Throughout history, there has been one thing that is common to everyone who has ever lived: death. Some deaths have been more spectacular than others, some more notable, and some more mysterious. Some made a difference in the world, while others passed relatively unnoticed. Some stand out, either due to the life of the person or because of the way they died.
Famous Deaths from Long Ago
Gaius Julius Caesar (July 100BC – March 15, 44 BC), is a name that is well known, both because of his position as ruler of the Roman Empire in the first century BC and because of Shakespeare’s play. A dynamic man by all accounts, Caesar pursued priesthood (of the god Jupiter) after his father’s death when he was 16. However, not long after he married, opposition took control of the government and disinherited him as well as stripping him of priesthood. This allowed him to enter the military, which the priesthood prohibited, and he began his rise to power. He was appointed dictator several times, usually for a year or two at a time, with the longest duration being ten years, until February 44 BC when he was appointed dictator for life.
This dictatorship was short-lived, however. A Senate session on the Ides of March (March 15), about a month after his appointment, was being held in the Theatre of Pompey, and Caesar was expected to attend. His second in command, Marc Antony, became aware of a plot and hurried to warn Caesar, but was waylaid by Trebonius, and then fled when commotion began within. After the first blow was struck, many joined in and stabbed Caesar. The result was 23 wounds, of which one – the second one to his chest – was lethal.
Unlike Shakespeare’s version, historians of the day declare that Caesar was silent at the end, and did not utter the words “Et tu, Brute?” or any similar phrase.
Jesus Christ (~3BC – ~30AD) No list of historical, significant deaths would be complete without mentioning Jesus Christ, also known as Jesus of Nazareth. Christianity revolves around him and he is known in most Christian denominations as the Son of God and the awaited Messiah of the Old Testament. The name Jesus Christ is the most commonly used, both in religious texts and secular histories, although, being Jewish, his name was probably closer to Yeshua ben-Yoseph (Yeshua, son of Joseph).
Christians believe that Jesus Christ was born of a virgin, that he was baptized by John the Baptist, and that he did many miracles of healing, and founded the Church. They believe he was crucified for the atonement of mankind, rose from the dead under his own power, ascended into heaven, and will return in the end times. Most Christians believe he is God the Son, one of the three parts of the Divine Trinity which includes God the Father and the Holy Spirit.
Muslims believe that Jesus was an important prophet and the Messiah. They agree that he was born of a virgin, but disagree that he was God’s Son and believe that, rather than being crucified, he was raised bodily into heaven and replaced with an alternate physical body that was then crucified.
The noted historian Josephus wrote about Jesus Christ’s death on the cross and noted that his followers were steadfast. He observed that Christians continued “to this day,” which was written sometime after AD 71.
Joan of Arc (1412 – 1431) (also sometimes written Jeanne d’Arc) was the child of a peasant family in the northeastern part of France. She claimed to have seen visions of Michael the Archangel, Saint Catherine, and Saint Margaret, who gave her instructions to support Charles VII in the Hundred Years’ War. She was included in a relief mission to the siege of Orleans, and nine days later the siege was lifted, which was instrumental in her acquisition of the nickname “The Maid of Orleans.”
The English ally known as the Burgundian faction captured her at Compiegne on May 23, 1430, and proceeded to turn her over to the English, who put her on trial. The Bishop Pierre Cauchon, an English sympathizer, declared her guilty. On May 30, 1431, at nineteen years old, she was burned at the stake.
However, twenty-five years later, Pope Callixtus III re-examined the trial and charges and declared her innocent, and labeled her a martyr. She became one of the patron saints of France thereafter.
Famous Deaths Prior to 1950
The assassination of Franz Ferdinand on June 28, 1914, in Sarajevo was carried out by a 19-year-old man named Gavrilo Princip. He belonged to a group of assassins created and armed by the Black Hand. Franz Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie, were planning to go to the hospital to see some of their people who had been injured earlier in the day by a grenade. Their driver had not been informed, and the motorcade had to turn around. The line of cars paused at one point. Princip who was across the street at a cafe saw an opportunity, walked across the street, and shot Sophie in the abdomen, and Franz Ferdinand in the neck. Franz lived several more minutes, entreating his wife to live for their children, but both died before they could reach the hospital.Franz Ferdinand (December 18, 1863 – June 28, 1914) was an Archduke of Austria and Royal Prince of Hungary and Bohemia. At age 11, the death of his cousin Duke Francis V resulted in Franz Ferdinand being named his heir as long as he would add “Este” to his name. This made Franz Ferdinand one of the richest men in Austria. The death of another cousin fourteen years later changed his life again – the Crown Prince Rudolf committed suicide, making Franz Ferdinand’s father the heir to the throne. Seven years later, his father, Karl Ludwig died of typhoid fever, making Franz Ferdinand the heir presumptive.
This, along with other events, led to the beginning of World War I, which commenced about a month later. The assassination of Franz Ferdinand is often pointed to as the main even that caused World War I.
Abraham Lincoln (February 12, 1809 – April 15, 1865) was the 16th President of the United States. He is most known for his honesty, signing the Emancipation Proclamation, and the Gettysburg Address. Born in Kentucky, Lincoln did most of his growing up in Indiana, where they moved when he was 7. His mother died when he was 9, and his father remarried a little over a year later. Nine years after that, when he was 19, his sister Sarah, who was two years older, died in childbirth. This was very difficult for Lincoln.
Most of Lincoln’s education was through reading. He had little formal schooling, but loved to read a variety of good books.
Lincoln married Mary Todd in 1842, and they lived in Springfield, Illinois. They had four sons, three of which died before the age of 19. This caused both of the Lincolns stress and depression; Mary was temporarily committed to a mental health asylum in 1875, and Lincoln was clinically depressed (although in those days they called it “melancholy”).
Lincoln was against slavery, believing that all men are created equal. However, the beginning of the Civil War had nothing to do with slavery, but instead was a result of several southern states choosing to secede from the United States because of Lincoln’s election to the Presidential office. As President-elect, Lincoln and President Buchanan declared secession illegal. Lincoln made attempts to make peace with the southern states, but in vain, and thus the War Between the States began.
After the end of the war, a man named John Wilkes Booth had determined he wanted to kidnap Lincoln in hopes he could trade him for some Confederate prisoners. However, after hearing Lincoln speak on April 11, 1865, promoting voting rights for black Americans, Booth decided he would rather assassinate the President. He arranged with some others to assassinate Lincoln, Grant, Vice President Johnson, and the Secretary of State at the same time, while Lincoln and Grant were attending a play at Ford’s Theatre. However, Grant chose to visit his children, instead. Lincoln’s bodyguard stepped out during the intermission, giving Booth the opportunity he desired, and he shot Lincoln at point-blank range in the back of the head. Booth was apprehended 12 days later, and killed after he refused to surrender.
Lincoln has been memorialized on stamps, location names, and American money (the penny and the $5 bill).
Queen Min of Korea (October 19, 1851 – October 8, 1895) who was also known as Empress Myeongseong was officially the first wife of King Gojong, who was the 26th king in Korea’s Joseon dynasty. She worked hard to block the influence of Japan in Korea, in part by forging stronger alliances with Russia. Because of this work, a group of Japanese ronins was sent to assassinate her. These assassins were aided by the Hullyeondae Regiment, which overpowered the Royal Guards and allowed the ronins to infiltrate the palace. They killed three women who may have been the queen, and the attack was said to have been brutal and violent. After confirming the identity of the deceased Empress, they burned her corpse and scattered the ashes.
The result of this atrocity led to a deep-seated animosity toward Japan throughout Korea, which persists even to this day.
Mark Twain (November 30, 1835 – April 21, 1910), or Samuel Langhorne Clemens, as he was born, was a prominent author and humorist. His two best known works are The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. He also gave lectures full of satire and wit which earned acclaim and invitations to speak to all sorts of people from industrialists to royalty. Clemens made plenty of money from his works, both written and oral, and chose to invest it in ventures, most of which failed miserably. The best known of these is the Paige Compositor, which was a complicated mechanical typesetter that failed. These resulted in Clemens filing bankruptcy. However, a man of integrity, Clemens chose, once his financial troubles were overcome, to pay back in full all of his previous creditors.
Clemens made his entrance into this world less than two weeks after Halley’s Comet appeared in the sky. In 1909, he was heard to say, “I came in with Halley’s Comet in 1835. It is coming again next year, and I expect to go out with it. It will be the greatest disappointment of my life if I don’t go out with Halley’s Comet. The Almighty has said, no doubt: ‘Now here are these two unaccountable freaks; they came in together, they must go out together.'” Sure enough, at age 74, the day after Halley’s Comet returned, Clemens exited this world via heart attack.
Tsar Nicholas II (May 18, 1868 – July 17, 1918) was the last Russian Emperor. He took control of the country in November 1894 and reigned until he was forced to abdicate on March 15, 1917. During his reign, most of his military exploits were losses, and at one point he and his family were imprisoned. They were given to a local Ural soviet by the commissar Vasili Yakovlev, who was given a written receipt.
Nicholas chose to abdicate after the February Revolution, and chose his eldest son as successor. His doctors informed him that they felt the boy would have a short life once his parents were exiled, and Nicholas wrote a new document choosing his brother to be the next Emperor. However, the Grand Duke Michael declined. Some debate whether Nicholas’ change of successor was valid, as his son would already have been, technically, the Emperor when he wrote the second manifesto, but this technicality makes no practical difference.
Early on July 17, 1918, Nicholas and his family were awakened and told to dress. It was around 2:00 in the morning. They were taken to the basement, under the pretext of protecting them from anti-Bolshevik forces. However, the family, their doctor, and three servants who had chosen to stay of their own volition, were led into a room, and chairs were brought in for the empress and their son. Shortly after that, the executioners, who had been gathered in the next room, entered. Nicholas and his family were informed that they had been condemned to death. Nicholas was stunned, and turned toward his family, but was shot by the chief executioner Yurovsky, and the execution commenced, ending with the entire family and those with them deceased. This brought the Romanov dynasty to a decisive end.
Amelia Earhart (July 24, 1897 – July 2, 1937) is best known for her mysterious disappearance. One of the first female aviators, Earhart was the first woman to fly alone across the Atlantic. She bought her first airplane in 1921 – a two-seater that she named “The Canary.” She piloted her first flight across the Atlantic with two men. They left Newfoundland on June 17, 1928, flew 21 hours, and successfully landed in Wales. During her career in flying, she set many records.
In 1937, Earhart attempted to circumnavigate the globe in flight. However, somewhere in the area of Howland Island, Earhart and her plane disappeared. This date is listed as the date of her death, even though no evidence has ever been found to confirm or deny this. One theory is that she landed at Gardner Island, and to this day, they are still examining the atoll in an attempt to discover the truth.
Adolf Hitler (April 20, 1889 – April 30, 1945), born in Austria, Hitler is best known as the dictator of Nazi Germany from 1934-1945. After rising to power and being instrumental in causing the deaths of millions of people, including around 6 million Jews, somewhere around 19 million civilians, and around 29 million soldiers and civilians due to war, Hitler concluded his efforts by marrying his long-time lover, Eva Braun, and committing suicide. It is said that many years prior to this, he had a crush on a young lady whom he stalked and was overheard to say he wanted to marry her and commit suicide with her, so it would seem this was something of a life goal for him. It has been speculated, based on video evidence, that Hitler had Parkinson’s.
Famous Deaths from 1960 to Present
Marilyn Monroe (June 1, 1926 – August 5, 1962), born Norma Jeane Mortenson, was discovered walking down Sunset Boulevard in 1946. Bruno Bernard gave her his card and asked to take pictures of her. She took the name Marilyn Monroe the same year. She used her mother’s maiden name (Monroe) and took Marilyn from a 1920s musician named Marilyn Miller. However, her name was not officially and legally changed until February 23, 1956.
Monroe was found dead at 36 years old, in her home. It was determined that her death was caused by barbiturate poisoning, ostensibly self-administered.
John F Kennedy (May 29, 1917 – November 22, 1963), 35th President of the United States, was mostly known as Jack or JFK. The second oldest child of nine, his family produced a number of prominent men and women, including the founder of the Special Olympics: Eunice, an Attorney General of the US: Robert, and a powerful Senator: Ted. Kennedy’s rise to President included several historical components: he was the second youngest President at age 43 (only Theodore Roosevelt was younger, at 42); he was the first President who was born in the 20th century; and he was the first Catholic President. His most famous quote is “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”
What JFK is most known for, however, is his assassination. On November 22, 1963, in Dallas, Texas, Kennedy was traveling in a motorcade through downtown Dallas on his way to speak to Democratic Party members who were having some difficulties agreeing on things. Shots were fired and the President was hit and killed. Lee Harvey Oswald was arrested and charged with the murder, despite his denials. He was killed before his trial, two days after the assassination, by Jack Ruby, who was arrested and convicted; however, Ruby appealed, but died of cancer before his new trial’s date was set.
Martin Luther King, Jr (January 15, 1929 – April 4, 1968), a Baptist minister and known for advancing civil rights for African-Americans, is best known for a speech he gave in 1963 during the March on Washington, in which he put forth his dream for America. King graduated high school at the age of 15, after which he attained a B.A. degree from Morehouse College, following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather. He then attended seminary and continued to receive a doctorate in 1955.
He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize at age 35, the youngest man to have received it. He donated the prize money to the civil rights movement.
He was shot and killed on April 4, 1968, while he was standing on the balcony of his motel room in Memphis, Tennessee. A national day of mourning was declared by President Johnson. In 1983, President Reagan signed into law a bill that declared the third Monday of January an official U.S. federal holiday honoring Martin Luther King, Jr.
Elvis Presley (January 8, 1935 – August 16, 1977), also known as “The King of Rock and Roll,” was a prolific singer and actor. He was a twin, but his twin brother was stillborn. His first guitar was a gift from his parents on his 11th birthday, in 1946. Two years later, the family moved to Memphis, Tennessee. Elvis met up with a few other local musicians in an arrangement by Sam Phillips, the producer for Sun Records, in 1954. They recorded Elvis’ first single at that time. He signed his first contract with RCA Records in 1955.
Presley joined the U.S. Army in 1958. After two years in the service, he was officially discharged in March of 1960. He married Priscilla Beaulieu in 1967, though the marriage only lasted until the early 1970s. They filed for divorce on August 18, 1972, after both had affairs, and the divorce was final on October 9, 1973.
Elvis Presley was addicted to prescription drugs, feeling that he was not like a “common everyday junkie” because his drugs were prescribed by his doctor. However, he was hospitalized due to a Demerol addiction in late 1973, and his health continued to fail over the following years.
On August 16, 1977, Presley was found unresponsive on the bathroom floor at Graceland. It is believed that his enlarged heart, coupled with years of drug abuse, were the cause of death. The autopsy discovered fourteen drugs in his system, with ten of them in significant quantity.
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Christa McAuliffe (September 2, 1948 – January 28, 1986) was a teacher from Concord, New Hampshire, before she became an astronaut. She achieved a master’s degree in education in 1978, but had been teaching for eight years already at that time. She mostly taught social studies, but also occasionally taught other courses such as law, economics, and American history. She also designed a course that she taught, entitled “The American Woman.” Her teaching methods included taking field trips and bringing speakers in. She made sure her students understood that an impact on history is made by ordinary people, not just generals, politicians, and royalty.
McAuliffe applied to the Teacher in Space Project after President Reagan announced it in 1984. NASA was particularly looking for an ordinary person, and she was chosen, called by NASA officials “the most broad-based, best-balanced person” of the finalists, and one with “infectious enthusiasm.” She had two lesson plans arranged to be taught from space, which would have been broadcast to millions of school children.
Millions of people, including schoolchildren, were watching on live TV on January 28, 1986, when the Challenger lifted off, with McAuliffe and six other crew members on board. They watched in shock as, 73 seconds later, the shuttle exploded, killing all seven.
Diana, Princess of Wales (July 1, 1961 – August 31, 1997), was born the Honourable Diana Spencer in Sandringham, UK, daughter of an Earl. When her father inherited the Earl position upon the death of his father, her title was changed to Lady Diana. She became Princess of Wales on July 29, 1981 when she married Prince Charles, the heir to the British throne. They had two sons, Prince William and Prince Harry, during the course of their marriage, which ended in divorce in 1996.
Diana continued to be Princess of Wales, still, due to being the mother of the future heir to the throne. She began to see another man, Dodi Fayed, after a time, and went to visit his family in the south of France. Fayed, Diana, and their driver Henri Paul, were all killed in an automobile crash inside the tunnel known as Pont de l’Alma in Paris, when their attempt to shake the paparazzi was unsuccessful. Her funeral was viewed via television by millions of people around the world.
Mother Teresa (August 26, 1910 – September 5, 1997) was born in the Ottoman Empire (now Skopje, Macedonia). She was named Anjezë Gonxhe Bojaxhiu at birth; her middle name is the Albanian word for “rosebud” or “little flower.” Her father died when she was eight years old. She determined to become a missionary around age 12, after learning much about the lives of missionaries in Bengal. When she was 15, she took her final resolution while she prayed at the Black Madonna of Letnice’s shrine, where she often went. At 18, she left home and joined the Sisters of Loreto, becoming a missionary herself. She never saw her mother or sister again.
She learned English in Ireland, so she would be able to teach children in India. In 1929, she went to India, to Darjeeling, to begin her novitiate. She learned Bengali there and taught at a school called the St. Teresa’s School, near her convent. She took her religious vows to become a nun in 1931, and chose the name Teresa after the patron saint of missionaries Therese de Lisieux. Her official vows were taken in 1937, at the Loreto convent school in Calcutta. She became headmistress of the same school in Entally in 1944.
Two years later, she felt a call to leave the convent, live among the poor, and help them, which she did. She gained Indian citizenship and learned basic medical aid, then moved to the slums. It was not easy, and the temptation to return to the convent was strong, but she chose to continue, believing that was what God wanted her to do.
She helped the poorest of the poor, and was eventually joined by over 4,000 sisters who helped, as well. She also opened a hospice for the poor, as well as one for those with leprosy (also called Hansen’s disease), and leprosy outreach clinics. An orphanage followed. More works were established for both men and women to aid the poor, including nearly 5,500 men and women by 2007. She and her associates took this help around the world. Mother Theresa herself became fluent in four languages beside her native Albanian: English, Bengali, Hindi, and Serbian.
Mother Theresa developed heart problems, with two heart attacks in 1983 and 1989 resulting in a pacemaker being inserted in 1991. Her health continued to decline, and she stepped down as the head of the Missionaries of Charity in March 1997. She died six months later. Mother Theresa’s work continues, however, throughout the world.