8:08am

Sat March 12, 2011
Author Interviews

The Famous Meet Gory Ends In 'How They Croaked'

Originally published on Wed May 23, 2012 10:13 am

How They Croaked: The Awful Ends of the Awfully Famous is a new book we really needed. Author Georgia Bragg has gathered the gory stories behind the last days of 19 famous figures, all in one cleverly illustrated book.

Of course, it is not a book for the fainthearted. One's first reaction when reading it — as was the case with Weekend Edition host Linda Wertheimer — tends to be, "gross!" But as Wertheimer says, "Perhaps that's the point of this delightful and disgusting sliver of history." She spoke with Bragg about her macabre collection and why we can't look away when it comes to famous deaths.

Bragg opens the book with a warning: "If you don't have the guts for gore, do not read this book."

When asked whether "little kids" have the appetites to read about disgusting deaths, Bragg says, "My target audience is around 10 to 12 to older. We might as well meet them where their interests are and it might get them more interested in history and other parts about these famous people's lives."

Bragg says several times in the book that modern treatments could have prevented some of the terrible deaths that she chronicles. For example, George Washington.

"Antibiotics would have saved George Washington at that time. His doctors drained half the blood out of his body. They gave him the blister beetle treatment. They are ground up poisonous beetles, that when they are placed on the skin, the skin blisters up and then pops."

"It is sad, but it is a bitter comic truth, that we all are going to be heading that way," she continues. "I don't tell these stories to frighten kids. I'm trying to turn history upside down and see if we can get some of the connections of culture and science and medicine together in a different way."

As for what the book will accomplish, Bragg says that she hopes that her nauseating stories will turn young readers on to more historical explorations.

"Hopefully it will make history sticky," she says. "It's icky, but hopefully it will make it sticky, too."

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

"How They Croaked," by Georgia Bragg, is a new book we really needed. Ms. Bragg has gathered the gory stories behind the last days of 19 famous figures - all in one, cleverly illustrated book.

I just happened to open the book at Henry VIII, the hugely fat and much-married monarch who gave us the first Queen Elizabeth. My reaction on first reading it -and on re-reading it - was: Gross! And I think perhaps thats the point of this delightful and disgusting sliver of history.

Ms. Bragg joins us from NPR West in Culver City, California. Welcome to the program.

Ms. GEORGIA BRAGG (Author, "How They Croaked: The Awful Ends of the Awfully Famous"): Thank you for having me.

WERTHEIMER: Now, you open the book with a warning. You want to issue that warning now?

Ms. BRAGG: If you don't have the guts for gore, do not read this book.

WERTHEIMER: So let's go back to Henry VIII. He died in January of 1547, of massive infections in his gouty legs and pulmonary embolism - thats a blood clot in the lungs, I believe.

Ms. BRAGG: Mm-hmm.

WERTHEIMER: Could you read from the bottom of page 38 about what happened to the great king after his death?

Ms. BRAGG: (Reading) For two days, still afraid to talk, no one spilled the beans: The king was dead. His meals were delivered with the trumpets blaring and the usual whoopty-do, while Henry was dead in his bed, smelling like a giant rotten egg. Eventually he was placed in a not-so-completely sealed lead coffin. While lying in state, it is believed that his toxic remains exploded, and some of his royal splendidness dripped out the sides of the coffin overnight.

(Soundbite of laughter)

WERTHEIMER: Now, that is - that really is disgusting.

One of the deaths where you tell the story - and you say this several times in the various accounts - that now, there are treatments that would probably easily cure some of the people who died terrible deaths. And one example that you use was George Washington.

Ms. BRAGG: Antibiotics would have saved George Washington at that time. The bitter truth is he would eventually have died, but not in the way he did. His doctors drained half the blood out of his body. They gave him the blister beetle treatment.

WERTHEIMER: Blister beetles?

Ms. BRAGG: They're ground-up, poisonous beetles that when they are placed on the skin, it makes a blood blister that is then popped.

WERTHEIMER: Now, who's the audience for this?

Ms. BRAGG: I think my target audience is around 10 to 12. We might as well meet them where their interests are. And it might get them more interested in history and other parts about these famous people's lives.

WERTHEIMER: So they might back up from the...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. BRAGG: Exactly.

WERTHEIMER: ...from the death, and read about the life?

Ms. BRAGG: Exactly.

WERTHEIMER: Georgia Bragg - her book is called "How They Croaked: The Awful Ends of the Awfully Famous." And the very funny illustrations are mercifully drawn in black and white, by Kevin O'Malley.

Georgia Bragg, thank you very much.

Ms. BRAGG: Thank you for having me.

WERTHEIMER: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.

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