Deaths of Remarkable People

Lyle Larsen


    The French author Montaigne is said to have amused himself with collecting incidents surrounding the deaths of remarkable people.  Whether this collection ever saw print, or whether it even survives in manuscript, I have not been able to learn.  If it still exists, the following items might be useful additions to it.

    Ben Jonson, critic and playwright in the time of Shakespeare and Marlowe, is said to have asked King Charles I to grant him eighteen square inches of land anywhere in England that he chose.  The King thought this too little and offered more, but Jonson refused, saying that what he asked for would serve his purpose.   When Charles granted the wish, Jonson asked for an eighteen square inch plot in the Poets' Corner of Westminster Abbey, where he was eventually buried, standing up, with the inscription above his head, "O rare Ben Jonson!"

    In 1849, when another grave was dug nearby, the wall of Jonson's grave collapsed into the new one.  The superintendent in charge of the work detail said that he saw "the two leg-bones of Jonson, fixed bolt upright in the sand, as though the body had been buried in the upright position; and the skull came rolling down among the sand, from the position above the leg-bones, to the bottom of the newly made grave.  There was still hair upon it, and it was of a red colour."

    Queen Elizabeth died the 24th of March 1603.  A ghastly incident occurred two days later which Lady Southwell, one of the women who helped attend the corpse, noted in her diary: "Last night whilst the ladies were in their places watching about the Queen's corpse which was fast nailed up in a board coffin, with leaves of lead covered with velvet, her body burst with such a crack that it splitted the wood, lead and cerecloth, so that to-day she was fain to be new trimmed up."

    Anne Boleyn, unfortunate wife of King Henry VIII, refused to wear a blindfold at her execution, saying that she was not afraid of death.  She consented only to keeping her eyes closed; but despite this promise, she persisted in nervously looking about, which distracted the executioner and made him fearful of missing his aim.   A plan was therefore quickly devised.  The executioner removed his shoes and crept up on the left side of the queen while another man walked up on her right making considerable noise.  As her attention and gaze were drawn to one side, the executioner struck off her head from the other.  On the following day her widower married Jane Seymour.

    Sir Thomas More, Lord Chancellor of England and author of Utopia, went to his execution in better spirits and with more good humor than Anne Boleyn.   As he climbed the scaffold, he said to the executioner, "I pray you, master lieutenant, see me safe up, and for my coming down, let me shift for myself."   Kneeling down before the block on which he was about to place his head, he again addressed the executioner, saying, "Pluck up thy spirits, man, and be not afraid to do thine office; my neck is very short; take heed therefore thou strike not awry, for saving of thine honesty [reputation]."  More was canonized by the Catholic Church in 1935.

    Jeremy Taylor, in his book The Rule and Exercise of Holy Dying (1651), tells us the manner in which the Greek playwright Aeschylus is supposed to have met his end: ". . . when the poet Escylus was sitting under the walls of his house, an eagle hovering over his bald head mistook it for a stone and let fall his oyster, hoping there to break the shell, but pierced the poor man's skull."

    Sir Francis Bacon's death is said to have been occasioned by his undertaking a scientific experiment.  It was his habit to take a turn in his coach in all sorts of weather.  On one of these excursions in the winter, as snow lay deep on the ground, he began to wonder if flesh could not be preserved in snow as well as in salt.   He stopped his coach, bought a hen, had it killed and eviscerated, and then stuffed it full of snow with his bare hands.  He quickly became chilled and fell so violently ill that he was taken to a friend's house rather than returned to his own lodgings.   He was put in a bed that proved to be damp, not having been slept in for some time, which made him so much worse that he died two or three days later.

    Two years before Jeremy Bentham died, the English philosopher and founder of Utilitarianism revised the will he had written in his twenty-second year.   He hoped that his body might be of use to mankind after it had ceased being of service to himself, so he desired that following his death, his remains be turned over to science for dissection.  He made the stipulation, however, that after dissection his skeleton be kept intact, that his head and hands be preserved, that he be dressed in his usual clothing, and that he be placed in his old chair in his accustomed attitude.   This stipulation came from Bentham's odd notion that instead of corpses being placed in the ground out of view, they ought to be preserved by friends and relations and put up at carefully chosen points around the house and grounds as permanent monuments, or "auto-icons" as he called them. 

    Following his death in 1832 at the age of 84, Bentham's requests were carried out by three of his trusted friends.  After his body was dissected by a group of medical men, his skeleton--surmounted by a replica wax head--was dressed in his old clothes, placed in his old chair, enclosed in a glass and mahogany case, and all was put on permanent display in the Anatomical Museum of University College Hospital, Gower Street, London, where it can still be seen today.  Bentham's real head was kept separately, but attempts to preserve it in its original condition failed.   The head is now parched and withered.  Photographs of Bentham's mummified head, together with his skeleton dressed in his old clothes, may be seen in issue 43 of Man, Myth & Magic.

    Franz Joseph Haydn, the great classical composer, led a life of peaceful tranquility compared with the troubles he experienced following his death in 1809.  A few days after he was buried, his body was dug up by grave-robbers and his head cut off.  The body was then reburied, and the head was taken to the man who had financed the desecration, a local phrenologist.  The phrenologist removed the flesh and subjected Haydn's skull to close examination, whereupon he found the music bump well-developed.  Following his examination, the phrenologist turned the skull over to a Mr. Rosenbaum, secretary to Haydn's former patron, Prince Esterhazy. Mr. Rosenbaum, in turn, gave Haydn's skull to his wife, a socialite who spent her time and money putting together intimate musical concerts.  Haydn's skull, enclosed in a glass case, soon became the focal point of her little soirees.

    It wasn't until 1820 that the authorities discovered the theft of Haydn's head when his remains were disinterred for removal to a new location where they were to be placed beneath a fine monument.  Once Haydn's skull was located, Mrs. Rosenbaum managed to retain possession of it through legal maneuvers until 1852.  At that time she presented it to the Society of the Friends of Music.  The Society kept the skull until early this century when new legal action was set in motion.  But with the intervention of two world wars, along with other complications, it wasn't until 1954 that Haydn's skull, after nearly a century and a half, was finally reunited with the rest of his body, and all of him was given the kind of burial he deserved.

    Mark Twain, pen name of Samuel Clemens, believed in ESP--what he called "mental telegraphy"--and was psychically gifted.  This may help underscore the curious circumstance attached to his birth and death.  Halley's Comet passes the earth once about every seventy-five years. It was visible in the sky on November 30, 1835, the night Clemens was born in Florida, Missouri.  Toward the end of his life, Twain was fond of saying that he had come into the world with Halley's Comet and that he fully expected to go out with it when next it came around.  Mark Twain died in his seventy-fifth year on April 21, 1910, the night Halley's Comet again appeared in the heavens.


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