The Blue Blot

notes, finds & fragments of research

Dumb Ways To Die ~ How a life can come to an end…

Last week I was shown a video clip that has made quite a name for itself since its release, nearly a month ago. The extremely catchy song Dumb Ways To Die serves as a public service announcement for the Australian public-transport company Metro Trains Melbourne. The advertising agency McCann, responsible for this gem (website), must be thrilled beyond belief. Never before has a message about such an unpopular subject as safety measures caused such a stir – as it did not only receive the hoped for attention in Melbourne, but because of social media it went viral and reached all corners of the earth. Within a week after its release, friends from Europe, America, and Asia, sent me links to the video clip accompanied by all kinds of superlatives as brilliant, cute, dark, hilarious, etc. And it is just that, it has the perfect balance of a twisted sense of humour with a catchy tune, and the cutest cartoon figures – whom all, despite of their high-level-cuteness, die horrible deaths but nevertheless keep on dancing, maimed, blackened, and bleeding.

Some people will find some reason to deem it in poor taste, but seriously… Could they really have brought the message more effectively than this? I already caught myself humming the song when I walked over the platform of the nearby train station a couple of days ago.

The longer I thought about it, the more logic it became. Of course we laugh, they are after all cartoon figures and therefore it is safe to laugh. The waiting is just for a International Cartoon Rights Association that will stand up against their improper treatment. (Just you wait, it will at some point happen!). Isn’t everyone prone to smile or laugh when they read about silly accidents or bizarre deaths? I have, over the years, laughed many a time when I stumbled upon crazy facts from history; and I counted many who died the most uncanny, foolish, or ironic deaths.

This is my personal top five of the odd deaths suffered by my ancestors and their relatives:

1 – Béla I Árpád (ca.1020 – September 1063), who reigned as King of Hungary between 1060 and 1063 and was a very successful in the many wars he fought. But as he was about to take off again on a tour of slaughter to defend his throne, he died. How? in the most ironic way possible for a king defending his crown: He died of the wound he sustained when the wooden structure of his throne collapsed and fell upon him.[1]

2 – Charles II de Navarre (10 October 1332 – 1 January 1387), King of Navarre between 1349 and 1387. He was nicknamed ‘le Mauvais’ (the bad) which gives a rather clear view on his reputation as a ruler. But apart from all his bloodshed and mischief he has entered history rather famously because of his death, which was known all over Europe – they even drew pictures of it. Of course there are many versions; one of them tells the story of his bed catching fire by a burning coal that escaped from a warming-pan. But they all end in the same way: Charles the bad was burnt alive. Some have too many details to be true, but it gives a nice impression of how Charles’s death was still being remembered centuries after it happened.
Apparently the king had fallen into such a sorry physical state that he needed some kind of relief to be able to function. By his physician’s orders he was wrapped, from head to toe, in linen cloth impregnated with sulphur and spirits. One night, an attendant charged to wrap him and when it was all done a knot was made. However a thread was hanging loose, and instead of cutting it off the attendant made use of a candle, which immediately set fire to the drenched cloth and thus Charles was burnt alive.[2]

3 – Sir Francis Bacon (22 January 1561 – 9 April 1626), a jurist and statesman during the Elizabethan and the early Stuart reign. Bacon was also a brilliant scientist, and of the opinion that to claim something to be the truth, one should at least see or experience it, by which he created empiricism.
In the bitter cold winter of 1626 he was struck by brilliance and figured out that meat could be preserved by the use of snow. In his fervour he set out to buy a fowl and started stuffing the bird with snow to prove his point as fast as possible. He caught a terrible cold which very quickly amounted to a fatal pneumonia and was brought over to the country estate of his friend the Earl of Arundel. His host was not at home and so he wrote him, almost clairvoyantly:
My very good Lord, – I was likely to have had the fortune of Caius Plinius the Elder, who lost his life by trying an experiment about the burning of Mount Vesuvius; for I was also desirous to try an experiment or two touching the conservation and induration of bodies. As for the experiment itself, it succeeded excellently well, but in the journey between London and Highgate, I was taken with such a fit of casting as I know not whether it were the Stone or some surfeit of cold, or indeed a touch of them all three […][3]
Bacon proved his point, but died three days later.

4 – Thomas Urquhart (1611 – ca.1660) was perhaps not the best writer Scotland has known, but he was at least as one of the first and better translators of the works by Rabelais. Apart from his literary aspirations he was also a soldier who fought on the Royalist side during the English Civil War. Defending his beliefs in the monarchy he was captured in battle, declared a traitor by Parliament, and spent time imprisoned – which all he survived. The irony of his death lies in the fact that it was the monarchy that killed him in the end. After years of banishment from his home country he got word of the Restoration of Charles II as King of England. When he heard this he got into a fit of roaring laughter and died of it.[4]

5 – George Plantagenet, 1st Duke of Clarence (21 October 1449 – 18 February 1478) The Duke of Clarence died perhaps the most famous and legendary deaths, with thanks to Shakespeare who made Clarence’s murderers declaim: ‘Take him over the costard with the hilts of thy sword, and then we will chop him in the malmsey-butt in the next room.’ And ‘O excellent devise! Make a sop of him.[5]
Life wasn’t easy for a Plantagenet in the 15th Century when relatives were just as dangerous as the enemies one already had. Imprisoned and condemned to death by his own brother, king Edward, Clarence was (according to legend) given the choice of how he would be executed. A lover of the drink, he chose to be drowned in a butt (a large keg) of malmsey. What a way to go. Whether it is really true … who knows; but Shakespeare made good use of it.

There you have it: Odd deaths, they are as old as the world itself. And many more will have occurred; sadly the majority of them stay hidden in the mists of history. But whenever you visit the archives and you see a researcher smile or break into laughter, the chances are they have just uncovered one. And when you hear someone humming Dumb Ways To Die shortly after, it could even be me.


[1] Encyclopaedia Brittanica Online 2012, accessed December 3rd, 2012.
[2] Barbara Tuchman, A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century, 1976
[3] Bacon, The Works of Francis Bacon, Lord Chancellor of England. A New Edition, ed. Basil Montague, London: 1825-1834
[4] Richard Boston, The Admirable Urquhart, London: 1975
[5] Richard III, Act I, Scene IV.

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