Similar to the tortured artist cliché, it is generally accepted that many, if not most accomplished writers shoulder a burden of crazy that undoubtedly contributes to their literary brilliance. With the latter in mind, it will come as no surprise to hear that many of the afflicted geniuses we know, love and study today have either died at the hands of themselves or the intangible hands of their own insanity. Below, we look at four writers whose deaths fit this quality, accompanied by a few that were just plain strange.
Perhaps the most renowned suicide amongst the literary giants on this list, Hemingway was seemingly in cohorts with the reaper from the amount of times the man cheated death. He survived numerous potentially fatal maladies including anthrax, pneumonia, skin cancer, hepatitis and diabetes, as well as a ruptured kidney, spleen and liver, a crushed vertebra, a fractured skull and two near-fatal plane crashes. Despite all this, it was his own finger that pulled the trigger on his life, putting a shotgun to his head one morning in 1961. A notorious depressive and a champion drinker, one very likely fuelling the other, his overbearing misery ultimately prompted him into seeking electroshock therapy, which, along with the bottle, supposedly ruined his writing ability and spurred his suicide. Interestingly, there may have been a genetic component to his death, for his father, sister, brother and granddaughter all yielded to the same fate as he.
Edgar Allan Poe
Edgar Allan Poe, the man accredited with creating detective fiction, embodied the sombre nature of his own morbid and macabre tales. His works almost always pertained to the more ominous aspects of life, touching heavily upon death and insanity. Bearing in mind Poe’s seeming obsession with such concepts, it can’t help but seem ironic that the man’s ultimate demise was infused with a hint of lunacy. After his wife’s death, he had declared “I became insane, with long intervals of horrible sanity.” Thus, the following may not have been so surprising to himself had he by some paradox been in the right mind to perceive it. After unsuccessfully attempting suicide in 1848, Poe was found delirious; stumbling amongst the streets of Baltimore in a drunken stupor, dressed in somebody else’s clothes and in no mind to offer any sort of explanation. Upon being discovered he was taken to the hospital where he died four days later. It seems there were no limits to the strangeness surrounding his death, as certain sources also claim he was hysterical, shouting the name “Reynolds!” around the time he drew his last breaths. Edgar Allan Poe died on the 7th of October 1848 at age 40 after a life of writing, destitution, and alcoholism.
Another grief stricken mind, Virginia Woolf had undergone enough hardship to leave any soul shattered. When she was a teenager she was bereaved of her mother and half sister, the loss of which spurred her sexual abuse at the cold hands of her half-brothers. Unsurprisingly, throughout her adult life she suffered from deep states of depression that induced her first suicide attempt at age 22. Fortunately for the literary world, she failed and survived her afflicted existence for another 37 years. In 1904, with her London home being destroyed in the Blitz of WWII, a dying motivation for her work and numerous other issues, Woolf made a second attempt on her life. Her depression seeming unshakeable, the wounded writer eventually filled her coat pockets with stones and walked into the river nearest her home, never to emerge. Below shows her final message to her husband, Leonard Woolf, whom she was with for close to 30 years.
“I feel certain that I am going mad again. I feel we can’t go through another of those terrible times. And I can’t recover this time. “Everything has gone from me but the certainty of your goodness. I can’t go on spoiling your life any longer. I don’t think two people could have been happier than we have been. V.”
A more subdued addition to the list, the demise of Mark Twain (real name Samuel Langhorne Clemens) may not have been as sad, strange or sensational as the others, but is an interesting enough case to warrant a mention. Twain was born in 1835 – on the same day that Halley’s comet passed across the night sky. Due to the nature of the comets orbit, it only passes by earth once every 75-76 years, which makes Mark Twain’s fatal heart attack interestingly coincidental. By chance, the man died on 1910 – the same time the comet made its following orbit since his birth. Not only predicting his death on this date but also hoping for it, Twain stated “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.”
Keeping in trend with the other deaths on this list, it’s worth mentioning that Twain also suffered from bouts of depression… and constipation. The latter potty problem was supposedly remedied accidentally by his close friend (and one of the smartest men in history) Nikola Tesla and the use of one of his electrical inventions. Read more on the peculiar Tesla here.
The second of the damsel’s in distress on this list (an understatement, if there ever was one), prolific poet Sylvia Plath was a serious sufferer of depression – an affliction that she spoke of in her biographical work The Bell Jar as well as in other works such as her poems Daddy and Lady Lazarus. She, like Hemingway, had received electroshock therapy in hopes of ameliorating the illness but to no avail. Her treatments began in 1953 but soon led to a nervous breakdown that occasioned her first (unsuccessful) suicide attempt. Eventually, in 1963 at the age of thirty, Plath brought an end to her life. Whilst her children slept in the room next door, she put her head inside her gas oven and inhaled the fumes until the life left her bones. She was found dead with her head still inside the oven.
“Can you understand? Someone, somewhere, can you understand me a little, love me a little? For all my despair, for all my ideals, for all that – I love life. But it is hard, and I have so much – so very much to learn.” – Plath
To end on a less dismal note, Aldous Huxley’s death is not typical to the other deaths on this list. Writer, philosopher and in his later life, ‘psychonaught’, his death is more fascinating than anything else. After being diagnosed with terminal cancer in 1960, Huxley’s health began to deteriorate until he became bed-ridden with inconsolable infirmity by 1963. During that same year on the morning of November 22nd, the end for Huxley was nigh. Knowing his fate was fast approaching, he wrote a note to his wife at his bedside that simply read “LSD 100mg Intramuscular”. She obliged, injecting in his arm and re-dosing him another 100mg of the psychedelic compound around an hour later, all the while consoling him softly – “light and free you let go, darling; forward and up. You are going forward and up; you are going toward the light.” A little while later, Huxley’s breathing slowed until he ceased to breathe at all, passing over to the other side at the height of an acid trip with a satisfied smile on his face. What a way to go.