Here's What Happened to 15 Key Players in Hamilton After the Duel

Wikimedia Commons (Portraits) // Public Domain // Collage: Chloe Effron
Wikimedia Commons (Portraits) // Public Domain // Collage: Chloe Effron

The death of former Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton—murdered by Vice-President Aaron Burr in a duel on July 12, 1804—shocked a young nation and laid bare partisan tensions that make modern politics look like a badly acted reality show. Hamilton’s bitter adversary, President Thomas Jefferson, was chillingly silent (at least publicly) about the death of his fellow Founding Father, while Hamilton’s erstwhile rival in Constitutional disputes, James Madison, was only concerned his death might stir sympathy for the moribund Federalists. The grand old man, George Washington, dead since 1799, would probably have mourned his brilliant young aide-de-camp, along with his own vision of a virtuous, non-partisan Republic.

But what about the other men and women whose paths had crossed with Hamilton’s, inspired by his vaulting ambitions and submerged in the wake of his tragic flaws? Lin-Manuel Miranda’s masterpiece Hamilton tells their story up to his death—but what happened to them in the aftermath?

1. AARON BURR

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The most controversial (read: “shady”) Founding Father, whatever was left of Burr’s political career went up in smoke with the murder of his former friend-turned-political adversary Alexander Hamilton after their July 11, 1804 duel—which is ironic, considering the duel was meant to restore Burr’s reputation, and with it his political fortunes. While dueling was a common way of settling “affairs of honor”—itself a fairly foreign concept in today’s world—duels very rarely actually got to the point of shooting, with various efforts being made to prevent it from getting that far. Actually killing your opponent was considered bloodthirsty in addition to being illegal (at least in New York; the authorities in New Jersey, where the duel took place, had a reputation for looking the other way).

After the duel, Burr was charged with murder in both New York and New Jersey and fled the area, going into hiding (still as Vice-President!) in Georgia—not quite another country, but close enough in an age when trains were maxing out at 10 miles per hour. Burr then returned to Washington, D.C. to finish his term as Vice-President, where he was immune from prosecution while presiding over the Senate, and benefited once again from his uncanny political luck: After the election of 1804, the victorious Democratic-Republicans and defeated Federalists decided the whole Hamilton affair was a needless political obstruction and the charges were quietly shelved. In fact, as the lame duck, VP Burr enjoyed a political swan song, presiding over the Senate’s impeachment trial of the Federalist Supreme Court Justice Samuel Chase, stemming in part from his previous handling of the trial of notorious muckraker James Callender (the Senate voted to acquit Chase).

Facing creditors in New York City, like so many other down-on-their luck, disreputable, or plain ol’ murderous men in U.S. history, Burr decided to try to revive his fortunes by heading to the Western frontier—which, at that time, meant Louisiana. In 1805, Burr leased 40,000 acres on the Ouachita River from Baron de Bastrop, a Dutch businessman with connections to the Spanish crown, and recruited scores of followers as he journeyed west. According to one version, Burr, anticipating a war between the U.S. and Spain in the near future, wanted first crack at the vast fertile lands of Texas when the U.S. kicked the Spaniards out, or possibly even planned to precipitate the war with his own private invasion (a practice known as “filibustering”). According to another version, Burr wanted to mount a rebellion against the U.S. government in the Louisiana Territory and form a new nation, perhaps with help from Britain.

Although it’s not clear what Burr’s plans were, what his former boss President Thomas Jefferson saw was a disgraced politician setting up a fiefdom on the borders of the United States with his own private army, and Burr’s notorious opportunism made the charges sound plausible enough—especially after one of his collaborators/“co-conspirators,” Louisiana Territory governor James Wilkinson, ratted him out (ironically, Wilkinson himself was in the pay of the Spanish crown, though this was only discovered after his death). Other statements Burr made to the British ambassador to Washington, Anthony Merry, certainly seem to indicate he was planning to detach the new western territories from the U.S.

Convinced that Burr was plotting rebellion in the Louisiana Territory, planning an illegal invasion of Spanish territory, or both, Jefferson ordered him arrested in 1806, and the next year, Burr was hauled back to Virginia to stand trial on charges of treason and high misdemeanor. Burr denied the accusations categorically and noted his long patriotic service to his country; meanwhile, Wilkinson was shown to have altered a key piece of evidence for the government’s case, a letter from Burr supposedly detailing the plans for rebellion. With no evidence beyond the fact that Burr was headed somewhere with a band of armed men, Chief Justice John Marshall found Burr not guilty in spite of overwhelming pressure from Jefferson, an important early statement of judicial independence.

After the trial, Burr spent several years in Europe, perhaps plotting another invasion of Mexico with help from Britain or France, and then in 1812 returned to New York City, where he worked as a lawyer and suffered the loss of his beloved daughter Theodosia at sea in 1813. After practicing law for two decades, in 1833, at the age of 77, Burr married Eliza Jumel, reputedly the wealthiest widow in America. She accused him of mismanaging her finances and filed for divorce not long after (her lawyer: Hamilton's second son, also named Alexander). Their divorce was finalized on September 14, 1836—the same day Burr died in a boardinghouse in Port Richmond, Staten Island, age 80. Shortly before his death Burr heard that American colonists in Texas had rebelled against the Mexican government, is said to have exclaimed: “What was treason in me 30 years ago is patriotism now!” He is buried in Princeton, New Jersey.

2. ELIZABETH SCHUYLER HAMILTON, A.K.A ELIZA OR BETSEY


Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Hamilton’s devoted and long-suffering wife, Eliza, endured a barrage of losses around the time of the duel, including the deaths of her mother Catherine, and, three years before, the deaths of her sister Peggy and her son Philip, who was also fatally wounded in a duel. The strong-willed widow, who never remarried, now found herself scrambling to manage her late husband’s substantial debts (the former Secretary of the Treasury and the force behind the First Bank of the United States was not so great with his own money). Friends and family tried to help out, but she was forced to give up their house, The Grange—which was completed just two years before Hamilton’s death—in a public auction. Not long after, she was able to repurchase it because of yet another tragedy, the death of her father Philip just four months after her husband, which left her a modest bequest.

Although Eliza had secured their family home, she would spend most of the rest of her life in (relative) poverty. Nonetheless, she played a major role in securing her husband’s legacy and contributing to the young country’s civic life. Over the next five decades, she corresponded with all the leaders of the Federalists as well as their associates and descendants, flattering, coaxing and pleading with them to turn over important papers and letters written by Alexander over the years, most of which are now held by the Library of Congress. Among the items curated by Eliza was a letter from her husband to George Washington, proving his authorship of part of the first president’s famous Farewell Address.

Eliza also helped found the first public orphanages in New York City and Washington, D.C., serving as the director of the New York orphanage from 1821 to 1848. She also successfully lobbied Congress to have Alexander’s army pension, which he had waived, reinstated. She spent the last six years of her life living in Washington, D.C. with her widowed daughter, also named Eliza, where she helped another Revolutionary widow, Dolley Madison, raise funds for the Washington Monument. After her death in 1854 she was buried alongside her husband in the Trinity Church cemetery in New York City.

3. ANGELICA SCHUYLER CHURCH


Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Eliza’s older sister Angelica—who dazzled New York society, carried on a lifelong flirtation (and possibly affair) with her brother-in-law Alexander, and was a close friend of both Thomas Jefferson and the Marquis de Lafayette—lived only 10 more years after Hamilton’s death. During that period, her husband, John Barker Church, had received 100,000 acres of land on the Genesee River in western New York State as repayment of a loan to Robert Morris, famous as “the Financier of the Revolution.” Her son Philip founded a town on the land, which he named Angelica in her honor; John built the family mansion, Belvidere, there. She divided her time between Belvidere and New York City until her death at the age of 58 in 1814; she is buried in the Trinity Church cemetery in New York City.

4. MARIA REYNOLDS

After Hamilton’s ill-advised affair with Maria Reynolds—which her husband James used to blackmail Hamilton before the whole thing blew up with the Reynolds Pamphlet scandal—Maria paid the heavy penalty of any woman of “ill fame,” in keeping with the double standard of the time. Before the affair became public knowledge, Maria divorced her husband (her lawyer: Aaron Burr), and married James’ co-conspirator, Jacob Clingman, before divorcing him in 1800. Reviled as a prostitute, she lost her daughter Susan, who was taken away by the courts to be raised in foster care, although this doesn’t seem to have helped much: In 1803, Susan eloped with a certain Francis Wright, who dumped her a few weeks later, and she wound up in a brothel, another victim of her mother’s infamy. Maria herself died in 1832 at the age of 64.

5. JAMES REYNOLDS

Not much is known about Maria’s lowlife husband, who pretty much disappears from the pages of history after the publication of the Reynolds Pamphlet in 1797. It’s not hard to imagine James Reynolds assuming a new identity and disappearing into the crowd, aided by the lack of official records, identity papers, photographs, or electronic communication of any sort in early 19th century America. The young Republic was a good place to be a career criminal.

6. SAMUEL SEABURY

The Anglican bishop—who, in the musical, Hamilton memorably mocks in "The Farmer Refuted"—initially opposed independence but later played a central role in the founding of the Episcopal Church in America. By the time of his death in 1796, Seabury had helped craft the Episcopalian liturgy and established continuity between the Anglican and Episcopal Churches, healing the religious rupture caused by the Revolution and thus maintaining the direct line of succession running back to the early Apostles. Among other contributions, Seabury persuaded the American Episcopal Church to adopt the Scottish Prayer of Consecration rather than its shorter English counterpart. Today the anniversary of his consecration in Aberdeen, Scotland, on November 14, 1784, is a feast day in the Episcopal Church.

7. GEORGE EACKER

The New York City lawyer who killed Alexander Hamilton’s son Philip in November 1801 only ended up outliving him by a few years. Eacker, a supporter of Burr, insulted Hamilton senior in a speech by implying he was open to treason against the Jefferson administration, causing Philip and his friend Richard Price to demand satisfaction (a.k.a. an apology). Instead, Eacker cussed them out, an insult to their honor that could not be overlooked. The fracas resulted in two duels on November 22 and 23, 1801, both held at the same popular dueling ground in Weehawken, New Jersey, where Burr and Hamilton would later duel. First Eacker faced off against Price, with the expected result—two shots fired, no injuries, honor maintained. The next day, Eacker killed Philip in the second duel. Eacker didn’t get to savor his victory for long, however: He died, likely of consumption (tuberculosis), on January 4, 1804, six months before Burr killed Alexander Hamilton.

8. CHARLES LEE

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Considered by some a traitor to the Revolutionary cause, the hard-drinking Lee (who sings "I'm a General, wee!" in Hamilton) never achieved the notoriety of Benedict Arnold because his attempt at treason (if that’s what it was—he wrote to William Howe about the best way to defeat the Americans) never really went anywhere. After his capture by British forces in 1776, Lee was freed in a prisoner exchange and returned to service in 1778. He led—or rather, failed to lead—the Continental attack at the Battle of Monmouth later that year, when he ordered his troops to retreat and left Washington to sort it all out.

Some historians claim his disobedience was a deliberate gambit hatched with the British during his captivity, while sympathetic biographers note that Washington’s orders were vague and Lee’s troops outnumbered 2-to-1. Whatever the truth was, Washington was furious and relieved Lee of command on the spot. Lee demanded a court martial to clear his name. He was found guilty, and retreated to live in his Virginia (now West Virginia) estate Prato Rio—then earned himself even more disfavor by attacking Washington’s character, resulting in a duel with Washington’s aide John Laurens.

While at his estate, he drew up plans for a utopian society without clergy, in which citizens would cultivate virtue through music, poetry, and philosophy. He died of fever in Philadelphia in 1782. In his will, Lee—a Deist who made no secret of his scorn for organized religion—specified: “I desire most earnestly, that I may not be buried in any church, or church-yard, or within a mile of any Presbyterian or Anabaptist meeting-house; for since I have resided in this country, I have kept so much bad company when living, that I do not chuse [sic] to continue it when dead.” So they buried him in the churchyard of Christ Church in Philadelphia. Fort Lee in New Jersey is named after him.

9. THE MARQUIS DE LAFAYETTE


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The elegant, idealistic young French nobleman led an equally adventurous life after the American Revolution, including a star role in another, far more violent uprising across the Atlantic. After returning to France a military hero for his role in the American Revolution, in 1791, during the first, moderate phase of the French Revolution, Lafayette helped write the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen with help from Thomas Jefferson, elaborating on the idea of universal rights set forth in the U.S. Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and Bill of Rights.

When the Revolution took a radical turn, however, Lafayette’s noble status became a liability, as the Jacobins led by Robespierre accused him of secret monarchist sympathies for defending the royal family from a mob. In 1792, he fled to the Austrian Netherlands (today Belgium), where he was promptly arrested by the Austrians as an anti-monarchist, proving sometimes you just can’t win (if anyone cared to ask, he wanted a moderate constitutional monarchy).

After spending five years in an Austrian prison, during which the Revolution burned itself out, Lafayette was freed at the request of Napoleon Bonaparte—then busily laying the groundwork for (another) dictatorship—in 1797. Disagreeing with Napoleon’s authoritarian tendencies, Lafayette wisely sat out most of the Napoleonic era, grieving the death of his wife Adrienne in 1807 and only returning to public life in 1815 to help force the emperor to abdicate after his second, short-lived return to power.

In 1824, at the age of 68, Lafayette returned to the United States with his son Georges Washington to celebrate the upcoming 50th anniversary of independence. Riding an unprecedented wave of public adulation, Lafayette reunited with Revolutionary War veterans and undertook a 16-month grand tour of the nation he helped create, including a visit to the aging Jefferson and Madison at Monticello, and a separate visit to John Adams in Boston. Before he left, Congress awarded him the stupendous sum of $200,000 along with land in Florida. When Lafayette returned to France, he carried with him a case of American soil, which was later spread on his grave after his death in 1834 at the age of 78.

10. HERCULES MULLIGAN

One of Hamilton’s best friends during his footloose youth in New York City, the Irish-born Mulligan, 17 years Hamilton's senior, helped convert him to the Revolutionary cause and continued to play a central role organizing resistance to British rule in New York during the Revolution, using his position as a tailor for British officers to gather key information which his slave Cato then passed to the rebels. After the Revolution, many Patriots, ignorant of Mulligan’s secret wartime service, accused him of being a British collaborator and wanted to tar and feather him—usually a fatal procedure. Thankfully, George Washington intervened by visiting Mulligan in New York the day after the British evacuated the city in 1783, later employing him as his personal tailor. This endorsement by the Father of the Country was enough to bring Mulligan lifelong fame and prosperity, and presumably a bunch of awkward apologies.

In 1785, Mulligan joined Hamilton in founding the New York Manumission Society, one of the first official organizations devoted to ending slavery, and a predecessor to William Lloyd Garrison’s American Anti-Slavery Society. He continued working as a tailor until his retirement at age 80 in 1820, his business doubtless benefiting from the sign reading “Clothier to Genl. Washington” out front. He died in 1825 and was buried in the cemetery of Trinity Church, along with his old friend Hamilton.

11. KING GEORGE III


King George III, the “tyrannical” monarch (who was actually fairly conciliatory before Parliament pushed him into open confrontation with the colonists) had his good days and bad days after the colonies went their own way, the latter mostly due to his habit of going nuts for long periods of time. (The lyrics in "You'll Be Back" are a subtle nod to his fits of madness: "When you're gone / I'll go mad ..." he sings.) The king’s madness has often been attributed to porphyria, a genetic condition that also causes the victim’s urine to turn blue, but historians and medical experts have also suggested that he suffered from a mental illness like bipolar disorder, while others point to arsenic poisoning.

Whatever the cause, George III’s bouts of insanity began almost three decades into his 60-year reign from 1761-1820, with the first episode of prolonged derangement recorded in 1788. From then on, he would alternate between periods of apparent normality and increasingly bizarre behavior—talking for hours on end until foam starting coming from his mouth, for example (the story that he shook hands with a tree is a myth, though).

Given the primitive state of medicine in general and mental healthcare in particular, it’s no surprise the treatments tried out on the king proved more or less useless, including harsh chemical applications and forcible restraints. In 1789, Parliament attempted to pass a bill to create a regency, which would allow his son, the future King George IV, to carry out royal duties in his place. But George III recovered before the bill was passed, and the idea was shelved. George III relapsed in 1801 and 1804, and a final relapse in 1810 (possibly aggravated by the stress of the wars with Napoleon) led to the formal creation of the Regency in 1811, which continued until George III’s death in 1820. Despite his madness, King George III was remembered in England as a kind, considerate monarch who was concerned for the welfare of his people.

12. ANGELICA HAMILTON

In Hamilton, the Treasure secretary's oldest son, then 9, raps that he "has a sister but I want a little brother!" That sister was Angelica, the Hamiltons' second child, who was destroyed by Philip's 1801 death. Grief drove her insane, and she remained institutionalized until her death at the age of 73 in 1857. For the rest of her life, she continued to speak about Philip as if he were still alive even as she sometimes failed to recognize her own family members. Her one pleasure was playing the piano, as her father had taught her when she was a girl.

13. AND 14. WILLIAM P. VAN NESS AND NATHANIEL PENDLETON (THE "SECONDS")

Van Ness, who served as the second to Aaron Burr in the famous duel, and Pendleton, who served as the second to Hamilton, became respected judges in later years, despite technically being complicit in the criminal affair of the duel, as they freely admitted. In fact, hours after the duel, they cooperated to write a joint statement giving their combined eyewitness account, which they submitted to the court on July 17, 1804. The statement reads, in part:

The pistols were discharged within a few seconds of each other and the fire of Col: Burr took effect; Genl Hamilton almost instantly fell. Col: Burr then advanced toward Genl H——n with a manner and gesture that appeared to Genl Hamilton’s friend to be expressive of regret, but without Speaking turned about & withdrew… No farther communications took place between the principals and the Barge that carried Col: Burr immediately returned to the City. We conceive it proper to add that the conduct of the parties in that interview was perfectly proper as suited the occasion.

15. DAVID HOSACK

The physician who attended both Alexander Hamilton and his son Philip after their duels (and who served as the physician for Aaron Burr and his daughter) continued a long and successful medical and scientific career after their deaths. Motivated by the death of his son Alexander in 1792 and the death of his first wife Catharine during childbirth in 1796, Hosack made the care of pregnant women the subject of lifelong study; he was also an early advocate of the smallpox vaccination, in addition to advancing the treatment of yellow fever. In addition to previous appointments as a professor of natural history and botany at Columbia University, he was named Professor of Surgery and Midwifery, the precursor to obstetrics, in 1807. From 1801 to 1805, Hosack created America’s first botanical garden, Elgin Botanical Garden, in New York City (it was eventually given to New York State, which gave it to Columbia College, who would ultimately lease it to the Rockefellers—who turned the site into Rockefeller Center). He later founded the New York Horticultural Society and recruited a number of luminaries to join it, including Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, John Adams, and the Marquis de Lafayette. In 1821, Hosack was honored with membership in the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, which today hands out Nobel Prizes—kind of a big deal. Following the death of his second wife Mary in 1824, Hosack married a wealthy widow, Magdalena Coster, and eventually purchased a large estate in Hyde Park on the Hudson River Valley in addition to their Manhattan townhouse. He died in 1835 at the age of 66, apparently due to shock after a disastrous fire destroyed much of his beloved New York City.

10 Products for a Better Night's Sleep

Amazon/Comfort Spaces
Amazon/Comfort Spaces

Getting a full eight hours of sleep can be tough these days. If you’re having trouble catching enough Zzzs, consider giving these highly rated and recommended products a try.

1. Everlasting Comfort Pure Memory Foam Knee Pillow; $25

Everlasting Comfort Knee Pillow
Everlasting Comfort/Amazon

For side sleepers, keeping the spine, hips, and legs aligned is key to a good night’s rest—and a pain-free morning after. Everlasting Comfort’s memory foam knee pillow is ergonomically designed to fit between the knees or thighs to ensure proper alignment. One simple but game-changing feature is the removable strap, which you can fasten around one leg; this keeps the pillow in place even as you roll at night, meaning you don’t have to wake up to adjust it (or pick it up from your floor). Reviewers call the pillow “life-changing” and “the best knee pillow I’ve found.” Plus, it comes with two pairs of ear plugs.

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2. Letsfit White Noise Machine; $21

Letsfit White Noise Machine
Letsfit/Amazon

White noise machines: They’re not just for babies! This Letsfit model—which is rated 4.7 out of five with nearly 3500 reviews—has 14 potential sleep soundtracks, including three white noise tracks, to better block out everything from sirens to birds that chirp enthusiastically at dawn (although there’s also a birds track, if that’s your thing). It also has a timer function and a night light.

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3. ECLIPSE Blackout Curtains; $16

Eclipse Black Out Curtains
Eclipse/Amazon

According to the National Sleep Foundation, too much light in a room when you’re trying to snooze is a recipe for sleep disaster. These understated polyester curtains from ECLIPSE block 99 percent of light and reduce noise—plus, they’ll help you save on energy costs. "Our neighbor leaves their backyard light on all night with what I can only guess is the same kind of bulb they use on a train headlight. It shines across their yard, through ours, straight at our bedroom window," one Amazon reviewer who purchased the curtains in black wrote. "These drapes block the light completely."

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4. JALL Wake Up Light Sunrise Alarm Clock; $38

JALL Wake Up Light Sunrise Alarm Clock
JALL/Amazon

Being jarred awake by a blaring alarm clock can set the wrong mood for the rest of your day. Wake up in a more pleasant way with this clock, which gradually lights up between 10 percent and 100 percent in the 30 minutes before your alarm. You can choose between seven different colors and several natural sounds as well as a regular alarm beep, but why would you ever use that? “Since getting this clock my sleep has been much better,” one reviewer reported. “I wake up not feeling tired but refreshed.”

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5. Philips SmartSleep Wake-Up Light; $200

Philips SmartSleep Wake-Up Light
Philips/Amazon

If you’re looking for an alarm clock with even more features, Philips’s SmartSleep Wake-Up Light is smartphone-enabled and equipped with an AmbiTrack sensor, which tracks things like bedroom temperature, humidity, and light levels, then gives recommendations for how you can get a better night’s rest.

Buy it: Amazon

6. Slumber Cloud Stratus Sheet Set; $159

Stratus sheets from Slumber Cloud.
Slumber Cloud

Being too hot or too cold can kill a good night’s sleep. The Good Housekeeping Institute rated these sheets—which are made with Outlast fibers engineered by NASA—as 2020’s best temperature-regulating sheets.

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7. Comfort Space Coolmax Sheet Set; $29-$40

Comfort Spaces Coolmax Sheets
Comfort Spaces/Amazon

If $159 sheets are out of your price range, the GHI recommends these sheets from Comfort Spaces, which are made with moisture-wicking Coolmax microfiber. Depending on the size you need, they range in price from $29 to $40.

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8. Coop Home Goods Eden Memory Foam Pillow; $80

Coop Eden Pillow
Coop Home Goods/Amazon

This pillow—which has a 4.5-star rating on Amazon—is filled with memory foam scraps and microfiber, and comes with an extra half-pound of fill so you can add, or subtract, the amount in the pillow for ultimate comfort. As a bonus, the pillows are hypoallergenic, mite-resistant, and washable.

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9. Baloo Weighted Blanket; $149-$169

Baloo Weighted Blanket
Baloo/Amazon

Though the science is still out on weighted blankets, some people swear by them. Wirecutter named this Baloo blanket the best, not in small part because, unlike many weighted blankets, it’s machine-washable and -dryable. It’s currently available in 12-pound ($149) twin size and 20-pound ($169) queen size. It’s rated 4.7 out of five stars on Amazon, with one reviewer reporting that “when it's spread out over you it just feels like a comfy, snuggly hug for your whole body … I've found it super relaxing for falling asleep the last few nights, and it looks nice on the end of the bed, too.” 

Buy it: Amazon 

10. Philips Smartsleep Snoring Relief Band; $200

Philips SmartSleep Snoring Relief Band
Philips/Amazon

Few things can disturb your slumber—and that of the ones you love—like loudly sawing logs. Philips’s Smartsleep Snoring Relief Band is designed for people who snore when they’re sleeping on their backs, and according to the company, 86 percent of people who used the band reported reduced snoring after a month. The device wraps around the torso and is equipped with a sensor that delivers vibrations if it detects you moving to sleep on your back; those vibrations stop when you roll onto your side. The next day, you can see how many hours you spent in bed, how many of those hours you spent on your back, and your response rate to the vibrations. The sensor has an algorithm that notes your response rate and tweaks the intensity of vibrations based on that. “This device works exactly as advertised,” one Amazon reviewer wrote. “I’d say it’s perfect.”

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

8 Facts About David Bowie's 'Space Oddity'

Express/Express/Getty Images
Express/Express/Getty Images

On July 20, 1969, astronauts walked on the Moon for the first time. Just a few weeks earlier, another space-age event had rocked the world: David Bowie’s single “Space Oddity” hit airwaves. The song, whose lyrics tell the story of an astronaut’s doomed journey into space, helped propel the artist to icon status, and five decades later, it’s still one of his most popular works. 

1. "Space Oddity" was inspired by 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Many listeners assumed that "Space Oddity" was riffing on the Apollo 11 Moon landing of 1969, but it was actually inspired by a Stanley Kubrick film released a year earlier. Bowie watched 2001: A Space Odyssey multiple times when it premiered in theaters in 1968. “It was the sense of isolation I related to,” Bowie told Classic Rock in 2012. “I found the whole thing amazing. I was out of my gourd, very stoned when I went to see it—several times—and it was really a revelation to me. It got the song flowing.”

2. "Space Oddity" was also inspired by heartbreak.

The track was also partly inspired by the more universal experience of heartbreak. Bowie wrote the song after ending his relationship with actress Hermione Farthingale. The break inspired several songs, including “Letter to Hermione” and “Life on Mars,” and in “Space Oddity,” Bowie’s post-breakup loneliness and melancholy is especially apparent.

3. "Space Oddity" helped him sign a record deal.

In 1969, a few years into David Bowie’s career, the musician recorded a demo tape with plans to use it to land a deal with Mercury Records. That tape featured an early iteration of “Space Oddity,” and based on the demo, Mercury signed him for a one-album deal. But the song failed to win over one producer. Tony Visconti, who produced Bowie’s self-titled 1969 album, thought the song was a cheap attempt to cash in on the Apollo 11 mission, and he tapped someone else to produce that particular single.

4. The BBC played "Space Oddity" during the Moon landing.

"Space Oddity" was released on July 11, 1969—just five days before NASA launched Apollo 11. The song doesn’t exactly sound like promotional material for the mission. It ends on a somber note, with Major Tom "floating in a tin can" through space. But the timing and general subject matter were too perfect for the BBC to resist. The network played the track over footage of the Moon landing. Bowie later remarked upon the situation, saying, "Obviously, some BBC official said, 'Oh, right then, that space song, Major Tom, blah blah blah, that’ll be great. 'Um, but he gets stranded in space, sir.' Nobody had the heart to tell the producer that."

5. David Bowie recorded an Italian version of "Space Oddity."

The same year "Space Oddity" was released, a different version David Bowie recorded with Italian lyrics was played by radio stations in Italy. Instead of directly translating the English words, the Italian songwriter Mogul was hired to write new lyrics practically from scratch. "Ragazzo Solo, Ragazza Sola" ("Lonely Boy, Lonely Girl") is a straightforward love song, and Major Tom is never mentioned.

6. Major Tom appeared in future songs.

Major Tom, the fictional astronaut at the center of "Space Oddity," is one of the most iconic characters invented for a pop song. It took a decade for him to resurface in David Bowie’s discography. In his 1980 single "Ashes to Ashes," the artists presents a different version of the character, singing: "We know Major Tom's a junkie/Strung out in heaven's high/Hitting an all-time low." Bowie also references Major Tom in "Hallo Spaceboy" from the 1995 album Outside.

7. "Space Oddity" is featured in Chris Hadfield's ISS music video.

When choosing a song for the first music filmed in space, Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield naturally went with David Bowie’s out-of-this-world anthem. The video above was recorded on the International Space Station in 2013, with Hadfield playing guitar and singing from space and other performers providing musical accompaniment from Earth. Some lyrics were tweaked for the cover. Hadfield mentions the "Soyuz hatch" of the capsule that would eventually shuttle him to Earth.

8. "Space Oddity" played on the Tesla that Elon Musk sent to space.

Dummy in Tesla roadster in space with Earth in background.
SpaceX via Getty Images

In 2018, Elon Musk used SpaceX's Falcon Heavy rocket to launch his Tesla Roadster into space. The car was decked out with pop culture Easter eggs—according to Musk, "Space Oddity" was playing over the car’s radio system during the historic journey. The dummy’s name, Starman, is the name of another space-themed song on Bowie's 1972 masterpiece The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.