Many things can kill you, surprisingly laughing is one of them.
Death by laughter
Is it possible that a joke can be so funny, an incident so hilarious, that it can send a person into uncontrollable peals of laughter that take them to the grave? Although it sounds unlikely, it’s happened many times throughout history to many people. Some of them were well known.
Merriment, laughter and death in ancient Greece
Some of the earliest accounts of death by laughter can be traced back to Hellenic Greece.
Witnessed and recorded 26 centuries ago, Greek artist Zeuxis labored over his latest masterpiece: a painting of an elderly woman. Upon completion of the painting, Zeuxis studied his work and for some odd reason found it funny. His laughter became uncontrollable and as his hilarity escalated he began choking and laughing simultaneously. From all accounts he reached the point where he couldn’t catch his breath and shortly after expired.
Authors Peter Bowler and Jonathan Green relate the tale of the Greek stoic philosopher Chrysippus. A learned man and scholar from the third century, B.C.E. ended his days with a spate of uncontrollable laughter. According to the ancient records that Bowler and Green drew upon for the account in their book, “What a Way to Go: Some of the Strangest Deaths on Record,” the simplest of tasks led to Chrysippus’ strange demise.
For some never to be known reason, the stoic scholar decided it would be funny to make his donkey drunk. After encouraging the beast to drink large quantities of wine, he threw some figs to the animal. The donkey’s ridiculous attempts to eat the figs struck Chrysippus as so funny that the philosopher’s laughter became convulsive and a few minutes later he collapsed and died.
A celebrated Greek playwright, Philemon, penned many comedies popular among theater goers. Known as a wit and a man quick to laugh, he also had a penchant for laughing at his own jokes. According to the accounts of his passing, while Philemon was in the process of reviewing some funny lines from a play he’s just written, he read a passage over and over again that struck him as wickedly funny. Falling into a fit of laughter over his own wit, he slipped into a seizure and died.
An anecdotal tale related by Ben Schott in “Schott’s Original Miscellany” claims that while visiting the King of Siam (in Burma) during the last year of the 16th Century, a notable Venetian merchant of some means inadvertently caused the premature death of his royal highness, King Nandabayin.
The businessman, innocently responding to the Asian monarch’s question about his form of government, explained that Italy had no monarchy and was a free state having no need for a king.
Upon hearing the answer, Nandabayin exploded into a paroxysm of screeching laughter and actually “laughed to death.”
From an opposite perspective, a king was the cause of a Scottish Lord’s last laugh. Upon hearing of Charles the Second’s restoration to the throne, Sir Thomas Urquhart who held the royal figure in contempt and saw England as a convocation of ignorant fools, fell into extended laughter at the idea of Charles second ascension to power and laughed until he ran out of breath and life.
Modern last laughs
A well-told story about a man who died laughing in 1975 is that of Alex Mitchell of King’s Lynn in Norfolk, England. Mitchell died while watching his favorite comedy show, “The Goodies.”
The 50-year old, a bricklayer by trade, was home one evening with his wife. A skit appeared that was the silliest thing Mitchell ever witnessed. It was also the last thing he saw as the comedy skit tickled his funny bone to such a degree it propelled him into 25 minutes of unstoppable laughing.
According to his wife, who saw her husband die right next to her on the couch, he gave one last “tremendous belly laugh, slumped on the settee, and died” of heart failure.
Although shaken and saddened by her husband’s untimely death, Mitchell’s widow wrote the producers of “The Goodies” and thanked them for bringing such joy to the last minutes of his life.
In a roundabout way, British actor and comedian John Cleese of “Monty Python” fame caused the bizarre demise of a jovial Dane in 1989.
Ole Bentzen, an audiologist, is purported to have been done in by the film, “A Fish called Wanda.” The movie sent the good doctor into a tumult of breathless laughter that spiked his heart rate upwards to an incredible 200 to 500 beats per minute. Bentzen’s rapid heartbeat ruptured his heart muscles and culminated in a massive heart attack.
He never did get to see the end of the movie, either.
Last word on last laughs
No one is exempt from laughter, nor the possibility of something striking you so hilariously funny that you literally laugh yourself to death. From kings to paupers, from wise men to fools, all risk uncontrollable guffaws that may lead to the grave…even comedians run the risk.