The twentieth century saw an abundance of famous toilet-related deaths. Elvis died in 1977 at just forty-two years old, found on the bathroom floor of his Graceland mansion in Memphis, Tennessee, apparently having fallen from the toilet seat. Obese, and struggling with glaucoma, high blood pressure, liver damage, and an enlarged colon, the cause of his death was given as cardiac arrhythmia: essentially an irregular then stopped heart, widely believed to have been a direct consequence of his abuse of prescription drugs. However, with Elvis theories abound, including the idea that he faked his death, that he succumbed to Hirschprung’s disease, and that – as recent DNA analysis has suggested – he suffered from genetic heart disease. Elvis is buried, alongside his mother, father, and grandmother, in Graceland’s Meditation Garden.
Comedian Lenny Bruce died at forty in 1966, having overdosed on morphine while seated on the toilet of his home in Hollywood Hills. Phil Spector, a close friend, paid $5,000 to the Los Angeles police department for a set of photographs taken of the scene of Bruce’s death, in order to keep them from the press – though he sold at least one of the photographs years later to the filmmakers of a documentary about Bruce. Spector also took out an advertisement in Billboard magazine, stating that Bruce – whose career was hampered by numerous arrests on charges of obscenity – had died owing to an ‘overdose of police’.
The architect Louis Kahn died in 1974, aged seventy-three, in the public lavatory of Penn Station in New York. Kahn – the creator of some of the most influential and starkly beautiful architecture of the century, including the Salk Institute in La Jolla, California, and Jatiyo Sangsad Bhaban, the parliament of Bangladesh – had just returned from a work trip to India, and was set to take the train home to Philadelphia. When he died – of a heart attack – he had with him a briefcase containing his final drawings for a memorial to Franklin D. Roosevelt, to be located on the southern tip of the recently rechristened Roosevelt Island. While Kahn’s designs for the memorial park were retained, it was not until 2005 that the funds were raised to advance the project. Ground was broken in the spring of 2010, and the Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park opened in October 2012. Back in 1974, Kahn died with little on his person in the way of identification; and it took his wife in Philadelphia two days to discover that her husband was deceased.
Don Simpson – the producer of films including Beverly Hills Cop, Top Gun, and The Rock, and well known in Hollywood for his drug use – died in the toilet of his Bel Air home in 1996, of heart failure after taking a combination of cocaine and prescription drugs. And the writer Evelyn Waugh died in 1966 aged sixty-two, purportedly passing on the toilet on Easter Sunday having attended a Latin Mass earlier that morning. Waugh was a devotee of the Mass in Latin, lamenting the changes instigated by the Second Vatican Council between 1962 and 1965, which allowed for the vernacular language to be used over Latin, and brought about the eventual replacement of the Tridentine Mass, celebrated in the Catholic Church since 1570.
Amidst the celebrity and the diversity of the above figures, there shows an important issue of classification. We may distinguish between those who die only within or in proximity of the toilet or bathroom, inevitably a fairly typical occurrence; and those who die asquat the toilet seat. Of course, even ‘seat’ may be a misnomer. In an episode from the fourth season of Curb Your Enthusiasm, entitled ‘The Weatherman’, Larry David attempts to go to the toilet but – refusing to turn on the bathroom light – doesn’t realise that the toilet seat is up, and thus falls into a potentially perilous position. There are toilet-centric deaths too on the small and big screens. In The Sopranos episode ‘He Is Risen’, from the third season of the show, Gigi Cestone, capo of the Aprile crew under Tony Soprano, has a heart attack while struggling with his bowels on the toilet. However, in Pulp Fiction, Vincent Vega – played by John Travolta – finishes his business on the toilet, and is only shot and killed as he emerges from that dwelling place. The point is that we will consider here only those whom we can reasonably suspect to have passed away atop the toilet, in seated position.
More, toilet-based deaths seem to impel an inclination towards particularly obscene exaggeration and rumour. The fact of a death upon the toilet is taken as license for the promulgation of all manner of hearsay, and for the development of sordid addenda which come to furnish or replace initial accounts. There is, for instance, the scurrilous suggestion that – rather than owing to drug abuse or the affects of any disease or illness – Elvis died simply of constipation. Catherine the Great died at sixty-seven in 1796, having greatly expanded the Russian Empire throughout her thirty-four-year reign, winning control over Crimea from the Ottoman Empire, partitioning the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, and beginning the Russian colonisation of Alaska. There is some dispute among historians as to whether she suffered the stroke which brought about her death only in her dressing room, or on the toilet seat. Robert. K Massie provides the following description:
The next morning, November 5, she rose at six, drank black coffee, and sat down to write. At nine, she asked to be left alone for a moment and went into her dressing room. She did not reemerge. Her attendants waited. Her valet knocked, entered the room, and saw no one. He waited a minute, then pushed on the door of the adjacent water closet. It was partially jammed. He and a maid forced the door open and discovered the empress unconscious on the floor against the door. Her face was scarlet and her eyes were closed […] thirty-six hours after she was stricken and without ever recovering consciousness, Catherine died. (Massie, chapter 73)
Whatever, the apparent relationship between Catherine’s death and the restroom soon resulted within Russia in the commonly held belief that she died after the toilet she was seated upon cracked and broke underneath her. This version of her death was alluded to in a poem by Alexander Pushkin, ‘Мне жаль великия жены’. Equally popular, and eschewing any notion of a stroke, became the story that Catherine suffered death squashed by a stallion: according to this tale, her attendants were lowering the horse onto her for the satiation of her sexual desires, when the harness broke, and the horse fell and saw her killed. Thus along with precision when it comes to identifying the site of these deaths, we must also allow for the tendency for such accounts to become overblown, or to show the considerable bias of their narrators.
The concluding episode of the fourth season of Game of Thrones – ‘The Children’, which aired in June – showed Tyrion Lannister avenge a litany of abuse by killing his father, shooting him with a crossbow while Tywin sat in his dressing gown on the privy. Perhaps George R. R. Martin, the author of the A Song of Ice and Fire books upon which the television series is based, drew something in his depiction of Tywin’s murder from the infamous and untimely deaths of the last century. Yet for the sort of bloody political intrigue which defines both the novels and the show, we have to look further back in history, to a religious heretic, a number of English Kings, a Japanese feudal lord, and an American judge.
Arius (256-336) was a presbyter, apparently of Libyan descent, who ministered in Alexandria, which was in the beginning of the fourth century one of the centres of Christendom. Considered a heresiarch – someone who, more than a mere heretic, led a sect which opposed the accepted beliefs of the Church – the school of thought which he popularised, Arianism, has been described by Rowan Williams, the 104th Archbishop of Canterbury, as ‘the archetypal Christian deviation, something aimed at the very heart of the Christian confession’. At a time when the precise nature of Jesus Christ was still being defined within Christianity, Arius argued that Christ was not co-eternal and equal with God the Father. Accepting that Christ was begotten, and came into existence before time, Arius nevertheless held that God was the only being without beginning.
Within the Christian world, this was seen as a divisive challenge to the conception of the relationship between Father and Son. In an attempt to settle what had become a pressing issue, particularly in the Greek-speaking east of the Church, the Roman Emperor Constantine – the first Christian ruler of the Empire – convened the First Council of Nicaea in 325. After heated debate, the Council of Nicaea decided firmly against Arius. A creed was established which determined Father and Son to be co-eternal and ‘homoousios’, which means of the same substance.
Arius was exiled from the Church. Yet his views and his charismatic presentation continued to exert a strong influence, and by 336 it seemed likely that he would be restored to communion, only for his death to preempt this conclusion. The circumstances of Arius’s death were first recounted by Athanasius, his chief ideological opponent, and the Bishop of Alexandria in six spells between 328 and 373. Despite Athanasius’s lack of impartiality, he affords us with the only allegedly eye-witness account of Arius’s demise; and his letter to Serapion was the source for all later retellings.
Ecclesiastical writers from Epiphanius to Sozomen elaborated after Athanasius on the manner of Arius’s death. Socrates Scholasticus’s account is the most explicit: affording details of the place of Arius’s death, which he depicts as Constantine’s Forum in Constantinople, today the site of Çemberlitaş Square in Istanbul; and describing in lurid imagery the ‘evacuations’ of Arius’s bowels, ‘followed by a copious hemorrhage, and the descent of the smaller intestines: moreover portions of his spleen and liver were brought off in the effusion of blood’. Yet it is Sozomen, who wrote following Scholasticus, who perhaps best summarises the occurrence of Arius’s death and its aftermath:
Late in the afternoon, Arius, being seized suddenly with pain in the stomach, was compelled to repair to the public place set apart for emergencies of this nature. As some time passed away without his coming out, some persons, who were waiting for him outside, entered, and found him dead and still sitting upon the seat. When his death became known, all people did not view the occurrence under the same aspect. Some believed that he died at that very hour, seized by a sudden disease of the heart, or suffering weakness from his joy over the fact that his matters were falling out according to his mind; others imagined that this mode of death was inflicted on him in judgement, on account of his impiety. Those who held his sentiments were of opinion that his death was brought about by magical arts. (in Schaff, 279)
Arius’s death on the toilet was recalled early in the twentieth century by James Joyce. In ‘Proteus’, the third episode of Ulysses, Stephen Dedalus walks along Sandymount strand and considers to himself:
Where is poor dear Arius to try conclusions? Warring his life long upon the contransmagnificandjewbangtantiality. Illstarred heresiarch! In a Greek watercloset he breathed his last: euthanasia. With beaded mitre and with crozier, stalled upon his throne, widower of a widowed see, with upstiffed omophorion, with clotted hinderparts. (Joyce, Ulysses, 3.50-54)
In April 1016, King Æthelred II (Æthelred the Unready) of England died and his son, Edmund, gained the throne, becoming Edmund II (Edmund Ironside). A succession of Danish raids on the English coast since the 980s had forced Æthelred in 991 to pay a tribute to the Danish King, as a means of keeping the peace. Despite the repeated paying of the Danegeld, Danish raids continued until, in late 1013, King Sweyn Forkbeard of Denmark invaded and took the English crown. Æthelred was forced into exile in Normandy, but was restored the following year upon Forkbeard’s death. Soon Forkbeard’s son, Canute, began laying his claim to the English throne, and engaged in a series of battles on English shores, first with Æthelred, then with Edmund.
In contrast to his father, Edmund is widely considered to have been a brave and competent leader, but he was ultimately defeated by Canute at the Battle of Assandun in October 1016 – after being betrayed by Eadric Streona, the Ealdorman of Mercia. Respecting Edmund and realising he still had much support in London and Wessex, Canute agreed with Edmund that they would divide England between one another. Yet by the end of November, Edmund was dead. The cause of his death is debated, but writing in the 1120s, Henry Huntingdon offered the following version:
King Edmund was treasonably slain a few days afterwards. Thus it happened: one night, this great and powerful king having occasion to retire to the house for relieving the calls of nature, the son of the ealdorman Edric, by his father’s contrivance, concealed himself in the pit, and stabbed the king twice from beneath with a sharp dagger, and, leaving the weapon fixed in his bowels, made his escape. Edric then presented himself to Canute, and saluted him, saying, ‘Hail! thou who art sole king of England!’ Having explained what had taken place, Canute replied, ‘For this deed I will exalt you, as it merits, higher than all the nobles of England.’ He then commanded that Edric should be decapitated and his head placed upon a pole on the highest battlement of the tower of London. Thus perished King Edmund Ironside, after a short reign of one year, and he was buried at Glastonbury, near his grandfather Edgar. (in Forester, 196)
Other accounts of Edmund II’s death which posit murder suggest he was killed by a spear rather than a dagger; or indeed by a sort of crossbow, booby-trapped to fire when Edmund put his weight on the privy seat. And the specifics of Eadric’s subsequent demise at the hands of Canute also vary, with Florence of Worcester writing that it occurred at ‘the Lord’s Nativity’, the Christmas of 1017, with Canute ordering that Eadric’s body ‘be thrown over the wall of the city and left unburied‘. Such an analysis suggests that Canute had Eadric killed owing to concern over his treacherous nature, and not as a direct response to the demise of Edmund II.
Edward II is alleged to have been murdered in 1327 by means of a red-hot poker shoved up his anus – gossip which gained traction through the Brut chronicles and Ranulf Higden’s Polychronicon. While other interpretations of Edward’s death are more widely supported – including the view that he escaped death entirely in 1327, and lived out the rest of his life as a hermit on the continent – the image again calls to mind The Sopranos, and the murder of Vito Spatafore, who is sodomised with a pool cue in a brutal remark upon his homosexuality. James I of Scotland died trapped in a sewer in 1437; but we must move to Japan for our next enthroned death, and to the daimyo Uesugi Kenshin. Kenshin was a powerful feudal lord, who ruled Echigo province until his passing in 1578. His death while seated on the toilet has been attributed to a lifetime of heavy drinking, to stomach cancer, or to a ninja who rose from beneath the latrine before stabbing Kenshin with a spear. Kenshin’s downfall allowed Oda Nobunaga to initiate what would be the eventual unification of Japan, and the onset of the Edo period.
The spectacle returned to Britain in 1760, when George II – already blind in one eye and hard of hearing – passed away on his close stool aged seventy-six. The account is provided in the memoirs of Horace Walpole:
On the 25th of October he rose as usual at six, and drank his chocolate; for all his actions were invariably methodic. A quarter after seven he went into a little closet. His German valet de chambre in waiting, heard a noise, and running in, found the King dead on the floor. In falling, he had cut his face against the corner of a bureau. He was laid on a bed and blooded, but not a drop followed: the ventricle of his heart had burst. (Walpole, 302)
Webster Thayer was a judge of the Superior Court of Massachusetts, who achieved notoriety for his role presiding over the Sacco and Vanzetti trial. Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were Italian-born Galleanist anarchists, who were accused in 1920 of murdering two men during the armed robbery of a shoe factory in Braintree, Massachusetts. At their trial the following year – despite apparently strong alibis, inconclusive ballistics evidence, and the dubious testimony of some prosecution witnesses – they were convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to death. Thayer was roundly criticised for his conduct during the trial. It was argued that he had shown consistent prejudice against the defence; and more, it emerged that in private he had referred to Sacco and Vanzetti as ‘Bolsheviki’, remarking that he was out to ‘get them good and proper’.
Supported by the Sacco-Vanzetti Defense Committee – which in seven years raised $300,000, and hired legal professionals, organisers and publicists to aid the cause – a series of appeals ensued, but dismissing claims of evidence tampering and the confession of another man, Thayer repeatedly denied motions for a new trial. After a second appeal to the Supreme Judicial Court was rejected in early 1927, Massachusetts Governor Alvan T. Fuller – beset by calls for clemency – established an Advisory Committee to review the trial’s proceedings. When this committee determined that the trial had been fair and should stand, there was nothing left to be done, and Sacco and Vanzetti were executed by electric chair on August 23, 1927. Their case and their eventual demise was accompanied by a spate of demonstrations in cities across the world, and by letters from major international figures including Anatole France, John Dos Passos, Albert Einstein, George Bernard Shaw, and H. G. Wells. In October 1927, Wells wrote in The New York Times:
The guilt or innocence of these two Italians is not the issue that has excited the opinion of the world. Possibly they were actual murderers, and still more possibly they knew more than they would admit about the crime…. Europe is not “retrying” Sacco and Vanzetti or anything of the sort. It is saying what it thinks of Judge Thayer. Executing political opponents as political opponents after the fashion of Mussolini and Moscow we can understand, or bandits as bandits; but this business of trying and executing murderers as Reds, or Reds as murderers, seems to be a new and very frightening line for the courts of a State in the most powerful and civilized Union on earth to pursue. (Wells, The New York Times, 16 October, 1927)
In rejecting Sacco and Vanzetti’s second appeal, the Supreme Judicial Court had declared, ‘It is not imperative that a new trial be granted even though evidence is newly discovered and, if presented to a jury, would justify a different verdict’. The extent of the ordeal and the ramifications of this statement ultimately brought about significant judicial reform, requiring that all capital cases be subject to review. Meanwhile, anarchists sought retribution. On 27 September, 1932, Thayer’s home in Worcester was destroyed by a bomb, which saw his wife and maid injured by falling debris. He lived the remainder of his life under guard at his private club in Boston, and died there of a cerebral embolism, aged seventy-five, on 18 April, 1933. The anarchist Valerio Isca commented on the rumour that Thayer had died on the toilet seat, adding ‘and his soul went down the drain’.
Forester, T. (ed. and trans.) The Chronicle of Henry of Huntingdon (London: H. G. Bohn, 1853)
Joyce, J. Ulysses ed. Gabler, H. W. (New York: Bodley Head, 1986)
Massie, R. K. Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman (Head of Zeus, 2012)
Schaff, P. Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers: Series II, Volume 2 (New York: Christian Literature Publishing Company, 1886)
Walpole, H. Memoirs of the Reign of King George the Second: Volume III (London: H. Colburn, 1847)
Wells, H. G. ‘Wells Speaks Some Plain Words to US’ The New York Times, 16 October, 1927