Literary deaths

Grace Chalhoub, Staff writer; copy editor

In observance of the recent Halloween celebrations, take a look at some of the strangest, most ironic and gothic literary deaths. 

Aeschylus: According to ancient Greek sources, the great tragedian died when a tortoise fell on his head. Some sort of bird (sources disagree as to whether it was a kind of vulture or eagle) was known for picking up tortoises, flying into the air with them, and dropping them onto the rocks below in order to break the shell and access the meat inside. A bird apparently mistook Aeschylus’s bald head for a rock. 

Dante: Initially buried in Ravenna in 1321, Dante’s remains were discovered during the 19th century hidden in a brick wall. In 1519 the  Pope became nervous that, two hundred years after the poet’s death, Florence would demand Dante to be interred in his hometown. So he removed Dante’s remains and transferred them to a Franscican monastery. Somehow, over the course of the next three hundred years, Dante’s remains were moved into a wall of a church, not to be discovered until 1865. He has since been reinterred into his original mausoleum in Ravenna.  

Christopher Marlowe: The playwright and contemporary of Shakespeare was famously killed in a drunken brawl, but a particularly persistent theory states that Marlowe was the victim of a government conspiracy. He was killed while on bail from prison after being convicted of heresy (at the time a crime punishable by prison time, due to the fact that heresy against the Church of England was akin to treason). On top of it, his career as a government spy meant he was a traitor with state secrets. While never proved definitively, the theory that Marlowe’s death was part of a government conspiracy is not so far-fetched.  

Yukio Mishima: Famous Japanese author and nominee for the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1968, Mishima formed a right-wing militia with the intent to restore the emperor to power and led a coup against the government. He failed miserably and committed seppuku, or ritual suicide, by slitting open his stomach. He asked one of his comrades to behead him once he died, but when the comrade failed, he also committed seppuku. 

Moliere: Playwright as well as actor, Moliere was well-known for his derisive comedies, but while writing his last play “Imaginary Invalid,” a comedy about a hypochondriac, he became increasingly ill with tuberculosis. His wife and friends pleaded with him not to appear on stage, but he ignored their pleas, asserting that he did not want to jeopardize the payment of the other actors. While onstage, he began to convulse, but disguised it as a laugh. His fellow actors were not fooled, and, right as the curtain lowered, rushed him home, where, still wearing his green costume, he died of a hemorrhage before a priest could arrive.  It is believed that the superstition that wearing green brings bad luck to actors derives from Moliere’s last performance. 

Percy Bysshe Shelley: The Romantic poet and husband of  author Mary Shelley drowned in the Gulf of La Spezia, when a storm overturned his sailboat “Don Juan” (named for the protagonist of his friend Lord Byron’s epic poem). His friends cremated him on the beach, in accordance with quarantine rules. As they gathered his ashes to bring to a cemetery in England, they stumbled upon his heart, calcified and completely unscathed. One friend present, Leigh Hunt, brought the heart back to Mary, who had been unable to attend the funeral. She wrapped it in a silken shroud and is believed to have carried it around with her throughout her life. After she died, her family, clearing out her desk, found the heart in a drawer.

Sophocles: Nobody truly knows how the Greek playwright died, but several legends survive. Sources differ as to whether he choked on an overripe grape, died of happiness when his play was well-received, or suffocated to death reading an especially long monologue from Antigone. 

Mark Twain: The creator of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn was born two weeks after the appearance of Halley’s Comet. He later predicted that he would die the next time Halley’s Comet was visible, saying in 1909 that, “I came in with Halley’s comet in 1835. It is coming again next year, and I expect to go out with it. It will be the greatest disappointment of my life if I don’t go out with Halley’s comet. The Almighty has said, no doubt: ‘Now here are these two unaccountable freaks; they came in together, they must go out together.’” The comet appeared on April 20th of the following year, and Twain died the following day. 

Oscar Wilde: The Irish author’s  life was full of omens portending his downfall and subsequent death, one of the most dramatic being an interaction with a chiromantist, or palm-reader, at a party. (This wasn’t Wilde’s first experience with chiromancy: two years previously, he had published a story about a man who gets his palm read at a party and then enacts the fate that the chiromantist predicted). The chiromantist told Wilde that the markings on his left palm foretold incredible success, while the right palm foretold his doom, which would befall him around the age of 40. Two years later, a few months after turning 41, Wilde experienced the height of his fame. Two months later, he was tried for homosexuality and sentenced to two years’ hard labor. Within three years of his release, he died of meningitis believed to have been caused by a fall in prison.