The Mysterious Deaths of 6 Historical Figures

A portrait of Napoleon by Antoine-Jean Gros
A portrait of Napoleon by Antoine-Jean Gros
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 with her navigator, Fred Noonan, in Brazil, on June 11, 1937, before departing for their round-the-world flight Topical Press Agency/Getty Images

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

Edgar Allan PoePhotos.com via Getty Images

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

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart circa 1789Hulton Archive via Getty Images

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 Flute lived 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.

10 Reusable Gifts for Your Eco-Friendliest Friend

Disposable tea bags can't compete with this pla-tea-pus and his friends.
Disposable tea bags can't compete with this pla-tea-pus and his friends.
DecorChic/Amazon

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

By this point, your eco-friendly pal probably has a reusable water bottle that accompanies them everywhere and some sturdy grocery totes that keep their plastic-bag count below par. Here are 10 other sustainable gift ideas that’ll help them in their conservation efforts.

1. Reusable Produce Bags; $13

No more staticky plastic bags.Naturally Sensible/Amazon

The complimentary plastic produce bags in grocery stores aren’t great, but neither is having all your spherical fruits and vegetables roll pell-mell down the checkout conveyor belt. Enter the perfect alternative: mesh bags that are nylon, lightweight, and even machine-washable.

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2. Animal Tea Infusers; $16

Nothing like afternoon tea with your tiny animal friends.DecorChic/Amazon

Saying goodbye to disposable tea bags calls for a quality tea diffuser, and there’s really no reason why it shouldn’t be shaped like an adorable animal. This “ParTEA Pack” includes a hippo, platypus, otter, cat, and owl, which can all hang over the edge of a glass or mug. (In other words, you won’t have to fish them out with your fingers or dirty a spoon when your loose leaf is done steeping.)

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3. Rocketbook Smart Notebook; $25

Typing your notes on a tablet or laptop might save trees, but it doesn’t quite capture the feeling of writing on paper with a regular pen. The Rocketbook, on the other hand, does. After you’re finished filling a page with sketches, musings, or whatever else, you scan it into the Rocketbook app with your smartphone, wipe it clean with the microfiber cloth, and start again. This one also comes with a compatible pen, but any PILOT FriXion pens will do.

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4. Food Huggers; $13

"I'm a hugger!"Food Huggers/Amazon

It’s hard to compete with the convenience of plastic wrap or tin foil when it comes to covering the exposed end of a piece of produce or an open tin can—and keeping those leftovers in food storage containers can take up valuable space in the fridge. This set of five silicone Food Huggers stretch to fit over a wide range of circular goods, from a lidless jar to half a lemon.

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5. Swiffer Mop Pads; $15

For floors that'll shine like the top of the Chrysler Building.Turbo Microfiber/Amazon

Swiffers may be much less unwieldy than regular mops, but the disposable pads present a problem to anyone who likes to keep their trash output to a minimum. These machine-washable pads fasten to the bottom of any Swiffer WetJet, and the thick microfiber will trap dirt and dust instead of pushing it into corners. Each pad lasts for at least 100 uses, so you’d be saving your eco-friendly friend quite a bit of money, too.

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6. SodaStream for Sparkling Water; $69

A fondness for fizzy over flat water doesn’t have to mean buying it bottled. Not only does the SodaStream let you make seltzer at home, but it’s also small enough that it won’t take up too much precious counter space. SodaStream also sells flavor drops to give your home-brewed beverage even more flair—this pack from Amazon ($25) includes mango, orange, raspberry, lemon, and lime.

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7. Washable Lint Roller; $13

Roller dirty.iLifeTech/Amazon

There’s a good chance that anyone with a pet (or just an intense dislike for lint) has lint-rolled their way through countless sticky sheets. iLifeTech’s reusable roller boasts “the power of glue,” which doesn’t wear off even after you’ve washed it. Each one also comes with a 3-inch travel-sized version, so you can stay fuzz-free on the go.

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8. Countertop Compost Bin; $23

Like a tiny Tin Man for your table.Epica/Amazon

Even if you keep a compost pile in your own backyard, it doesn’t make sense to dash outside every time you need to dump a food scrap. A countertop compost bin can come in handy, especially if it kills odors and blends in with your decor. This 1.3-gallon pail does both. It’s made of stainless steel—which matches just about everything—and contains an activated-charcoal filter that prevents rancid peels and juices from stinking up your kitchen.

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9. Fabric-Softening Dryer Balls; $17

Also great for learning how to juggle without breaking anything.Smart Sheep

Nobody likes starchy, scratchy clothes, but some people might like blowing through bottles of fabric softener and boxes of dryer sheets even less. Smart Sheep is here to offer a solution: wool dryer balls. Not only do they last for more than 1000 loads, they also dry your laundry faster. And since they don’t contain any chemicals, fragrances, or synthetic materials, they’re a doubly great option for people with allergies and/or sensitive skin.

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10. Rechargeable Batteries; $40

Say goodbye to loose batteries in your junk drawer.eneloop/Amazon

While plenty of devices are rechargeable themselves, others still require batteries to buzz, whir, and change the TV channel—so it’s good to have some rechargeable batteries on hand. In addition to AA batteries, AAA batteries, and a charger, this case from Panasonic comes with tiny canisters that function as C and D batteries when you slip the smaller batteries into them.

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Oral History: In 1985, Mr. Snuffleupagus Shocked Sesame Street

Sesame Workshop
Sesame Workshop

On November 8, 1971, during the third-season premiere of Sesame Street, Aloysius Snuffleupagus was introduced to the world and proved immediately indispensable: Lacking a watering pot, Big Bird was delighted to see the massive, lumbering creature use his trunk to tend to his garden. The two became fast friends.

No one else, however, could be absolutely certain that Mr. Snuffleupagus actually existed.

Time and again, “Snuffy” would shuffle into the frame, just missing the adult residents of Sesame Street. Big Bird would try to convince them his pal was real. They’d humor him, but never really believed it.

So it went for 14 years, until the show’s producers began to hear of a growing concern among viewers: In the wake of news reports about child abuse cases, Big Bird’s implausible eyewitness testimony about his oversized friend might have real-life consequences. If adults were ignoring Sesame Street's biggest star, would kids feel like they wouldn't be heard, either?

The solution? Get rid of the ambiguity and let Snuffy loose. Three decades after his coming-out party, Mental Floss spoke with the writers, producers, and performers who had the delicate, important task of restoring Big Bird’s credibility and resolving his droopy-eyed friend’s identity crisis.

I. The elephant in the room

Sesame Workshop

Sesame Street was just two years old when Jim Henson decided he wanted to incorporate a massive presence on the show: A puppet that required two men to operate. Dubbed Mr. Snuffleupagus, the character debuted in 1971. News media described him as a “large and friendly monster resembling an anteater.” Then-executive producer Dulcy Singer and writer Tony Geiss agreed he would be Big Bird’s not-quite-real friend—a reflection of the wandering imaginations of the show’s preschool-aged audience.

Norman Stiles (Writer/Head Writer, 1971-1995): The character was kind of a collaboration between [executive producer] Jon Stone and Jim Henson. I think the initial idea was really to be ambiguous in the sense that, well, Big Bird says he’s real and the audience sees him and yet he always manages to not be there when the other people were there—so is he real or isn’t he real? The whole idea was to not really answer that, but to leave it as an open question.

Emilio Delgado (“Luis,” 1971-2017): It was going with the whole thing of a child’s imaginary playmate, which a lot of kids have. Big Bird was the only one who could see him. When adults came around, he would be talking about Snuffy this, and Snuffy that. We’d just say, "Yeah, sure, OK." We didn’t believe him.

Carol-Lynn Parente (Executive Producer, 2005-2016): There was a lot of humor to be mined from the issue. We never explained whether he was imaginary or not. Kids were able to see him, but adults couldn’t. You never really knew—was he imaginary? Playing with that question was a lot of fun; kind of a healthy ambiguity.

Stiles: You really had to believe that it was just terrible coincidences and quirks of Snuffy’s own personality that made it so that he just wasn’t there when Big Bird wanted him to be there to introduce him to his friends.

Delgado: Jerry Nelson originally did the voice and was inside the puppet, in the front. Bryant Young was in the rear. Boy, did we get jokes out of that.

Parente: He’s one of the tougher puppets to operate. Just the massive size of him requires certain [camera] blocking. It’s very physical, and very warm inside his belly. It’s only so long the performers can go through takes before they stop and need to be fanned off before they can start again.

Delgado: Later, Jerry stopped doing it. Maybe his back was bothering him. That’s when Marty took it over.

II. Identity crisis

2004 Sesame Workshop

“Marty” is Martin P. Robinson, a puppeteer who assumed the front end and voice of Mr. Snuffleupagus in 1981. For the first 10 years, the character had been a proverbial one-joke pony (or elephant), catching sight of adults and getting so excited he somehow wound up missing them. This would continue for several more years, which eventually began to wear on the nerves of both Robinson and Caroll Spinney, the actor who has portrayed Big Bird since his inception in 1969. Robinson was especially vocal about Snuffy not being a figment of his friend's imagination.

Martin P. Robinson (via Still Gaming: Lee & Zee Show Podcast, 2009): He was never imaginary. I say that a lot. And I say it with great strength of conviction. He was my character, he was never imaginary; he just had bad timing. He was shy, he had bad timing, and the joke was, he’s big, you can’t miss him, but adults being the way they are—preoccupied, going to work, you know—they miss those little details. And Snuffleupagus just happened to be one of those little details that they kept missing year after year after year. So he was a good, real friend to Bird; it’s just that no one else ever took the time to actually meet him.

Delgado: How long can you play a joke out? As performers, as Muppeteers, as artists, you can only carry a story so far before you have to do something else with it. They probably felt that’s what was happening.

Robinson: Those scripts just got so old. Caroll and I would look at the scripts and say, "Oh, lord, this one again."

Delgado: The adults would play along, knowing he didn’t exist. At the same time, I liked the idea of Marty saying, "OK, he just happened to be there at the wrong time." People were barely missing him.

The actors’ desire to play off a new dynamic was soon joined by a more pressing, potentially catastrophic issue. In the early 1980s, news programs like 60 Minutes were reporting on troubling statistics involving child abuse both at home and in daycare centers. If Big Bird—ostensibly the show’s stand-in for the 6-year-old viewing audience—was being brushed aside when trying to convince people Snuffleupagus was real, there was the chance children might not be convinced adults would believe them if they came forward with more troubling claims.

Stiles: We started getting some letters from people who worked with children who had experienced some kind of abuse, and what we were told was that they often don’t think they’ll be believed because the stories are so fantastic in their minds.

Michael Davis (Author, Street Gang: The Complete History of Sesame Street): I remember having my own internal conversations about Snuffy. My kids were in daycare and there were a lot of those stories about what was happening in daycare, a lot of those stories about children being abducted and kids on the back of the milk cartons and all of that. It became kind of a national focus, sometimes bordering on a mania.

Parente: All this was really stemming from a specific set of incidences in the news, claims of sexual abuse going on in some daycare centers, and kids being questioned about what was going on. The fear was that if we represented adults not believing what kids said, they might not be motivated to tell the truth. That caused us to rethink the storyline: Is something we’ve been doing for 14 years—that seemed innocent enough—now something that’s become harmful?

Delgado: It was a very serious consideration. It was something that could happen in their lives, and the [Children’s Television] Workshop was very attuned to things like that.

The CTW—now Sesame Workshop—is the organization comprised of researchers, psychologists, and freelance child experts who generate and evaluate the show’s themes and messages to make sure they’re going to be understood. Revealing Snuffleupagus required a concentrated effort to make certain Sesame Street’s writers and producers were communicating the idea effectively.

Parente: The process has been pretty much the same all these years. We look to experts in childhood development and that helps guide us—what’s the best way to address what we want to address? That’s the model Sesame was founded on, with writers, producers, educators, and researchers all working together.

Davis: I do think that the result from Sesame Street was a smart one because Big Bird, as a character, is a projection of a 6-year-old. So to have a situation where the 6-year-old’s eyewitness reports are being doubted so deeply and ridiculed ... They are kind mocking him a little bit and rolling their eyes at him.

Parente: It’s rare a children’s show is grounded in the real world. Much of our competition is in the animated world, where fantastical things happen. This is a real neighborhood. We think of it as kids coming to a play date with real friends, and it requires a real investment in how you tell a story.

Lawrence Rubin, Ph.D. (Child Psychologist): The writers took a real-world concern and asked themselves, "Are we helping or hurting kids by keeping Snuffy in the imaginary closet, and do we have a moral imperative to respond to a real issue by changing something about the show?"

Stiles: We wanted kids to know that grownups will believe them, but we wanted to preserve the fun that we were having, so I proposed that we have some of the grownups believe Big Bird, and that was the first step.

For the show’s 16th season in 1984 to 1985, producers laid the groundwork for the eventual reveal by depicting Big Bird as knowing the difference between fantasy and reality, with a handful of adults taking him at his word even with Snuffy still at large.

Robinson: They devised this two-year scheme, where in the first year they would have some of the cast members learn from Bird that Bird could indeed tell the difference between what was real and what was imaginary, that he knew the difference and was very clear about it. And once they got that from Bird, they said, "Okay, you know the difference. If you say Snuffy is real, then he’s real and we’d love to meet him, whenever the timing is right." And the other half of the adults said, "What, are you crazy? He’s imaginary! There’s no such thing as a Snuffleupagus."

Stiles: That changed the dynamic between the grownups ... Now, Big Bird wasn’t alone. He had grownups believing him, and we had a new dynamic where the grownups who believed him would now actually try to see Snuffy. That went on, I think, for about a year. I don’t remember the exact combination of conversations, but we finally decided, alright, let’s move. Just creatively, this has run its course.

III. The reveal

The show’s 17th season premiere aired on November 18, 1985. As promised, Big Bird made arrangements to introduce Snuffy to the adults on Sesame Street by telling them he’d yell out a secret word (“Food!”) when they were ready. Unfortunately, Snuffy is too nervous to remain idle, and Big Bird has a few false alarms that make the adults even more dubious.

Rubin: Watching this now, I’m 60 years old, sitting on the edge of my chair, going, "Oh, God, don’t go away! Stay there! Wait!"

Stiles: [Our goal] was to do what we had always done before, which was, "If you stay here, he’ll be here."

Robinson: They did it in one show ... I always thought it would have been nice if they could have revealed him to one person at a time. So that one person would have actually seen him, and then go back screaming to the rest saying, "I saw him!"

In a somewhat bizarre non-sequitur, talk show host Phil Donahue appears to pick up his broken toaster from Luis’s Fix-It Shop and begins to engage characters on the merits of Big Bird’s preferred code word.

Davis: You know, the first thing that comes to mind is that bimodal audience that they always talked about and writing something that would be appealing to adults as much as it would be to kids. Having Phil Donahue being the protagonist kind of making fun of himself and his show was hilarious.

Parente: There are plenty of studies that prove kids get more of the educational value when there’s co-viewing going on, so things like Donahue and other celebrities are by design. When you have a parent viewing with their child, they can ask questions and spawn a conversation.

After some protracted teasing of the audience—Snuffy can’t seem to stay put—the entire cast meets Snuffy and stares at him in awe.

Robinson: He’s starting to peel off and Elmo actually grabs onto his trunk and holds him down. There was a shot when they actually pinned Elmo onto the trunk, and I’m whipping him around in the air like a pinwheel. But it held him up just long enough so that the cast actually showed up, and saw him there. And so, one by one, down the line, it was this line of shocked faces. And they all came up and shook hands with him.

Delgado: We were all amazed that this giant elephant-looking thing was actually real. You get a big reaction from everybody, and everybody was very happy Big Bird had been telling the truth all along. He was very happy people believed him.

Stiles: Big Bird [said] "Well, now what do you have to say?" You know, that was really his moment, and I just loved giving him the opportunity to say that.

Rubin: It was incredibly respectful of a child. The conversation did not diminish Big Bird, it wasn’t dismissive or pandering. It’s how you hope a conversation with someone wishing to be heard would go.

Delgado: It was kind of a big party. And Big Bird has a child’s mind, so he was satisfied. Like, "See, I told you he was real!"

Near the end of the episode, cast member Bob McGrath makes a pointed comment: “From now on, we’ll believe you whenever you tell us something.”

Rubin: It was so honest. Some parents get caught up in authoritarian mode and don’t have the flexibility to retract, recant, or acknowledge a kid’s reality. He was the collective voice of parents—"Sorry, we should’ve listened."

Parente: [A line like that] is exactly what we look to the child experts for, bringing in or soliciting experts to weigh in on specific dialogue to get it right. Simplicity is key, particularly with kids. It’s not about making it flowery with jokes, not doing it in the form of song. Songs are great, but often lyrical messaging is not necessarily the best takeaway. When it’s simple and straightforward, that’s when you have your best chance.

IV. Aftermath

Sesame Workshop

In 1985, Sesame Street was averaging 10 million viewers a week, making any pivotal episode hugely influential with its young audience. Later that year, they depicted the characters of Gordon (Roscoe Orman) and Susan (Loretta Long) adopting a child. Coupled with acknowledging the real-life death of cast member Will Lee (Mr. Hooper) in 1982, Snuffy’s status as a real Sesame citizen was part of the show’s overall evolution from teaching the alphabet to imparting life lessons.

Davis: I think it was a really smart thing for them to eliminate that as a possibility for the viewer and to say that even as outrageous as the claim sounded at first, here was this real-life big woolly mammoth of a friend that they just had not yet met. I give them a lot of credit for changing with the times and I remember some people saying, "Oh, it was politically correct," but it’s not that at all. It’s more that society changes and the way that we view things changes and Sesame Street has successfully negotiated those waters through the years.

Snuffy got topical again in 1992, when the show decided to depict his parents going through a divorce. Unlike his big reveal, this one didn’t go so well.

Parente: It was the first time in history we ever taped an episode and then didn't air it.

Stiles: He had kind of this family going and it helped that we had this family. There weren’t any other puppet families that we had, so I think it was a natural choice.

Delgado: He got a little sister later on.

Davis: It is interesting that they choose to have Snuffy’s parents get divorced because that character, he’s a little bit of a downer. He’s got a little Eeyore about him.

Parente: We knew enough to put it through the rigors of testing before it would air. And it was a lovely episode, but we found kids were upset after watching it. They were just not familiar with what divorce was.

Delgado: Kids freaked out.

Stiles: The shows weren’t necessarily for the child who’s watching whose parents are divorced, although that was part of it. It was, I think, more so that children would understand if they meet other children whose parents are divorced … The whole thing is difficult, because you’re opening up this can of worms for children who may not have even thought of the possibility that their parents might get divorced. Now all of a sudden, they walk into the kitchen and see their parents arguing about something and they go, "Uh-oh."

Parente: Snuffy’s family was going through it in real time, right in the midst of the crisis. We learned if we can see the characters after coming through divorce, it’s a better way of approaching it.

Despite the hiccup, Snuffy has remained a high-profile and viable member of the Sesame gang for well over 40 years. Most recently, he’s been spotted on Twitter, where he follows just one account: Big Bird’s.

Parente: One of my favorite things is to see people meet Snuffy for the first time. He’s bigger than life. He takes your breath away.

Davis: Sesame Street at its finest moments always found a way to include humor and to use it to help smooth things along and to help it go down in a way that was acceptable. You can’t give enough credit to the writers for brilliantly finding a way to make things funny for people who drink from sippy cups and people who drink from martini glasses.

Parente: We want to be helpful and useful for kids as well as parents. I think that’s why we’re here, 46 years later, always paying attention. What is it kids and parents need from us? In 1985, what they needed us to do was to stop that storyline and present a model of adults listening to children.

Delgado: It's definitely one of the biggest things to happen on the show.

Parente: The appeal of Snuffy is that he’s Big Bird’s best friend. People love Big Bird, so he benefits by association: "If that’s Big Bird’s friend, he’s my friend, too."

This story has been updated for 2020.