Historical Figures Who Died in Bizarre Ways

Throughout history, many prominent figures have met their end in unusual, unexpected, or downright bizarre ways. From freak accidents to unexpected mishaps, these peculiar deaths intrigue and baffle. Explore the unexpected ends of famed historical figures, revealing life’s unpredictable nature and our enduring fascination with the macabre.

Below, World History Edu presents some of them:

Aeschylus (c. 524 – c. 456 BC)

Aeschylus, the ancient Greek playwright, is said to have died in a particularly unusual way.

According to legend, in 455 BC, an eagle, mistaking the bald head of Aeschylus for a rock, dropped a tortoise on him in an attempt to break the tortoise’s shell.

The blow from the falling tortoise killed the playwright. This story of Aeschylus’s death, though oft-repeated, should be taken with a grain of skepticism as its authenticity is uncertain and it might be more of a historical anecdote than a verified fact.

The ancient Greek playwright Aeschylus was said to have died when an eagle dropped a tortoise on his head, mistaking his bald pate for a rock it could use to crack the shell.

King Adolf Frederick of Sweden (1710–1771)

King Adolf Frederick of Sweden died on February 12, 1771, after overindulging in food.

His fatal meal is said to have consisted of a lavish smorgasbord that included lobster, caviar, sauerkraut, kippers, and champagne. This was followed by 14 servings of his favorite dessert: semla, a type of sweet roll traditionally filled with a mix of milk and almond paste.

The Swedish monarch is often humorously remembered in his country as “the king who ate himself to death.”

Adolf Frederick of Sweden died of digestion problems after eating a meal consisting of lobster, caviar, sauerkraut, smoked herring, and champagne, topped off with 14 servings of his favorite dessert. Image: Portrait by Swedish portrait painter Gustaf Lundberg

Attila the Hun (c. 406–453)

Attila the Hun’s death in 453 AD remains a subject of debate among historians due to the lack of contemporary sources detailing the exact circumstances of his demise.

The most widely accepted account comes from the Roman historian Priscus, who wrote that Attila died of a nosebleed on his wedding night.

According to this account, after heavy drinking, Attila suffered a severe nosebleed and choked on his own blood while lying in a supine position, leading to his death.

However, other theories have been proposed, including assassination and health-related issues. Given the lack of conclusive evidence, Attila’s exact cause of death remains a historical mystery.

Atilla and Ildico

Atilla the Hun, the famed barbarian leader, is believed to have died of a nosebleed on his wedding night. He may have been too inebriated to notice and drowned in his own blood. Image: Attila’s death, painting by Paczka Ferenc

Sir Francis Bacon (1561-1626)

The English philosopher, statesman, and author Sir Francis Bacon died of pneumonia contracted while studying the effects of freezing meat in snow. Image: Portrait by Flemish artist Paul van Somer I, 1617

This English philosopher and statesman’s death is perhaps one of the strangest of the 17th century. The story goes that in the early spring of 1626, Bacon was traveling in his carriage and was struck by the idea of experimenting to see if meat could be preserved by using snow.

To test his theory, he purchased a chicken, killed it, and then stuffed the bird with snow to see if it would prevent the meat from spoiling. While conducting this experiment outside in the cold, Bacon became chilled.

He was subsequently taken to the home of the Earl of Arundel in Highgate, London, where he was put into a damp bed. This exposure to the cold and damp conditions led to him contracting pneumonia, from which he died a few days later. Thus, in a way, his pursuit of scientific experimentation played a role in his death.

William Henry Harrison (1773 – 1841)

William H. Harrison

William H. Harrison – This 9th President of the United States to this day remains his country’s briefest commander-in-chief

Similar to Sir Francis Bacon’s death, William Henry Harrison, the ninth President of the United States, died of pneumonia. What is even more shocking is that the POTUS’s death came just 32 days into his term, making it the shortest presidency in U.S. history. His illness is believed to have been triggered by the conditions on his inauguration day.

On March 4, 1841, Harrison delivered his inaugural address outdoors. It was a particularly cold and wet day, and the speech turned out to be the longest inaugural address ever, lasting almost two hours. Harrison did not wear an overcoat or hat, exposing himself to the harsh conditions.

Soon after the inauguration, Harrison fell ill. His condition worsened quickly, and he died on April 4, 1841. The prevailing belief is that the exposure during his lengthy inaugural address contributed to his contracting pneumonia, which ultimately led to his death. However, modern analyses suggest other potential causes or contributing factors, including typhoid fever.

Tycho Brahe (1546–1601)

The renowned Danish astronomer Tycho died from complications related to a burst bladder, which he sustained after politely refusing to leave a banquet to use the restroom.

Tycho Brahe, the renowned Danish astronomer, died in 1601. The exact cause of his death has been a subject of debate for centuries. The traditional and widely accepted story is that Tycho held his urine for an extended period during a banquet out of politeness, leading to a bladder infection that caused his death.

However, in later years, some speculated that Tycho might have been poisoned, possibly due to an alleged feud with another astronomer, Johannes Kepler, who served as Tycho’s assistant for about a year. This theory gained traction when hair samples from Tycho’s exhumed body were found to contain elevated levels of mercury. Still, subsequent examinations argued against mercury poisoning as the cause of death.

Recent examinations of Tycho’s remains in 2010 suggested that he did not die from mercury poisoning but instead from a burst bladder or kidney ailment. While the exact cause remains uncertain, most historians lean toward the bladder or urinary complications as the most likely reason for his demise.

The astronomer was laid to rests in the Church of Our Lady before Týn, situated close to the Prague Astronomical Clock in the Old Town Square.

Before his passing, Tycho encouraged his famous assistant German astronomer Johannes Kepler to complete the Rudolphine Tables, expressing a desire for him to use Tycho’s planetary system over that of Nicolaus Copernicus.

It’s said that Tycho penned his own epitaph: “He lived like a sage and died like a fool.”

Alexander I of Greece (1893–1920)

King Alexander I of Greece died from sepsis after being bitten by a pet monkey. He was 27 at the time of his death.

Alexander I of Greece was the second son of King Constantine I and Queen Sophia of Greece. He reigned as King of Greece from 1917 to 1920.

According to historical accounts, this Greek monarch died as a result of complications from a monkey bite. In 1920, while walking through the royal gardens, he tried to intervene in a fight between his German shepherd dog and a Barbary macaque (also known as a Barbary ape). The monkey bit him, and though the wound was initially not considered serious, it became infected.

Subsequently, the Greek monarch developed a severe septicemia (blood poisoning), which eventually led to his death on October 25, 1920.

His unexpected death led to a series of events that resulted in the return of his father, King Constantine I, to the throne. This further exacerbated the political divisions in Greece, which had significant consequences for the country’s subsequent history.

Grigori Rasputin (1869–1916)

Grigori Rasputin, a Russian mystic and self-proclaimed holy man who befriended the family of Tsar Nicholas II.

Some members of the Russian nobility viewed Rasputin as holding undue power over the royal family, particularly Tsarina Alexandra, and believed he was influencing political decisions. They also felt his controversial behavior was damaging the reputation of the monarchy. As a result, a plot was hatched to kill him.

The conspirators, led by Prince Felix Yusupov, invited Rasputin to Yusupov’s palace in St. Petersburg. There, Rasputin was given wine and pastries laced with cyanide. To the conspirators’ shock, the poison seemed to have little effect on him.

Believing the poison had failed, Yusupov decided to shoot Rasputin. After being shot, Rasputin appeared to be dead.

The infamous Russian mystic Grigori Rasputin survived being poisoned, shot multiple times, beaten, and thrown into a frozen river. He ultimately died of hypothermia.

However, after some time, Rasputin leapt up and attacked Yusupov. He then attempted to flee from the palace.

The Russian mystic was then shot again multiple times by the conspirators. Still showing signs of life, he was brutally beaten.

Finally, the conspirators wrapped Rasputin in a cloth and threw him into the icy Neva River, where he ultimately drowned. Some reports suggest that water was found in his lungs, indicating he was still alive when submerged.

Authorities would discover Rasputin’s body a few days later.

Sophocles ( c. 497/6 – 406/5 BC)

Ancient Greek tragedy

Sophocles, one of ancient Greece’s most renowned playwrights, lived a long life and died in 406 or 405 BC.

One such anecdote, probably apocryphal, claims that Sophocles died from holding his breath while reading a long passage from one of his plays, possibly trying to prove to a court that he was still mentally competent.

Another tale suggests he might have choked on a grape or died in a similar benign fashion. However, these stories are likely later fabrications or exaggerations, and there is no solid historical evidence to confirm them.

It is most likely that Sophocles died of natural causes, given his advanced age. Regardless of the specifics of his death, Sophocles’ legacy as a playwright and his significant contributions to Greek drama remain undisputed.

Leon Trotsky (1879 – 1940)

Russian-born revolutionary and Soviet politician Lev Davidovich Bronstein, who is better known as Leon Trotsky, died on August 21, 1940

After being expelled from the Communist Party and exiled from the Soviet Union due to his opposition to Joseph Stalin’s policies and leadership, Trotsky settled in Mexico in the late 1930s.

On August 20, 1940, a Spanish communist named Ramón Mercader, acting on behalf of the Soviet NKVD (the predecessor to the KGB), gained access to Trotsky’s home in Coyoacán, a borough of Mexico City, under the pretense of wanting to show Trotsky an article he had written.

While Trotsky was reading the article in his study, Mercader struck him in the head with a mountaineering ice axe. Trotsky was severely wounded but managed to grapple with his attacker, which allowed his bodyguards to apprehend Mercader.

Despite being taken to a hospital, Leon Trotsky succumbed to his injuries the next day, on August 21, 1940. Ramón Mercader was tried in Mexico, sentenced to 20 years in prison (the maximum sentence for murder at the time in Mexico), and was released in 1960. The assassination was later confirmed to have been ordered by Joseph Stalin.

Mithridates VI Eupator (135 – 63 BC)

Mithridates VI Eupator of Pontus (reign: 120–63 BC). Bust of the king of Pontus Mithridates VI as Heracles. Marble, Roman imperial period (1st century).

Mithridates VI Eupator, also known as Mithridates the Great, was the king of Pontus and a formidable adversary of Rome during the Mithridatic Wars. He is best known for his longstanding conflict with the Roman Republic and his knowledge about poisons, which led him to develop an antidote to protect himself against assassination attempts. This antidote, a mixture of small doses of various poisons known as “mithridatium,” was designed to build immunity against poisoning.

According to ancient sources, Mithridates VI’s death in 63 BC was a result of suicide. After suffering military defeats and betrayal by his own son, Pharnaces II, Mithridates decided to end his own life.

However, because of his long-term use of mithridatium, he was immune to poisoning. Thus, when he tried to poison himself, the toxins had no effect. In despair and seeing no other way out, he allegedly asked a loyal soldier or guard to run him through with a sword, effectively ending his life.

READ MORE: Everything You Need to Know about the First Mithridatic War

King Bela I of Hungary (c. 1016-1063)

King Bela I of Hungary died when his wooden throne collapsed beneath him. Image: King Béla I of Hungry from the Medieval works Chronica Hungarorum

King Béla I of Hungary, who reigned from 1060 to 1063, met his end in a rather unusual manner. According to historical accounts, Béla’s death was the result of a tragic accident. It is said that while he was sitting on his throne, the wooden structure of the platform or the canopy above it collapsed. The king was seriously injured in the accident and died a few days later from his injuries in 1063. This unexpected event resulted in a period of uncertainty and political turmoil in Hungary.

Edmund Ironside, King of England (c. 990–1016)

English king Edmund Ironside (reignedn: from 23 April – 30 November 1016) was allegedly assassinated while on a toilet by a killer hiding beneath it. Image: Edmund in the early 14th-century Genealogical Roll of the Kings of England

The exact circumstances of King Edmund Ironside’s death remain a matter of debate among historians. Edmund became King of England in April 1016 and ruled for only a few months before dying in November of the same year.

According to one popular but controversial account, Edmund was assassinated while using a privy, ambushed and murdered by an assassin hiding beneath the toilet who thrust a sharp weapon up through the seat. This version of his death is found in some later chronicles and has become part of folklore, but it is not universally accepted by scholars.

Another perspective suggests that he may have been murdered in his chamber without the lurid details of the privy assassination. Given the political tensions of the time, especially the challenge posed by the Danish king Canute (who subsequently took the English crown), there was certainly motive for foul play.

However, there is no contemporary evidence to definitively confirm the cause of Edmund’s death. Some historians argue that he might have died from wounds sustained in battle or even from natural causes, but the exact circumstances remain one of the mysteries of English history.

READ MORE: Longest-Reigning British Monarchs

Sigurd the Mighty

Sigurd Eysteinsson (reigned: c. 875–892), often referred to as Sigurd the Mighty, was the second Earl of Orkney and a Norse Viking chieftain in the 9th century. His death is notable for its unusual and somewhat ironic nature.

According to the Orkneyinga Saga, a medieval historical account, Sigurd challenged a native ruler named Máel Brigte the Bucktoothed to a 40-man-a-side horse fight. However, Sigurd cheated and brought 80 men to the battle. Máel Brigte and his men were subsequently defeated and beheaded.

Sigurd, in a display of his victory, tied Máel Brigte’s severed head to his horse’s saddle. As Sigurd rode, Máel Brigte’s bucktooth scratched Sigurd’s leg. The wound became infected, leading to Sigurd’s death from the infection.

Thus, Sigurd the Mighty was ironically killed by the man he had just defeated in battle, albeit posthumously.

Chrysippus (c. 279 – c. 206 BC)

Greek-Phoenician Stoic philosopher Chrysippus

The story goes that ancient Greek Stoic philosopher Chrysippus saw a donkey eating some figs and made a joke about it, suggesting that someone should give the donkey a drink of pure wine to wash down the figs. Chrysippus found this idea so amusing that he went into uncontrollable fits of laughter. These fits were so intense and prolonged that he eventually died from them.

A native of Soli, Cilicia (in modern-day Turkiye), Chrysippus died in Athens, Greece.

However, it’s worth noting that this account might be more of a legend or exaggeration than an accurate historical fact. The exact circumstances of Chrysippus’ death remain uncertain, but this story has persisted due to its uniqueness and irony.

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