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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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Weird
10 People Whose Hearts Were Buried Separately From the Rest of Them
Richard the Lionheart
Richard the Lionheart
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Though it may seem bizarre today, having your heart buried apart from the rest of your body wasn’t uncommon for European aristocracy of the Middle Ages and beyond. The practice arose in part during the Crusades, when high-ranking warriors had a tendency to die in “heathen” places that weren’t seen as desirable burial locations. But transporting a whole body back to Europe made things pretty stinky, so corpses were stripped of flesh and ferried back to Europe as skeletons, with the inner organs (including the heart) removed and buried where the Crusaders had died. By the 12th century, members of the English and French aristocracy also frequently had their hearts buried separately from the rest of them.

Heart burial became less practical and more symbolic by the 17th century, partly as a religious practice associated with the Jesuits and other Counter Reformation groups. (Some scholars think the heart’s powerful symbolism became particularly important while the Catholic Church was undergoing a moment of crisis.) In Western Europe, it became common for powerful individuals, such as kings and queens, to ask that their hearts be buried in a spot they'd favored during life. In more recent years, Romantic poets and other artists also picked up the practice, which has yet to be entirely abandoned. Read on for some examples.

1. RICHARD I

Richard I, a.k.a. “Richard the Lion-Heart,” ruled as King of England 1189-99 but spent most of his reign fighting abroad, which is how he earned his reputation for military prowess. (He also may or may not have eaten the heart of a lion.) He died after being struck by a crossbow while campaigning in Chalus, France, and while most of his body was buried at Fontevraud Abbey, his heart was interred in a lead box at the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Rouen, France. The organ was rediscovered during excavations in the 1830s, and in 2012, forensic scientists examined it—now mostly reduced to a grayish-brown powder—to learn more about Richard’s precise cause of death (some think a poisoned arrow dealt the fatal blow). The crumbling heart was too decayed to tell them much about how Richard had died, but the scientists did learn about medieval burial rituals, noting the use of vegetables and spices “directly inspired by the ones used for the embalming of Christ.”

2. ROBERT THE BRUCE

Robert the Bruce, King of Scots 1306-29, asked for his heart to be buried in Jerusalem. But it didn't get all the way there—the knight he entrusted it to, Sir James Douglas, was killed in battle with the Moors while wearing the heart in a silver case around his neck. Other knights recovered the heart from the battlefield, and brought it back to Melrose Abbey in Scotland for burial. Archeologists rediscovered what they believed to be the heart in 1920 and reburied it in a modern container; it was exhumed again in 1996, and reburied beneath the abbey’s lawn in 1998.

3. ST. LAURENCE O’TOOLE

St. Laurence O’Toole, the second archbishop of Dublin and one of that city’s patron saints, died in 1180 in France. His heart was sent back to Dublin’s Christ Church Cathedral, where it rested inside a heart-shaped wooden box within an iron cage—at least until 2012, when it was stolen. The dean of Christ Church Cathedral has speculated that the heart might have been taken by some kind of religious fanatic, since it has little economic value, and much more valuable gold and silver objects were ignored. (Weirdly, the thief, or thieves, also lit candles on one of the altars before fleeing.) The item has yet to be recovered.

4. THE PRINCE-BISHOPS OF WÜRZBURG

The prince-bishops of Würzburg (part of modern Germany) practiced a three-part burial: their corpses were usually sent to Würzburg cathedral, their intestines to the castle church at Marienberg, and their hearts, embalmed in glass jars, to what is now Ebrach Abbey. The practice was common by the 15th century, though it may go back as far as the 12th. Their funerals at the Marienberg castle also featured what may be one of history’s worst jobs: a servant was required to hold the heads of the corpses upright during the funeral, which featured the body seated upright and impaled on a pole. The funerals lasted for several days. There were more than 80 prince-bishops; a German cardiologist who made a special study of heart burial says "about 30" of their hearts found their resting places in the abbey.

5. ANNE BOLEYN

According to legend, after Anne Boleyn’s beheading in 1536, her heart was removed from her body and taken to a rural church in Erwarton, Suffolk, where the queen is said to have spent some happy days during her youth. In 1837, excavations at the church uncovered a small, heart-shaped lead casket inside a wall. The only thing inside was a handful of dust (it’s not clear whether it was actually the heart), but the casket was reburied in a vault beneath the organ, where a plaque today marks the spot.

6. LOTS OF POPES

Twenty-two hearts from various popes—from Sixtus V in 1583 to Leo XIII in 1903—are kept in marble urns at Santi Vincenzo e Anastasio a Trevi in Rome. Traditionally, the hearts were removed with the rest of the organs as part of the postmortem preservation process, and kept as relics just in case the pope became a saint.

7. FRÉDÉRIC CHOPIN

Romantic composer Frédéric Chopin died in Paris in 1849, and most of him is buried in that city’s Pere Lachaise, but he asked for his heart to be buried in his native Poland. His sister carried it back to their home country, where it is preserved in alcohol (some say cognac) within a crystal urn inside a pillar at the Church of the Holy Cross in Warsaw. In 2014, scientists conducted a late-night examination of the heart to make sure the alcohol hadn’t evaporated, although their secrecy frustrated scientists who hope to one day examine the organ for clues about what killed the composer.

8. THOMAS HARDY

The burial place of Thomas Hardy's heart in Dorset
Visit Britain, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The English poet and novelist Thomas Hardy wanted to be buried in his hometown of Stinsford, Dorset, but friends insisted that a burial in Westminster Abbey was the only appropriate choice for someone of Hardy’s literary prominence. But when town officials found out that Hardy’s body was destined for the abbey, they threw a fit, and so a compromise was reached—most of Hardy went to Westminster, but his heart was buried in Stinsford churchyard (where it has its own grave marker). A persistent, but unproven, story has it that a cat ate part of the heart when the doctor who was removing it got distracted; a gruesome addendum says the animal was killed and buried alongside the organ.

9. PERCY SHELLEY

When the poet Percy Shelley died sailing the Mediterranean in 1822, local quarantine regulations dictated that his body had to be cremated on the beach. But his heart allegedly refused to burn, and a friend, the adventurer Edward Trelawny, supposedly plucked it out of the flames. After a custody battle among Shelley’s friends, the heart was given to Percy’s wife Mary, who kept it until she died. Her children found it in a silk bag inside her desk, and it is now said to be buried with her at the family vault in Bournemouth, England.

10. OTTO VON HABSBURG

The powerful House of Habsburg practiced heart burial for centuries, with many of the organs buried in copper urns in Vienna's Augustiner Church. In 2011, Otto von Habsburg, the last heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire (which was dissolved in 1918), had his heart buried in the Benedictine Abbey in Pannonhalma, Hungary. The rest of him was buried in Vienna. The erstwhile crown prince said he wanted his heart buried in Hungary as a gesture of affection for the country—one half of his former empire.

Additional Sources: "Heart burial in medieval and early post-medieval central Europe"; Body Parts and Bodies Whole.

This story originally ran in 2015.

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Smoking Just 1 Cigarette a Day Can Significantly Damage Your Health, Study Finds
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Cutting back on smoking is a noble goal, but simply decreasing the amount of cigarettes you smoke—rather than quitting entirely—isn't as helpful as you might think when it comes to the health risks of tobacco use. ABC News reports that new research published in the BMJ finds that smoking just one cigarette a day still increases the risks of heart disease and stroke significantly.

Led by researchers from University College London and King’s College London, the study found that compared to not smoking at all, smoking one cigarette a day resulted in a 46 percent greater risk of heart disease and a 25 percent greater risk of stroke for men, and for women, a 57 percent greater risk of heart disease and 31 percent greater risk of stroke. Even if a person cuts down from smoking 20 cigarettes a day to one, the study found, the risks of developing heart disease and stroke are only halved—not reduced by 95 percent, as would be proportional. (Previous research has found that lung cancer risk, by contrast, decreases proportionally depending on the number of cigarettes smoked per day.)

The researchers examined 141 previous studies, reported in 55 publications, analyzing the risks of heart disease and stroke among men and women who smoked. The studies each examined risks of light smoking (defined as one to five cigarettes a day) and the risks associated with heavy smoking, or 20 cigarettes per day. The researchers adjusted for whether the studies considered factors like age, cholesterol, and blood pressure, all of which can also impact a person’s risk of heart disease and stroke.

The findings show that any amount of smoking carries high risks. While one cigarette a day might seem like nothing to a heavy smoker, its impacts on the body are significant, and shouldn't be underestimated, either by smokers or by their doctors.

[h/t ABC News]

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