10 Weird Ways People Used to Die
Last updated: Saturday December 19th, 2020
Are you grateful to be living in the 21st century? You should be. Here are 10 weird ways that people used to die in the past (but mostly don't anymore).
Let's pretend you are living in western Europe in the 1700s. You are in line to inherit a vast estate, whose incomes will provide you with a life of luxury and opulence for the rest of your days. There's just one problem: your pesky, superannuated relative who currently owns the estate. As the years go by, your hair starts to turn grey and still they won't die. What to do?
Fortunately, there's a solution: arsenic trioxide. Just sprinkle a little bit on your elderly relative's food every day. Soon, they will sicken and die, with symptoms similar to cholera. Best of all, it's completely untraceable. At least, it was untraceable, until a jerk named James Marsh developed a test for it in 1836.
Following the development of the Marsh Test, the use of "inheritance powder" became much less common.
Milk sickness is caused when people drink milk from cows that have eaten the white snakeroot plant. Early European settlers in the Midwestern U.S. were unfamiliar with this plant and couldn't ascertain the cause of the sickness. The state of Kentucky even offered a $600 bounty to anyone who discovered its source. Eventually, with the help of an elderly Native American woman, a frontier doctor learned the cause of the disease. But it was was too late to save Abraham Lincoln's mother, who died of milk sickness in 1818.
Having bladder stones in the old days was agony. How do we know? Because the ordeal that people went through to get rid of the stones is enough to cause nightmares. The procedure to remove bladder stones was known as "cutting for the stone". A specialist, known as a lithotomist, would cut through your perineum (don't ask). Without any anesthesia, the specialist had to work fast. The best of them could be in and out in a couple minutes. The procedure was always agonizing and often deadly - in part due to the lack of sterile surgical method. But the results could be worthwhile. Author Samuel Pepys held an annual celebration to mark the anniversary of the day a tennis ball sized stone was removed from his insides.
Fun fact: Bladder stones were such serious business that the original Hippocratic Oath specifically forbade physicians from cutting for the stone, saying it must be left to specialists.
If you are a student of history, you will know that past societies were endlessly inventive when it came to killing people. The ancient Romans were certainly no exception. When they weren't crucifying people or letting them be torn apart by wild beasts in the arena, they threw them from the Tarpeian Rock.
The Tarpeian Rock was a cliff in ancient Rome that was about 80 feet high. For traditional reasons, being thrown off this cliff was reserved for the worst criminals - such as murderers and traitors. More respectable criminals were afforded the courtesy of being strangled.
People in the Middle Ages in Europe were religious. Extremely religious. Some people were even willing to purposefully submit to a life of miserable solitude for the chance of a glorious afterlife in heaven. "Anchorites" were among the most extreme examples of this phenomenon.
Anchorites were people who agreed to be locked up in a cloister. They went through a religious ceremony similar to funeral rites, and then entered a small room where they would spend the rest of their life in prayer. Those who attempted to escape were returned by force.
Anchorites can perhaps be forgiven for banging their head against the wall in an attempt to hasten the inevitable.
In the samurai days of Medieval Japan, if you did something dishonorable or illegal you were often "encouraged" to commit suicide. The right to die by one's hand was a privilege afforded to samurai, unlike commoners who were simply executed. The method of suicide was seppuku, also known as harakiri.
People who committed seppuku used a short blade to cut upon their abdomen, and then waited for death to arrive. Sometimes, it took several hours, during which time the samurai tried not to show pain. In later centuries, the ritual was performed with an assistant who would helpfully cut the victim's head off before he felt too much pain.
In modern times, seppuku is rare, but not unheard of. Japanese author Yukio Mishima committed seppuku in 1970 after an unsuccessful coup attempt.
In the early 20th century, watches and clock dials were coated with "self-luminous paint". This paint was made using radium, a radioactive element. Women were employed in the hazardous task of painting the watch dials. They were even encouraged to lick their paintbrushes to give them a fine point. This eventually caused radiation poisoning, and sometimes resulted in death. In a landmark lawsuit, the employees of the U.S. Radium Corporation received compensation from their employer, but not before the company appealed the ruling eight separate times.
Okay, technically speaking, people still die getting stuck in chimneys. Be careful around chimneys, folks!
But thankfully we don't send children into chimneys anymore to clean them out. This cruel and dangerous profession was commonplace in the United Kingdom before being banned in 1875. Young boys (and rarely girls) were taught to climb up chimneys from about the age of six. Improper technique could lead to the child becoming stuck inside, where they could die from suffocation or from the heat.
Children who didn't die inside the chimney suffered all kinds of health problems from their constant exposure to hot coal tar. If they reached middle age, they were quite often stricken by a type of cancer known as "Chimney sweeps' carcinoma", which affected the testicles.
The 18th amendment to the U.S. Constitution, ratified in 1919, banned the production and sale of alcoholic beverages. But alcohol is not so easy to ban. For one, it has lots of medical and industrial uses. Bootleggers could even use legal, industrial alcohol to create beverages suitable for human consumption.
What to do? The U.S. government came upon a solution: simply poison the industrial alcohol. When bootleggers found ways to unpoison the liquor, the government doubled down on their strategy and used stronger poisons.
It has been estimated that, during Prohibition, 10,000 people died by drinking alcohol that had poisoned by the U.S. government.
Bloodletting is the ancient practice of curing illness by removing blood from the body. Did it work? In most cases, probably not, although it might have temporarily relieved high blood pressure.
At the extremes it could be deadly. The most famous case is likely that of George Washington. At age 67, and in generally good health, he developed symptoms of chest congestion. A proponent of bloodletting, Washington ordered his estate overseer to remove a pint of blood. When his condition didn't improve, doctors were summoned who removed several more pints, at which point Washington died. It has been estimated that, in total, 40% of his blood was removed.
Fun fact #1: A well-known British medical journal, The Lancet, is named after the tool used in blood-letting.
Fun fact #2: Washington isn't the only President to die by medical malpractice. Benjamin Harrison was also most likely killed by his doctors.
Personal soapbox time. People often look back on past times and think "they were so backwards then". People in the future will do the same, but to us. One thing that will make us primitive by future standards is our society's high prevalence of diabetes, and our poor management of it.
How to improve the current situation?
1) People should take anti-diabetes medication such as Metformin before they get anywhere close to full-blown diabetes.
2) People need better education on the benefits of fasting. We still live in a world where people eat processed carbs for breakfast and proclaim it's "the most important meal of day". Intermittent fasting should be an integral part of every person's diet, especially those who are overweight.
No, more seriously, it's a very instructive blog, and sadly quite funny...!
I will probably forget later, so merry christmas Quizmaster!