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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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T. Fernandes, M. Liberato, C. Marques, E. Cunha
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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
Archaeologists Make Rare, Gruesome Find in Portugal
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Oblique cuts in the bottom third of the legs of a medieval skeleton found in Portugal.
T. Fernandes, M. Liberato, C. Marques, E. Cunha

In the small city of Estremoz, near Portugal’s border with Spain, archaeologists recently excavated three graves located at the edge of a medieval cemetery. They were intrigued by the graves' isolated location and odd burial style. Within, they found something shocking: All three people had amputated hands and feet.

Between the 13th and 15th centuries, Estremoz was an important village located between the kingdoms of Portugal and Castile. In the mid-13th century, Christians colonized the area, driving out the Moors. The famous castle of Estremoz, parts of which still stand, was built to house the royal court. The nearby cemetery of Rossio Marquês de Pombal dates to this period. It's on the edge of this cemetery that the archaeologists found the burials.

Writing in the International Journal of Paleopathology, researchers from the Universities of Évora and Coimbra describe the young to middle-aged men found in the graves with cut marks to their forearms and ankles. The cuts are clean through the bones but not quite at right angles, and appear to have happened just before or just after death. Even more interesting, the bones from the severed hands and feet were also found in the graves—but not in the right places.

Field drawing of the skeletons. The arrow points to one of the men's right hand lying below his left elbow.
T. Fernandes, M. Liberato, C. Marques, E. Cunha

In the case of a late-teenage male, both of his feet and his left hand were buried under his left hip, while his right hand was under his left elbow.

In another grave, they found evidence that one amputation took more than one try to complete. The man's right leg had a second set of cuts, likely inflicted after a failed first attempt to cut off his foot. The researchers think that a sharp implement such as a machete, sword, cleaver, hatchet, or axe was used to deliver the blows swiftly and with high force.

The archaeologists believe the cuts were made while the men were still alive—or very near death—and almost certainly restrained. Lead author Teresa Fernandes tells Mental Floss that “due to the absence of any artifact, we cannot state for sure that the feet were bound; yet considering the historical evidence, prisoners were normally bound with the legs straight while hung."

Why had the men been treated like this?

Generally, amputations occur throughout history as the result of a medical therapy, accident, ritual, intentional violence, or punishment. While there is evidence from the same cemetery for foot disease, these particular men had no other indications of problems with their bodies, meaning medical treatment can be ruled out. So too can ritualistic post-mortem amputation, since there are no historical or archaeological accounts of amputation of hands and feet after death. And their injuries were clearly not the result of an accident.

The researchers think these amputations were a punishment.

Historical records of amputations related to criminal cases are relatively rare. But medieval kings in the Iberian peninsula had the discretion to mete out capital punishment—including hanging, drowning, and even boiling someone alive—as they saw fit. They could also use mutilation as punishment. The researchers found one mention specifically of the amputation of both hands and feet of traitors during a civil war in 14th-century Portugal.

“These skeletons may represent the testimony of vigorous application of justice as an act of royal sovereignty in a peripheral but militarily strategic region,” Fernandes' team writes.

Other researchers agree with this interpretation. Piers Mitchell, a palaeopathologist at the University of Cambridge, tells Mental Floss that because "the amputations are all at similar locations, and are symmetrically placed on the limbs, deliberate amputation as a punishment seems the most plausible interpretation."

Lost to the ages, however, is what these men may have done to merit this extreme punishment. Execution "could be enforced in the event of treason, theft, making false currency, or myriad sexual crimes," Fernandes says. “But the form of execution isn’t stipulated by law."

Archaeological evidence of judicial amputation is extremely rare, according to Jo Buckberry, a bioarchaeologist at the University of Bradford who has done similar studies on ancient British skeletons. "The evidence of cut marks and the inclusion of severed hands and feet make this Portuguese case especially compelling,” she tells Mental Floss. Mitchell explains that often, "the extremities are absent in the graves of those who underwent amputation," which makes it noteworthy that these graves contained the spare body parts.

The fact that amputees were all young men also intrigues scholars. "This pattern has been seen in execution cemeteries in Anglo-Saxon England,” Buckberry says, “leaving us wondering if young men are more likely to commit crimes, or to be caught doing them, or if punishments are especially harsh for this demographic group."

These three unfortunate men may never tell us exactly what they did or who they are. But their bones show the most severe case of amputation as judicial punishment to date, revealing just one of the extreme penalties for committing a crime in medieval Portugal.

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Weird
7 Famous People Researchers Want to Exhume
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This week, the surrealist painter Salvador Dali is being exhumed from his grave in Figueres, northeastern Spain, where he has lain beneath the stage of a museum since his death in 1989. Researchers hope to collect DNA from his skeleton in order to settle a paternity suit brought by a tarot card reader named Pilar Abel, who claims that her mother had an affair with the artist while working as a maid in the seaside town where the Dalis vacationed. If the claim is substantiated, Abel may inherit a portion of the $325 million estate that Dali, who was thought to be childless, bequeathed to the Spanish state upon his death.

The grave opening may seem like a fittingly surreal turn of events, but advances in DNA research and other scientific techniques have recently led to a rise in exhumations. In the past few years (not to mention months), serial killer H. H. Holmes, poet Pablo Neruda, astronomer Tycho Brahe, and Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat, among many others, have all been dug up either to prove that the right man went to his grave—or to verify how he got there. Still, there are a number of other bodies that scientists, historians, and other types of researchers want to exhume to answer questions about their lives and deaths. Read on for a sampling of such cases.

1. LEONARDO DA VINCI

An international team of art historians and scientists is interested in exhuming Leonardo da Vinci's body to perform a facial reconstruction on his skull, learn about his diet, and search for clues to his cause of death, which has never been conclusively established. They face several obstacles, however—not the least of which is that da Vinci's grave in France's Loire Valley is only his presumed resting place. The real deal was destroyed during the French Revolution, although a team of 19th century amateur archaeologists claimed to have recovered the famed polymath's remains and reinterred them in a nearby chapel. For now, experts at the J. Craig Venter Institute in California are working on a technique to extract DNA from some of da Vinci's paintings (he was known to smear pigment with his fingers as well as brushes), which they hope to compare with living relatives and the remains in the supposed grave.

2. MERIWETHER LEWIS

A portrait of Meriwether Lewis
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As one half of Lewis and Clark, Meriwether Lewis is one of America's most famous explorers, but his death belongs to a darker category—famous historical mysteries. Researchers aren't sure exactly what happened on the night of October 10, 1809, when Lewis stopped at a log cabin in Tennessee on his way to Washington, D.C. to settle some financial issues. By the next morning, Lewis was dead, a victim either of suicide (he was known to be suffering from depression, alcoholism, and possibly syphilis) or murder (the cabin was in an area rife with bandits; a corrupt army general may have been after his life). Beginning in the 1990s, descendants and scholars applied to the Department of the Interior for permission to exhume Lewis—his grave is located on National Park Service Land—but were eventually denied. Whatever secrets Lewis kept, he took them to his grave.

3. SHAKESPEARE

A black and white portrait of Shakespeare
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Shakespeare made his thoughts on exhumation very clear—he placed a curse on his tombstone that reads: "Good frend for Jesus sake forebeare/ To digg the dust encloased heare/ Bleste be the man that spares thes stones/ And curst be he that moves my bones." Of course, that hasn't stopped researchers wanting to try. After Richard III's exhumation, one South African academic called for a similar analysis on the Bard's bones, with hopes of finding new information on his diet, lifestyle, and alleged predilection for pot. And there may be another reason to open the grave: A 2016 study using ground-penetrating radar found that the skeleton inside appeared to be missing a skull.

4. JOHN WILKES BOOTH

A black and white photograph of John Wilkes Booth
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The events surrounding Abraham Lincoln's death in 1865 are some of the best-known in U.S. history, but the circumstances of his assassin's death are a little more murky. Though most historical accounts say that John Wilkes Booth was cornered and shot in a burning Virginia barn 12 days after Lincoln's murder, several researchers and some members of his family believe Booth lived out the rest of his life under an assumed name before dying in Oklahoma in 1903. (The corpse of the man who died in 1903—thought by most people to be a generally unremarkable drifter named David E. George—was then embalmed and displayed at fairgrounds.) Booth's corpse has already been exhumed from its grave at Baltimore's Greenmount Cemetery and verified twice, but some would like another try. In 1994, two researchers and 22 members of Booth's family filed a petition to exhume the body once again, but a judge denied the request, finding little compelling evidence for the David E. George theory. Another plan, to compare DNA from Edwin Booth to samples of John Wilkes Booth's vertebrae held at the National Museum of Health and Medicine, has also come to naught.

5. NAPOLEON

A portrait of Napoleon
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Napoleon has already been exhumed once: in 1840, when his body was moved from his burial-in-exile on St. Helena to his resting place in Paris's Les Invalides. But some researchers allege that that tomb in Paris is a sham—it's not home to the former emperor, but to his butler. The thinking goes that the British hid the real Napoleon's body in Westminster Abbey to cover up neglect or poisoning, offering a servant's corpse for internment at Les Invalides. France's Ministry of Defense was not amused by the theory, however, and rejected a 2002 application to exhume the body for testing.

6. HENRY VIII

A portrait of Henry VIII
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In his younger years, the Tudor monarch Henry VIII was known to be an attractive, accomplished king, but around age 40 he began to spiral into a midlife decline. Research by an American bioarchaeologist and anthropologist pair in 2010 suggested that the king's difficulties—including his wives' many miscarriages—may have been caused by an antigen in his blood as well as a related genetic disorder called McLeod syndrome, which is known to rear its head around age 40. Reports in the British press claimed the researchers wanted to exhume the king's remains for testing, although his burial at George’s Chapel in Windsor Castle means they will need to get the Queen’s permission for any excavation. For now, it's just a theory.

7. GALILEO

A portrait of Galileo
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The famed astronomer has had an uneasy afterlife. Although supporters hoped to give him an elaborate burial at the Basilica of Santa Croce, he spent about 100 years in a closet-sized room there beneath the bell tower. (He was moved to a more elaborate tomb in the basilica once the memory of his heresy conviction had faded.) More recently, British and Italian scientists have said they want to exhume his body for DNA tests that could contribute to an understanding of the problems he suffered with his eyesight—problems that may have led him to make some famous errors, like saying Saturn wasn't round. The Vatican will have to sign off on any exhumation, however, so it may be a while.

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