam Coughlin, BBC News Magazine, June 14, 2011.

“Darwin Awards.”

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