The Man Who Was Killed By His Own Beard

The Man Who Was Killed By His Own Beard

Commitment to anything is difficult — half the internet is dedicated to helping people establish exercise routines, stick to diets and maintain sensible spending habits. Growing a beard is something that takes a lot of commitment. There are stages where you look like full shit, periods defined by itchiness and huge swathes of time where your grooming routine makes no sense whatsoever. For a short-haired man, a long beard is a whole new world of tangles, teases and twists — most hit something of a wall around about the Tormund Giantsbane stage. 

One guy who fully committed, though, was Hans Staininger, a 16th-century politician in modern-day Austria famed for his long, flowing beard. The little that is known of him suggests he was, by all accounts, quite a dude. He was committed to two things in particular: his town and his facial hair. He was elected burgomaster of Braunau — a position similar to mayor, but better because it translates to “master of the town,” which rules — an impressive six times on the trot. (Braunau has two other claims to fame: It was the birthplace of Franz Xaber Gruber, composer of the festive staple “Silent Night,” as well as some dick named “Adolf Hitler.”)

Despite cutting it off several times and growing it back, in 1567, Staininger’s beard was an impressive three-and-half cubits long (an archaic form of measurement that works out to just shy of seven feet), hanging in two forked strands from his face (as immortalized in a portrait that hangs in the Louvre). His extraordinary face-fuzz was too long for him to be able to walk around with it just hanging out, so he was in the habit of rolling it up and sticking it in his pocket. There are stories about his world-beating whiskers opening doors for the city as well — there’s a bit of sketchiness in the timelines, but he was at one point reported to have been granted an audience with Emperor Rudolf II purely on the basis of his giant beard, and used it to get special privileges for Braunau. 

There are two conflicting stories of his death, although both end in the same way. Most sources say that Staininger woke in the night to find a fire had broken out and, rushing to warn his fellow townspeople, tripped over his unsecured beard and fell down a flight of stairs, breaking his neck in the process. However, one version of the story, recounted by 19th-century travel writer Joseph Kyselak — himself an interesting figure, whose habit of scrawling his name everywhere he went has led to him being dubbed the first “tagger” — has Staininger rushing toward a prince passing through town in order to show respect, and similarly tripping over his mammoth facial hair.

Either way, Staininger’s death is one of the only documented cases of “death by beard” in history. There are endless stories of beards getting stuck in industrial machinery and ripped out, and it almost stands to reason that a few deaths must have occurred as a direct result of having a hella sick beard, but none have been directly attributed to it. Along those lines, Dan Haggerty, the actor who played Grizzly Adams, once set fire to his magnificent beard by drinking a flaming cocktail, but survived.

After Staininger died, the townspeople commemorated him in statue form on the outside of St. Stephen’s Church, as well as cutting his beard off and preserving it. It can still be seen in the District Museum Herzogsburg in a lengthy glass case, and was the subject of a 1975 scientific paper in the skincare journal Dermatologische Monatsschrift: “Iconography and Morphology of the 400-Year-Old Beard of Counselor Hans Staininger from Braunau.” You can do a tour of the town with a guide sporting a pretty shitty fake beard pretending to be Staininger. (There are photos that purport to be of Staininger but aren’t — the man died in the 16th century. The pictures that regularly get circulated online claiming to be him are in fact of a Norwegian, Hans Nilson Langseth, born in 1846. His beard was used as a skipping rope in a Pathe newsreel.)

Considering how little is known about Staininger, it’s not a bad legacy: All we know is that people liked him, and he died in an interesting way. That was enough for pictures of him to end up in the Louvre in Paris and the Wellcome Collection in London. Not too shabby.

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