Finale

schnittke gravestone

Composer Alfred Schnittke’s gravestone bears a musical staff with a semibreve rest under a fermata, indicating that the rest should be held as long as desired. It’s marked fff, or fortississimo, meaning that it should be performed very strongly.

Overall it might be interpreted to mean “a decided rest of indefinite length.”

Last Business

http://news.usask.ca/archived_ocn/09-jan-23/see_what_we_found.php

Working alone in his fields on June 8, 1948, Saskatchewan farmer Cecil George Harris accidentally put his tractor into reverse. It rolled backward, pinning his left leg under the rear wheel. His wife didn’t find him until 10:30 that night, and he died at the hospital.

Days later, surveying the scene of the accident, neighbors noticed that Harris had scratched an inscription into the tractor’s fender using his pocketknife:

In case I die in this mess, I leave all to the wife. Cecil Geo Harris.

The courts determined this to be a valid will. The fender was kept at the Kerrobert Courthouse until 1996; today it and the knife are displayed at the University of Saskatchewan law library.

Memento Mori

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Cornelius_Huyberts_Vanitas-Diorama_Frederik_Ruysch_1721.jpg

Dutch anatomist Frederik Ruysch had a curious sideline: He arranged fetal skeletons into allegorical dioramas on death and the transience of life. Set amid landscapes made of gallstones, kidney stones and preserved blood vessels, the skeletons are decorated with symbols of short life — one holds a mayfly, another weeps into a handkerchief made of brain meninges. Worms made of intestine wind through their rib cages. “Quotations and moral exhortations, emphasizing the brevity of life and the vanity of earthly riches, festooned the compositions,” notes Stephen Jay Gould in Finders, Keepers. “One fetal skeleton holding a string of pearls in its hand proclaims, ‘Why should I long for the things of this world?’ Another, playing a violin with a bow made of a dried artery, sings, ‘Ah fate, ah bitter fate.'”

Johannes Brandt, a Remonstrant teacher, wrote:

Oh, what are we? What remains of us when we are dead?
Behold, it is no living thing, but dry, bare bone instead.
Bladder stones you see in heaps, piled higher by the morrow:
Here one learns about life’s course through storms of pain and sorrow.
These wise lessons Ruysch presents with wit and erudition,
Amsterdam is fortunate to have this great physician.

Harms and the Man

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:US_Navy_040703-N-9362D-003_U.S._Naval_Hospital,_Guantanamo_Bay_Gitmo_staff_participates_in_an_emergency_room_training_exercise.jpg

The International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems (ICD) is a list of more than 10,000 diseases and maladies that patients might present. The medical community uses it for recordkeeping — for example, a patient admitted to the hospital with whooping cough would be logged in the database with code A37. Reader Will Beattie sent me a list of some of the stranger complaints on the list:

  • Urban rabies – A821
  • Lobster-claw hand, bilateral – Q7163
  • Fall into well – W170
  • Complete loss of teeth, unspecified cause – K0810
  • Pecked by turkey – W6143
  • O’nyong-nyong fever – A921
  • Hang glider explosion injuring occupant – V9615
  • Contact with hot toaster – X151
  • Major anomalies of jaw size – M260
  • Intrinsic sphincter deficiency (ISD) – N3642
  • Underdosing of cocaine – T405X6
  • Prolonged stay in weightless environment – X52

Will says his favorite so far is “Burn due to water skis on fire – V9107.” It’s a dangerous world,” he writes. “Be safe out there.”

Related: Each year the Occupational Safety and Health Administration publishes a list of workplace deaths, with a brief description of each incident:

  • Worker died when postal truck became partially submerged in lake.
  • Worker was caught between rotating drum and loading hopper of a ready-mix truck.
  • Worker fatally engulfed in dry cement when steel storage silo collapsed.
  • Worker on ladder struck and killed by lightning.
  • Worker was pulled into a tree chipper machine.
  • Worker was caught between two trucks and crushed.
  • Worker died when his head was impaled by metal from the drive section of a Ferris wheel. The employee slipped after acknowledging he was clear and the wheel began to turn, trapping his head.
  • Worker was draining a tank; one of the employees climbed to the top of the tank and lit a cigarette and waved it over the opening in the tank. The tank exploded, killing the worker.
  • Worker was kicked by an elephant.
  • Sheriff Deputy was walking through the woods, working a cold case, and fell 161 feet into a sink hole.

It’s hard to pick the worst one. “Worker was operating a skid-steer cleaning out a dairy cattle barn near an outdoor manure slurry pit. The skid-steer and the worker fell off the end of the push-off platform into the manure slurry pit, trapping the worker in the vehicle. Worker died of suffocation due to inhalation of manure.”

A Premonition

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Battle_of_Spottsylvania_by_Thure_de_Thulstrup.jpg

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

Exeunt

http://www.freeimages.com/photo/rideau-1196355

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

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Erik_Werenskiold_-_Bondebegravelse_(Nasjonalmuseet).jpg

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

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Elmer_McCurdy_in_coffin.png

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.

Intro:

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!

Expecting

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Embryo_Firearms,_1995.jpg
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.”

Recycling

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Naples_mummy.JPG
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.