From the king who ate himself to death to the comedian whose audience didn’t know his death wasn’t a joke, many high-profile people have left this world in unusual ways. Even many perfectly ordinary endings are fascinating because of coincidence, timing, or plain old bad luck. Here are some interesting facts about the deaths of famous people, or just famous deaths, that made news or made history.
1. “Death by digestion” claimed a royal life.
In 1771, King of Sweden Adolf Frederick died of digestive problems after eating a meal of lobster, caviar, sauerkraut, smoked herring, champagne, and 14 servings of dessert.
2. Jane Austen died of Addison’s Disease three decades before it was discovered.
Austen remains one of the most famous authors of the last 200 years. When she died in 1817, no one knew what strange disease had caused her to suffer for years. Now, many believe she succumbed to Addison’s disease, which, among other ills, causes darkening of the skin and extreme gastrointestinal irritation. The disease wasn’t even named until more than 30 years after her death. However, because she took such detailed notes of her symptoms, doctors in 1964 identified Addison’s as a likely cause of death according to Extraordinary Endings of Practically Everything & Everybody by Charles Panati.
3. Three of the Founding Fathers died on the Fourth of July.
John Adams and Thomas Jefferson both signed the Declaration of Independence, and they also died on the exact same day: July 4, 1826. Five years later, James Monroe died on Independence Day as well.
4. President James A. Garfield was shot by an assassin, but killed by his doctors.
Garfield served a mere 200 days as the 20th president of the United States before he died. In July 1881, he was shot by Charles Guiteau. One bullet grazed his arm, while another went into his back. However, the autopsy revealed it wasn’t the two gunshots that killed him — it was medical malpractice. Doctors poked unwashed fingers and unsterilized medical instruments into the wound trying to find the bullet lodged in his body. One doctor punctured Garfield’s liver while hunting for the slug. In the end, intervention by Garfield’s 16 doctors turned a relatively harmless, three-inch hole into a 20-inch infected passageway stretching from his ribs to his groin. According to Extraordinary Endings, the autopsy also revealed doctors were dead wrong about the bullet’s location to begin with, as it sat four inches to the right of the spinal cord in a bed of tissue. Garfield went from 210 pounds to 130 within a month, as doctors bickered for 80 days about the lost bullet’s location. He died in September of blood poisoning and widespread infection. At least the government refused to pay the doctors’ $85,000 bill.
5. A lot of famous people died of syphilis.
Syphilis is a deadly sexually transmitted disease. But after the discovery of penicillin in the 1940s, it was easily treated and no longer a fatal diagnosis. Before then, many famous people died of the disease, including gangster Al Capone; painters Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Paul Gaugin, and Edouard Manet ; writers Oscar Wilde and Guy de Maupassant ; and poet Charles Baudelaire.
6. Mark Twain was born when Halley’s Comet came and died when it returned.
Halley’s Comet only reaches Earth once every 75 years. So it’s remarkable that it was visible the day Twain was born in 1835 and again right after his death in 1910. Twain was quoted as saying he was born with the comet and “would go out with it, too.”
7. The jockey who died and then won the race.
Jockey Frank Hayes died of a massive heart attack during a race at Belmont, New York, in 1923. His horse finished first despite this, making Hayes the only jockey to win a race posthumously.
8. Novelist Sherwood Anderson was done in by the toothpick in a martini olive.
Anderson’s literary career was at its height in the 1920s thanks to celebrated books like Winesburg, Ohio. Although, he is most remembered for his influence on the next generation of writers, including helping William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway their first works published. In 1941, he suffered from abdominal illness on a South American cruise and died in a Panamanian hospital. It wasn’t until the autopsy that the true cause of death was discovered: He had swallowed the toothpick that an olive was speared on, which damaged his internal organs and gave him the infection that killed him.
9. C. S. Lewis, Aldous Huxley, and John F. Kennedy all died on the same day.
Lewis is most famous for writing The Chronicles of Narnia, while Huxley is best known as the author of Brave New World. Both writers died the same day as the 35th President of the United States: November 22, 1963.
10. The only known space deaths all happened on the same mission.
In 1971, Soviet cosmonauts Georgi Dobrovolsky, Vladislav Volkov, and Viktor Patsayev all died when their Soyuz-11 spacecraft depressurized during re-entry. No other deaths outside the Earth’s atmosphere have been recorded.
11. Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Brian Jones, Kurt Cobain, Amy Winehouse, and many other artists all died at 27.
Many have morbidly dubbed celebrities who die at 27 year old “The 27 Club” because so many well-known musicians and artists have died at that tender age. Sadly, many of the deaths have been drug related.
12. The medical examiner’s report says playwright Tennessee Williams died from choking on a plastic bottle cap. He didn’t.
As the author of A Streetcar Named Desire, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and The Glass Menagerie, Williams is possibly the most well-known American playwright. When he died on February 25, 1983, the medical examiner’s report claimed he choked to death on the cap from a bottle of eye drops. Later it was revealed that the medical examiner was influenced by Williams’s assistant and that the true cause of death was related to barbiturate use, which an autopsy confirmed.
13. Marvin Gaye was killed the day before his birthday.
Tragically, the legendary singer was shot by his father and died hours shy of his 45th birthday.
14. John Lennon, Selena, and Rebecca Schaeffer were all murdered by obsessed fans.
Celebrity stalkers are not uncommon. However, for the famous Beatle, the Latin music sensation, and up-and-coming actress, fan obsession escalated to violence, and they were all gunned down by mentally unstable stalkers.
15. Comedian Dick Shawn died on stage and the audience thought it was part of the act.
Shawn was a stand-up comedian who was featured in popular films including The Producers and It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. In 1987, when he collapsed on stage due to a heart attack, the audience assumed it was part of the act because he had just joked, “If elected, I will not lay down on the job.”