History has a lengthy list of methods in which people have died. Some were accidental and others cruel and intentional. And, in every one of those ways, one individual was the first to die from it. Thousands of years ago, the first person died from a flint spearpoint. Hundreds of years ago, someone was the first to die from the first cotton gin accident. And just recently, the first person to dive from COVID-19 was recorded. Every year there are more strange deaths and every new invention adds new categories to the growing list. There was a first time when someone fell from a helicopter and died. There was a first time when someone died from playing a video game. There was even a person who died after being hit by a self-driving car. If it’s new, then eventually it will be connected to someone’s death. If your curiosity is piqued, then read on. Here are just a few of the strangest ‘firsts’ when it comes to meeting your maker.
The 1955 British Science Fiction Horror film called The Quatermass Xperiment holds the honor, however unwanted, as being the only movie to ever “officially” scare someone to death. First released in the United Kingdom with an X rating, the movie was eventually edited and released in America as The Creeping Unknown. The casualty was a 9-year-old boy, who died of a ruptured artery while watching the movie in a theater in Oak Brook, Illinois. This incident is recorded in the Guinness Book of World’s Records as the only death by fright of an audience member while watching a horror movie.
Berzerk, a popular 1980’s video arcade game is the first video game known to have a player die while playing it. In 1981, 19 year old Jeff Dailey died suddenly of a heart attack after a good game. After posting his name on a score of 16,600, he collapsed. This alone appeared to be a great tragedy, but it didn’t end there. His best friend, 18 year old Peter Burkowski also lost his life from the game the following year. Burkowski, who had scar tissue on his heart, became overly excited after placing on the machine’s top ten list twice within 15 minutes. He too died of a heart attack moments later.
In 2018 a 49-year old woman named Elaine Herzberg was struck and killed by a self-driving car operated by Uber. The incident occurred near Tempe Town Lake in Tempe, Arizona. As she was pushing her bicycle across a four-lane road an Uber test vehicle struck her. This car was operating in self-drive mode with a human safety backup driver sitting in the driving seat. Herzberg was taken to the local hospital where she died of her injuries in what was reported to be the first death of a pedestrian struck by a self-driving car on public roads. In response to the fatal accident, Uber suspended self-driving car tests in all U.S. cities.
The first person to die from an automobile accident was Mary Ward, a scientist from Ireland. In 1869, she was driving along with her family in her cousin’s homemade vehicle. Riding along with three others at a moderate rate of speed, the group approached a curve in the road. There is no evidence to say exactly what happened in that moment. The overloaded vehicle jolted during the turn, bucking Mary off and as she hit the ground, one of the iron wheels crushed her to death. It wasn’t until 1896 that the first pedestrian would be killed by a car, IT happened in 1896 in London, England and the victim was Bridget Driscoll.
In 2007, radio station KDND of Sacramento, CA, also known as “The End” 107.9, was hosting a “Hold Your Wee for a Wii” contest. The contest asked participants to drink as much water as they could to win the prize. A 28-year-old mother of three consumed more than 1 1/2 gallons of water over 3 hours without urinating, and by all rights assumed she would be the winner. Shortly after the contest, Strange succumbed to water intoxication. She collapsed and died 6 hours later. Strange didn’t even win the contest, she came in second and won two tickets to a Justin Timberlake concert. A jury later found the station liable for her death and awarded her family $16.5 million.
A 1974 tragedy, shocked many viewers at home as they watched the first person to die from suicide on a live television broadcast. Christine Chubbuck was a news reporter working in Sarasota, Florida. On July 15, 1974, Ms. Chubbuck read the morning news from her anchor desk, when one of the video clips to support her story failed to run. Chubbuck didn’t panic, but instead face the camera saying, “In keeping with the WXLT practice of presenting the most immediate and complete reports of local blood and guts news, TV 40 presents what is believed to be a television first. In living color, an exclusive coverage of an attempted suicide.” She pulled a pistol out, placed the barrel behind her ear, and pulled the trigger, ending her life.
In 2009, 49 year old Diana Durre, as resident of Chambers, Nebraska was tragically killed when the welded joint of a 75 foot tall Taco Bell gave way. The uppermost portion of the sign plummeted downward, landing on the top of Ms. Durre’s pickup truck. She had been sitting under the North Platte sign waiting to meet a prospective customer to sell two Yorkie dogs to. The buyers and Ms. Durre had agreed to meet under the big sign at 1 PM that day. She arrived early while the buyers arrived on time, but after the tragedy. She is the first person to die from a falling highway sign. It was later reported that strong winds were blamed for the sign collapse.
As unbelievable as it may seem, a falling cow is to be blamed for a human death; a 3,000 lb. cow to be exact. In 2013, a cow ventured out onto the hillside roof of Leni and Joao Maria de Souza’s Brazilian home while they slept. The roof gave way and the animal landed on the couples bed. 45 year old Joao’s leg was crushed. He was taken to the hospital, but passed away due to internal bleeding. His wife and the animal survived virtually unharmed.
In 1979, a 25 year old assembly-line worker named Robert Williams, while working at a Ford factory was killed by a robot. The arm of a factory robot struck him in the head. Williams had been troubleshooting the 5 story tall factory sorting robot when the incident occurred. As he climbed the racks, he was literally crushed; struck from behind by a one-ton piece of equipment which killed him instantly.
The first to die from golf is Edward Harrison. In 1951 Harrison was in Washington State playing a round of golf. While teeing off, his driver snapped. The razor-sharp shaft lodged in his groin with tremendous force. He tried to get help, but after staggering a mere 100 yards, he bled to death and collapsed. Strange as it might seem, his death is but one of the many fatalities seen on the links over time.
The first to die from playing American football is Howard Glenn of the New York Titans (AFL). In 1960, playing offensive guard and wearing number 66, Glenn got sandwiched by two defensive players and knocked to the ground so hard he was unable to get back up. He did not return to the game and needed help off the field at the end of the game. In the locker room, Split end Art Powell saw Glenn was in distress and rushed to get help. A local doctor was summoned, but Glenn’s symptoms worsened. He eventually went into convulsions which left him breathless. He was rushed to the ER, where he died. The next day they reported the cause of death as a broken neck.
William Kemmler was the first to die from the electric chair. In 1890, after being found guilty of the murder of his common law wife, Kemmler was sentenced to death. On August 6th, 1890 a sharply dressed Kemmler looked over at the chair and then back to the 17 witnesses in attendance and said, “Gentlemen, I wish you all good luck. I believe I am going to a good place, and I am ready to go”. The execution did not go smoothly. Repeated attempts to kill Mr. Kemmler were made until he was pronounced dead 8 minutes later. His flesh was singed in some areas and burnt in others. Blood vessels were boiled to the point of rupturing and an awful smell of hellish-death filled the execution chamber. Kemmler was buried in the prison cemetery. In 1899, Martha Place followed Kemmler to be the first woman executed by electric chair.
In March of 1932 Ebenezer Byers became the first person to die from radiation sickness. Mr. Byers unwittingly consumed the radiation after taking a pain-relief tonic known as Radithor. Radithor was one of the earliest examples of radioactive quackery, which like so many other tonics had no real healing effects. Many, including Radithor were actually doing more harm than good. Over a 2 year period, Mr. Byers consumed an estimated 14,000 bottled of the water/radium mixture. The impact was deadly as the tonic caused part of his jaw, his teeth and some of his skull to dissolve. He was 51 years old. 2 years later, Marie Curie, the famous scientist also died of radiation sickness.
A 19 year old Canadian musician named Taylor Mitchell was attacked and killed by 2 coyotes in 2009. At the time she was hiking alone inside the confines of a Canadian National park. Her screams were heard by other park visitors, who quickly called for emergency personnel. When they arrived it was already too late, as she was covered in bite wounds and bleeding profusely. She was airlifted to a hospital in Halifax, but died shortly after arrival. She is the first and only known adult ever killed by coyotes.
These are just a few of the many strange ‘firsts’ when it comes to ways to die. We can be certain that this will continue to grow as newer and newer technologies emerge. Someday someone will die from Artificial Intelligence, nanobots, or while setting foot on Mars; mark my word on it.
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Strange happenings indeed. Interesting article and well-written. Great research and presentation. Well done, Ralph.