Nine Unusual Author Deaths

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).

73 thoughts on “Nine Unusual Author Deaths”

    • I considered including Bierce, and now wish I had – I’m trying to think if there are any other famous writers who’ve disappeared, but I’ve drawn a blank (if you include songwriters, there’s Richey James from the Manic Street Preachers, I suppose!).

      • My students always seem to love that bit, when we read Bierce.

        Back when I taught him, they also loved the stories about Thomas Malory, who escaped from prison twice. Including the time he had to fight his way out before swimming the moat. (Not a death of the author, sure, but a great story.)

      • Then there is the mysterious B.Traven ( who, some have suggested, was Ambrose Bierce…
        Thanks for an enjoyable and informative piece – I had not realised that Marlowe’s death in a Deptford Tavern (at the hands – or dagger – of one Ingram Frizer, I believe) was now in doubt – does the court testimony not say that the quarrel was ‘about the reckoning’ (i.e. the bill)? (supposed by some to be referred to in Shakespeare’s line ‘a great reckoning in a little room’ (As You Like It) which also suggests Marlowe’s ‘infinite riches in a little room’ (The Jew of Malta)

        • It’s a fair point about the reckoning: it could be that the attack was caused by a fight over the bill, though this too has been questioned (Leslie Hotson’s 1925 book ‘The Death of Christopher Marlowe’ is a good source on this, though understandable outdated in other respects). The house was in Deptford, but whether it was a tavern is highly disputed: it seems to have been the private house of a woman named Eleanor Bull, and Marlowe, Frizer, and the other man were probably meeting there in connection with their dealings in the world of espionage (for Sir Francis Walsingham). I think you’re right that the ‘reckoning’ (which was mentioned by Frizer and the other man in the coroner’s report; but whether we should believe them is another matter…) was probably being alluded to by Shakespeare in ‘As You Like It’. It’s certainly suggestive…

          Thanks for such an insightful comment – loving your blog by the way! The Dante piece was highly interesting.

  1. I’ve always loved that story about Aeschylus, apocryphal though it is. I first heard it when I was a child — I’d never heard of Aeschylus and misunderstood it to be about Aesop. I thought it quite fitting that a man whose characters were usually animals should meet his end in such a manner.

  2. Wow some of those are really incredible, others if true would be almost impressive, and the Virginia Woolf was particularly interesting as my hometown actually has the River Great Ouse running through it! Though our true claim to fame is Oliver Cromwell.

  3. Awesome post. Color me morbid, but I’m endlessly fascinated by the deaths of artists. I need to write something about composer deaths, because there are some pretty great ones. Tremendous read, and thank you!

    • That would be superb! I’d learn a lot from such a post. I heard recently that the idea that Mozart had a ‘pauper’s funeral’ was not true, and his funeral was pretty run-of-the-mill for most Austrians of the day. I know Mussorgsky drank himself to death, but beyond that I’m pretty clueless (though I have a book on the ‘sex lives of the great composers’ which I must read one day!).

    • Was it the film director John Ford who said when it comes to a choice between printing the truth and printing the legend, print the legend? The Aeschylus story is fantastic. Woolf’s final words are movingly tragic, yet strangely affirmative. IL

      • Great line from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, one of the best westerns ever made. John Ford directed, but Willis Goldbeck and James Warner Bellah wrote the screenplay based on a story by Dorothy M. Johnson (I don’t know if the line appears in her original story). Anyway, here’s the scene.

        Jimmy Stewart just finished giving an interview to a newspaper reporter and revealed the identity of the movie’s title character and is surprised when the reporter says he’ll not be printing that. “You’re not going to use the story, Mr. Scott?”

        The reporter replies, “No, sir. This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

    • Thanks, Karen! I couldn’t agree more: I can think of worse ways to go, if death could be relied upon to be instantaneous. Mind you, ‘hit by a falling tortoise’ does sound an embarrassingly comical headline for the obituary… Maybe a dropped elephant?

  4. Sobering to reaffirm the actual mortality of the genius. Splendid with pen, all too human otherwise. Anything on Charlotte Bronte’s death? Starved herself “like a wren” I have heard, but more likely it was typhus. Dead at 39. Thanks for this post1

    • That’s interesting – I always thought Charlotte Bronte died of the severe morning sickness which Kate Middleton was recently treated for, but now I look into it I see that typhus and TB have both been put forward as responsible. Maybe we’ll never know: it says a lot that she was dead at 39 but by then had already outlived her two sisters by six/seven years…

      • Juliet Barker made a good case for severe morning sickness in her biog of the Brontes, out a few years ago. It seems to make sense, judging from the evidence she collected, though of course it can never be proved.

  5. What the– death by tortoise! It sure makes a good tale, even if it isn’t true!

    Fascinating post. So many related to alcohol! (A cautionary lesson for us writers, I suppose.)

    One author death that really haunts me is Sylvia Plath’s. Perhaps not the most bizarre of them, but tragic, moving, and in my opinion of note.

    Nice work. Thanks for the interesting piece!

  6. I wondered if I might see Percy Shelley on this list, not because he died in a particularly interesting way (drowned in a storm) but because the monument honoring his death is so interesting – it was commission to recount his body naked and washed up on the shore. But, I guess that’s what happens when you are married to the woman who thought up “Frankenstein”.

  7. Re Marlowe; the Dictionary of National Biography has:

    ‘ . . Death and aftermath, 1593: On the evening of Wednesday 30 May 1593 Marlowe was stabbed to death at a house in Deptford Strand . . The circumstances are generally described as a ‘tavern brawl’, but there is no evidence that the house was a tavern, and since the killing occurred in a private room it can hardly be called a ‘brawl’ either. The events of that day can be partially reconstructed from the inquest . . At 10 o’clock in the morning Ingram Frizer . . and Christopher Marlowe met at a house . . belonging to a widow, Eleanor Bull . .

    The four men dined together . . they returned to the house . . After supper Marlowe lay down on a bed; his companions were seated at the table. There was an argument over the bill: Frizer and Marlowe ‘uttered one to the other divers malicious words’ because they ‘could not agree about the sum of pence, that is, le recknynge’. Marlowe, ‘moved with anger’, leapt from the bed, snatched Frizer’s dagger from its sheath, and struck him twice about the head: the wounds (measured at the inquest) were shallow, and were perhaps inflicted with the hilt of the dagger. A struggle ensued:

    ‘and so it befell, in that affray, that the said Ingram, in defence of his life, with the dagger aforesaid . . gave the said Christopher a mortal wound above his right eye, of the depth of two inches and of the width of one inch.’

    From this wound, Marlowe ‘then & there instantly died’. The actual cause of death was probably a brain haemorrhage. On the basis of this account the coroner found that Frizer had killed Marlowe in self-defence; . . and on 28 June Frizer received a royal pardon . . The discovery of the inquest . . in 1925 scotched three centuries of rumour and romance . .

    The authenticity of the inquest is not in doubt, but whether it tells the full truth is another matter. The nature of Marlowe’s companions raises questions about their reliability as witnesses . . That the inquest’s account depended on these two men—the only independent witnesses of the fatal ‘affray’—is at the least unsatisfactory . . these links betoken some covert intrigue against Marlowe has yet to be proved, but they add to a sense that something more complex is concealed beneath the story of the ‘recknynge’.

    • Thanks for such a detailed account of the circumstances of his death. I know Hotson’s book, which first brought these facts to light, but being nearly 90 years old it’s doubtless somewhat out of date in some respects. I agree that there’s probably something more to the squabble than the inquest could bring to light. Oh to have a time machine…

      • The Oxford DNB entries ar eundate dbut they are peiodically updated if need be. The sources for this entry are:

        ‘Sources J. Bakeless, The tragicall history of Christopher Marlowe, 2 vols. (1942) · The complete works of Christopher Marlowe, ed. F. Bowers, 2 vols. (1981) · F. S. Boas, Christopher Marlowe (1940) · W. Urry, Christopher Marlowe and Canterbury (1988) · M. Eccles, Christopher Marlowe in London (1934) · L. Hotson, The death of Christopher Marlowe (1925) · C. Nicholl, The reckoning: the murder of Christopher Marlowe (1992) · A. D. Wraight and V. Stern, In search of Christopher Marlowe (1965) · A. Butcher, ‘“Onelye a boye called Christopher Mowle”’, Christopher Marlowe and English Renaissance culture, ed. D. Grantley and P. Roberts (1996) · P. Roberts, ‘“The studious artisan”’, Christopher Marlowe and English Renaissance Culture, ed. D. Grantley and P. Roberts (1996) · Calendar of the manuscripts of the most hon. the marquis of Salisbury, 24 vols., HMC, 9 (1883–1976) · M. Eccles, ‘Christopher Marlowe in Kentish tradition’, N&Q, 169 (13 July 1935); (20 July 1935); (27 July 1935) · R. B. Wernham, ‘Christopher Marlowe at Flushing in 1592’, EngHR, 91 (1976) · . . ‘

        The most recent is dated 1996.

  8. I was wondering if you ever considered changing the structure of your
    blog? Its very well written; I love what youve got to say.

    But maybe you could a little more in the way of content so people could connect with it better.
    Youve got an awful lot of text for only having 1 or
    2 images. Maybe you could space it out better?

  9. Emily Bronte seemed to have predicted her own death. In “Wuthering Heights”, she describes in detail the deaths of three characters from tuberculosis: Francis Earnshaw, Edgar Linton, and Linton Heathcliff. Shortly after the novel’s publication (self -financed), she died of the same disease.

  10. “Tennessee Williams choked to death on a bottle-cap” This has to be the weirdest of them all since those bottle caps are designed to not go down easily. Hmm…on second thought, I can see why he choked to death.

  11. My two favorite weird death stories are astronomer, Tycho Brahe died because he held his bladder too long and ancient Greek ruler, Draco (from which we get the word “Draconian”) who died because people loved him so much that they threw so many hats and cloaks at him that he suffocated.


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