I was reading about Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart this past week. I knew only the basics about him – what you learned in a music class or by watching a fictionalized movie biography. He was born in Salzburg, Austria in 1756.  Most people know that he was a child prodigy who by the age of five was proficient at the violin and piano and he started composing.

He didn’t have a long life but he composed more than 600 works in almost every genre of the day.  His death was premature and has been a matter of interest and speculation.

He died suddenly at age 35. His death certificate says “fever and rash.” You don’t have to be a doctor to know that people don’t die from that.

So what killed him? Theories abound. Maybe he was poisoned by a rival or accidentally by his own hand (using mercury to self-treat his syphilis).

The common theory (because of the film Amadeus) was started by Mozart himself. He told his wife when he became ill that he thought someone had poisoned him.  There is some conjecture that Mozart was having an affair with a married woman whose husband got revenge. In the play Mozart and Salieri (1830), Aleksandr Pushkin put forward the idea that the composer Antonio Salieri poisoned Mozart in jealousy. From what I read, Salieri and Mozart were actually friendly rivals and Salieri was actually earning more than Mozart.

There are also stories of the Dan Brown variety that he was murdered by Jews, or Catholics, or Freemasons.

Supposedly, there is no real evidence for any of this. Just theories. He was in good health in the weeks before his death and only took ill a few days after his last public performance. A high fever with  headache, muscle pain, vomiting and a he gave off a foul-smelling odor. Medicine being what it was, after two weeks, he suffered a seizure, fell into a coma, and died.

Even doctors have played detective on this case. Maybe the pork cutlets Mozart ate before he became ill was infested by Trichinella parasites, which cause trichinosis. Dr. House would like that the symptoms of that are fever, vomiting, swelling, and muscle and joint pain.

A disappointingly plain diagnosis is the common streptococcal infection (strep throat) which could have caused his kidneys to fail and would explain Mozart’s swelling that made it impossible at the end of his days to even turn over in bed.

Mozart died on December 5, 1791. He was not buried in a pauper’s grave (though that was a popular myth) but it was a communal plot, which was common in Vienna at the time.

A bit uglier is the practice of the time of burying non-aristocrats by sewing their naked body into a linen sack which would be placed into the communal grave with others and sprinkled with quicklime to speed decomposition. The authorities would wait seven years and then the remains were exhumed and dispersed so that the grave could be reused.

We don’t even have a body so that scientists could do a modern-day CSI-episode examination. Instead, we have a star who shined brightly and burned out quickly.

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