Death in a flash, or by cloak or cow

DEREK BURROWS
Last updated 08:27 24/07/2013
the goodies

THE GOODIES: Laugh? I could have died.

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Derek Burrows

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As Euripedes, that great writer of Greek tragedy, once wrote: No-one can confidently say that he will still be living tomorrow.

It's a sobering thought but it's an apt quotation to bear in mind when a few days ago it was reported a Brazilian man died in his bed when a cow fell on him.

Surely there can be no stranger or more unlikely ways to complete your allotted days on this planet than to be killed by an accident- prone beast falling on you while you are sleeping in your bed.

The unlucky man, Joao Maria de Souza, met his demise when a cow grazing on a hill behind his house wandered on to the roof, which then collapsed under the weight of the animal.

Mr De Souza's wife - and the cow - were unharmed but the man's injuries proved fatal. So just be grateful that it's likely to be only a possum that will stray on to your roof in New Zealand and not a geographically challenged friesian.

Actually, Euripedes' quotation about the uncertainty of life may well have been inspired by the fate of one of his fellow Greek tragedians.

This was the famous instance in 455BC when Aeschylus was killed when a passing eagle dropped a tortoise on his head. It was assumed at the time that the bird had mistaken Aeschylus's balding pate for a suitable rock on which to drop the tortoise to smash its shell. You would have to award the eagle 10 out of 10 for accuracy and 0 out of 10 for rock recognition.

Ironically, it is claimed that at the time Aeschylus had been spending most of his time outdoors because he wanted to thwart a prophesy that he would be killed by a falling object. It just goes to show you can't avoid your fate.

In fact, ancient Greeks generally don't seem to have had a lot of luck in the survival stakes. Two hundred years earlier an Athenian lawmaker, Draco, was supposedly smothered to death at a theatre by gifts of cloaks showered on him by grateful citizens.

Still, with a name like Draco, which sounds more like a drain- cleaning product, he probably wasn't too sorry to shuffle from this mortal coil.

Some unlikely and untimely demises are self-inflicted. For instance, in 1567 an Austrian burgomaster (that's the master of a town, not the proprietor of the local McDonald's) died from a broken neck when he tripped over his own beard.

Hans Steininger's beard was reputedly 1.4 metres long and usually kept rolled up in a leather pouch, which does seem to defeat the object of having such an impressive facial display. However, he was probably complying with an Austrian OSH requirement.

One man who certainly brought his death upon himself was the King of Sweden, Adolf Frederick. He died of digestion problems on February 12, 1771, after eating - and this takes a bit of swallowing - lobster, caviar, sauerkraut, smoked herring and champagne.

Still feeling a bit peckish he then downed 14 dishes of his favourite dessert, hetvagg - a traditional sweet roll served in hot milk. Unsurprisingly he took ill afterwards and is known to this day by Swedish schoolchildren as "the king who ate himself to death".

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Only 12 years later American revolutionary James Otis Jr tempted fate when he repeatedly mentioned to family and friends that he hoped his death would come by being killed by lightning.

It was a strange and morbid ambition but lightning had to strike only once to fulfil his wish and sure enough on May 23, 1783, he was killed when lightning struck the house of a friend in whose doorway he was standing. A classic example of "be careful what you wish for".

Bizarre deaths are found not just in dusty history books.

As recently as 1975, a 50-year-old English bricklayer, Alex Mitchell, was watching his favourite television sitcom, The Goodies.

Alex found a sketch called Kung Fu Kapers so hilarious he literally couldn't stop laughing.

He laughed for 25 minutes straight, at which point his heart gave out and he died.

A remarkably understanding widow sent the show a letter thanking the producers and performers for making her husband's last moments so enjoyable.

Reluctantly, I have to report that one of the most idiotic self- inflicted deaths happened in the English county in which I was born.

In 1552 a Nottinghamshire gentleman, Henry Pert, somehow contrived to shoot himself with his own arrow, a feat that surely deserves a place in the Guinness Book of Records.

Pert had stretched his bow to the fullest extent only for the arrow to become stuck. Recklessly he then turned the bow around to check the problem and the arrow suddenly released.

Unfortunately for Pert it wasn't a case of shooting yourself in the foot. His wounds proved fatal.

And to add insult to mortal injury it's worth remembering that Nottinghamshire is the county that gave the world that expert archer, Robin Hood.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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