Dramatic Deaths These People Did Not See Coming

Dramatic Deaths These People Did Not See Coming

Khalid Elhassan - January 27, 2024

“Amusing” and death usually don’t belong in the same sentence, what with the latter typically being so tragic. However, tragic or not, some demises are morbidly amusing. Take the kabuki actor who consumed an ungodly amount of the most poisonous parts of one of the world’s deadliest fishes, attempting to prove his resistance to poison. He was not. Or consider the Crusader zealot who demanded a trial by fire to authenticate his religious visions. He perished from grievous burns. Below are twenty-five instances of historic figures who endeavored to demonstrate something, only to meet their demise in macabre and dramatic ways.

Dramatic Deaths These People Did Not See Coming
Bando Mitsugoro VIII. Kabuki 21

A Kabuki Performer’s Demise

From the 1930s until his death in 1975, Bando Mitsugoro VIII was Japan’s most prominent and revered kabuki actor. He specialized in the aragoto style, which emphasizes exaggerated dynamic forms of movement and speech. He was the eighth in a family line of Mitsugoro kabuki performers, and his son and grandson took the name to become Bando Mitsugoro IX and X, respectively. So great was Bando Mitsugoro VIII, that the Japanese government officially designated him a “Living National Treasure” in 1973. Then his life, full of accomplishments, came to a funny – or not so funny, depending on how you look at it – end when he tried to prove that he possessed a superhuman liver.

Dramatic Deaths These People Did Not See Coming
A puffer fish. Wikimedia

On January 16th, 1975, Mitsugoro and friends went to a Kyoto restaurant, where he ordered puffer fish. Puffer fish is lethally poisonous, and must be carefully prepared by a highly qualified chef to remove the toxic parts without contaminating the meat. Mitsugoro ordered four portions of puffer fish liver – the most poisonous part of the fish. So poisonous, that its sale is prohibited by law. Nonetheless, the restaurant owner felt that he could not refuse the famous actor. Mitsugoro, who enjoyed the pleasant tingling puffer fish gave his lips and tongue, wanted to demonstrate to his friends that he could survive four times the poison that would kill a normal person. He could not. The tingling spread from his mouth to the rest of his body, was followed by paralysis of his limbs, difficulty breathing, and finally, death seven hours later.

Dramatic Deaths These People Did Not See Coming
Medieval depiction of the Holy Lance piercing Jesus Christ. Pinterest

The Peasant Who Saved the First Crusade

In June 1098, amidst the First Crusade‘s struggle towards Jerusalem, the Crusaders found themselves besieged in Antioch by a formidable army. Starvation and low morale plagued them until Peter Bartholomew, a notorious peasant known for his vices, claimed a vision from Saint Andrew revealing the location of the Holy Lance, the spear that pierced Jesus Christ’s side. Despite skepticism from Bishop Adhemar, Count Raymond ordered a search, and Bartholomew’s discovery, though doubted by some, revitalized the Crusaders’ resolve.

On June 28th, 1098, fueled by newfound faith, the Crusaders, weakened by hunger, launched a fervent attack on their besiegers. This was inspired by Bartholomew’s visions of victory. Despite doubts about his authenticity, the Crusaders emerged triumphant. Attributing their success to divine intervention. However, as Bartholomew’s influence grew and his visions extended beyond military triumph, skepticism mounted, leading to his dramatic demise. Demanding an ordeal by fire to prove his legitimacy, Bartholomew faced a gruesome end, either succumbing to burns or assassination. His dramatic demise left a legacy shrouded in controversy, emblematic of the extraordinary ends witnessed amidst the tumult of the Crusades.

Dramatic Deaths These People Did Not See Coming
Blind King John of Bohemia. Imgur

A Heroic King’s Dramatic Demise

King John of Bohemia (1296 – 1346) became known as John the Blind after he lost his eyesight ten years before his death. One of the most celebrated warriors of his era, he campaigned and fought across Europe from the Mediterranean to the Baltic. Unfortunately, he is better known to history for his dramatic demise than for lifetime of accomplishments. His career as a ruler began in 1309 when his father, Holy Roman Emperor Henry VII, made him Count of Luxemburg. When his father died in 1313, John was too young to inherit his throne. So he threw his support to Louis the Bavarian, who became Emperor Louis IV in 1314. An early supporter of the Emperor, John fell out with Louis IV after the latter sided with England against France in the Hundred Years War.

When John’s father in law, the king of Bohemia, died without male heirs, John inherited that realm through his wife and became king of Bohemia from 1310 until his death. During his reign, John did a lot of fighting. He fought against Hungary, Austria, England, and the Russians. John campaigned in the Tyrol and northern Italy, and expanded his domain with the acquisition of Silesia, parts of Lusatia, and most of Lombardy. He lost his eyesight from opthalmia in 1336 while he campaigned against the pagan Lithuanians. Any popularity he might have gained at home from his conquests and military prowess was offset, however, by heavy taxation to pay for his lavish expenses.

Dramatic Deaths These People Did Not See Coming
Blind King John of Bohemia leading a cavalry charge at the Battle of Crecy. British Battles

The Blind Man Who Led a Cavalry Charge – It Ended as You Might Expect

John of Bohemia had strong ties to France. He was raised and educated in Paris, and was virtually French in his outlook and sympathies. He even sent his own son to be educated in Paris, rather than in his own Bohemian capital of Prague. When King Philip VI of France asked for his help against England’s King Edward III, John, despite his blindness, came to the French king’s aid. He met Philip in Paris in August, 1346, and marched off with him in pursuit of the English monarch. When the armies met at the Battle of Crecy, August 26th, 1346, John was in command of the French vanguard and a significant contingent of the French army.

The excitement, sounds, and scent of the battle must have awakened the old war dog in him. Despite his blindness, John ordered his retinue to tie their horses to his and ride into battle. He wanted to deliver at least one stroke of his sword against the English, and thus satisfy his honor by taking an actual part in the battle. His knights did as commanded. Tied to their horses, the blind king rode into the fight. It did not go well. John the Blind was, well… blind. He was unable to judge just how far he had gone, and plunged way too deep into the ranks of the English army. He was surrounded, cut off, and enveloped by the enemy. In the resultant melee, the blind king and all of his retinue were slaughtered.

Dramatic Deaths These People Did Not See Coming
Clement Vallandigham. Library of Congress

A Slimy Rebel Sympathizer’s Dramatic Courtroom Death

Ohio politician Clement Vallandigham (1820 – 1871) served two terms in the US House of Representatives, and led a treasonous antiwar faction known as Copperheads during the Civil War. In 1863, a court-martial convicted him of sympathy for armed rebellion against the US, and exiled him to the Confederacy. He headed to Canada, ran for governor of Ohio from exile, lost the election, and returned a year later. Union authorities monitored his activities, but otherwise let him be. After the war, Vallandigham advocated against suffrage and equality for blacks, and made a living as a lawyer while at it. It was in that capacity as an attorney that a dramatic death caught up with him in an Ohio courtroom in 1871, when he accidentally shot himself in the stomach mid-trial.

Dramatic Deaths These People Did Not See Coming
Clement Vallandigham shot himself to death in a courtroom. Faces of Death

Vallandigham represented a defendant, Thomas McGehean, who was accused of shooting a certain Tom Myers to death in a barroom brawl. Vallandingham wanted to demonstrate to the jury that the deceased had accidentally shot himself as he tried to draw a pistol, only for it to snag on his clothes and accidentally discharge. So he picked a pistol, which he thought was unloaded, placed it in his pocket, then acted out the scenario in the courtroom. Unfortunately for Vallindigham, he did not pick an unloaded pistol, but a loaded one. When he mimicked the deceased’s drawing motion, the hammer fell on a live round, which discharged into his stomach. The demonstration convinced the jury, however, and McGehean was acquitted. Vallandigham shuffled off the mortal coil the next day, when the bullet wound grew infected.

Dramatic Deaths These People Did Not See Coming
General John Sedgwick. Fine Art America

A Beloved Union General…

John Sedgwick (1813 – 1864) was born into a family of Revolutionary War veterans, that included one grandfather who had served as a general alongside George Washington. Sedgwick continued the family tradition of service, and became a respected and competent Union general and corps commander during the Civil War. His kindliness and paternal affection, combined with concern for his soldiers’ welfare, won him the love of his men and the nickname “Uncle John”. Unfortunately, he is more widely remembered for his dramatic demise than for his solid military career.

Sedgwick graduated from West Point in 1837 and was commissioned as an artillery officer. He served ably, and was still in uniform when the Civil War broke out in April, 1861. He was given command of a cavalry regiment, and by August, 1861, was promoted to command his own brigade in the Army of the Potomac. By February, 1862, he was in charge of his own division. He fought bravely in the Peninsula Campaign, and was twice wounded during the Seven Days Battles.

Dramatic Deaths These People Did Not See Coming
The death of General Sedgwick, shortly after he uttered his unfortunately funny last words. Wikimedia

… Who Became Better Known for His Ironic Last Words

At the Battle of Antietam, Sedgwick was sent on a poorly planned charge. His division was shot to pieces, lost 2200 men, while he took three bullets. When he recovered and returned to duty, Sedgwick was promoted to command of his own corps. He won early success with his Sixth Corps during the Battle of Chancellorsville in 1863, but the battle ended in defeat. In the Overland Campaign in 1864, he led his corps in the Battle of the Wilderness.

On May 9th, 1864, at the start of the Battle of Spotsylvania Courthouse, Sedgwick was positioning his artillery when his troops came under sniper fire. The grew jittery, so Uncle John chided them for their timidity under single bullets. He wondered how they would react when they confronted the massed enemy on the front line, and faced full volleys. The men were ashamed, but continued to flinch. So Sedgwick continued: “Why are you dodging like this? They couldn’t hit an elephant at this dista…“. It was that point that his pep speech was interrupted by a sniper bullet that struck him in the face, beneath his left eye, and killed him instantly. His ironically funny death made him the highest ranking Union battlefield fatality of the Civil War.

Dramatic Deaths These People Did Not See Coming
Possible bust of Heraclitus of Ephesus in the Hall of Philosophers, Capitoline Museum. Wikimedia

The Philosopher Who Hated Humanity

Heraclitus of Ephesus, (535 – 475 BC) the renowned Ancient Greek philosopher, advocated for the concept of universal flux and the unity of opposites, positing that all things in the universe are in constant motion and balance. Despite his profound philosophical insights, Heraclitus led a solitary life, shunning human contact and wandering through the mountains, sustaining himself on foraged plants. His existence took a tragic turn when afflicted with dropsy, a painful accumulation of fluids within the body.

Desperate for a cure, Heraclitus devised an unconventional remedy: covering himself in cow dung in hopes of drawing out the accumulated fluids. However, his attempt at self-medication took a bizarre turn when the dung dried, leaving him immobilized and vulnerable. In a grim and ironic twist of fate, Heraclitus was unable to defend himself when a pack of dogs came upon him and devoured him alive. Thus, Heraclitus met his end in a manner both peculiar and tragic, his philosophical legacy overshadowed by the macabre circumstances of his demise.

Dramatic Deaths These People Did Not See Coming
Statue of Al Mutanabbi in Baghdad. Wikimedia

The Would-be Prophet Who Became a Poet

Al Mutanabbi, the revered Arabic poet of the 10th century, left an indelible mark on literature with his unparalleled mastery of verse. His talent, however, was matched by his egocentric nature, as he often penned odes not only to patrons but also to himself, showcasing his courage and skill. Despite his poetic brilliance, his ambition to secure a governorship eluded him due to his prickly personality and excessive pride, which deterred potential patrons from entrusting him with such responsibilities.

While Al Mutanabbi’s praises earned him rewards and recognition, his sharp wit and propensity for composing biting verses against rivals and ungenerous patrons ultimately led to his demise. In 965, he met his tragic end when confronted by pursuers who recited his own bold lines, mocking his courage. In a fatal display of pride, Al Mutanabbi turned to face his assailants, intent on living up to his own verse, and perished in the ensuing confrontation. Thus, his legacy endures not only in his profound poetry but also in the dramatic circumstances of his final moments.

Dramatic Deaths These People Did Not See Coming
Gouverneur Morris. Smithsonian Institute National Portrait Gallery

A Founding Father’s Painful Self Cure for a Painful Condition

Gouverneur Morris (1752 – 1816) became known as the “Penman of the Constitution” after he wrote its Preamble. A passionate opponent of slavery, he particularly loathed the constitution’s Three-Fifths Clause, which boosted slave state representation. As he put it: “The inhabitant of Georgia and S.C. who goes to the coast of Africa, and in defiance of the most sacred laws of humanity tears away his fellow creatures from their dearest connections and damns them to the most cruel bondages, shall have more votes in a government instituted for protection of the rights of mankind than the citizen of Pennsylvania or New Jersey who views with a laudable horror so nefarious a practice“. Morris was also a randy goat, who couldn’t keep it in his pants. That led to his painfully funny demise.

Morris had numerous lovers. He lost a leg when he fled from a cuckolded husband, either because he jumped straight off the wife’s bed and out a second floor window, or because he was struck by a carriage in his flight. A lost leg did not slow down Morris’ fornication, which prompted John Jay to say: “I almost wish he had lost something else“. Fast forward three decades, and Morris’ affairs had left him with a severe urethral obstruction: his urethra was clogged up. Desperate to clear the clog, he hit upon a nutty treatment. He broke off a bit of whalebone baleen from his wife’s corset, stuck it up his manhood, and twirled it around. The baleen barbs shredded his penis from the inside, and he died from the resultant infection.

Dramatic Deaths These People Did Not See Coming
Garry Hoy and the high rise office building where he worked. Twitka

A Lawyer’s Bizarre Fixation to Demonstrate Window Strength

Garry Hoy, a respected Canadian lawyer and senior partner, inadvertently met his demise in a tragically humorous manner due to his fascination with the robustness of modern building techniques. Hoy, who had a background in engineering, took pride in demonstrating the strength of the windows at his Toronto office by body-checking them, a habit that proved fatal. During a welcome party for law student interns on July 9th, 1993, Hoy attempted to impress them by throwing himself at the office windows, which he had done countless times before. However, on this occasion, the glass shattered, sending him plummeting 24 floors to his death.

Despite the tragic outcome, Hoy’s peculiar methodology and untimely demise garnered widespread attention, making him a posthumous celebrity. His fatal mishap inspired urban legends, television episodes, and even earned him a 1996 Darwin Award. Hoy’s unintentionally funny death serves as a cautionary tale about the dangers of disregarding building safety protocols, leaving behind a legacy that continues to captivate public interest.

Dramatic Deaths These People Did Not See Coming
Franz Reichelt and his parachute suit. Gorilla Cool

An Inventor Determined to Prove His Invention

Franz Reichelt (1879 – 1912), a French tailor with a passion for flight, gained notoriety for his tragicomic demise while attempting to invent a parachute suit. Inspired by the Aero Club de France’s prize for a successful parachute design, Reichelt crafted a 20-pound suit with a silken hood, aiming to enable pilots to safely land in emergencies. Despite multiple failed tests using dummies, Reichelt persisted and obtained permission to conduct a live trial from the Eiffel Tower.

On February 4th, 1912, amidst a crowd of spectators and journalists, Reichelt ascended the Eiffel Tower, intending to jump himself in his parachute suit. Ignoring pleas from friends and onlookers, he leaped from the tower’s first deck at 8:22 AM. However, the suit proved ineffective, and Reichelt tragically plummeted 200 feet to the ground below, leaving a comically small crater upon impact. His daring attempt, though misguided, highlighted the risks of innovation without adequate testing, contrasting sharply with a successful parachute jump conducted just days earlier. Reichelt’s unwittingly dramatic death remains a cautionary tale in the annals of aviation history.

Dramatic Deaths These People Did Not See Coming
Genghis Khan. Wikimedia

Trying to Punk Genghis Khan

Shah Muhammad II, ruler of the Khwarezmian Empire, committed a fatal error when he provoked Genghis Khan, underestimating the Mongol leader’s power and resolve. In 1218, tensions escalated when Muhammad II’s forces intercepted and executed Mongol envoys, prompting Genghis Khan to retaliate with swift and decisive action. Despite attempts at diplomacy, Muhammad II’s refusal to acknowledge his wrongdoing only fueled Genghis Khan’s determination to bring him to justice. Launching a massive invasion, Genghis Khan’s forces systematically devastated Khwarezmian cities, leaving behind a trail of destruction and despair. Muhammad II, realizing the gravity of his miscalculation, attempted to flee. He soon found himself relentlessly pursued by Mongol generals Subudai and Jebe.

The pursuit culminated in Muhammad II’s ignominious demise on a remote Caspian island, symbolizing the ultimate defeat of his empire. The fall of the Khwarezmian Empire under Muhammad II’s rule serves as a cautionary tale of the consequences of underestimating the strength and determination of a formidable adversary. While Genghis Khan’s campaign was marked by unimaginable brutality and suffering, Muhammad II’s ill-fated defiance against history’s most feared conqueror stands as a stark reminder of the perilous consequences of arrogance and hubris on the grand stage of history.

Dramatic Deaths These People Did Not See Coming
The Maccabean Revolt. My Jewish Learning

Eleazar Avaran: The Heroic Sacrifice of the Maccabean Warrior

Eleazar Avaran, revered for his unwavering courage during the tumultuous Maccabean Revolt against the oppressive Seleucid Empire, faced his defining moment at the pivotal Battle of Beth Zechariah in 162 BC. With the Seleucid forces marching relentlessly to reinforce their stronghold in Jerusalem, Eleazar found himself amidst a daunting battlefield, his resolve tested against overwhelming odds. Despite the dire circumstances, Eleazar’s spirit remained undaunted, fueled by the fervent desire to inspire his comrades and defend his people’s freedom. In a daring display of valor, Eleazar confronted a colossal war elephant, a formidable symbol of the enemy’s might. With unwavering determination, he charged towards the beast, his spear poised for the decisive strike. Summoning every ounce of strength and courage, Eleazar plunged his weapon into the elephant’s vulnerable belly, delivering a crippling blow to the adversary’s forces.

However, fate dealt a cruel twist in the aftermath of his heroic deed, as the dying elephant collapsed upon him, extinguishing his valiant spirit beneath its immense weight. Despite Eleazar’s selfless sacrifice and the stirring example of his bravery, the Jewish defenders found themselves grappling with dwindling morale and overwhelming opposition from the Seleucid heavy infantry and armored war elephants. Despite the tragic outcome of the battle, Eleazar’s gallant act remains etched in the annals of history as a poignant testament to the indomitable spirit and unwavering resolve of the Maccabean warriors in their arduous quest for religious liberty and independence.

Dramatic Deaths These People Did Not See Coming
Michael C. Rockefeller on a canoe in New Guinea. New York Times

A Rockefeller in Papua Sparks A Cannibalistic Mystery

Michael Rockefeller, scion of the influential Rockefeller family, led a life marked by privilege, education, and a passion for art and exploration. Despite his affluent upbringing, Michael pursued his interests with vigor, attending prestigious schools and even serving in the US Army. However, his promising future took a tragic turn in 1961 during an expedition to New Guinea, where he met a macabre and unexpected end. Venturing to New Guinea to study indigenous tribes, Michael’s journey led him to the Asmat tribe along the southwestern coast. Fascinated by their culture, he embarked on collecting artifacts and studying their customs. Yet, tragedy struck during a routine boat journey on November 18th, 1961, when Michael’s vessel capsized in treacherous waters.

While local children swam to safety, Michael and a Dutch anthropologist, Renee Wassing, clung to the overturned boat, hoping to salvage their belongings. In a fateful decision, Michael attempted to swim to shore but never returned. Despite extensive search efforts, he was never found, and his fate remained shrouded in mystery for decades. Recent investigations and eyewitness accounts have suggested that Michael may have been killed and eaten by members of the Asmat tribe, a grim conclusion supported by colonial reports and local testimony. Despite the tragic circumstances of his demise, Michael Rockefeller’s legacy endures through his contributions to anthropology and the arts, with many of the artifacts he collected now housed in renowned institutions like the Metropolitan Museum of Art.


Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading

All That’s Interesting – The Story of Franz Reichelt, the Man Who Died Jumping Off the Eiffel Tower

American Battlefield Trust – The Death of John Sedgwick

Amusing Planet – Franz Reichelt’s Fatal Jump

Ancient Origins – John of Bohemia: A Heroic King Blind to His Fate

Ancient Origins – Heraclitus Died When He Covered Himself in Cow Dung

Arab America – Al Mutanabbi: The Greatest Arab Poet

BBC – Victorian Strangeness: The Lawyer Who Shot Himself Proving His Case

Catton, Bruce – The Civil War, Three Volumes in One (1984)

Cracked – 4 Dudes Who Tried to Prove Themselves, and Died Horribly Instead

Curious Archive – The Bizarre Death of Garry Hoy

Daily Beast – Was This Rockefeller Heir Eaten by Cannibals?

Discerning History – Peter Bartholomew: Life and Death of a Fanatical Fraud

Encyclopedia Britannica – Al Mutanabbi

Encyclopedia Britannica – Gouverneur Morris

History Collection – Costly Historic Mistakes that People Immediately Regretted

History Colored – How Clement Vallandigham Died Defending a Client in Court

Jewish Encyclopedia – Eleazar

Kostick, Conor, Leiden University Scholarly Publications, Volume 27, 2012 – The Trial by Fire of Peter Bartholomew: A Case Study in Medieval Social Conflict

Military History, May 2006 – Facing the Wrath of Khan

Military History Matters – Royal Deaths: John the Blind

Morgan, David – The Mongols (1986)

National Geographic Magazine, September 16th, 2018 – Pick Your Poison: 12 Toxic Tales

Ratchnevsky, Paul – Genghis Khan: His Life and Legacy (1994)

Scullard, Howard Hayes – The Elephant in the Greek and Roman World (1974)

Smithsonian Magazine, March, 2014 – What Really Happened to Michael Rockefeller

Snopes – Did a Man Die Demonstrating a Window’s Strength?

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy – Heraclitus