As a child I remember being terrified by a story in (I think) Strange Worlds by Frank Edwards about a clockmaker who was slowly strangled to death in the gears of a tower clock. Inventors often seem a hapless lot. If they aren’t being blown up by their own patented explosive shells (Samuel H. Mead/Mead-Meigs Safety Explosive Bullet), they hang themselves from their own perpetual motion machines or are found wandering the streets of great cities, hopelessly insane when their creations fail to make them rich.
We all know (or think we know), how the inventor of the guillotine met his end under its blade. In fact Dr. Joseph-Ignace Guillotin proposed a more humane method of capital punishment, but did not create the guillotine. Antoine Louis was the inventor of the machine, which was briefly known as a louisette, but Guillotin’s name became attached to it because of his advocacy of the device as more civilized method of execution. The Doctor was imprisoned during the Terror but actually died in his bed in 1814. Guillotin’s family was so mortified by the connection that they changed their name after they failed to persuade the French government to rechristen the instrument.
When I ran across the story of the “demented inventor” at the end of this post who devised an similarly elegant and creative method of suicide, I went in search of obscure inventors—mostly Americans–who died at the hands of their better mousetraps.
By the Invention He Had Spent 25 Years Perfecting
New York, June 13. Herman O. Mortiz, a Brooklyn inventor, sixty-two years old, was killed at Coney Island by a device on the invention of which he had spent more than a quarter of a century and all his savings.
Mortiz’s invention was an aerial toboggan slide. Permission had just been granted to operate it, all the laws of the department being complied with. The first car was empty and went without any trouble. Other cars with persons in them were sent over. The device seemed to be working to perfection and as the various cars, one after another, went down the steep slide and came up with a round turn, Mortiz stood and looked on, his face beaming with pleasure. He fairly shouted for joy. The dream of the last twenty-five years of his life was realized and his face beamed with delight as his friends alighted from the cars and pronounced the construction a success and as certain to make him a fortune.
Inspector Rittenhouse, and Charles Otis, a friend of the inventor, rode in the last car to be tested. Mortiz stood at the foot of the incline. The car had nearly reached the top, a distance of about seventy feet.
There was a cracking sound, a shout, and Rittenhouse and Otis shot backward. Their car had failed to hold the steel dog until the top of the incline had been reached. It came down with great velocity straight for the place where Moritz was standing. The car was almost upon him when he turned to get out of the way. It was too late. The heavy vehicle struck him in the back, knocking him through the wire netting and out into the Bowery walk. He died two hours later. Rittenhouse and Otis were thrown from their seats, but were uninjured. Morning Herald [Lexington, KY] 14 June 1902: p. 8
Singular Suicide – Horace Wells, the Discoverer of Ether.
“the same individual who made the original discovery of ether, or chloroform, and of its successful application in surgery or dentistry….The ingenious discoverer of the powers of this extraordinary substance, in its application to surgery, has himself fallen a victim to his own discovery, the only rational conclusion after reading the account of this suicide and of the steps which led to it, seems to be that Dr. Wells has been in the habit of producing intoxication in himself by the habitual use of ether, or chloroform. Under one of the paroxysms produced by the intemperate use of this powerful agent, it seems he sallied forth into Broadway, where he committed the pranks upon some unfortunate females at night, which led to his arrest by the police, causing a great noise to be made in the public prints. For the purpose of drowning the consequences of this exposure, and not being able to meet the issue of his strange acts, Dr. Wells deliberately goes to work and commits suicide, using his own medicine to destroy the sensation of pain in the act. New York Herald 25 January 1848: p. 1
Dr. Horace Wells was one of three physicians who claimed to have discovered the use of ether as an anesthetic. Unfortunately he became addicted to chloroform and in a moment of exhilaration threw vitriol at a prostitute on Broadway. He was arrested and taken to the Tombs where he committed what may have been the first suicide under anaesthetic.
No suspicion was entertained by the keepers of any intention of self-destruction, as Mr. Wells appeared to be rather cheerful on Sunday, conversing freely, and while out of his cell, on the corridor, appeared to pay particular attention to the sermon delivered by the Reverend gentleman who preaches every Sunday to the unfortunate and abandoned creatures confined in the Tombs. The principal subject of the discourse related to the ill effects arising from the early and constant association with disreputable females, and seemed to throw Mr. Wells into a deep meditation….On the following morning, (Monday) Mr. Jackson, one of the deputy keepers, opened the cell door, between 8 and 9 o’clock and was astonished to find Mr. Wells in a sitting position on his bunk, with his head resting in one corner of the cell, his right leg hanging over the side of the bunk and the left lying straight on the straw mattress. Between his legs, on the mattress, lay an empty vial labeled “Pure Chloroform,” a razor, and a penknife. The razor was fixed with a slip of wood running from the back of the bald along the handle, made fast with a piece of wire, and some threads drawn from the sacking of his mattress. The left leg of this unfortunate man exhibited a most horrible sight, from a desperate gash, evidently inflicted by the razor. This wound was made about the center of the thigh, severing the femoral artery [illegible] nearly to the bone, and some six inches in length, from the effects of which he bled to death. On his mouth he had placed a silk handkerchief, bunched up, and another passing on the outside and tied on the top of his head, on which he had placed his hat. This handkerchief was supposed to have contained the chloroform, which he inhaled just before he inflicted the fatal wound…. [The deceased left a lengthy letter explaining how he came to commit the offense as well as letters of farewell to friends and family.]
The prison was visited during the day by many of our eminent doctors and dentists, and, from remarks made by Drs. Hosack and Smith, founded on interviews with Mr. Wells, prior to his arrest, they were decidedly of opinion that the deceased was perfectly insane on the chloroform practice. We are informed that this chloroform is nothing more than an extract from alcohol and chloride of lime, which, upon application, is inhaled from a sponge. Dr. Walters, the coroner, was called to hold an inquest, and the jury rendered a verdict, “that the deceased came to his death by suicide, by inflicting a wound in the left thigh with a razor, while laboring under an aberration of mind” New York Herald 25 January 1848: p. 1
Killed by His Own Invention
The cause of the death of Samuel Wardell, which occurred at the Kings County Hospital on Wednesday night, was most singular. He was a street-lamp lighter, and lived on Malbone street, in Flatbush. His duties necessitated early rising and for a time he trusted to the usual methods in such a case until a failure on the part of the alarm clock to perform its customary functions nearly caused his dismissal from the service. He made an invention of his own. On the top of his clock he adjusted a heavy stone, so nearly evenly balanced that the natural shaking of the clock occasioned by the striking of the bell would cause it to roll off to the floor and thus awaken the sleeper by its crash. This was successful until Monday night. A party had been held during his absence. All the available rooms had been utilized for the accommodation of the guests, and the position of Wardell’s bed had been so changed to make desirable space that the head stood directly under the clock.
He returned early in the morning. Too tired to change the position of his bed he hastily retired. For some reason he seemed unable to go to sleep, and not until an hour before the customary time for rising did he finally lose consciousness. True to its perfect mechanical arrangement the little bell tinkled; the heavy stone rolled slowly in its place and fell, striking the sleeping man on the skull–the stroke that cost him his life. N.Y. World. Quoted in San Francisco [CA] Bulletin, 8 January 1886: p. 4
Others in the death roll of American ingenuity:
John Manier, killed at the Gilbert Car Works in Troy, New York when a machine with rotating knives he had invented broke apart, hurling a knife straight into his heart. Aberdeen [SD] Daily News 2 May 1891: p. 2
Stockton, Cal., Dec. 27 Roy Austin McKeel, 19, was electrocuted at his home in Lodi, near here, today while conducting an experiment with an electric welding outfit which he had recently perfected and sold to an electric house.
McKeel was taking a correspondence course in electricity. While at work his hand dropped across a wire carrying a high voltage, and standing on a steel plate laid on wet ground, he closed the circuit, receiving a shock from which he died in a few minutes. Omaha [NE] World Herald 28 December 1920: p. 2
Herbert Goers, 26, of Evansville, Indiana, who was crushed and impaled on the picking arm of a corn picker machine he had worked on for five years. Omaha [NE] World Herald 9 October 1909: p. 5
Victor Palmer, described as an inventor of wonderful versatility, had been working on a scheme to keep the water in a bathtub at an even temperature by means of a gas heater. He was found, nude and gassed, under the water of his tub, while testing the apparatus. One of the rubber connection pipes had come loose. Fort Worth [TX] Star-Telegram 26 April 1911: p. 6
H S Roper, inventor of a steam bicycle, died when it went out of control, throwing him on his head. Jackson [MI] Citizen 5 June 1896: p. 2
A mother and son named Juergens were killed by an electrical apparatus used to heat a chicken incubator, which the son had developed. The son touched a live wire and when the mother went to his aid, she too was electrocuted. Olympia [WA] Record 17 April 1906: p. 5
At Laporte, Ind., last week, Harry May, a New York inventor, was killed by the accidental explosion of a secret waterproofing compound, used in the manufacture of artificial stone. Elmer E. Harding, owner of a cement block works, to whom May had sold the patent on the compound, was severely burned, but will recover. Industrial World, Volume 43, Issue 2, Part 2, 1909, p 1300
Thomas Midgley, Jr., the chemist who gave us leaded gasoline and chloroflurocarbons, contracted polio in 1940. To help his caregivers lift him, he devised an elaborate system of cords and pulleys. He somehow became entangled in his device and was strangled to death by it, age 55.
Dr. Sabon von Sochocky died of the luminous paint which he had invented for the painting of watch dials in the plant of the United States Radium Corporation. Times-Picayune [New Orleans, LA] 15 November 1928: p. 13
George Webb, a prison guard at San Quentin met a painful death in the prison jute mill when a fanning device he had created and attached to the main shaft of the mill caught his clothing and whirled him up to the ceiling. San Francisco [CA] Call 1 August 1913: p. 13
The Russian Captain Stepanof, inventor of a system for laying submarine mines, was blown up when a cable snapped and allowed two mines to touch..The Saint Paul [MN] Globe 17 February 17 1904: p 4
And finally, the piece—true or false–that sent me on the hunt for unfortunate inventors:
Deliberate Preparations Which a Demented French Inventor Made to Take His Own Life.
Arthur Charollais, a demented inventor, 40 years old, guillotined himself this week in his laboratory at Mulhouse in Alsace. He had constructed the machine himself. It was an exact duplicate of the legal French guillotine, but was made of costly woods and finely polished.
The triangular knife had engraved on it: “This blade cut Arthur Charollais’ neck, October, 1900.”
Near the body was found a note reading: “Distribute my belongings among the poor. Demolish this guillotine. It is intended solely for my own private use.”
Charollais’ servants heard an unfamiliar electric bell suddenly ringing persistently, and rushing to answer it discovered with horror a wriggling, headless body, with blood gushing in streams from the neck. The head was in a basket with sawdust where it had fallen.
The suicide had so arranged the knife that its fall started an electric bell.
Marietta [OH] Daily Leader 7 November 1900: p. 7
Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the Dead, The Ghost Wore Black, The Headless Horror, The Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle. Indexes and fact sheets for all of these books may be found by searching hauntedohiobooks.com. Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead.