Darwin’s Revenge


Some kings expire in bed. Some die gloriously in battle.

Alexander of Greece was bitten to death by monkeys.

He was walking in the royal garden in October 1920 when a monkey attacked his dog. He fought it off with a stick, suffering only a wound on the hand, but the monkey’s mate rushed in and gave him a much more severe bite. He died of blood poisoning three weeks later.

Alexander’s exiled father returned and led the nation into a bloody war with Turkey. “It is perhaps no exaggeration,” wrote Winston Churchill, “to remark that a quarter of a million persons died of this monkey’s bite.”

See “Monkeys Demanding Their Dead.”

Home Is the Sailor

A building curiously arranged to resemble the hull of a ship, the rooms of which were made to look like its cabins, used to be pointed out for many years in Wandsworth. Upon the top of it a small room, or rather turret, used to attract special attention, for it contained the corpse of its builder and former owner, an eccentric old sailor, whose will made it a condition of inheritance that his body should be buried on what he called ‘the deck’ of his ship-house. The house was pulled down by a railway company about 1860.

The World of Wonders, 1883


Epitaph on a Florentine tombstone of 1318:

Here lies Salvino Armolo D’Armati,
of Florence,
the inventor of spectacles.
May God pardon his sins!

From Walter Henry Howe, “Here Lies,” 1900

Physical Education

At Bradford, England, a girl, aged 16, met death in an extraordinary manner. While in the playground of her school she was caught by a veritable tornado which carried her into the air. … [A] witness who was waiting for a car in front of the school said he saw the girl in the air, her skirts blown out like a baloon. She was 25 to 30 feet in the air, just above the school balcony (the latter, the coroner remarked, was 20 feet high). … The physician who was called found the girl unconscious and pulseless, suffering from severe concussion of the brain and compound fractures of the lower jaw, right arm, wrist and thigh. It appeared that she was wearing a pair of bloomers with an ordinary skirt but without petticoats. The jury returned a verdict of ‘died as the result of a fall caused by a sudden gust of wind.’

Journal of the American Medical Association, quoted in Medical Sentinel, June 1911

05/24/2010 I’ve found some confirmation of this in William Corliss, Tornados, Dark Days, Anomalous Precipitation, 1983:

“February 25, 1911. Bradford, England. A letter to the editor called the report of a girl being killed by a gust of wind preposterous and asked for an investigation. The editor replied: ‘Acting on this suggestion, we communicated with Mr. H. Lander, the rainfall observer at Lister Park, Bradford, who kindly sent us a copy of the Yorkshire Observer for February 25th, in which there was a fairly full report of the inquest on the school-girl who was undoubtedly killed by a fall from a great height in an extremely exposed playground during very gusty weather. One witness saw the girl enter the playground from the school at 8.40 a.m., and saw her carried in three minutes later. Another witness saw the girl in the air parallel with the balcony of the school 20 feet above the ground, her arms extended, and her skirts blown out like a balloon. He saw her fall with a crash. The jury found a verdict, ‘Died as the result of a fall caused by a sudden gust of wind.'”

He cites Godden, William; “The Tale of — a Gust,” Symons’s Meteorological Magazine, 46:54, 1911.

Dead Letters

Spiritualist Ludwig von Guldenstubbe had a no-nonsense approach to communicating with the dead — he left paper and pencil for them in Paris churches and cemeteries.

He got only a few scrawls at first, but apparently word spread through the underworld, and soon more illustrious correspondents turned up. In August 1856 von Guldenstubbe produced the signatures of the emperor Augustus and of Julius Caesar, collected at their statues in the Louvre:


He also received writings from Abélard, who wrote in bad Latin, and Héloïse, in modern French — evidently she’s been taking correspondence courses since the 12th century.

Sadly, it appears that death spoils one’s penmanship — here are writing samples from Louise de La Vallière, the repentant mistress of Louis XIV, before (top) and after dying:


Perhaps that’s understandable, given the circumstances.

In the 10 months between August 1856 and June 1857, von Guldenstubbe says he got more than 500 specimens this way, in the company of more than 50 witnesses — but somehow no one has ever duplicated his results.

The Sedgwick Pie

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Most graves in Massachusetts’ Stockbridge Cemetery are oriented with the feet facing east, so that on Resurrection Day the dead will rise facing Jerusalem.

Not so the Sedgwick family — patriarch Theodore Sedgwick ordered that his family’s graves form a circle with their feet toward the center. This way, on Judgment Day, Sedgwicks will see only other Sedgwicks.

It’s been called “the laughingstock of the entire Eastern seaboard.”


Grave inscription of a horse thief:

He found a rope and picked it up,
And with it walked away.
It happened that to other end
A horse was hitched, they say.

They took the rope and tied it up
Unto a hickory limb.
It happened that the other end
Was somehow hitched to him.

From Frederic William Unger, Epitaphs, 1904

Last Out

Image: Wikimedia Commons

On Aug. 11, 1978, English medical photographer Janet Parker fell ill with muscle pain, headache, and a rash.

She had often used the darkroom on the upper floor of the University of Birmingham Medical School in Edgbaston.

On the lower floor was a research lab where a live smallpox virus was being grown.

Parker was diagnosed with the disease two weeks later, and she died on Sept. 11. That makes her the last human being on earth to die of smallpox, the only infectious disease we have completely eradicated.

A Bad Night

Description of the bed chamber of countess Cornelia Bandi as discovered by her maid one morning in 1731, reprinted in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, 1745:

Four feet distance from the bed there was a heap of ashes, 2 legs untouched, from the foot to the knee, with their stockings on: between them was the lady’s head: whose brains, half of the back part of the skull, and the whole chin, were burnt to ashes; among which were found 3 fingers blackened. All the rest was ashes, which had this particular quality, that they left in the hand, when taken up, a greasy and stinking moisture.

… The bed received no damage; the blankets and sheets were only raised on one side, as when a person rises up from it, or goes in; the whole furniture, as well as the bed, was spread over with moist and ash-coloured soot, which had penetrated into the chest-of-drawers, even to foul the linens; nay the soot was also gone into a neighbouring kitchen, and hung on the walls, moveables, and utensils of it. From the pantry a piece of bread covered with that soot, and grown black, was given to several dogs, which refused to eat it.

“It is impossible that by any accident the lamp should have caused such a conflagration,” remarks the correspondent. “There is no room to suppose any supernatural cause. The likeliest cause then is a flash of lightning.”



In 1981, wildlife photographer Carl McCunn paid a bush pilot to drop him near the Coleen River in northern Alaska. He thought he’d arranged for the pilot to pick him up again.

He hadn’t.

State troopers found his body the following year. He had tried to winterize his tent, then shot himself in the head. A 100-page diary read, “I think I should have used more foresight about arranging my departure.”