Passing Strange: 15 Of The Most Bizarre Author Deaths On Record

Why go gently into that good night like a sucker when you can go out in a Bon Jovian blaze of glory and be remembered forever? If you're a 16th century poet or an obscure opera critic, it might be your only chance at leaving a lasting legacy. And if you're already a canonical author, it doesn't hurt your street cred if you die in a fiery car wreck and people blame the KGB.

The authors on this list share a common bond; death was their final indignity. Many of these accounts already exist online, but I humbly submit that none are as colorful as my own. I made a conscious choice not to include any of the famous suicides- Virginia Woolf putting rocks in her pockets, Sylvia Plath putting her head in the oven, Hemingway putting buckshot in his brain- so no need to point out their absence. I was more interested in the accidental, the grotesque, the downright kooky. And I think these 15 deaths more than fit those criteria.


EDGAR ALLAN POE (1809 - 1849)

The only thing more mysterious than Poe's stories were the circumstances of his untimely death. Details are sketchy at best, but what we do know is he was found wandering the streets of Maryland like Grandpa Off His Meds and taken to the hospital by some dude named Joseph W. Walker. (There is no credence to the popular claim that Poe was found swan-dived in the gutter like a common snipe, but it does make for a better story.)

Word was sent to the unfortunately named Dr. Snodgrass, who, along with Poe's Uncle, whisked the wordsmith off to the hospital for a nice recoup. They presumed the man soused, but after a few additional days of semiconscious incoherence, it became clear that Poe had health issues of a more serious nature. This was confirmed on the morning of October the 7th, 1849, when he died.

But no one knows why he died. There is no death certificate on file, and the only known obit lists the cause of death as "congestion of the brain." His passing is most commonly attributed to alcoholism, but many feel his drinking only exacerbated a more serious medical condition such as diabetes, TB, epilepsy, or rabies (!).

The strangest theory by far claims that Poe was a victim of cooping, a practice in which corrupt electioneers would abduct voters, ply them with drink, and force them to vote for a specific candidate. The tell-tale evidence supporting this theory is that when Walker found Poe, the author was in clothes not his own. This was a common occurrence in cases of cooping, as coopers would dress and redress coopees to get multiple votes out of them.

Unfortunately, due to the mishandling of Poe's biography over the years, these theories are all impossible to prove.

 

TENNESSEE WILLIAMS (1911 - 1983)

The Pulitzer Prize winning author of A Streetcar Named Desire was also a Pulitzer Prize winning substance abuser. Yet somehow, he managed to live until the ripe old age of 71, when he choked to death on the cap of a bottle of eye drops. And these were eye drops he used all the time. I guess it's true what they say- it's always the ones closest to you.

How did the cap get lodged in his throat? Did he forgot to take it off the bottle before dangling it over his face? Did he think it was a breath mint? We will never know, but due to the large number of inebriants in his system, he had the gag reflex of a porn star and couldn't choke the damn thing up to save his life. Literally.

 

ALBERT CAMUS (1913 - 1960)

Most arm chair scholars know that Camus died in a car crash at the tender age of 46. But what a lot of people don't know is that said car crash was caused by the KGB.

Allegedly.

Camus and his family were set to travel from Provence to Paris via train, but Camus' publisher and friend, Michel Gallimard, wanted a little QT and convinced the author to drive back with him instead. At some point, Gallimard lost the battle for control of the car to an icy road and plowed head-first into a tree. Camus was killed instantly, his unused train ticket still in his pocket.  An unfinished manuscript, The First Man, was found in the wreckage and posthumously published in 1995.

The absurdist author rested in peace for 51 years, until a Milanese newspaper reported that the KGB had snuffed him out for talking out of school. Some I-talian poet heard it from a friend who, heard it from a friend who, heard it from a friend that the sensitive Soviets didn't take kindly to Camus' badmouthing of communism. It is an interesting theory, but one that is widely regarded as silliness.

 

AESCHYLUS (525/524 - 456/455 BC)

Aeschylus was a real dude? I thought he was that flying dog-dragon from The NeverEnding Story.

Either way, his death sounds made up, and is most likely apocryphal. According to untrustworthy ancient sources, the father of Greek tragedy's tragic death involved an eagle, a turtle, and an unprotected pate. You know how seagulls drop clams on rocks to crack them open? Well, back in the day, eagles used to do the same thing with turtles, because how else were they going to get to that tasty cooter meat?

Anyways, the story goes, Old Man Aeschylus was taking a leisurely stroll around Sicily, when a hungry eagle mistook his dome-piece for a walking rock and BOMBS AWAY! Boy, that eagle had good aim. Conspiracy theorists claim that the eagle was hired by a jealous Sophocles to bump Aeschylus off, but there is even less evidence to support that than there is for this story having actually happening.

 

CHRISTOPHER MARLOWE (1564 - 1593)

Despite dressing like a more foppish version of Shakespeare, this 16th century poet/playwright was kind of a badass. After a long day of drinking and probably a beer pong tournament or seven, he got into an argument with one of his frat buddies over a bar tab. So, like any civilized gentlemen of letters, they resorted to childish name calling. When that didn't solve the problem, the two began to tussle, which ended with Marlowe's buddy STABBING MARLOWE IN THE FACE. I mean, I've had some arguments over bills, and maybe even wished death on a cheapskate or two, but I always, ALWAYS, suppress my desire to face-stab in those situations. Always.

 

DANTE (1265 - 1321)

Dante died of what was considered natural causes back in 1321- malaria. Nothing out of the ordinary there. It was after his death that shit got cray-cray and the Divine Comedy really began.

His body was buried in Ravenna, but then his home town of Florence, which had excommunicated him and sentenced him to death should he ever return, was all like, "that corpse belongs to us!" So to prevent the Florentines from digging up and absconding with Dante's remains, church officials instituted a preemptive exhumation, bricked the corpse up in a wall, and promptly forgot about it.

Over 500 years later, the church finally decided to move forward with the renovations they always wanted, and Dante's bones were found once again. And then they were stolen, because by then he was a superstar and everyone in town wanted a piece of him. Certain guilty parties returned the pilfered parts, but many did not. Some rich family in Italy has probably been passing them down, generation to generation, along with all of that stolen artwork and Nazi gold.

 

DAN ANDERSSON (1888 - 1920)

You New Yorkers think bed bugs are a problem now? Try living in Stockholm in the 1920's. Back then, it wasn't all bug-sniffing puppies and harmless cryonization- they fumigated that shit with lethal doses of cyanide. So next time you want to complain because housekeeping didn't leave you fresh towels, remember poor Dan Andersson, the Swedish poet who perished because the front desk forgot to inform him that they were going to turn his room into a gas chamber.

Maybe it was for the best. I had no idea who Andersson was before this article, but I sure as shit do now.

 

SHERWOOD ANDERSON (1876 - 1941)

No relation to Dan, this is another one for the "I would have never heard of him if it weren't for his bizarre death" files. Supposedly this guy influenced such greats as Hemingway, Faulkner, Salinger and Fitzgerald, but all he's really remembered for is dying of peritonitis of the colon after swallowing a toothpick. I bet he and Tennessee Williams had a good laugh over that in Writers' Heaven.

 

PERCY BYSSHE SHELLEY (1792 -1822)

To quote Killface (Frisky Dingo) after quoting Shelley:

Killface: Oh, God. You don't think it's copyrighted?

Trent and/or Brent: What?

Killface: The Shelley?

Trent and/or Brent: Who?

Killface: "Ozymandias," the poem by Shelley.

Trent and/or Brent: Who, that receptionist chick? Depends when she wrote it.

Killface: Shelley was a man, you philistine. Cheesy crust, where did you go to school?

Don't you worry, Killface, The Complete Poetical Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley is public domain and available for free on Project Steve Guttenberg. But I was wondering, are you familiar with the odd circumstances of his cremation, following his death at sea? Apparently he had a calcified heart, because the damn thing just wouldn't burn. I imagine this was very traumatizing for all those present, especially his widow, Frankenstein author Mary Shelley. But not so traumatizing that she didn't graciously accept when some over-eager suitor tried to catch her on the rebound by snatching it out of the fire and giving it to her as a gift. Rumor has it she kept the crumbling memento in her writing desk. It is not known whether this got said suitor laid.

 

JULIEN OFFRAY DE LA METTRIE (1709 - 1751)

Look at this guy's face. Don't you just want to punch him?

Despite being a physician and a philosopher, this celebrator of sensual pleasures was a bigger hedonist than Hedonism Bot himself. His biggest claim to fame was writing the materialist screed, L'homme Machine, which denied the existence of the soul, but his gluttonous death runs a close second.

Mettrie had cured some ambassador of some minor ailment, and in return the ambassador threw an all-out rager in his honor. In a misguided attempt to prove his manliness, Mettrie decided to ingest copious amounts of pâte de faisan aux truffes, which made him delirious like Eddie Murphy. He mumbled something about washing his dick in the sink and then dropped dead from indigestion.

 

FRANCIS BACON (1561 - 1626)

Esteemed philosopher and author, Francis Bacon, had a delicious name. So it is only fitting that his death somehow involved food.

Technically, he died of pneumonia, but the reason he caught it is another matter entirely. You see, in addition to being a philosopher and writer, Bacon was also a man of science. And a gourmand. And it was on a snowy trip to Highgate that he combined these two passions.

Bacon got it into his head that if you stuffed a pheasant full of snow, it would help preserve the meat. So he procured a winged beast, had it cleaned, and proceeded to prance around in the whiteness like a kid off of school. A few days later, he was dead. He never even got to enjoy the fowls of his labor.

 

GUSTAV KOBBE (1857 - 1918)

Nobody likes a critic, especially an opera critic. And let's face it- nobody really likes opera. At least not anymore. Maybe back in the day you could afford a sweet sailing vessel on a music journalist's salary, but not in these economic times. Now that every Johnny Hunt-and-Peck can belabor their opinions ad nauseam on the internet, professional music criticism is fast becoming obsolete. 

And maybe it's for the best. You wouldn't want to get squashed by a seaplane while you were tooling around the waterways of Strong Island, like our dear Gustav did. An errant aircraft landed right on top of him while he was sunbathing. In the nude. The pilot just so happened to be a drunken senator of some repute.

Alright, I added those last two bits to spice things up. All I know is it should have been a young rock journalist named Cameron Crowe instead. Poor Gustav deserved better, and the world would be a happier place without Almost Famous.

 

LI BAI aka LI PO (701 - 762)

This is another one for the apocrypha.

Considered one of the great Chinese poets of the appropriately titled Tang Dynasty, Li Bai was notorious for loving wine, women, and song. So much so, in fact, that tradition dictates he drowned while drunkenly trying to embrace the moon's reflection in the water, which is a nicer way of saying he tried to fuck it. That giant porcelain orb must have resembled the powdered face of a Chinese courtesan, or her pallid posterior, and Lord knows the water was wet enough to give the impression of desire, so off the poet went, cock first into death. I can only hope my own death will be as sweet.

 

MARK TWAIN (1835 - 1910)

The crazy thing about Mark Twain's death is that he predicted it. The most notorious N-bomb dropper this side of Michael Richards was born in 1835, the year of the final 19th century apparition of Halley's Comet. The author felt such a kinship with the celestial body that he wanted his death to coincide with it as well, like some sort of Heaven's Gate cultist. But Twain's reasoning wasn't about religion or aliens; he just wanted to be dead with his friends. He is quoted as saying:

"I came in with Halley's Comet in 1835. It is coming again next year, and I expect to go out with it. It will be the greatest disappointment of my life if I don't go out with Halley's Comet. The Almighty has said, no doubt: 'Now here are these two unaccountable freaks; they came in together, they must go out together."

His prophetic declaration proved true, and not because of suicide (I told you there were no suicides on this list. If the Catholics won't let you into heaven if you take your own life, then I won't let you on my list out of protest!). Twain died of a heart attack on April 21st, 1910, a day after the comet's closest proximity to Earth.

 

JESUS H. CHRIST

(according to Wikipedia: 7-2 BC/BCE - 30-36 AD/CE, but how can Christ have been born Before Christ?!?! He truly is the King of Kings!)

Along with his father, dude (Holy) ghost wrote what could be considered the most important work of fiction of all time: The Bible. Not only that, he was killed before the book was even finished, and came back from the dead to give it a final polish. Then he ascended to heaven and continued to revise. You have to admire that kind of work ethic. Even if you think it's unfair that his dad got him his publishing deal, Jesus' discipline as a writer is something we can all aspire to.


BIBLIOGRAPHY

The Mysterious Death of Edgar Allan Poe

 Albert Camus Might Have Been Killed By The KGB For Criticising the Soviet Union, Claims Newspaper

9 Amazing Writers and Their Strange Deaths

Death and Authors: The 12 Weirdest Stories

The Almighty Wikipedia

The Holy Bible

Jacey Cockrobin

Column by Joshua Chaplinsky

Joshua Chaplinsky is the Managing Editor of LitReactor.com. He has also written for the popular film site Screen Anarchy and for ChuckPalahniuk.net, the official website of 'Fight Club' author Chuck Palahniuk. He is the author of 'Kanye West—Reanimator.' His short fiction has appeared in Zetetic, Motherboard, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Thuglit, Dark Moon Digest, Pantheon Magazine, and multiple print anthologies. More info at joshuachaplinsky.com.

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Comments

waitwaitwhat's picture
waitwaitwhat June 27, 2012 - 10:30am

Sorry to rain on your parade, but the bible is composed of rather a lot of books books written by several different different authors, not a single one of whom was Jesus.

Jane Wiseman's picture
Jane Wiseman from Danville Virginia is reading News of the World, by Paulette Jiles June 27, 2012 - 10:33am

No, really? Sherwood Anderson? Winesburg,, Ohio? Ars longa not.

Joshua Chaplinsky's picture
Joshua Chaplinsky from New York is reading A lot of Brian Evenson June 27, 2012 - 10:43am

@waitwhat: I hope you don't take the Bible as literally as you took what was obviously a joke.

@Jane: Yup, that's the one.

Fred Laheeb's picture
Fred Laheeb June 27, 2012 - 10:53am

Wow, I'm sure there's a broomstick suicide death out there somehwere.

Domonkoz's picture
Domonkoz is reading Independence Day, Richard Ford June 27, 2012 - 11:03am

Interesting list.  Had not heard the "cooping" theory on Poe till now, very odd.  Killing Poe was probably like killing a snowman in summer, as in something that could be done quite easily.  Also interesting to note that Camus held the Nobel Prize for the shortest amount of time, having received it shortly before his death.  He may still be the youngest to receive the prestigious award too.  I would put "literary jelousy" far ahead of any communist plot.  He won it at the age of 44, but I'm sure Justin Bieber or Taylor Swift will dethrone him soon with some literary masterpeice and renowned bestseller...

 

shellypeligre's picture
shellypeligre from New York, United States is reading Faces of Fear June 27, 2012 - 11:51am

Sherwood Anderson's "Winesburg Ohio" is rightfully considered one of the greatest novels in American literature. Anderson was far from a trivial writer.

Pretty Spry for a Dead Guy's picture
Pretty Spry for... from I'd prefer it if you didn't know. So would you, only you don't know it. is reading whatever he makes time for this week June 27, 2012 - 12:11pm

This article was a scream, but it really needed more proofreading before being posted. Improper verbs, excessive commas, etc.

Linus Lindell's picture
Linus Lindell June 27, 2012 - 2:20pm

Nice to see Dan Andersson in the list! He actually died at Hotell Svea in the small seaside resort of Simrishamn in Southern Sweden. Andersson's death, caused by the hotel staff, is nowadays the main selling point for a stay at that hotel.

Jane Wiseman's picture
Jane Wiseman from Danville Virginia is reading News of the World, by Paulette Jiles June 27, 2012 - 6:05pm

It's a short story collection, but yes, it is, and I was making a feeble gesture toward sarcasm

Karl McGowan's picture
Karl McGowan from Dublin, Ireland is reading Too many to keep track of... June 28, 2012 - 6:04am

No mention of Dylan Thomas?  Legend has it that he dropped dead after drinking eigthteen straight whiskeys at the White Horse Tavern, New York.  In truth Thomas contracted a lung infection and died from pneumonia.

Isaac Kirkman's picture
Isaac Kirkman July 31, 2012 - 9:04am

Donald Goines belongs on the list. From Wikipedia: 

 

Goines and his common-law wife were shot to death in Detroit on the night of October 21, 1974. According to some sources, Goines was gunned down over a failed drug deal.[4] But it is popularly believed that he was murdered by neighborhood criminals who objected to characters and storylines that they thought were based on themselves and thus clues to their identities and crimes. The identity of the killer or killers remains unknown.

John Marin's picture
John Marin December 24, 2014 - 1:36am

I knew these deaths already, but thank you for making these strange deaths stranger than they should be, especially Li Po's.

Jessica Burke Anthony Burdge's picture
Jessica Burke A... June 19, 2015 - 11:09am

Great list.  One thing you missed with Marlowe was the idea-- conspiracy theory or not-- that he was a spy for Queen Elizabeth I and the "bar brawl" was the cover for an assassination. Then the actual Marlowe conspiracy folks who believe that his death was faked so he could take on the name of William Shakespeare and the rest is made-up "history."

Or ol Will who died after a drinking binge-- but that's sort of tame in comparison.

Still-- hilarous list. Thanks!!