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Authors are used to killing their darlings and that sometimes means offing characters in creatively unconventional ways. Take, for example, Charles Dickens making a character spontaneously combust in the December 1852 installment of his serial novel Bleak House. But unusual deaths aren’t just found on the page: A number of authors have themselves died in bizarre ways—and sometimes, they seem even stranger than fiction.
While on a cruise to South America with his fourth wife, Eleanor, American novelist and short story writer Sherwood Anderson started experiencing painful stomach cramps. They disembarked in Panama and went to the hospital, where Anderson died a few days later on March 8, 1941. An autopsy revealed the culprit to be a 3-inch-long wooden toothpick in an olive that the author had swallowed while enjoying a martini. The small toothpick pierced his intestine and led to peritonitis, an infection of the inner lining of the abdomen.
Ancient Greek playwright Aeschylus filled his tragedies with death, so much so that he was known as “the Father of Tragedy”—and supposedly, his own demise was suitably dramatic. According to writer Valerius Maximus, Aeschylus was hit by a falling tortoise while sitting outside Sicily’s city walls: “An eagle carrying a tortoise was above him. Deceived by the gleam of his hairless skull, it dashed the tortoise against it, as though it were a stone, in order to feed on the flesh of the broken animal.”
Music critic and author Gustav Kobbé loved to sail, but the hobby led to his death. On July 27, 1918, Kobbé was in his boat in the Great South Bay, New York, when he realized that a low flying naval seaplane was descending on his position. He stood up to dive into the water and swim to safety—which may actually have been a fatal mistake—but was killed when the plane, in the words of The New York Times, “struck the top of the mast. It snapped off the mast and practically clove the man’s skull in two parts.”
In 1952, Goodnight Moon (1947) author Margaret Wise Brown was in France on a publicity tour when she developed appendicitis and was taken to the hospital for emergency surgery. To show the staff that she was feeling well after the operation, she kicked her leg in the air—a move that dislodged a blood clot in her leg. The clot made its way to her brain, killing the 42-year-old children’s author.
Tennessee Williams, gave the world the Pulitzer Prize-winning plays A Streetcar Named Desire (1947) and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955). On February 25, 1983, the playwright was found dead in his Hotel Elysée suite in New York City; the initial doctor’s report stated that he had choked on a bottle cap that had been “swallowed or inhaled or some combination.”
The cap wasn’t actually the killer, though. It was later revealed that an intolerance to Seconal—a barbiturate derivative Williams took to aid his sleep—was to blame. Dr. Annette J. Saddik, Distinguished Professor of Theatre and Literature at the City University of New York, explained in 2010 that the false cause of death was due to John Uecker, Williams’s assistant, telling “the Medical Examiner, ‘Look, people are going to think it’s suicide or AIDS or something bizarre and we don't know what happened.’ So the Medical Examiner, said, ‘OK, he choked on a bottle cap.’”
Pietro Aretino was an Italian satirist, playwright, and poet, who is credited with inventing written pornography. There are two different stories about how his life ended in 1556, but both involve laughter. In one account, a story about his sister caused him to burst into hysterics, which in turn made him to fall backwards in his chair and hit his head. In another, a rude comment made by the Duke of Urbino in reference to a portrait of his naked wife caused Aretino’s laughter, which then led to a stroke.
Another person allegedly felled by laughter was Sir Thomas Urquhart. The Scottish writer and translator died in 1660, supposedly because the news that Charles II—whom Urquhart had fought for against Oliver Cromwell in the 1651 Battle of Worcester—had retaken the throne caused him to burst into a fit of joyful, but deadly, giggles.
Poe’s own death, the cause of which remains a mystery to this day, would have made a suitably creepy fictional tale (albeit one without a satisfying ending).
On September 27, 1849, Poe left Virginia for Philadelphia. He was found six days later outside a tavern in Baltimore by Joseph W. Walker, who described the author as “rather the worse for wear” and “in great distress.”
Poe was delirious and wearing someone else’s clothes but managed to mention the name of his friend Joseph E. Snodgrass, whom Walker quickly wrote to. “His face was haggard, not to say bloated, and unwashed, his hair unkempt, and his whole physique repulsive,” Snodgrass said of his poor friend.
Poe was taken to hospital but could reveal nothing about what had happened to him, other than yelling out the name “Reynolds” (a person no one could identify), before dying on October 7.
Dying on the toilet isn’t the most dignified way to go, and though Elizabethan poet and dramatist Sir Fulke Greville managed to avoid that fate, the toilet certainly played a part in his death. Greville’s disgruntled servant, Ralph Hayward, stabbed his master in the stomach while helping him fasten his trousers after using the toilet. Physicians filled his wounds with animal fat—but instead of healing the injury, the fat rotted over the next few weeks, and Greville died of gangrene on September 30, 1628. Maybe being quickly killed on the toilet would have been better.
Mark Twain died of a heart attack on April 21, 1910, which is a pretty common way to go. What’s unusual is that he predicted his own death. “I came in with Halley’s Comet in 1835. It is coming again next year, and I expect to go out with it,” he declared in 1909. “It will be the greatest disappointment of my life if I don’t go out with Halley’s Comet.”
The comet’s perihelion—when it was closest to the sun—was April 20, just one day before Twain shuffled off this mortal coil.
Legend often has it that Molière died onstage, but that’s not actually true. On February 17, 1673, the audience watching Le Malade Imaginaire (The Imaginary Invalid) at Théâtre du Palais-Royal in Paris almost witnessed Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, the writer and actor better known as Molière, die onstage. He collapsed in a coughing fit, but the show soon went on, and he finished his performance as hypochondriac Argan. Unlike his character, Molière was actually gravely ill with tuberculosis, and just a few hours later, he died from a hemorrhage.
On September 16, 1920, Swedish author and poet Dan Andersson checked in to the Hotel Hellman in Stockholm, settling in Room 11. The hotel had a pest problem, and the staff had treated the rooms with hydrogen cyanide to get rid of lice, fleas, and bedbugs; unfortunately, they failed to properly clean out the rooms afterwards, leading Andersson and another guest to die of accidental cyanide poisoning
A scientific experiment with a frozen chicken was the beginning of the end for Francis Bacon, the English philosopher, statesman, scientist, and author. John Aubrey reported in Brief Lives, which he penned between 1669 and 1696, that Bacon went out into the cold after thinking that snow, instead of salt, could be a good way to preserve meat. He stuffed snow into the body of a hen, but “the snow so chilled him, that he immediately fell so extremely ill.” A few days later, on April 9, 1626, Bacon died of pneumonia.
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