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The Strange Deaths of 20 Interesting People

wikimedia commons / istock
wikimedia commons / istock

Despite our best efforts, Death, in all its myriad and weird forms, is constantly lurking around the corner. But who knew a toothpick could be so dangerous? Or that one's trademark scarf, draped so dramatically around your neck, could be conspiring to kill you?

Here, adding to the list of things one should worry about—cellphones causing cancer, the probability of a car accident, the potential for being struck by lightning whilst enjoying a game of pick-up soccer on an unfortunately situated field -- is a long list of the strange deaths of interesting people. Take heed and keep an eye on those toothpicks.

1. KING ADOLF FREDERICK OF SWEDEN

The king ate himself to death in 1771: His last meal included lobster, caviar, cabbage, smoked herring, and Champagne, followed up by 14 servings of his favorite dessert, semla in hot milk.

2. ALLAN PINKERTON

The founder of the Pinkerton detective agency, died from an infection incurred after he bit his tongue.

3. JACK DANIEL

The purveyor of fine whiskey, died from an infection sustained after kicking his safe and busting his toe.

4. ISADORA DUNCAN

The early 20th century modern dancer, was killed by her trademark scarf while riding in a convertible car. The long scarf blew back and wrapped around a tire axel, breaking Duncan's neck.

5. VIC MORROW 

The lead actor from the television series Combat!, was decapitated by a helicopter blade during a stunt for The Twilight Zone: The Movie gone way bad. Two Vietnamese children also died in the accident, prompting the film industry to institute stricter child labor laws.

6. TYCHO BRAHE

The 16th century Danish nobleman and astronomer, supposedly died of a bladder infection after holding it way, way too long during a banquet. Good story, but not true: A 1996 report showed that though Brahe did become ill after the banquet with symptoms similar to a bladder infection, he actually died of mercury poisoning. Brahe and his assistants frequently used mercury in alchemical experiments, however, how the mercury got into his system in such a concentrated dose remains a mystery.

7. TENNESSEE WILLIAMS 

The longtime alcoholic and author of some of the most enduringly bleak plays of the 20th century, choked on an eyedropper bottle cap in 1983.

8. SHERWOOD ANDERSON

The author of Winesburg, Ohio, died of peritonitis, an infection of the lining of his stomach, suffered after he swallowed part of a toothpick.

9. NORMAN "CHUBBY" CHANEY

Chaney, one of the original Little Rascals, died as a result of a glandular disorder at the age of 21. Evidently, what made him a popular character on the show "“ his weight, which at one point topped 300 pounds on his 4-foot 7-inch frame "“ was actually contributing to his death.

10. ATTILA THE HUN

The invader died of a nosebleed on his wedding night. He passed out drunk and drowned in his own blood.

11. SIR FRANCIS BACON

The scientist died after trying to preserve a chicken in snow; the famous scientist contracted pneumonia after the successful experiment and died a few months later.

12. AESCHYLUS

The Greek playwright, died after an eagle dropped a tortoise on his head. The tortoise reportedly lived.

13. CHRYSIPPUS

The Greek stoic philosopher, is believed to have died of laughter after getting his donkey drunk and watching it attempt to eat figs.

14. ROMAN EMPEROR TITUS

A bug allegedly flew into into the ruler's nose and, for the next seven years, happily ate at his brain. According to the Babylonian Talmud, it was the size of a bird when he died.

15. KEITH RELF

The lead singer of the Yardbirds was electrocuted by his own electric guitar.

16. EMPEROR CLAUDIUS OF ROME 

According to Karl Shaw's book 5 People Who Died During Sex and 100 Other Terribly Tasteless Lists, Emperor Claudius of Rome choked on a feather he'd been using to induce vomiting during a banquet in 54 AD. Other historians say he was poisoned by his wife, Agrippina.

17. PLAYWRIGHT CHRISTOPHER MARLOWE

who was perhaps better known in his day than even contemporary Shakespeare, died in 1593 after a fatal argument in a tavern over a bill, he was stabbed in the eye.

18. KING HENRY I

The king died in 1135 of food poisoning after overdosing on lampreys, a parasitic eel-like marine animal popular in British cuisine during the Middle Ages. Because he died while in France, his remains were sewn into the hide of a bull and shipped back to England for burial.

19. BOBBY LEACH

He cheated death when he made the historic (and historically stupid) trip over Niagara Falls in a barrel, the second person to do so, but he wasn't so lucky on dry land. The stuntman slipped on an orange peel and fractured his leg, which then became infected. Despite the amputation of the gangrenous limb, Leach still died only two months later.

20. DRACO

The Greek lawmaker whose stringent legal code gave rise to the word "draconian," died somewhere in the 7th century BCE, supposedly after particularly masterful speech: He suffocated under the mounds of hats and cloaks thrown upon him by admiring Greeks, as a show of appreciation.

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History
Alexander Hamilton’s Son Also Died in a Duel
Alexander Hamilton
Alexander Hamilton
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

When Aaron Burr shot Alexander Hamilton on July 11, 1804, the scene must have been eerily familiar to the former Secretary of the Treasury. After all, his son died in a similar setting just three years earlier.

On November 20, 1801, 19-year-old Philip Hamilton and his friend Richard Price had a run-in with a young lawyer named George I. Eacker at Manhattan's Park Theatre. A supporter of Thomas Jefferson, Eacker had delivered a Fourth of July speech that harshly criticized the elder Hamilton, and his son was apparently determined to take revenge.

On that fateful day in November, according to biographer Ron Chernow, Price and the younger Hamilton "barged into a box where Eacker was enjoying the show ... [then] began taunting Eacker about his Fourth of July oration."

As onlookers started to stare, Eacker asked the two young men to go into the lobby, where he called the pair "damned rascals." Tempers rose, and although the trio went to a tavern in an attempt to settle their differences, they failed miserably. Later the same night, Eacker had a letter from Price challenging him to duel.

Customs of the time meant that Eacker had little choice but to accept or face social humiliation. He and Price met that Sunday in New Jersey, where the penalties for dueling were less severe than in New York. They exchanged four shots without injury—and considered the matter between them closed.

Philip Hamilton wasn't so lucky. Cooler heads tried to negotiate a truce with Eacker's second, but their efforts were also for naught. Once the duel had been scheduled for November 23 on a sandbar in today's Jersey City, the elder Hamilton advised his son to preserve his honor by wasting his first shot—by waiting until Eacker fired first or firing into the air, a move the French called the delope. The intent was to cut the duel short, and, if the other side fired to kill, plainly show they had blood on their hands.

Philip seemed to follow his father's advice. For about a minute after the duel officially began, neither man made a move. Then, Eacker raised his pistol, and Philip did too. Eacker fired, and Philip shot back, though it may have been an involuntary reaction to having been hit. The bullet tore through Philip's body and settled in his left arm. Despite being rushed to Manhattan, he died early the next morning.

On July 11, 1804, Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr also departed to New Jersey, this time Weehawken, to settle their infamous differences. This time, the elder Hamilton fired the first shot—and he aimed to miss. (According to his second, anyway.) Burr, on the other hand, seemed to have every intention of connecting with his target. He shot Hamilton in the stomach, and the bullet lodged in his spine.

Just like Philip, Hamilton died the next day.

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Image courtesy of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia and the Mütter Museum. Photography by Evi Numen 2017.
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History
Mütter Museum Showcases the Victorian Custom of Making Crafts From Human Hair
Palette work from the collection of John Whitenight and Frederick LaValley
Palette work from the collection of John Whitenight and Frederick LaValley
Image courtesy of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia and the Mütter Museum. Photography by Evi Numen 2017.

During the Victorian era, hair wasn’t simply for heads. People wove clipped locks into elaborate accessories, encased them in frames and lockets, and used them to make wreaths, paintings, and other items. "Woven Strands," a new exhibition at Philadelphia’s Mütter Museum, explores this historical practice by featuring dozens of intricate works culled from five private collections.

According to Emily Snedden Yates, special projects manager at the Mütter Museum, hair work—as it’s called today—was common in England and America between the 17th and early 20th centuries. The popularity of the practice peaked in the 19th century, thanks in part to Queen Victoria’s prolonged public mourning after her husband Prince Albert’s death in 1861. People in both the UK and U.S. responded to her grief, with the latter country also facing staggering death tolls from the Civil War.

With loss of life at the forefront of public consciousness, elaborate mourning customs developed in both nations, and hair work became part of the culture of bereavement. "[The 19th century was] such a sentimental age, and hair is about sentiment," exhibition co-curator Evan Michelson tells Mental Floss. That sentimental quality made hair work fit for both mourning practices as well as for romantic or familiar displays of fondness.

Palette work culled from the collection of Evan Michelson and featured in the Mütter Museum's "Woven Strands" exhibition.
Palette work from the collection of Evan Michelson
Image courtesy of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia and the Mütter Museum. Photography by Evi Numen 2017.

Most hair artworks were made by women, and created solely for the domestic sphere or as wearable trinkets. Women relied on multiple techniques to create these objects, fashioning wreaths with hair-wrapped bendable wires—a process called gimp work—and dissolving ground hair into pigments used to paint images of weeping willows, urns, and grave sites. Watch fobs, necklaces, and bracelets were woven using an approach called table work, which involved anchoring hair filaments with lead weights onto a table and using tools to twist them into intricate patterns through a hole in the furniture’s surface. Yet another technique, palette work, involved stenciled sheets of hair that were cut into various shapes and patterns.

Hair work remained popular until World War I, according to Michelson, who co-owns New York City's quirky Obscura Antiques and Oddities shop and organized "Woven Strands" along with 19th century decorative arts expert John Whitenight.

“Women hit the workforce, and death occurred on such a huge scale that it really swept away the old way of mourning and the old way of doing things,” Michelson says. By the early 20th century, tastes and aesthetics had also changed, with hair work beginning to be viewed “as something grandma had,” she explains.

The Mütter’s exhibition aside, people typically won’t see hair work in major museums. Being a craft primarily performed by women at home, hair works were usually passed down in families and often viewed as worthless from a financial and artistic perspective.

“A lot of hair work was discarded,” Michelson says. Many owners repurposed the shadowbox frames often used to display hair work by removing and tossing the artworks within. Works stored in basements and attics also frequently succumbed to water damage and insects. Antique dealers today typically only see hair jewelry, which often featured semi-precious materials or was encased in a protective layer.

Sepia dissolved hair culled from the collection of Jennifer Berman and featured in the Mütter Museum's "Woven Strands" exhibition.
Sepia dissolved hair from the collection of Jennifer Berman
Image courtesy of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia and the Mütter Museum. Photography by Evi Numen 2017.

Yet examples of hair wreaths, palette work, and other delicate heirlooms do occasionally surface. They’re prized by a small group of avid collectors, even though other connoisseurs can be grossed out by them.

“People have this visceral reaction to it,” Michelson says. “They either gasp and adore it—like ‘I can’t get over how amazing it is’—or they just back away. There are very few other things where people are repulsed like this … In the 19th century no one batted an eyelash.”

“It’s a personal textile,” Snedden Yates explains. “It’s kind of like bone in that it doesn’t really decompose at the same rate as the rest of our bodies do. It’s not made of tissue, so if you keep it in the right environment it can be maintained indefinitely.”

Table work culled from the collection of Eden Daniels and featured in the Mütter Museum's "Woven Strands" exhibition.
Table work from the collection of Eden Daniels
Image courtesy of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia and the Mütter Museum. Photography by Evi Numen 2017.

“Woven Strands” features examples of gimp work, palette work, table work, and dissolved hair work. It’s often hard to trace these types of artworks back to their original creators—they typically don’t bear signatures—but the curators “really wanted to find hair that you could connect to an actual human being,” Michelson says. “We chose pieces that have provenance. We know where they came from or when it was made, or who actually donated the hair in some cases, or what the family name was. We also picked out things that are unusual, that you don’t see often—oddities, if you will.”

Woven hair culled from the collection of Jennifer Berman and featured in the Mütter Museum's "Woven Strands" exhibition.
Woven hair from the collection of Jennifer Berman
Image courtesy of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia and the Mütter Museum. Photography by Evi Numen 2017.

Displayed in the Mütter Museum’s Thomson Gallery, “Woven Strands” opens on January 19, 2018, and runs through July 12, 2018. On April 7, 2018, master jeweler and art historian Karen Bachmann will lead a 19th century hair art workshop, followed by a day-long historical symposium on the art on Sunday, April 8.

Michelson hopes that “Woven Strands” will teach future generations about hair art, and open their minds to a craft they might have otherwise dismissed as parochial or, well, weird. “We hope that people see it and fall in love with it,” she says.

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