Celts killed each other. During the Iron Age, they’d stab, bludgeon, hang, and strangle their victims, then dump them in the sphagnum bogs that dot Northern Europe, sometimes with the ropes still around their necks.
We know this because the acidity of the bog water, the cold temperature, and the lack of oxygen have effectively prevented these corpses from decomposing. More than 700 bodies have been recovered, some as old as 10,000 years and some still appearing fresh enough to be mistaken for recent murder victims.
The “Grauballe Man,” above, was found in 1952 by a Dane digging for peat. His throat was cut in 290 B.C., but his body was well enough preserved to yield fingerprints. Why was he killed? Maybe ritual, maybe execution for a crime, maybe human sacrifice. Here’s one odd clue: Judging from their nutrition and manicures, the bodies appear consistently to have been from the upper classes.
“The greatest smoker in Europe died at Rotterdam, and left behind him the most curious of wills. He expresses the wish in his last testament that all the smokers of the country be invited to attend his obsequies, and that they smoke while following in the funeral cortege. He directs that his body be placed in a coffin, which shall be lined with wood taken from old Havana cigar boxes. At the foot of his bier, tobacco, cigars, and matches are to be placed. And the epitaph which he requests shall be placed upon his tombstone is as follows:
The Greatest Smoker in Europe.
He Broke His Pipe
July 4, 1872.
Mourned by his family and
all tobacco merchants.
STRANGER, SMOKE FOR HIM!
– Charles Bombaugh, Facts and Fancies for the Curious From the Harvest-Fields of Literature, 1905
Sorry about the photo. It’s a dog’s head, kept alive in the 1940s by an experimental Soviet device called an autojector, which pumped oxygenated blood through it. Reportedly this kept the head alive for hours — it would cock its ears at sounds and lick its chops when citric acid was smeared on them.
That ain’t all. If you believe the 1940 film Experiments in the Revival of Organisms, Soviet scientist Sergei S. Bryukhonenko drained the blood from a dog until it reached clinical death, left it in that state for 15 minutes, then connected it to the autojector. In the film, the heart and lungs resume functioning, and 12 hours later the dog is reported to be on its feet, barking and wagging its tail.
Is all this for real? The film’s authenticity is debated — some say it may show re-enactments rather than authentic experiments — but the research itself was well documented, leading eventually to modern heart-lung machines and a posthumous Lenin Prize for Bryukhonenko.
Canny sheep sometimes resist going down the slaughterhouse ramp to their deaths. So workers sometimes train a goat to go down first, triggering the herding instinct and solving the problem. The goat isn’t harmed and can be used over and over for this purpose.
It’s called a judas goat.
In 1897, testimony from a ghost helped to convict a murderer. Zona Heaster Shue’s death was presumed to be natural until her mother claimed that her ghost had visited her on four successive nights and described how she had been murdered by her husband, Edward. When Zona’s body was exhumed, her neck was found broken, and a jury convicted Edward of murder.
That may be the last U.S. case of “spectral evidence,” but it’s not the first. During the Salem witch trials, if a witness testified that “Goody Proctor bit, pinched, and almost choked me” in a vision or dream, this would be accepted as evidence even if Proctor was known to have been elsewhere at the time.
“Justice has nothing to do with what goes on in a courtroom,” wrote Clarence Darrow. “Justice is what comes out of a courtroom.”
Another case of man’s inhumanity to elephants. Don’t even read this one. Seriously.
In 1826, the owners of a London menagerie decided to kill Chunee, their 5-ton Indian elephant. The animal had been docile for years — Lord Byron said “I wish he was my butler” — but he grew violent toward the end of his life, perhaps aggravated by pain from a rotten tusk. When, on a rampage, he killed one of his keepers, it was decided he was too dangerous to keep.
Unfortunately, Chunee wouldn’t eat poison. So a group of musketeers were summoned to his cage, a trusted keeper ordered him to kneel, and the soldiers began to fire volleys into his chest and legs. This continued for more than an hour, during which one witness reported that the sound of the elephant’s “agony had been much more alarming than that made by the soldier’s guns.” Even with 152 musketballs in him, the elephant continued to live, kneeling in a cage full of blood, so they had to dispatch him, finally, with a sword.
News of the slaughter inspired numerous poems and even a successful play, but owner Edward Cross sought a profit even in the animal’s death. He charged a shilling to see the body dissected; he sold the hide (which took nine butchers 12 hours to remove); and he put Chunee’s skeleton on display in his old cage — with the bullet holes in his skull clearly visible.
What do Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, and Kurt Cobain have in common?
Each was an influential rock musician who had a meteoric rise to fame cut short by a drug-related death at age 27.
Also dead at 27: Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones, Peter Ham of Badfinger, “Pigpen” McKernan of the Grateful Dead, Gary Thain of Uriah Heep, Alan Wilson of Canned Heat, Jeremy Ward of The Mars Volta, Dave Alexander of the Stooges … and Joseph Merrick, the Elephant Man, for whatever that’s worth.
In the 1850s, a girl contracted diphtheria while visiting Edisto Island, S.C. Amid fears of an outbreak, she was pronounced dead and hastily interred in a local mausoleum:
Some days afterwards, when the grave in which she had been placed was opened for the reception of another body, it was found that the clothes which covered the unfortunate woman were torn to pieces, and that she had even broken her limbs in attempting to extricate herself from the living tomb. The Court, after hearing the case, sentenced the doctor who had signed the certificate of decease, and the Major who had authorized the interment each to three month’s imprisonment for involuntary manslaughter.
(Reported in the British Medical Journal, 1877)
Anton Bruckner died after writing his ninth symphony. So did Beethoven, Schubert, and Dvořák. In the 19th century, a superstition arose that a quick death awaited anyone who wrote nine symphonies.
Arnold Schoenberg wrote: “It seems that the ninth is a limit. He who wants to go beyond it must pass away. It seems as if something might be imparted to us in the Tenth which we ought not yet to know, for which we are not ready. Those who have written a Ninth stood too close to the hereafter.”
Mahler figured he could escape the curse with a decoy: When he finished his ninth, he retitled it “The Song of the Earth” and wrote a second “ninth” symphony. When nothing happened, he told his wife “the danger is past,” started a new work — and died.
If you wanted a sucky job in 1898, you couldn’t do much worse than the Tsavo River project in Kenya. The work crew was assembled to build a railway bridge, but it quickly turned into a lion smorgasbord.
Men were regularly dragged out of their tents at night and devoured. The predators evaded traps, ambushes and even thorn fences, but after 10 months engineer John Henry Patterson managed to kill these two enormous maneless lions. By that time they had killed nearly 140 men between them.
And why? Apparently the flesh of railroad workers has a particular savor. The pair had got a taste for it in raiding shallow graves; when they ran out of graves they started going after live game.
Top 10 longest-lived U.S. presidents:
- Ronald Reagan: 93 years, 120 days
- Gerald Ford: (still living, age 93)
- John Adams: 90 years, 247 days
- Herbert Hoover: 90 years, 71 days
- Harry Truman: 88 years, 232 days
- James Madison: 85 years, 104 days
- Thomas Jefferson: 83 years, 82 days
- George H.W. Bush: (still living, age 82)
- Jimmy Carter: (still living, age 81)
- Richard Nixon: 81 years, 103 days
If Ford is still alive on Nov. 12 this year, he’ll take the record.
Uninspired last words:
- “Wait a minute …” — Pope Alexander VI
- “Am I dying, or is this my birthday?” — Nancy, Lady Astor, on seeing her family at her bedside
- “I live!” — Caligula, as he was being murdered by his own soldiers
- “Lady, you shot me!” — Sam Cooke, after being shot in a hotel room
- “That guy’s got to stop. … He’ll see us.” — James Dean, before a car accident
- “I’d hate to die twice. It’s so boring.” — Richard Feynman
- “I think I’m going to make it!” — murderer Richard Loeb, after being slashed 90 times with a razor
- “Die, my dear? Why that’s the last thing I’ll do!” — Groucho Marx
- “I’m all right.” — H.G. Wells
On his deathbed Stan Laurel said, “I wish I were skiing.” His nurse said, “Oh, Mr. Laurel, do you ski?” Laurel replied, “No, but I’d rather be skiing than doing what I’m doing.”
Inventors killed by their own inventions:
- According to the Bible, Haman was hanged by the gallows he invented.
- William Bullock (1813-1837) was crushed to death while trying to fix a rotary printing press he’d invented.
- Otto Lilienthal died in 1896 after a crash in one of his hang gliders.
- Thomas Midgley Jr. strangled in the cord of a pulley-operated mechanical bed he’d designed in 1944.
- Alexander Bogdanov, a Russian physician, died when he accepted a “rejuvenating” transfusion of blood infected with malaria and tuberculosis.
And Jim Fixx, author of The Complete Book of Running, died of a heart attack while jogging.
Stereocard of no man’s land near Lens, France, during World War I.
Just as I was beginning to forget there were such things as trenches and shrapnel and snipers, they told me a horrible story of two Camerons who got stuck in the mud and sucked down to their shoulders. They took an hour and a half getting one out, and just as they said to the other, “All right, Jock, we’ll have you out in a minute,” he threw back his head and laughed, and in doing so got sucked right under, and is there still. They said there was no sort of possibility of getting him out; it was like a quicksand. …
They told me another story of a man in the Royal Scots who was sunk in mud up to his shoulders, and the officer offered a canteen of rum and a sovereign to the first man who could get him out. For five hours thirteen men were digging for him, but it filled up always as they dug, and when they got him out he died.
– Anonymous, Diary of a Nursing Sister on the Western Front, 1914-1915
Colorful New York gang names, 1825-1920:
- Baxter Street Dudes
- Car Barn Gang
- Corcoran’s Roosters
- Crazy Butch Gang
- Daybreak Boys
- Forty Little Thieves
- Gas House Gang
- Gopher Gang
- Hudson Dusters
- Humpty Jackson Gang
- Italian Dave Gang
- Mandelbaum Gang
- Squab Wheelman Gang
- Yakey Yakes
Slobbery Jim of the Daybreak Boys cut Patsy the Barber’s throat in a fight over 12 cents in 1853. He later rose to the rank of captain in the Confederate army.
Bela Lugosi was buried in a cape.
Countries with highest suicide rates (totals per 100,000 people per year, as of June 2006):
- Lithuania: 42.1
- Russian Federation: 38.7
- Belarus: 35.1
- Kazakhstan: 28.8
- Slovenia: 28.1
- Hungary: 27.7
- Estonia: 27.3
- Ukraine: 26.1
- Latvia: 26.0
- Japan: 23.8
The U.S. is ranked number 45.
Bob Marley was buried with a guitar, a soccer ball, a bud of marijuana, and a Bible.
The “Hollywood sign” started as an advertisement for a housing development in the 1920s, but a deeper symbolism soon became clear.
In 1932, actress Peg Entwistle committed suicide by jumping to her death from the letter “H”.
Actors who appeared in The Conqueror (1956) and subsequently died of cancer:
- John Wayne
- Susan Hayward
- Agnes Moorehead
- Pedro Armendáriz
- Chief Tahachee
- Dick Powell
The movie, in which Wayne played Genghis Khan, was shot in St. George, Utah, downwind of Nevada open-air nuclear testing, and producer Howard Hughes had 60 tons of dirt shipped back to Hollywood for use in reshoots.
By 1981, 91 of the 220 cast and crew had developed some form of cancer, and more than half of them were already dead.
“With these numbers, this case could qualify as an epidemic,” said University of Utah biologist Robert Pendleton. “In a group this size you’d expect only 30-some cancers to develop. … I think the tie-in to their exposure on the set of The Conqueror would hold up in a court of law.”
Franz Reichelt dreamed big. In 1911 the Austrian tailor designed a garment that he hoped would serve as a combination overcoat/parachute. Never one for half measures, he tested it by leaping from the Eiffel Tower.
The sad/romantic results were caught on film, including Reichelt’s long hesitation on the brink, his fatal fall and a measurement of the hole he left behind.
“If you’re not failing every now and again,” said Woody Allen, “it’s a sign you’re not doing anything very innovative.”
The first known serial killer was actually a woman, known as Locusta, a professional poisoner who lived in Rome during the first century A.D.
In 54, she killed the Emperor Claudius with a poisoned dish of mushrooms, and the following year she was convicted of a separate poisoning. Hearing of this, Nero rescued her from execution — so she could poison Britannicus for him.
They made a good partnership, Nero guaranteeing her safety during his lifetime, but when he died the Romans took an awful revenge. According to legend, Locusta was publicly raped by a specially trained giraffe, then torn apart by wild animals. Talk about cruel and unusual.
Poet Charles Bukowski’s gravestone reads “Don’t Try.”
Writers who committed suicide:
- John Berryman
- Hart Crane
- Will Cuppy
- William Inge
- Arthur Koestler
- Jerzy Kosinski
- Primo Levi
- Vachel Lindsay
- Sylvia Plath
- Anne Sexton
- Hunter S. Thompson
- John Kennedy Toole
- Virginia Woolf
“The real reason for not committing suicide,” wrote Hemingway, “is because you always know how swell life gets again after the hell is over.” He killed himself in 1961.