A servant maid was sent by her mistress to Ben Johnson, for an epitaph on her departed husband. She could only afford to pay half-a-guinea, which Ben refused, saying he never wrote one for less than double that sum; but recollecting he was going to dine that day at a tavern, he ran down stairs and called her back. ‘What was your master’s name?’–’Jonathan Fiddle, sir.’–’When did he die?’–’June the 22nd, sir.’ Ben took a small piece of paper, and wrote with his pencil, while standing on the stairs, the following:–
On the twenty-second of June,
Jonathan Fiddle went out of tune.
– Horatio Edward Norfolk, Gleanings in Graveyards, 1861
Last words of executed murderers:
- George Appel (1928): “Well, folks, you’ll soon see a baked Appel.”
- James W. Rodgers (1960): (asked for a last request) “Why, yes — a bulletproof vest.”
- Frederick Wood (1963): “Gentlemen, you are about to see the effects of electricity upon Wood.”
- James French (1966): “I have a terrific headline for you in the morning: ‘French Fries’.”
- Jimmy Glass (1987): “I’d rather be fishing.”
In 1856, English murderer William Palmer stood on the gallows and asked, “Are you sure it’s safe?”
In 1728, at age 23, Ben Franklin composed his own epitaph:
The Body of
B. Franklin, Printer
(Like the Cover of an old Book
Its Contents torn out
And shrift of its Lettering and Gilding)
Lies here, Food for Worms.
But the Work shall not be lost;
For it will, (as he believ’d) appear once more,
In a new and more elegant Edition
Revised and corrected,
By the Author.
Fifty-six years later, six years before his death in 1790, he wrote these lines:
If Life’s compared to a Feast,
Near Fourscore Years I’ve been a Guest;
I’ve been regaled with the best,
And feel quite satisfyd.
‘Tis time that I retire to Rest;
Landlord, I thank you! — Friends, Good Night.
If you’re not doing anything next spring, head to Nederland, Colo., to celebrate Frozen Dead Guy Days, a three-day festival commemorating Bredo Morstoel, whose body is packed in dry ice in a Tuff Shed in the hills above town.
Bredo’s grandson Trygve Bauge imported the corpse from Norway in 1989 and stored it in liquid nitrogen; when Trygve was deported in 1993 and his mother evicted from her home, local businesses pitched in to keep the body preserved.
The annual festival includes coffin races (above), a hearse parade, lookalike contests, an ice-carving demonstration, documentaries (Grandpa’s in the Tuff Shed and Grandpa’s Still in the Tuff Shed), frozen turkey bowling, showshoe races, and snow sculpture contests. Nearby Glacier Ice Cream has even concocted a commemorative flavor, Frozen Dead Guy.
Bredo has been dead now for 20 years; psychics report he’s amused by all this but doing fine.
Periander ordered two young men to go out by night along a certain road, to kill the first man they met there, and to bury him.
Then he ordered four more men to find those two and kill them. And he sent an even greater number to murder those four.
Periander then set off down the road himself to wait for them.
In this way he ensured that the location of his grave would never be known.
Honest Jack Fuller, who is buried in a pyramidal mausoleum in Brightling churchyard, in Sussex, gave as his reason for being thus disposed of, his unwillingness to be eaten by his relations after this fashion: ‘The worms would eat me, the ducks would eat the worms, and my relations would eat the ducks.’
– John Timbs, English Eccentrics and Eccentricities, 1875
A gentleman passing through the United States, on the Union and Pacific Railroad, was one morning telling the guard about a relative of his lately committing suicide. ‘Very sad, indeed,’ replied the guard, ‘but the most determined attempt at suicide happened the other day down Sacramento (California) way. A young man went down to the beach when the tide was out, with a long pole, sharpened at one end, and a hook in the other; he had also a rope with a noose in it, a phial of poison, a pistol, and a box of matches. He drove the pole into the sand, and climbed up it until the tide had risen high enough to drown him, when he swallowed the poison, set his trousers on fire, put the noose round his neck, and then fired his pistol. The bullet, instead of entering his forehead, grazed the top of his head and went through the rope; the rope, being weakened, snapped, and dropped the unfortunate man into the sea, which, of course, put the fire out, and swallowing some sea water made him vomit the poison, and in two or three minutes he was washed ashore alive, and only suffering slightly from the effects of his immersion.’
– Tit-Bits From All the Most Interesting Books, Periodicals and Newspapers in the World, Dec. 3, 1881
Archimedes wanted no other epitaph than a sphere inscribed within a cylinder — he had determined the sphere’s relative volume and considered this his greatest achievement.
Henry Perigal’s tomb in Essex displays his graphic proof of the Pythagorean theorem (left).
Gauss wanted to be buried under a heptadecagon, which he’d shown can be constructed with compass and straightedge. (The stonemason demurred, fearing he’d produce only a circle.)
And Jakob Bernoulli opted for a logarithmic spiral and the words Eadem mutata resurgo—the motto means “I shall arise the same though changed.”
In September 1955, James Dean met Alec Guinness outside an Italian restaurant in Hollywood. He introduced himself and showed Guinness his brand-new Porsche 550 Spyder. “The sports car looked sinister to me,” Guinness wrote in his autobiography:
Exhausted, hungry, feeling a little ill-tempered in spite of Dean’s kindness, I heard myself saying in a voice I could hardly recognize as my own, ‘Please, never get in it.’ I looked at my watch. ‘It is now ten o’clock, Friday the 23rd of September, 1955. If you get in that car you will be found dead in it by this time next week.’
Dean laughed. One week later he collided head-on with a Ford coupe outside Cholame, Calif. He was pronounced dead 6 days and 20 hours after Guinness’ prediction.
The inventor of the Pringles can was buried in a Pringles can.
Fredric Baur invented the crush-resistant canister in 1966 and was so proud that he said he’d like to be buried in one. It remained a family joke for years, but when Baur died last year after a battle with Alzheimer’s, his children stopped at a Walgreen’s on their way to the funeral home, bought a can of Pringles, and buried a portion of their father’s ashes in the bright red can.
“My siblings and I briefly debated what flavor to use,” Larry Baur told Time magazine, “but I said, ‘Look, we need to use the original.’”
In 1907, Massachusetts physician Duncan MacDougall conceived a singular experiment. When he observed that a patient at his Haverhill hospital was nearing death, he installed him in a specially constructed bed in his office and measured his weight both before and after death. With six such weighings he determined that humans lose between 0.5 and 1.5 ounces at death.
“Is the soul substance?” he wrote. “It would seem to me to be so. … Here we have experimental demonstration that a substance capable of being weighed does leave the human body at death.”
Similar experiments with 15 dogs showed no change in mass, proving, he decided, that dogs have no souls. MacDougall’s findings were written up briefly in the New York Times and occasioned a flurry of correspondence in American Medicine, but after that they were largely forgotten. But who knows? Perhaps he was right.
Humphrey Bogart was buried, creepily, with a whistle.
He had given it to Lauren Bacall after their first film together, To Have and Have Not, and she deposited it with his remains at Forest Lawn.
It’s inscribed “If you want anything, just whistle.”
On being told the house doctor was coming, Max Baer said, “No, dummy, I need a people doctor.”
Hart Crane, jumping overboard: “Goodbye, everybody!”
Edison emerged from a coma to say, intriguingly, “It is very beautiful over there.”
James Joyce, fittingly: “Does nobody understand?”
William Saroyan: “Everybody has got to die, but I have always believed an exception would be made in my case. Now what?”
Ernest Shackleton, to his doctor: “You are always wanting me to give up something. What do you want me to give up now?”
Preparing for heart surgery at age 81, Rodney Dangerfield was asked how long he’d be in the hospital.
“If all goes well, about a week,” he said. “If not, about an hour and a half.”
A manuscript published at Tortona, Italy, in 1677 tells of a Milanese friar who was killed by a meteorite:
All the other monks of the convent of St. Mary hastened up to him who had been struck, as well from curiosity as from pity, and among them was also the Canon Manfredo Settala. They all carefully examined the corpse, to discover the most secret and decisive effects of the shock which had struck him; they found it was on one of the thighs, where they perceived a wound blackened either by the gangrene or by the action of the fire. Impelled by curiosity, they enlarged the aperture to examine the interior of it; they saw that it penetrated to the bone, and were much surprised to find at the bottom of the wound a roundish stone which had made it, and had killed this monk in a manner equally terrible and unexpected.
On Aug. 12, 1985, Japan Airlines Flight 123 suffered mechanical failures after departing Tokyo. It struggled for 32 minutes to stay aloft but finally crashed into Mount Takamagahara, killing 520 people.
Among the debris was found the company diary of 52-year-old shipping manager Hirotsugu Kawaguchi. Apparently he had spent the fateful half hour composing a seven-page letter to his family:
Mariko, Tsuyoshi, Chiyoko — Please get along well with each other and help your mama. Papa feels very sorry I won’t survive. I don’t know the reason. Five minutes have passed. …
I never want to take an airplane again. Dear God, please help me. I didn’t imagine that yesterday’s dinner was going to be the last one with you all. …
Something seems to have exploded in the airplane. Smoke is coming out. … Airplane is going down. I don’t know where we are going and what is going to happen. …
Tsuyoshi — I do really count on you. Honey — I feel very sorry about what is happening to me. Goodbye. Please take care of our children. It’s six-thirty now. The airplane is spinning and going down quickly. …
I’m very thankful to you that I was able to have a really happy life up to now.
The crash remains the deadliest single-plane accident in world history.
When New York gangster Dutch Schultz was shot in 1935, police had a stenographer take down his delirious last words. Find a confession here if you can:
- “Police, police, Henry and Frankie. Oh, oh, dog biscuits and when he is happy he doesn’t get snappy.”
- “I am a pretty good pretzler. Winifred. Department of Justice. I even get it from the department.”
- “Please, I had nothing with him. He was a cowboy in one of the seven-days-a-week fight.”
- “There are only 10 of us. There 10 million fighting somewhere of you, so get your onions up and we will throw up the truce flag.”
- “The sidewalk was in trouble and the bears were in trouble and I broke it up.”
- “No payrolls, no walls, no coupons. That would be entirely out.”
- “Oh, sir, get the doll a roofing.”
- “A boy has never wept nor dashed a thousand kim. Did you hear me?”
- “Please put me up on my feet at once. You are a hard-boiled man. Did you hear me?”
- “Please crack down on the Chinaman’s friends and Hitler’s commander. I am sure and I am going up and I am going to give you honey if I can.”
- “I am half crazy. They won’t let me get up. They dyed my shoes. Open those shoes. Give me something. I am so sick.”
His final words were “I will settle the indictment. Come on, open the soap duckets. The chimney sweeps. Talk to the sword. Shut up, you got a big mouth! Please help me up, Henry. Max, come over here. French-Canadian bean soup. I want to pay. Let them leave me alone.”
Some kings expire in bed. Some die gloriously in battle.
Alexander of Greece was bitten to death by monkeys.
He was walking in the royal garden in October 1920 when a monkey attacked his dog. He fought it off with a stick, suffering only a wound on the hand, but the monkey’s mate rushed in and gave him a much more severe bite. He died of blood poisoning three weeks later.
Alexander’s exiled father returned and led the nation into a bloody war with Turkey. “It is perhaps no exaggeration,” wrote Winston Churchill, “to remark that a quarter of a million persons died of this monkey’s bite.”
A building curiously arranged to resemble the hull of a ship, the rooms of which were made to look like its cabins, used to be pointed out for many years in Wandsworth. Upon the top of it a small room, or rather turret, used to attract special attention, for it contained the corpse of its builder and former owner, an eccentric old sailor, whose will made it a condition of inheritance that his body should be buried on what he called ‘the deck’ of his ship-house. The house was pulled down by a railway company about 1860.
– The World of Wonders, 1883
Epitaph on a Florentine tombstone of 1318:
Here lies Salvino Armolo D’Armati,
the inventor of spectacles.
May God pardon his sins!
From Walter Henry Howe, “Here Lies,” 1900
At Bradford, England, a girl, aged 16, met death in an extraordinary manner. While in the playground of her school she was caught by a veritable tornado which carried her into the air. … [A] witness who was waiting for a car in front of the school said he saw the girl in the air, her skirts blown out like a baloon. She was 25 to 30 feet in the air, just above the school balcony (the latter, the coroner remarked, was 20 feet high). … The physician who was called found the girl unconscious and pulseless, suffering from severe concussion of the brain and compound fractures of the lower jaw, right arm, wrist and thigh. It appeared that she was wearing a pair of bloomers with an ordinary skirt but without petticoats. The jury returned a verdict of ‘died as the result of a fall caused by a sudden gust of wind.’
– Journal of the American Medical Association, quoted in Medical Sentinel, June 1911
05/24/2010 I’ve found some confirmation of this in William Corliss, Tornados, Dark Days, Anomalous Precipitation, 1983:
“February 25, 1911. Bradford, England. A letter to the editor called the report of a girl being killed by a gust of wind preposterous and asked for an investigation. The editor replied: ‘Acting on this suggestion, we communicated with Mr. H. Lander, the rainfall observer at Lister Park, Bradford, who kindly sent us a copy of the Yorkshire Observer for February 25th, in which there was a fairly full report of the inquest on the school-girl who was undoubtedly killed by a fall from a great height in an extremely exposed playground during very gusty weather. One witness saw the girl enter the playground from the school at 8.40 a.m., and saw her carried in three minutes later. Another witness saw the girl in the air parallel with the balcony of the school 20 feet above the ground, her arms extended, and her skirts blown out like a balloon. He saw her fall with a crash. The jury found a verdict, ‘Died as the result of a fall caused by a sudden gust of wind.’”
He cites Godden, William; “The Tale of — a Gust,” Symons’s Meteorological Magazine, 46:54, 1911.
Spiritualist Ludwig von Guldenstubbe had a no-nonsense approach to communicating with the dead — he left paper and pencil for them in Paris churches and cemeteries.
He got only a few scrawls at first, but apparently word spread through the underworld, and soon more illustrious correspondents turned up. In August 1856 von Guldenstubbe produced the signatures of the emperor Augustus and of Julius Caesar, collected at their statues in the Louvre:
He also received writings from Abélard, who wrote in bad Latin, and Héloïse, in modern French — evidently she’s been taking correspondence courses since the 12th century.
Sadly, it appears that death spoils one’s penmanship — here are writing samples from Louise de La Vallière, the repentant mistress of Louis XIV, before (top) and after dying:
Perhaps that’s understandable, given the circumstances.
In the 10 months between August 1856 and June 1857, von Guldenstubbe says he got more than 500 specimens this way, in the company of more than 50 witnesses — but somehow no one has ever duplicated his results.
Most graves in Massachusetts’ Stockbridge Cemetery are oriented with the feet facing east, so that on Resurrection Day the dead will rise facing Jerusalem.
Not so the Sedgwick family — patriarch Theodore Sedgwick ordered that his family’s graves form a circle with their feet toward the center. This way, on Judgment Day, Sedgwicks will see only other Sedgwicks.
It’s been called “the laughingstock of the entire Eastern seaboard.”
Grave inscription of a horse thief:
He found a rope and picked it up,
And with it walked away.
It happened that to other end
A horse was hitched, they say.
They took the rope and tied it up
Unto a hickory limb.
It happened that the other end
Was somehow hitched to him.
From Frederic William Unger, Epitaphs, 1904