There is an expression many of us may have said before in jest: “I died laughing!” What if you were to come to know that, while funny, a good joke can literally kill you? There have been rare instances where fits of laughter have caused cardiac arrests, asphyxiation, stroke, apoplexy, or seizures! In historical times, the underlying conditions were never discovered, but today the doctors have been able to pinpoint the causes. Laughing is not exactly the direct cause of death in these cases, but it activates or induces one of these medical conditions that lead to the person’s death. Here is a list of 10 people who, unfortunately, died laughing.
1. In 1975, Alex Mitchell died after laughing non-stop for 25 whole minutes while watching a television show.
Alex Mitchell was a bricklayer from Kings Lynn, Norfolk in the UK. He was quite fond of The Goodies, a BBC comedy sketch show, and was watching one of the episodes entitled “Kung Fu Capers” in 1975. In this particular episode, a character attacks people with a black pudding and one of them defends himself with his bagpipes. According to Alex’s wife Nessie, her husband started laughing and didn’t stop for 25 minutes, at the end of which he let out a huge laugh and died. His death became very famous at the time, and Nessie even wrote to The Goodies thanking them for making Alex’s last living minutes so joyful.
In 2012, the doctors discovered that he had the Long QT syndrome, when his granddaughter, Lisa Corke, was brought to the hospital after a cardiac arrest. The LQT can cause the heartbeat to become irregular or even cause a cardiac arrest when the person suffering from it undergoes continuous stress or exertion. The doctors believed that she had inherited it from her grandfather, Alex. Dr. Iqbal Malik, a consultant cardiologist and director at Hammersmith Hospital in London, stated that watching the comedy show could have triggered his condition which led to his death. And although in some cases the heart goes back to normal after a few beats, this was not the case with Alex Mitchell.(1,2)
2. In 2003, Damnoen Saen-Um from Thailand started laughing in his sleep until he died without waking up.
All in all, it may not have been the worst way to die, in one’s sleep. Damnoen Saen-Um was a 52-year-old ice cream truck driver in Phrae, near Bangkok, in Thailand. On August 20, 2003, when he was asleep, he suddenly started laughing. And he kept laughing for approximately two minutes till he abruptly stopped breathing and died. His wife later reported that she had tried waking him up but he didn’t wake up or stop laughing. According to his autopsy, he may have suffered a heart attack, but nothing else is clear about the case. Dr. Somchai Chakrabhand, the deputy director-general of the Mental Health Department was flabbergasted as well and said that he had never come across such a case in his life. He added that it was possible for a person to have a heart seizure when they laugh or cry so hard during their sleep.(source)
3. In 1989, Ole Bentzen died laughing while watching A Fish Called Wanda. Apparently, his heart rate shot up so high that he had a cardiac arrest.
Ole Bentzen, an audiologist from Denmark, died while laughing at a joke in the movie A Fish Called Wanda. It is reported that his heart rate accelerated to 250 to 500 beats per minute causing a cardiac arrest which led to his death. The scene he found so funny was one where one of the protagonists puts chips in his nose. The reason for his exaggeratedly hilarious reaction was that a few years before, he and his family put cauliflowers up their noses to see who could finish their carrots without the cauliflowers falling out. Later, his son also reported that the scene reminded him of that incident and he couldn’t help laughing.
Ironically, two of the actors in this movie were also a part of the comedy group called Monty Python who did a sketch called “The funniest joke in the world,” which was about a joke so funny that people literally died laughing if they heard it.(1,2)
4. In 206 BCE, Chrysippus, the famous Greek philosopher, saw a donkey get drunk after eating figs. This made him laugh and laugh till he died.
Chrysippus was a Greek philosopher also known as the second founder of Stoicism. There are two different accounts of his death, one of which is that he died at a feast during the 143rd Olympiad after drinking unfiltered wine which brought about dizziness and death. The same source also noted his death as a result of laughing too hard. Apparently, one day he came upon a donkey that started eating his figs. He then joked to his slave, telling him to give the donkey some wine to wash the figs down. Upon seeing the donkey get drunk, he started laughing and laughing until he finally died at the age of 73. The student who had written the circumstances of Chrysippus’ death noted that the latter: “Having laughed too much, he died.”
5. In 1782, Mrs. Fitzherbert found a cross-dressing actor in an opera so funny, that she continued laughing hysterically for two days till she passed away.
Mrs. Fitzherbert, a widow from Northamptonshire in the UK, had gone to see “The Beggar’s Opera” with her friends to Drury Lane Theatre on 17 April 1782. When the actor Charles Bannister appeared on stage dressed as a female character, Polly Peachum, Mrs. Fitzherbert, along with the rest of the spectators, burst out laughing. Her uncontrollable laughter at the sight compelled her to leave the theatre even before the second act was over. According to the obituary published in the Gentleman’s Magazine a week after the incident, Mrs. Fitzherbert was overtaken by hysterical laughter that went on for two days without stopping. This reportedly led to her death on April 19. They wrote: “Not being able to banish the figure from her memory, she was thrown into hysterics, which continued without intermission until she expired on Friday morning.”(1,2)
6. In 1893, Wesley Parsons suddenly died after laughing at a joke for two hours.
Not much is known about this particular case because of the lack of details, but we know that Wesley Parsons was an old farmer from Laurel in Indiana, USA. Being a reportedly popular man, he was allegedly “joking around with his friends” when he got caught up in a bout of uncontrollable laughter. This went on for about an hour after which he started hiccupping suddenly. Two hours later he was dead from exhaustion. Lack of medical advancement at that time probably could not ascertain the factor that triggered his death, but other recent cases suggest that excessive and intense laughter could lead to a cardiac rupture, a collapsed lung, asthma attack, or even a ruptured aneurysm.(1,2)
7. Zeuxis, a Greek painter, is said to have died laughing while looking at one of his own paintings.
Zeuxis was a renowned painter from Ancient Greece who lived in the 5th century BCE. Even though his works haven’t survived, he is still known for his innovative style. One day, an old woman commissioned him to do a painting of the goddess Aphrodite, or the goddess of love, beauty, pleasure, and procreation. She also instructed him to fashion the painting in her own likeness and even modeled for it. The irony was not lost on Zeuxis when he finally finished the painting and started laughing at the depiction of an old woman as the goddess of beauty. It is said that this fit of laughter finished him off and he died laughing at one of his own paintings.
Now, although the painting does not exist anymore, the story continued to be repeated. In one of Rembrandt’s self-portraits, he depicts himself as Zeuxis, laughing. Behind him is painted an image of an old woman, thus recreating the manner of Zeuxis’ death by laughter.(1,2)
8. Thomas Urquhart was so ecstatic upon hearing the news of the restoration of Charles II in 1660, that he is said to have burst into laughter and died.
Thomas Urquhart, in addition to being a Scottish aristocrat, an anointed knight, and a writer and translator, was also a staunch Royalist. In 1648, he fought in an uprising against Cromwell in Inverness which led to him being labeled as a traitor. The very next year, in 1650, he entered the Battle of Worcester in support of Charles II and was taken prisoner in the Tower of London. After his release, he went into exile. Some reports suggest he went back to Scotland, while others say that he left for Netherlands or some other country in Europe. In 1660, when Charles the II was restored to the throne, Thomas Urquhart was apparently so overjoyed that he burst into fits of laughter that caused his death.(1,2)
9. In 2013, Mangesh Bhogal got a heart attack by laughing too hard during a movie.
The most recent incident of death by laughter occurred in Mumbai in 2013 during the screening of a raunchy comedy movie. Mangesh Bhogal, a 22-year-old man went to watch the movie, Grand Masti, with his girlfriend. Rakesh Shah, the director of that theatre said that the people around Mangesh reported that he was laughing really hard at the jokes when he suddenly got a stroke. Even though he was immediately taken to a hospital, the doctors said that he had died before they could admit him. The police registered this incident as a case of accidental death.(source)
10. In 1556, Italian writer Pietro Aretino reportedly fell off his chair while laughing at a bawdy joke and died.
Pietro Aretino was an Italian dramatist, writer, and poet, best known for publishing 16 pornographic sonnets and also for being a clever blackmailer. It is reported that he died after falling backward from his chair while laughing at a dirty joke told by his sister. The laughter brought on an apoplexy attack from which he died. Another source says that it was suffocation from having laughed so much that caused his death. According to studies, laughing too hard can make a person stop breathing, causing syncope – death from fainting and suffocation.
It was such a famous death that the Duke of Mantua’s ambassador at Venice sent him a letter detailing that Aretino died after falling off his chair. His death was also painted by Anselm Feuerbach which depicts the scandalous author fallen on the stone floor, moments after his death by laughter.(1,2,3)