In 1940, just before the release of her film They Knew What They Wanted, Carole Lombard’s press agent, Russell Birdwell, approached the filmmakers with a novel publicity scheme. Lombard would be scheduled to fly to New York for the opening, but they would arrange for the plane to “go down” en route and remain missing for 12 hours.

“And in those twelve hours, fellas, we’re going to be on every goddam front page in the United States of America,” Birdwell said. “Not only Carole Lombard’s name, but the name of the picture and the name of the theatre it’s going to open at and how would you like to foot the bill for that kind of advertising?” He planned that eventually Lombard and the pilot could wander out of the woods saying that the plane’s engines and radio had died.

In his 1967 memoir Hollywood, director Garson Kanin remembers that in the meeting Lombard began to slap her thigh, yelling, “I’ll die! I’ll die! Isn’t that something? I’ll die!”

Birdwell’s plan was considered seriously but finally canceled due to the cost. Two years later, Lombard died in a plane crash in Nevada. “I could hear Carole’s voice and the sound of her hand slapping her thigh, her voice yelling delightedly, ‘I’ll die! I’ll die!'” Kanin wrote. “I remembered Russell Birdwell’s notion of the fake crash for publicity. I stood there hoping against hope that perhaps this was a postponed version of his scheme. … Carole Lombard … could not be dead at thirty-five. But she was.”

(Thanks, Ted.)

Last Words

Amelia Earhart left behind what she called “popping off letters,” to be opened in the event of her death. This one, discovered by her husband and biographer, George Putnam, was addressed to her father:

May 20, 1928

Dearest Dad:

Hooray for the last grand adventure! I wish I had won, but it was worth while anyway. You know that.

I have no faith we’ll meet anywhere again, but I wish we might.

Anyway, good-by and good luck to you.

Affectionately, your doter,


Another, addressed to her mother, read simply, “Even though I have lost, the adventure was worth while. Our family tends to be too secure. My life has really been very happy, and I don’t mind contemplating its end in the midst of it.”

A Late Contribution

A ghost co-authored a mathematics paper in 1990. When Pierre Cartier edited a Festschrift in honor of Alexander Grothendieck’s 60th birthday, Robert Thomas contributed an article that was co-signed by his recently deceased friend Thomas Trobaugh. He explained:

The first author must state that his coauthor and close friend, Tom Trobaugh, quite intelligent, singularly original, and inordinately generous, killed himself consequent to endogenous depression. Ninety-four days later, in my dream, Tom’s simulacrum remarked, ‘The direct limit characterization of perfect complexes shows that they extend, just as one extends a coherent sheaf.’ Awaking with a start, I knew this idea had to be wrong, since some perfect complexes have a non-vanishing K0 obstruction to extension. I had worked on this problem for 3 years, and saw this approach to be hopeless. But Tom’s simulacrum had been so insistent, I knew he wouldn’t let me sleep undisturbed until I had worked out the argument and could point to the gap. This work quickly led to the key results of this paper. To Tom, I could have explained why he must be listed as a coauthor.

Thomason himself died suddenly five years later of diabetic shock, at age 43. Perhaps the two are working again together somewhere.

(Robert Thomason and Thomas Trobaugh, “Higher Algebraic K-Theory of Schemes and of Derived Categories,” in P. Cartier et al., eds., The Grothendieck Festschrift Volume III, 1990.)


I should have wished also to have referred to some of the serio-comic duels, such as that fought by the famous critic Sainte-Beuve against M. Dubois, of the Globe newspaper. When the adversaries arrived on the ground it was raining heavily. Sainte-Beuve had brought an umbrella and some sixteenth-century flint-lock pistols. When the signal to fire was about to be given, Sainte-Beuve still kept his umbrella open. The seconds protested, but Sainte-Beuve resisted, saying, ‘I am quite ready to be killed, but I do not wish to catch cold.’

— Theodore Child, “Duelling in Paris,” Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, March 1887

Podcast Episode 37: Edgar Allan Poe’s Graveyard Visitor

For most of the 20th century, a man in black appeared each year at the grave of Edgar Allan Poe. In the predawn hours of January 19, he would drink a toast with French cognac and leave behind three roses in a distinctive arrangement. No one knows who he was or why he did this. In this episode of the Futility Closet podcast we review the history of the “Poe Toaster” and his long association with the great poet’s memorial.

We’ll also consider whether Winnie-the-Pooh should be placed on Ritalin and puzzle over why a man would shoot an unoffending monk.

Sources for our segment on the Poe Toaster:

“Mystery Man’s Annual Visit to Poe Grave,” China Daily, Jan. 20, 2008.

“Poe Toaster Remains a Mystery,” WBAL Radio, Jan. 19, 2013.

“‘Toaster’ Rejects French Cognac at Poe’s grave,” Washington Times, Jan. 19, 2004.

Sarah Brumfield, “Poe Fans Call an End to ‘Toaster’ Tradition,” AP News, Jan. 19, 2012.

Liz F. Kay, “Poe Toaster Tribute Is ‘Nevermore’,” Baltimore Sun, Jan. 19, 2010.

Michael Madden, “Yes, Virginia, There Is a Poe Toaster,” Baltimore Sun, Jan. 26, 2011.

Mary Carole McCauley, “Poe Museum Could Reopen in Fall,” Baltimore Sun, Jan. 20, 2013.

Ben Nuckols and Joseph White, “Edgar Allan Poe’s Mysterious Birthday Visitor Doesn’t Show This Year,” Huffington Post, March 21, 2010 (accessed Dec. 1, 2014).

Here’s the only known photo of the toaster, taken at his 1990 apparition and published in the July 1990 issue of Life magazine:

poe toaster

The psychiatric diagnoses of Winnie-the-Pooh and his friends appear in Sarah E. Shea, Kevin Gordon, Ann Hawkins, Janet Kawchuk, and Donna Smith, “Pathology in the Hundred Acre Wood: A Neurodevelopmental Perspective on A.A. Milne,” Canadian Medical Association Journal, Dec. 12, 2000.

Many thanks to Harry’s for supporting this week’s episode. Enter coupon code CLOSETHOLIDAY and get $5 off a Winter Winston set at

You can listen using the player above, download this episode directly, or subscribe on iTunes or via the RSS feed at

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

If you have any questions or comments you can reach us at Thanks for listening!

A Puzzling Exit

Canadian doctor Samuel Bean created a curious tombstone for his first two wives, Henrietta and Susanna, who died in succession in the 1860s and are buried side by side in Rushes Cemetery near Crosshill, Wellesley Township, Ontario. The original stone weathered badly and was replaced with this durable granite replica in 1982. What does it say?

Click for Answer

Death Poems

In Japanese culture it is traditional to write a “farewell poem to life,” or jisei, as death approaches. Zen monk Kozan Ichikyo wrote this verse on the morning of his death in 1360:

Empty-handed I entered the world
Barefoot I leave it.
My coming, my going —
Two simple happenings
That got entangled.

And monk Mumon Gensen wrote this in 1390:

Life is like a cloud of mist
Emerging from a mountain cave
And death
A floating moon
In its celestial course.
If you think too much
About the meaning they may have
You’ll be bound forever
Like an ass to a stake.

On March 17, 1945, Gen. Tadamichi Kuribayashi sent a letter to Imperial headquarters apologizing for ceding Iwo Jima to American forces. He closed with a death poem:

Unable to complete this heavy task for our country
Arrows and bullets all spent, so sad we fall.
But unless I smite the enemy,
My body cannot rot in the field.
Yea, I shall be born again seven times
And grasp the sword in my hand.
When ugly weeds cover this island,
My sole thought shall be the Imperial Land.

His body could not be identified later — it appears that prior to the final battle he removed his officer’s insignia in order to fight among his men as an ordinary soldier.

Romance Denied

James Bosworth survived the Charge of the Light Brigade in 1854 and went on to become a railway stationmaster in Southampton, England, where he died in an accident at age 70. His epitaph reads:

Though shot and shell flew around fast,
On Balaclava’s plain,
Unscathed he passed, to fall at last,
Run over by a train.

(Thanks, Doug.)

Parting Words

The 2007 funeral of Amir Vehabović was poorly attended — 46 people had been invited to the ceremony, but only his mother turned up.

The other 45 received this letter:

To all my dear ‘friends,’

Some of you I have known since early school days, others I have only forged a relationship with in the last few years. Until my ‘funeral,’ I considered all of you close friends. So it was with shock and, I admit, sadness and anger that I realized not one of you managed to find the time to come and say goodbye to me when you heard I was to be buried. I would have understood if just some of you came, bearing flowers or words of apology from others who could not make it. But no. Not a single one of you turned up to pay your last respects. I lived for our friendships. They meant as much to me as life itself. But how easy it was for you all to forget the pledges of undying friendship I heard on so many occasions. How different our ideas of friendship seem to be. I paid a lot of money to get a fake death certificate and to bribe undertakers to handle an empty coffin. I thought my funeral would be a good joke — the kind of prank we have all played on one another over the years. Now I have just one last message for you: my ‘funeral’ might have been staged, but you might as well consider me dead, because I will not be seeing any of you again.

Stage Fright

“Not to be born is, past all prizing, best,” wrote Sophocles. Does this mean that life is not worth living? For surely that judgment must be made from “inside” a lived life, whose subjective judgments are always open to question.

In four U.S. states a severely disabled child can sue a doctor for “wrongful life” for bringing him into the world. In 1980 the California Court of Appeal wrote:

The reality of the ‘wrongful-life’ concept is that such a plaintiff both exists and suffers, due to the negligence of others. It is neither necessary nor just to retreat into meditation on the mysteries of life. We need not be concerned with the fact that had defendants not been negligent, the plaintiff might not have come into existence at all. The certainty of genetic impairment is no longer a mystery. In addition, a reverent appreciation of life compels recognition that plaintiff, however impaired she may be, has come into existence as a living person with certain rights.

The rest of us, it seems, must find a way to be philosophical. After all, Lionel Tollemache wrote, “If there is more pain than pleasure in life, were not Hyder Ali and Napoleon, who put so many human sufferers out of existence, deserving of praise as beneficent heroes?”