Johann Taberger designed this “safety coffin” in 1829, to preserve people who had been mistakenly buried alive. Strings were attached to the body’s head, hands, and feet, connected to a bell that would alert the cemetery’s nightwatchman, who could use a bellows to pump air into the coffin until it could be dug up.
Such devices were popular during the cholera epidemics of the 18th and 19th centuries — European graves were rigged variously with bells, flags, ladders, and escape hatches. There’s no evidence that they ever saved anyone, and they nearly killed some of their inventors: During a demonstration in 1897, a chamberlain to the tsar of Russia buried his assistant, waited, and finally realized that the signaling system had failed. The assistant was saved, but the marketing campaign was DOA.
Physicist James Van Allen outlived his own obituary writer.
As Van Allen approached old age, the Associated Press assigned writer Walter Sullivan to prepare a story that could be published on his death. Sullivan did so and died in 1996, but his story sat in the file for 10 more years before Van Allen finally passed away at 91.
Pretty, ain’t it? This 30-meter cliff rises from the foothills of the Rockies in Alberta. For 6,000 years, Native Americans would drive buffalo over the edge; the bone deposits at the bottom are 10 meters deep.
The Blackfoot call this place estipah-skikikini-kots, after a legend about one unfortunate young man who chose to watch the climactic plunge from below. Estipah-skikikini-kots means “Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump.”
In 1940, British colonial officer Gerald Gallagher found a human skeleton and a sextant box under a tree on Gardner Island, a coral atoll in the western Pacific. Colonial authorities took detailed measurements, and in 1998 forensic anthropologists judged that the skeleton had belonged to a “tall white female of northern European ancestry.”
It may have been Amelia Earhart.
When Washington’s power elite convene for the president’s annual State of the Union address, there’s always a cabinet member missing:
- 2007: Alberto Gonzales, attorney general
- 2006: Jim Nicholson, secretary of veterans affairs
- 2005: Donald Evans, secretary of commerce
- 2004: Donald Evans, secretary of commerce
- 2003: John Ashcroft, attorney general
- 2002: Gale Norton, secretary of the interior
- 2001: Anthony Principi, secretary of veterans affairs
- 2000: Bill Richardson, secretary of energy
That member stays at a remote location in case some catastrophe strikes the Capitol.
He’s called the designated survivor.
In Westminster Abbey there’s a gravestone that reads as follows:
THO: PARR OF YE COUNTY OF SALLOP. BORNE
IN AD: 1483. HE LIVED IN YE REIGNES OF TEN
PRINCES VIZ: K.ED.4. K.ED.5.K.RICH.3.
K.JA. & K. CHARLES. AGED 152 YEARES.
& WAS BURYED HERE NOVEMB. 15. 1635.
That’s right, Thomas Parr supposedly lived to be 152 years old. Said to have been born in 1483, he was discovered still alive in 1635 by the Earl of Arundel, and London went nuts. Parr met Charles I; Rubens and Van Dyke painted him; poets lionized him; and the fuss finally killed him.
Most likely his records had been confused with his grandfather’s, but he was certainly very old. He attributed his longevity to vegetarianism and clean living, though he said he’d had a kid out of wedlock at around age 100. Youthful indiscretion.
June 30, 1811. A few days ago, John Hall, a labouring man, went at low water among the rocks, at Hume Head, near Cawsand, for the purpose of catching crabs, when meeting with one in the interstices of the rocks, of a large size, he imprudently put in his hand, for the purpose of pulling it out; the animal, however, caught his hand between its claws or forceps, and, strange as it may appear, kept its hold so firmly, that every effort on the part of the poor fellow to extricate himself proved ineffectual; and no one being at hand to assist him, the tide came in and he was next morning found drowned.
– National Register, 1811
- Ted Bundy: Steak (medium rare), eggs over easy, hash browns, coffee. (He refused it.)
- John Wayne Gacy: Fried chicken, fried shrimp, french fries, fresh strawberries.
- Gary Gilmore: Hamburger, eggs, a baked potato, coffee, three shots of whiskey.
- Timothy McVeigh: Two pints of Ben & Jerry’s mint chocolate-chip ice cream.
- Adolf Eichmann: Half a bottle of Carmel, a dry red Israeli wine.
- Bruno Hauptmann: Celery, olives, chicken, french fries, buttered peas, cherries, and a slice of cake.
Victor Feguer, executed in 1963 for shooting a doctor, asked for a single olive.
In December 1976, the television program The Six Million Dollar Man was shooting an episode at California’s Long Beach Pike amusement park when a crew member discovered a wax dummy hanging in a funhouse gallows. When he tried to move it, its arm broke off — it wasn’t a dummy, but in fact a mummified human body. Stranger still, its mouth contained a 1924 penny and a ticket from the Museum of Crime in Los Angeles.
After much investigation, it turned out to be the body of Elmer McCurdy, an inept outlaw who had been killed in an Oklahoma gunfight in 1911. When no one claimed his body, an unscrupulous undertaker had embalmed it and charged a nickel to see “The Bandit Who Wouldn’t Give Up,” and for 60 years thereafter McCurdy’s corpse was traded among wax museums, carnivals, and haunted houses.
Elmer was finally buried, fittingly, in the Boot Hill section of Oklahoma’s Summit View Cemetery under two cubic yards of concrete. Ironically, his last words had been “You’ll never take me alive!”
Here lies a man that was Knott born,
His father was Knott before him,
He lived Knott, and did Knott die,
Yet underneath this stone doth lie.
– Epitaph of John Knott, Sheffield, England
London dentist Martin van Butchell always read the fine print. So when his wife Mary died in January 1775, he noted that their marriage certificate promised him income so long as Mary was “above ground.”
He enlisted a pair of local doctors to preserve her corpse, replaced her eyes with glass ones, dressed her in a lace gown, and put her on display in his window.
Eventually Butchell remarried, and his new wife objected to the display, so Mary was retired to the Royal College of Surgeons, where she slowly decomposed. In 1941, she was destroyed in a German bombing raid, faithful to the last.
In 1933, a group of four thugs came up with a gruesome way to make money. They took out three insurance policies on an Irish vagrant named Michael Malloy and killed him for the proceeds.
Well, tried to, anyway. Malloy proved to be almost unkillable:
- They gave him unlimited credit at a local speakeasy, but Malloy just drank.
- They substituted antifreeze for Malloy’s whiskey, but he just passed out.
- They substituted turpentine for the antifreeze, horse liniment for the turpentine, and then rat poison for the horse liniment. No luck.
- They served him a meal of raw oysters marinated in wood alcohol, then a dish of spoiled sardines mixed with carpet tacks.
- They dumped him into a bank of wet snow and poured water on him.
None of this worked. Desperate, they ran him down with a taxi at 45 mph. This put him in the hospital for three weeks, but it didn’t kill him. Finally the trio waited until Malloy had passed out one evening, took him to a room and put a gas hose in his mouth.
That killed him, but they didn’t have long to enjoy the insurance money. Infighting among them led to rumors, and the police exhumed Malloy’s body and revealed the plot. One conspirator went to prison and the rest were electrocuted at Sing Sing.
Celts killed each other. During the Iron Age, they’d stab, bludgeon, hang, and strangle their victims, then dump them in the sphagnum bogs that dot Northern Europe, sometimes with the ropes still around their necks.
We know this because the acidity of the bog water, the cold temperature, and the lack of oxygen have effectively prevented these corpses from decomposing. More than 700 bodies have been recovered, some as old as 10,000 years and some still appearing fresh enough to be mistaken for recent murder victims.
The “Grauballe Man,” above, was found in 1952 by a Dane digging for peat. His throat was cut in 290 B.C., but his body was well enough preserved to yield fingerprints. Why was he killed? Maybe ritual, maybe execution for a crime, maybe human sacrifice. Here’s one odd clue: Judging from their nutrition and manicures, the bodies appear consistently to have been from the upper classes.
“The greatest smoker in Europe died at Rotterdam, and left behind him the most curious of wills. He expresses the wish in his last testament that all the smokers of the country be invited to attend his obsequies, and that they smoke while following in the funeral cortege. He directs that his body be placed in a coffin, which shall be lined with wood taken from old Havana cigar boxes. At the foot of his bier, tobacco, cigars, and matches are to be placed. And the epitaph which he requests shall be placed upon his tombstone is as follows:
The Greatest Smoker in Europe.
He Broke His Pipe
July 4, 1872.
Mourned by his family and
all tobacco merchants.
STRANGER, SMOKE FOR HIM!
– Charles Bombaugh, Facts and Fancies for the Curious From the Harvest-Fields of Literature, 1905
Sorry about the photo. It’s a dog’s head, kept alive in the 1940s by an experimental Soviet device called an autojector, which pumped oxygenated blood through it. Reportedly this kept the head alive for hours — it would cock its ears at sounds and lick its chops when citric acid was smeared on them.
That ain’t all. If you believe the 1940 film Experiments in the Revival of Organisms, Soviet scientist Sergei S. Bryukhonenko drained the blood from a dog until it reached clinical death, left it in that state for 15 minutes, then connected it to the autojector. In the film, the heart and lungs resume functioning, and 12 hours later the dog is reported to be on its feet, barking and wagging its tail.
Is all this for real? The film’s authenticity is debated — some say it may show re-enactments rather than authentic experiments — but the research itself was well documented, leading eventually to modern heart-lung machines and a posthumous Lenin Prize for Bryukhonenko.
Canny sheep sometimes resist going down the slaughterhouse ramp to their deaths. So workers sometimes train a goat to go down first, triggering the herding instinct and solving the problem. The goat isn’t harmed and can be used over and over for this purpose.
It’s called a judas goat.
In 1897, testimony from a ghost helped to convict a murderer. Zona Heaster Shue’s death was presumed to be natural until her mother claimed that her ghost had visited her on four successive nights and described how she had been murdered by her husband, Edward. When Zona’s body was exhumed, her neck was found broken, and a jury convicted Edward of murder.
That may be the last U.S. case of “spectral evidence,” but it’s not the first. During the Salem witch trials, if a witness testified that “Goody Proctor bit, pinched, and almost choked me” in a vision or dream, this would be accepted as evidence even if Proctor was known to have been elsewhere at the time.
“Justice has nothing to do with what goes on in a courtroom,” wrote Clarence Darrow. “Justice is what comes out of a courtroom.”
Another case of man’s inhumanity to elephants. Don’t even read this one. Seriously.
In 1826, the owners of a London menagerie decided to kill Chunee, their 5-ton Indian elephant. The animal had been docile for years — Lord Byron said “I wish he was my butler” — but he grew violent toward the end of his life, perhaps aggravated by pain from a rotten tusk. When, on a rampage, he killed one of his keepers, it was decided he was too dangerous to keep.
Unfortunately, Chunee wouldn’t eat poison. So a group of musketeers were summoned to his cage, a trusted keeper ordered him to kneel, and the soldiers began to fire volleys into his chest and legs. This continued for more than an hour, during which one witness reported that the sound of the elephant’s “agony had been much more alarming than that made by the soldier’s guns.” Even with 152 musketballs in him, the elephant continued to live, kneeling in a cage full of blood, so they had to dispatch him, finally, with a sword.
News of the slaughter inspired numerous poems and even a successful play, but owner Edward Cross sought a profit even in the animal’s death. He charged a shilling to see the body dissected; he sold the hide (which took nine butchers 12 hours to remove); and he put Chunee’s skeleton on display in his old cage — with the bullet holes in his skull clearly visible.
What do Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, and Kurt Cobain have in common?
Each was an influential rock musician who had a meteoric rise to fame cut short by a drug-related death at age 27.
Also dead at 27: Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones, Peter Ham of Badfinger, “Pigpen” McKernan of the Grateful Dead, Gary Thain of Uriah Heep, Alan Wilson of Canned Heat, Jeremy Ward of The Mars Volta, Dave Alexander of the Stooges … and Joseph Merrick, the Elephant Man, for whatever that’s worth.
In the 1850s, a girl contracted diphtheria while visiting Edisto Island, S.C. Amid fears of an outbreak, she was pronounced dead and hastily interred in a local mausoleum:
Some days afterwards, when the grave in which she had been placed was opened for the reception of another body, it was found that the clothes which covered the unfortunate woman were torn to pieces, and that she had even broken her limbs in attempting to extricate herself from the living tomb. The Court, after hearing the case, sentenced the doctor who had signed the certificate of decease, and the Major who had authorized the interment each to three month’s imprisonment for involuntary manslaughter.
(Reported in the British Medical Journal, 1877)
Anton Bruckner died after writing his ninth symphony. So did Beethoven, Schubert, and Dvořák. In the 19th century, a superstition arose that a quick death awaited anyone who wrote nine symphonies.
Arnold Schoenberg wrote: “It seems that the ninth is a limit. He who wants to go beyond it must pass away. It seems as if something might be imparted to us in the Tenth which we ought not yet to know, for which we are not ready. Those who have written a Ninth stood too close to the hereafter.”
Mahler figured he could escape the curse with a decoy: When he finished his ninth, he retitled it “The Song of the Earth” and wrote a second “ninth” symphony. When nothing happened, he told his wife “the danger is past,” started a new work — and died.
If you wanted a sucky job in 1898, you couldn’t do much worse than the Tsavo River project in Kenya. The work crew was assembled to build a railway bridge, but it quickly turned into a lion smorgasbord.
Men were regularly dragged out of their tents at night and devoured. The predators evaded traps, ambushes and even thorn fences, but after 10 months engineer John Henry Patterson managed to kill these two enormous maneless lions. By that time they had killed nearly 140 men between them.
And why? Apparently the flesh of railroad workers has a particular savor. The pair had got a taste for it in raiding shallow graves; when they ran out of graves they started going after live game.
Top 10 longest-lived U.S. presidents:
- Ronald Reagan: 93 years, 120 days
- Gerald Ford: (still living, age 93)
- John Adams: 90 years, 247 days
- Herbert Hoover: 90 years, 71 days
- Harry Truman: 88 years, 232 days
- James Madison: 85 years, 104 days
- Thomas Jefferson: 83 years, 82 days
- George H.W. Bush: (still living, age 82)
- Jimmy Carter: (still living, age 81)
- Richard Nixon: 81 years, 103 days
If Ford is still alive on Nov. 12 this year, he’ll take the record.
Uninspired last words:
- “Wait a minute …” — Pope Alexander VI
- “Am I dying, or is this my birthday?” — Nancy, Lady Astor, on seeing her family at her bedside
- “I live!” — Caligula, as he was being murdered by his own soldiers
- “Lady, you shot me!” — Sam Cooke, after being shot in a hotel room
- “That guy’s got to stop. … He’ll see us.” — James Dean, before a car accident
- “I’d hate to die twice. It’s so boring.” — Richard Feynman
- “I think I’m going to make it!” — murderer Richard Loeb, after being slashed 90 times with a razor
- “Die, my dear? Why that’s the last thing I’ll do!” — Groucho Marx
- “I’m all right.” — H.G. Wells
On his deathbed Stan Laurel said, “I wish I were skiing.” His nurse said, “Oh, Mr. Laurel, do you ski?” Laurel replied, “No, but I’d rather be skiing than doing what I’m doing.”