Sometimes authors don’t shuffle off this mortal coil quietly or – for want of a better word – normally. Sometimes they meet a sticky and untimely end, and sometimes myths build up around an author’s demise and we come to accept legend as fact. So what follows is part blog post, part quiz: we present you with nine of the most unusual author deaths, and then underneath we tell you whether the nature of that death is factually correct or not. If you’d like to play along, have a guess for each one before you get to the ‘True or False?’ bit. (Warning: sometimes, in the interests of factual accuracy, there isn’t a definite answer. Sorry: blame the authors for not dying better.)
1. Greek playwright Aeschylus was killed by a falling tortoise. The story goes that an eagle dropped the tortoise – believing it was an egg – on the top of the tragedian’s head – believing it was a rock – and the unfortunate playwright was killed stone (as it were) dead. True or false? Probably false. Many scholars believe this was cooked up by a rival writer who wished to make the dead playwright appear a fool, who was killed in a silly and vaguely comical manner. However, we’ll doubtless never know for certain.
2. Francis Bacon died after contracting a chill, which he developed after stuffing a chicken full of snow. Ever the empiricist, Bacon wished to see whether stuffing a fowl full of snow to keep it cold would help to preserve the meat. Move over Clarence Birdseye! However, the great man caught a chill as a result of his labours, and expired shortly afterwards. True or false? Almost certainly true, although it has a ring of legend about it. It sounds like one of those author myths, but probably has a basis in fact.
3. William Shakespeare died from a fever he contracted after a late-night binge with fellow poets Ben Jonson and Michael Drayton. William Shakespeare died, famously, on St George’s Day, 23 April 1616, after he caught a fever following the consumption of too much alcohol in Stratford. True or false? Unlikely. Although this tale comes from a contemporary eyewitness in Shakespeare’s hometown, it is not widely believed (although it is often repeated as though it were fact).
4. Christopher Marlowe died in a tavern brawl. Marlowe died in 30 May 1593 in Deptford, following a stab wound just under his eye. The story goes that it was a tavern brawl over the bar bill. True or false? False. We were pleased to see this ‘fact’ – which we at Interesting Literature have been debunking since 2009 in literary seminars – turn up earlier this year on the BBC2 TV series QI, where Stephen Fry and the team roundly debunked the tavern-centred mythery of Marlowe’s demise. For starters, Marlowe was stabbed in a private house, not a tavern, and it wasn’t so much a drunken brawl as a disagreement Marlowe had with other men, with whom he was probably involved in some sort of spy ring (Marlowe for a time worked for Queen Elizabeth’s spymaster, Francis Walsingham).
5. Decadent poet Lionel Johnson (1867-1902) died after falling off a bar stool. The Decadent soul got drunk and fell off the stool, dying instantly (or ‘instantaneously’, for all you beloved pedants out there). True or false? Widely disputed. Many accounts have Johnson falling in the street, not in a bar – as a result of a stroke he suffered. At any rate, he didn’t die instantaneously, but two days later.
6. Decadent poet Ernest Dowson (1867-1900) died in a wine bar. Seems a fitting end for a poet who wrote of ‘the days of wine and roses’, eh? But is it true? True or false? False. Dowson was found penniless in a wine bar and taken to the home of a friend and fellow writer, Robert Sherard. He died at Sherard’s home a few weeks later.
7. Poet Fulke Greville, Lord Brooke (1554-1628) was stabbed to death by a servant as he was coming out of the toilet. The disgruntled servant was angry about being left out of Greville’s will, and so stabbed his master while Brooke was doing up his breeches. True or false? True, even though the story appears to have its origins in the work of John Aubrey, a notorious bullshitter. The episode is taken as true by most literary historians.
8. Virginia Woolf committed suicide by drowning herself in the River Ouse. Virginia Woolf had suffered from depression for much of her life, and in 1941 she finally made the decision to end her life by drowning. True or false? True. Woolf put stones in the pockets of her overcoat to help drown herself in the river on 28 March 1941. Her last ever piece of writing was the moving suicide note she left her husband Leonard, which ended with the words: ‘I don’t think two people could have been happier than we have been. V.’
9. Tennessee Williams choked to death on a bottle-cap. The playwright was found dead in his hotel suite in 1983, having choked on the lid of the bottle of pills he regularly took. True or false? True. This was confirmed by the medical examiner, who believed that the combination of pills and alcohol in Williams’s system may have helped to contribute to his death (by limiting his gag reflex).
For those fans of ‘the death of the author’ (not in the sense Roland Barthes intended) who wish to learn more about this, we will post our sources for this information upon request, in the comments section below (and when we get a moment).