5 Famous People Whose Final Days Were Surprisingly Undignified
One you reach the top, there are two ways you might meet your end. Maybe you'll die satisfied and happy on your giant bed made of money, or maybe you'll lose honorably in combat once your enemies finally breach the walls. Or, well, maybe you'll end up like the following people, leaving millions who'd otherwise envy you just pitying you and saying, “Woof."
Secret Service Agents Gave A Fading Reagan Fake Chores
You all know that Ronald Reagan ended his life with Alzheimer's, right? He was diagnosed in 1994, one decade before his death and six years after he left office. Technically, we suppose he was diagnosed with dementia—you can't definitively be diagnosed with Alzheimer's till after you die and doctors cut your head open.
When the world learned about the diagnosis, this put a new spin on the jokes everyone had been exchanging for years about what a scatterbrain he was. Why, had he been suffering from dementia throughout his presidency then? And all those times when he said "I don't recall" about scandal stuff, maybe he genuinely couldn’t recall because his mind was failing him? No and no, said a bunch of doctors, but we don't know just how far we can trust White House doctors. Even while he was still president, CBS's Lesley Stahl once thought, "Oh my, he's gonzo ... I have to go out on the lawn tonight and tell my countrymen that the president of the United States is a doddering space cadet"—then changed her mind at the last minute.
The disease progressed for him like it does most patients. Those close to him noted as especially sad moments the point when he forgot how to saddle a horse, or tried golfing and forgot which direction he was walking. But one anecdote stands out to us. Showing that he still had some strength in him, Reagan would rake the leaves out of his pool. Then, so he'd always have something to do, his Secret Service agents would discreetly dump the leaves right back in. He'd continue this way for hours, not understanding what they were doing.
America solemnly accepted that the ex-president was living out a retirement without knowing what was going on around him. The country unanimously agreed to henceforth periodically elect presidents clearly suffering from dementia, in Reagan's honor.
The Final Boss Of New York's Storied Gambino Family Was Murdered By A QAnon Believer
Once upon a time, New York was ruled by five families, and one of them was the Gambinos. You might best know them as the mob outfit that John Gotti ran, but it was also the family of such famous gangsters as Johnny Romano, Al Marinelli, "Two Eyes" Testa, Sal Giovinco, Ford Pinto, Alfredo Fettuccini, The Kid Laroi, "Little Dick" Ladanza, and okay, we made all those names up, but trust us, the family was a big deal. By 2019, the boss of the Gambino family was Frank Cali.
Cali was related to the Gambinos through the marriage, and he made his way upward through the organization via good honest work (racketeering, extortion, conspiracy). He wound up arrested in 2008 as part of a huge operation on dozens of mafia members, and he pleaded guilty—which is not the same as collaborating with police, but simply a pretty good move for a gangster who wants to get out of prison in under a year. In 2015, the Gambino boss Domenico Cefalù stepped down, and Frank took control. Under his leadership, the family moved a lot more heroin and OxyContin, always a smart choice.
As a mob boss, there's always the possibility some rival will shoot you dead. Yet in 2019, it had actually been decades since this had happened. The last mob boss of any kind to die by assassination was Paul Castellano, who happened to be the head of the Gambinos, killed so John Gotti could take control. Then on March 13, 2019, Frank Cali was indeed shot outside his home. This wasn't a hit by someone else in the mafia, though. The murderer was Anthony Comello, a New Jersey guy who thought Cali was a member of the Deep State.
Comello's a QAnon guy, and he came to believe that President Trump had personally entrusted him with the task of arresting Cali. And so Comello carried handcuffs when he approached the man, but then he panicked and shot him. At least, this is the explanation of his that makes the most sense, based on what else we know of him. Comello had previously, on two separate occasions, attempted citizen arrests of Mayor Bill De Blasio, and had contacted authorities for help arresting multiple Democrat House members.
At other times, Comello gave alternative stories. He claimed that he was actually visiting Cali to warn him about a hit the mafia were planning on him (a bullet would have made for an ineffective warning in this particular circumstance) and separately claimed that he was being blackmailed into the deed, by people threatening to reveal he'd got HIV from a stripper. He also mumbled something about the CIA controlling the media, and about Australia. In the end, the court found him unfit for trial and sent him to a mental health facility. That's just as well, as prison would be especially not great for him.
Eliot Ness Ended Up Selling Hamburger Patties For A Living
On the other side of the aisle from the mob, we had law enforcement, including "the man who brought down Capone," Eliot Ness. Not only was Ness so respected that he's namedropped in California's official state song, he got to be played by Kevin Costner in The Untouchables, which was actually still considered an honor in 1987. He's the sort of guy whose name you put on buildings.
Now, if you want to know how Eliot Ness ended his life, you should first know that he wasn't really the man who brought down Capone at all. But his false reputation for being that should have been enough to bring him success, you'd think. When he got transferred to Cleveland and ended up running for mayor, seems like they'd have made him king. Instead, he made a few unpopular moves. He kept going after the mob, yes, but he also set fire to a bunch of hobo shacks in his attempt to solve a series of murders (he never solved them).
Eliot Ness started drinking hard, which was legal once Prohibition ended but still wasn't what you might expect of a former Prohibition agent. He got into an accident, possibly while drunk, and tried to cover it up. He married three different women and cheated on all of them, because despite his reputation for being untouchable, he did like being touched in one place.
Then a Pennsylvania company recruited Ness, supposedly for his law enforcement knowhow. They'd invented a new process for preventing fraud, they said, a method for watermarking documents. The process was so valuable that they couldn't patent it, as this would make the process public information. The government was very interested, requesting special versions of the machines made of magnesium—an extremely reactive metal that they could instantly burn to keep anyone from getting control of them.
Ness sunk a bunch of money into the venture. By the time his detective instincts finally perked up and he started investigating, it was too late: Yes, it was all a scam. Ness, now broke, was stuck spending his final days doing odd jobs, including selling frozen hamburger patties. That undeserved fame and the Kevin Costner movie? That only came after he died. Whoops.
Jack Daniel, Of Whiskey Fame, Died Via Infected Toe
Okay, we just said Prohibition guys were on the opposite side from mobsters. But they were also on the other side of legitimate distillers, true heroes. Funny how you don't hear too much about how the actual alcohol companies handled Prohibition. According to the official Jack Daniel's site, they just kind of hunkered down for those years, storing whiskey in warehouses and waiting for lawmakers to come to their senses. The stored whiskey was often a target of burglars from the mob (so, this was a three-way war), and the company was also able to sell a bit as a prescription drug, enough to make ends meet.
The official Jack Daniel's site also tells us the story of the official Jack Daniel. Yeah, there was totally a real Jack Daniel, a Tennessee distiller of Scottish ancestry. Though, his real name was "Jasper Daniel," which sounds even more like someone who brews liquor all day. And if you're picturing some guy with a ridiculously large mustache walking around in a cowboy hat and bowtie, we are forced to inform you that, yes, you're totally right, he looked like this:
Daniel started his distillery with a priest as his partner. Which was a little weird, so the priest left pretty quick, and Jack went on to make his distillery a big success. He earned a bunch of money, and he kept some of it in his trusty safe. Only problem was, he kept forgetting the safe's combination. One time, he got so angry that he kicked it in frustration, which isn't a great way of breaking a steel cage but is a great way of breaking your toe.
Jack Daniel went on to die of some kind of blood poisoning. The most commonly repeated cause of death is that this infection came from splitting his toe open kicking that safe. Other biographers say too much time passed between the two events, so they had to be unrelated. In which case, cool, the safe wasn't to blame: He died at the age of 61 of random gangrene. Uh, a much more glorious end.
Related: Inside The Black Market For Whiskey
One Of Germany's Last Princesses Ended Up Adopting Men Who'd Pay Her To Make Them Princes
If you're a member of a collapsing monarchy, there are a lot of ways things can go very bad for you, let's say that upfront. Your neck may become well acquainted with a swiftly falling blade. Or, you might end up living in New Jersey. Still, we think all the royal ghosts would shake their heads with special sadness at what Princess Marie-Auguste von Anhalt turned to.
Marie-Auguste's mother was a princess in two ways: She was born to a prince and princess of one German state, and then married a prince of another. Then Marie-Auguste, born to a prince and princess, married a prince herself, the son of Kaiser Wilhelm. So, she was about as princess as you could get. Then came World War I, and Germany ushered in a new constitution, and so being a princess now meant just about nothing. All she had was the title.
Plus, her husband divorced her. And if she was counting on 1920s German alimony taking care of her, the guy then put a gun to his head. She remarried, but that didn't last. Decades passed, and when she reached old age, she must have got really desperate. So, she agreed to forge familial bonds with a new guy, the businessman Hans Robert Lichtenberg. Not by marrying him, but by legally adopting the 36-year-old man. This made him a prince, and in exchange, he agreed to pay her money every month.
We're not 100% sure of the legitimacy of that "prince" title, given that Germany had abolished all law related to royalty, but it was enough that the guy became known as Prince Frederic von Anhalt, Duke of Saxony and Westphalia, Count of Ascania. Which was in turn enough to make him a major catch, so he weaseled his way into marrying Zsa Zsa Gabor and inherited her estate when she died in 2016.
Some sources even say that Marie-Auguste adopted a bunch of other guys, like 35 grown men, and made them all princes. We can't find info on that, but her adopting prince Hans did lead to further princes. Because Hans then adopted a bunch of grown men and made them princes in exchange for them paying him. Truly, this was a sad corruption of the established tradition of noble succession ... which is also a bunch of made-up crap, but still.