Mysterious Drownings

Christopher Winn recalls the death of Percy Bysshe Shelley, and other mysterious drownings.

The Funeral of Shelley by Louis Édouard Fournier, 1889.On July 8th, 1822 the romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley drowned in the Bay of Lerici off the north-west coast of Italy when his small boat overturned in a squall. He was 29.

Shelley and his wife Mary had settled in a cottage near Pisa. Shelley was returning there from Livorno after a visit to his fellow poets Lord Byron and James Leigh Hunt. Shelley’s first wife, Harriet Westbrook, had drowned in the Serpentine a few years earlier and one of the reasons Shelley had moved to Italy was to escape from the trauma of that episode.

There are those who suspect that Shelley’s death was not accidental: that he either committed suicide or that his boat was attacked by pirates.

Here are some other mysterious drownings.

  • The first woman to fly solo from England to Australia, Amy Johnson was drowned in the Thames on January 5th, 1941 after bailing out from her aircraft when it ran out of fuel in thick fog. Her body was never found and to this day there are rumours that she was shot down accidentally by British anti-aircraft guns.
  • Founder-guitarist with the Rolling Stones, Brian Jones was found dead in the swimming pool of Cotchford Farm, his country house near Hartfield in Sussex, on July 3rd, 1969. An inquest found that Jones had drowned after taking a cocktail of drink and drugs, but is not clear if he had been pushed into the pool by someone else, had fallen in accidentally, or had deliberately committed suicide. Incidentally, in the 1920s Cotchford Farm had been the home of AA Milne and his son Christopher (Robin) and is where the Winnie the Pooh stories were written.
  • On November 5th, 1991 a Spanish fisherman found the body of newspaper tycoon Robert Maxwell floating in the sea off the coast of Tenerife, some 15 miles from his luxury yacht Ghislaine. He is believed to have fallen overboard and it was officially ruled that he had died by accidental drowning, although it was thought that he might have suffered a heart attack before falling into the water. At the time Maxwell was under pressure on several fronts. Not only had he taken money from his company’s pension funds to pay off debts elsewhere in his empire, but he was accused of being an informer for Mossad, the Israeli intelligence service.

Christopher Winn is the author of I Never Knew That