The Most Unusual Deaths in History!

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A Brief History

On February 14th, many of our readers celebrate Saint Valentine’s Day, a day associated with the martyrdom of the famous saint who was allegedly sentenced by a Roman emperor to be beaten with clubs and beheaded for refusing to renounce Christianity.  The execution possibly occurred on February 14, 269.  Valentine’s brutal demise is but one of numerous unusual deaths that are covered on History and Headlines.  This article will be unlike most every other article on our site, because it will be periodically updated to provide a comprehensive, albeit not exhaustive, list of history’s more unusual deaths.

Digging Deeper

On January 24, 41 C.E., the Roman emperor known as Caligula was assassinated by his own Praetorian Guard!  What makes the assassination particularly unusual is the brutality of it.  Sure, politicians have been simply shot, but in Caligula’s case, the victim was stabbed some 30 times.  He wife was also stabbed and his young daughter was killed by having her head smashed against a wall in a scene recreated from the infamous 1979 film starring Malcolm McDowell in the titular role.

On October 13, 54 A.D., Roman Emperor Claudius, who had earlier in his reign ordered a previous wife beheaded, was poisoned to death, possibly by his new wife via poisoned mushrooms in perhaps a strange example of cosmic karma!

On September 25, 303, Saint Fermin experienced martyrdom via beheading, which in itself is not entirely unusual; however, according to Christian legend, his remains reportedly emitted a sweet odor that caused ice and snow to melt, flowers to grow, and the sick to be cured.

Phocas is delivered to Heraclius (from

On October 4, 610, Byzantine Emperor Phocas met his end when his successor as emperor personally beheaded Phocas before allowing rebels to parade the corpse through Constantinople prior to burning what remained of the deposed former emperor.  Few historic rulers rose to power by personally slaying their predecessor!

On November 25, 1120, a ship sailing from Normandy, France, to England, hit a rock and capsized, quickly sinking and taking everyone aboard, save one, to their deaths.

On November 15, 1280, St. Albertus Magnus died after having reportedly built an android and discovered the philosopher’s stone, but according to the faithful his body did not deteriorate.

On October 3, 1283, Dafydd ap Gruffydd, prince of Gwynedd in Wales, became the first nobleman executed by being hanged, drawn and quartered, a.k.a. one of the most over the top means of execution ever devised.  The torture and execution entailed dragging the condemned through the streets of Shrewsbury attached to a horse’s tail.  He was then hanged alive before being revived.  Next, his executioner disemboweled Dafydd and burned his entrails before him.  Finally, for good measure, or actually “for plotting the king’s death,” his body was cut into four quarters.

On August 5, 1305, the Scottish hero known as “Braveheart” in the 1995 movie, William Wallace, was captured by the English, and then executed for treason in the gory way “traitors” were put to death.

The execution of Hugh Despenser.

On November 24, 1326, Hugh Despenser, 1st Lord Despenser, became a victim of the vengeful Isabella the She-wolf in one of history’s all-time most brutal executions.  The horrible process included dragging him behind four horses to his place of execution, while the crowd jeered at him, proving that he had lost his power, stripping him naked, writing biblical verses denouncing arrogance and evil on his skin, hanging him from a gallows 50 ft high, a shameful death, the punishment for a common thief, cutting him down before he could choke to death, tying him to a ladder in full view of the crowd, slicing off his penis and testicles which were burnt before him, while he was still alive and conscious, showing to the crowd that he had ceased to be a man, slitting open his abdomen, slowly pulling out, and cutting out, his entrails and, finally, his heart, which were likewise thrown into the fire showing that the land was being purged of evil as his evil desires were thought to reside in his heart and entrails, beheading his corpse and cutting his body cut into four pieces jeopardizing his chances of Salvation after death, and mounting his head on the gates of London.

On November 22, 1718, the pirate known as Blackbeard died like a boss, having suffered at least 20 sword slashes and was shot at least 5 times.

On April 25, 1792, a major step in the history of execution devices was made when a “highwayman” (robber) named Nicolas Jacques Pelletier became the first victim of the Guillotine.

On March 23, 1801, members of the Russian nobility and military officers killed their emperor (Tsar Paul I) by trampling him to death.

On October 15, 1863, The H. L. Hunley, a Confederate (the South!) submarine, sank during a test, killing its inventor and namesake, Horace L. Hunley.  The same submarine had earlier accidentally killed five men and later sank a Union (the North!) ship only to itself sink shortly afterwards, once again killing everyone on board.  All told some twenty-six people perished as a result of Hunley’s invention, including the inventor!

On September 30, 1888, unidentified serial killer Jack the Ripper killed his third and fourth victims, Elizabeth Stride and Catherine Eddowes, in grotesque fashion.  The incident known as the “double event” is the only such instance of the Ripper committing two murders on the same night.

On January 23, 1897, Elva Z. Heaster, about 24 years old, was found dead, later proven to have been murdered by her husband through her own ghost’s testimony!

On January 4, 1903, Thomas Edison filmed the execution of Topsy the Elephant, the largest casualty in the War of the Currents!  Yes, even animals have experienced unusual deaths…

On November 7, 1907, Jesús García died while saving the entire town of Nacozari de Garcia, Sonora by driving a burning train full of dynamite six kilometers away before it could explode.  Thank you, Jesús!

On December 29, 1916, Rasputin, possibly the most cracked clergyman of all time finally met his doom, having been poisoned, shot, and drowned, thereby rivaling Blackbeard for the claim of bearded bad-ass who most went out “like a boss”!

In March 1918, the USS Cyclops commanded by a captain with strange habits, ventured into the Bermuda Triangle, but not out, disappearing with 306 crew and passengers in what is the single largest loss of life in U.S. Naval history not directly involving combat.

On Halloween of 1926, famed entertainer Harry Houdini died as a result of either a punch to his abdomen, a murder plot by spiritualists, or appendicitis…

On August 20, 1940, communist revolutionary Leon Trotsky was murdered in Mexico by agents of Joseph Stalin.  The murder weapon was an ice axe, not something you see every day in Mexico City!  People have been killing other people since Cain brained Abel with a rock, and they have been dreaming up new ways to do it all along.  

On April 27, 1945, Benito Mussolini, or Il Duce (The Duke) as he was called, was shot, along with his mistress, Clara Petacci, and his other traveling companions.  Mussolini’s body along with Petacci’s was hung upside down as a public spectacle and vengeful Italians pelted it with stones and clubs.

On January 7, 1948, a Kentucky Air National Guard pilot named Captain Tom Mantell met his death trying to intercept a UFO!

On September 30, 1955, up and coming actor James Dean perished in an auto accident at age 24. In 3 movies he established himself as a “giant” of the silver screen, and will be forever young in the eye of movie fans. History is full of people that left enormous footprints that made their marks in a surprisingly short amount of time.

On November 25, 1970, Japanese author, Yukio Mishima (a nom de plume), a man with multiple nominations for the Nobel Prize for literature, attempted a coup d’etat in Japan!  Having failed, Mishima then committed ritual suicide, seppuku, slicing open his own belly and having an attendant behead him with a sword.  After several unsuccessful attempts, the attendant deferred to a second attendant who cut of the stubborn head and then did the same for the first attendant, who meanwhile had also disemboweled himself!

On July 29, 1973, British race car driver Roger Williamson met his death when his Formula 1race car crashed at the Dutch Grand Prix at Zandvoort Circuit in the Netherlands.  The 25 year old 2 time British Formula 3 champion was trapped under his flipped car, not seriously hurt from the crash, but was burned to death as the car was engulfed in flames. Race officials made no effort to help, although another driver heroically abandoned the race and tried to rescue Williamson, failing to flip the car over, then grabbing a fire extinguisher.  Many thousands of people have been killed in car wrecks, and some wrecks are notable whether the occupants died or not.  

On November 27, 1978, Mayor George Moscone and City Supervisor Harvey Milk were gunned down by an irate former supervisor who went on to use one of the most bizarre defenses in legal history: the infamous Twinkie Defense.  Adding to unusualness of the shooting was Milk’s reception in culture as one of the most well-known political martyrs to the gay cause.

On December 8, 1980, John Lennon, the former Beatle and one of the most famous musicians of the 1960’s and 1970’s was mercilessly gunned down shot by being in the back on a New York sidewalk, thus joining the ranks of peace lovers who were not allowed to be left in peace, men such as Abraham Lincoln, “Mahatma” Gandhi, Martin L. King jr., and Robert F. Kennedy.

On April 28, 1988, Aloha Airlines flight 243 was on the way to Honolulu from Hilo when a huge portion of the upper part of the fuselage blew off the airplane.  Flight attendant Clarabelle Lansing, age 58, was immediately sucked out the top of the jet and disappeared along with the section of passenger cabin roof.

On February 24, 1989, nine of the 337 passengers on United Flight 811 from Honolulu exited the flight early to their untimely deaths.  Lee Campbell was perhaps the most famous of the nine who died due to his parents’ investigation into the incident.

On December 6, 1989 an apparently mentally disturbed Marc Lepine went to the Universite de Montreal and entered the Ecole Polytechnique building armed with a Ruger Mini-14 carbine, a knife, and murder in his heart fueled by a hatred for “feminists,” a unusual motive unlike those alleged in numerous other more well-known mass shootings.  Lepine killed 14 women before turning the gun on himself.

On October 1, 1993, twelve-year old Polly Hannah Klaas (January 3, 1981 – October 1, 1993) was murdered under horrifying circumstances erroneously starting the rumor that Nirvana’s “Polly” was inspired by the event.

On December 2, 1993, Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar was shot (through the ears!) and officially killed in Medellín by Colombian National Police, although his brothers claim the death was a suicide.

On December 31, 1993, transgender person Brandon Teena was raped and murdered, the inspiration for the 1999 major motion picture, Boys Don’t Cry, starring Hillary Swank.  Few hate crimes have achieved such an unusual amount of recognition in popular culture.

On May 6, 1996, the body of former CIA director William Colby washed up on a Maryland beach. He had been missing since April 27 from a solo boating trip.

On July 6, 1999, US Army Private Barry Winchell died for a stupid reason.  One of his fellow soldiers had beaten him with a baseball bat the day before while Winchell was sleeping, because Winchell had a relationship with a transgender showgirl!  How exactly that was the business of the murderer, Calvin Glover, is hard to fathom.  (The showgirl was a former Navy Corpsman named Calpernia Addams.)  Glover, among others, had been harassing Winchell about his “girlfriend,” and Winchell had won a fight between the two of them.  Apparently Glover was goaded about being beaten up by a “fag,” and took his revenge the cowardly way.  Many people over the years have been killed for idiotic “reasons,” some goofier than others.  

On May 7, 2004, American inventor and businessman Nicholas Berg, only 26 years old, was beheaded by Islamic terrorists in Iraq.

On October 20, 2011, Muammar Gaddafi, the former King of Kings of Africa, became one of only a handful of historical leaders to be shown on television and the internet being violently toppled from power, having been shot, roughed up, and even having had something rammed into his buttocks.   That last bit even inspired a neologism!  Seriously, how many deaths have caused a new word to be coined as a result?

Elisa Lam and where her body was found.

On February 19, 2013, the body of 21 year old Elisa Lam was found in the water tank on the roof of the Cecil Hotel in Los Angeles.

On January 6, 2014, only one year ago today, Venezuelan beauty queen Monica Spear, age 29, was murdered on a lonely Venezuelan roadside along with her ex-husband during a botched robbery.

Question for students (and subscribers): What was the most unusual death in history?  Please let us know in the comments section below this article.

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Historical Evidence

Numerous books have covered strange, unusual, and weird deaths.  Some that we recommend include…

Simmons, Ian and Ed Traquino.  Strange deaths: More than 375 freakish fatalites.  Barnes & Noble, 2000.

Warwick, Harold.  Weird Deaths.  Ox Books Publishing (OxBo), 2013.


About Author

Dr. Zar graduated with a B.A. in French and history, a Master’s in History, and a Ph.D. in History. He currently teaches history in Ohio.