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Death Becomes Them

The History Channel's "The Day They Died" explores notable passings of historical figures.

11:00 PM, Dec 23, 2003 • By ERIN MONTGOMERY
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HOW SOMEONE DIED can sometimes tell us more about a person than how they lived. At the very least, the events surrounding one's death can make that person more intriguing, as a new History Channel special--"The Day They Died"--attempts to reveal. The two-hour program profiles the deaths of 19 individuals, all of whom left this world in remarkable, absurd, or appropriately telling ways.

The show opens with the more well-known stories of our Founding Fathers' last moments, stories that should be familiar--at least to viewers who paid attention in history class. But for those who didn't, John Adams biographer David McCullough speaks of the events leading up to the day both John Adams and Thomas Jefferson died--July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Despite their very different ideas about the fledgling federal government (Adams favored a strong government and president; Jefferson did not), the former presidents carried on a lively and friendly correspondence, exchanging 158 letters between the years of 1812 and 1826.

The last words Adams spoke before he died (most likely from a heart attack) were, "Thomas Jefferson survives." But Adams didn't know that the also ailing Jefferson, who had been suffering from what was probably amebic dysentery, had died just a few hours earlier. Some historians interpret Adams's enigmatic last words as a concession to Jefferson--that Jefferson's version of the Constitution will endure.

THIS IS HEAVY and thought-provoking stuff compared with some of the more lighthearted deaths (so to speak) that follow. In the segment "What a Way to Go," we learn that the father of Greek tragedy, Aeschylus, was killed when an eagle dropped a tortoise on his head. In 1626, scientist, statesman, and philosopher Sir Francis Bacon was riding in his coach through the snow-covered London suburb of Highgate when he got an idea: snow and ice might be the answer to preserving meat. He stopped the coach at a local farmhouse, bought a hen, had the hen gutted, and stuffed it with snow. Bacon didn't live long enough to see if his experiment worked. He caught a cold, and three days later died of pneumonia. The narrator of the program helpfully puts things into perspective for viewers: "So, remember, the next time you defrost a chicken, think of poor Bacon, who died in the pursuit of science so you wouldn't have to."

Sure, death is no laughing matter but the re-creations--such as Sir Francis Bacon stuffing the chicken with snow--look so ridiculous that the History Channel succeeds in making a grim subject amusing. The program tempers these melodramatic scenes with the more somber medical explanations for each death, given by Dr. Sherwin Nuland, author of the book "How We Die."

There is little rhyme or reason to "The Day They Died." It jumps from one death to the next--the shooting of frontiersman "Wild Bill" Hickok, the rotting jaw of Sigmund Freud, the hanging of Confederate sympathizer Mary Surratt, the invention of the guillotine and those who felt its sharp effects. More sensational than historical, the program appeals to our more visceral sensibilities. The History Channel is correct to assume that the passing of historical figures deserves more than just a passing thought. But in this case, I'd rather let them rest in peace.

"The Day They Died" premieres Saturday, December 27, 6:00 p.m.

Erin Montgomery is an editorial assistant at The Weekly Standard.