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.”
Inventors killed by their own inventions:
- According to the Bible, Haman was hanged by the gallows he invented.
- William Bullock (1813-1837) was crushed to death while trying to fix a rotary printing press he’d invented.
- Otto Lilienthal died in 1896 after a crash in one of his hang gliders.
- Thomas Midgley Jr. strangled in the cord of a pulley-operated mechanical bed he’d designed in 1944.
- Alexander Bogdanov, a Russian physician, died when he accepted a “rejuvenating” transfusion of blood infected with malaria and tuberculosis.
And Jim Fixx, author of The Complete Book of Running, died of a heart attack while jogging.
Stereocard of no man’s land near Lens, France, during World War I.
Just as I was beginning to forget there were such things as trenches and shrapnel and snipers, they told me a horrible story of two Camerons who got stuck in the mud and sucked down to their shoulders. They took an hour and a half getting one out, and just as they said to the other, “All right, Jock, we’ll have you out in a minute,” he threw back his head and laughed, and in doing so got sucked right under, and is there still. They said there was no sort of possibility of getting him out; it was like a quicksand. …
They told me another story of a man in the Royal Scots who was sunk in mud up to his shoulders, and the officer offered a canteen of rum and a sovereign to the first man who could get him out. For five hours thirteen men were digging for him, but it filled up always as they dug, and when they got him out he died.
— Anonymous, Diary of a Nursing Sister on the Western Front, 1914-1915
Colorful New York gang names, 1825-1920:
- Baxter Street Dudes
- Car Barn Gang
- Corcoran’s Roosters
- Crazy Butch Gang
- Daybreak Boys
- Forty Little Thieves
- Gas House Gang
- Gopher Gang
- Hudson Dusters
- Humpty Jackson Gang
- Italian Dave Gang
- Mandelbaum Gang
- Squab Wheelman Gang
- Yakey Yakes
Slobbery Jim of the Daybreak Boys cut Patsy the Barber’s throat in a fight over 12 cents in 1853. He later rose to the rank of captain in the Confederate army.
Bela Lugosi was buried in a cape.
Countries with highest suicide rates (totals per 100,000 people per year, as of June 2006):
- Lithuania: 42.1
- Russian Federation: 38.7
- Belarus: 35.1
- Kazakhstan: 28.8
- Slovenia: 28.1
- Hungary: 27.7
- Estonia: 27.3
- Ukraine: 26.1
- Latvia: 26.0
- Japan: 23.8
The U.S. is ranked number 45.
Bob Marley was buried with a guitar, a soccer ball, a bud of marijuana, and a Bible.
The “Hollywood sign” started as an advertisement for a housing development in the 1920s, but a deeper symbolism soon became clear.
In 1932, actress Peg Entwistle committed suicide by jumping to her death from the letter “H”.
Actors who appeared in The Conqueror (1956) and subsequently died of cancer:
- John Wayne
- Susan Hayward
- Agnes Moorehead
- Pedro Armendáriz
- Chief Tahachee
- Dick Powell
The movie, in which Wayne played Genghis Khan, was shot in St. George, Utah, downwind of Nevada open-air nuclear testing, and producer Howard Hughes had 60 tons of dirt shipped back to Hollywood for use in reshoots.
By 1981, 91 of the 220 cast and crew had developed some form of cancer, and more than half of them were already dead.
“With these numbers, this case could qualify as an epidemic,” said University of Utah biologist Robert Pendleton. “In a group this size you’d expect only 30-some cancers to develop. … I think the tie-in to their exposure on the set of The Conqueror would hold up in a court of law.”
Franz Reichelt dreamed big. In 1911 the Austrian tailor designed a garment that he hoped would serve as a combination overcoat/parachute. Never one for half measures, he tested it by leaping from the Eiffel Tower.
The sad/romantic results were caught on film, including Reichelt’s long hesitation on the brink, his fatal fall and a measurement of the hole he left behind.
“If you’re not failing every now and again,” said Woody Allen, “it’s a sign you’re not doing anything very innovative.”
The first known serial killer was actually a woman, known as Locusta, a professional poisoner who lived in Rome during the first century A.D.
In 54, she killed the Emperor Claudius with a poisoned dish of mushrooms, and the following year she was convicted of a separate poisoning. Hearing of this, Nero rescued her from execution — so she could poison Britannicus for him.
They made a good partnership, Nero guaranteeing her safety during his lifetime, but when he died the Romans took an awful revenge. According to legend, Locusta was publicly raped by a specially trained giraffe, then torn apart by wild animals. Talk about cruel and unusual.
Poet Charles Bukowski’s gravestone reads “Don’t Try.”
Writers who committed suicide:
- John Berryman
- Hart Crane
- Will Cuppy
- William Inge
- Arthur Koestler
- Jerzy Kosinski
- Primo Levi
- Vachel Lindsay
- Sylvia Plath
- Anne Sexton
- Hunter S. Thompson
- John Kennedy Toole
- Virginia Woolf
“The real reason for not committing suicide,” wrote Hemingway, “is because you always know how swell life gets again after the hell is over.” He killed himself in 1961.
A young boy who drowned on the Titanic. Despite the frightful loss of life, the evacuating passengers generally behaved honorably — giving women first place in the lifeboats, for instance, regardless of their class. 55 percent of third-class women survived, compared to 33 percent of first-class men.
When singer Warren Zevon (“Werewolves of London”) was diagnosed with cancer in 2002, he said he just hoped to live long enough to see the next James Bond movie.
The film was called Die Another Day.
“… six famished and ghastly skeletons, to all appearance dead, huddled in a corner, their sole covering what seemed to be a ragged horse cloth, and their wretched legs hanging about, naked above the knees. I approached in horror and found by a low moaning that they were alive, they were in fever — four children, a woman and what had once been a man. … In a few minutes I was surrounded by at least 200 of such phantoms, such frightful spectres as no words can describe. By far the greater number were delirious either from famine or fever. … Within 500 yards of the Cavalry Station at Skibbereen, the dispensary doctor found seven wretches lying, unable to move, under the same cloak — one had been dead many hours, but the others were unable to move, either themselves or the corpse.”
— From a letter by a Mr. O’Brien to the Duke of Wellington describing a visit to Skibbereen during the Irish potato famine, Dec. 17, 1846
In May 2005, someone delivered a box of ashes to the council chambers of Queanbeyan, a city in New South Wales, Australia. It was engraved with the words “Elizabeth Clarke Cunningham, Aged 59 years, Died 13 June 1997.”
The box was passed on to the New South Wales police, but no one has been able to discover who Cunningham was, whether she had any relatives, or who delivered her ashes.
How frail is man–how short life’s longest day!
Here lies the worthy Potter, turned to clay!
Whose forming hand, and whose reforming care,
Has left us full of flaws. Vile earthenware!
— The Mirror of Literature, Amusement, and Instruction, Jan. 15, 1831
In China you can send money to your dead relatives. “Hell banknotes” are burned in a traditional ceremony, after which dead ancestors can use them to bribe the king of hell for a shorter stay.
They’re starting to use credit cards.
Kermit the Frog spoke at ventriloquist Edgar Bergen’s funeral.
In western Namibia, there’s a deadly strip of beach where the Namib Desert runs right up against the South Atlantic Ocean. Shipwrecked sailors who landed there found themselves trapped between heavy surf on one side and hundreds of miles of desert on the other. Many starved to death right there on the beach.
It’s called the Skeleton Coast.