For brawling with a papal scribe in 1462, poet François Villon was imprisoned and sentenced to be “strangled and hanged.” While awaiting his death, he wrote this quatrain: “Francis I am, which weighs me down, / born in Paris near Pontoise town, / and with a stretch of rope my pate / will learn for once my arse’s weight.” On January 5, 1463, the sentence was commuted to banishment from Paris. Nothing further is known of his life.
Admiral Horatio Nelson was shot on the deck of the HMS Victory by a French sniper during the Battle of Trafalgar. “I do believe they have done it at last,” Nelson told his flag captain. “My backbone is shot through.” On that day, October 21, 1805, the English fleet had taken fifteen enemy ships. A state funeral was held for him in London on January 8, his body having been preserved for nearly two months in a cask of brandy aboard the ship.
Of countries using the death penalty in 2012, the U.S. had the fifth-highest number of executions (43) after China (thousands), Iran (314), Iraq (129), and Saudi Arabia (79). Texas was the state with the most (15), bringing Governor Rick Perry’s total orders of execution up to 252. The figure is by far the highest of any U.S. governor and is trailed distantly by that of Perry’s predecessor, George W. Bush, who ordered 152—although Bush was in office for just shy of six years, as opposed to Perry’s twelve.
In May 1953, the TV show This is Your Life honored Hanna Bloch Kohner, a Holocaust survivor, and surprised her with appearances from her closest friend in Auschwitz and a soldier who liberated the camp. It was the first national television show to tell the story of a Holocaust survivor. On the program in May 1955, Kiyoshi Tanimoto, a survivor of Hiroshima, came face-to-face with Captain Robert Lewis, copilot of the Enola Gay.
The inhabitants of Eyam, Derbyshire, initiated a quarantine to control a Black Death outbreak in 1665—for fourteen months, no one was allowed into or out of the town. Only a quarter of the citizens survived. One local farmer, Elizabeth Hancock, was forced to bury her husband, along with six of her seven children, over an eight-day period in August 1666.
On June 4, 1827, Hector Berlioz wrote to his sister Nancy about James Fenimore Cooper’s recently published novel The Prairie, in which the protagonist of Cooper’s Leatherstocking series, Natty Bumppo, is killed off. “I devoured it straight off,” Berlioz stated. “I reached the end at seven in the evening, and was still at the foot of one of the columns of the Pantheon in tears at eleven o’ clock!”
According to the twelfth-century-bc Judicial Papyrus of Turin, Pharaoh Ramses III was assassinated in a conspiracy led by one of his wives. The trial documents state that thirty-eight people were condemned to death for the killing. The pharaoh’s body was not believed to betray any signs of violence until 2012, when a team of researchers analyzing CT scans discovered that his throat had been slit—straight through to the vertebrae.
“It is indeed impossible to imagine our own death,” Sigmund Freud wrote in 1915, “and whenever we attempt to do so, we can perceive that we are in fact still present as spectators. Hence the psychoanalytic school could venture on the assertion that, at bottom, no one believes in his own death, or to put the same thing another way, that, in the unconscious, every one of us is convinced of his own immortality.”
In the weeks surrounding Germany’s surrender on May 8, 1945, Adolf Hitler, Joseph Goebbels, Martin Bormann, Heinrich Himmler, the minister of culture, eight of forty-one party regional leaders, fourteen of ninety-eight Luftwaffe generals, and eleven of fifty-three admirals committed suicide. In Berlin, 3,881 Germans killed themselves in April alone; 7,057 suicides were reported by the end of the year.
Gustav Mahler set five poems from Friedrich Rückert’s Songs on the Death of Children to music between 1901 and 1904. In that time he and his wife, Alma, had two children, the eldest of whom died in 1907. About the compositions, Mahler later said, “I placed myself in the situation that a child of mine had died. When I really lost my daughter, I could not have written these songs anymore.” He died in 1911, Alma not until 1964—having twice remarried, to Bauhaus architect Walter Gropius and then to author Franz Werfel.
A Gettysburg resident, F. W. Biesecker, won the contract in 1863 to bury the Union dead, at the rate of $1.59 per corpse, in the town’s recently dedicated national cemetery. After the war, between 1865 and 1870, there were large-scale efforts to rebury all Union soldiers in national cemeteries; to separate them from Confederate corpses, workers assessed jacket color, shoe make, and cotton-underwear quality.