As a famous, catchy PSA song puts it, there are many “dumb” ways to die. Of course, for the dying person, the fact that their demise might be seen as laughable to observers with some distance likely wouldn’t make their death any more palatable. If anything, it might give them greater urgency stay alive, if for no other reason than to avoid having their final moments become a potential punchline. In this episode I talk about a range of people and characters, from medieval nobles to Golden Age Comics murderers, who are all subject to what Bill the Butcher of Gangs of New York termed, “an ignominious end.”
Seanbaby. “6 Weird Things That Terrified Our Nerd Grandparents.” Cracked.com, Cracked.com, 24 Oct. 2019, https://www.cracked.com/blog/6-weird-things-that-terrified-our-nerd-grandparents.
“Créase o No: Hace 30 Años Un Perrito Mató a Tres Personas Al Caer Desde El Piso 13.” Diario De Cuyo, Diario De Cuyo, 23 Oct. 2018, https://www.diariodecuyo.com.ar/enlasredes/Crease-o-no-hace-30-anos-un-perrito-mato-a-tres-personas-al-caer-desde-el-piso-13-20181023-0023.html.
The opening theme for Healthy Fears: “Dark Game Background Loop” by Claudiu D. Moga, licensed through Envato.
The closing theme for Healthy Fears: “Hitchcock Thriller” by JBlanks, licensed through Envato.
Other music for this episode by Jeffrey Pines.
Leaving the world on a low note is a strange yet valid thing to be concerned about. As much as I hate to say it, we all have to die. Presumably. I’m still hopeful that some aliens with immortalization technology will finally make contact with us before I die, though I am afraid that I’ll just end up dying like the week before they actually arrive. Which is something that you might not think of as embarrassing, but given some of my luck, people who know me would be able to get in one last, “That’s just like Johnny,” at my funeral before going to line up for the immortalizer injections that also probably let you breathe underwater. Still, on the scale of most embarrassing to least embarrassing death possibilities, that would be pretty tame.
Regarding death, either your existence ceases, so you won’t feel any shame, or if one or more of our most prominent religions are correct, you will move on to whatever stage of existence you have earned, and your humiliating death will either be of no concern, or the least of your concerns. But I think it’s valid to be afraid of an unfitting end, or to be worried about dying in a way that might make it especially hard for your surviving loved ones. Whether it’s because they might find your body in a… compromising or unflattering position, or they have to deal with unexpected reminders of your death coming to them as a joke or flippant remark.
And there are circumstances where an embarrassing death must give someone time enough surely to think on their fate and wonder, “Is this really how I die?” To be fair, a perfectly respectable or relatively ordinary death can also do that, but others would possibly make someone realize that their death will be the subject of ridicule, or at least a curiosity that’s at least as mirthful as it is morbid. In other situations, the indignity suffered in death may not be as obvious as many of us initially think.
For me, this relates to something that came up in season one, episode nine, regarding animal attacks, and in particular being eaten, in whole or part, by wild carnivore. There I mentioned how Val Plumwood, an Australian philosopher, survived a crocodile attack that included three deathroll attempts. She sums up the indignity of being eaten by another animal, when we as human beings consider ourselves well beyond the food chain, barring extraordinary events.
“The thought, This can’t be happening to me, I’m a human being. I am more than just food! was one component of my terminal incredulity. It was a shocking reduction, from a complex human being to a mere piece of meat.”
For a long time, I have held an irrational fear of the idea of being eaten, precisely because I feel it would be embarrassing in the way that Val Plumwood eloquently stated. It’s irrational because, in the end, we all must decompose, and decomposition is just one way of being devoured and reduced, but there’s something about it happening in the final moments of your life that elevates it to an unsavory level…beyond the whole “untimely and painful death” element of it. Something specific to being consumed and completely digested, with all that entails. I think I can trace this back to Return of the Jedi of all places, the Star Wars film I have earliest memories of watching, which features two different monstrous, carnivorous threats in its opening act, the rancor and the sarlacc, both of whom are happy to eat their sapient prey alive.
Even the idea of being metaphorically devoured as though you’re dead morsels on a plate can prove a step too far for someone who’s already endured a number of humiliations, as seen in season 3 of Fargo. The once-wealthy businessman Emmitt Stussy has been abused and disgraced in ways ranging from dispiriting to disgusting since the villain V.M. Varga arrived in his life, and the threat of death has been hanging over his head the entire time. But it isn’t until Varga likens Emmitt to food that’s already accepted death and fallen weak in his mouth that Emmitt snaps and pulls a gun on him. His resolve is fleeting and futile, but it shows how even a man who was earlier pressured just by the implication of a threat into drinking something appalling can’t abide the abasement of even figuratively being reduced to food.
Nonetheless, there’s something potentially noble about circumstances that can lead to you being devoured by a wild animal. Spoilers for a decades-old movie based on an even older book, but in Legends of the Fall… The bear that gives Trisan his good death at the end likely eats at least part of him. Waste not want not. But it is, again, a good death, as narrated by One Stab, the Cree friend to his family, and there can indeed be something primally heroic and almost romantic–in one sense of the word–about fighting for your life against a beast naturally better equipped to kill and eat you, even if you’re doomed to lose. There are other humiliating deaths for which there is no potential upside.
Way back in the late 12th Century, the king of the Germanic “Holy Roman Empire” called many nobles to a meeting in the Petersburg Citadel in the city of Erfurt. And as a warning to those squeamish about the scatological and who are unaware of what happens next, I’ll be trying to use the least crude terminology I can, but that only mitigates calling things as they are so much.
The meeting was called to mediate a conflict between two rivals, but dozens of nobles arrived to bear witness. They were all brought into the second floor of the citadel, and their collective weight proved too much for the wooden floorboards. Their collective fall next proved too much for the ground floor, and that gave way as well. Beneath that was the cesspit of the building’s latrine. A host of nobles, in the presence of the king, among the highest ranking members of society, all fell into a giant pool of human waste. It sounds like something from a gross-out comedy movie, until we get to the part that makes this event suitable for this episode.
The contents of the cesspit were deep enough to submerge a grown man of the period–particularly one injured by a two-story fall–and had a consistency inconducive to swimming, floating, or otherwise easily keeping one’s head above the effluvium. Sixty-plus noblemen died in the event. Some were relatively fortunate enough to die during the fall. Others smothered or drowned in excrement.
This would obviously be a uniquely undesirable way to go for anyone. For some of the elite members of society, I have to imagine it was an almost otherworldly fate. Just as Val was cognizant of being turned into food during her attack, I think at least a few of the nobles had to be aware of the potential of their death becoming a joke, in part because of their nobility. If this kind of thing happened to commoners, it would be no less mortifying, but less ripe for easy amusement. Sixty laborers assigned to clean the pits dying in an accident would be horrible, obviously, but also readily recognized as tragic. Sixty noblemen dressed in fineries of the day dying in the same way is no less horrible, objectively, but even with that in mind the image and juxtaposition of nobility smothered in filth is ready-made for comedy.
These were not the only men of such stature–or above–to die in at least related circumstances. In the 12th Century B.C., King Eglon of Moab was assassinated while relieving himself. That’s captured for posterity in the Old Testament.
During the “Spring and Autumn” epoch of Ancient China, Duke Jing of Jin reportedly fell into the receptacle while attempting to relieve a bloated sensation, and died therein. Then there’s English King Edmond Ironside who was not the only man in his position–pun acknowledged–who was assassinated, similar to King Eglon and to the fictional Tywin Lannister, while sitting on the euphemistic “throne.”
Other kings and leaders have died in ways unbecoming their stations or intended legacies. Two different kings of France–Louis III and Charles VIII–died after hitting their heads on the lintel of a doorframe. Basically something that would happen to a tall guy in a slapstick bit–and as a tall guy myself, who has failed to duck low enough to clear a particularly low doorway once or twice, I can attest that such a thing is just a s funny as it is temporarily painful. But, Dear God, I know I’ve been granted some incredible fortune in recent years, but if you will permit me just the slightest additional grace, please don’t let my death come from hitting my head on a low clearance entryway like I’m the long lost Black member of the Stooges.
Speaking of commonly known comedic cliches–no slight to the Stooges, I love those guys–but there once was a relatively famous man who died as a result of slipping on an orange peel. Not quite a banana peel, but very close, and only slightly less funny because the word banana is funnier than the word orange. The dead man in question is named Bobby Leach, and the reason for his mild fame was his successful venture over Niagara Falls, becoming only the second person to do so, and the first man to do so after Annie Taylor. The trip over the falls in a metal barrel that looks like a giant bullet didn’t leave him unscathed. He sustained several significant injuries including broken kneecaps and a broken jaw, but he survived. And he was 43-years-old at the time. I’m… Let’s say in range of that age at the time of this writing, and I like to think I’m a relatively healthy x-years-old, benefitting from all the health-science privy to us here in the 21st Century. He was 43 in 1901, and if you look at pictures of him from the immediate aftermath of the fall, injuries notwithstanding, his forty-three looks more like a modern sixty-three if you’re generous, seventy-three if you’re less generous. Point being, he was hardly a young and fit man when he survived the fall, but survive he did. Only to die twenty-five-years later from injuries and surgical complications sustained after slipping on said orange peel.
If you’re the first man to live through a 167-foot plummet over the nation’s most famous waterfall, I have to imagine you don’t think slipping on a discarded fruit peeling–something worthy of a Warner Brothers cartoon gag–is going to be what seals your fate. It’s like Mel Brooks collaborated with O. Henry to kill a mutually despised character. If there are no gods at all, surely one or more of them spontaneously burst into existence just to orchestrate Bobby Leach’s ignominious end.
That term, the title of this episode, is taken from Bill the Butcher, from Martin Scorcese’s Gangs of New York. His version of an ignominious end, as he describes it, is an assassination at the hands of a nobody he considers a coward, as opposed to a death in combat, a death at the hands of someone he considers honorable. It shows once again how the dreaded unfitting or “embarrassing” death can be dependent on what the dead man would consider ignominious, which is sometimes something the survivors alone are left to speculate, as death arrived too swiftly for the victim to comment on it.
In The Wire, for instance, the legendary figure Omar Little, who has all but singlehandedly tangled with the deadliest gangs in Baltimore, meets his fate at a corner store, shot while he’s got his guard down at the counter, never seeing it coming. His killer? Not one of his many rivals and peers, major figures in the criminal underworld, but a child who doesn’t even become a footnote in local lore. Later, as if rejecting the possibility of Omar’s murder coming at the hands of someone so insignificant, people on the street are overheard trading glorious, fabricated rumors about the way he died. Stories that maintain his legend. The truth is never even hinted at, as if it’s almost incomprehensible given Omar’s reputation, despite being the truth.
In a memorable moment from Batman: The Animated Series, we discover the one thing that makes the Joker so afraid he’s willing to call for help from his archnemesis. Perhaps the only thing that can scare this version of The Joker at all. It’s not the presence of another, deadlier and more terrifying villain. It’s certainly not the presence of Batman himself, and not simply the prospect of dying. It is the idea of being killed by a “nobody,” which he comes face to face with in the episode “Joker’s Favor.” A man The Joker has relentlessly tormented just for kicks finally snaps and manages to corner the Joker while holding a time bomb. It’s a bluff, but it’s effective in getting the villain who very rarely takes anything seriously to break down and scream for The Batman to save him. Because that “nobody,” an ordinary man named Charlie Collins, is right when he points out that one of the only things the Joker fears is going out with a whimper–at the hands of some average Joe, no less–instead of departing with a big bang, preferably in a farewell fracas with The Dark Knight.
With all of this said, one needn’t be a noble, or ruler, or pioneering stuntman, or near-mythical crime figure, or supervillain to suffer an embarrassing death, and be worried about such a thing. On one hand it might feel a bit insulting to point out the unusually undesirable deaths of ordinary people caught up in extraordinary events that have a certain potential for amusement, or the aforementioned mirthfully morbid curiosity. On the other hand, I believe disqualifying such deaths from the discussion simply because the victims were “ordinary people” does a disservice to them. They may not have been kings or kingpins, but they were still brothers and sons, mothers and daughters, grandparents or grandchildren. Or simply themselves. Either way–in their way–people of value. And I do think that, in a strange, roundabout way, identifying the shame in their peculiar deaths highlights that value, because you’re inherently saying that they, like anyone else, deserved something better.
The infamous Molasses Flood of Boston comes to mind. Likewise the London Beer Flood from a century earlier than that. Nobody would want someone they love to drown at all. It is, by all accounts and descriptions, decidedly unpleasant. But the overwhelming majority of drownings are the result of a natural event, or at least an approximation of something that can occur in nature. Rivers jump their banks. Ocean tides are pushed inland by storms or earthquakes. Or people out for recreational enjoyment of less volatile waters find themselves unable to stay above the surface for one reason or another. If someone drowns in a pond or a backyard pool, in a flood caused by torrential downpours or one caused by a dam failing, it is tragic, but not bizarre. Drowning in an enormous, crushing wave of molasses or fermenting porter is the kind of thing that might lead one to believe the universe has a dark and twisted sense of humor. No one wants to think of small children and grizzled war veterans alike being overcome by a gigantic mass of syrup or alcohol, and you might want even less to imagine yourself in that bewildering circumstance, yet when you hear of such a thing it’s understandable to find it a little bit amusing.
Then there are deaths that have to be considered at least somewhat foolish. Related to the two previous flood examples, there is the Dublin Whiskey Flood of 1875. No one drowned in this event, precipitated by a fire, as the river of whiskey that flowed through the city was said to only be six inches deep. Instead, all deaths were a result of alcohol poisoning. People drank of the free stream of burning street whiskey; twenty-four of them got sick enough to be hospitalized, and thirteen died.
Others fatal actions are more forgivable, if no less ripe for comedy. The British sketch series Horrible Histories had a running bit called “Stupid Deaths,” one of the most memorable, in my opinion, being the story of Clement Vallandigham, a lawyer who successfully defended his client, charged with murder, by demonstrating how the victim could have accidentally shot himself. Mistakenly believing he was conducting this demonstration with an unloaded gun, Clement followed through far more than he intended to by accidentally shooting himself in the stomach, a mortal wound he would never recover from.
Then there are fatal events that seem silly enough to be stories made up on the spot by a child. In Buenos Aires in 1988, a 75-year-old woman named Marta Espina was walking past a high rise apartment building right at the time a poor poodle named Cachy fell from the 13th floor balcony it was playing on. The dog struck Marta in the skull, killing her instantly and dying itself. While a crowd gathered to observe the scene, a woman named Edith Solá crossed the street to join them, but never made it. She was hit by a bus and killed on impact. A man who remained unidentified witnessed both deaths, and the stress of it all gave him a heart attack. He died in an ambulance en route to the hospital.
I think it’s safe to say most of us would rather not die, even at an advanced age, because a poodle fell on your head. Just feels like that has to make the funeral a little bit awkward, or even the phone calls to friends and family beforehand to tell them what happened. It’s too ridiculous not to be a little bit funny; I mean a poodle fell on her head. But she was quite possibly someone’s grandmother, or great-grandmother. 46-year-old Edith might have been a sister, or favorite aunt, or just a cherished friend. And the gentleman who died could’ve been anybody but we can hardly even speculate because this splinter of a sliver of abnormal history didn’t give us a name or age to paint a picture with. And oh, by the way, the unfortunate poodle was somebody’s beloved pet. Nobody wants to be on that end of the story either.
“Oh I’m sorry to hear about your dog passing, how did it happen?”
“She fell off the balcony, dropped thirteen stories and murdered a little old lady on the way down.”
“God, that’s horrible.”
“It gets worse…”
Death can be scary on its own. Things associated with it can enhance the fear we have of it. It can take us before we’re ready, or before we feel we’ve lived a full life, done everything we could do. It can come to us without warning, take us away in our sleep or blink us out of consciousness with a small eruption of a blood vessel in our brains. It can be painful and prolonged, making the precious little bit of time we have left miserable. That’s all more than enough to contend with without adding the possibility of it also being a punchline.
Nonetheless, this is about as close as I think I can get to a “comedy episode” this season as part of the show’s standard format, and I certainly need one after the last three episodes, so at this point I’d like to share a handful of my favorite fictional deaths that, if these characters had actually survived, might make them wish they could just crawl into a hole and die. Figuratively.
The thing about these death scenes is that some of them still kind of disturb me even when they’re meant to be on the funnier side. And not necessarily for the reason you might think.
Take for example the death of Lewis Mago, a one-off, very minor character played by Jake Busey in the television series Justified. Lewis works with explosives, has a higher opinion of himself and his expertise than he should, and is more than a little bit loopy. His nickname is “The Wiz” and you get the feeling he gave that one to himself. He is carrying explosives and preparing to help two other criminals to blow up a safe when a cell phone rings. And he’s understandably upset because he specifically told these other two men not to bring cell phones with them: a ringing phone could accidentally act as a remote detonator for the bomb he’s rigging up. The two men he’s speaking to, consummate criminal professionals, one of whom has his own history and level of expertise with explosives, just look at each other confused. Of course they didn’t bring their phones with them. They’re not idiots. If anyone in the room is stupid enough to make that mistake, it’s the guy who arrogantly thinks he’s the smartest person present, who goes with the nickname, “The Wiz”…
You won’t be surprised to find out that Lewis is indeed the forgetful party and pays for this by exploding into a fine mist of blood. It’s a splat-stick comedy bit that paints the stunned–but not too stunned–survivors in Lewis’s wet red remains. But just before he blows up, Lewis gets this look on his face. It’s realization that’s approaching horror but doesn’t have near enough time to get there. It’s well-performed by Jake Busey; his expression is painted in my memory. Something about that kind of moment crawls on a hundred little legs under my skin. Seeing a look of abject terror on a character’s face has the potential to shake me up as well, of course, but there’s something about the more rarely seen expressions that mix a little bit of confusion, questioning or denial in with the dawning of impending death that sticks with me.
Another scene that makes me crane my neck to stretch the chills out of it, despite it not being all that scary of a moment, is somewhat related. It comes late in the 1977 film The Haunting of Julia. The difference is that the character who dies doesn’t have any realization at all on his face. He just has enough time to reflexively react like he’s seeing a relatively mundane accident, seeing a drinking glass at the edge of a table falling toward the floor and reaching to catch it, for instance. That’s essentially what happens to him, except instead of a glass falling to the floor, it’s a plugged in lamp falling into the full bathtub he’s currently in. The reason the lamp falls is because a phantom breeze comes through an open window pushes it off its stand right above the tub, but it pretty much falls straight down. Not like the ghost had to toss it across the bathroom or anything. This being a world where ghosts exist, I have to believe his spirit immediately afterward was thinking, “Well, that was at least half on me. I could have put the lamp just about anywhere else.”
Another thing that unnerves me about both of the death scenes is that I have a history of this kind of shortsightedness. I have my little snide comments about both of these men, but in the past I’ve been the kind of guy who might be so focused on telling everyone else to check their cell phones at the door for safety reasons that I forget to check my own. Or the kind of guy who has needed someone else to point out that you shouldn’t place any plugged-in electronics perilously close to the water you plan to be in.
Still, there are other embarrassing deaths that I can simultaneously relate to while still finding them purely humorous. In one of my favorite films based on the work of one of my favorite authors, Out of Sight, there’s a character who repeatedly trips, stumbles and falls throughout the film. Now, I’m a somewhat clumsy guy myself who has fallen down the stairs of his own homes, so in that respect I see a small bit of myself in this character. The thing is, I’m fully cognizant of how clumsy I can be, so I tend to watch my step, and definitely don’t think I would trip and fall up the stairs while carrying a loaded gun and accidentally shoot myself in the head. Maybe I’m wrong about that, but for heaven’s sake I hope not.
Lastly, I leave you with an all-time great. One that takes us back to the Golden Age of Horror Comics. They weren’t only enamored with burying characters alive, as I talked about in episode 12. In the Vault of Horror Issue #23 there is a death in a shower stall that is the result of a comedy of errors that ensues when suds from a bar of soap get into a man’s eyes. In fairness to the man who dies in this hilariously absurd fashion, Ernie, it’s implied that the soap may be somewhat haunted. It’s made in part from the remains of the man Ernie murdered earlier, his former boss from a soap manufacturing company, Benny. Now I propose it’s both reasonable for Ernie not to expect that a bar of soap can be haunted and vengeful, but also unreasonable to bathe using soap made from the remains of a murder victim, and I think the latter far outweighs the former in this case, so Ernie is still well-deserving of ridicule.
But I mentioned a comedy of errors a moment ago. About that. A terrifically funny play-by-play breakdown of why Ernie’s death is so laughable is captured in an article written by humorist Seanbaby, one of the last articles he wrote for Cracked before moving on to his own enterprise. The link to the article will appear in the show notes, you really should read it for the great jokes as well as to see the actual panels from the comic. For my part I’ll try my best to help you visualize what happens: Ernie gets soap in his eyes; this thing that has happened to every person who has ever showered temporarily blinds him and in his unnecessary flailing he turns the hot water on full blast. He blindly searches for the shower door to get out, and here is where I’d like to point out that he’s in a regular-sized shower stall. It’s not like he was to take several steps or any steps at all to find the door. He should just be able to reach for it, maybe he’d have to turn around at absolute most.
You know… The rapper 2 Chainz on the song “3500” once bragged that his bathtub was the size of a swimming pool. It’s one of those lines Jeff and I have added to our list of things rappers boast about that actually sound really inconvenient. But if Ernie found himself in such an outsized showering space his inability to find the exit would be far more understandable. Instead–I can’t stress this enough–he’s in an ordinary-sized shower.
So instead of walking right out, he slips on the bar of soap, which he dropped, and breaks his leg. Now he’s on the floor of the shower under a steady spray of scalding water and dealing with a major leg injury. The shower begins filling with water because the ghost soap has lodged itself in the drain. And since Ernie can no longer stand, and can only kneel at most, he can no longer reach the handle for the shower door or the knobs to shut off the water, because either someone designed this otherwise ordinary shower to have some needlessly high fixtures, or Ernie is subconsciously trying to die. And die he does, drowning when the water level rises above his head.
Little wonder that when this episode was adapted for the Tales From the Crypt television series in 1995, this death scene was changed completely. They made the soap deadly because it contained some impossibly strong stomach acid from the murder victim. I still wish we’d gotten a live action version of what happens in the original comic.
To put a bow on this episode, I’d first like to cite Jamaican Dancehall singer Cutty Ranks who once said there are 6 million ways to die. That number’s probably a little inflated, but, without any proof whatsoever, I like to think his lyrics might have influenced the very popular Melbourne Metro made PSA, “Dumb Ways to Die.” That song has over a quarter of a billion views on YouTube, who knows how many other plays on various other platforms, and is one of the most popular examples of the long tradition of grim public service announcements relaying the message, “Don’t Lose Your Life Doing Something Stupid.” Some embarrassing deaths aren’t consciously avoidable. Sometimes you’re minding your own business when 300,000 gallons of beer comes crashing down the street. Other times, however, all you need to do is double check that the gun you’re using for a demonstration in court isn’t loaded. So do that, not just for your own benefit, but for everyone else’s. You don’t want to be remembered as the guy who blew up because his phone rang, or was electrocuted because he kept a lamp unnecessarily close to the bathtub, or drowned because he panicked when a little soap got in his eyes. The threat of death might not be enough to dissuade some people from dangerous behavior, but the fear of posthumously being considered a fool might actually save a life or two.