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The Man who Died of Laughing
Published on 11/2/2007

Can you laugh to death? As a matter of fact, there are more than 10 registered cases of fatal hilarity.

On 24 March 1975 Alex Mitchell, a 50-year-old bricklayer from King's Lynn, England, died laughing while watching an episode of The Goodies, featuring a Scotsman in a kilt battling a vicious black pudding with his bagpipes. After twenty-five minutes of continuous laughter Mitchell finally slumped on the sofa and expired from heart failure. His widow later sent the Goodies a letter thanking them for making Mitchell's final moments so pleasant.

In 1989 a Danish audiologist, Ole Bentzen, died watching A Fish Called Wanda. His heart was estimated to have beat at between 250 and 500 beats per minute, before he succumbed to cardiac arrest.

In 2003 Damnoen Saen-um, a Thai ice cream salesman, is reported to have died while laughing in his sleep at the age of 52. His wife tried to wake him up but couldn't, and he stopped breathing after two minutes of continuous laughter. It is believed that he died either of heart failure or asphyxiation.

Fatal Hilarity through history

According to some traditions, the mythological Greek prophet Calchas died of laughter when the day that was to be his death day arrived and the prediction didn't seem to materialise.

In the third century B.C. the Greek philosopher Chrysippus died of laughter after giving his donkey wine, then seeing it attempt to feed on figs.

Martin I of Aragon died from a lethal combination of indigestion and uncontrollable laughing in 1410.

It is cited that the Burmese king Nandabayin, in 1599 "laughed to death when informed, by a visiting Italian merchant, that Venice was a free state without a king."

In 1660, the Scottish aristocrat, polymath and first translator of Rabelais into English, Thomas Urquhart, is said to have died laughing upon hearing that Charles II had taken the throne.

In 1782, a certain Mrs Fitzherbert is reported to have suffered from an attack of hilarity while she attended a performance of The Beggar's Opera. When Charles Bannister appeared on scene as Peachum, she burst into an uncontrollable laugh so loud that she had to be expelled from the theatre. She laughed continuously all night long and the day after, and died early in the morning, the following day.

The phenomenon is also recorded in the book Crazy History where a Celtic soothsayer was able to predict the hour of his demise. As with the death of Calchas, when the time arrived and the soothsayer found himself still alive, he purportedly laughed hysterically, eventually killing himself through either heart attack or asphyxiation.

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