How They Croaked by Georgia Bragg combines two of my favorite qualities. It’s a collective biography, which has added appeal for readers who are intimidated by the idea of reading “a whole book,” PLUS it has plenty of gross-out appeal! Frankly, any day that I can ominously ask a group of kids if they’ve had lunch yet is a good day for me.
Collective biographies also have an extra plus in the booktalking department, which is that if you lose your place and forget someone, it’s okay. I’ve shortened this booktalk since I first wrote it — I also talked about Cleopatra and Mozart in earlier versions of this booktalk, but those were the people most likely to leave my head so they didn’t make the final cut.
While this has been one of the more entertaining books I’ve shared during class visits recently (it’s been circulating more than most of the fiction books I’ve shared!) it’s also been one of the more frustrating ones. That’s because I’ve had to do lots of stopping and starting as students interrupt me to ask the meanings of words — “guillotine” and “croaked” have been recent stumpers. And talking about this book has led to more follow-up questions from students and teachers alike who want to know about how other famous people died. So I’ve definitely learned that this booktalk might take longer than I expect!
How They Croaked is a nonfiction book, which means that all of the stories in here are absolutely true. And MOST of the stories are pretty gross. In fact, the introduction to this book begins with a warning that says If you don’t have the guts for gore, don’t read this book!
Uh … you guys haven’t had lunch yet, right?
Okay, so let me tell you about some of the people you can read about in this book. Some famous deaths happened from a very direct cause. For example, Julius Caesar died because he was stabbed dozens of times by the Roman senators. Marie Antoinette died because her head was cut off with a guillotine during the French Revolution. Those deaths were pretty straightforward.
Then there were the deaths that could have been prevented if people knew then what we know now. For example, Galileo used to drink wine instead of water because hundreds of years ago water could be very dangerous to drink. But it turns out that the wine he was drinking was stored in casks made with lead, so he died of lead poisoning. Marie Curie was a famous scientist who studied radioactive material, and she died from radiation poisoning.
But one of the WORST examples of a death that could have been prevented was president James Garfield. He’s one of our least famous presidents, because he was only president for four months before someone shot him in the back while he was standing in a train station. The first doctor who arrived on the scene tried to find the bullet inside Garfield’s body by sticking his finger into the bullet hole. Soon, more doctors arrived, and each one poked their fingers into the hole to try to find the bullet, but none of them could find it.
I should probably mention at this point that none of them wore gloves and none of them washed their hands!
Garfield wasn’t expected to live for another day, but in fact he lived for another 80 days, with infection spreading through his body and making him sicker and sicker. It wasn’t until he died and an autopsy was performed that doctors could see that the bullet wasn’t anywhere near the bullet hole, but it also wasn’t near any vital organs. So it wasn’t the bullet that killed him — it was infection that did.
If you’d like to learn more about different famous people throughout history — how they lived, how they died, and what happened to their bodies after they were dead, then you should DEFINITELY read —
How They Croaked: The Awful Ends of the Awfully Famous by Georgia Bragg
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