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An aggressive hippo charging

History's most unfortunate and bizarre deaths

Throughout the annals of history, some notable figures have been killed in truly unfortunate ways. Who knew your enemy could still kill you after they were already dead, or that a glamorous silk scarf could be fatal?

Image: Menes, the founder of Egypt, was 'snatched and killed by a hippopotamus' |

When we think of the deaths of historical figures, it’s usually the violent and dramatic demises that spring to mind – Julius Caesar being viciously stabbed by his own senators, Harold taking an arrow to the eye at the Battle of Hastings, JFK’s public assassination in Dallas.

But what about the other kinds of deaths – the ones that were down to awful accidents, bizarre mishaps, macabre misadventures? Some of the following frankly beggar belief.

Menes – Death by hippo

Considered the very first pharaoh, Menes had an impressive CV even by the standards of his fellow god-like rulers. As well as being credited with unifying Egypt around 5,000 years ago, he was said to have popularised the use of papyrus, and once escaped a pack of rampaging dogs by riding a crocodile across a lake like a surfboard (OK, this was probably just a legend but we want to believe it).

A leader of this magnitude deserved a gallant, heroic or epic death. Instead, he was – according to the Egyptian priest and chronicler Manetho – ‘snatched and killed by a hippopotamus’. And that was the end of the man who founded Egypt.

Sigurd the Mighty – Death by decapitated head

A fearsome Viking leader during the Norse conquest of northern Scotland, Sigurd Eysteinsson became the Earl of Orkney in the late 9th century. His aggressive takeover of territory earned him the tag ‘Sigurd the Mighty’, but one of his most savage victories turned out to be his last.

Arranging to engage in a 40-a-side skirmish with a native nobleman named Máel Brigte the Bucktoothed (that nickname will be significant), Sigurd cheated by bringing 80 warriors to the battlefield. It was an easy victory for the unscrupulous Sigurd, who lopped off Máel Brigte’s head and strapped it to his saddle as a trophy.

While riding triumphantly away, Sigurd grazed his foot against one of the prominent teeth protruding from the decapitated head. The wound became infected, and Sigurd died – perhaps the only military leader in history to be killed by someone he defeated.

Jean-Baptise Lully – Death by conducting stick

He may not be a household name like the likes of Bach and Handel, but Jean-Baptiste Lully was an eminent Baroque composer who was celebrated for his operas and sacred music. Unfortunately, music was also the death of him.

While conducting a performance in 1687, Lully kept the beat by banging the floor with a wooden staff (the era’s equivalent of today’s conducting batons). He accidentally hit his own foot with such strength that the wound became gangrenous, but Lully refused to have the leg amputated since he was so passionate about dancing. The gangrene worsened and Lully perished. Ironically, the music he was conducting at the time had been written to celebrate King Louis XIV’s recent recovery from surgery.

Archduchess Mathilde of Austria – Death by cigarette

It wasn’t smoking that killed the Archduchess Mathilde of Austria in 1867, but the cigarette itself. The 18-year-old aristocrat was set for big things, having been lined up to marry the heir to the Italian throne. But her glittering future was catastrophically curtailed when she decided to light up one June evening at the Hetzendorf Palace in Vienna.

Hearing the approach of her father, who had forbidden smoking, the Archduchess quickly hid the cigarette behind her back. The glowing tip touched the fancy gauze dress she had on, setting it alight. The flame turned into a fireball around Mathilde, who was literally burnt to death in front of her horrified family.

Clement Vallandigham – Death by courtroom evidence

A lawyer, a member of the US House of Representatives and a prominent political figure during the American Civil War (when he was a fierce supporter of the South), Clement Vallandigham is perhaps best remembered for the deeply unfortunate nature of his death.

In 1871, Vallandigham took on the case of a defendant who was accused of killing someone in a barroom brawl. Vallandigham intended to prove that the victim had in fact accidentally shot himself while pulling his pistol from his pocket. While discussing the strategy with a fellow attorney over breakfast, Vallandigham decided to re-enact the event using what he thought was an unloaded gun.

Except that it was indeed loaded, and when he pulled the trigger on himself, ‘the weapon exploded and sent its deadly missile into his abdomen’. Vallandigham died the following day when the wound got infected, but the demonstration did at least get his client acquitted.

Isadora Duncan – Death by scarf

The scandalous dancer and choreographer who threw off the shackles of formal ballet to create modern dance as we know it, Isadora Duncan moved in society’s highest circles. Artists immortalised her in their work, the occultist Aleister Crowley wrote gushingly about her ‘magical consciousness’, and she attended some of the most outrageous and decadent parties of the era.

Her glittering life was also marked by tragedy. Two of her children were killed in a car accident, and Duncan herself later perished in a car – but not because of a crash.

In September 1927, while riding in a friend’s open-topped automobile, Duncan’s long silk scarf got caught in the open-spoked wheels of the car. As the car sped forward, Duncan was strangled to death in seconds. The term ‘Isadora Duncan syndrome’ is still sometimes used to refer to such freakish cases of accidental strangulation.