originally published May 5, 2014
There are souls who live lives of absolute anonymity, only to achieve the briefest flicker of fame through their final moments on the planet. For all the millions who have succumbed to heart disease, auto accidents and auto-erotic asphyxiation, somewhere there’s a story of a drunken teenager who died playing chicken in a Big Wheels trike against his buddy’s pickup truck. As readers of these tales we exert a tiny flex of our “Huh. Interesting” muscle – the same one that endures a passive workout as we blindly flip through a piece of Buzzfeed ‘journalism’. But we usually stop short of worrying about the same wonky demise happening to us.
In this sense, the modern case of the unusual death serves less as a cautionary tale and more as a temporal distraction akin to a cat video, or a six-second vine of a 13-year-old boy getting caught twerking against a cardboard stand-up Frankie Muniz in his bedroom. But while I wholly condone chuckling away at the ancient tales of strange offings, like how Draco the ancient Greek lawmaker was smothered to death by a showering of cloaks and hats as gifts by a grateful stadium of citizens (mostly because I don’t believe that really happened), I advise mustering up at least a smidgen of empathy for the more substantiated tales.
After all, it could be you next, you never know. One minute you might be walking home from the store, three packs of powdered mini-donuts and a week-old Hustler tucked under your arm, when suddenly your skull is cracked open by an airborne tortoise.
Our first is about a guy whose skull was totally cracked open by an airborne tortoise. His name was Aeschylus, and along with Sophocles and Euripides he is one of the three great tragedy-writers of Ancient Greece whose works are still performed today. His trademark was the trilogy, but his most famous works had a huge impact on theatre. His influence resonated over millennia, affecting dramatic expression, literature, and even music.
Then one day it all came to an abrupt end. Aeschylus was the recipient of a prophecy that foretold his demise via a falling object. Not long after returning to Sicily in 458 BC, Aeschylus spent a lot of time outside in hopes of avoiding that horrible fate. There were no planes or satellite chunks to fall on him back then, and birds rarely fell unexpectedly from the clouds. What Aeschylus didn’t count on was his big bald head being mistaken for a shiny rock by a passing bird. The bird was carrying a tortoise, and looking for a rock upon which he could drop it and crack open the shell. Aeschylus’s shiny head was that rock. What a way to go.
There is no sport more fierce, more brutal and more inherently homo-erotic than pankration, the form of hand-to-hand wrestling that took place in the original Olympic games. Arrhichion was the bad-ass master pankratiast of his day, the champion of the 56th and 55th Olympiad. When the next games rolled in, Arrhichion was eager to defend his title. He made it to the finals, but he was locked in an inescapable stranglehold by his opponent, and on the brink of losing his title.
In a final act of desperation, Arrhichion lurched his body to the left while kicking his rival with his right foot. This effectively caused his opponent so much pain, he signaled his surrender to the officials. Unfortunately, it also caused the opponent to inadvertently break Arrhichion’s neck. The champion fell dead to the ground, but because his opponent had signaled defeat, Arrhichion was declared the winner. That’s how you leave it all on the mat for the Olympics.
Let’s leap into the modern age, to some truly avoidable deaths that seem almost too weird to be true. We’ll start with Kurt Gödel, a mathematician, logician and philosopher who commanded astounding respect from his peers throughout the 20th century for his contributions to set theory, incompleteness theorems, and a number of other concepts I won’t even pretend I understand. But later in life, his brilliant mind was darkened by the shadow of intense paranoia.
A slave to his mental illness, Gödel was terrified of being poisoned. He trusted only his wife, Adele. When she was hospitalized for six months late in 1977, Gödel refused to eat food prepared by anyone else. Since his own culinary skills were clearly nonexistent, the guy simply stopped eating. There he was, an emeritus professor at Princeton, a pillar in his field and a winner of the Albert Einstein Award as well as the National Medal of Science, and he starved to death, whittling down to a mere 65 pounds before his body gave up.
Meet Garry Hoy. Garry was a successful Toronto lawyer, specializing in corporate and securities law. He also had a great sense of humor. One gag that never failed to tickle him was when he showed off the fortitude of the large glass windows of the Toronto-Dominion Centre where he worked by throwing his body into it at top speed. Crowds loved this bit, especially the young articling students who hadn’t spent a lot of time on the 24th floor of a skyscraper.
One Friday night in 1993, Garry did his schtick, boasting about how the windows around them were unbreakable. And he was right. Then he did it again.
He was still right – the glass didn’t break. It did, however, pop out of the frame and then proceeded to tumble along with Garry to the street below. Perhaps shaken by this tragedy, Garry’s law firm, Holden Day Wilson, closed up shop in 1996 – the largest law firm closure in Canadian history.
Sometimes when you tempt fate, fate answers.
A good parent will sacrifice for their children. Myself, I sacrifice a portion of the bacon I’d like to eat every Sunday morning so that my daughter knows the glory of the finest of meats. Jennifer Strange, a mother of three from Rancho Cordova, California, really wanted her kids to own a Nintendo Wii system in 2007. The system was brand new, and even in the post-Christmas shopping haze they were still hard to come by. Sacramento Top-40 station KDND put on a contest called “Hold Your Wee For A Wii”. Contestants were given increasingly larger quantities of water to drink every fifteen minutes – the last one to take the #1 exit onto the porcelain underpass would be the winner.
I don’t know whether or not Jennifer won. But she certainly lost – after complaining to a co-worker of being in tremendous pain on her way home after the contest, she passed away from water intoxication. The radio station immediately shut down their morning program and fired ten people who were present for the contest. Jennifer’s husband and kids launched a wrongful death suit, and the jury determined that Jennifer was zero percent responsible for her demise; the entire burden fell on the radio station. The family was awarded over $16 million, a sum I’m sure they’d gladly exchange for Jennifer if they could.
The lesson here is to watch out for the weird, because no matter how unlikely a tragedy may be, eventually it’ll hit. These were all avoidable deaths. Well, except the damn tortoise thing. Sometimes the randomness of the universe can sneak up and kick us in the nuts, I suppose.