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.