9 Amazing Writers and Their Strange Deaths

A good writer knows that no story is finished until you’ve come up with a killer ending. Unfortunately for some of those authors, their own endings were way stranger than anything in their fiction. Here at Shmoop we’ve found 9 of the weirdest ways that famous writers have made their exits from this world.

1. Edgar Allan Poe

Edgar Allan PoeNo one knows exactly what happened to Edgar Allan Poe, but it certainly wasn’t good. On October 3, 1849, Poe was found in a Baltimore street, semi-conscious and dressed in clothes that weren’t his.

He was taken to a hospital, where he spent four delirious days before dying on October 7, 1849, at the age of 40.

In the century and a half since his death, a number of theories have cropped up about the cause of Poe’s death.

Some biographers believed that Poe had a raging case of alcoholism – did he drink himself to death? He was wearing someone else’s clothing – was he a victim of “cooping,” a type of election fraud where gangs would drug a victim, dress him in different clothes and then drag him from polling site to polling site? No one knows.

It’s a mystery fit for . . . well, Edgar Allan Poe.

2. Christopher Marlowe

Christopher MarloweOn May 30, 1593, the 29-year-old English poet and playwright Christopher Marlowe was staying at a house in Deptford, England with three other acquaintances.

After a long day of drinking, the Tamburlaine author and a companion named Ingram Frizer got into an argument over the bar tab.

After the exchange of “divers malicious words,” according to the coroner’s report, the two men began to brawl.

Frizer withdrew his dagger and plunged it into Marlowe’s head just above his right eye, a two-inch deep wound that ended the playwright’s life instantly.

A good argument for agreeing to go Dutch ahead of time.

3. Percy Bysshe Shelley

shelleyOn July 8, 1822, one month before his 30th birthday, the poet’s schooner was caught in a storm in Italy’s Gulf of Spezia. Shelley, a friend, and an 18-year-old boatboy all drowned.

Shelley’s body washed ashore weeks later. He was cremated on the shore with a handful of friends, including the poet Lord Byron, in attendance.

In a final coincidence fit for one of his poems, Shelley’s heart refused to burn during his cremation. (He possibly suffered from a condition that caused calcification of his heart.)

A friend watching the cremation snatched the heart from the flames and gave it to Shelley’s wife, Frankenstein author Mary Shelley. Legend has it she kept the crumbled remains in her desk.[1]

4. Virginia Woolf

virginia woolfVirginia Woolf struggled with depression all of her life. She first attempted suicide in 1904 at the age of 22.

Her tragic final attempt came nearly 40 years later. World War II was approaching. The Woolfs’ London home had been bombed. Increasingly discouraged with her work and distraught with the state of the world, Woolf was seized by a bout of depression she couldn’t shake.

On 28 March 1941, she put on her overcoat, left her home in Rodmell, England, filled the coat’s pockets with heavy stones and walked into the Ouse River, where she drowned.

The suicide note she left behind for her husband Leonard, her partner in business and life for nearly 30 years, was heartbreaking.

“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.”

5. Zelda Fitzgerald

zelda fitzgeraldThe marriage of Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald seemed charmed at first: two beautiful, talented young lovers who were the stars of the Jazz Age literary scene.

As the years went on, however, things got ugly. The couple fought viciously, especially after the publication of Zelda’s autobiographical novel Save Me the Waltz, which basically detailed their failing marriage.

F. Scott Fitzgerald drank way too much. Zelda began to exhibit bizarre behavior, which was later diagnosed as schizophrenia.

In 1936, Zelda Fitzgerald entered the Highland Mental Hospital in Asheville, North Carolina, where she stayed on and off for the rest of her life.

On 10 March 1948, the hospital caught fire. Zelda was killed, along with eight other patients.

6. Ernest Hemingway

Ernest HemingwayBy the time Ernest Hemingway was in his fifties, a lifetime of hard living and harder drinking had caught up with him.

His health was poor, and a pair of freak plane crashes in Africa – his plane crashed while he was on safari, and then the plane that came to rescue him crashed, too – didn’t help.

In the final years of his life, Hemingway struggled with chronic pain and severe depression. After shock therapy treatments for depression in 1960 caused him to lose his memory and hurt his ability to write, Hemingway decided he had had enough.

On July 2, 1961, Hemingway positioned himself in the foyer of his Ketchum, Idaho home and shot himself in the head with a double-barreled shotgun. It was first reported that Hemingway had accidentally shot himself while cleaning his gun, since suicide carried an even greater stigma at the time than it does now. Eventually, the truth came out.

7. Dante Alighieri

DanteDante, Italy’s sommo poeta (supreme poet) and the author of the Divine Comedy died of malaria in Ravenna, Italy in 1321.

Malaria wasn’t such an unusual way to go at the time, but it was what happened next that made Dante’s posthumous existence so bizarre.

After he was buried in Ravenna, Dante’s birth city of Florence (which had kicked him out and sentenced him to death, by the way) decided that they wanted him back. To prevent Florentine punks from corpse-napping Dante, Ravenna church officials secretly hid the poet’s body in a wall.

The hiding place was forgotten until 1865, when a construction worker unearthed it during church renovations.

Freakishly, during the time it took to rebury Dante, several people helped themselves to pieces of the poet’s body. In 1878, the former town clerk of Ravenna sheepishly returned a box of Dante’s bones that he had stolen.

8. Sylvia Plath

Sylvia PlathThe iconic feminist poet Sylvia Plath referenced her experience with depression in her autobiographical novel The Bell Jar and in poems like “Daddy” and “Lady Lazarus.”

She had received several unsuccessful treatments for chronic depression, including electroshock therapy. Nothing worked.

On the morning of February 11, 1963, while her children slept in the next room of her London home, she plugged up the door between their room and the kitchen with wet towels.

She left a note for her neighbor asking that he call a doctor. Then she knelt on the floor and stuck her head in her gas oven as far as it would go.

Plath was found dead with her head still in the oven.

9. Tennessee Williams

Tennessee WilliamsPulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tennessee Williams secured his place in dramatic history with plays like The Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire.

In his personal life, however, Williams wrestled with serious substance abuse.

By the early 1960s, he was propping himself up each day with two packs of cigarettes, a fifth of liquor and a handful of pills.

On February 24, 1983, while administering his nightly tranquilizers, Williams choked to death on a medicine bottle cap in his room at the Hotel Elysee in New York City.

The drugs he was taking hampered his gag reflex, and Williams was unable to cough out the cap. His body was found the next morning.


[1] Arthur M.Z. Norman, “Shelley’s Heart,” Journal of the History of Medicine, January 1955, http://jhmas.oxfordjournals.org/cgi/pdf_extract/X/1/114-a, Accessed 17 October 2009.

8 thoughts on “9 Amazing Writers and Their Strange Deaths

  1. Very interesting article. The real life stories of people in history are good reading – imo.
    More like this please.

  2. Pingback: In the Blogosphere: 3/1-3/5 « Ricki Schultz

  3. Zelda Fitzgerald was, in fact, a very good writer, Paola. Her novel “Save Me the Waltz” is a wonderful example of its genre and time. A lot of her writing seems actually to have been taken and used by F. Scott in his own better known books – with no acknowledgement, of course.

  4. What about John Kennedy Toole? Maybe not extraordinarily famous, but he won the Pultizer Prize after he killed himself for a book that was eerily similar to his own life.

  5. Tennessee Williams was a true druggy, no doubt about that, it’s surprising it took him as long as it did.

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