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10 Notable People Who Didn’t Die The Way We Thought

by Kirsty-Anne Jasper
fact checked by Jamie Frater

Celebrity deaths have left us upset and shocked—and, at times, very confused. Some seem so strange or unbelievable that we continue to debate for many years the true events surrounding the end of their lives. Marilyn Monroe, Jim Morrison, and Natalie Wood have all had countless theories about their deaths published and discussed decades after their passing, and interest doesn’t appear to be lessening. This list includes 10 notable deaths that you may not be as familiar with.

10Emile Zola

Well-known French writer Emile Zola sought the exoneration of the falsely accused Alfred Dreyfus. After Zola’s prosecution for libel in 1898, he fled France and arrived in London. In 1899, he returned to France in time to see the government fall.

On September 29, 1902, Zola died of apparent carbon monoxide poisoning caused by a poorly ventilated chimney. His enemies claimed that he had taken his own life. However, rumors quickly began to circulate that Zola had in fact been poisoned by his opponents. An inquest was called, and specialist tests were carried out, which proved inconclusive. The coroner ruled Zola’s death to be due to natural causes.

In 1953, a Parisian roofer claimed that he had deliberately blocked the chimney to cause Zola’s death.

9David Carradine


Photo credit: Luke Ford

When kung fu and Kill Bill star David Carradine died in June 2009, he was found hanging in a closet, and most assumed he had committed suicide. But he died naked and with a cord around his neck and genitals, so investigators concluded that his death was the result of autoerotic asphyxiation gone wrong.

This explanation appeared to make sense. However, elements suggested that Carradine was not alone at the time of or immediately preceding his death. His wrists were tied behind his back, which would make hanging himself close to impossible. He also had various unexplained cuts and bruises on his body, and a footprint was present at the scene that did not belong to Carradine. The official cause of death was accidental asphyxiation.

8Jack Nance

Known for his work with David Lynch, Jack Nance was perhaps most famous for his role in Eraserhead. By the time of his death in 1996, his career had waned, and he had become depressed following his wife’s suicide in 1991. He later became known as a heavy drinker who sometimes got into fights when intoxicated.

On December 29, he had lunch with two friends while sporting a bruise under his eye. He told his friends that this was a result of having a fight in front of a doughnut shop shortly earlier. When Nance couldn’t be contacted the following day, Leo Bulgarini, who had dined with him the day before, went to his apartment to search for him. He found Nance deceased on the floor. A subsequent autopsy revealed the cause of death to be a subdural hematoma (brain bleeding).

Police launched a murder inquiry, but no evidence of the fight has ever been found. Staff and patrons of the doughnut shop denied witnessing any altercation. A blood alcohol level of 0.24 at the time of his death has led to speculation that he simply got drunk and fell.

7Karyn Kupcinet

Karyn Kupcinet was an American stage, film, and television actress. On November 28, 1963, she had dinner with friends, the Goddards. Her hosts reported that she acted bizarrely throughout dinner, telling a story about a baby being abandoned on her doorstep earlier that day (a story entirely unsupported by any official report). After dinner, she returned home and was joined by two friends, who watched TV with her before letting themselves out. Two days later, the Goddards went to Kupcinet’s apartment after she had failed to call them as promised. They found her dead, lying naked on her couch.

Initial thoughts were that she’d died of a prescription drug overdose, as several medications were found in the apartment. Authorities also found a note written by Kupcinet that reflected on issues in her life (parents, self-image, and problems with boyfriend) and people she admired. A post-mortem however, found that she had a broken hyoid bone. The coroner concluded that she’d been strangled.

Over the years, many theories about her death have circulated, including rumors of a connection with JFK’s assassination. More recently, James Ellroy researched her death for his book Crime Way and found that a book in Kupcinet’s apartment had been bookmarked to pages endorsing naked dancing to remove inhibitions. Ellroy concluded that Kupcinet had tried to dance naked herself, but the influence of prescription pills had made her unsteady, and she fell, breaking her hyoid bone.

6Adrienne Shelly

Adrienne Shelly was an American actress, director, and screenwriter, most famous for roles in indie movies such as Waitress. On November 1, 2006, Shelly’s husband, Andrew Ostroy, found her hanging from a bed sheet from a shower rod in her office bathroom. Initially, police believed that she had committed suicide. Ostroy insisted that she wouldn’t have taken her own life, pointing out that the apartment door was unlocked, and money was missing from her wallet. The authorities were also suspicious, as there were footprints in the bath that didn’t belong to Shelly.

Five days later, construction worker Diego Pillco confessed to her murder, claiming that he’d killed Shelly after she complained about noise from his work. At his trial, he changed his story to say that he’d murdered her after she’d caught him stealing from her wallet. Medical examiners determined that Shelly had still been alive when hanged. Pillco was sentenced to 25 years in prison without parole in 2008.

5Johnny Lewis


Photo credit: David Shankbone

Most known for his portrayal of “Half-stack” in Sons of Anarchy, Johnny Lewis died on September 26, 2012 after falling from a garage roof. Also discovered in the property were the bodies of Lewis’s landlady Catherine Davis and her cat. Investigations and press coverage initially focused on the assumption that Lewis had murdered Davis and her cat while intoxicated and then committed suicide by throwing himself off the roof. This theory was strengthened by Lewis’s previous treatment for drug problems and long history of legal worries.

Many were therefore surprised when toxicology results showed that Lewis had no drugs or alcohol in his system at the time of his death. There was also no indication that he had jumped or been pushed from the roof. Instead, his death was ruled to be accidental.

Following a motorcycle accident in 2011, Lewis had experienced a major personality change. In January 2012, he was said to be suffering from “ecchymosis, periorbital,” or basal skull fracture, with likely internal hemorrhaging. However, it appeared that Lewis was never properly treated and instead received a diagnosis of “drug-induced psychosis” despite not having tested positive for any drugs in the last year of his life.

Whether the deaths could have been prevented by Lewis receiving proper medical treatment we will never know. But we can certainly say that they weren’t as a result of drug abuse.

4Albert Dekker

American film actor Albert Dekker was best known for his roles in Dr. Cyclops, The Killers, Kiss Me Deadly, and The Wild Bunch. He was also a democrat in the California State Assembly and a vocal opponent of Joseph McCarthy.

On May 5, 1968, he was discovered dead by his fiance, Geraldine Saunders. The coroner declared that his death was accidental and a result of autoerotic asphyxiation, but the truth appeared more complicated than this.

Dekker was found naked, kneeling in the bathtub, with a noose tightly wrapped around his neck and looped around the shower curtain rod. He was blindfolded, his wrists were handcuffed, there was a ball gag in his mouth, and two hypodermic needles were inserted in one arm. His body was covered in explicit words and drawings in red lipstick. Money and camera equipment were found missing, but there was no sign of forced entry. All these facts seemingly point to someone else being involved in his death.

3Dorothy Dandridge

Dorothy Dandridge is noted for being the first black actress nominated for an Academy Award, for her role in Carmen Jones. Along with her success as an actress, Dandridge was acclaimed for her voice and had a successful recording career.

Following her testimony in the Hollywood Research, Inc. trial, Dandridge’s career waned. Throughout the late 1950s and early 1960s, she appeared in many B movies and financial flops.

On September 8, 1965, Dandridge’s manager found her body. A Los Angeles pathology institute determined the cause to be an accidental overdose of Imipramine, an antidepressant. However, the Los Angeles County Coroner’s Office said, “Miss Dandridge died of a rare embolism—blockage of the blood passages at the lungs and brain by tiny pieces of fat flaking off from bone marrow in a fractured right foot she sustained in a Hollywood film five days before she died.”

Revisionists of the 1980s began to acknowledge Dandridge’s contribution to African-American roles in film. She has since been honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

2Felicia Tang

Felicia Tang may not be as well-known as others on this list but had a level of fame through her work on Playboy TV and bit parts in mainstream films such as Rush Hour 2, Cradle 2 the Grave, and The Fast and the Furious.

In April 2009, she met and began dating former pastor and reality show contestant Brian Lee Randone. They had been living together for four months when Felicia was found dead at their house. The medical examiner stated that Tang was found with 320 wounds from blunt force trauma (not including bruises), and with high doses of the drug GHB in her system (commonly associated with date rape), together with trace amounts of cocaine. Randone was charged with murder and torture.

Randone’s trial began November 16, 2011. A witness testified that Tang had been a regular user of GHB for years and also of cocaine and crystal meth. The prosecution argued that Tang was forcibly beaten and smothered, but the defense claimed that she died from a GHB overdose, and that the wounds were caused by falls and seizures related to GHB consumption.

On December 9, 2011, Randone was found not guilty on both charges, exonerating him from any wrongdoing in her death. The jury believed that it was possible for that level of injury to be accidentally self-inflicted.

1Alan Turing

The subject of the newly released biopic The Imitation Game, Turing is widely considered to be the father of computer science.

In 1952, Turing reported a burglary to the police. In the course of his interview, Turing revealed that he was gay; gay sex was illegal in Britain at the time. Both Turing and his partner were arrested and charged with gross indecency.

Following advice from legal representatives, Turing pleaded guilty and was given a choice between imprisonment or probation, which would be conditional on his hormonal treatment designed to reduce libido. Turing chose to undergo the hormone treatment. The treatment resulted in Turing being rendered impotent, and he developed breasts.

Turing’s conviction led to his security clearance being withdrawn, and his ability to work was hugely compromised. On June 8, 1954, Turing’s housekeeper found him dead. It was quickly established that this was due to cyanide poisoning, and a half-eaten apple lying beside Turing was deemed to be responsible, although it was never tested. An inquest found that he had committed suicide.

However, Turing biographer Jack Copeland has stated that the finding of suicide is “not supportable.” He highlights Turing’s careless nature when experimenting and states that his death was likely accidental and brought about by using cyanide in an experiment at the time of his death.

Turing’s mother believed his death to be accidental, although another biographer, Andrew Hodges, believes that Turing created the experiment as a deliberate means to disguise his suicide from his mother. There has even been speculation that his death was in fact a case of murder motivated by his homosexuality, although sources for this are less reputable. Regardless of how he met his end, it’s safe to say that it was a tragic end for a great pioneer.

I am a twenty-something MA student, studying Literary London. You can follow me @Kaja_Jasper.

fact checked by Jamie Frater