Laughter is said to be the best medicine, but, as with all drugs, overprescription is a dangerous thing. For most people, the most significant side effect of laughing is a pain in the ribs and perhaps some damp underwear, but for a few people, there is a real risk of overdose.
Some people have underlying conditions that make belly-laughing hazardous to their health, while others laugh so hard that they just forget to breathe. Whatever it was that tickled their funny bones, some people would have done better to try and keep a straight face. Here are a few things that you might want to avoid, if you don’t want to die laughing.
In 1975, Alex Mitchell was watching a surreal British comedy TV program called The Goodies. This particular episode, “Kung Fu Capers,” involved the three Goodies trying to learn the very British martial art of “Ecky Thump,” where combatants attack each other with black pudding.
Though it perhaps wasn’t a joke that travels well, Alex Mitchell found it hysterical. He found it so funny, in fact, that he laughed his way into cardiac arrest.
It is believed that Mr. Mitchell may have suffered from long QT syndrome, a heart disorder which can induce heart attack when triggered by adrenaline or exertion. His death led to doctors testing other family members, and they found that Mitchell’s daughter also had the syndrome, which is manageable.
After the death, Alex Mitchell’s widow wrote to the three Goodies to thank them for making her husband’s last moments so happy.
In 1782, a certain Mrs. Fitzherbert went to Drury Lane to see a performance of The Beggar’s Opera. It is possible that, being the widow of a clergyman, the lady had lived a somewhat sheltered life. Or perhaps she had never seen a pantomime.
Whatever the reason, the appearance onstage of a man in drag caused Mrs. Fitzherbert to break out into an uncontrollable fit of laughter. Such behavior being discouraged at the opera, she hastily left her seat and went outside, whereupon the fit of “hysterics” continued.
According to The Gentleman’s Magazine (not at all the same thing as a men’s magazine), Mrs. Fitzherbert was “unable to banish the figure from her memory, was thrown into a fit of hysterics, which continued without intermission until Friday morning, when she expired.”
In 1893, Wesley Parsons was enjoying a convivial dinner with friends. Although his exact age is not known, he is described as being “aged.” This aged farmer from Indiana shared a meal, a drink, and a joke. We do not know for sure whether the food was good, but it is likely that the drink was plentiful, since Wesley Parsons, while attempting to amuse his guests, laughed at his own joke.
According to reports at the time, he was “seized with a spell of laughing, being unable to stop. He laughed for a whole hour, when he began hiccoughing, and 2 hours later, he died from exhaustion.”
Though the death was recorded, the joke was not. Perhaps it is just as well. A joke that powerful could be dangerous in the wrong hands.
Zeuxis was one of the most well-known painters of ancient Greece. Although none of his work is thought to have survived, he was said to have specialized in painting single figures, notably of the gods. Descriptions of these works, such as Zeus surrounded by other deities or Eros crowned with roses, have survived.
He is said to have died after painting a picture, supposedly of Aphrodite, who he had depicted as an ugly old woman. As he finished the painting, the ridiculousness of the old hag beneath his brush being the Goddess of Love and Beauty tickled him so much that, each time he looked at the painting, he laughed harder until, finally, he collapsed and died.
The idea of the Zeuxis’s final hours seems to have struck a chord among painters. The artist Aert de Gelder, in 1685, painted himself as Zeuxis, and Rembrandt’s Laughing self-portrait is also said to be a nod to his ancient Greek predecessor.
Donkeys aren’t normally considered particularly funny. Foolish, yes, but funny?
The stoic philosopher Chrysippus would disagree. Chrysippus was normally a serious kind of man. He was concerned with subjects such as metaphysical theory, materialist ontology, freedom, and determinism, which all sounds rather heavy.
Perhaps he’d had a hard day’s thinking when he chanced upon a donkey eating his figs. After watching this scene for a while, he yelled, “Now give the donkey a pure wine to wash down the figs!”
The philospher’s joke entertained him so much that he fell to the ground laughing and was soon foaming at the mouth. It is believed that he died from laughter-induced syncope, which can cause tissue death in the brain, leading to muscle weakness, loss of consciousness, and death.
Thomas Urquhart, born in 1611, was an unusual man. Opinion is still divided on whether he was a prankster, a con man, or just plain mad. He was a gifted scholar, attending university at the age of 11. He fought for King Charles I and was knighted for his efforts. He fought again for Charles II and, on losing, was held in the Tower of London by Oliver Cromwell.
He claimed to be able to trace his lineage back to Adam and Eve and that it was his ancestor who found Moses in the bulrushes. He also claimed to be related to the Queen of Sheba, who was living in disguise in Ireland, to Fergus of Scotland (who probably never existed), and to King Arthur (who definitely didn’t).
Oliver Cromwell held him prisoner for a long time, but, eventually deciding that Urquhart was probably insane and definitely harmless, he let him go. In 1660, Urquhart heard that Cromwell had been ousted and that King Charles II was going to be restored to the throne, and he broke into a bout of “excessive laughter” and died.
Dreaming isn’t normally a dangerous pastime. Even nightmares can’t actually hurt us. For Damnoen Saen-um of Thailand, however, his dreams, though sweet, were the death of him.
According to his wife, the ice cream truck driver suddenly began to laugh in his sleep in 2003. The laughter carried on for two minutes, and he was laughing so hard that his wife became concerned and tried to wake him. Damnoen did not wake, however, and laughed all the harder, until he suddenly just stopped breathing.
Although the cause of death is not entirely clear, it is thought that the laughing may have brought on a heart seizure.
In 1989, Ole Bentzen, a Danish doctor who was in, it is thought, perfect health, went to the movies. The film he chose to see was A Fish Called Wanda, a Monty Python-esque surreal comedy staring Jamie Lee Curtis and a couple of original Pythons.
When he reached the scene where Kevin Kline shoves a couple of French fries up Michael Palin’s nose, he began to laugh. Apparently, it reminded him of the time his entire family stuck cauliflower up their noses while sitting around the dinner table. (Doesn’t every family do that?)
His pulse is claimed to have risen to between 250 and 500 beats per minute, and Bentzen suffered a heart attack. His assistant, who had accompanied him, said, “I was shocked to hear him break out laughing like that,” possibly because talking in the cinema is frowned on, or possibly because he was dead.
They do say inflation is a killer. For Arthur Cobcroft of Sydney, Australia, it certainly was. The 54-year-old dog trainer came across a five-year-old newspaper in 1920 and was comparing the prices of goods in the paper with current prices when he suddenly broke into fits of laughter.
He made a remark to his wife about the ridiculous prices, and his laughter became more uncontrolled. He soon found that he was unable to stop himself and eventually collapsed and died. Cause of death was recorded as heart failure caused by excessive laughter.
King Martin of Aragon is believed to be the only king ever to have laughed himself to death. He had just eaten an entire goose and was, understandably, beginning to suffer from a certain amount of bloating and indigestion. He retired to his bedroom, and in order to distract himself from his discomfort, he called for his jester.
It may be that the jester was reluctant to visit a flatulent king in his bedroom. We do know that the jester took some time to respond to the summons, and that when he finally did arrive, the king demanded to know where he had been. The jester replied, “In the next vineyard, where I saw a young deer hanging by his tail from a tree, as if someone had so punished him for stealing figs.”
The jester, it seems, knew his audience. The king found this so funny that he laughed uncontrollably at the joke for three hours, despite the discomfort of his indigestion. Eventually, he fell out of his bed laughing. By the time he hit the floor, he was dead.