Frankenstein nearly came true in 1803, when Italian physicist Giovanni Aldini ran electric current through the newly dead body of murderer George Forster.
The prison record states that “on the first application of the process to the face, the jaws of the deceased criminal began to quiver, and the adjoining muscles were horribly contorted, and one eye was actually opened. In the subsequent part of the process the right hand was raised and clenched, and the legs and thighs were set in motion.”
One witness reportedly died of fright, but there was really no cause for alarm. If Forster had returned to life, the prison planned to re-execute him — after all, he’d been sentenced to “hang until he be dead.”
Between 1882 and 1930, Texans committed 492 lynchings. By most accounts, the most horrible of these was the 1916 slaying of Jesse Washington, a Waco farmhand who had confessed to the rape and murder of a white farmer’s wife.
A jury of 12 whites deliberated for four minutes before declaring Washington guilty. They called for the death penalty, but before authorities could act, he was dragged from the courtroom, doused with coal oil, and suspended alive over a bonfire. A witness wrote:
Washington was beaten with shovels and bricks … was castrated, and his ears were cut off. A tree supported the iron chain that lifted him above the fire. … Wailing, the boy attempted to climb up the skillet hot chain. For this, the men cut off his fingers.
Washington’s corpse was put in a cloth bag and dragged behind a car to Robinson, where it was hung from a pole. Northern newspapers condemned the lynching, but Texas was largely unrepentant. The image above is taken from a postcard (!); on the back someone has written, “This is the barbeque we had last night. My picture is to the left with a cross over it. Your son, Joe.”
Excerpt from the will of Joseph Dalby, London, 1784:
I give to my daughter Ann Spencer, a guinea for a ring, or any other bauble she may like better: — I give to the lout, her husband, one penny, to buy him a lark-whistle; I also give to her said husband, of redoubtable memory, my fart-hole, for a covering for his lark-whistle, to prevent the abrasion of his lips; and this legacy I give him as a mark of my approbation of his prowess and nice honour, in drawing his sword on me, (at my own table), naked and unarmed as I was, and he well fortified with custard.
Ruth Sprague, Daughter of Gibson and Elizabeth Sprague.
Died June 11, 1846, aged 9 years, 4 months, and 3 days.
She was stolen from the grave by Roderick R. Clow, dissected
at Dr. P.M. Armstrong’s office, in Hoosick, N. Y., from which
place her mutilated remains were obtained and deposited here.
Her body dissected by fiendish man,
Her bones anatomized,
Her soul, we trust, has risen to God,
Where few physicians rise.
— Epitaph, Hoosick Falls, N.Y.
3,400 workers built the Empire State Building.
A soldier of the 93d regiment, quartered in the barracks, was looked upon to be dead, and after having been laid out in the usual way during two days, was conveyed to the place of interment (St. Nicholas’s churchyard) on yesterday evening, when, on lowering the body into the grave, the soldiers assisting heard the noise of struggling in the coffin, and on examination found the man whom they were in the act of burying, endeavouring with his hands and knees to force up the lid. To their great surprise they found their comrade still alive, and conveyed him home in the open coffin. This should prove an additional warning against premature interment.
— Courier, June 13, 1815
Pity Lal Bihari: In 1976 the Indian farmer applied for a bank loan and learned he was dead. His uncle had arranged it in order to get control of his land.
This is fairly common in the crowded northern state of Uttar Pradesh, and it creates an odd predicament: If you complain too much about being dead, your enemies might kill you for real.
The struggle led Bihari to make some strangely existential demonstrations. He added the word “dead” to his name, signed his letters as the “late” Lal Bihari, organized his own funeral, and demanded a widow’s compensation for his wife.
Finally he was recalled to life in 1994, after 18 years in the grave. But the “association of the dead” that he founded has now grown to 20,000 members.
One of the officers of Haslar Hospital being dangerously ill, a medical gentleman who was attending him, had occasion, about two o’clock on Saturday morning, the 25th of December, 1814, to send the nurse from the officer’s house to the dispensary; the weather being bad, the nurse wrapped herself round with a piece of red baize, with which she covered, in part, a candle and lantern, to prevent the light from being blown out, as the wind was very high. The rays of light issuing from the red covering, to the imagination of a sentry at a distance, she appeared a terrific spectre; and as she approached him his fear so increased, that he ran from his post with haste to the guard-house, where, in about half an hour, he expired!
— Courier, Dec. 28, 1814
As a newcomer to the NBA in 1974, Atlanta Hawks shooting guard Pete Maravich told a Pennsylvania reporter, “I don’t want to play 10 years and then die of a heart attack when I’m 40.”
After a pickup game in 1988, Maravich suffered a heart attack and died. He was 40 years old.
On Dec. 1, 1948, a bather discovered a body on the beach near Adelaide, Australia. The man appeared to be European, about 45 years old, well dressed, and in excellent physical condition. Indeed, the coroner could not determine a cause of death. Still more strangely, it seemed the man had carried no money, and all identifying marks had been removed from his clothes. Apparently he had left a suitcase at the Adelaide railway station, but it contained no useful clues. Photos and fingerprints were circulated throughout the English-speaking world, but no one identified him.
And the body bore one last strange clue: In a trouser fob pocket, one of the investigators found a tiny piece of paper bearing the words “Taman Shud.” Those are the final words in the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam; they mean “The End.” A local doctor came forward with a copy of that book, from which the words had been clipped. He had found it tossed on the front seat of his car the day before the body was found.
But even that clue went nowhere. To this day, no one knows who the man was or how he died. He’s known only as the Somerton man.
In 1961, astronaut Gus Grissom nearly drowned after a splashdown when his Mercury capsule opened prematurely. He recommended making the hatch more secure.
Eight years later he died when Apollo 1 caught fire. The hatch had prevented his escape.
When you my friends are passing by,
And this inform you where I lie,
Remember you ere long must have,
Like me, a mansion in the grave,
Also 3 infants, 2 sons and a daughter.
— Tombstone in Pittsfied, Mass., cited in English as She Is Wrote, 1884
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.