10 Historical Figures Who Died Unusual Deaths

History Hit

5 mins

15 Jul 2014

For millennia we have been fascinated by bizarre and macabre deaths. The ancient Greeks, for example, believed that their revered poet Aescyhlus perished after an eagle dropped a tortoise on his head.

These monarchs, warlords and popes lost their lives in the strangest ways: to monkey bites and nosebleeds, gluttony and laughter.

Here are 10 historical figures who died unusual deaths:

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1. Rasputin

The Russian mystic, healer and society figure Grigori Rasputin led a life which was almost as unusual as his death.

Born a peasant in a small Siberian village, Rasputin became a close friend to the last Russian Tsar and his wife Alexandra. The royal family hoped Rasputin would use his alleged powers to heal their son, who suffered from haemophilia.

He quickly became a powerful figure in the Romanov court and was even rumoured to be having an affair with Tsarina Alexander herself. Fearing Rasputin’s influence over the royal family, a group of nobles and right-wing politicians conspired to kill him.

First they poisoned Rasputin with cakes laced with cyanide, but these had no effect on the monk at all. Rasputin then calmly asked the nobles for some Madeira wine (which they also poisoned) and drank three full glasses.

When Rasputin still showed no signs of ill-health, the shocked nobles shot him in the chest with a revolver. Thinking him dead, they approached his body. Rasputin leapt up and attacked them, then fled into a palace courtyard. The nobles pursued him and shot him again, this time through the forehead.

The conspirators wrapped up Rasputin’s body and dropped it into a river, just to be certain they had finished the job.

2. Adolf Frederick, King of Sweden

Adolf Frederick was King of Sweden from 1751 to 1771, and is generally remembered as a weak but peaceful monarch. His lifelong passions included making snuffboxes and fine dining.

Frederick passed away on 12 February 1771 after consuming a particularly enormous meal. At this dinner he ate lobster, cavier, sauerkraut and kippers, all while drinking copious amounts of champagne. This was topped off with fourteen servings of his favourite desert, semla, a type of sweet bun which he liked served in hot milk.

This astonishing amount of food was enough to end the king’s life, and he remains one of the few rulers in history to have eaten himself to death.

3. Captain Edward Teach (Blackbeard)

‘Capture of the Pirate, Blackbeard’ by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris

Blackbeard’s fearsome reputation for robbery and violence has persisted for 300 years. He is famous for forming an alliance of pirates to blockade the port of Charles Town, ransoming its inhabitants.

On 21 November 1718 Lieutenant Robert Maynard of HMS Pearl launched a surprise attack against Blackbeard as he entertained guests aboard his ship. After a long struggle, Blackbeard was surrounded by Maynard’s men who began to shoot him and slash at him with their swords.

Blackbeard finally perished after sustaining an extraordinary number of injuries. An examination of his body showed he was shot five times and received twenty sword wounds. Equally shockingly, a letter was discovered on his corpse which showed the Governor of North Carolina was colluding with Blackbeard and his pirates.

4. Sigurd the Mighty

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Sigurd Eysteinsson was an Earl of Orkney in the 9th century. His deeds during the Viking conquest of Scotland earned him the epithet ‘the Mighty’. Sigurd’s unique death was caused by the tooth of a decapitated rival.

Near the end of his reign, Sigurd tricked and killed his enemy Mael Brigte, beheading his enemy’s corpse. He then tied Brigte’s head onto his saddle as a trophy.

As Sigurd rode off, Brigte’s tooth scratched the Viking’s leg, which became inflamed. Soon after, the scratch became a major infection which killed the Viking warlord.

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5. Pope Adrian IV

Born Nicholas Breakspear, Pope Adrian IV is the only Englishman ever to become pope.

When he died, Adrian was involved in a diplomatic struggle with the Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick I. Shortly before the Emperor could be excommunicated, Adrian perished while choking on a fly which was floating in his wine glass.

6. Attila the Hun

Attila the Hun built a vast empire for his people across Eurasia, and nearly brought both the Western and Eastern Roman Empires to their knees. Despite his successes as a warlord, Attila was killed by a nosebleed.

In 453 Attila held a feast to celebrate his latest marriage to a girl named Ildico. He had married countless other wives, but Ildico was renowned for her great beauty. He drank copious amounts of wine at the party, and when he passed out on his back in bed he suffered a heavy nosebleed.

Attila was unable to wake owing to his drunken stupor, and blood streamed down his throat and choked him to death.

7. Martin of Aragon

Martin of Aragon was King of Aragon from 1396 until he passed away in strange circumstances in 1410. Several reasons for his death have been recorded: one source states that he succumbed to the plague, others that he died of kidney failure or even poison.

Another famous account relates how Martin perished from indigestion and laughter. One night, the king was suffering from severe indigestion (after eating an entire goose) when his court jester entered the room.

Martin asked Borra the jester where he had been, and he replied with a joke about a deer he had seen in the vineyard. On hearing the quip, the sickly king died of laughter.

8. King Edward II

Infamous for his alleged homosexual relationship with Piers Gaveston, Edward II was forced to abdicate and was imprisoned in 1327. Edward’s death was surrounded by rumours. However, a common account which circulated among contemporary chroniclers was immortalised by the English playwright, Christopher Marlowe.

This story relates how Edward was pinned onto the ground by his assassins and a red-hot poker inserted into his anus.

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9. King Alexander I

Alexander was King of Greece from 1917 to 1920. He caused controversy during his life for his decision to marry a commoner, a Greek woman called Aspasia Manos.

While walking through the grounds of his palace, Alexander tried to stop his German Shepherd from attacking his steward’s pet monkey, a Barbary macaque. While doing so, Alexander was attacked by another monkey which bit him on the leg and torso.

His wounds were cleaned and dressed but not cauterised, and Alexander asked that the incident not be publicised. The monkey bite soon became severely infected and Alexander died five days later.

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10. Mary, Queen of Scots

Mary, Queen of Scots was sentenced to death after a letter emerged revealing a plot to murder her cousin Queen Elizabeth I

On 8 February 1587 Mary was led out to the execution block to be decapitated by a man named Bull and his assistant. Bull’s first blow missed Mary’s neck entirely and hit the back of her head. His second blow didn’t do much better, and Mary’s head remained attached to her body by a bit of sinew.

In the end, Bull used an axe to saw Mary’s head from her shoulders and held it aloft by the hair, with her lips still moving. Unfortunately, Mary’s hair was actually a wig, and her head tumbled to the ground. Adding to the strangeness of the execution, Mary’s dog chose this moment to poke out from beneath her skirts.

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