5 Theories about the Death of Bruce Lee

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On May 20, 1973, legendary actor and martial artist Bruce Lee told his friend (and mistress) Betty Ting that he had a headache. Lee took some Equagesic, a kind of painkiller, and then decided to take a nap. When Ting later fetched Lee for dinner, she found the superstar unresponsive. After Lee’s producer and doctor arrived, nobody could manage to wake Lee up, and he was promptly rushed to the hospital.

Unfortunately, it was already too late. Bruce Lee, at the mere age of 32, was dead. While the doctors ruled his case “death by misadventure,” it was believed that Lee had an allergic reaction to the painkiller he took, causing cerebral edema. Naturally, fans were devastated. How could a guy as fit and extraordinary as Bruce Lee die so unexpectedly? No less from an allergic reaction? Surely something happened behind the scenes.

Personally, I’m inclined to believe the official diagnosis. Like the cases of Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley, some people just refuse to believe that such beautiful and amazing icons could die as plainly and tragically as the rest of us. Since Lee’s sudden death 46 years ago, a number of theories have popped up questioning the conventional narrative, many of them ridiculous. As a big Lee fan and skeptic, I’ve compiled a list of five of the bigger theories surrounding his death, clearing up and debunking the claims of the most outlandish and sensational.

1. Bad Feng Shui

According to the ancient Chinese idea of feng shui, a life force called qi flows all around us. To maximize that energy, and bring good fortune to yourself, you need to organize your house, furniture, and Bruce Lee DVDs in a way that won’t block qi. Depending on where you situate your stuff, the place of an object can affect everything from your health to financial status.

When Bruce Lee moved to a house in Hong Kong’s Kowloon Tong district, it was said that the building suffered from bad feng shui. According to Lee biographer Bruce Thomas, the house’s two previous owners had financial issues, and the building “faced the wrong way,” and had disturbed natural winds. To fix this problem, a feng shui adviser ordered a mirror to be put on the roof. This was supposed to deflect the bad energy, but the mirror was knocked off during a typhoon.

Ominously, Lee died just two days after the charm was blown away. While some of Lee’s neighbors apparently linked the two events at the time, the problem with this theory is that feng shui is nothing but a superstition. There’s no scientific evidence for any of its tenets, including qi. At most, feng shui could be regarded as a kind of art. Lee’s death after the loss of his mirror is a simple coincidence. Moreover, Lee died in Betty Ting’s apartment, not in his own house.

2. Murder

The abruptness of Bruce Lee’s death, combined with his extraordinary fitness, made some fans wonder whether something more sinister was at work. People who believe that Lee was murdered have put forward a line-up of suspects. One popular suggestion is that he was poisoned. James DeMile, an American martial artist who’d trained with Lee, argued that his old teacher was poisoned by enemies in the Hong Kong movie industry.

Proponents of this theory sometimes point to producer Raymond Chow as the mastermind behind Lee’s “murder.” Golden Harvest, a studio Chow helped to establish, made most of Lee’s kung-fu movies. (Enter the Dragon was a co-production between Warner Bros and Concord Production Inc., the latter a company founded by Bruce Lee and Raymond Chow). Since Lee had ambitions to become a Hollywood star, the story goes that Chow had him killed so he wouldn’t lose such a valuable cash cow.

In actuality, Chow had nothing to do with a murder plot, but his exploitative behavior probably went a long way toward promoting this theory. After Lee’s death, Chow tastelessly finished the actor’s last work Game of Death, using a body double and including real footage of Lee’s funeral in the movie.

3. The Gangster Connection

Another variation on the murder hypothesis involves Chinese gangs known as triads. In addition to drug trafficking, counterfeiting, and controlling prostitution rings, triads have also had an influence in the Hong Kong movie industry. In some cases, movie studios even hired gangsters to intimidate popular actors into accepting lower pay for their work.

There isn’t any strong evidence that Lee was connected with triads, but they’ve made their way into his lore anyway. It’s generally understood that when Lee moved as a teen to the United States, it was because his parents were afraid that their son was getting into too much trouble at home. This decision was instigated by Lee’s fight with a boy from a powerful family, but more colorful accounts claim that the other boy had a criminal background.

According to this gangster-related theory, the triads never forgave Lee. Another alternative suggests that they killed Lee for refusing to join them, or because he couldn’t be threatened into giving protection money or taking a pay-cut. Other alterations emphasize Lee’s mistress Betty Ting, accusing her of being linked to triads. The fact that Ting would later marry Charles Heung, an actor from a triad family, is seen as further proof. Heung, however, has long tried to distance himself from the criminal underworld, and it’s frankly silly to think that Ting would have a motive in hurting Lee.

4. Heat Stroke

As far as the entries on this list go, the heat stroke theory is the only grounded and probable one. In 2018, author Matthew Polly advanced the idea in his biography Bruce Lee: A Life. Lee was sensitive to heat, and an operation he had that removed his armpit sweat glands probably made his condition worse. The day that Lee died, in fact, was extremely hot.

While he was hanging out with Betty Ting in her roasting apartment, Lee reenacted the fight scenes from his latest project, Game of Death. After he was done, Lee complained that he was tired and had a headache, both of which are symptoms of a heat stroke. Ten weeks earlier, Lee had fainted while working out in a hot room, so it’s possible that he had a second, fatal attack the day of his death.

Another medical explanation for Lee’s demise comes from James Filkins, an American doctor. In 2006, Dr. Filkins proposed that Lee fell victim to an attack of SUDEP (sudden unexpected death in epilepsy). The condition typically affects young men, and appears entirely unprovoked. If this really were the cause of Lee’s death, doctors at the time wouldn’t have recognized it, since SUDEP wasn’t defined until 1995.

5. The Lee Family Curse

It seemed certain that Brandon Lee, Bruce’s one and only son, was on track to follow in his father’s footsteps. He was not only a martial artist, but also an actor, most notably starring in the classic 1994 movie The Crow. Oddly, like his father, Brandon would die tragically and young. On March 31, 1993, while wrapping up filming on The Crow, Brandon was accidentally shot and killed by a prop gun.

Given the circumstances, it wasn’t long before more superstitious fans began to argue that the Lee family was cursed. Brandon’s death paralleled a scene in the completed version of Game of Death, in which Lee’s character Billy Lo fakes his death by getting shot on a movie set. As another piece of evidence, believers point out that Bruce’s oldest brother passed away at the age of three months. According to this reasoning, only the male side of the Lee family is affected, which is why Bruce’s daughter Shannon Lee is still alive and well.

What proponents of the curse miss (or choose to ignore) is that Bruce and Brandon weren’t the only men of the family. Bruce’s father Lee Hoi-chuen, also an actor, died from a heart attack at the age of 64. His oldest son Peter, who also suffered a heart attack, died at the age of 68. The youngest of the Lee sons, Robert, is still alive at 70-years-old. While it’s a strange coincidence that Brandon and Bruce would have such tragic ends, it’s an exaggeration to declare the Lee family “cursed.” Unfortunately, the real matter is that people as talented as Brandon and Bruce Lee are just as mortal and likely to die as the rest of us.

 

If you enjoyed reading this article, please consider supporting my work by pre-ordering my book “Forgotten Lives” on Amazon here. My first collection of short stories includes the company of such wonderful people as a vengeful circus dwarf, a gourmet cannibal, and a mother who convinces her daughter that aliens are coming to abduct them. If you’re up for something strange and morbid, be sure to check the book out when it hits Kindle on September 23.  

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On the Horrors of Having Your Children Snatched by Fairies

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Depiction of a mother and a “changeling,” a fairy-child swapped for a human one.

In today’s world, parents often worry about whether their kids are eating healthy and getting a good education, and in the case of long car trips, whether the children have their phones fully charged. It’s tough being a modern parent, but at the least, you don’t have to worry like Europeans did about your spawn being snatched by fairies. While the concept of the changeling has now been relegated to folklore, it was once a serious threat for many superstitious moms and dads. Well after the Enlightenment,  between 1850 and 1900, courts across Europe were still handling cases of people who abused or killed children accused of being changelings.

According to folktales and historical accounts, a fairy-swapped child could be identified by physical deformities, a sickly or underdeveloped body, and an excessive (or small) appetite. By the 19th century, scholars recognized that stories of changelings likely stemmed from children who were disabled or mentally challenged. The idea of the changeling is thought to have originated with peasants’ recognition that something was “wrong” with their children, and it could have been used to justify abusing and killing the poor kids.

An interesting historical example of a changeling comes from the English poet and topographer George Waldron. While working as an official on the Isle of Man, the London-born Waldron wrote a book about the island’s history and culture, 1726’s “A Description of the Isle of Man.” Criticizing the Manx for being superstitious, Waldron noted that the belief in fairies was still alive and well. “The old story of infants being changed in their cradles,” he observed, “is here in such credit, that mothers are in continual terror at the thoughts of it.”

When Waldron was presented with an alleged changeling, he described the child as having a beautiful face and delicate complexion. The boy was five or six years old, with long and thin limbs. He didn’t talk or cry, hardly ate anything, and was unable to walk and stand. When the kid was left alone, people watching from his window would see him laugh by himself. It was believed that he was in the company of fairies then, and that they would wash the boy and comb his hair.

In another example, Waldron heard a story from a mother who claimed to have been continually harassed by fairies. The trouble began four or five days after she gave birth to her first child. All of a sudden, her family heard somebody shout that there was a fire. They ran out of their house to see where it was, leaving the mother and her baby alone in their room. As she trembled in bed, the woman watched incredulously as her baby was picked up by an invisible hand and stolen away. When the rest of the family came back inside, finding no fire anywhere in their neighborhood, they discovered the baby lying at the entrance of the house. Naturally, fairies were blamed for moving the child.

A year after this incident, following the birth of the mother’s second child, the family heard a loud commotion from their cattle barn. As they rushed to see what the problem was, the mother and her new baby were once again left alone. Inside the barn, nothing was out of the ordinary, and no cows had gotten loose. Reassured, the neglectful family made their way back to the house, where they were greeted by the second baby lying in the entryway. As with the first child, this mysterious displacement was believed to be the work of the little people.

As the saying goes, the fairies figured that the third kidnapping’s the charm. Not long after this same mother delivered her third child, another commotion was heard in the barn. Like clockwork, everybody ran outside, leaving the mother and baby with a nurse who was fast asleep. As the nurse snoozed, the mother watched with horror as an invisible set of hands promptly snatched her baby and carried it away. The woman screamed for her nurse to get up, but it was too late: The fat and beautiful baby was spirited away.

When her family returned, the mother was found crying hysterically. Although the husband pointed out that the baby was still inside the bed, the mother couldn’t be fooled. This was a skinny and deformed impostor, a changeling. The creature, Waldron reported, lived with the family “near the space of nine years.” During its brief existence, the changeling ate “nothing except a few herbs, nor was ever seen to void any other excrement than water: it neither spoke, nor could stand or go,” resembling the child Waldron met on the island. While our English reporter doesn’t detail what ultimately happened to this particular changeling, I think we could sadly conclude that the child suffered from malnutrition and neglect, if not deliberate abuse.

 

If you enjoyed reading this article, please consider supporting my work by pre-ordering my book “Forgotten Lives” on Amazon here. My first collection of short stories includes the company of such wonderful people as a vengeful circus dwarf, a gourmet cannibal, and a mother who convinces her daughter that aliens are coming to abduct them. If you’re up for something strange and morbid, be sure to check the book out when it hits Kindle on September 23.  

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How the Devil Set a Troublesome Teenager Straight

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From buying guitarists’ souls to impregnating Mia Farrow, the Devil has always kept himself busy. Personally, I cannot speak much for his talents, but one might want to take a note from his parenting skills. Consider, for example, the case of unruly English teenager Joseph Boxford. According to a pamphlet published in London in 1645, Joseph was a fifteen-year-old boy who lived in Bow, a village in the county of Devon. Joseph’s father John sent him to the town of Crediton to become a weaver’s apprentice, but after a month of work, Joseph wanted to do something else.

Without telling his father, Joseph decided to trade the excitements of weaving for the life of a soldier. As this was a decision made during the First English Civil War, when the Parliamentarians were engaged in fighting King Charles I and his Royalist supporters, this was not the best idea. Joseph spent his summer in the king’s army, being such a general ne’er-do-well that he ended up dressed in rags.

When the broken boy went back home for support, his father gave him new clothes and recommended that he return to his apprenticeship. As teenagers are wont to do, Joseph refused to listen to common sense. John, furious, threatened that he’d apprentice the boy to the Devil.

In the morning, John announced to his son that they were going to Crediton. A rebellious Joseph insisted that he’d rather be apprenticed to the Devil. This was not what John actually wanted, so he beat the boy until Joseph agreed to leave the house. As father and son approached Crediton, with the former hitting the latter, and the latter swearing at the former, the Boxfords came across a man in a carriage pulled by four horses. The argument caught the driver’s attention, so he asked John why he felt the need to be so violent. John answered with a rant, complaining about Joseph and his refusal to do anything responsible.

Taking pity on the poor boy, the driver offered to take Joseph along and find him a good employer. John came to an agreement with the carrier; if Joseph didn’t like the work the carrier found him, then he’d be sent back to Bow within eight days. With both Boxfords satisfied, John turned back home and left his son with the stranger and four horses. I suppose, if this were a YA novel, this would be the part when the benevolent stranger would reveal that Joseph was actually a great wizard or hero or something, and that he’d come to start the misfit boy on his destiny. Unfortunately, that’s not how things turned out.

Instead, the stranger immediately morphed into a ugly, dark horse, snatching Joseph up and taking flight into the sky. Riding on the horse’s back, Joseph was so high up that big cities like London looked “no greater than small cottages.” The teenager rode past the moon and Neptune, dropping into a cave in the earth that brought him to Hell. Now in the safety of his home, the Devil rid himself of his disguise. Saying that Joseph could see some of his old Royalist war-buddies, the Devil summoned an army of ghosts who howled, suffered, and vocally regretted taking up the Royalist cause.

Scanning over this collection of ghosts, Joseph noticed a politician named Sir Peter Ball, whose eternal damnation was rather creative. The sinner’s legs and feet were engulfed in flames, while his buttocks were burned on a gridiron, his back and shoulders were cooked in a frying-pan, and his face was boiled in a kettle. Next to Ball were two spots reserved for “Greenvile” and “Goring,” references to the Royalist military-men Bevil Grenville and George Goring. These two gentlemen, once they were ready, would be punished by having hot aconites shoved down their “belching throats.” Goring’s sister “Lady Scot,” on the other hand, received the honor of being hanged by the tongue on scalding tenterhooks.

All this horrible torture was too much to bear for Joseph Boxford. He begged to leave, and since they were there long enough, the Devil whisked the teenager away to a place in Devon called Cannon Lee. A pair of servants later spotted Joseph under a hedge, where his “hands and legs (were) strangely distorted, his haire of his head singed,” and “his Clothes all be smeared with pitch and rosin and other sulfurous matter, which yeelded an odious stench.” Since Joseph was in bad shape, and couldn’t manage to speak, the men took him to their master’s house.

Once he recovered, Joseph bared his misadventure with the Devil, a tale the owner of the house found creditable. His father was called, and John picked the boy up and forgave him for their disagreement. According to Jonathan Gainwell, a minister who heard Joseph tell his story, the former juvenile delinquent became reformed. To make for an even happier ending, the Devil was also seen that day, back in his carrier-with-horses disguise. A group of Royalist soldiers passing by took a fancy in the horses, and as they were in the middle of stealing them, the Devil and his entourage disappeared in an inferno. Three of the Royalists caught fire and died, and the rest took off running for their lives.

Despite the pamphlet’s over-the-top claims, despite the fact that I can’t trace a place called Cannon Lee, and that Sir Peter Ball died many years after the end of the English Civil War, I believe there are some valuable lessons here. Children should obey their parents, parents should love their children, and nobody who pledges allegiance to the King of England should be allowed into heaven.

 

If you enjoyed reading this article, please consider supporting my work by pre-ordering my book “Forgotten Lives” on Amazon here. My first collection of short stories includes the company of such wonderful people as a vengeful circus dwarf, a gourmet cannibal, and a mother who convinces her daughter that aliens are coming to abduct them. If you’re up for something strange and morbid, be sure to check the book out when it hits Kindle on September 23.  

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