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10 Very Peculiar Deaths

At this festive time of snowflakes and perfect gifts our thoughts turn naturally to death. And so for the edification of those who still cling to life in the face of seasonal goodwill, here’s my choice of the most curious ends recorded.

1. Croc on a plane. An escaped crocodile triggered a plane crash on 25 August 2011. A passenger on an internal flight in the Democratic Republic of Congo smuggled the reptile on board in a sports holdall, hoping to sell it when he got to his destination. When the croc escaped, panicking passengers stampeded towards the cockpit and threw the aeroplane off balance. The pilots struggled desperately with the controls, but were unable to save the plane, which crashed a few hundred feet from the landing strip at Bandundu.

2. Had his fill. In Sweden they teach schoolkids to remember King Adolf Frederick as the king who ate himself to death. On 12 February 1771 Adolf Frederick suffered fatal digestive problems after downing a meal of caviar, lobsters, sauerkraut and kippers, washed down with champagne and followed by 14 servings of his favourite pudding.

3. Deadly paranoia. Austrian-American mathematician and philosopher Kurt Gödel, one of the most important logicians in human history, had an obsessive fear of being poisoned. Gödel would only eat food his wife Adele had prepared. He starved to death when Adele was hospitalised for six months in 1978.

 Many murders have been provoked by unsatisfactory karaoke performances

4. Karaoke rage. Many murders in the Philippines have apparently been provoked by unsatisfactory karaoke performances. The incidents are most often linked with the Frank Sinatra hit My Way, prompting newspapers to call them the “‘My Way’ Killings”. On 29 May 2007 a bar’s security guard killed a 29-year-old man who was singing “My Way” in San Mateo, Rizal province. Reportedly, the guard objected that the man’s rendition was off-key. When the victim refused to stop singing the guard pulled a .38-calibre pistol and shot him.

5. Room 11. The Swedish writer and composer Dan Andersson checked into room 11 of the Hotel Hellman in Stockholm on 16 September 1920 and was found dead in his room at 3pm that afternoon. Hotel staff had fumigated his bed with cyanide to kill bedbugs and neglected to air the room afterwards.

6. Overcome by the response. Draco, the ancient Athenian lawmaker who came up with the original draconian legislation, was smothered to death by adoring fans at a theatre on Aegina. In a traditional Greek show of appreciation, Draco’s admirers threw their hats, cloaks and shirts on top of him – so many that he suffocated under them and was buried in the theatre.

7. Kiss of death. Canadian teenager Christine Desforges suddenly passed out after kissing her boyfriend. Despite a prompt adrenaline injection doctors were unable to revive her, and she died shortly afterwards. Unbeknownst to her boyfriend Christine had a nut allergy. He had eaten a peanut butter sandwich nine hours before.

Martin had scoffed a whole goose when his jester told him a joke.

8. Fatal laughter. King Martin of Aragon died in Barcelona in 1410 of indigestion combined with uncontrollable laughter. Martin was suffering stomach pains after having scoffed a whole goose when his jester told him a joke. Martin asked the jester where he’d come from. He replied: “Out of the next vineyard, where I saw a young deer hanging by his tail from a tree, as if someone had so punished him for stealing figs.” This joke presumably made more sense in 1410: the king died laughing.

9. Chewing gum detonation. Exploding chewing gum killed a chemistry student in Ukraine in 2009. The 25-year-old man was working at home on his computer when relatives heard a “loud pop”. Rushing to see what had happened, they found him with serious injuries to his lower face. Tests found the chewing gum was covered with an unidentified material, thought to be a type of explosive. The student was apparently in the habit of dipping his chewing gum into powdered citric acid to give it a sour taste: investigators speculated that he’d confused the two substances and chewed on the explosive instead. Paramedics were unable to save him.

10. The Dancing Plague. In July 1518 a Strasbourg woman, Frau Troffea, began violently dancing in the street. She didn’t look particularly happy, but seemed unable to stop. A neighbour joined her; then another. Within a few days about a hundred people were dancing uncontrollably. By the end of August about 400 citizens had succumbed to the mania. The authorities, convinced the cure was to allow the victims to dance day and night till the compulsion wore off, set up a wooden stage, called in musicians and encouraged them to continue. By the time the plague faded away in September, numerous people had danced themselves to death.

Pigeon-guided missiles, Ninja dwarves, giant amoebas in the sky – the Fortean Times has got them covered

The supreme chronicle of bizarre happenings has just turned 40.

Since 1973 the Fortean Times has been dispensing bulletins about wolf children and pigeon-guided missiles, Ninja dwarves, vanishing tribes, talking tortoises and giant amoebas in the sky, sudden showers of small fish, rhubarb chutney explosions, buried Templar treasures and man-eating monsters in Siberian lakes. It’s a heady smorgasbord that makes the FT “probably the most remarkable magazine in the English speaking world,” according to the Edinburgh Review.

The Fortean Times: forty years of making heads go whoosh (Copyright Fortean Times 2013)
The Fortean Times: forty years of making heads go whoosh (Copyright Fortean Times 2013)

Founding editor Bob Rickard bashed out his first 20-page miscellany of curiosities on a typewriter, decorated it with Letraset and flogged it to fellow enthusiasts for 35p. From that modest beginning the FT has grown into a much loved full-colour glossy. Alan Moore, the author of V for Vendetta, proclaims it his “very favourite magazine in the world, material or otherwise!” And Moore is by no means the mag’s only fan.

The FT takes its name and inspiration from the patron saint of weird knowledge, Charles Fort. A generously upholstered New York gent with thick glasses and a fine walrus moustache, Fort laboured in the bowels of the British Museum and the New York Public Library throughout the 1910s and 1920s, obsessively collecting records of unexplained events from around the world on thousands of scraps of paper. By the time he died in 1932 he’d published four volumes of sensational reports with titles like Lo! He’d amassed 60,000 notes in shoeboxes. He’d also spawned a new discipline: the study of extraordinary phenomena not covered by mainstream science – or Forteana.

By 1932 he’d amassed 60,000 notes in shoeboxes and spawned a new discipline.

Everything outside the range of everyday experience fascinated Fort. He collected accounts of unidentified lights in the sky, crop circles, showers of frogs and fish, people who suddenly burst into flames, people who vanished without trace, objects that appeared in strange places, loud inexplicable noises, appearances of ball lightning and sightings of outlandish beasts. Nowadays we call this kind of thing “paranormal.”

A lot of paranormal talk centres on anecdotes whose details can’t be verified. But from time to time it leads to astonishing facts. In a recent example, an Oxford geneticist’s investigation into the yeti has yielded spectacular results. Prof. Bryan Sykes tested the DNA in samples of hair from two widely separated areas of the Himalayas. One came from the mummified remains of a creature a hunter had shot around 40 years ago in Ladakh in northern India. The other was a single hair a film expedition found in a bamboo forest in Bhutan ten years ago.

Amazingly the tests revealed an exact genetic match with the 40,000-to-120,000-year-old jawbone of a polar bear picked up on the other side of the world, in the Svalbard archipelago. More work needs to be done, but the results suggest that an as yet undiscovered kind of bear roams the high altitudes of the Himalayas. It could be the cryptozoological discovery of the decade.

(Copyright Fortean Times 2013)
First and latest editions of the Fortean Times (Copyright Fortean Times 2013)

For its loyal readers, the FT’s role in collecting reports of anomalous happenings makes it an irreplaceable resource. “It’s a journal of weird record,” explains FT writer and QI researcher Mat Coward, “a source of humour, a refuge for valuable and vulnerable eccentrics, a platform for controversy and debate, and occasionally … an organ for investigating important matters which the mainstream … is unable to investigate. But the FT also makes your head go whoosh, and that’s the bit I like best.”

It’s a shame to mention problems in the midst of the celebrations, but for all the FT’s strengths there’s some reason to worry about its future in an increasingly mobile media environment. Every print magazine must find a way to deal with the seismic shift in audiences as droves of readers turn away from print to digital formats, and the FT hasn’t been immune to the trend: ABC circulation figures suggest its print readership is about 40% smaller today than ten years ago.

The FT makes your head go whoosh, and that’s the bit I like the best.

Its inimitable personality and core of loyal subscribers give the FT an excellent chance of continuing its success into the next forty years. But its publisher Dennis urgently needs to invest in its online future. The fact the magazine’s now available as a digital edition for tablets and PCs is encouraging. But the FT’s website is looking sadly neglected: it hasn’t had a redesign for years and much of the content seems out of date. It’s high time the printed mag was complemented with an equally satisfying website – a mobile-friendly outlet for the kind of fresh tidbits that will attract a new online audience.

There’s an untold mob of online readers out there ready to discover the Fortean Times, but it needs more support from its publisher to reach them. Dennis should cherish this national treasure.