On July 10, 1850, Millard Fillmore was inaugurated as the President of the United States following Zachary Taylor’s rather odd death. Taylor was particularly warm after participating in Independence Day activities at the Washington Monument, so he did what many of us do: He came home and raided the fridge (or icebox, in his case) for something cool to snack on. After enjoying some iced milk and cherries, Taylor fell sick almost immediately. He was dead five days later. Some historians believe the milk carried deadly bacteria; others suspected the massive quantities of acidic cherries mixed with the milk was too much for Taylor’s delicate stomach. Still others wonder if Taylor was poisoned.
Whatever the reason was, Taylor is hardly the first person—or the last—to meet his or her demise from eating or swallowing something suspicious. Here are 10 others.
1. Tennessee Williams // Playwright
You’ve probably heard about poor Tennessee Williams, but the story bears repeating (and maybe updating). The playwright was hanging out in his room at the Hotel Elysée in New York in 1983 when he apparently popped a cap into his mouth—the type that you typically find on eye drops or nose spray—and then accidentally choked on it. Rumor spread that Williams had choked to death on an eye drop cap, but a medical examiner later found the presence of the barbiturate secobarbital (“dolls”) in his system. The theory of one CUNY professor is that his death may really have been the result of mixing the drug with other substances, “kind of a Michael Jackson situation,” but Williams’s companion managed to talk the medical examiner into putting the bottle cap reason down on the death certificate.
2. Steve Peregrin Took // Musician
Cherries, man, they’re such a menace. In 1980, Steve Peregrin Took (not his birth name) of the band Tyrannosaurus Rex was pretty excited when the band’s manager managed to get the guys some back royalties they were owed. Took, who was no longer a member of the band at the time, celebrated by basically blowing the money on a huge bash that included magic mushrooms, morphine, and booze. After taking a magical mixture of all of those things, Took’s mouth went numb, making conditions just right for a cocktail cherry (and its pit) to slip into his throat unnoticed. He was 31.
3. Adolf Frederick // King of Sweden
On February 12, 1771, the King of Sweden gorged himself on a feast that could have fed a whole crew of men: lobster, caviar, sauerkraut, herring, and champagne. To cap off his meal, King Adolf Frederick enjoyed 14 servings of semla served in hot milk. He died the same day, apparently of digestion problems. Semla, by the way, is a flour bun filled with almond paste and topped with whipped cream. It shouldn't come as much of a shock to learn that Adolf is now known as “the king who ate himself to death.”
4. Sherwood Anderson // Novelist
Novelist and short-story writer Sherwood Anderson was on a cruise with his wife in 1941 when he started to experience severe stomach cramps. He died a few days later at a hospital in Panama, where a doctor discovered that he had swallowed a whole toothpick that had likely speared an olive in a martini glass. The toothpick damaged Anderson’s internal organs, which then became infected.
5. George M. Prior // Navy Lieutenant
In other “don’t put things in your mouth that don’t belong there” news, we have the surprising demise of Navy Lieutenant George M. Prior. Prior had a few days’ leave from work and decided to spend every day playing golf at the Army-Navy Country Club in Arlington, Virginia. He felt nauseated by the end of the first day. By the end of the third day, he had a rash and a fever of 104.5°F and admitted himself to the hospital. Blisters the size of baseballs cropped up shortly thereafter, and a week and a half later, he was dead, with 80 percent of his skin burned and blistered. It was later determined that the golf tee he habitually stuck in his mouth after every hole had been covered in the fungicide the golf course used to keep their grounds beautiful. Prior’s allergic reaction to a chemical in the fungicide burned his skin from the inside out and caused the failure of several of his major organs.
6. Bando Mitsugoro VIII // Kabuki Actor
Remember that episode of The Simpsons (“One Fish, Two Fish, Blowfish, Blue Fish”) when Homer thinks he accidentally ate some poisonous fugu fish and would likely die by the time the sun rises? (Spoiler alert: He was fine.) In real life, certain parts of the fugu fish are extremely toxic, especially the liver. Ingesting too much of it will render the victim completely paralyzed but totally conscious. Eventually, the paralysis even hits major organs. Basically, the victim ends up asphyxiating.
This is exactly what happened to Japan's “Living National Treasure,” Bando Mitsugoro VIII, a Kabuki actor. In 1975, the actor insisted that he was strong enough to survive the toxin and ordered a large—and probably illegal—portion of fugu livers. Mitsugoro wasn’t strong enough to survive the toxin.
7. Basil Brown // Health Food Nut
As the saying goes, “all things in moderation.” That includes even the most nutritious food, believe it or not, which health nut Basil Brown learned the hard way in 1974. He was known to drink a gallon of carrot juice every day and would take excessive amounts of vitamin A pills to stay in tip-top shape. In the end, though, he wound up dying from “hypervitaminosis A,” a massive overdose of vitamin A that essentially shut down his liver. The doctor who performed the autopsy said the end result was indistinguishable from alcohol poisoning.
8. Edward Archbold // Wanted to Win a Python
Any way you can imagine it, death by roaches sounds pretty horrific. In the case of Edward Archbold, a Florida man, it wasn’t a weird Kafkaesque situation that did him in—he was actually ingesting the cockroaches. Along with about 30 other people, Archbold was consuming insects for the chance to win a free python in 2012. (“Eat like a python, win a python,” after all.) After eating a large number of roaches, two ounces of mealworms, and 35 horn worms, Archbold collapsed, his airway obstructed by roach body parts. He was pronounced dead at the hospital.
9. Henry Hall // Lighthouse Keeper
Being a lighthouse keeper certainly has its hazards, but you probably never thought ingesting molten lead was one of them. Henry Hall probably didn’t, either. Hall was the lighthouse keeper for the Eddystone Lighthouse in Devon, England, when it caught on fire in 1755. As he looked up at the burning tower of the lighthouse, some melted lead from the reflector dripped onto his face and down his throat. The 94-year-old lasted 12 days before succumbing to his injuries; upon his death, his doctor removed a chunk of lead from his stomach that weighed nearly half a pound.
10. Vladimir Likhonos // Chemistry Student
Exploding bubble gum may sound like one of those tricks a clown may pull on you, but to chemistry student Vladimir Likhonos, it was no joke. Likhonos, who was studying at the Kyiv Polytechnical Institute in Ukraine, had developed a penchant for dunking his gum in citric acid before chewing to give it a sour pop. Sadly, a “pop” is what he got when he accidentally dipped his gum in an explosive substance he had been working with instead of the citric acid. The combination of his saliva with the powder was powerful enough to blow off most of his lower face. Paramedics were unable to save him.
A version of this story ran in 2013; it has been updated for 2021.