Civilized society has presented mankind with a peculiar problem. Our instincts are wired for life as beasts; consume what is there, because tomorrow it will be gone. Throughout history, some have taken this maxim to its most filling, logical extreme. On February 12th, 1771, Adolf Fredrick, King of Sweden, sat down at his table and ate a meal of lobster, caviar, sauerkraut, and kippers, all of which he washed down with champagne. The killer, however, was his dessert. According to Swedish lore, he finished the feast with 14 servings of semlas, a thin sweet roll filled with cream. As if this weren’t enough, the King preferred that his semlas be doused in milk. Needless to say, he did not see another sunrise. Details are scarce in regards to the actual manner of his death but, with such a menu, the options are boundless. Choking or heart failure are both viable explanations, but perhaps he simply drowned in all the cream.
Twenty years earlier, the celebrated philosopher Julien Offray de La Mettrie decided to test his work in the field. Best know for his treatise L’Homme Machine (The Human Machine), he rejected Descartes assertion that the body and soul were distinctly separate entities, and instead argued that they all existed on one plane. An impressive work on its own, it set the stage for a conversation on the nature of consciousness that continues today. Following his own argument to its logical extreme, he became obsessed with fleeting pleasures, his measured materialism and sensualism giving way to rampant hedonism. At a feast given in his honor, he consumed an enormous amount of pheasant pâté. Accounts differ as to whether he attempted to display the connection between human fulfillment and unfettered consumption, or merely wanted to prove that he could eat anyone else under the table. The end result, in any case, was a gastric illness that drove him mad and eventually killed him.
Then there is George Plantagenet, who died on February 18th, 1478. The 1st Duke of Clarence, he is perhaps best known for his brief appearance in Shakespeare’s Richard III, where he is stabbed and thrown into a barrel of malmsey wine. As per usual for his histories, Shakespeare twists the facts in service of the story; the play asserts that Richard framed Clarence for treason, and then had him assassinated while he was locked in the Tower of London. The English record only states that he was founded guilty of plotting against the king, his brother Edward IV, and killed at a private execution.
Clarence’s reputation as a great drinker led people to joke that he had requested to be submerged in wine. The possibility is not quite as ridiculous as it seems. Seeing as he was the king’s brother, he would’ve been granted some sort of mercy. English executioners were notoriously shoddy (one of Henry VIII’s wives asked that she be executed with a sword rather than an axe to ensure that her death was swift) and Clarence could have, understandably, preferred to find death quietly in the warm embrace of a fine vintage, rather than the hacksmanship of the Tower’s strongest headsman.
By Matthew Alberswerth