Death by Amusement


Whenever I’m doing some historical research, which is pretty much constantly, I’m always on the lookout for suitable topics for Bad Decisions in History. While not a decision, exactly, I’ve come across a strange recurrence of people dying from laughing too hard through history. There’s even a Wikipedia list of historical and fictional deaths caused by laughter. Death by amusement is a real thing, though I’m sure heart attacks and other health issues must be involved.

Our first victim, Chrysippus, followed the stoic school of philosophy, which taught that people should be free of passion and able to submit without complaint to unavoidable necessities, such as the natural order of the world. It sounds a bit grim, to be honest. Logic would be hampered by joy or grief, and therefore such emotions should be kept in check. Chrysippus even earned the title ‘Second Founder of Stoicism’ after he became the third head of the Stoic school. It’s safe to assume that he was a fairly serious man.

At the age of 73, Chrysippus passed away, allegedly after falling into fits of laughter from watching a donkey eat figs. He suggested that someone give the donkey a drink of wine to wash down the figs, so I feel there’s a strong chance Chrysippus had already imbibed some wine because that is not really a sober person’s suggestion.

Bust of Chrysippus

If you’re thinking a Stoic philosopher sounds like the last person to die from laughing too hard, that’s part of the strange charm of this story. However, it should be noted that another account of his death states that he was seized with dizziness after drinking wine at a feast, and died soon after. Either way, I guess we can conclude that he drank some wine and was old enough to likely have heart problems.

Another example of death by laughter in antiquity comes through the story of the death of Zeuxis, a Greek painter said to have been known for his realistic and refreshing paintings. None of them survive today, unfortunately, especially as he’s said to have died laughing at his own painting of Aphrodite, which had been commissioned by an old woman who also insisted on modeling for it. Dying from uncontrollable laughter is one thing, but dying from uncontrollable laughter at your own joke seems like quite another. Still, I wish I could see that painting.

In contrast to Chrysippus and his uncharacteristic laughter, somehow it seems vaguely less surprising that Pietro Aretino may have died of laughter. His Wikipedia page lists him as “an Italian author, playwright, poet, satirist, and blackmailer.” If one’s profession as a blackmailer is so well-known that the reputation lasts five hundred years (Aretino died in 1556), that is certainly some kind of accomplishment. Anyway, since he was a satirist, he must have had a good sense of humour. His satirical pamphlet “The Last Will and Testament of the Elephant Hanno” used the death of Pope Leo X’s pet elephant to poke fun at political and religious leaders. He is said to have died of suffocation while laughing very hard. I’ve been unable to find what he was laughing at, but if he followed a similar path as Chrysippus and Zeuxis, it probably wasn’t actually very funny.

Pietro Aretino

Over in Scotland, Sir Thomas Urquhart of Comarty met a similar fate. The writer was best known for his translation of Rabelais, and for works such as Logopandecteision, and it’s a good thing this is a blog post and not a speech so I don’t have to say that out loud. Perhaps ironically, since I can’t pronounce it, this book was his plan for a universal language by that name. According to some sources, he died in around 1660 from laughing too hard upon hearing of Charles II’s restoration to the throne. The previous monarch, Charles I, had been executed in 1649 at the height of the English Civil War, and the country became a republic, led by Oliver Cromwell. Since Urquhart marched with Charles II against Cromwell in the Battle of Worcester, I must admit I fail to see why it would be so amusing that Charles regained his father’s throne. Perhaps it was just the swaying of the political pendulum Urquhart found so hilarious.

Thomas Urquhart

I don’t want to advocate against laughing at silly jokes (my own affection for puns forbids me) but I think there is a moral here: do your cardio, everyone. And make sure to breathe if you get swept up into that giddy sort of laughter. Bad jokes can be dangerous if caught unprepared.


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