Shame and Fortune

http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/collection_object_details.aspx?objectId=1503504&partId=1&searchText=cruikshank+hanging&page=3

In 1818 caricaturist George Cruikshank saw several people hanging from a gibbet near Newgate Prison in London and learned to his horror that they had been executed for passing forged one-pound notes — at the time, doing so even unknowingly was punishable by death or transportation.

The fact that a poor woman could be put to death for such a minor offence had a great effect upon me — and I at that moment determined, if possible, to put a stop to this shocking destruction of life for merely obtaining a few shillings by fraud; and well knowing the habits of the low class of society in London, I felt quite sure that in very many cases the rascals who forged the notes induced these poor ignorant women to go into the gin-shops to ‘get something to drink,’ and thus pass the notes, and hand them the change.

He went home and dashed off this sketch, which was then printed on the post paper used by the bank, so that it would resemble counterfeit currency. “The general effect was of a counterfeit, but closer examination revealed that every element of the official design had been replaced by a savage parody,” writes Robert L. Patten in George Cruikshank’s Life, Times, and Art. The seal shows Britannia eating her children, the stamp depicts 12 tiny heads in prison, and the pound sign is a coiled hangman’s rope.

The protest created a sensation, and remedial legislation was passed. Cruikshank’s satire, noted the Examiner, “ought to make the hearts of the Bank Directors ache at the sight.”

No Connection

In a garden in Ōtsuchi, in the Iwate prefecture on Japan’s east coast, stands an inoperative phone booth that’s nonetheless been used by more than 10,000 people since the 2011 earthquake and tsunami that killed 15,000 people and displaced hundreds of thousands more. The booth, known as the “Kaze no Denwa Box,” or Phone Booth of the Winds, was built by 69-year-old Itaru Sasaki so that local residents could communicate with loved ones who are dead or missing. Sasaki never connected the line, but callers still use the phone to speak to the departed, or write messages on a notepad, trusting that the wind will carry them to their intended recipients.

“In such a stricken environment, it might have been easy to perceive this disconnected phone booth as a whimsical art project incommensurate with the scale of loss experienced by the survivors for whom it was intended,” writes Ariana Kelly in Phone Booth (2015). “But quite the opposite has happened, and for the past several years there has been a steady stream of visitors to the booth, both from Ōtsuchi and other parts of Japan. Perhaps it provides a necessary terminus, a destination in a place marked by eradication. Perhaps one antidote to tragedy is useless beauty, or just uselessness.”

The Last Blessing

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Mark_Twain_1909.jpg

After his daughter Jean’s death in 1909, Mark Twain began to write:

Would I bring her back to life if I could do it? I would not. If a word would do it, I would beg for strength to withhold the word. And I would have the strength; I am sure of it. In her loss I am almost bankrupt, and my life is a bitterness, but I am content: for she has been enriched with the most precious of all gifts — that gift which makes all other gifts mean and poor — death. I have never wanted any released friend of mine restored to life since I reached manhood. I felt in this way when Susy passed away; and later my wife, and later Mr. Rogers. When Clara met me at the station in New York and told me Mr. Rogers had died suddenly that morning, my thought was, Oh, favorite of fortune — fortunate all his long and lovely life — fortunate to his latest moment! The reporters said there were tears of sorrow in my eyes. True — but they were for ME, not for him. He had suffered no loss. All the fortunes he had ever made before were poverty compared with this one.

“I am setting it down,” he told his friend Albert Bigelow Paine, “everything. It is a relief to me to write it. It furnishes me an excuse for thinking.”

He wrote for three days, handed the manuscript to Paine, and told him to make it the final chapter of his autobiography. Four months later he was dead.

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.