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The Strange Deaths of 20 Interesting People

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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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Essential Science
What Is Death?
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The only thing you can be certain about in life is death. Or is it? Merriam-Webster defines death as "a permanent cessation of all vital functions." The Oxford English dictionary refines that to "the permanent ending of vital processes in a cell or tissue." But determining when someone is dead is surprisingly complicated—the medical definition has changed over the centuries and, in many ways, is still evolving.

DEATH, DEFINED

For most of human history, doctors relied on basic observations to determine whether or not a person had died. (This may be why so many feared being buried alive and went to great lengths to ensure they wouldn't be.) According to Marion Leary, the director of innovation research for the Center for Resuscitation Science at the University of Pennsylvania, "If a person wasn't visibly breathing, if they were cold and bluish in color, for example, they would be considered dead."

As time went on, the markers for death changed. Before the mid-1700s, for example, people were declared dead when their hearts stopped beating—a conclusion drawn from watching traumatic deaths such as decapitations, where the heart seemed to be the last organ to give up. But as our understanding of the human body grew, other organs, like the lungs and brain, were considered metrics of life—or death.

Today, that remains true to some degree; you can still be declared dead when your heart and lungs cease activity. And yet you can also be declared dead if both organs are still working, but your brain is not.

In most countries, being brain dead—meaning the whole brain has stopped working and cannot return to functionality—is the standard for calling death, says neuroscientist James Bernat, of the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire. "A doctor has to show that the loss of brain function is irreversible," he tells Mental Floss. In some cases, a person can appear to be brain dead if they have overdosed on certain drugs or have suffered from hypothermia, for example, but the lack of activity is only temporary—these people aren't truly brain dead.

In the U.S., all states follow some form of the Uniform Determination of Death Act, which in 1981 defined a dead person as "an individual who has sustained either (1) irreversible cessation of circulatory and respiratory functions, or (2) irreversible cessation of all functions of the entire brain, including the brain stem."

But that's not the end of the story. In two states, New York and New Jersey, families can reject the concept of brain death if it goes against their religious beliefs. This makes it possible for someone to be considered alive in some states and dead in others.

A BLURRED LINE

In the past, if one of a person's three vital systems—circulation, respiration, and brain function—failed, the rest would usually stop within minutes of each other, and there was no coming back from that. But today, thanks to technological advances and medical breakthroughs, that's no longer necessarily the case. CPR can be performed to restart a heartbeat; a person who has suffered cardiac arrest can often be resuscitated within a 20- to 30-minute window (in rare cases, people have been revived after several hours). And since the 1950s, machines have been used to take on the role of many of the body's vital functions. People who stop breathing naturally can be hooked up to ventilators to move air in and out of their lungs, for example.

While remarkable, this life-extending technology has blurred the line between life and death. "A person can now have certain characteristics of being alive and others of being dead," Bernat says.

People with severe, irreversible brain damage fall into this mixed category. Many lie in intensive care units where ventilators breathe for them, but because they have minimal reflexes or movements, they're considered alive, especially by their families. Medical professionals, however, may disagree, leading to painful and complex debates about whether someone is alive.

Take the case of Jahi McMath, whose tonsil surgery in 2013, at age 13, went terribly wrong, leaving her brain dead—or so doctors thought. Her family refused to believe she was dead and moved her from Oakland, California, to New Jersey, where she was provided with feeding tubes in addition to her ventilator. After several months, her mother began recording videos that she said were proof that Jahi could move different parts of her body when asked to. Additional brain scans revealed that although some parts of her brain, like her brain stem, were largely destroyed, the structure of large parts of her cerebrum, which is responsible for consciousness, language, and voluntary movements, was intact. Her heart rate also changed when her mother spoke, leading a neurologist to declare last year, after viewing many of her mother's videos, that she is technically alive—nearly four years after she was pronounced brain dead. By her mother's reckoning, Jahi turned 17 on October 24, 2017.

Organ donation adds another layer of complications. Since an organ needs to be transplanted as quickly as possible to avoid damage, doctors want to declare death as soon as they can after a person has been disconnected from a machine. The protocol is usually to wait for five minutes after a donor's heart and breathing have stopped. However, some believe that's not long enough, since the person could still be resuscitated at that point.

Bernat—whose research interests include brain death and the definition of death, consciousness disorders including coma and vegetative states, and ethical and philosophical issues in neurology—disagrees. "I would argue that breathing and circulation has permanently ceased even if it hasn't irreversibly ceased," he says. "It won't restart by itself."

THE FUTURE OF BRINGING PEOPLE BACK TO LIFE

As resuscitation technology improves, scientists may find new ways to reverse death. One promising approach is therapeutic hypothermia. Sometimes used on heart attack patients who have been revived, the therapy uses cooling devices to lower body temperature, usually for about 24 hours. "It improves a patient's chance of recovering from cardiac arrest and the brain injury [from a lack of oxygen] that can result from it," says Leary, who specializes in research and education relating to cardiac arrest, CPR quality, and therapeutic hypothermia.

One more out-there possibility—which had its heyday in the early 2000s but still has its proponents today—is cryonic freezing, in which dead bodies (and in some cases, just people's heads) are preserved in the hope that they can be brought back once technology advances. Just minutes after death, a cryonaut's body is chilled; a chest compression device called a thumper keeps blood flowing through the body, which is then shot up with anticoagulants to prevent blood clots from forming; and finally, the blood is flushed out and replaced with a kind of antifreeze to halt the cell damage that usually occurs from freezing.

The idea is highly controversial. "It makes a good story for a movie, but it seems crazy to me," Bernat says. "I don't think it's the answer." But even if cryogenics is out, Bernat does believe that certain types of brain damage now thought to be permanent could one day be subject to medical intervention. "There is currently a huge effort in many medical centers to study brain resuscitation," he says.

Genetics provides another potential frontier. Scientists recently found that some genes in mice and fish live on after they die. And even more surprisingly, other genes regulating embryonic development, which switch off when an animal is born, turn on again after death. We don't yet know if the same thing happens in humans.

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History
Doctor Weighs In on What May Have Killed Saladin, the 12th-Century Muslim Military Leader
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Hulton Archive, Getty Images

Saladin, the 12th-century sultan of Egypt and Syria, was one fearless ruler. After unifying much of the Muslim world, he took on the Christian Franks at the Battle of Hattin and won, bringing Jerusalem back under Islamic rule and setting off the Third Crusade.

It wasn’t battle that did him in, though. Dr. Stephen Gluckman, a professor of medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, believes the cause of Saladin's death in 1193 was most likely typhoid, LiveScience reports.

Up until now, the circumstances of Saladin’s passing have largely remained a mystery, as is often the case with people who lived long before modern diagnostic tools were invented. Gluckman was able to reach a diagnosis by analyzing Saladin’s symptoms as they were recorded more than 800 years ago, and shared his medical opinion at this year’s Historical Clinicopathological Conference at the University of Maryland, which taps experts to diagnose a different deceased historical figure each year. In past years, some theorized that Charles Darwin’s cause of death was cyclic vomiting syndrome, and Edgar Allan Poe’s demise was attributed to either rabies or delirium tremens—“a severe form of alcohol withdrawal.”

As for Saladin, he suffered a “mysterious fever and two-week illness,” according to LiveScience. He died at age 55 or 56, despite efforts to revive him with bloodletting techniques and enemas.

Gluckman was able to rule out plague and smallpox because they tend to kill quickly, and tuberculosis and malaria didn’t fit the bill, either. Typhoid, however, was common at that time, and Saladin's symptoms seemed consistent with other cases. Caused by the bacteria Salmonella typhi, typhoid is spread through contaminated water or food. High fever is the main symptom, but weakness and loss of appetite are also typically observed.

Saladin was buried next to the sword he had carried during the Holy War, but otherwise, his burial rites were “as simple as a pauper’s funeral,” according to author Stanley Lane-Poole in Saladin and the Fall of the Kingdom of Jerusalem. The money for his funeral had to be borrowed because he had given away all his riches.

[h/t LiveScience]

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