In 1981, wildlife photographer Carl McCunn paid a bush pilot to drop him near the Coleen River in northern Alaska. He thought he’d arranged for the pilot to pick him up again.
State troopers found his body the following year. He had tried to winterize his tent, then shot himself in the head. A 100-page diary read, “I think I should have used more foresight about arranging my departure.”
Byron wasn’t shy with his political opinions — he proposed this epitaph for Lord Castlereagh, who died in 1822:
Posterity will ne’er survey
A nobler grave than this:
Here lie the bones of Castlereagh:
Stop, traveller, and piss.
An ingenious American lately computed that in the United States alone, half-a-ton of pure gold, equivalent to half-a-million of dollars, was annually put, as stuffing, into the teeth of the living, or otherwise employed by the dentist on people’s food-grinding apparatus; and inasmuch as none of this precious metal is ever extracted after death, our shrewd calculator ‘reckoned’ that, at this rate, a quantity of gold equal to all that now in circulation would, in the course of three centuries, be lying buried in the earth. It is strange to think that one digger, the sexton to wit, is constantly returning to mother earth nearly as much gold as the other digger is constantly extracting from her bosom.
– Patrick Maxwell, Pribbles and Prabbles, 1906
On Feb. 23, 1885, convicted murderer John Lee of Devon was brought to the scaffold and positioned on the trapdoor. The noose was fitted around his neck, and executioner James Berry pulled the lever.
Two warders tried to force the trapdoor to open under Lee, but they failed. They removed the condemned man and tested the door, and it worked. So they put Lee in position again, and again Berry pulled the lever.
Again nothing happened.
Exasperated, the warders again put Lee aside and set to work on the door, this time with hatchets. When they were satisfied, they returned him to the scaffold, and Berry pulled the lever a third time.
So the Home Secretary commuted Lee’s sentence to life imprisonment.
A marble-cutter, inscribing the words,–’Lord, she was thine’ upon a tombstone, found that he had not figured his spaces correctly and he reached the end of the stone one letter short. The epitaph therefore read:
‘Lord, she was thin.’
– Frederic William Unger, Epitaphs, 1904
Cited in Epitaphiana: or, The Curiosities of Churchyard Literature, 1873.
A tied football match in southern Congo came to an unexpected conclusion on Oct. 28, 1998, when a lightning bolt struck and killed all 11 members of the visiting team.
“The athletes from [home team] Basanga curiously came out of this catastrophe unscathed,” reported the Kinshasa newspaper L’Avenir.
“The exact nature of the lightning has divided the population in this region, which is known for its use of fetishes in football.”
Here lies the body of Thomas Woodhen,
The most loving of husbands and amiable of men.
N.B.–His name was Woodcock, but it wouldn’t rhyme.
Erected by his loving widow.
From Epitaphiana: or, The Curiosities of Churchyard Literature, 1873.
Another great man who lost his head after death: René Descartes. The French philosopher died in Sweden in 1650 and was interred there for 16 years. When his body was exhumed for return to France, the ambassador appropriated his right index finger (“the instrument of immortal writing”) and, apparently inspired, one of the Swedish guards took the skull, engraving on it “Descartes’ skull, taken and carefully kept by Israel Planstrom when the body was sent to France and hidden since that time.”
The skull bounced around Europe for 150 years, with various owners carving their names on it; it was discovered missing only when the coffin was opened again in 1819. A Swedish chemist, no doubt rolling his eyes, tracked it down and returned it to the French academy.
Bonus beheading: When Sir Walter Raleigh was executed in 1618, his head was embalmed and given to his wife. She kept it until her death in 1647, when it was returned to Raleigh’s tomb in Westminster Abbey.
Excerpt from the 1791 will of an English gentleman who had been sent unwillingly to live in Tipperary:
I give and bequeath the annual sum of ten pounds, to be paid in perpetuity out of my estate, to the following purpose. It is my will and pleasure that this sum shall be spent in the purchase of a certain quantity of the liquor vulgarly called whisky, and it shall be publicly given out that a certain number of persons, Irish only, not to exceed twenty, who may choose to assemble in the cemetery in which I shall be interred, on the anniversary of my death, shall have the same distributed to them. Further, it is my desire that each shall receive it by half-a-pint at a time till the whole is consumed, each being likewise provided with a stout oaken stick and a knife, and that they shall drink it all on the spot. Knowing what I know of the Irish character, my conviction is, that with these materials given, they will not fail to destroy each other, and when in the course of time the race comes to be exterminated, this neighbourhood at least may, perhaps, be colonized by civilized and respectable Englishmen.
From Virgil McClure Harris, Ancient, Curious and Famous Wills, 1911.
Terrified of being buried alive, Hannah Beswick left a bequest to her family physician, Charles White, on condition that she be kept above ground for 100 years. So when she died in 1758, White added her embalmed corpse to his collection of anatomical preparations, and every day he and two witnesses raised the veil and confirmed that she was indeed dead.
But 100 years is a long time, and the observations passed from reverent to perfunctory and finally absurd. The doctor eventually stored the mummy in an old grandfather clock, whose face he would open once a year to check on the patient, and when he died Miss Beswick was actually put on display in the entrance hall of the Manchester Natural History Museum, from which, wrote Edith Sitwell, the “cold dark shadow of her mummy hung over Manchester in the middle of the eighteenth century.”
Only in 1868, 110 years after her death, did the secretary of state issue an order for Hannah’s burial, and she was interred in an unmarked grave. Perhaps by that time she was glad of the rest.
See also My Dearly Departed.
Conclusion of an epitaph on a tombstone in eastern Tennessee:
She lived a life of virtue, and died of cholera morbus, caused by eating green fruit, in the full hope of a blessed immortality, at the early age of twenty-one years, seven months, and sixteen days. Reader, go thou and do likewise.
From Epitaphiana: or, The Curiosities of Churchyard Literature, 1873.
The Hereford Times of November 16, 1901, reprints the following case from Pauillac. A Madame Bobin arrived there on board the steamer ‘La Plata,’ from Senegal. She was supposed to be suffering from yellow fever, and was transferred to the Lazaret by order of the officer of health. There she became worse, and apparently died. The body became rigid, and the face ashen and corpse-like, and in that condition she was buried. The nurse, however, had noticed that the body was not cold, and that there was tremulousness of the muscles of the abdomen, and expressed the opinion that Madame Bobin was prematurely buried. On this being reported to Madame Bobin’s father, he had the body exhumed, when it was found that a child had been born in the coffin. The autopsy showed also that Madame Bobin had not contracted yellow fever, and had died from asphyxiation in the coffin. A suit was begun against the health officers and the prefect, which resulted in a verdict for £8,000 damages against them.
– William Tebb, Premature Burial and How It May Be Prevented, 1905
Thanks to Joseph Karwowski, you’ll never have to say goodbye to your Uncle Julius. Patented in 1903, Karwowski’s “method of preserving the dead” hermetically encases the corpse in a block of transparent glass to prevent decay and maintain a lifelike appearance.
Bonus: “In Fig. 3 I have shown the head only of the corpse as incased within the transparent block of glass, it being at once evident that the head alone may be preserved in this manner, if preferred.”
This is the Roundhay Garden Scene, the earliest surviving motion picture, shot in 1888 in the Leeds garden of Joseph and Sarah Whitley.
The scene is only 2 seconds long, but it seems to have conveyed a queer curse. Sarah died only 10 days after the shoot; director Louis Le Prince vanished from a French train two years later; and actor Alphonse Le Prince was found dead of a gunshot in 1902. There’s a novel in here somewhere.
Monument inscription, Whitby churchyard, North Yorkshire:
Here lies the bodies of FRANCIS HUNTRODDS and MARY his Wife who were both born on the same Day of the Week Month and Year (viz) Septr ye 19th 1600 Marry’d on the day of their Birth and after having had 12 Children born to them died Aged 80 Years on the same day of the year they were born September ye 19th 1680 the one not above five hours before ye other.
Husband, and Wife that did twelve Children bear,
Dy’d the same day; alike both aged were,
Bout eighty years they liv’d, five hours did part,
(Ev’n on the marriage day) each tender heart.
So fit a match, surely, could never be
Both, in their lives, and in their deaths agree.
Leinbach had discovered a proof that there really is no death. It is beyond question, he had declared, that not only at the moment of drowning, but at all the moments of death of any nature, one lives over again his past life with a rapidity inconceivable to others. This remembered life must also have a last moment, and this last moment its own last moment, and so on, and hence, dying is itself eternity, and hence, in accordance with the theory of limits, one may approach death but can never reach it.
– Arthur Schnitzler, Flight Into Darkness, 1931
As he lay dying in 1635, Lope de Vega asked whether the end was at hand. Assured that it was, he murmured, “All right, then, I’ll say it. Dante makes me sick.”
In memory ov
John Smith, who met
wierlent death neer this spot
18 hundred and 40 too. He was shot
by his own pistill;
It was not one of the new kind,
but a old fashioned
brass barrel, and of such is the
Kingdom of heaven.
– Headboard, Sparta Diggings, Calif., cited in Walter Henry Howe, Here Lies, 1900
When Vesuvius erupted on Aug. 24, A.D. 79, a Roman fuller named Vesonius Primus fled toward the sea, leaving a watchdog chained to a post in the atrium of his house. It appears that the dog managed to survive the night by climbing continuously atop the mounting ash, but at dawn it reached the limit of its chain and was buried alive.
Like other victims of the eruption, its body left a vacancy in the ash layer, so a plaster cast could be made of its final position.
It is recorded of the poet Dryden, by Charles Wilson, in his ‘Life of Congreve,’ that having, strange to say, belief in astrology, he was careful to ascertain to the second the time at which his son Charles was born. He then calculated the boy’s nativity, and was alarmed to discover that evil influences prevailed in the heavens. … He concluded that in his eighth year, and on the day of birth, his son’s life would be seriously endangered if not lost; and that if he lived, the same danger would exist when he attained his twenty-third birthday, and again on his thirty-third or fourth. On the boy’s eighth birthday, despite every precaution to keep the boy from every possible danger, he was nearly killed by the fall of a wall. On his twenty-third birthday he was seized with giddiness and fell from an old tower belonging to the Vatican at Rome; and he was drowned at Windsor while swimming across the Thames in his thirty-third year.
– The World of Wonders, 1883
On the 3rd of this month, Nicephorus Glycas, the Greek-Orthodox Metropolitan of Lesbos, an old man in his eightieth year, after several days of confinement to his bed, was reported by the physician to be dead. The supposed dead bishop, in accordance with the rules of the Orthodox Church, was immediately clothed in his episcopal vestments, and placed upon the Metropolitan’s throne in the great church of Methymni, where the body was exposed to the devout faithful during the day, and watched by relays of priests day and night. … On the second night of ‘the exposition of the corpse,’ the Metropolitan suddenly started up from his seat and stared round him with amazement and horror at all the panoply of death amidst which he had been seated. The priests were not less horrified when the ‘dead’ bishop demanded what they were doing with him. The old man had simply fallen into a death-like lethargy, which the incompetent doctors had hastily concluded to be death.
– London Echo, March 3, 1896, quoted in William Tebb, et al., Premature Burial and How It May Be Prevented, 1905
The armistice that ended World War I went into effect at 11 a.m. on Nov. 11 (“the 11th of the 11th of the 11th”) in 1918.
Gordon Brook-Shepherd writes: “[A]ny firing still going on ended on the last second of the tenth hour, sometimes with droll little ceremonies — as on the British front near Mons, where [a] German machine-gunner blazed off his last belt of ammunition during the last minute of the war and then, as the hour struck, stood up on his parapet, removed his steel helmet, bowed politely to what was now the ex-enemy opposite, and disappeared.”
The last casualties were not so droll. At 10:45 a.m., French soldier Augustin Trébuchon was running to tell his friends that hot soup would be served after the ceasefire when he was shot and killed.
And in the Forest of Argonne, American private Henry Gunther charged a German position just before 11:00 and was shot down. He died 60 seconds before the end of the war.
Lawyer James Otis was a hero in American politics before the revolution. In his later years he used to tell his sister, “I hope, when God Almighty in his righteous providence shall take me out of time into eternity, that it will be by a flash of lightning.”
On May 23, 1783, he was standing in a doorway during a thundershower, telling a story to his family, when his wish came true.
“No mark of any kind could be found on Otis,” ran one account of his death, “nor was there the slightest change or convulsion on his features.”
“This flash of lightning was the first that came from the cloud, and was not followed by any others that were remarkable.”