A portrait of Napoleon by Antoine-Jean Gros. Credit: Photos.com via Getty Images.
You might think that dying while famous means a well-documented death proceeding from an obvious cause, but nothing could be further from the truth. Throughout history, notable figures have spent their final hours in situations clouded with uncertainty, rumor, and suspicion. Whether the deceased is an ancient emperor or a modern aviator, the potential culprit arsenic or a faulty radio, the circumstances surrounding these six strange historical deaths may never be fully understood.
1. Napoleon Bonaparte — May 5, 1821
On the surface, Napoleon’s end seems clear-cut: His death certificate listed stomach cancer as the cause of his demise. During the last weeks of his life in exile on the remote island of St. Helena, the former emperor of France had been complaining of stomach ailments, including pain and nausea, but Napoleon himself hinted something much darker than cancer was at work. In a will written three weeks before he died, he said: “I die before my time, murdered by the English oligarchy and its assassin.”
There has been some potential evidence to support his poisoning theory. In 1840, when Napoleon’s corpse was exhumed in St. Helena for a more dignified reburial in Paris, the body was reported to be in remarkably good condition. Some scientists have theorized that this could have been a side effect of arsenic exposure, which they argue could have had a preservative effect. In 1961, tests on samples of Napoleon’s hair did find elevated levels of arsenic, leading to a few decades of fevered speculation about a potential arsenic poisoning. However, a 2008 analysis of hairs taken at four periods of Napoleon’s life showed arsenic levels consistent throughout that time, as well as levels consistent with hairs taken from his son and wife.
If that makes it sound like everyone in the 19th century was being slowly poisoned with arsenic, that’s because they sort of were. Back then, the stuff didn’t need to be administered with malevolent intent to get into your system. Not only was it a common component of weed killers and rat poison, but it was often added to beauty products and medicinal tonics. It was also part of a popular green pigment used in paintings, fabrics, and wallpaper—including the wallpaper in the house where Napoleon died. (A sample nicked by a visitor in the 1820s survived for decades in a scrapbook and tested positive for arsenic in the 1990s.)
In addition to arsenic, Napoleon had been exposed to a number of other toxic substances as part of questionable medical treatments. His doctors were giving him tartar emetic (antimony potassium tartrate, which is poisonous) for his gastrointestinal issues, and two days before he died, Napoleon received a large dose of calomel (mercurous chloride) as a purgative. The stew of dubious chemicals in his system led an international team of toxicologists and pathologists to conclude in 2004 that Napoleon’s death was a case of “medical misadventure,” in which the drugs he’d been exposed to, combined with his already weak health, led to a disturbance of his heart’s rhythm that ultimately produced his death.
That doesn’t mean the stomach cancer idea has been put to rest, however. In 2007, a study based on the autopsy reports and memoirs from Napoleon’s physician as well as other documentation compared descriptions of the lesions found in Napoleon’s stomach during his autopsy with modern images of benign and cancerous gastric lesions. The paper concluded that the dead emperor’s lesions were most likely cancer, which had spread to other organs. The cancer was likely a result of Helicobacter pylori, bacteria that damages stomach lining; the salt-preserved foods Napoleon consumed on his extended military campaigns may have also contributed. In truth, it’s highly possible that a number of factors contributed to Napoleon’s death, with or without the interference of the English.
2. Amelia Earhart — July 2, 1937 (Disappeared)
Amelia Earhart is probably best known for two things: becoming the first woman to fly alone across the Atlantic in 1932, and disappearing five years later.
On July 2, 1937, Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan, were on one of the last and most difficult legs of their attempt at a round-the-world flight—a nonstop trip from Lae, New Guinea, to Howland Island in the South Pacific, where the pair planned to refuel before continuing to Hawaii. Around 6 a.m. that day, her plane radioed the Coast Guard cutter Itasca, which was anchored off Howland to provide them with guidance. But there were communication troubles: The ship was using bandwidths Earhart wasn’t able to receive, and some key radio equipment on the Itasca had run out of batteries. For hours, the ship transmitted messages Earhart couldn’t hear, and her messages back to them were worrying—she mentioned running low on fuel, and not being able to see land. By 8:45 a.m., ship and plane had lost contact.
Despite an extensive air and sea search by the Itasca and the U.S. government, neither Earhart nor Noonan were ever heard from again. The official explanation is that Earhart’s plane ran out of fuel and crashed into the Pacific, but since no one is certain where the plane went down, finding the wreckage has proved difficult. However, some researchers think Earhart and Noonan may have briefly survived as castaways on a nearby island before eventually succumbing to the elements.
The castaway theory has gained acceptance in part because of efforts by a nonprofit called the International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR). Its executive director, Richard Gillespie, believes that Earhart and Noonan ended up on Nikumaroro, about 350 nautical miles southeast of Howland, in the Republic of Kiribati. The island’s location fits the line of flight that Earhart identified in her last radio message, and researchers think they’ve uncovered photographs that show landing gear amid the coral reefs, as well as distress calls from the castaways. Several TIGHAR expeditions to the island have also uncovered plexiglass and aluminum fragments that could be part of Earhart’s plane, plus pieces of what may be a jar of freckle cream and leather shoe parts that could have belonged to a woman [PDF].
To make matters even weirder, the castaway speculations also involve a skull and other bones found on Nikumaroro in 1940, which have since been lost. Initial analysis said the bones belonged to an elderly man, but more recently TIGHAR announced that a new analysis showed they likely belonged to a woman around their same height as Earhart and most likely European. However, in 2015 forensic researchers questioned TIGHAR’s conclusions. Since the skeleton is both missing and incomplete, the matter seems unlikely to be resolved soon. Nevertheless, in July 2019 marine geologist Robert Ballard—the man who found the Titanic wreck in 1985—announced that he would make an expedition to Nikumaroro to search for clues both on the island and offshore, as part of a National Geographic special called Expedition Amelia airing in October.
If the castaway theory seems unlikely, it’s far from the most bizarre in circulation. Some allege that Earhart was captured by the Japanese after her plane was crashed (or deliberately shot down), and then held captive—some even say because she was a spy hired by the Roosevelt administration to keep tabs on Japanese military installations in the Marshall Islands. In this version of events, her disappearance was part of a cover-up by the U.S. government, and Earhart was supposedly freed in 1945, after which she lived out the rest of her days under a different name as a banker in New Jersey.
3. Edgar Allan Poe — October 7, 1849
In 1849, Edgar Allan Poe disappeared for six days. When he turned up on October 3, near a pub in Baltimore, he was slurring his speech and wearing someone else’s suit. A good samaritan noticed Poe acting oddly and sought help, summoning a friend of the writer’s to the tavern. But by the time the friend arrived, Poe was delirious and had to be taken to the hospital. He lingered there for a few more days, wracked by a fever and hallucinations, and occasionally calling out the name Reynolds. When the attending physician, Dr. John J. Moran, tried to ask Poe what had happened before he got to the tavern, Poe’s “answers were incoherent and unsatisfactory,” Moran later wrote. Four days after having mysteriously arrived in Baltimore, Poe just as mysteriously died.
The official cause of Poe’s death is sometimes listed as phrenitis, or inflammation of the brain, but there was never any autopsy, and the medical records have disappeared. Newspapers of the day tied Poe’s death to his drinking habits, but postmortem hair analysis has shown no trace of the lead commonly added to wine in the 19th century, suggesting that Poe was probably steering clear of drink at the end of his life (indeed, he had sworn to a new fiancée to give it up). A 1996 article in the Maryland Medical Journal blamed rabies, arguing that Poe suffered classic symptoms of the disease: tremors and hallucinations, a coma, and delirium that made him combative. Yet other accounts have posited the flu, a brain tumor, syphilis, or some kind of poisoning—even murder at the hands of his fiancée’s brothers, who allegedly opposed his impending marriage.
Yet one of the more accepted explanations concerns a vicious type of voter fraud known as cooping. In 19th-century America, it was not unusual for gangs to kidnap men and force them to vote multiple times for one candidate, wearing different clothes each time as a disguise. The location where Poe was found on October 3 lends weight to the theory: The pub, Gunner’s Hall, was then serving as a polling station in the 1849 Congressional elections. Voters at the time were also given alcohol in reward for doing their civic duty, which would explain Poe’s drunkenness; the stranger’s cheap suit could have been a disguise provided by a gang. Poe reportedly reacted badly to alcohol, so if he was dragged to multiple polling places and fed liquor each time, not to mention beaten as cooping victims often were, the combination may have been too much for him. The Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore, however, points out one flaw in this theory: Poe was “reasonably well-known in Baltimore and likely to be recognized”—even in someone else’s soiled clothes. We may never know the full story behind Poe’s death, which seems not inappropriate for the master of the macabre.
4. Alexander the Great — June 323 BCE
One of the most powerful conquerors the world has ever known, Alexander the Great claimed to be a son of the gods. Unfortunately, he was mortal, and died a few months short of his 33rd birthday. His final illness began during a feast at a commander’s house in the summer of 323 BCE, when he is said to have developed a high fever and abdominal pain. For a few days he bathed, slept, and sacrificed, but then the fever grew worse. By the fourth day, he was losing strength, and by the seventh, couldn’t get out of bed. His powers of speech failed, and when his troops asked to see him on the 10th day of his illness, he could do little but follow them with his eyes. On the 11th day, he died. It’s said that when the embalmers began work on Alexander’s corpse, after being delayed for six days, they found the body fresh and uncorrupted—a remarkable event given the summer heat.
Alexander the Great was just one of the famous historical figures considered during the annual Historical Clinicopathological Conference at the University of Maryland, in which medical experts convene to take a fresh look at the final days of famous dead folks. Philip A. Mackowiak, a professor emeritus at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, is both the director of the conference (which considered Alexander’s death in 1996) and the author of the book Post Mortem: Solving History’s Great Medical Mysteries. In Post Mortem, he explains that attempts to understand Alexander’s death are complicated by the fact that no contemporary accounts of the events survive, and the descriptions we have are secondary accounts written several centuries later. Furthermore, these descriptions conflict: Plutarch, writing in the 1st and 2nd centuries CE, says that Alexander didn’t have any pain, and that other accounts added that symptom to make Alexander’s death seem as moving as possible. But other ancient sources maintain that Alexander did experience significant pain, which started right after he downed a massive goblet of wine, leading some—notably the Roman historian Justin—to suggest that Alexander was poisoned.
Alexander had made many enemies, not the least with his whole “I am the son of the gods” thing. Mackowiak writes that Alexander also offended his fellow Macedonians by dressing like the vanquished Persians, and the latest military campaign he was planning—through the Horn of Arabia and North Africa—”must have been greeted with alarm by his exhausted army.” When it comes to who dared to poison the great Alexander, Mackowiak notes that some suspect Antipater, an ambitious Macedonian regent, or even at the philosopher Aristotle, who had once tutored Alexander the Great—and apparently feared for his life after a relative was embroiled in an assassination plot. Once again, arsenic has been mentioned as a possible culprit; Mackowiak writes that it’s known to cause abdominal pain and progressive weakness, and in some forms is water-soluble as well as practically tasteless, making it easy to hide in wine or food. Fever, however, is not usually a sign of arsenic poisoning, and most historians doubt that arsenic was used as a poison in that time period.
A tropical illness seems more likely. According to Mackowiak, an especially malignant type of malaria caused by the Plasmodium falciparum parasite could have caused Alexander’s fever, weakness, stomach pain, and death, but not his loss of speech, or the daisy-fresh look of his corpse. Others have suggested West Nile virus encephalitis, which can produce paralysis, but is not usually fatal. In Post Mortem, Mackowiak suggests typhoid fever with ascending paralysis as the most likely killer. Before the importance of clean water and sanitary sewage systems were well understood, typhoid was a scourge, as food and drink often became contaminated with feces carrying Salmonella typhi, the typhoid-causing bacteria. Typhoid usually involves a gradually increasing fever and weakness, abdominal pain, and other awful symptoms, but in rare cases, it’s accompanied by an ascending paralysis that begins with the legs and moves up to the brain. Known as Guillain-Barré syndrome, it’s almost always fatal when due to typhoid. Mackowiak suggests that if Alexander suffered from Guillain-Barré, the paralysis would have caused him to lose his power to speak once it reached his higher nerve centers. Disturbingly, Mackowiak also suggests that the paralysis could also have caused the fresh look of Alexander’s corpse—because he might not have been dead all that long when they arrived, and merely paralyzed. In that case, it’s a good thing the embalmers were delayed.
5. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart — December 5, 1791
Was Mozart’s death caused by a pork chop, a sexually transmitted disease, poisoning by a jealous rival—or none of the above?
The famed composer first began showing signs of his final illness in the fall of 1791. Overworked, underfunded, and depressed, he was working on the Requiem commissioned by a mysterious benefactor that July when he began having what some have described as stomach and joint pain. By November 20, he took to his bed. His body began to swell badly, and emit a foul odor; his wife and sister-in-law made him a special garment with an opening at the back just so he’d be easier to change. By the evening of December 4, he was starting to show signs of delirium. His doctor was summoned, and when he arrived bled Mozart (standard practice for just about any ailment back then) and applied a cold poultice to his forehead. The composer fell unconscious, and died five minutes before one in the morning on December 5. He was 35. The last sounds he ever made were an attempt to mimic one of the drum parts from his unfinished Requiem.
The official diagnosis was acute miliary fever (miliary refers to a rash with spots the size of millet seeds). But within a week, a Berlin newspaper reported that Mozart might have been poisoned. In fact, Mozart’s wife said that her husband had lamented months before his death, “I know I must die, someone has given me acqua toffana [a compound of arsenic and other toxins] and has calculated the precise time of my death, for which they have ordered a requiem, it is [for] myself I am writing this.”
The main culprit in the supposed poisoning scheme is often said to be the composer Antonio Salieri, one of Mozart’s rivals. Though the theory faded after Mozart’s death, it resurfaced with new energy in the 20th century thanks to Peter Shaffer’s 1979 play Amadeus and the 1984 film adaptation. In some versions of the tale, Salieri is said to have commissioned the Requiem himself, with plans to pass it off as his own after murdering Mozart. But Salieri strongly denied any involvement, telling a pupil of Beethoven’s who visited his deathbed, “I can assure you on my word of honor that there is no truth in that absurd rumor; you know that I was supposed to have poisoned Mozart.” Others have accused the Freemasons, who supposedly poisoned Mozart—one of their own—because he revealed their secret symbolism in his opera The Magic Flute.
Mackowiak, however, considers a Masonic involvement unlikely, in part because others involved in The Magic Flutelived for decades, and because Mozart’s lodge held a ceremony for him after his death and supported his widow. Furthermore, the most likely poisons in use at the time wouldn’t have caused the kind of severe, general swelling Mozart experienced, which is known as anasarca.
Others have suggested syphilis, which was an epidemic in Mozart’s day, and sometimes included a low-grade fever and rash. That disease also attacks the kidneys, and was frequently treated with mercury, which would have led to further kidney deterioration and could have caused anasarca. But Mozart was a workaholic who had no time to play around, and by all accounts loved his wife Constanze dearly. According to Mackowiak, there’s no credible evidence either partner ever had an affair. A less-salacious theory argues that Mozart was killed by an undercooked pork cutlet, or more specifically, trichinosis. It’s known that Mozart consumed a pork meal shortly before falling ill. But trichinosis—which comes from the parasite Trichinella—usually causes muscle pain, which Mackowiak thinks family members would have remembered and included in their descriptions of the composer’s last days.
Whatever the illness, Mozart wasn’t the only one in Vienna to suffer it—Mackowiak notes that there was a cluster of similar cases at the time. One plausible diagnosis, Mackowiak and other researchers argue, is post-streptococcal glomerulonephritis, an inflammatory disorder of the glomeruli (a network of capillaries in the kidneys) that follows infection with the Streptocococcus bacteria. It can appear as part of an epidemic, and cause the kind of swelling Mozart suffered from. While not normally fatal with the more common Strep bacteria (the type that causes Strep throat), glomerulonephritis that follows infections with Streptococcus equi—which normally affects horses, and sometimes cows—can cause kidney failure and death. Humans often get it from consuming milk or milk products from infected cows, which explains the epidemic nature. Kidney failure would also explain Mozart’s stench, likely caused by the waste products that build up in the blood, sweat, and saliva when kidneys stop working. Sadly, since both medical records and Mozart’s skeleton (well, most of it, probably) have been lost, it’s once again likely that a full understanding of Mozart’s death will remain forever out of reach.
6. Christopher Marlowe — May 30, 1593
The maverick English poet, playwright, and spy Christopher “Kit” Marlowe is said to have been murdered at age 29 after a day of eating and drinking with some friends at a dining house. According to the coroner’s report, when the time came to pay the tab, a fight broke out between Marlowe and one of the men present, Ingram Frizer, over who would foot the bill. “Divers malicious words” were spoken, and as things got heated, Marlowe grabbed Frizer’s dagger, wounding him twice on the head. Frizer then grabbed it back, stabbing Marlowe over the eye and killing him instantly.
That’s been the story around Marlowe’s death for years, but the tale has long seemed suspicious. In fact, one of the most dangerous things about Marlowe might not have been his spying, his street brawls, or his reputed affairs with men. It might have been his religious beliefs—or the lack thereof. Shortly before his death, a warrant had been issued for Marlowe’s arrest on charges of atheism, after a former roommate and fellow playwright claimed under torture that heretical papers found in his own room belonged to Marlowe. Some, such as Stanford University’s David Riggs, say that Frizer wasn’t motivated by rage over any bill, and the real force behind the dagger was Queen Elizabeth I, who was angry enough about his heretical religious beliefs that she ordered his murder. Those who believe this theory note that Elizabeth pardoned Frizer just one month after Marlowe’s death.
That’s just one of the many theories surrounding Marlowe’s untimely end. Others say he ran afoul of powerful members of the Elizabethan spy world. M.J. Trow, author of Who Killed Kit Marlowe?: A Contract to Murder in Elizabethan England, thinks that Marlowe used his play Edward II to hint that four members of the Queen’s Privy Council (her top advisors) were atheists too. Trow maintains that the council members decided to silence Marlowe by ordering a hit, and that they promised his friends at the dining house immunity. In fact, Trow told The Guardian, ” all were cleared after a short trial and granted titles and positions of wealth and influence shortly afterwards.”
Frizer and friends aren’t the only ones who have been suspected in Kit’s murder, though. Some think Sir Walter Raleigh, having heard of Marlowe’s arrest, grew worried about what might come out at his trial and ordered him killed rather than be incriminated as a free-thinking associate. Another theory points the finger at Audrey Walsingham, whose husband employed Marlowe, and who was apparently jealous of their (possibly sexual) relationship. Others, of course, think Marlowe faked his own death to get out of trouble—then continued to write plays from a secure location and send them back to England, possibly with Walsingham’s assistance. The person who got credit for those new creations? William Shakespeare, of course.
Bess Lovejoy is a staff editor at Mental Floss, a former editor at Smithsonian.com and Schott’s Almanac, and the author of “Rest in Pieces: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses.”