Does anybody remember the 1958 William Castle film, Macabre, where movie-goers got life insurance in case they died of fright? It is that sensational theme—death by terror—that we focus on today. We casually toss around phrases like: “I was scared to death!” “I just about dropped dead when I heard the news!” Is there fear or perhaps an uneasy memento mori under these words?
It was axiomatic in the newspapers of the past that people could die of fright. We might call it something different now: Broken Heart Syndrome, takotsubo or stress-induced cardiomyopathy. Typically, past news reports spoke of persons “frightened (or thrown) into convulsions.” Doctors certainly knew about things like heart failure, but it is interesting how often “dying of fright” is cited as a cause of death in thousands of news items. Whether or not it was true; it was certainly believed to be true. It may have simply been a journalistic convention–a convenient way to explain an unexplained death, or a way to make a story more sensational.
Here’s a snippet from a longer article that gives some standard contemporary medical wisdom about death from fear:
FRIGHTENED TO DEATH The Shock Which Ends Life With a Broken Heart
[British Medical Journal.]
The serious effects of shock to the nervous system, especially by fright, are constantly witnessed, the results being most commonly syncope and convulsions. Death itself is, fortunately, comparatively rare. It is reported in the newspapers to have occurred at Brockley on March 21st, in the case of a girl aged eighteen, who was frightened to death by a man dressed as a ghost, near the Deptford Cemetery. The pathology of emotional death is of great interest, and varies in different cases. In some instances a fatal issue results from sanguineous apoplexy; in others, and much more frequently, from shock to the heart. Examples of the former are recorded by Dr. D. Hack Tuke in his “Influence of the Mind Upon the Body.” Thus a woman at Bradford received a fright from a man throwing a stone against her window. He had previously threatened her. She soon afterward complained of numbness, and rapidly became insensible. There was right hemiplegia. She died in seven hours, and on post-mortem examination a clot of blood was found in the left lateral ventricle….[I]f the heart, as in Hunter’s case [John Hunter, the eminent doctor and surgeon for whom the Hunterian Collection is named], be strongly contracted on its contents and the blood expelled, one efficient cause of syncope with fatal results is present. Probably this was the pathological explanation of this unfortunate girl’s death from the silly practical joke played upon her. She arrived home after her fright in the road by the Deptford Cemetery at Brockley looking very ill and excited. She is said to have taken off her water-proof, drawn a chair to the table to take supper, then fallen forward with her head on the table, and died after a short struggle. Mr. Hollis, the medical man who was called in, made a post-mortem examination and reported that all the organs were healthy, but that the state of the heart, combined with the fright, would account for death. Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 29 September 1883: p. 10
Thunder, lightning, trains, mad dogs, earthquakes, sudden noises, glare from an automobile headlight, comets, Fourth of July fireworks, encounters with tramps and the insane: all were mentioned as causes of death by fear. Burglars were a particularly common cause of death, so common, in fact, that if you read that a lady, frightened by a burglar, dropped dead of heart failure before the alarm could be raised, The End, you’ve pretty much covered that category.
A more interesting cause of death was the apparition. In this case, the “ghost” was the lady’s doppelgänger, which she rightly understood as an omen of her own death.
Mrs. Coombes, Wife of one Coombes, a Chairman; her Death was occasioned by a Fright, being far gone with Child; for going into the Cellar, to all Appearance well, she gave a great Shriek, her Husband running down to her to know the Reason, she declar’d she saw her own Apparition in a Winding Sheet, standing before her; nor could any Arguments deface the Impression made on her Mind, so strongly did she believe it. She sickened immediately, and died soon after. Whitehall Evening Post Or London Intelligencer [London, England] 3 January 1761: p. 2
DIED OF FRIGHT
Miner Sees an Apparition and the Scare Proves Fatal.
[Susquehanna (Penn.) Cor. New York Press.]
Robert Montgomery, a well-known resident of Wanamie, Penn., recently died from fright or a belief that he had been warned of his approaching death, and that he had a premonition that he could not live.
Montgomery, who was a brave soldier in the war, was employed in a coal mine near Wilkesbarre. Tw weeks before he died he said that when working he head a peculiar noise in the mine. He paid no attention to it.
Soon a strange feeling came over him as though there was a strong draught circulating through the mine, and he became chilly. He looked up from oiling the machinery at the repetition of the strange noise. He said he felt as though there was some one else there besides himself, but he could not see any one.
Then he beheld something white like a man’s figure. It moved as though floating in the air and kept a certain distance from him. He spoke to the apparition, but it made no answer and soon disappeared.
Montgomery made search, but did not find anyone. He told his friends that he regarded the wraith as an omen of death. He at once gave up his position, and in two days took to his bed, although he had no specific sickness which the physicians could discover. He continued to talk of the wraith, and said it was of no avail to take medicine because he was doomed.
His friends tried to dispel his thoughts about death by saying that the “supposed” wraith was a man sent into the mine by the company to see if he performed his duty. But Montgomery would only believe that it was an omen of death, and gradually grew weaker until he died. Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 5 December 1896: p. 11
Fake ghosts/supernatural creatures were one of the most popular causes of death by fear; they also drove a surprising number of the nervous into hopeless insanity.
MINER SCARED TO DEATH
Zanesville, O., Dec 25. Howard Mills, a miner living near Coaldale, was scared to death about midnight by some boys who rigged up a “ghost,” which with the aid of some thin paddles with hooks to swing through the air, was able to emit unearthly groans and shrieks. Mills was confronted with the machine while returning home late at night, and was so overwhelmed with the terrific noise and the suddenness of the apparition that he dropped dead in his tracks. He was a stalwart man, 47 years of age, and the father of six children.The Ohio Democrat [Logan, OH] 2 January 1902: p. 1
At Preston, England, two boys, Richard Foreshaw and Robert Mawdsley, have been committed for trial for manslaughter in frightening a young girl to death. They got a coffin and tied a string to it, placing it in a path where it would be passed by some young factory girls at dark and by drawing it along gave the girls a severe fright, from which one of them died the next day. Pittsfield [MA] Berkshire County Eagle 3 December 1858: p 2
At Bowling Green, Kentucky, a short time since, Miss Rochester, daughter of W. H. Rochester, died of fright occasioned by a rude boy having run after her, on her way to school, with a mask or false face on him. She ran, in her fright, into a pond of water, whence she was carried to her father’s house, where—when nature was exhausted by frequent convulsive or apoplectic fits—she expired: aged 5 years and 5 months. American Sentinel. Washington [DC] Globe 2 September 1833: p. 2
There is a tradition that [at “The Old Mansion”] an invalid wife was frightened to death by her husband placing a hideous mask at the window of her sick room, and that this husband, while enamoured of his housekeeper, affected great grief at his wife’s funeral, sitting his horse backward and demanding a sheet for his tears. Growing out of this tradition is another ghost story to the effect that the spirit of this woman haunted the house for many years and that groans, screams, stealthy footsteps and other fearful sounds, drove tenant after tenant away from the place. A History of Caroline County Virginia, Marshall Wingfield, 1924: pp. 356-58
The Frankfort Journal of Aug. 17th, has the following—In a school at Turin, superintended by the nuns of St. Joseph, the children having lately made a disturbance by uttering cries, the sisters threatened them with the apparition of the devil, if they continued to make a noise. Soon after, on a signal given, there appeared a chimney sweep dressed in a frightful garb, with horns and a fiery looking mouth. The children were so much frightened that some of them fainted. At the noise caused by this scandal, the house and street were soon filled with a crowd. At length the Rector of the parish came, and put an end to the shameful exhibition, but not till several of the children had died of terror.” Washington [DC] Globe 5 October 1833 p. 3
A LESSON TO PONDER ON.
William B. Drees, of Minster, is a raving maniac and thereby hangs one of the saddest tales that pencil ever sat down. It is a lesson of horror to the practical jokers, who are all too numerous.
Drees was a young man, his age being only twenty-four. As he was of a highly excitable temperament, he was early singled out a victim of those who foolishly believe pranks that cause terror and suffering to others are fun. One of those strange black nights when monstrous forebodings and awful shadows creep upon him, who is solitary and alone in its racking silence, a party of these crept noiselessly upon him, as he stood guard in an immense deserted factory and clothed in white sheets, suddenly arose about him as so many ghosts, uttering the most dreadful groans. Affrighted beyond measure he fled wildly into the outer darkness, running until he fell from sheer exhaustion. It was a great joke and excruciatingly funny, and the jokers almost split their sides with laughter, until they heard that Drees had been picked up in convulsions. Then they had some doubts about it and when they saw him started for the asylum shackled hand and foot, they realized the criminal folly of which they had been guilty. Portsmouth [OH] Times 11 April 1908: p. 6
A few nights ago Henry Waters, a youth, whose home is near Youngstown, Ohio, was aroused from his sleep by something in the room. He sat bolt upright in bed. The moon shone through a window, and as young Waters looked towards the light he saw a tall figure in ghostly attire slowly approaching. He spoke, but the ghost made no reply. Then he grasped his revolver, and thus armed and thus emboldened said: “If you are a man I kill you; if you are ghost this won’t hurt you.” He pulled the trigger and report came, but as with quick motion the ghost lifted an arm Waters heard the bullet rebound against the headboard of the bed. This sent a cold chill through the youth, but he discharged his revolver again and again, and then, wild with fear, hurled it at the intruder. At that moment the ghost threw off his disguise, several other parties to the joke came laughing in and lights were struck. The merry-makers had drawn the bullets from the pistol, leaving enough powder to make a report, and at each discharge the play-ghost had thrown a bullet against the headboard. All this the practical jokers expected Waters to enjoy, as he was a jovial fellow, but they found him first dazed, then incoherent, then raving, and now, as his parents fear—a maniac. New Hampshire Patriot and State Gazette [Concord, NH] 16 March 16 1882: p. 2
While fainting at the sight of blood is a cliché, dying at the sight of it was actually not uncommon.
New York, May 22. Fright resulting from the discovery that the front of her shirt waist was covered with a crimson stain was responsible, physicians believe, for the death of Mrs. Kate Harding, a widow, 33 years old, of No. 301 Webster Avenue, Parkville, who was accidentally stabbed in the breast by a sharp-pointed bread knife in the hand of her sister, Mrs. Rose Logomasin, this morning. Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 23 Mary 1908: p. 2
A singular death is reported from Darion, England. A young lady, the daughter of a surgeon, happened to go into a kitchen where a butcher was in the act of killing a brace of ducks. Seeing blood running from one of the birds she fainted and, being removed to a couch, died almost immediately. Death is supposed to have resulted from the shock occasioned to the nervous system, the young lady having a great aversion to the sight of blood of any kind. Macon [GA] Telegraph 10 August 1865: p. 3
Sudden Unexplained Death Syndrome is a recognized, if elusive disease, perhaps related to the Old Hag. This man seems to have had something similar.
Attacked Him in a Dream and Wilcox Died of Fright When He Woke Up.
Marion, Ind., September 20. Peter S. Wilcox, aged 60 years, awoke his wife at 4 o’clock this morning by springing up in bed and fighting an imaginary foe. Mrs. Wilcox attempted to rouse him from what appeared to be a dream, but before she could do so he fell back on the bed and died. Physicians declare he had died of nightmare.
Mrs Wilcox said her husband was subject to nightmare and that he had been frightened a number of times, believing he was murderously attacked. She said he often told her of what he had experienced in the dreams and that he feared he would not recover from the shocks. Wilcox apparently was in excellent health. He owned a large fruit and garden farm and worked yesterday. Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 21 September 1906: p. 1
Others did not have to dream, their enemies were real.
DIED OF FRIGHT
Caused By Her Husband’s Threat To Kill Her.
The curtain fell on the final act of a remarkable domestic tragedy when Mrs. Florence Buehler expired in the County Hospital. The woman actually died from fright.
Her husband was Ernest Buehler, and her life for a long time had been most unhappy. Several months ago she applied for a divorce, but friends effected a truce between herself and her spouse. Two weeks ago, however, the family troubles again became acute when Buehler threatened his wife with a revolver. The woman left her home at 5220 Maplewood Avenue with the purpose of visiting a lawyer’s office, but was waylaid by Buehler, whose actions became so menacing that Mrs. Buehler in her terror fell unconscious. In this condition she was taken to the hospital.
Buehler was arrested, and in a cell in the Twentieth Precinct Station pricked his wrist with a pin, causing great loss of blood. He was then removed to the County Jail Hospital where he succeeded in killing himself.
Meanwhile Mrs. Buehler hovered between life and death. Two days ago she was told of her husband’s suicide. This news intensified the first shock, and she sank rapidly until death came to her relief. It is not known that the couple had any relatives in Chicago. Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 19 September 1900: p. 6
Animals could also die of fright:
The Lafayette Courier says that a farmer on the line of the Valley Road, near Delphi, had a valuable colt frightened to death a few days since, by the whistle of a locomotive. The colt was over two years old, and one of the farmer’s sons was engaged in breaking him to harness. While standing near the track of the railroad, a train came thundering along—the engine gave a shrill and long continued whistle, which so frightened the animal that he plunged forward, and after running about fifty yards, fell dead. The Vincennes [IN] Weekly Western Sun 25 April 1857
While the parade was passing Rohrbacher & Allen’s store Friday, a horse owned by F.F. Fenn of Tallmadge dropped dead. He was frightened to death by the big elephant. It is said he burst a blood vessel. His remains were at once removed to the bone yard. Akron [OH] Daily Democrat 15 September 1899: p. 4
Captain Godfrey, of the 7th Cav., said: “I once saw a cat frightened to death. It was one that used to play with my children at West Point. It was playing around the baby carriage with a child, when Prof. Bassey’s big dog came up. He made a grand rush at the cat, but stopped within 10 feet of it. The cat braced itself up, bowed its back, assumed a defensive attitude, and prepared for war. I drove the dog off, and going to the cat, put my hand on its back, when it fell over. It never moved. It was dead. There was no frothing at the mouth, nor any of the contortions seen in fits. The cat was simply scared to death.” The National Tribune [Washington, DC] 25 December 1890: p 5
At the Brighton review of English volunteers a horse, died of fright. He was near the 18 pounder battery when it was fired, and at the report he leaped suddenly up and fell dead— the cause, a rupture of the great vessels of the heart, through terror. Vincennes [IN] Gazette 31 May 1862
Our Dumb Chums could also be the cause of sudden death. This piece is from James Rodwell, who wrote so eloquently about the perils of rats in a previous post.
Unhappily, however, these rat-frights do not always terminate so harmlessly as in the preceding cases…The “Presse,” of Paris, some time ago related an extraordinary case of death from fright. A young woman was passing near the Rue Cadet, when she suddenly fell to the ground, exclaiming “The rat! the rat!” At first nobody could comprehend the meaning of her exclamations; but on being taken into a druggist’s shop, and placed on a chair, a rat was seen to run from beneath her gown. It was then evident that the rat, which had come from a sewer just as she was passing, had got between her legs, and that, when she fell from fright, it had concealed itself under her clothing. She was taken home to her friends, in a state of delirium, which lasted four days, during which time the only words she uttered were “The rat! the rat!” but on the evening of the fourth day she expired.
Now here was a melancholy occurrence arising out of this immoderate fear of rats. What had the rat done to her? Nothing whatever, except hiding in her clothes, and making its escape as soon as possible. Yet from the veriest fear she becomes deranged, and dies a maniac. The Rat: Its History & Destructive Character, With Numerous Anecdotes, by James Rodwell, (Uncle James.) 1858
FRIGHTENED TO DEATH BY A CAT
Animal Jumps on Bed in St. Louis Hospital and Patient Dies From the Shock
Shortly before the death of Mrs. Mary Ziegler of 1210 North Spring Avenue, St. Louis, a cat gained entrance to her room in the hospital, where she had undergone a critical operation. The cat clawed at her and frightened her to death.
It was near midnight before the physician in charge had succeeded in getting her to sleep. The nurse, wearied with her constant watching, was also asleep.
The patient awoke to find a cat on her bed. Then followed a shriek and a howl. The woman’s cries awakened the nurse, who rushed in to the room to find a gray cat tearing the covers around the patient. The nurse made a clutch at the animal, but it eluded her hand and, leaping from the bed, ran from the room. She chased it through the halls and it was finally cornered and put out of the building. When the nurse returned to the ward the patient was shaking with terror, and it was found that he shock had wrecked her nervous system. She died before morning. Evening News [San Jose, CA] 7 August 1906: p. 3
Near Chappell’s Gap, Ky., a three-year-old girl was frightened to death by a gander which had attacked her.Daily Public Ledger [Maysville KY] 7 April 1911: p. 1
COW’S MOO KILLS CHILD
Baby Frightened into Convulsions When Wandering Bovine Puts Head in Window
Investigation by Dr. H. Albert McMurray, coroner of Westmoreland County, into the death of James Henry Pershing, 3-year-old son of Mr. and Mrs. Lawrence Pershing of Grapeville revealed that the child literally was frightened to death.
Several days ago the boy was playing when a cow at pasture in a lot adjoining the house looked in at an open window of the room where the child was. As the little one glanced toward the window the cow mooed loudly.
With a scream the child collapsed and went into convulsions. A physician was unable to give the boy any relief, and death ensued twelve hours later. Greensburg (Pa.) Dispatch Philadelphia Record. The Tulsa [OK] Star 18 December 1915: p. 7
A Lady Frightened to Death. The Rockingham (Va.) Register states that Mrs. Dietrick, wife of Mr. Jacob Dietrick, residing near Mt. Crawford, in that county, was frightened to death a few weeks since. Her little daughter for sport threw a tree-frog upon her lap, which began jumping up towards her face, and so frightened her that she died in two or three days. Daily National Intelligence [Washington, DC] 15 June 1852: p. 3
I assumed 20th-century medical advances would wipe out “death by fear,” but the term lingered on. I was surprised to see a 1994 story about a man who, the police said, apparently died of fright while accusing another driver of trying to run him over. Any later examples? And have any of you actually seen a death certificate where the cause of death is “fear?” Notarize and rush to Chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com
Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the Dead, The Ghost Wore Black, The Headless Horror, The Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle. Indexes and fact sheets for all of these books may be found by searching hauntedohiobooks.com. Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead.