What makes a death truly, famously ridiculous? Is it some quality of exaggeration or grotesquery, some aspect that's gone weirdly wrong? Is it a twist of dark bad luck? Is it just something poetically appropriate — or a combination of all three? People have been arguing about this since humans first started dying in stupid ways; I guarantee there was a Most Ridiculous Times Hunters Have Been Bored By Mammoths list among at least one prehistoric tribe.For my money, stupidity isn't enough; to be truly ridiculous, a death has to be a combination of the tragic, the comic, and the unusual. The Darwin Awards celebrate humans shuffling off this mortal coil in downright daft ways, but this list celebrates the deaths of often perfectly intelligent people (geniuses and kings, in some examples) who just had to make things, well, weird.The other criterion? They had to be proved to be real. Which means that the highly apocryphal death of Greek playwright Aeschylus by having a tortoise dropped on his head is, regrettably, off the list.
Death By Over-ConfidenceA lot of rampaging generals probably meet their deaths in this manner, but John Sedgewick has gone down in history for his famous last words, which turned out to taunt death somewhat unwisely. During the American Civil War, the Union Army general was killed while leading troops at the Battle of Spotsylvania Court House.Striding out into heavy fire, he’s widely reported to have told his compatriots to stop flinching: “Why are you dodging like this? They couldn’t hit an elephant at this distance.”This over-confidence, however, killed him: a sniper promptly shot him dead with a bullet to the left side of the face.Image: Wikimedia Commons
Death By CaviarThe gluttony of royalty throughout history has been pretty stupendous — Henry VIII was famously extremely greedy, and many suffered gout from over-indulgence — but Adolf Frederick, who reigned as king of Sweden in the 1700s, appears to have genuinely killed himself via a single excessive meal. Historians report that in 1771 he ate a feast of caviar, lavish amounts of seafood and sauerkraut, and a mind-boggling 14 servings of semla, a bun soaked in warm milk.Image: Wikimedia Commons
Death By Politeness Brilliant Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe had an extraordinary life — as well as a ridiculous death. Working without a telescope, he established the positions of many stars and worked out the true nature of comets, and he also had a tame elk and a fake nose (he’d lost his own in a duel). His death, however, was a credit to his noble upbringing if not to his bladder.Brahe died after a banquet; it had previously been assumed that he was poisoned, but an analysis of his remains in 2010 found no remnants, indicating that the other suggestion was true: he’d held his bladder till it burst. Fellow astronomer Kepler wrote that at a banquet, Brahe had refused to leave the table to relieve himself, as it was impolite. Eleven days later, he was dead.Image: Wikimedia Commons
Death By Exhibit AClement Vallandigham had an excellent name, was an American Congressman, a fighter in the Civil War and, like many lawmakers in the early years of U.S. history, was a trained lawyer who earned his living from court cases on the side. Vallandigham won himself a place in the history books for reasons other than his patriotism, however, when he accidentally shot himself in court in 1871.The cause was an attempt to prove a point: Vallandigham was defending a murder suspect, and wished to point out that the victim could have shot himself accidentally.To demonstrate, he fired the murder weapon. However, it was still loaded, and Vallandigham was shot fatally in the bladder. The suspect was acquitted.Image: Wikimedia Commons.
Death By BeardThis story has been somewhat twisted since its first telling in the 16th century, but a few facts remain. A man named Hans Steininger was an Austrian burgher whose beard measured approximately 4.5 feet — he normally kept it in a leather pouch for safe-keeping.At one point, however, Steininger forgot to keep it rolled up, and the beard caught fire when a small fire broke out in Steininger’s house. He burned to death.Image: Wikimedia Commons
Death By Alarm ClockIf you’ve ever thought of jerry-rigging an elaborate system to wake you up in the morning utilizing water, a small mallet, and a neighbor’s cat … let this story convince you otherwise. A lamplighter in the 1880s in Flatbush, New York concocted his own waking-up system involving a clock, a wire, and a ten-pound stone.The problem? He had a party and moved his bed, then got drunk and put it back in the wrong place. The next morning, his head was crushed by his own waking-up device.Image: Wikimedia Commons
Death By Drowning In ClaretThis is slightly cheating, as it was a rumor of great import at the time of the man’s death, but it’s widely reported that George Plantagnet, the 1st Duke Of Clarence, died by execution in the Tower of London in 1478 by being drowned in a vat of claret wine.His execution was for treason, and the rumor seemed to have originated from the Duke’s own reported strangeness; it said that he’d asked to meet his maker in such a thoroughly pickled fashion.Image: Wikimedia Commons
Death By Being Trapped In The ClosetAnother English death, but this time not on purpose: in 1667, the poor James Betts, an utterly hapless suitor at Corpus Christi College in Cambridge, was concealed in a locked wardrobe by his lover, Elizabeth Spencer. She was worried that he’d be discovered by her dad, clergyman and master of the College John Spencer.She should, however, have been more concerned about James, as he died of asphyxiation, and Elizabeth herself committed suicide out of guilt. Both are now reputed to haunt Corpus Christi as ghosts, though you can take that one with a pinch of salt.Image: Wikimedia Commons
Death By ActingIn a situation frequently used to demonstrate the dangers of live television, an actor died during a live performance of a play in British television in 1958 — and the play carried on with the actors improvising around him.Gareth Jones, a young actor, died of a heart attack on the set of the play Underground and entered television legend by becoming the subject of one of the greatest improvisations ever seen. In a mark of extraordinary coincidence, the character Jones was playing was also meant to suffer from a heart attack.
Death By Knife-Wielding BirdThis one might make you feel a bit queasy, so stick with me: in 2011, a man in California died after a cockerel taking part in an illegal cock-fighting match stabbed him in the leg. With what? The knife that had been strapped to it for fighting.It’s reported that the man, Jose Luis Ochoa, suffered severe injuries when the cockerel, which he may have owned, gashed him in the right calf. Cock fighting is illegal in the U.S., but it’s common practice for fighting birds to be fitted with spurs or knives on their legs. (This has happened before: in the same year, an Indian man supposedly died after a rooster slashed its throat with razor blades, though that sounds suspiciously like murder concealed by chicken to me.) Karma’s a bÎtch.
Death By Office sèxWe don’t know exactly when the President of France, Felix Faure, died of apoplexy in 1899, but it was during an encounter best described as Clinton-esque, and paved the way for political sèx scandals for centuries to come. Faure died while having some kind of intercourse with a young woman in his presidential office.The ridiculous situation was only heightened by the fact that the act in question was possibly oral sèx, which the press thought was hilarious. (In case you’re wondering, the girlfriend went on to have affairs with other famous men, including the King of Cambodia, was put on trial for murdering her family, and married an English Peer.)Image: Wikimedia Commons
Death By ConductingJean-Baptiste Lully must surely be one of the only prominent musicians or composers in history who managed to accidentally kill himself with the tools of the trade; one doesn’t associate the concert pit with deadly disasters. But Lully managed it. A French composer who worked for French king Louis XIV, he killed himself by hitting himself in the foot with his conducting staff during a performance.In 1686, when this took place, conductors didn’t use tiny batons, but huge heavy staffs to keep time in concerts — and the blow’s wound developed gangrene. Having refused to have his leg amputated so that he could remain a dancer, Lully died in agony.Image: Wikimedia Commons