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How They Croaked by Georgia Bragg, illustrated by Kevin O’Malley

April 25, 2011

You probably know that King Tut is dead. But do you know how he died? Or how he was prepared for mummification, or what Howard Carter did to poor Tut’s mummy?

Tutankhamun is the first of nineteen “awfully famous” people whose death is discussed in Georgia Bragg’s How They Croaked: The Awful Ends of the Awfully Famous, with illustrations by Kevin O’Malley. As you might guess, this is a book about death. And not just any old deaths, but gross, disgusting, and miserable deaths. On the few occasions in which the death itself wasn’t actually too gruesome, relatively speaking, what happened to a person’s remains after death, well… As the introduction to the book warns, “If you don’t have the guts for gore, do not read this book.”

Bragg’s irreverent, sometimes snarky tone (e.g., subtitle of the Marie Curie chapter: “You Glow, Girl”) makes How They Croaked a casual, quick read. Beginning with King Tut, Bragg covers her subjects in chronological order. Each brief chapter is kicked off with a caricature by O’Malley. After explaining why the subject was famous, Bragg then focuses on describing the death in gleeful detail. Several illustrations are interspersed throughout the chapter, which concludes with collections of facts pertaining to the subject or the time period.

Take the musician and composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, for example. After describing Mozart as former child prodigy who “grew into a gawky teen with a huge head. He still cried easily and always loved a good fart joke, but his cute, moneymaking prodigy years were definitely over. His father was not amused.” (p. 68) Bragg then goes on to explain how doctors attempted to treat Mozart’s ailments with leeches and “concoctions of  warmed turpentine, wax, powdered Spanish fly, and mustard.” And, for anyone curious about leeches, at the end of the chapter, you can learn the steps for successful leeching and recommended leech dosages for adults.

Then there’s James A. Garfield. While the chapter’s subtitle, “James Who?” reflects his general obscurity, it’s fair to say that I will no longer forget exactly who he was. I don’t know what party he belonged to or whether he actually accomplished anything substantial as president, but I do know that I found the chapter devoted to him the most disgusting.

Other subjects of How They Croaked include Cleopatra, Henry VIII, Napoleon, and Charles Darwin. There’s not much diversity—the historical personages are most European and mostly male—which was about the only thing I was disappointed by.

As part of describing some pretty horrible deaths, Bragg also integrates information about how the lack of medical knowledge and technology affected a few of the deaths. (See: Garfield, James A.). Not to mention, it’s not always how a person dies, but what happens to their body after death that can disturb.

Readers can browse How They Croaked or read it in one sitting. Chapters do not need to be read in order and it makes for good recreational reading. While I’d recommend it more for entertainment than research purposes, it does include a comprehensive bibliography as part of the backmatter.

You can read the Beethoven chapter and listen to a short interview with Bragg at the NPR website.

Book source: ARC from publisher.

Cross-posted at Guys Lit Wire.

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