Those of you that regularly read my articles know that I love history. There is just something so interesting about it. Oh not all those dates and numbers kind of history, but the strange and wonderful things about history. You know those heroic, stoic, and romantic figures in history that have done great things. Yeah that history. Then there are those historic figures that died in sometimes embarrassing and ignoble ways. Here are some of them.
One of my favorite stories is about the famed German Emperor, Frederick Barbarossa. Barbarossa was a total scary dude of scary dudes. He lived during the 12th century, a time when being a scary dude was kind of the norm. He was born in the year 1122 and his family lineage is said to include Charlemagne, another scary dude. Frederick had the typical childhood of an aristocrat. Life was hard during that time (spare the rod, spoil the child was the norm), and Frederick went out of his way to prove that he was the most testosterone driven man of all time. He grew a beard that is actually part of his name – Barbarossa is just another way the Italians have of saying “Red Beard”. Frederick ruled with an iron clad fist. He made a name for himself during the Second Crusade, which basically ended in failure. But Barbarossa was so blood thirsty during his time as a commander no one blamed him for the mess that was the Second Crusade.
I’d suggest you dig more deeply into Barbarossa because this man was an amazing warrior and statesman. This man didn’t go soft in his old age either. When Saladin conquered Jerusalem, kicking off the Third Crusade, Barbarossa was there. He assembled 20,000 knights and charged into battle. Ultimately, Barbarossa died in a very un-heroic manner. Rather than scaling a mountain, Barbarossa died while trying to charge through the Calycadmus River, in full armor. His horse was swept out from under him mid-stream, and his armor pulled him under, drowning him. If only he weren’t trying to convince his army of men that they could just swim across the river.
Here are some more embarrassing ways in which people have died. One of the most told stories is that of the Greek philosopher, Aeschylus. It is said that Aeschylus believed a prophecy of his death. It was told to him that he would die because something falling on his head would kill him. So being the pragmatist that he likely was, he began to stay outside to avoid this catastrophe. Well the story continues because an eagle flying overhead mistook Aeschylus’ bald head for a rock with which it could make use of to break the shell of a tortoise. The Tortoise fell on his head from such a great height that it broke Aeschylus’ head rather than the shell of the tortoise, thus ending the life of the Greek philosopher. So in order to avoid death, he ran headlong into it.
I’m sure you’ve all heard of the great Allan Pinkerton? Allan Pinkerton was born in Glasgow, Scotland on August 25, in 1819. He immigrated to the United States in 1842, and settled in Chicago. He originally went to work making barrels, but joined the Chicago Police Department in 1847 at the age of twenty-eight. Two years later he is appointed the first Detective of the Chicago Police force. And a year later he opens the first Pinkerton Detective Agency office in Chicago, Illinois. Allan Pinkerton died on July 1, 1884. It is said that he died after he slipped on a paving stone and bit hit tongue so severely that gangrene set in and Allan succumbed shortly after. Now that is the most known and widely supposed story of his death, but there is also the story that he died of a stroke or malaria. It should also be noted that at the time of his death he was working on a system to centralize all criminal identification records; a database that is now maintained by the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Another gangrene story is that of Bobby Leach. Mr. Leach was the first person to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel. It wasn’t the ride in the barrel that killed poor Mr. Leach in any way. He apparently slipped on an orange peel…not a banana peel…and cut his leg. The wound on his leg became gangrenous and had to be amputated. Alas the operation was not successful, as Mr. Leach continued to suffer complications until his death some months later.
Then there is the case of Clement Vallandigham. Clement could be called a bit of a rabble rouser during his day. A lawyer and politician he was one of many people that did not believe in Abraham Lincoln or his “cause”. He led an interesting life and if you want to read a biography this mans life story makes for a good read. However, we are speaking of his death. Clement was defending a man accused of murder. He died trying to prove that the death could have been caused by the victim himself in an accidental shooting. While demonstrating what could have occurred, Clement Vallandigham proved his point, by shooting himself in the same manner as the victim had been shot and killed. Lawyer Vallandigham won his case posthumously and the defendant was free to go.
Next up we have Sir Francis Bacon. Oh yes, there are plenty of stories about this man, but the one we are interested in is his death. While trying to prove that he could keep poultry fresh in a cold atmosphere, he was outside in the fresh invigorating snow fall. And while he did prove his point that if poultry is frozen or kept cold it will not go bad, he managed to contract pneumonia and died.
Talk about world records. We have one for the Guinness world record books. Hans Steininger had grown one of the longest beards on record and he was incredibly proud of it. However, it was the cause of his demise. His beard measured four and a half feet at the time of his death. While running from a fire, Hans tripped over his beard, and broke his neck, which resulted in his death.
Everyone knows the name Harry Houdini. One of the greatest magicians of his age. Well Harry liked to prove just how strong he was by telling people to punch him in the stomach. He was ready for the blow, except that one time. The last time. The time that he was hit in the stomach and he wasn’t ready for the solid punch. The one that ruptured his appendix. Not aware of the cause of his pain, he didn’t seek treatment and died from a ruptured appendix.
Then there is the story of Jack Daniel. The Famous distiller of that fine whiskey. That Jack Daniel. Jack apparently had a temper, and when he was unable to get his safe open he kicked it in anger. He wounded his foot which got infected. He eventually had to have his foot amputated. But even after that, the infection spread to the rest of his leg. He died from blood poisoning.
Last but not least is the story of the king. Elvis himself. He suffered a heart attack and died in his throne room. It’s still in question whether or not drugs were involved, but it is widely known that Elvis’ personal physician had prescribed over 10,000 doses of Sedative, narcotics, and amphetamines in the eight months prior to his death.
So maybe the moral of this story is that while death in inevitable, maybe we should think our actions through just a bit. Of course if you read about these people you’ll find that most of them lived life to the fullest before their ignoble and sometimes embarrassing deaths. History…gotta love it.