Death by Dinner

Death by Dinner

When food kills

By Eric Slatkin

Sugar Overload: The 1919 molasses spill
Sugar Overload: The 1919 molasses spill

Fishy Swedish Tale: Adolf Frederick, who died of surfeit

Fishy Swedish Tale: Adolf Frederick, who died of surfeit

When it comes to death, germs and guns typically have a corner on the market. But as the following cases illustrate, food has (often indirectly) summoned the Grim Reaper as well.

1. Death on Rye. In his book Food in History, historian Reay Tannahill describes the first large-scale outbreak of ergotism (caused by a potentially fatal fungus carried on certain grains) that appeared in a small town in the French Rhine Valley in 857. Thousands of villagers fell sick after eating ergot-infected rye bread. The initial symptoms of delirium progressed into excruciatingly painful gangrene and loss of limbs, eventually leading to death for most of the villagers. If only Atkins were around then, this tragedy might have been averted.

2. Not Fancy Feast. Urban legends about food, like the disgruntled White Castle worker who added his own ingredient to the special sauce, are commonplace nowadays. But in Sacred Cow, Mad Cow: A History of Food Fears, Madeleine Ferrières shows that these kinds of gross-out stories go way, way back. During the Middle Ages, writes Ferrières, a squire threw a party and joked to his guests that he had secretly fed them cat pie. One of his female guests “was struck with such horror that she collapsed with a serious stomach disorder and a fever: it was impossible to save her.” Sometimes, apparently, rumor alone can kill you.

3. Sugar Overload. On a mild January day in 1919 Boston, a giant tank at the Purity Distilling Company (an alcohol manufacturer) let loose 2.3 million gallons of molasses, sending the brown gunk toward a street full of people at 35 mph and carrying waves up to 15 feet high. According to an article for Smithsonian, 150 were injured and 21 died, including a man on a wagon whose surprised expression was permanently glazed onto his face (just like Han Solo). A host of conspiracies surfaced to explain the cause of the spill, but a lengthy court battle found inadequate inspections to blame. And up until the 1970s, people often claimed the air smelled strangely sweet on summer days.

4. Pick Your Poison. In the late 1400s George Plantagenet, Duke of Clarence, was thrown into the Tower of London to be executed on suspicion of plotting against his brother, King Edward IV. The method of his death showed up in Shakespeare’s Richard III, hence it is generally regarded as fiction, but various historical records say it’s true: The Duke of Clarence, of his own choosing, drowned in a butt of Malmsey wine.

5. Store Bacon in the Fridge. Francis Bacon, father of the scientific method, decided in 1626 during a snowy carriage ride that food preservation needed an alternative to salt. He bought a chicken from a peasant and proceeded to stuff its carcass with snow. Field experiments can be dangerous, especially in freezing temperatures. After prolonged exposure to the cold, Bacon fell ill with pneumonia, and died a few days later. In what turned out to be the last letter he would ever write, Bacon thanked his host for taking care of him and joked that after feasting on the preserved bird, he could attest that his experiment had “succeeded excellently.”

6. Performance Anxiety. The reign of Louis XIV in the second half of the 17th century marked a pivotal shift toward French haute cuisine as we know it today. One weekend, the foodie king was invited to Chantilly for a three-day festival featuring the cooking of François Vatel, one of the most famous chefs of the day. According to A History of Cooks and Cooking, Vatel began to lose his cool the first night of the feast, when a few of the tables (all seated with unexpected guests) didn’t receive the roast. Vatel stayed up all night, frantically planning his fish dish for the next evening, in hopes of regaining the king’s and his guests’ respect. But when Vatel met the fish merchant early the following morning, he was mortified to see that not enough fish had arrived. Though more merchants would show up only a few hours later with a small lake’s worth of fish, Vatel had already gone upstairs, impulsively jammed his sword in the doorway, then run into it.

7. Fishy Swedish Tale. Adolf Frederick, king of Sweden during the mid–18th century, was not the most politically minded of rulers. He focused his efforts on personal projects—namely, consumption of food. After a gigantic meal consisting of lobster, caviar, sauerkraut, smoked herring, and champagne, Frederick ingested 14 servings of the traditional Swedish pastry semla. The official cause of death was surfeit.

Other baneful binges, according to food historian Ken Albala, include a Duke of Brunswick in Germany during the Renaissance who “burst asunder from surfeiting,” as well as a German king and prince, Albert II and Paul II, who both met their fates in the 1400s by an OD of fresh melons.

8. Coco Killer, qu’est-ce que c’est. With a palm tree’s average height at 60 feet and a standard coconut weighing five pounds, it doesn’t take a physics whiz to realize that a falling coconut can cause serious injury. In a four-year study published in the Journal of Trauma Injury, Infection and Critical Care, Dr. Peter Barss found that 2.5 percent of all trauma cases admitted to the provincial hospital in Papua New Guinea were caused by falling coconuts. The report describes two such fatalities, one of which involved an unlucky visitor to a local village who was hit squarely on the head and died immediately. A British travel insurance agency now incorporates coconut injuries into its policies. So when planning your next trip to the tropics, do a little research on whether your getaway has invested in denutting or nut-catching technology like the Coconet.

9. You Can Drink Enough Water. The Nintendo Wii video game console, which lets you smack a virtual tennis ball with a little white electronic stick, is undoubtedly worth entering a radio-show drinking contest for. But substitute water for the conventionally used alcohol, and you’ve got the reason why a 28-year-old mother died after participating in such a contest sponsored by Sacramento, California’s KDND-FM Morning Rave show. The Sacramento Bee archived an audio recording of the program, which reveals that not only did a nurse call in to warn of the health risks from drinking too much water, but also the DJs even joked about a water overdose of a fraternity brother at a nearby college a few years earlier. The DJs were fired, and a wrongful death lawsuit against the station is pending.

10. No Pinching. No one wants to conclude a successful day of crabbing by contracting a fatal bacterial disease. But in March 2007, 83-year-old Tan Boon Hock of Singapore died after being snapped by his daily catch. Hock was infected by Vibrio parahaemolyticus, a common and typically nonlethal bacterium, which causes symptoms like those of food-borne illness (cramping, vomiting). But owing in part to his advanced age, Hock died two days after the skirmish.

CHOW’s The Ten column appears every Tuesday.
Eric Slatkin is the associate media producer for CHOW.