Death

“Death by Falling From the Clouds”

robert cocking and parachute

The following is an account of the post-mortem examination of the body of Mr. Robert Cocking, aged sixty-one, who fell with a suicidal machine called a parachute, from the cord of a balloon which ascended from Vauxhall Gardens, on the 24th of July, 1837. The height which the balloon had reached when the parachute commenced its descent, is stated to have been 5000 feet. The instrument of death was simply a canvas toy, constructed in ignorance, and used with the hardihood which might distinguish an unfortunate being who contemplated his own destruction by extraordinary and wonder-exciting means,– an end which, without the motive, was more effectually attained, by the crushing of the parachute in the air as it dropped:–

On the right side.–The second, third, fourth, and fifth ribs broken near their junction, with their cartilages. The second, fourth, fifth, and sixth broken also near their junction with the vertebrae. The second, fourth, fifth, and sixth ribs also broken at their greatest convexity.
On the left side.–The second, third, fourth, and sixth ribs broken near their cartilages, and also near their angles.
The clavicle on the right side fractured at the junction of the external with the middle third.
The second lumbar vertebra fractured through its body; the transverse processes of several of the lumbar vertebrae broken.
Comminuted fracture and separation of the bones of the pelvis at the sacro-iliac symphyses.
The ossa nasi fractured.
The right ankle dislocated inwards; the astragalus and os calcis fractured.
The viscera of the head, chest, and abdomen free from any morbid appearances.

F.C. Finch, G. Macilwain, W. Maugham, T. Greenwood, W. Thompson, surgeons

Lancet, Aug. 5, 1837

Exit Lines

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Last words of executed criminals:

  • “Mercy! Mercy! Mercy! Don’t hang me! I can’t die! I’m not ready to die! I don’t want to die!” — North Carolina burglar Henry F. Andrews, 1879
  • “Where is my little boy? Look at me, my son, and take warning.” — Louisiana murderer Edward Rector, 1884
  • “What time is it? I wish you’d hurry up. I want to get to hell in time for dinner.” — Wyoming murderer John Owens, 1886
  • “These are for my sister [taking off her eyeglasses]. Please see that she gets them.” — Vermont murderer Mary Mabel Rogers, 1905
  • “They can’t kill a smile!” — Montana murderer Harrison Gibson, smiling, 1917
  • “I have something of interest to tell –” — California murderer Paul Rowland, cut off by his hanging, 1929
  • “Make it snappy.” — California murderer Charles H. Simpson, 1931
  • “You might get me a gas mask.” — Arizona murderer Jack Sullivan, 1936
  • “So long.” — Utah robber and murderer James Joseph Roedl, 1945
  • “Kiss my ass.” — John Wayne Gacy, to a prison guard, 1994
  • “Merry Christmas.” — Virginia rapist and murderer Lem Tuggle, 1996

Before his lethal injection in 2007, Arizona murderer Robert Comer said, “Go Raiders.”

“Curious Question of Survivorship”

A curious case has recently been decided in England. A Mr. and Mrs. Hambling were both killed by a falling building. The husband was taken from the ruins quite dead, while the body of his wife was warm. The question was raised whether it could be safely presumed that the wife survived her husband, as this would cause a variation in the distribution of the property. The court decided against the supposition.

Ballou’s Dollar Monthly Magazine, June 1859

Unquote

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“If some persons died, and others did not die, death would indeed be a terrible affliction.” — Jean de la Bruyère

Late

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Alexander Woollcott asked that his ashes be scattered at his alma mater, Hamilton College in Utica, N.Y.

Somehow they were misdirected to Colgate University, and they arrived at Hamilton with 67 cents postage due.

He once wrote, “Many of us spend half of our time wishing for things we could have if we didn’t spend half our time wishing.”

Death Mundane

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Uninspired last words:

  • “Peter, take good care of my horse.” — Winfield Scott
  • “Have you brought the checkbook, Alfred?” — Samuel Butler
  • “Take away those pillows — I shall need them no more.” — Lewis Carroll
  • “You heard me, Mike.” — John Barrymore
  • “I haven’t drunk champagne for a long time.” — Chekhov
  • “I can’t sleep.” — James M. Barrie
  • “Moose. Indian.” — Thoreau
  • “I’ve never felt better.” — Douglas Fairbanks
  • “The nourishment is palatable.” — Millard Fillmore

Told jokingly that he had drunk a dose of ink by mistake, Sydney Smith said, “Then bring me all the blotting paper there is in the house.”

Legal Grief

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According to tradition, barristers wear black because they’re still in mourning for Queen Mary II, who died in 1694.

Or, properly speaking, they adopted black on Mary’s death at the wish of William III and have retained it as a convenient costume ever since.

Mary is most commonly cited; sometimes another Stuart queen is named. Sir Frederick Pollock, who served as Chief Baron of the Exchequer for more than 25 years, famously joked that the whole bar went into mourning in the time of Queen Anne (Mary’s younger sister) and never came out again.

He wrote, “I have always been told that formerly the Bar wore, in Court, coats, &c. of any colour under the gown, which also need not have been black; but that on the death of Queen Anne the Bar went into mourning, and since then every barrister has generally worn black.”

Memorial

John T—-, Schoolmaster.
May he be punished as often as he punished us,
He was a hard old shell.
He said the Lord’s Prayer every morning.
May the Lord forgive him as often as he forgave us.
That was never.
We his scholars rear this stone over his ashes
Though they are not worth it.
We are glad his reign is over.
Amen.

– Massachusetts tombstone, quoted in John R. Kippax, Churchyard Literature, 1876

Unquote

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“He who fears death either fears to lose all sensation or fears new sensations. In reality, you will either feel nothing at all, and therefore nothing evil, or else, if you can feel any sensations, you will be a new creature, and so will not have ceased to have life.” — Marcus Aurelius

Waste Not, Want Not

Another gentleman, mentioned in the text-books … seemed to have a ruling passion against waste, which the court respected. The testator devised his property to a stranger, thus wholly disinheriting the heir or next of kin, and directed that his executors should cause some parts of his bowels to be converted into fiddle strings; that others should be sublimed into smelling salts, and that the remainder of his body should be vitrified into lenses for optical purposes. In a letter attached to the will the testator said: ‘The world may think this to be done in a spirit of singularity or whim, but I have a mortal aversion to funeral pomp, and I wish my body to be converted into purposes useful to mankind.’

– Basil Jones, “Eccentricities of Sane Testators,” Law Notes, November 1908

Immemorial

New Mexico’s Santa Fe National Cemetery contains 16,000 headstones and only one statue, a life-size sandstone carving of Army private Dennis O’Leary, who died in 1901 at age 23.

Legend has it that O’Leary was stationed at lonely Fort Wingate, where he carved the statue himself, inscribed the death date, and shot himself. Military records show that a Pvt. Dennis O’Leary died of tuberculosis on this date. But then who carved the statue, and why?

Illiterate Epitaphs

Gertrude Walker died in 1893 at age 4 and lies in Lt. John Walker Cemetery near White Horn, Tenn. Her gravestone reads:

GONE TO BE AN ANGLE

John Young, who died in 1836, lies in St. Andrew’s churchyard in Staten Island, New York. His reads:

THOSE THAT KNEW HIM BEST DEPLORED HIM MOST

The epitaph of James Ewins of East Derry, N.H., reads:

MY GLASS IS RUM

The stonecutter cut an M in place of an N.

(From Charles Langworthy Wallis, Stories on Stone, 1954)

The Bird of the Oxenhams

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In a letter dated July 3, 1632, historian James Howell tells of seeing a curious monument in a London stonecutter’s shop: “Here lies John Oxenham, a goodly young Man, in whose Chamber, as he was struggling with the pangs of death, a Bird with a white breast was seen fluttering about his bed, and so vanished.” Howell says the same apparition attended the deaths of Oxenham’s sister, son, and mother.

He wrote that “This stone is to be sent to a Town hard by Exeter, where this happened.”

An anonymous pamphlet published nine years later gives essentially the same story. A True Relation of an Apparition in the Likeness of a Bird with a White Breast, That Appeared Hovering Over the Death-Beds of Some of the Children of Mr. James Oxenham, of Sale Monchorum, Gent. reports that a ghostly bird had appeared at the deathbeds of John, his mother, his daughter, and an infant.

On looking into this, Sabine Baring-Gould could find no trace of the monument in the Oxenham family’s parish, and the apparition isn’t mentioned on other Oxenham graves. He concludes that many of Howell’s published letters were not genuine but “were first written when he was in the Fleet prison, to gain money for the relief of his necessities.”

Creepy, though. See The Gormanston Foxes.

Intriguing Epitaphs

Grave marker in Folsom, N.M.:

In honored memory of Sarah J. Rooke
Telephone Operator
Who perished in the flood waters
of the Dry Cimarron at Folsom
New Mexico, August 27, 1908
while at her switchboard warning
others of the danger. With heroic
devotion she glorified her calling
by sacrificing her own life that
others might live.

Old South Cemetery, Montague, Mass.:

In Memory of Mr. Elijah Bardwell
who died Janry 26th 1786 in ye 27th
Year of his Age having but a few days
surviv’d ye fatal Night when he was
flung from his Horse & drawn by ye Stirrup
26 rods along ye path as appear’d by ye place
where his hat was found & where he had
Spent ye whole following severe cold night
treading ye Snow in a Small Circle.

Emily Spear, died 1901, age 64, Glendale Cemetery, Cardington, Ohio:

My husband
promised me
that my
body should
be cremated
but other
influences
prevailed.

Lizzie Angell, died 1932, age 83, Forest Hill Cemetery, East Derry, N.H.:

I don’t know how to die.

Jennie E. Wilson, died 1882, age 29, College Hill Cemetery, Lebanon, Ill.:

She was more to me
Than I expected.

In Memoriam

Speaking of unfortunate names …

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From Cedar Grove Cemetery, Patchogue, N.Y.

“People always grow up like their names,” wrote George Orwell. “It took me nearly thirty years to work off the effects of being called Eric.”

(Thanks, Neil.)

Reaper Madness

Suppose we find some coherent way to formulate the view that a person’s death is a misfortune for him because it deprives him of goods. Then we face another Epicurean question: when is it a misfortune for him? It seems wrong to say that it is a misfortune for him while he is still alive — for at such times he is not yet dead and death has not yet deprived him of anything. It seems equally wrong to say that it is a misfortune for him after he is dead — for at such times he does not exist. How can he suffer misfortunes then?

– Fred Feldman, “Some Puzzles About the Evil of Death,” The Philosophical Review, April 1991

Exit Strategies

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The Roman senator who dies as a result of plunging a dagger into his heart commits suicide. He kills himself. But what about the twentieth-century suicide who places his head on the railway line and is crushed to death by the train he normally catches each morning to the office? Wasn’t he killed by the train? Then did he kill himself into the bargain too? Exactly what was it that killed him? What do you have to have done in order to count as having killed yourself?

– T.S. Champlin, Reflexive Paradoxes, 1988

Partisan Epitaphs

Through this inscription I wish to enter my dying protest against what is called the Democratic Party. I have watched it closely since the days of Jackson and know that all the misfortunes of our Nation have come to it through the so called party. Therefore beware of this party of treason.

– N. Grigsby (1812-1890), Attica, Kan.

He believed that nothing but the success of the Democratic Party would ever save this Union.

– Elisha Bowman (1832-1865), Pekin, Ind.

The Family of Robert T. Hallenbeck
None of us ever voted for
Roosevelt or Truman

– Elgin, Minn.

Kind friends I’ve
Left behind
Cast your vote for
Jennings Bryan.

– B.H. Norris (1849-1900), Montgomery City, Mo.

Sacred to the memory of Henry Devine
a native of Ireland,
who died in Port Gibson
November 7th, 1844. Aged 32 years.
During the protracted illness which preceded
his death the deceased often expressed a wish
only to live long enough to vote for Henry
Clay for the Presidency. His wish was granted.
The last act of his life was to vote the Whig
ticket having done which he declared that he
died satisfied.

– Wintergreen Cemetery, Port Gibson, Miss.

Dead Letters

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In a trance in 1926, medium Geraldine Cummins wrote out messages transmitted to her by a disembodied spirit who had died 1900 years earlier. Architect Frederick Bligh Bond transcribed, punctuated, and arranged the messages. When Bond published these in a newspaper, Cummins sued him. This raises an interesting legal question: Who holds the copyright?

In an extempore judgment, Justice J. Eve wrote that, although all parties agreed that “the true originator of all that is found in these documents is some being no longer inhabiting this world,” the medium’s “active cooperation” had helped to translate them into modern language. This might make her a joint author with the disembodied spirit, but “recognizing as I do that I have no jurisdiction extending to the sphere in which he moves,” he found that “authorship rests with this lady.”

Bond had claimed that the writing had no living author, that, in Eve’s words, “the authorship and copyright rest with some one already domiciled on the other side of the inevitable river.” But “That is a matter I must leave for solution by others more competent to decide it than I am. I can only look upon the matter as a terrestrial one, of the earth earthy, and I propose to deal with it on that footing. In my opinion the plaintiff has made out her case, and the copyright rests with her.”

R.I.P.

A man was killed by a circular saw, and in his obituary notice it was stated that he was ‘a good citizen, an upright man and an ardent patriot, but of limited information with regard to circular saws.’

– James Baird McClure, ed., Entertaining Anecdotes From Every Available Source, 1879

All Bark

So death, the most terrifying of ills, is nothing to us, since so long as we exist, death is not with us; but when death comes, then we do not exist. It does not then concern either the living or the dead, since for the former it is not, and the latter are no more.

– Epicurus

L’Inconnue

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In the late 1880s, the body of a 16-year-old girl was pulled from the Seine. She was apparently a suicide, as her body showed no marks of violence, but her beauty and her enigmatic smile led a Paris pathologist to order a plaster death mask of her face.

In the romantic atmosphere of fin de siècle Europe the girl’s face became an ideal of feminine beauty. The protagonist of Rainer Maria Rilke’s 1910 novel The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge writes, “The mouleur, whose shop I pass every day, has hung two plaster masks beside his door. [One is] the face of the young drowned woman, which they took a cast of in the morgue, because it was beautiful, because it smiled, because it smiled so deceptively, as if it knew.”

Ironically, in 1958 the anonymous girl’s features were used to model the first-aid mannequin Rescue Annie, on which thousands of students have practiced CPR. Though the girl’s identity remains a mystery, her face, it’s said, has become “the most kissed face of all time.”

Dry Run

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In 1951 Colorado farmer Jim Gernhart held a rehearsal of his own funeral. He watched as eight pallbearers carried a casket from his home to a waiting hearse, then attended it to the local armory, where almost half of Burlington, Colo., turned out for a funeral sermon by the Rev. S.H. Mahaffey.

Gernhart also bought a $465 headstone and a cemetery lot, and the local newspaper even published an obituary. “Real nice funeral, ain’t it?” Gernhart remarked. “Does a man good to see so many people out to bury him.”

Dress Blues

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“All this buttoning and unbuttoning.”

– Anonymous 18th-century suicide note, cited in The Oxford Dictionary Of Quotations