Category Archives: Death

1498: French king dies in squalor after bumping head

french king
France’s Charles VIII

Charles VIII (1470-1498) was a French king of the late 15th century. The eldest son of the conniving, reclusive and unpopular Louis XI, 13-year-old Charles became king in August 1483. Contemporary chroniclers described the young prince as pleasant and likeable (he was later dubbed “Charles the Affable”). But a few more critical writers suggested he was too flighty, impatient and ambitious to make a wise monarch. Charles was also physically ungainly, an attribute that may have contributed to his death.

According to the court official and chronicler Philippe de Commines, Charles died in his 28th year after bumping his head while rushing to watch a game of tennis:

“On April 7th, being the eve of Palm Sunday, [he] took his queen by the hand and led her out of the chamber to a place where she had never been before, to see others play at jeu de paume [real tennis] in the castle ditch. They entered into the Haquelebac Gallery… known as the nastiest corner of the castle, crumbling at its entrance, and everyone did piss there that would. The king, though not a tall man, knocked his head [on the door frame] as he entered.”

After spending time watching the tennis and chatting to courtiers, Charles apparently collapsed. According to Commines, the king was attended by physicians who insisted he not be moved. Instead, the ailing monarch was laid on a makeshift bed made of timber slats, where he spent his final hours of life:

“It was around two [PM] when he collapsed and he lay motionless until eleven at night… The king was laid upon a crude bed and he never left it until he died, which was nine hours later… Thus died that great and powerful monarch, in a sordid and filthy place.”

Charles VIII died without issue, having lost three infant sons and a daughter to illness in the previous four years. The French throne passed to his cousin Louis of Orleans, who became Louis XII and ruled for 17 years. As was customary for the time, the new king also married Charles’ 21-year-old widow, Anne of Brittany.

Source: The Memoirs of Philip de Commines, Lord of Argenton, vol. 2, 1497-1501. Content on this page is © Alpha History 2016. Content may not be republished without our express permission. For more information please refer to our Terms of Use or contact Alpha History.

1758: Man dies from Spanish fly and “furious lust”

spanish fly
The Spanish fly – not really a fly and not specifically Spanish either

In the days before Viagra, medieval and early modern Europeans relied on a number of natural sexual stimulants. One of the most effective – but also most notorious – was ‘Spanish fly’, a substance produced by crushing green blister beetles into a powder. The active chemical compound in ‘Spanish fly’ is cantharidin, which is produced by the beetles as a defence mechanism. If ingested by humans it causes itching and irritation around the body but particularly in the genitalia and urinary tract of men.

Scores of European doctors prescribed cantharidin for sexual dysfunction and a range of health issues, without fully understanding its workings or dangers. There are several historical cases of cantharidin medicines producing satyriasis (excessive sexual lust) or priapism (permanent erection). One case from the mid 18th century apparently proved fatal:

“A doctor in Orange named Chauvel was called to Caderousse, a small town near his home, in 1758. There he saw a man suffering from a similar disease. At the doorway of the house, he found the sick man’s wife, who complained to him about the furious lust of her husband, who had ridden her 40 times in one night, and whose private parts were always swollen.”

Dr Chauvel’s investigations subsequently revealed that the overly excited man from Caderousse was dosed up on a cantharidin potion:

“The husband’s evil lusts came from a beverage similar to one given him by a woman at the hospital, to cure the intense fever that had afflicted him. But he fell into such a frenzy that others had to tie him up, as if he were possessed by the Devil… While Dr Chauvel was still present a local priest came to exorcise him, while the patient begged to be left to die. The women wrapped him in a sheet damp with water and vinegar until the following day…”

On their return the following day the patient’s “furious lust” had abated – but only because he was dead. From Chauvel’s description it is unclear whether he was murdered, mutilated after death – or perhaps died during a bizarre act of auto-fellatio:

“…He was dead, as stiff as a corpse. In his gaping mouth, with teeth bared, they found his gangrenous penis.”

Source: Pabrol, Observations Anatomiques, 1762. Content on this page is © Alpha History 2016. Content may not be republished without our express permission. For more information please refer to our Terms of Use or contact Alpha History.

1746: Hanged man found alive, “pissing in the chimney”

Unless carried out by a skilled executioner, hanging can be an unreliable method of capital punishment. History abounds with stories of hanged persons who survived the ordeal.

In a text on the mechanics of drowning, 18th-century physician Rowland Jackson described several documented cases of failed hangings. In Aremberg in the Rhineland, a local merchant named Landthaler was hanged from a tree and swung “for a whole hour” before being cut down. He was discovered to be alive and complained of nothing other than sore eyes and toe-tips.

In Cologne, a hanged robber was brought back to life by a passing servant – and then repaid the favour by trying to steal the servant’s horse. A similar tale occurred near Abbeville, Picardie, where a miller took a hanged thief home and nursed him back to life – only for the thief to burgle his house. In all three of these cases, the victims were returned to the gallows and hanged again, this time successfully.

More fortunate was a hanged man described by Mr Falconet, a “gentleman of strict probity and candour”. According to Falconet, his family had a “foolhardy coachman” who:

“…falling into a quarrel at Lyon, killed a man, and being apprehended on the spot was forthwith condemned to be hanged, which sentence was accordingly put into execution. The surgeons of the town, having obtained his body in order to make a skeleton, brought it into a surgery where they left it upon a table. But when they came next day to dissect it, they were surprised to find the man not only alive, but in good health, and pissing in the chimney – for the want, as he said, of a chamberpot. This man had stood in no need of remedies… the circulation of the blood had not been so long suppressed that it could of its own accord restore itself.”

Source: Rowland Jackson, A Physical Dissertation on Drowning, &c., London, 1746. Content on this page is © Alpha History 2016. Content may not be republished without our express permission. For more information please refer to our Terms of Use or contact Alpha History.

1322: Urine spill leads to fatal assault in London

In the 14th century, as today, a wayward spray of urine could land a man in an argument or a fight. On New Year’s Day 1322 – ironically also the feast of Christ’s circumcision – a young man named Philip de Asshetidone was emptying his bladder when he was joined at the urinal by William, son of Henry atte Rowe:

“William… stood at the top of St Vedast lane, near Chepe, and made water into a certain urinal [but] he cast the urine into the shoe of [Philip] and, because the latter complained, the said William struck him with his fist…”

According to a coronial report, William picked up a baton dropped by Philip and:

“…feloniously struck the said Philip over the forehead, inflicting a mortal wound an inch long and penetrating to the brain so that he fell to the ground, and was thence carried by men unknown for charity’s sake to the said hospital where he had his ecclesiastical rights… He died at the third hour of the said wound.”

Three bystanders escorted William off to prison but his subsequent fate is not recorded.

Source: Calendar of Coroners Rolls for the City of London, 1300-1378, roll B43. Content on this page is © Alpha History 2016. Content may not be republished without our express permission. For more information please refer to our Terms of Use or contact Alpha History.

1740: Test a corpse by stuffing garlic up its nose

Jean-Jacques Winslow was a French-born English physician of the early 18th century. Little is known of Winslow’s medical career but his real interest was death – and, in particular, the prevention of premature burial.

According to Winslow, his interest in this subject was personal: he had been a sickly child who was twice declared dead and once prematurely entombed. In 1740 Doctor Winslow published a lengthy treatise titled The Uncertainty of the Signs of Death and the Danger of Precipitate Internments. In it, he suggested that the only truly reliable sign of death was the onset of putrefaction. He also urged physicians and undertakers to complete a rigorous series of checks on corpses to ensure they were truly dead:

“Irritate his nostrils by instructing into them peppers, snuffs, salts, stimulating liquors, the juice of onions, garlic and horseradish, or the feathered end of a quill, or the point of a pencil. We must also rub his gums frequently and strongly with the same substances… Spirituous liquors ought also to be poured into his mouth, where these cannot be had it is customary to pour warm urine into it… Stimulate his organs of touch with whips and nettles. Irritate his intestines by means of clysters [enemas] of air and smoke. Agitate his limbs by violent extensions… and if possible, shock his ears with hideous shrieks and excessive noises.”

Winslow’s book went on to describe several survivors of premature burial, such as the case of Anne Greene, as well as some victims with less happy endings. No information is available about the date, cause or veracity of Winslow’s own death. But thanks to Winslow’s writings – not to mention some creative input from Edgar Allan Poe and others – the issue of premature burial remained a popular if somewhat macabre fascination, well into the 19th century.

Source: Jean-Jacques Winslow, The Uncertainty of the Signs of Death and the Danger of Precipitate Internments, London, 1740. Content on this page is © Alpha History 2016. Content may not be republished without our express permission. For more information please refer to our Terms of Use or contact Alpha History.