6 Explorers Who Met Strange and Ignoble Demises

The great unknown. Now you can Google it on your iPhone. But if you won­dered what it looked like 100 years ago you had to put on a pair of boots and find out for your­self. And dollars-to-doughnuts you weren’t going to make it back alive.

The few who suc­cess­fully made a career of dis­cov­ery and adven­ture before the cor­ners of the map were pen­ciled in hap­pily soaked up the lime­light, became newspaper-cover-worthy per­sons of pub­lic inter­est. But their often untimely ends did not always do their fan­tas­tic lives justice.

The fol­low­ing is a quick roundup of six such strange or igno­ble demises:

Fell off Pyra­mid
Just 33 years old at the time of his death in 1932, New Yorker Elbridge Rand Her­ron had already carved a name for him­self in moun­taineer­ing cir­cles. A 1932 Time mag­a­zine account of his death claims the moun­taineer had sum­mited more “unsealed Alps” than any other U.S. cit­i­zen. That year, he was one of two climbers to rep­re­sent the United States on a German-American expe­di­tion to scale Nanga Par­bat (26,660ft.) in the Himalayas. He nearly died in an avalanche dur­ing the attempt, which ended fail­ure. (The team reached 23,000 feet before being forced back by bad weather.) En-route to Europe after the unsuc­cess­ful expe­di­tion, Her­ron decided to soothe his bruised ego with some sight­see­ing. His steamer had landed at Suez, a short drive away from the famed pyra­mids at Giza. Hav­ing always wanted to see the iconic tombs, he decided to go.


The sight of the tow­er­ing pyra­mids trig­gered the climber within, and Her­ron decided to scale them—a feat an Octo­ber 1932 report in the Read­ing Eagle claims “many tourists per­form … and is not con­sid­ered dif­fi­cult, although some of the great blocks have a ten­dency to crum­ble at the edges.”

The view from atop the 455-foot Great pyra­mid, which Her­ron sum­mited “with no trou­ble at all,” may have momen­tar­ily allowed him to for­get his team’s fail­ure in the Himalayas. It could have been this feel­ing that com­pelled him to then climb the smaller, ‘Sec­ond Pyra­mid’, which, though more dif­fi­cult due to its smooth alabaster sheath­ing, he also sum­mited with­out inci­dent. Her­ron was wav­ing to his friends from the top of this pyra­mid when he slipped. Time describes the great mountaineer’s fall: “A sprawl­ing black spi­der to the hor­ri­fied eyes below, his body slith­ered off the alabaster cap, bounced down the huge jagged gran­ite steps to land crushed and dead at the base.”

Into the Wild Bull Pit
david_douglassUntil his mys­te­ri­ous death at 35-years old in 1834, renowned Scot­tish adventure-botanist, David Dou­glas was the most cel­e­brated work­ing plant man on earth. He set a record for indi­vid­ual botan­i­cal accom­plish­ment in Britain—which at the time led the world in Botan­i­cal research—by har­vest­ing 7,000 species of plants (about 7 per­cent of the total known plant species on Earth at the time) and send­ing them back to be stud­ied. Sto­ries of his jour­neys in North Amer­ica and Hawaii were widely cir­cu­lated, earn­ing him the sta­tus of adven­ture rock-star by the age of 29.

Equal parts fron­tiers­man and nerd, Dou­glas pen­e­trated unmapped wilder­ness areas along­side the era’s most cel­e­brated explor­ers, light­ing his pipe with a mag­ni­fy­ing glass and express­ing frus­tra­tion at being unable to read books while trav­el­ing by canoe because his com­pa­tri­ots were con­stantly singing dit­ties. He opposed the fur trade and once had to skip town to avoid a duel he’d agreed to with a Cana­dian fur trap­per after say­ing the man’s employer, Hudson’s bay Com­pany, was “sim­ply a mer­ce­nary cor­po­ra­tion; there is not an offi­cer in it with a soul above a beaver skin.” 

On July 12, 1834, in Hawaii, Douglas’s body, mangled—his clothes torn and head lac­er­ated in ten places—was dis­cov­ered on the north side of Mauna Kea, at the bot­tom of a pit trap used to cap­ture wild bulls. In the pit with him was a wild bull. Like one of his own sam­ples, Dou­glas was pre­served and shipped. His body was packed in salt and put on the first boat to Hon­olulu, where inves­ti­ga­tors con­cluded that his wounds, thought to be from the bull, might also have been caused by an axe.

Dou­glas was known to carry a hefty money purse and on the morn­ing of his death had been seen break­fast­ing with escaped con-turned bull hunter Ned Gur­ney, who sub­se­quently was never seen or heard from again. The cir­cum­stances sur­round­ing Douglas’s death remain a mys­tery, though the­o­ries abound about how he ended up in the pit—from an acci­den­tal fall to sui­cide to Gur­ney. In 1934, 200 Dou­glas fir trees (which bear his name) were planted at the memo­r­ial site located near where his body was found.

Infected Pimple—or—Supernatural Revenge
Did French physi­cian Eugene Bergonier fall vic­tim to mys­te­ri­ous infec­tion or was his death, which a 1932 inves­ti­ga­tion by Lib­erty mag­a­zine refers to with­out appar­ent hyper­bole as “the strangest, the most bizarre, and the least known cir­cus tragedy of this gen­er­a­tion” a result of super­nat­ural revenge?

Before his career as man­ager of the “Ubangi Duck-Billed Savages”—the star attrac­tion in one of the most infa­mous, cul­tur­ally mis­guided, and flat-out racist cir­cus sideshows in Amer­i­can history—Bergonier was carv­ing a place for him­self in the annals of African explo­ration. By the time he brought the saucer-lipped tribes­peo­ple to Amer­ica in 1930 he’d become a “much dec­o­rated” explorer, hav­ing among other adven­tures served as nat­u­ral­ist on the 1924–1925 “Black Cruise,” one of two expe­di­tions spon­sored by France’s Cit­roen com­pany to prove that it was pos­si­ble to cross Africa by motor­ized vehicles.

Of his ‘Ubangis’—they were actu­ally mem­bers of the Sara tribe in modern-day Chad. The moniker ‘Ubangi’ came from a Rin­gling Broth­ers, Bar­num and Bai­ley Com­bined (RBBBC) cir­cus spin-doctor—the female con­tin­gent prac­ticed lip exten­sion, stretch­ing both their upper and lower lips over the years with increas­ingly larger wooden disks. For­mer Cir­cus His­tor­i­cal Soci­ety pres­i­dent Richard Reynolds writes that the explorer first encoun­tered the tribe in Africa dur­ing the Black Cruise but hap­pened upon this par­tic­u­lar group in Paris at an eth­no­log­i­cal show, where he arranged to be their man­ager before lead­ing them on a tour through the Americas.

In the United States, the ‘Ubangis’ were a RBBBC sen­sa­tion, shown as part of the circus’s African Vil­lage exhibit, which vis­i­tors walked through and that con­cluded with laments from an actor play­ing “Cap­tain Calla­han,” a “brave and durable” old salt who sur­vived being “hor­ri­bly tor­tured by a fero­cious group of sav­ages in the Cameroons, who were about to fling his rav­ished body into a steam­ing pot of boil­ing water, after a sadist beast had decap­i­tated his penis and testicles.”

But rela­tions between Bergonier and his stars soon grew sour. They accused him of pock­et­ing their salaries (which he was doing) and a furi­ous exchange ensued in a tent. Wit­nesses say Bergonier emerged badly shaken—terrified, even. A few days later, the intre­pid explorer fled Chicago to Sara­sota, Florida, report­edly in fear for his life. Shortly after arriv­ing to Sara­sota, on Octo­ber 13, 1930, he died sud­denly of “mys­te­ri­ous” causes.

In the end, coro­ners attrib­uted his death to sep­tic pneu­mo­nia, pos­si­bly brought on by an infec­tion from a pim­ple on his left leg. But wit­nesses who over­heard the argu­ment in Chicago spread rumors that the Sara tribes­peo­ple had put a black magic curse on Bergonier. A pur­ported quote from one of the ‘Ubangis’ (pos­si­bly gen­er­ated by the cir­cus spin-doctor), “he don’t die; we made em die,” ran in news­pa­pers and helped to per­pet­u­ate the rumors of a curse. Lib­erty mag­a­zine describes the explorer’s final moments as spent writhing “in agony on his death bed, the vic­tim of an uniden­ti­fied mal­ady. Bergonier knew he was doomed, and why, but his lips remained sealed. And therein abides a hor­ri­ble and fan­tas­tic tale.”

Shot by Friendly Can­non
In the after­math of the Amer­i­can Rev­o­lu­tion, Boston mer­chants eager to estab­lish finan­cial inde­pen­dence from Europe financed an expe­di­tion to estab­lish a trade tri­an­gle between the Pacific North­west, Hawaii, and China. In 1787, they out­fit­ted two boats: the Lady Wash­ing­ton, a 60-foot sloop con­trolled by the one-eyed and soon-to-be leg­endary cap­tain, Robert Gray, and the Colum­bia Redi­viva, an 83-foot brig des­tined to become the name­sake of the Colum­bia River. Lead­ing the expe­di­tion at the helm of the Colum­bia Redi­viva (until he later curi­ously switched ves­sels with Gray, who would pilot it around the world and use it to explore the Colum­bia River) was Cap­tain John Kendrick, a hot-tempered, rags-to-riches sea­man both loved and hated for his cav­a­lier atti­tude and gen­eral dis­dain for authority.


Grow­ing up in Cape Cod, Kendrick earned his salt work­ing on whal­ing ships before mak­ing a name and small for­tune for him­self as a pri­va­teer. On the expe­di­tion to the Pacific North­west, Kendrick earned a rep­u­ta­tion for being a reac­tionary leader known for treat­ing offi­cers with the same gruff cour­tesy he treated deckhands—much to the offi­cers’ dis­may. He had a habit of lag­ging in ports and the expe­di­tion arrived at its des­ti­na­tion at Nootka Sound (B.C.) three months behind sched­ule. What Kendrick lacked in punc­tu­al­ity he made up for in cor­dial­ity. Don­ning tribal garb and learn­ing the native lan­guages, he was adept at build­ing rela­tion­ships with local chiefs and soon busi­ness was boom­ing for the traders. But his lack of tact would prove problematic.

While trad­ing with the Haida tribe off the coast of Van­cou­ver, some of Kendrick’s laun­dry was stolen from his ship. He chained two Haida chiefs to a can­non car­riage and refused to let them go until he got it back. After his clothes were returned, he forced the tribe to sell him all the skins they had for a pit­tance, right­fully assum­ing the good deals he’d pre­vi­ously received would cease after his ill treat­ment of the tribe’s chiefs.

Kendrick con­tin­ued to trade with the Haida and to him, bygones appeared to be bygones. But the Haida were only bid­ing their time. A year later a group of over 50 Haida boarded his ship under the aus­pices of trade. Still embit­tered by his humil­i­at­ing treat­ment of their chiefs, they attacked, gain­ing con­trol of the muni­tions chest and, for nearly an hour, the ship (now the Lady Wash­ing­ton). Kendrick and his men found a pair of pis­tols and four mus­kets below deck and came out shoot­ing. They regained con­trol of the muni­tions chest and noth­ing short of a mas­sacre ensued.

The Bal­lad of the Brave North­west­man, a bal­lad glam­or­iz­ing the event (and that paints the Haida as blood­thirsty sav­ages who attacked with­out rea­son), was on the lips of mariners on trad­ing ves­sels through­out the 1800s. Kendrick’s furi­ous quest to estab­lish trade infra­struc­ture for his pro­pri­etors and to make a name for him­self took him through­out the Pacific. He is the first Amer­i­can known to have reached Japan. But his odyssey ended pre­ma­turely in Hawaii’s Hon­olulu Har­bor in Decem­ber 1794 when a British trader ship, The Jackal, fired its can­nons in salute to his ves­sel, allegedly with­out real­iz­ing that one of its can­nons was loaded. The shot blasted through the side of the Lady Wash­ing­ton, killing sev­eral of the men aboard, includ­ing Kendrick.

Tram­pled by Rhi­noc­eros
mrsgreenIn March 1925, a dis­patch from Kenya pro­vided news­pa­per­men from Lon­don to New York a guar­an­teed eye-grabber. In Eng­land, The Times head­line read, “Two Killed by Rhi­noc­eros.” The South­east Mis­sourian shocked read­ers with, “Woman Killed by Rhi­noc­eros.” The New York Times went with the all-encompassing: “Rhi­noc­eros Kills Mrs. Green, Irish Explorer, and Later Tram­ples to Death Cap­tain Atkins.”

Accord­ing to the reports, a woman referred to only as “Mrs. Green from Dublin” had just com­pleted an 8-month jour­ney on foot across Africa, from Lusambo—in modern-day Demo­c­ra­tic Repub­lic of Congo—to Nairobi—the cap­i­tal of Kenya—and was headed to climb Mount Kenya (17,057ft.) when she encoun­tered an “enraged” rhi­noc­eros. Armed with a light rifle, she shot and wounded the ani­mal eight times before it tram­pled her. Refer­ring to Mrs. Green in a dis­patch from Nairobi about a week before her death, a reporter stated, “Walk­ing across Africa from the Congo to Kenya appears to be pop­u­lar. Within two weeks I have met two women who made the journey.”

Green had already expe­ri­enced a deadly encounter with local wildlife on her jour­ney, when a mem­ber of her team fired at an ele­phant in a dense brush. Accord­ing to Green’s story, which the reporter included in his dis­patch, “The ani­mal fell, got up, ejected froth from his trunk into the man’s eyes and then gored him to death.”

Mrs. Green had sur­vived the ele­phant encounter but didn’t fare nearly as well with the rhi­noc­eros, dying almost imme­di­ately from her injuries. Later on the day of Green’s tram­pling, British Cap­tain E. D. Atkins and his wife were dri­ving in the area on unre­lated busi­ness when their car became stuck in a ditch. The same rhi­noc­eros charged them from the bush. Mrs. Atkins fled. Depend­ing on which report you read, Atkins then attempted to buy time for his wife to escape by using his jacket to either a) blind the rhi­noc­eros by cov­er­ing the animal’s head with it or b) con­fuse the ani­mal by using the jacket as a mata­dor would a capote. All reports end the same: with Atkins being tram­pled to death and his wife escap­ing and find­ing hunters that would later track down and kill the rhinoceros.

Shot by Student

Wol­las­ton at Everest—first row, sec­ond from the left

Dr. Alexan­der Fred­er­ick Rich­mond “Sandy” Wol­las­ton had more titles than he had names: Explorer, sur­geon, nat­u­ral­ist, author, tutor, pho­tog­ra­pher, moun­taineer, fly-fisherman, father, hus­band. The list goes on and on. Dis­miss­ing the med­ical pro­fes­sion to pur­sue his inter­ests in the nat­ural world led him every­where from the Ruwen­zori Moun­tains in Uganda to Japan. A Fel­low of Britain’s Royal Geo­graphic Soci­ety, he authored numer­ous books, includ­ing one about Pyg­mies. Bear­ing his name­sake is a bat in Papua New Guinea, a glac­ier on the East­ern mas­sif of Uganda’s Mount Baker and a flower on Mount Ever­est. In 1921, he climbed along­side George Mal­lory, serv­ing as doc­tor, ornithol­o­gist and botanist for the Ever­est Recon­nais­sance Expedition—the first offi­cial British expe­di­tion to the mountain.

But Wol­las­ton met his maker not on a treach­er­ous peak or in a malaria-ridden jun­gle but in a stuffy office at King’s Col­lege at the Uni­ver­sity of Cam­bridge, when a dis­grun­tled fresh­man student—at Cam­bridge on an aca­d­e­mic scholarship—shot him in the head in 1935. The stu­dent, sus­pected of sell­ing uni­ver­sity hab­er­dash­ery he’d pro­cured on credit in order to “live like a gen­tle­man” around town was, unbe­knownst to Wol­las­ton, wanted by author­i­ties. Accord­ing to reports, Wol­las­ton brought the stu­dent into his office to ques­tion him about absen­teeism when a police detec­tive stepped into the room, spook­ing the stu­dent, who then shot and killed both the detec­tive and Wol­las­ton before turn­ing the gun on himself.