A Premonition


First-Sergeant Thomas Innes Woods, of Company B, was killed on May 8th [1864]. The first time that Sergeant Woods was ever known to ask permission to leave his post on march or in battle occurred this day, after the Regiment’s all-night march to reach Spottsylvania ahead of Lee. When it became evident that a battle was imminent, Sergeant Woods asked Captain H.W. Grubbs for a pass to go to the rear. On his declaring that he was not sick, he was advised by the Captain that under the circumstances he could not be excused, and Sergeant Woods resumed his post at the head of the Company. Shortly after, during a halt by the roadside, Sergeant Woods wrote in his diary the following, addressed to his friend, Sergeant James A. McMillen: ‘I am going to fall to-day. If you find my body, I desire you to bury it and mark my grave so that if my friends desire to take it home they can find it. Please read the Ninetieth Psalm at my burial.’ He was killed early in the battle. His body was found by Sergeant McMillen and others of Company B, the diary being found in his pocket. His request for the Ninetieth Psalm to be read at the grave was complied with.

— Charles F. McKenna, ed., Under the Maltese Cross, Antietam to Appomattox: The Loyal Uprising in Western Pennsylvania, 1861-1865: Campaigns 155th Pennsylvania Regiment, 1910



In 1943 Alexander Woollcott died of a heart attack during a radio show in which he was discussing Hitler with four other people. Listeners noticed only that he was unusually quiet.

In 1958 Tyrone Power succumbed to a heart attack while filming a fencing scene in Solomon and Sheba.

In 1960 baritone Leonard Warren died during a performance of Verdi’s La forza del destino at the Met. He was about to sing Morir, tremenda cosa (“to die, a momentous thing”).

In 1968 Joseph Keilberth collapsed while conducting Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde in exactly the same place that Felix Mottl was similarly stricken in 1911.

In 1984 British comedian Tommy Cooper collapsed and died during a performance on a TV variety show. Cooper was famous for pratfalls, and for some minutes the audience assumed that his struggles were part of the act.

In 1991 Redd Foxx died of a heart attack while shooting his sitcom The Royal Family. At first onlookers thought he was joking, as his character Fred Sanford was famous for faking heart attacks.

In 1996 tenor Richard Versalle died at the Met during the première of Janácek’s The Makropulos Case. He had just sung the line “Too bad you can live only so long.”

(Thanks, Kyle.)

Shifting Ground


For her 2000 book Obituaries in American Culture, Janice Hume collated thousands of newspaper death notices to reveal the most admired characteristics of American men in various eras:

1818: Patriotism, gallantry, vigilance, boldness, merit as an officer
1838: Benevolence, intellect, kindness, affection, indulgence, devotion to family
1855: Public esteem, activity, amiability, fame, intelligence, generosity
1870: Christianity, education, generosity, energy, perseverance, eminence
1910: Professional accomplishments, wealth, long years at work, associations, education
1930: Long years at work, career promotions, education, associations, prominence, fame

In general, men who died in the 19th century were remembered for personal virtues such as piety and kindness, while 20th-century obituaries listed associations and accomplishments. Women, when they were remembered at all in 1818, were praised for passive traits such as patience, resignation, obedience, and amiability; by 1930 women were becoming recognized for accomplishments such as political voice and philanthrophy, but their most noted attribute was still their association with men.

Podcast Episode 118: The Restless Corpse of Elmer McCurdy


In 1976 a television crew discovered a mummified corpse in a California funhouse. Unbelievably, an investigation revealed that it belonged to an Oklahoma outlaw who had been shot by sheriff’s deputies in 1911 and whose remains had been traveling the country ever since. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll trace the postmortem odyssey of Elmer McCurdy, “the bandit who wouldn’t give up.”

We’ll also reflect on a Dutch artist’s disappearance and puzzle over some mysterious hospital deaths.


In 1922, mechanical engineer Elis Stenman built a summer home with walls of varnished newspaper.

Winston Churchill’s country home Chartwell must always maintain a marmalade cat named Jock.

Sources for our feature on Elmer McCurdy:

Mark Svenvold, Elmer McCurdy, 2002.

Robert Barr Smith, “After Elmer McCurdy’s Days as a Badman, He — or at Least His Corpse — Had a Fine Second Career,” Wild West 12:1 (June 1999), 24-26.

United Press International, “Amusement Park Mummy Was Elmer McCurdy, a Wild West Desperado,” Dec. 10, 1976.

Associated Press, “Died With His Boots On,” Dec. 11, 1976.

Associated Press, “Wax Figure Maybe No Dummy, May Be Old Outlaw’s Mummy,” Dec. 12, 1976.

Associated Press, “Elmer McCurdy Goes Home to Boot Hill,” April 23, 1977.

Listener mail:

Alexander Dumbadze, Bas Jan Ader: Death Is Elsewhere, 2013.

Jan Verwoert, Bas Jan Ader: In Search of the Miraculous, 2006.

Brad Spence, “The Case of Bas Jan Ader,” www.basjanader.com (accessed 08/18/2016) (PDF).

Rachel Kent, “Pun to Paradox: Bas Jan Ader Revisited,” Parkett 75 (2005), 177-181.

Wikipedia, “Bas Jan Ader” (accessed 08/18/2016).

Richard Dorment, “The Artist Who Sailed to Oblivion,” Telegraph, May 9, 2006.

(We had referred to a collection of Ader’s silent films on YouTube. Unfortunately, this has been pulled by Ader’s estate.)

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle was contributed by listener Steven Jones.

You can listen using the player above, download this episode directly, or subscribe on iTunes or Google Play Music or via the RSS feed at http://feedpress.me/futilitycloset.

Please consider becoming a patron of Futility Closet — on our Patreon page you can pledge any amount per episode, and all contributions are greatly appreciated. You can change or cancel your pledge at any time, and we’ve set up some rewards to help thank you for your support. You can also make a one-time donation on the Support Us page of the Futility Closet website.

Many thanks to Doug Ross for the music in this episode.

If you have any questions or comments you can reach us at podcast@futilitycloset.com. Thanks for listening!


Image: Wikimedia Commons

During a visit to the Colt firearms factory in Connecticut in 1995, English sculptor Cornelia Parker was captivated by the recognizably gun-shaped casts of metal produced early in the manufacturing process. As blank casts they had none of the capacities of working weapons, but “in one further step, a hole drilled, a surface filed, they would technically become firearms.”

Fascinated by this transition, “I asked the foreman if I could possibly have a pair of guns at this early stage in the production, and if he could give them the same finish that they’d get at the end of the process,” she wrote later. “Amazingly, he agreed, and they became Embryo Firearms, conflating the idea of birth and death in the same object.”

Ironically, as she was leaving America, customs officials discovered the casts in her luggage and “an argument ensued that perfectly reflected the questions raised by Parker’s work,” writes Jessica Morgan in Cornelia Parker (2000). “The American Customs department insisted that Embryo Guns were weapons, while the police department, in Parker’s defense, argued that they were harmless metal forms and Parker was released from questioning.”


Image: Wikimedia Commons

Pre-Raphaelite painters found an unusual source for one of their pigments: They ground up Egyptian mummies. In the words of one enthusiast, “A charming pigment is obtained by this means, uniting a peculiar greyness (due to the corpse and its bandages) with the rich brown of the pitch or bitumen, in a manner which it is very hard indeed to imitate. It flows from the brush with delightful freedom and evenness.”

Artist Edward Burne-Jones was so shocked at learning that this was the source of his umber paint that he staged a poignant little ceremony. “He left us at once, hastened to the studio, and returning with the only tube he had, insisted on our giving it decent burial there and then,” recalled his wife Georgiana. “So a hole was bored in the green grass at our feet, and we all watched it put safely in, and the spot was marked by one of the girls planting a daisy root above it.”

The production of “mummy brown” ceased in the 20th century — only because the supply of mummies was exhausted.

Mistaken Identity


Is immortality really so attractive? Even the most pleasant activities would begin to pall with repetition, so the only way to avoid an endlessly boring existence would be to undergo continual changes in personality, taking on different interests and values from those we have today. But such a person would be very different from our present self — so different, argues Cambridge philosopher Bernard Williams, that we could not judge her life to be good from our own present point of view. We would have no reason to hope to become that person. Thus immortality must be either endlessly boring or an existence with which we cannot identify. On balance, then, it’s worse than the mortal existence we know.

“Immortality, or a state without death, would be meaningless,” writes Williams, “so, in a sense, death gives the meaning to life.”

(Bernard Williams, “The Makropulos Case,” in Problems of the Self, 1973.)

The Dark Side


Epicurus suggested that death is nothing to fear, since we never quite encounter it: “So death, the most terrifying of ills, is nothing to us, since so long as we exist, death is not with us; but when death comes, then we do not exist. It does not then concern either the living or the dead, since for the former it is not, and the latter are no more.”

These words are often taken to be consoling, but University of California philosopher John Martin Fischer finds them worrisome:

I do not see how the Epicurean could say that it is morally wrong to commit murder in certain circumstances. That is, if you were convinced that one could instantaneously and painlessly kill a hermit, with no one ever finding out about this act, why exactly would you have any reason not to do this, on an Epicurean approach? It seems to me that an Epicurean would say that you ought to murder the hermit under such circumstances, if it would give you pleasure to do so.

Indeed, what reason would Epicurus give me for preventing my own death? “Suppose one is standing on a railroad track and sees a train coming very fast; what reason does one have (according to the Epicurean) to step aside? Assuming that one could know that the train would kill one instantaneously (with no pain involved), why exactly should one step aside, if one is an Epicurean about death? It is a bit awkward for an Epicurean to say that one has reason to take actions to secure one’s continued life, since he does not think that death is a bad thing in virtue of depriving an individual of continued life.”

(John Martin Fischer, “Death,” in Hugh LaFollette, ed., The International Encyclopedia of Ethics, 2013.)



From C.S. Lewis’ A Grief Observed, a collection of reflections on the loss of his wife, Joy, in 1960:

It is hard to have patience with people who say ‘There is no death’ or ‘Death doesn’t matter.’ There is death. And whatever is matters. And whatever happens has consequences, and it and they are irrevocable and irreversible. You might as well say that birth doesn’t matter. I look up at the night sky. Is anything more certain that in all those vast times and spaces, if I were allowed to search them, I should nowhere find her face, her voice, her touch? She died. She is dead. Is the word so difficult to learn? …

Talk to me about the truth of religion and I’ll listen gladly. Talk to me about the duty of religion and I’ll listen submissively. But don’t come talking to me about the consolations of religion or I shall suspect that you don’t understand.

He published it originally under the pseudonym N.W. Clerk, a pun on the Old English for “I know not what scholar.”



A letter from Abraham Lincoln to Fanny McCullough of Bloomington, Ill., whose father had died leading a charge in Mississippi, Dec. 23, 1862:

Dear Fanny: It is with deep regret that I learn of the death of your brave and kind father, and especially that it is affecting your young heart beyond what is common in such cases. In this sad world of ours sorrow comes to all, and to the young it comes with bitterer agony because it takes them unawares. The older have learned ever to expect it. I am anxious to afford some alleviation of your present distress. Perfect relief is not possible, except with time. You cannot now realize that you will ever feel better. Is not this so? And yet it is a mistake. You are sure to be happy again. To know this, which is certainly true, will make you some less miserable now. I have had experience enough to know what I say, and you need only to believe it to feel better at once. The memory of your dear father, instead of an agony, will yet be a sad, sweet feeling in your heart of a purer and holier sort than you have known before.

Please present my kind regards to your afflicted mother.

Your sincere friend,

A. Lincoln