c. February 11, 55 AD
Tiberius Claudius Caesar Britannicus, son of the Roman emperor Claudius, was in line for the throne occupied by the notorious Nero as soon as he became an adult — which was at the age of 14, according to Roman tradition. Nero couldn’t have that and engaged the services of the same skilled poisoner who had helped Claudius into the hereafter. According to the historian Tacitus, at a dinner party attended by various nobles, the then-13-year-old Britannicus was served a hot beverage of some kind. His food taster tried it with no ill effects. But Britannicus asked for it to be cooled down, and poison-laced cold water was added. The effect was instantaneous and the boy expired. Nero denied responsibility and claimed that the boy had had an epileptic fit.
October 24, 1601
The great Danish scientist, considered to be one of the founders of modern astronomy (even though he worked without a telescope, an instrument not invented until after his death), didn’t exactly die at the table but because he stayed at the table. While seated at a banquet in Prague, he found nature calling, urgently. He refused to get up to relieve himself, however, as he believed it would be a breach of etiquette. When the meal was finally over and he got home, he was unable to urinate. He died 11 days later from uremia, urine in the blood, the result of his ill-advised politeness.
Old Tom Parr
Date unknown, 1635
Long celebrated in England as the world’s oldest man, Parr was said to have been almost 153 years old when he died. He was so famous that his portrait was painted by Rubens and Van Dyck, and shortly before his demise, he was brought to London to meet King Charles I. This was unfortunate. The monarch feted him at a banquet, in the course of which he choked on some food and passed away.
July 31, 1784
This famed French philosopher and writer, best-known for his mid-18th-century Encyclopédie, or Encyclopedia, was also a noted gourmand. After a large meal at his daughter’s home, the story goes, Diderot, who suffered from emphysema, reached for an apricot for dessert. His wife told him he’d had enough to eat, but he scoffed, ate the fruit, and died.
June 28, 1836
Madison, who was considered the “Father of the Constitution” for having drafted much of it, and who went on to serve as Secretary of State before becoming the fourth president of the United States, died quietly at the breakfast table on a Tuesday morning at his plantation in Virginia. He was 83, an advanced age in that era, and apparently succumbed to natural causes.