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Death by Laughter December 20, 2011

Author: Beach Combing | in : Ancient, Contemporary, Medieval, Modern , trackback

Beachcombing had hoped to give some extra time to this blog now the holidays are here. But, instead, Mrs B and younger daughter have fallen ill, elder daughter is doing unspeakable things to a rabbit, while Beachcombing has, just in time for Christmas, lost his sense of taste – honey tastes like margarine. He thought then that he would offer a short post on an unusual form of death: one that, until this morning and an email from Ricardo, he had presumed was myth, death by laughter. He is not referring here to Kuru (close relative of Creutzfeldt–Jakob disease) aka the Laughing Sickness: the neurological death sentence, typical in cannibal societies, where the degenerating individual begins to laugh hysterically and can’t stop. Rather he is looking for honest to God cases where laughing has caused the heart to explode or the lungs to close: and to his amazement some do seem to exist.

The danger is that death by laughing has a certain cachet and so, of course, some individuals have had it foisted upon them unfairly. Chrysippus (c.206 BC) the oh-so-serious stoic philosopher died, we are told, laughing at a drunk donkey, which sounds like an act of revenge on the part of his less serious obituary writers: in fact, another account says he drank after drinking undiluted wine. Likewise there is something suspiciously, well, suspicious in the fact that Thomas Urquhart (obit 1660), translator of Rabelais into English, died laughing. Then there is the most delightful of all, the claim that the Burmese king Nandabayin (obit 1599) laughed himself to death after being told by a Venetian merchant that Venice had no king and was ruled by citizens.

Brushing the myths gently aside though there are, however, some examples of plebs (i.e. you and me, and the Venetians) keeling over after laughing too long. Indeed, there are even some serious sounding medical articles on laughing fatalities or, at least, faintings: e.g. ‘Laughter-Induced Syncope: No Laughing Matter’, The American Journal of Medicine 120 (2007). There is apparently – Beach needs proof – a condition known as Seinfeld Syncope!

In fact, television comedy seems to be a common trigger.

Alex Mitchell was a bricklayer from King’s Lynn. On March 24, 1975, at the age of 50, he died laughing while watching an episode of The Goodies [brilliant British comedy]. According to his wife, who was a witness, Mitchell was unable to stop laughing while watching a sketch in the episode “Kung Fu Kapers” in which Tim Brooke-Taylor, dressed as a kilted Scotsman, used a set of bagpipes to defend himself from a psychopathic black pudding in a demonstration of the Scottish martial art of “Hoots-Toot-ochaye.” After twenty-five minutes of continuous laughter Mitchell finally slumped on the sofa and expired from heart failure.

Alex’s widow sent a letter to the Goodies thanking them for sending her husband out with a smile.

Any other deaths from laughter? Drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com

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21 Dec 2011: MM writes in ‘I know you’re looking for true-life examples. But the literary case that comes to mind is the death of the picaresque figure Margutte, in Pulci’s epic Morgante. It’s near the end of Canto XIX. If you don’t know the scene already: The giant Morgante has befriended the wicked, hilarious half-giant Margutte. The whole Canto is an account of their adventures, and of several practical jokes Morgante plays on his friend. The last joke is fatal: while Margutte sleeps, Morgante gives his boots to a monkey. Beginning at stanza 146 of Tusiani’s translation: He said, “Morgante, you’re a trustless man:/ well can see you took my boots away,/ being the vile and gross man that you are.”/Morgante said, “Now guess where I have hid them:/ they cannot be too far from where we are./ With this I’ll let you pay for countless wrongs.”/ Searching for them, Margutte looked in vain,/ and, ever mumbling, yet he searched again. / Morgante laughed still more, the more he fumed. Margutte finally could see his boots/a little monkey had got hold of them,/ and had already tried them on and off. / Ask not if then he laughed! He laughed so hard, / his eyes began to swell and, swollen so, / seemed just about to burst out of his head - / yet at that play he looked, amused and glad. / Excited more and more by such a play,/ he kept on laughing, and his laughter grew / so loud, his chest, which needed some relief, / could not at all some respite ever find /so much impeded and constrained and blocked. / The little monkey tried them on again: / Margutte’s laughter reached such a commotion, / there was right in the end a great explosion, / which soon rebounded like a cannon blast, / such was the mighty thunder all around /Morgante ran to see what had occurred, /gazed on Margutte whence that sound had come, / and was so sorry for the trick he played/ when on the ground he saw him lying still;/ and when he saw the monkey right beside,/ he knew that from much laughter he had died.’ Later on, the Archangel Gabriel assures the dying hero Orlando that Margutte is in Hell. And that “he is still laughing, and will laugh forever.” Then Linda B: ‘Your post today… reminded me of ‘The Dying Ode of Ragnar Lodbrog’ (a very popular poem in the eighteenth century and which appeared in, for example, Thomas Percy’s Five Pieces of Runic Poetry). Although Ragnar’s death is not caused by laughter, he laughs as he dies: ‘Tis with joy I cease. The goddesses of destiny are come to fetch me. Odin hath sent them from the habitation of the gods. I shall be joyfully received into the highest seat; I shall quaff full goblets among the gods. The hours of my life are past away. I die laughing.’ Thanks MM and Linda!!

27/12/11:  Tim from Detritus writes in ‘The causes of syncope-and perhaps on occasion worse-are legion. Cough syncope for instance is fairly common. As are the related conditions of defecation and micturation syncope. The loo is a high risk zone, so much hard porcelain to crash into.’ Thanks Tim!