Death & Authors: The 12 Weirdest Stories

Gabe Habash -- July 29th, 2011

There’s something about writers and death: they just can’t seem to stop running into each other. Even if we put aside the well-covered topic of writers and suicide (also here and here), there’s an undeniable, inextricable link between life’s end and those who write–and sometimes, this link isn’t normal. We’re not talking about passing peacefully in one’s sleep here. We mean the link takes the form of a weird, grotesque thing (here’s a great Top 10 list). For instance, did you know Euripides was torn apart by the hunting dogs of Archelaus, the king of Macedonia? Digging even deeper into the demises of writers just yields more strangeness. So, here are the weirdest stories about writers and death.

1. Tennessee Williams choked to death on a bottle cap. In 1983, Williams was found dead with an eyedrops bottle cap blocking his larynx. An empty bottle of wine and several kinds of medications were also found, and their consumption was thought to have restrained his gag reflex.

2. Sir Francis Bacon died of pneumonia after stuffing a chicken with snow. In 1626, Bacon wanted to do a meat preservation experiment so he went out in a blizzard with a piece of meat. He died a month later.

3. Molière was seized by a coughing fit while performing one of his plays and died hours later. While performing his play The Imaginary Invalid (off-the-radar irony) for King Louis the 14th, Molière started coughing and gasping and, after a brief delay, resumed and eventually finished the play. He had been suffering from tuberculosis for years and died hours later.

4. Nathanael West and his wife died in a car accident after he ran a stop sign. In December 22, 1940, West, who was possibly distracted after hearing of his friend F. Scott Fitzgerald’s death the day before, ran a stop sign in California. He and his wife both died, and they were planning to fly to New York four days later to see a play in which his wife was the inspiration for the main character.

5. Daniel Defoe died while hiding from his creditors. Though all of the details are still unknown, biographers and historians agree that Defoe owed some people a lot of money at the end of his life. In a letter to his son (in which he lamented not being able to see him because he was hiding), Defoe claimed he was being perjured by a “contemptible enemy.”

6. Sir Thomas More cheered up his executioner. More was sentenced to be executed by decapitation for committing treason when he denied the validity of the parliamentary Act of Succession, stating “no temporal man may be the head of the spirituality.” When he ascended the scaffold he told his reluctant executioner the following: “Pick up thy Spirits, Man, and be not afraid to do thine Office; my Neck is very short, take heed therefore thou strike not awry for having thine Honesty.”

7. Aeschylus was killed when an eagle dropped a turtle and it hit him on the head. Though this happened in 456 BC and is apocryphal, the story says that the eagle was looking for a place to drop the turtle in order to kill it/crack it open, and mistook the tragedian’s bald head for a rock.

8. Poet Dan Andersson was poisoned by cyanide in a hotel fumigating for bedbugs. In 1920, the Hotel Hellman in Stockholm hadn’t cleared Andersson’s room as they were supposed to, and he was found dead late in the afternoon. Another man, an insurance inspector, also died.

9. Li Bai (aka Li Po) drowned trying to embrace the reflection of the moon. In 762 while on the Yangtze River, Li Bai was drunk, leaned over and saw the reflection of the moon in the water. He fell overboard and drowned, and the story has since become a Chinese legend.

10. Mark Twain birth and date of death both coincided with Halley’s Comet visits. The dates, 74 years apart, were predicted by Twain, who predicted he would “go out with it.”

11. Gustav Kobbé was hit by a landing plane while on a sailboat. In July 1918 off Bay Shore, Long Island, the music critic and author was sailing, a hobby of his. A landing seaplane didn’t see him, and struck and killed him instantly upon landing.

12. Julien Offray de La Mettrie ate himself to death. La Mettrie was a French philosopher and physician who thought of human beings as machines and was known for his hedonistic inclinations. At a feast thrown in his name by the French ambassador to Prussia, Lat Metterie died after eating a massive quantity of food.

Of course, not every writer meets a strange and bizarre end. Dostoevsky, for example, was only made to think he was going to be executed. The firing squad even pointed their rifles at him before the government basically said just kidding and told him to watch out. He only had to endure 4 years of penal servitude before writing some of the most enduring literature ever. Good things happen to those who wait!


14 thoughts on “Death & Authors: The 12 Weirdest Stories

  1. Mike

    Mark Slouka wrote in detail about Dostoevsky’s near-death experience, as well as his own, in his essay “The Art of Almost Dying,” which ran a while back in Harpers.

  2. gwolfe

    Consider: The poet Hart Crane, committed suicide by jumping off the deck of a ship steaming across the Gulf of Mexico, age 32.

    Margaret Mitchell [GWTW] hit by an Atlanta taxi driver [but not while driving his taxi] in 1949.

  3. Samuel Solomon

    Yeah…yeah…yeah…even here in Africa we’ve got the likes of Christopher Okigbo, Chinua Achebe’s accident that almost killed him(instead left him wheel-chair bound) and Ken Saro-Wiwa who was executed by the dictator Gen. Sanni Abacha in Nigeria in the early 1990s.

  4. Dean Barrett

    It also doesn’t include those who threw themselves off bridges such as the Pulitzer prize-winning poet John Berryman in 1972 (who, according to some, waved to bystanders on the way down) or the English poet Lionel Johnson who in 1902 fell off a bar stool and died. (Whether Johnson also waved to bystanders on the way down is not recorded.)

    (From my book The Go Go Dancer who Stole My Viagra & other Poetic Tragedies of Thailand)

  5. Rachel

    Vachel Lindsay drank a bottle Lysol, on purpose. Story I heard is that he didn’t realize how unpleasant it would be; Lysol, apparently, does not take you gently into that good night.

  6. Michelle

    Don’t forget about Sherwood Anderson–swallowed a tooth pick on a cruise (presumably from a martini olive) and died of peritonitis.

  7. Crebnie Marsh

    I have come to believe that Mark Twain’s death was no coincidence. What are the odds that he could predict his own death? Think about it: His wife, whom he loved deeply had died. A favorite daughter had died and he was in bad health at an advanced age. Some say he had had several strokes. In those days a glass of whiskey and a tad more laudnum (at the time, a legal over-the-counter medicine with opium in it, to ease pain) as a last nightcap, and poof goes Twain. When you have nothing to live for but pain and the people you love are gone, and you are in bad health, a little over self-medication that everyone will interpret as a natural death, might seem like a good solution to an 19th century man.

  8. York Lord

    W. Somerset Maugham fell hitting his head on a fireplace, dying before the next morning. When he was cremated his body doubled up, giving the appearance of one sitting up. Yikes!

  9. Hannah

    You forgot Thomas Merton (accidentally electrocuted in a bathtub in Thailand) and Frank O’Hara (run down by a dune buggy). :-(

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