5 Millionaires Who Suffered Ignominious Deaths
Recently, the very rich discovered the secret to immortality, which means none of them will ever die again. This discovery — it involves an expensive organic material extracted from aliens — will have profound effects on society in the centuries to come. It also gives us an excuse to look back at the deaths of the wealthy in years past.
Not all of history’s millionaires died at the age of 90 when they ran short of their youth pills (a weak predecessor to the alien stuff, derived from kittens). Some, in fact, had their lives cut short by the silliest of reasons.
Canada’s Meat Tycoon Got Butted by a Goat
Today, Toronto has the nickname “Hogtown.” You might not have heard this nickname yourself, but we are assured that it’s real, and it likely dates back to when Toronto was a major pork hub. Were you a pig in the late 19-century, looking to be slaughtered and turned into ham? Toronto was the city for you, thanks to a pork packer named William Davies.
Davies made porking into an industrial process, with such innovations as refrigeration (always a good idea) and a continuous pig slaughter railroad. Meat historians also credit him with inventing a new type of bacon, peameal bacon. This isn’t the bacon that people usually refer to when they say “Canadian bacon,” but this was bacon created in Canada, so legally, it is Canadian bacon.
In 1921, Davies went on vacation, leaving the safety of Canada to visit the American South. He got out of his vehicle at one point to pee on the side of the road. A passing goat saw the irresistible sight of this man’s unprotected posterior and ran into him. Davies fell down, hurt himself and never recovered. He succumbed to the injury two months later, the victim of a murderer clearly bitter that North America likes pork so much more than goat meat.
A Chinese Billionaire Died Eating Poison Cat Soup
You’ve never heard of Long Liyuan before, and you’ll never hear of him again. He became a billionaire by running a forestry company, and in 2011, he was looking to make even more money by dining with government officials and getting them to turn over even more forests for him to lumberjack his way through.
The three men ate a soup made of cat meat. That sounds like a dish people turn to when they’re starving, when only boiling the family pet can stave off death, but in Guangdong 10 years ago, cat meat soup was a delicacy. The markets sold lots of exotic animals, including wild cats, and Long preferred eating cats of the domestic variety.
This time, he said the slow-boiled cat soup tasted different from usual. “There’s something off about this cat meat,” we imagine him saying. He went to the hospital and died soon after the meal, and while normal food poisoning seemed a possibility at first, his family suspected something more. Police later arrested one of the men at the meal, the government official Huang Guang, who’d allegedly embezzled money from Long.
The soup had been poisoned with the herb Gelsemium elegans, also known as heartbreak grass. Russia appeared to use this same herb to kill whistleblower Alexander Perepilichnyy the following year. Long’s death also revived debate about Chinese wet markets selling exotic animals, a practice we hope led to no other deaths after this one.
One of the Waltons Tried Building His Own Plane
The Waltons are easily the richest family in America. The Walmart heirs — Jim, Rob and Alice — are each worth around $60 billion. If they merged into one megaheir (i.e., if Sam Walton left his money to one heir rather than a whole family), they’d be the richest person in the world right now.
One other sibling, John, died in 2005. Though he had a board seat at Walmart, he didn’t run the company. Instead, by all accounts, he just spent his fortune on being awesome. He skied. He skydived. He rode mountain bikes. He got a Silver Star for his time serving in Vietnam, and he founded an organization to pay for the education of tens of thousands of children.
He also flew planes. His only time working for Walmart appears to be his stint piloting a plane for them, and he then spent six months a year as a cropduster. In 2005, he built himself a new plane using a kit. It was an experimental aircraft — ultralight, powered by gasoline, and with wings wrapped in sailcloth. He also slapped on some other mods, loosening a flight-control component in the process. That’s according to the NTSB, who investigated the plane after it crashed, killing him.
Yeah, Walton took off from Jackson Hole Airport in Wyoming in June 2005, and then crashed his plane in nearby Grand Teton National Park. For some people, that would be a pretty cool way to go. But it was a sudden and early end for the man who was, at the time, the fourth-richest person in the country and the 11th-richest person in the world.
A Millionaire Bought the Segway Company, Sealing His Doom
Ultralight aircraft are inherently exciting and dangerous. You know what vehicle isn’t? A Segway. The Segway was designed to move slowly. It was advertised as “self-balancing.” Even when safety experts started warning that you could totally fall off your Segway if you hit a pole, they warned of falling flat on your face, not of dying.
In 2009, Jimi Heselden bought the company. Heselden was a British man who’d had to drop out of school at 15 to work as a laborer and a coalminer. It’s the sort of backstory every businessman lies and claims to have, but in his case, it was true. He invented a new type of mesh barrier for construction, founded a company to sell the product and became a millionaire. We don’t know how much he paid for Segway, but a few years later, another company would buy it for $9 million, and would go on to sell it for $75 million. Just nine months after buying the company, though, Heselden rode a Segway off a cliff and died.
You might have already heard the trivia fact that the owner of Segway died on a Segway, but let’s quickly tell you just how it went down. He wasn’t stuck on an unstoppable scooter, reaching for nonexistent brakes as it plunged forward through a guardrail. He was on a footpath above a river when he saw someone coming in the other direction, walking a dog. Heselden stopped and reversed to make room for the other person (and dog) to pass. Then he wobbled and went over the edge, falling 40 feet.
People took this as clear evidence that the Segway was a deathtrap. But as far as we can tell, Heselden was the first person to die on a Segway. In fact, he may well be the only person to ever have died on a Segway — it’s hard to tell for sure, because later stats lump Segways in with other similar vehicles. Indeed, the company Segway no longer makes the vehicles we call “Segways.” Today, they make bikes.
And speaking of segues…
One of the Original Warner Brothers Died from a Tooth Abscess
The Warner brothers who made up Warner Bros. were four men: Jack (that’s the one you might know of already), Albert, Harry and Sam. They started in show business when Sam bought an opera house in Youngstown, Ohio. That ended horribly, but he jumped from there to running a projector at an amusement park, then opening a movie theater with his brothers, then opening a whole bunch of theaters. After that, they moved on to making movies of their own.
Sam’s big idea was adding sound to films. This started not with dialogue, which was considered crazy talk, literally, but with synchronized musical tracks, to replace the live bands that accompanied silent pictures. Sam put out a few short films with that kind of music, and he followed this with the first feature to play synced phonograph records, 1926’s Don Juan. The company’s stock multiplied by eight right after the premiere, and the Warner brothers became rich.
Sam was ready now to take it to the next level. He was the ideas man behind the world’s first talkie. But during the production of the film, he got a severe sinus infection. Then he got a tooth abscess, which sent a whole new shot of decay into his head. It killed him on October 5, 1927, the day before the premiere of that film he’d been working on, The Jazz Singer.
Four years later, Harry Warner’s son Lewis, who the family thought would take over the whole business, also died from a tooth abscess. Does it ever seem like Hollywood nowadays is obsessed with perfect teeth? It’s because everyone is afraid of falling to the same curse that felled two Warners.