The world’s greatest works of literature muse on subjects like love and death – topics that everyone, including the authors who crafted the stories, will experience at some point in their life.
Though some writers have written about so-called “good deaths” – when a person passes in their bed, surrounded by friends and family – most people don’t get that final gift, not even the authors who wrote about it.
From scandalous duels to tragic demises, death came in strange ways to all the writers on this list. The tragic, mysterious, and downright strange deaths of famous writers throughout history prove beyond a doubt that truth is stranger than fiction.
As a founding member of the Bloomsbury Group – a cohort of artists, writers, and intellectuals – and the author of novels like Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf was one of the most significant creative minds of the early 20th century.
On March 28, 1941, Woolf stuffed stones in her pockets and drowned herself in the River Ouse in Sussex. She was 59 years old.
Before leaving the house to take her life, Woolf left a note for her husband Leonard, offering a glimpse into what she was feeling:
I feel certain I am going mad again. I feel we can't go through another of those terrible times. And I shan't recover this time. I begin to hear voices, and I can't concentrate. So I am doing what seems the best thing to do. You have given me the greatest possible happiness. You have been in every way all that anyone could be. I don't think two people could have been happier till this terrible disease came. I can't fight any longer. I know I am spoiling your life, that without me you could work. And you will I know. You see I can't even write this properly. I can't read. What I want to say is I owe all the happiness of my life to you. You have been entirely patient with me and incredibly good. I want to say that – everybody knows it. If anybody could have saved me it would have been you. Everything has gone from me but the certainty of your goodness. I can't go on spoiling your life any longer.
I don't think two people could have been happier than we have been.
Though Emily Brontë only published one novel, it remains an all-timer: Wuthering Heights continues to be adapted, read, and loved by legions of fans.
Brontë was a member of one of Victorian Britain's most distinguished literary families, as her sisters Charlotte and Anne were both published writers as well: Charlotte wrote Jane Eyre and Anne published The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.
Alas, like so many in her family, Emily's life would be relatively brief. Her mother died when Emily was only three years old. Emily's beloved brother Branwell died at the age of 31 in 1848, and 30-year-old Emily died months later. Scholars believe tuberculosis was to blame, the same disease that killed Branwell and their sisters Maria and Elizabeth.
Tragedy continued to hang over the Brontë home. Anne died the next year. Charlotte lived the longest; she died at 38 in 1855.
By the time Emily's father Patrick Brontë died in 1861, he had buried all six of his children.
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Born in Dublin in 1854, Oscar Wilde became a fixture in London high society. Wilde found most of his success as a playwright, and his plays An Ideal Husband and The Importance of Being Earnest were society comedies that were as witty as their author.
Wilde engaged in an affair with Lord Alfred Douglas, a young aristocrat. Since male homosexuality became illegal in 1885 – it wouldn't be decriminalized until 1967 – both Wilde and Douglas assumed great risk in pursuing their love for each other.
After a highly publicized trial, Wilde was found guilty of gross indecency in 1895. His sentence: hard labor, which significantly weakened the writer. After serving his two-year sentence, he moved to Paris before dying in 1900. Wilde was only 46.
Many believe that Oscar Wilde died of syphilis, especially since the writer himself believed he had contracted it while at university.
Experts in the 21st century doubt that syphilis caused Wilde's death. According to his medical records, he didn't display the infection's classic symptoms at the end of his life. Instead, they have put forward a different cause of death: middle ear infections, which would explain his difficulty hearing and discharge from the ear.
Jane Austen was one of the sharpest observers of her world. Though she never married and spent the majority of her life in her home county of Hampshire, Austen wielded her pen like a surgeon's knife to dissect the hierarchies and romances that animated the English gentry in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Her novels – like Pride & Prejudice, Emma, and Sense & Sensibility – remain wildly popular and are the subjects of perennial television and film adaptations.
Though she was not a mystery writer by trade, a central mystery hangs over Austen's life – or at least the end of it: What caused 41-year-old Austen to die in 1817?
In recent years, scholars have proposed a variety of explanations, ranging from Addison's disease to lymphoma and lupus. Some have even proposed that she succumbed to arsenic poisoning, due to the development of cataracts in her later years.
Edgar Allan Poe stoked American literature's gothic imagination with poems and short stories like “The Raven,” “The Masque of the Red Death,” and “The Tell-Tale Heart.” The writer's own death would be as mysterious as some of his tales.
In 1849, Poe turned to alcohol to cope with much of the sadness that he felt in life. Many believe that alcohol may have played a role in his death on October 7 of that year.
Yet, biographers have noted a number of strange occurrences leading up to Poe's death. On October 3, Poe was found in a distressed state in clothes that were not his own. When he was hospitalized, he was also agitated and seemed to be hallucinating. He died days later.
The physician who treated Poe at the hospital did not think alcohol was to blame. Then, what was it?
A number of theories have been put forward, ranging from poisoning to rabies. Alas, we will probably never know the real reason for the literary genius's sudden demise.
Poet and playwright William Shakespeare remains arguably the most famous writer in the world, since his words are still recited everywhere from Broadway stages to high-school classrooms.
Born in Stratford-upon-Avon, England, in 1564, Shakespeare eventually made his way to London, where he made a name for himself in theater circles. Over the course of his career, he wrote at least 37 plays and 154 sonnets. Among his most popular works are Romeo & Juliet, Hamlet, and King Lear.
By 1613, Shakespeare had returned to his hometown of Stratford, where his wife and two surviving children lived. He wrote up a will on March 25, 1616, when he claimed to be “in perfect health & memorie.” He would die within the month.
No one knows exactly what happened, but on April 23, 1616, Shakespeare died at the age of 52. His exact cause of death remains a mystery.
That has not stopped people from speculating. One of the first bits of speculation came a few decades after the Bard's death, when John Ward, Stratford's vicar, claimed, “Shakespeare, Drayton, and Ben Jonson had a merry meeting and, it seems, drank too hard, for Shakespeare died of a fever there contracted.” In other words, the vicar alleged that Shakespeare died of a hangover after carousing with fellow writers Michael Drayton and Ben Jonson.