DEAD ENDS

biographies

ADOLF FREDERICK, KING OF SWEDEN (1710-1771)

Already known for his eating excesses, Adolf Frederick died of digestion problems having consumed a meal of lobster, sauerkraut, smoked herring, caviar and champagne, topped off with fourteen servings of his favourite dessert: semla served in hot milk. A weak ruler, whose only apparent talent was to make snuffboxes, he was considered a caring, gentle man, remembered in Swedish history as ‘the king who ate himself to death’. 

  

ISADORA DUNCAN (1877-1927) 

The creator of modern dance was hurled from the passenger seat of an open-top car onto a pavement in Nice. Having been wearing an immense iridescent silk scarf wrapped about her neck and streaming in long folds swathed about her body, neither she nor her driver noticed a trailing end catch in the spokes of the rear wheel, winding tighter as the car accelerated and instantaneously strangling the eccentric American. 

  

DIANE DE POITIERS (1499-1566) 

The mistress of Henri II of France was killed by her desire to look young. Twenty years his senior, she drank daily elixirs of gold to preserve her youth. A famed beauty, she wielded immense political influence as well as many of the crown jewels, and looked half her age when she died. Unceremoniously tossed into a common grave by Revolutionaries two centuries later, recent excavations discovered toxic levels of gold in her hair. 

  

ALEXANDER I, KING OF THE HELLENES (1893-1920) 

When two wild monkeys attacked his favourite dog in the royal gardens in Athens, the young king attempted to intervene but was bitten in the scuffle. Initially more embarrassed than alarmed, it soon emerged that infection had set in. Alexander died after weeks of agonizing pain and fits of delirium during which he claimed to see visions of his assassinated grandfather. The deadly bite led to his exiled father being reinstated as king. 

    

HARRY HOUDINI (1874-1926) 

Tired and unusually accident-prone, the Hungarian-born escapologist withstood a stomach punch to validate his well-known ability to endure body blows. Now thought to be suffering from the onset of appendicitis, he died on Halloween, returning home in a prop coffin. Exploiting Houdini’s public spats with spiritualists and the apparitions and levitations he staged, his wife promoted anniversary séances to preserve his lasting fame. 

  

ATTILA THE HUN (406-453) 

A brilliant tactician, Attila led his Huns on a series of conquests: looting, pillaging and terrorizing in their wake. After a feast celebrating his latest marriage, the teetotal barbarian suffered a severe nosebleed and choked to death in a stupor. His sons diverted part of the river Tisza to submerge their father’s gold, silver and iron coffin in its bed. They later executed those who buried him, keeping the exact location of his grave a secret. 

 

GRIGORI RASPUTIN (1869-1916) 

The illiterate Russian mystic acquired influence over the tsarina Alexandra, through his claims to cure her son Alexi of haemophilia. His abuse of this power (instigating political and ecclesiastical appointments) and his notorious debauchery prompted a group of noblemen to conspire his murder. After poison failed to kill him, the ‘holy man’ was repeatedly shot in the head, stabbed, then tied and dumped in the freezing River Neva. 

  

MARIE-ANTOINETTE, QUEEN OF FRANCE (1755-1793) 

Hated and despised by revolutionaries due to her frivolous spending, extravagant lifestyle and political meddling. Queen Marie-Antoinette symbolised the old regime, perhaps more so than her husband Louis XVI did as king. Promoting her native Austria to the detriment of France, she helped fuel the flames of the French Revolution and, despite an otherwise caring, motherly nature, was tried for treason and guillotined. 

  

EMILY WILDING DAVISON (1872-1913) 

Frustrated by the lack of opportunities for women and angered at being denied the right to vote, Davison’s extreme actions in the name of women’s suffrage led to prison sentences and torturous force-feeding. These experiences shaped her belief that only the ultimate sacrifice would achieve success for the Suffragettes. She died throwing herself under the king’s horse at the Derby, an action that some believe hindered the cause. 

 

HENRY I (1068-1135) 

The learned king of England and France, known as Beauclerc, died from eating ‘a surfeit of lampreys’. The father of three legitimate children and over twenty bastards, his death was hastened by series of rows with his sole surviving heir, Matilda, along with the gluttony of eels, a favourite among royals. His mummified body was laid to rest at Reading Abbey, his bowels, brain, heart, eyes and tongue interred in Rouen Cathedral.   

  

TYCHO BRAHE (1546-1601) 

The Danish astronomer revolutionised study of planetary movement and made accurate measurements of stars and planets long before telescopes were invented. Despite having a very weak bladder, he chose not to excuse himself from a banquet since it was socially taboo. This reticence severely strained his bladder and led to his eventual death. A colourful character, he wore a false metal nose after his own was cut off in a duel. 

    

SALOMON AUGUST ANDRÉE (1854-1897) 

The Swedish engineer, physicist, aeronaut and polar explorer perished while leading an attempt to reach the North Pole by hydrogen balloon. The expedition, part-funded by King Oscar II and Alfred Nobel, was viewed as brave and patriotic. Diary records indicate that Andrée and his two colleagues were plagued by digestive illness and exhaustion, but the probable cause of death was most likely their ingestion of parasitic polar bear flesh.