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11 People Who Died After Eating Something Weird

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One hundred and sixty-three years ago, on July 9, 1850, Millard Fillmore was inaugurated as the President of the United States following Zachary Taylor’s rather odd death. Taylor was particularly warm after participating in Independence Day activities at the Washington Monument, so he did what many of us do: He came home and raided the fridge (or ice box, in his case) for something cool to snack on. After enjoying some iced milk and cherries, Taylor fell sick almost immediately. He was dead five days later. Some historians believe the milk carried deadly bacteria; others suspected the massive quantities of acidic cherries mixed with the milk was too much for Taylor’s delicate stomach. Still others wonder if Taylor was poisoned.

Whatever the reason was, Taylor is hardly the first person—or the last—to meet his or her demise from eating or swallowing something suspicious. Here are 11 others.

1. Tennessee Williams

You’ve probably heard about poor Tennessee Williams (above), but the story bears repeating ... and maybe updating. The playwright was hanging out in his room at the Hotel Elysee in New York in 1983 when he apparently popped a cap into his mouth—the type that you typically find on eye drops or nose spray—and then accidentally choked on it. Rumor spread that Williams had choked to death on an eye drop cap, but a medical examiner later found the presence of the barbiturate secobarbital (“dolls”) in his system. The theory of one CUNY professor is that his death may really have been the result of mixing the Seconal with other substances, “kind of a Michael Jackson situation,” but Williams’ companion managed to talk the medical examiner into putting the bottle cap reason down on the death certificate.

2. Steve Peregrin Took, Musician

Cherries, man, they’re such a menace. In 1980, Steve Peregrin Took (not his birth name) of the band Tyrannosaurus Rex was pretty excited when the band’s manager managed to get the guys some back royalties they were owed. Took, who was no longer a member of the band, was so excited that he basically blew the money on a huge bash that included magic mushrooms, morphine, and booze. After taking a magical mixture of all of those things, Took’s mouth went numb, making conditions just right for a cocktail cherry to slip into his throat unnoticed. He was 31.

3. Adolf Frederick, King of Sweden

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On February 12, 1771, the King of Sweden gorged himself on a feast that could have fed a whole crew of men: lobster, caviar, sauerkraut, herring and champagne. To cap off his meal, King Adolf Frederick enjoyed 14 servings of semla served in hot milk. He died the same day, apparently of digestion problems. Too bad—makes you wonder how he would have celebrated Valentine’s Day.

Semla, by the way, is a flour bun filled with almond paste and topped with whipped cream. Not sure I blame him for eating 14 of them. If you’d like to try to best the King’s feat, here’s a recipe ... but don’t say we didn’t warn you.

4. Sherwood Anderson, Novelist

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Novelist and short story writer Sherwood Anderson was on a cruise with his wife in 1941 when he started to experience severe stomach cramps. He died a few days later at a hospital in Panama, where a doctor discovered that he had swallowed a whole toothpick that had likely speared an olive in a martini glass. The toothpick damaged Anderson’s internal organs, which then became infected. See? Too many martinis will kill you.

5. George M. Prior, Navy Lieutenant

In other “don’t put things in your mouth that don’t belong there” news, we have the surprising demise of Navy Lieutenant George M. Prior. Prior had a few days’ leave from work and decided to spend every day playing golf at the Army Navy Country Club in Arlington, VA. He felt nauseated by the end of the first day. By the end of the third day, he had a rash and a fever of 104.5 and admitted himself to the hospital. Blisters the size of baseballs cropped up shortly thereafter, and a week and a half later, he was dead, with 80 percent of his skin burned and blistered. It was later determined that the golf tee he habitually stuck in his mouth after every hole had been covered in the fungicide the golf course used to keep their grounds beautiful. Prior’s allergic reaction to a chemical in the fungicide burned his skin from the inside out and caused the failure of several of his major organs.

6. Bando Mitsugoro VIII, Kabuki Actor

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If you’re like me, you’re most familiar with the fugu fish thanks to that episode of The Simpsons (“One Fish, Two Fish, Blowfish, Blue Fish”) where Homer thinks he accidentally ate some and will likely die by the time the sun rises. Spoiler alert: He’s OK. In real life, certain parts of the fugu fish are extremely toxic, especially the liver. Ingesting too much of it will render the victim completely paralyzed but totally conscious, and eventually the paralysis even hits major organs. The victim ends up asphyxiating.

This is exactly what happened to Japanese “Living National Treasure” Bando Mitsugoro VIII, a Kabuki actor. In 1975, the actor insisted that he was strong enough to survive the toxin, and ordered a large—and illegal—number of fugu livers. Spoiler alert #2: Mitsugoro wasn’t strong enough to survive the toxin.

7. Basil Brown, Health Nut

As the saying goes, “all things in moderation.” That includes health food, believe it or not, which health nut Basil Brown learned the hard way in 1974. He drank a gallon of carrot juice every day, and took excessive amounts of vitamin A whenever he couldn’t muster up the tastebuds to get a gallon of the “healthy” stuff down his gullet. He ended up dying from “hypervitaminosis A,” a massive overdose of vitamin A that essentially shut down his liver.

8. Edward Archbold

Any way you can imagine it, death by roaches sounds pretty horrific. In the case of Edward Archbold, it wasn’t a weird Kafkaesque situation that did him in, but in fact actually ingesting cockroaches. Wait, maybe that is a Kafkaesque situation. Along with about 30 other people, Archbold was consuming insects for the chance to win a free python. You can see the contest hook now, right? “Eat like a python, win a python.” After eating a large number of roaches, two ounces of mealworms and 35 horn worms, Archbold collapsed, his airway obstructed by roach body parts. He was pronounced dead at the hospital.

9. Henry Hall, Lighthouse Keeper

Being a lighthouse keeper certainly has its hazards, but I bet you never thought ingesting molten lead was one of them. I’m sure Henry Hall didn’t, either. Hall was the lighthouse keeper for the Eddystone Lighthouse in Devon, England, when it caught on fire in 1755. As he looked up at the burning tower of the lighthouse, some melted lead from the reflector dripped onto his face and down his throat. The 94-year-old man lasted 12 days before succumbing to his injuries; upon his death, his doctor removed a chunk of lead from his stomach that weighed nearly half a pound.

10. Vladimir Likhonos, Chemistry Student

Exploding bubble gum may sound like one of those crappy tricks a clown may pull on you, but to chemistry student Vladimir Likhonos, it was no joke. Likhonos, who was studying at the Kyiv Polytechnical Institute in Ukraine, had developed a penchant for dunking his gum in citric acid before chewing to give it a sour pop. Sadly, a “pop” is what he got when he accidentally dipped his gum in an explosive substance he had been working with instead of the citric acid. The combination of his saliva with the powder was powerful enough to blow off most of his lower face. Paramedics were unable to save him.

11. Maude D'Lean, Sword Swallower

I know this is going to come as a surprise, but sometimes sticking a sharp sword down your throat results in injuries, even fatalities. Maude D’Lean was a famous sword swallower in the early 1900s. Though she had performed her act successfully for decades, it was an audience member that did her in. Before a performance, Maude passed the sword through the audience so they could see that it was the real deal. On this particular occasion in 1920, one of the audience members who handled the sword managed to chip the blade. The chip damaged her internal organs and she died soon after at the age of 42.

Someone who didn’t die from eating something weird: Mama Cass. She didn’t choke on a ham sandwich. She had a heart attack.

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politics
The Secret Procedure for the Queen's Death
Chris Radburn—WPA Pool/Getty Images
Chris Radburn—WPA Pool/Getty Images

The queen's private secretary will start an urgent phone tree. Parliament will call an emergency session. Commercial radio stations will watch special blue lights flash, then switch to pre-prepared playlists of somber music. As a new video from Half As Interesting relates, the British media and government have been preparing for decades for the death of Queen Elizabeth II—a procedure codenamed "London Bridge is Down."

There's plenty at stake when a British monarch dies. And as the Guardian explains, royal deaths haven't always gone smoothly. When the Queen Mother passed away in 2002, the blue "obit lights" installed at commercial radio stations didn’t come on because someone failed to depress the button fully. That's why it's worth it to practice: As Half as Interesting notes, experts have already signed contracts agreeing to be interviewed upon the queen's death, and several stations have done run-throughs substituting "Mrs. Robinson" for the queen's name.

You can learn more about "London Bridge is Down" by watching the video below—or read the Guardian piece for even more detail, including the plans for her funeral and burial. ("There may be corgis," they note.)

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Nicole Garner
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History
How One Widow's Grief Turned a Small Town Into a Roadside Attraction
Nicole Garner
Nicole Garner

Like many small towns, the southwest Missouri town of Nevada (pronounced not as the state, but as Nev-AY-duh) loves to tell tales. Incorporated in 1855, the 8000-person city was once a railroad hub and a former home to the outlaw Frank James, the elder brother of the more infamous Jesse James. But the one story Nevada residents love to tell above all others isn't about anyone famous. It's about an atypical above-ground grave in the town's oldest cemetery, the man who's interred there, and how he can't get any rest.

Scan of the Nevada Daily Mail from March 4, 1897.
Nevada Daily Mail; March 4, 1897.
Courtesy of the State Historical Society of Missouri.

On March 4, 1897, the body of a young man was found near Nevada, Missouri, apparently struck by lightning. The local newspaper, the Nevada Daily Mail, printed the story of his death that evening right next to the news that William McKinley had been sworn in as president that day; a bold-faced headline declared "Death Came Without Warning," and noted “His Clothing Torn From His Body." A reporter at the scene described how the body, which was found around 11 a.m., was unrecognizable at first. Eventually the young man's father identified him as Frederick Alonzo "Lon" Dorsa, and the coroner determined that an umbrella was the cause of Lon's electrocution.

Lon left behind a widow whose name was never mentioned in newspapers; to this day, other printed versions of the Dorsas' story omit her identity. But she had a name—Neva Dorsa—and her grief led her to commission a singularly peculiar grave for her husband—one that would open her up to years worth of ridicule and also make their small town a roadside attraction.

A funeral announcement in the Daily Mail noted that undertakers had prepared Lon's body in a "neat casket" before a funeral service set for March 7. A follow-up article the next day read that Lon's funeral was widely attended, with a large procession to the cemetery and burial with military honors. His widow—whose name was determined from a marriage license filed at the Vernon County courthouse showing that Lon married a Neva Gibson on February 12, 1895—had gone from a newlywed to a single mother in just two years.

But, Lon's first interment was temporary. Neva had arranged a grand resting place for her husband, which wasn't ready in the short time between his death and the funeral. Modern newspaper retellings of Lon and Neva's tale say she ordered a large, above-ground enclosure from the Brophy Monument Company in Nevada. A large piece of stone—some accounts say marble while others suggest limestone or granite—was shipped in via railroad car. When it arrived, the stone was too heavy to move, so a local stonecutter spent more than a month chiseling away before the piece was light enough to be pulled away by horses. A wire story described the stone tomb as being "12 feet long, 4 feet wide and 5 feet high. Its weight at completion was 11,000 pounds."

Before Lon’s body was placed inside, Neva made a few key additions—specifically a hidden pane of glass that let her view her husband:

"A piece of stone, covered to represent a bible [sic], is the covering of the aperture. It can be lifted easily by the widow's hand and when Mrs. Dorsa's grief becomes unusually poignant, she goes to the cemetery and gazes for hours at a time upon the face of her dead husband."

The Daily Mail covered the second tomb's installation with morbid attention to detail on May 6, 1897, precisely two months after Lon was initially buried:

"When the grave was opened this morning the coffin looked as bright and new as when buried but it had water in it which had at one time nearly submerged the body. The remains looked perfectly natural and there were no evidences of decomposition having sat in—no odor whatover [sic]. A little mould [sic] had gathered about the roots of his hair and on the neck, otherwise the body looked as fresh as when buried."

The newspaper called the tomb a "stone sarcophagus" and noted that Neva was there to examine her husband's corpse and watch the reburial of his remains. There was likely no inkling from those present, or the community who read about it in that evening's paper, that Neva had designed the tomb with unexpected and usual features, like the pivoting stone Bible that would reveal Lon's face below when unlocked and moved.

Instead, the newspaper suggested that the "costly mousoleum [sic] provided for the reception of his remains is the tribute of her affection."

Lon Dorsa's grave.
Lon Dorsa's grave at Deepwood Cemetery in Nevada, Missouri.
Nicole Garner

Following Lon's re-interment, Neva managed her grief by visiting her deceased husband regularly. Her home was near his grave—the 1900 U.S. Census listed her as a 25-year-old widow living on south Washington Street in Nevada, the same street as the cemetery—and three years after her husband's death, she was employed as a dressmaker, working year-round to provide for their young children, Beatrice and Fred.

By 1905, a new wave of public scrutiny hit the Dorsa (sometimes spelled Dorsey) family when the details of Neva's specially designed, above-ground grave began circulating. It's not clear who reported the story first, but the Topeka Daily Capital, published across the Kansas border 150 miles from Nevada, published a piece, which eventually spread to The St. Louis Republic. Early that spring, the same story was printed in the Pittsburgh Press, a Chicago church publication called The Advance, and in the summer of 1906, a description of Lon Dorsa's crypt had made it nearly 1000 miles to the front page of the Staunton Spectator and Vindicator in Staunton, Virginia:

"The strangest tomb in America, if not in the world, is that which rest the remains of Lon Dorsa in Deepwood cemetery, Nevada, Mo. It is so constructed that the widow can look upon her deceased husband at will, by the turning of a key in a lock which holds a stone Bible just above the remains."

Articles at the time noted that Lon's remains were in an airtight tomb and that scientists supposedly told Mrs. Dorsa that her husband's body would be well-preserved in those conditions, but decomposition had already taken place: "It [the body] has turned almost black, but the general outline of the features remains unchanged."

According to a 1997 walking tour pamphlet of Deepwood Cemetery, it wasn't long before community members caught on that Neva visited the cemetery all too often: "Fascinated children hung about to watch the lady arrive in her buggy. If she saw them, she'd go after them with a whip, shrieking like a madwoman …" the guide stated. Eventually, "her family had the pivot removed and the Bible cemented down."

Local lore suggests that the publicity and Lon's deterioration drove Neva to insanity. Some say she ended up in an asylum and died soon after—a fairly believable tale, considering Nevada was home to one of the state's hospitals for mental illness. However, a list of Deepwood Cemetery lot owners, found at the Vernon County Historical Society, doesn't have a burial space for Neva.

A more likely explanation—based on a listing on Find a Grave, a website that indexes cemeteries and headstones, and which matches Neva's personal information—suggests she simply remarried and moved to California. The California Death Index, 1945-1997, shows that a Neva (Gibson) Simpson died Dec. 30, 1945 in Los Angeles. The birth date and place match those of Neva (Gibson) Dorsa.

Newspaper clipping featuring a picture of a skull.
Nevada Daily Mail, Nov. 30, 1987. Courtesy of the State Historical Society of Missouri.
State Historical Society of Missouri

Wherever Neva ended up, Lon's body didn't exactly rest in peace. In July 1986, vandals broke into the town's most famous tomb and stole his head. It was recovered the following year in a Nevada home, but law enforcement and cemetery caretakers noted that the stone Bible, which had been cemented down for some time, was periodically ripped off the tomb.

Talbot Wight, the Deepwood Cemetery Board’s president at the time, told the Daily Mail in 1987 that Lon's hair, skin, and clothing were well preserved until vandals broke the encasing glass. "Evidently, he was still in pretty good shape until July," Wight said.

But when Lon's skull was photographed for the newspaper's front page, it featured no hair or skin, both of which likely decomposed quickly after being stolen if not before. The skull was buried in an undisclosed location away from the body so as to not tempt new grave robbers, and the tomb was re-sealed with marble in an attempt to prevent further damage.

Still, the story of Neva Dorsa and her husband’s remains hasn't died away. It circulates through southwestern Missouri, drawing visitors to Deepwood Cemetery to gaze at the stone plot—just not in the same way Neva had intended.

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