A Deadly Ritual: 5 Men Who Died from Shaving

by Brett & Kate McKay on December 9, 2010 · 26 comments

in Dress & Grooming, Shaving

These days, nothing can be more routine for a man than shaving. We hardly give a second thought to scraping a razor against our skin each morning. If we fear anything about the process, it’s that we’ll nick ourselves or end up with severe razor burn.

But it wasn’t always so.

Shaving was once a dangerous and sometimes lethal endeavor. Before the advent of safety razors and sanitation laws, a man risked his life when he decided to clean up with a close shave. Here are the stories of five men who met their end in pursuit of a smooth face. Unfortunately, none of these tales actually involve blood-thirsty barbers. But they may still scare you into a growing a beard.

Michael F. Farley, 1921

Michael F. Farley immigrated to the United States from Ireland in 1881 when he was 18 years old. He ran a successful liquor business in New York and was elected to Congress in 1915. But Mr. Farley’s Horatio Alger story was cut short after a visit to the barbershop. Little did Mr. Farley know that the badger brush the barber was using to create that nice luxurious lather on his face was contaminated with – I kid you not- anthrax. Farley was infected with the bacterium and died a few days later. Who knew a barber brush could be a weapon of mass destruction?

Alexander Nikolayevich Scriabin, 1915

Alexander Scriabin was a pianist and composer with a rather eccentric streak. The composer wrote “I am God” in a journal, experimented with tone and harmony in his compositions, and designed a special organ that created projections of colored light instead of music when played. His final work was to be the Mysterium, a grandiose piece which would last seven days and be played at the foothills of the Himalayas in India. Scriabin believed that bells hung from clouds would gather people to this location and that the Mysterium would usher in an armageddon, transforming the earth into a world of total bliss. Alas, the earth kept spinning as usual because of an ordinary razor blade. Scriabin died at age 43 after nicking himself while shaving and becoming infected with sepsis or blood poisoning.

John Henry Taylor, 1911

John Henry Taylor was a friendly horticulturalist who decided to take a trip on a Red Line cruise ship back in 1911. In-between matches of shuffle board, Mr. Taylor felt his beard was getting a little rough and decided to visit the on-board barber. The waves must have been pretty rough that day because the barber gave ol’ John Henry a little nick on the neck. Because small cuts are par for the course when getting a shave, John Henry didn’t think much of it and returned to his cabin. But later that night, his throat began to swell up and fill with fluid. The ship doctor said it was just a case of blood poisoning and told Taylor that it would soon heal itself. Two days later the swelling increased, and Taylor could no longer speak. A week after the initial cut, John Henry Taylor suffocated and died from severe edema.

John Thoreau, 1841

John Thoreau was the brother of famous American writer and Transcendentalist, Henry David Thoreau. In the winter of 1841, while taking part in his daily shave, John Thoreau cut himself with his razor. A few days later he came down with lockjaw and died in Henry David’s arms. His brother’s death devastated Thoreau. He didn’t talk to his family or write in his journal for weeks.

Thoreau’s good friend, Ralph Waldo Emerson, suggested he go spend some time out in the woods alone near a pond called Walden. Thoreau took this sage advice, and one of America’s great essays was born. All thanks to shaving.

Lord Carnarvon, 1923

On November 26, 1922, Lord Carnarvon peered into the burial chamber of King Tutankhamun, beholding a sight and a treasure that had not been viewed in over 3,000 years. Three months later he was dead. The Earl of Carnarvon, aka George Herbert, was the chief financier of archeologist Howard Carter’s excavation of the Valley of the Kings. After a series of unsuccessful digs in the years previous, Carnarvon was thinking of withdrawing his funding, but Carter convinced him to back one last dig. And the decision would pay off handsomely with Carter’s discovery of King Tut’s tomb. But Herbert would have little time to enjoy this momentous find. At the end of February 1923, Herbert was bitten on the cheek by a mosquito. He subsequently sliced the bite open while he was shaving. The small cut became infected and Lord Carnarvon took ill with sepsis. While recupertaing at the Continental-Savoy hotel in Cairo, he contracted pneumonia and died April 5, 1923. Twas a history-changing death from shaving–fostering the “Curse of Tutankhamun,” or the”Mummy’s Curse,” and ensuring that Brendan Fraser would be remembered for more than Encino Man.

{ 26 comments… read them below or add one }

1 JBB December 9, 2010 at 5:23 am

I’ve wondered about John Thoreau for quite a while — but haven’t bothered to try to find any significant information. However, tetanus (lockjaw) is apparently the result of a deep wound which heals over on the outside but is still infected on the inside — and so isn’t likely the result of a nick while shaving.

Any idea on how exactly he cut himself while shaving?

2 Laurie December 9, 2010 at 6:00 am

I understand that septicemia was one of the biggest killers before the discovery of penicillin*. Mostly from infected teeth. Think about that next time you brush your teeth think about that.

*I live in Adelaide, Howard Florey’s home town

3 DCMorrison December 9, 2010 at 8:52 am

The common theme that runs through these are that it was not the actual shaving cut that killed these men as much as not sufficiently addressing those small cuts after they occurred. Maybe this might be a good place to discuss means for dealing with small shaving nicks – I use a stick of something whose name I have forgotten. I dampen it and dab the dampened in on the nick. Stings like heck but stops the bleeding, though it leaves a white residue that I try to wipe away before heading out in the morning. Are there other things I could use?

4 Bill December 9, 2010 at 9:17 am

Alexander Scriabin might have been a little crazy, but he sure knew how to groom himself. I like the look of his facial hair. I’d try it, but my wife would probably think I’d lost it as well.

5 Carlo d. December 9, 2010 at 9:18 am

“5 Men Who Died from Shaving”…Such a manly title for a post. Who would’ve thought? lol

6 Nate December 9, 2010 at 9:43 am

Another famous death was an important step in the discovery of penicillin:

‘The first real test for the Florey lab came when Albert Alexander, a 48 year old London policeman had nicked himself while shaving. It was only a minor cut and was ignored for several days, but this would have a major impact on medical history. After a time, Alexander’s face became swollen and infected and developed a temperature that rose to 105F. The minor cut had developed septicemia. When he was rushed to Radcliffe Hospital, sulfa drugs were administered without success. When the doctors believed that the policeman only had several more hours of life remaining, Florey and Chain requested that they be given permission to treat this patient with their “purified” penicillin. This would be their first human subject to which penicillin was applied. Florey and Chain took charge of the case personally and injections of penicillin were begun. After five days, the impossible had happened, the patient was recovering. Unfortunately, because penicillin was in such short supply, that small amounts had to be extracted from the patient’s urine. after five days, the supply of penicillin that was produced for experimentation had been used up. There was no more penicillin available, and the policeman had a relapse and died five days later. However, the experiment did demonstrate that penicillin was not harmful to humans and was effective. Penicillin had temporarily halted the infection, but in the end it had failed in its first test. Unfortunately, because the patient had died, there were a number of macabre jokes that came about, one that is well known, even to this day: “the treatment was a success, but the patient died.”‘

http://www.botany.hawaii.edu/faculty/wong/BOT135/Lect21b.htm

7 Brian December 9, 2010 at 9:54 am

DCMorrison, what you’re describing is a styptic pencil. It does work great for stopping the bleeding from little nicks, although it does sting for a second. I don’t know of anything better for eliminating those small cuts – it’s a lot better than using small squares of toilet paper!

Very interesting story, Nate – thanks for posting it!

8 Brian December 9, 2010 at 10:12 am

@ JBB

Tetanus can result from any wound, but is more likely with a deep wound (which is true of any infection from a wound). Tetanus is often associated with rusty metal because the bacteria that cause tetanus are anaerobic and the pockets and fissures provide an excellent place for the tetanus endospores to reside. I would wonder how much care had been taken in cleaning Thoreau’s razor.

9 Ci-Sun December 9, 2010 at 10:16 am

I can not believe that such people could die during shaving,paradox!!!

10 Shawn December 9, 2010 at 10:45 am

You can also use an alum block. As always take care of yourself and your gear.

11 Andrew Thompson December 9, 2010 at 11:33 am

It’s not that far fetched that someone could die today from getting contamination in a shaving nick.

One more excuse not too, I guess.

12 Tim Lebsack December 9, 2010 at 12:16 pm
13 philski December 9, 2010 at 12:38 pm

bah, a beard has never killed anyone! :)

14 Guy December 9, 2010 at 4:27 pm

Interesting story about the Thoreau brothers and Emerson.

15 Peter Gilmore December 9, 2010 at 5:14 pm

@JBB: Thoreau wrote about this (I remember reading about it in university some time ago). Evidently his brother was quite a funny guy. One day while shaving he thought of something funny and burst into laughter while shaving under his chin.

16 Colt Hardington December 9, 2010 at 6:17 pm

@philski- Im pretty sure the Beard of Chuck Norris has thousands of confirmed kills.

17 Joe December 9, 2010 at 10:19 pm

Death by shaving? Flashes of Sweeney Todd….

18 Marlon December 10, 2010 at 5:11 am

I just bought a new badger brush! Did you have to tell me that first story with anthrax?

19 Lucius December 10, 2010 at 8:06 am

scriabin experimented with tone and harmony in his compositions? clearly a madman! he must rank with orville & wright, who were addicted to solving human flight, or perhaps e.e.cummings who turnd his back on centuries of puncuation rules

well before the days of pundits and investigative reporting, schuman, another madman said that a revolution can happen in the concert hall and the cop on the beat be none the wiser

like scriabin, he too experimented with tone and harmony—but did he inhale?

20 Josh December 10, 2010 at 1:06 pm

I think it’s interesting that several of these people were noteworthy or related to someone that was… Unless there’s a lot more deaths by shaving than these listed and just the more famous guys were mentioned.

21 Chris Kavanaugh December 11, 2010 at 12:03 am

Marlon, Badger brushes came to prominence after a anthrax outbreak in WW1 thought to originate from horsehair brushes. All modern badger brushes of european manufacture have been sterilised.
What we, and of greater import detractors call ‘traditional shaving’ is actually the rather recent zenith of shaving products geared toward self shaving. It’s detractors from Gillette to bloggers can shout so as to alter the constellations in the sky; but not my regimen.
Merkur HD- Super Iridiums-Mitchell’s Wool Fat- Woods of Windsor or TOBS #74

22 Rhubarb December 11, 2010 at 10:30 am

Even today Egyptologists are told not to shave a few days before and after leaving tombs because of the minor wounds shaving could cause, allowing bacteria to enter the body.

23 Ed December 12, 2010 at 4:55 am

Interesting article. Best part; the Brenden Frasier jab at the end!

24 Shane December 12, 2010 at 9:43 pm

I came to this article believing I’d read some horrible stories beginning with “The razor slid effortlessly through the flesh of his neck.” Not one slit throat. Surprising and a little disappointing.

25 Dobson December 13, 2010 at 4:27 am

There is a typo in the lord carnarvon bit – recupertaing should be recuperating.

Lord Carnarvon took ill with sepsis. While recupertaing at the

Read more: http://artofmanliness.com/2010/12/09/a-deadly-ritual-5-men-who-died-from-shaving/#ixzz17yxyDE00

26 Christopher December 23, 2010 at 4:51 pm

I just recently (within the last hour) had my first shave at a barber shop. not only was it a satisfying experience it was very informative. I have been going to a barber here in Columbus Ohio for a few years now and wish I had thought to get a shave earlier. my barber, Jim, was glad to have another customer who appreciated the experience of a professional shave and I told him I would plug his shop here on this forum. Jim operates at The Mug and Brush @ 2433 N High St in Columbus OH. I will be adding him to the barber finder as soon as I am home as I am typing in a cafe right now. All in all a shave and a haircut ran me 35$ and it was worth every penny. I love the AoM website and wanted to share this info with other readers who enjoy this site as much as I do ! Happy Holidays

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