Progress

Georgia’s Savannah airport hit a delicate snag in the 1980s — a planned extension to Runway 10 was delayed because a local family refused to move the graves of Richard and Catherine Dotson, a farming couple who had been laid to rest in the land they’d cultivated for decades.

The solution was to pave over the graves but lay the two headstones in its surface. They read “At rest” and “Gone home to rest” — but there’s a legend among pilots that if you land just after sundown you’ll see two uneasy figures on the runway’s north side.

South Carolina’s newspaper The State notes, “Family members are still escorted to visit them safely, though they cannot leave flowers.”

Late Word

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In 1967, Ian Stevenson closed a combination lock and placed it in a filing cabinet in the psychiatry department at the University of Virginia. He had set the combination using a word or phrase known only to himself. He told his colleagues that he would try to communicate the code to them after his death, as potential evidence that his awareness had survived.

The combination “is extremely meaningful to me,” he said. “I have no fear whatever of forgetting it on this side of the grave and, if I remember anything on the other side, I shall surely remember it.”

His colleague Emily Williams Kelly told the New York Times, “Presumably, if someone had a vivid dream about him, in which there seemed to be a word or a phrase that kept being repeated — I don’t quite know how it would work — if it seemed promising enough, we would try to open it using the combination suggested.”

Stevenson died in 2007. As of October 2014, the lock remained unopened.

Last Words

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Hit by shrapnel on April 16, 1917, French infantryman Jean-Louis Cros managed to scribble this message before dying:

My dear wife, my dear parents and all I love, I have been wounded. I hope it will be nothing. Care well for the children, my dear Lucie; Leopold will help you if I don’t get out of this. I have a crushed thigh and am all alone in a shell hole. I hope they will soon come to fetch me. My last thought is of you.

The card was sent to his family.

In August 1918 the Rev. Arthur Boyce found this letter on the battlefield near Rheims. The writer had asked the finder to forward it to his family:

My dear wife, I am dying on the battlefield. With my last strength God bless you and the kiddies. I am glad to give my life for my country. Don’t grieve over me — be proud of this fact. Goodbye and God bless you. Fred

When the kiddies get older tell them how I died.

He had written a similar note to his mother. His identity could not be discovered.

(From Peter Hart’s The Great War, 2013, and Richard van Emden’s The Quick and the Dead, 2012.)

Podcast Episode 198: The Man Who Wouldn’t Die

https://pixabay.com/en/coffin-dracula-black-casket-150647/

In 1932 a quartet of Bronx gangsters set out to murder a friend of theirs in order to collect his life insurance. But Michael Malloy proved to be almost comically difficult to kill. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll review what one observer called “the most clumsily executed insurance scam in New York City history.”

We’ll also burrow into hoarding and puzzle over the value of silence.

See full show notes …

Final Orders

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Mr. Zimmermann, whose will was proved in 1840, accompanied the directions for his funeral, in case they were not carried out, with something like a threat. In his will he says, ‘No person is to attend my corpse to the grave, nor is any funeral bell to be rung, and my desire is to be buried plainly, but in a decent manner; and, if this be not done, I will come again — that is to say, if I can.’ The Countess Dowager of Sandwich, in her will, written by herself at the age of eighty, proved in November, 1862, expresses her ‘wish to be buried decently and quietly — no undertaker’s frauds or cheating; no scarfs, hatbands, or nonsense.’ Mrs. Kitty Jenkyn Packe Reading, although evidently possessed of sufficient means, appears by her will, proved in April, 1870, to have been very anxious that one part, at least, of the expenses attending her funeral should be kept as low as possible. After saying she is to be placed first in a leaden and then in a wooden coffin, she provides that ‘If I die away from Branksome, I wish my remains, after being duly placed in the proper coffins, to be inclosed in a plain deal box, so that no one may know the contents, and conveyed by a goods train to Poole, which will cost no more than any other package of the same weight; from Poole station said box to be conveyed in a cart to Branksome Tower.’ … Mrs. Reading seems to have considered the details of her funeral with much minuteness; among other things she states ‘the easiest way to convey my coffin out of the house will be to take the window out of the dining-room.’

— Charles Bullock, Many Things, 1878

Expedition

When Colonel Abraham Holmes, a supporter of Monmouth, was executed with some of his companions at Lyme Regis in 1685, the horses could not pull the sled carrying the condemned men to the scaffold. The attendants began to whip them furiously, whereupon Colonel Holmes, with one of those superb gestures of which the men of the seventeenth century were so frequently capable, got out to walk, saying, ‘Come, gentlemen, don’t let the poor creatures suffer on our account. I have often led you in the field. Let me lead you on in our way to Heaven.’

— Keith Thomas, Man and the Natural World, 1983

R.I.P.

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Epitaphs gathered by Gyles Brandreth for Famous Last Words and Tombstone Humor, 1989:

Underneath this pile of stones
Lies all that’s left of Sally Jones.
Her name was Briggs, it was not Jones,
But Jones was used to rhyme with stones.

(Skaneateles, New York)

Here lieth
Mary — the wife of John Ford
We hope her soul is gone to the Lord
But if for Hell she has changed this life
She had better be there than be John Ford’s wife
1790

(Potterne, Wilstire, England)

Old Thomas Mulvaney lies here
His mouth ran from ear to ear.
Reader, tread lightly on this wonder,
For if he yawns you’re gone to thunder.

(Middlefield, Massachusetts)

Sacred to the memory of
Henry Harris
Born June 27, 1821, of Henry Harris
and Jane, His Wife. Died on the 4th
of May, 1837, by the kick of a
Colt in his bowels.
Peaceable and quiet, a friend to his
father and mother, and respected by all
who knew him, and went to the world
where horses do not kick, where sorrow
and weeping is no more.

(Williamsport, Pennsylvania)

Here lies I —
Jonathan Fry —
Killed by a sky-
Rocket in my eye-
Socket.

(Frodsham, Cheshire, England)

Julia Adams.
Died of thin shoes,
April 17th, 1839, aged 19 years.

(New Jersey)

A stone in Litchfield, Connecticut, reads, “Sacred to the memory of inestimable worth of unrivalled excellence and virtue, N.R., whose ethereal parts became seraphic, May 25th, 1767.”

Not So Fast

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In 1700 the body of John Dryden was arrested pending payment of his debts.

Before 1804 the cadaver of a debtor could be held hostage by the creditor until the dead person’s loved ones could pay the arrears.

Finally in the case Jones v. Ashburnham, Lord Ellenborough declared that the practice was “contrary to every principle of law and moral feeling. Such an act is revolting to humanity, and illegal, and, therefore, any promise extorted by it could never be valid law.”

All God’s Creatures

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“Animals seen as sport become to the mind meat, and cease to be individual creatures, so that you may feed fishes, but catch fish, ride elephants, but hunt elephant, fatten turkeys and pigs, but chase turkey and pig, throw bread to ducks, but shoot duck; and some creatures, whom God would seem to have created merely for the chase, such as grouse and snipe, require no plural forms at all. And even as few as two pigs become pig if hunted.” — Rose Macaulay

In Thomas Tryon’s Country-Man’s Companion (1684), the birds upbraid man, “O thou Two-Leg’d unfeather’d unthinking Thing,” for his slaughter:

How many thousands of our innocent kind have been murthered by Guns, Traps, Snares, &c? and many thousands both of our Males and Females have lost their loving Mates by the like Stratagems, and no Pity or Compassion taken by Man on our miserable Sufferings, but rather they encourage each other to our destruction, and cry, Hang these scurvey Birds, shoot them, destroy them, they are good for nothing but to eat up our Corn: As if God that created us had done it in vain, as if he intended us not a subsistance and Food? What right I pray, has Man to all the Corn in the world? or why should he grumble and repine if we take a few Grains to supply our Necessities, whilst he squanders away such Heaps upon his Lusts? Wherein I fear he has so much besotted himself, and by continual Practice is become so harden’d, and has so powerfully irritated the dark Wrath in himself, that all our Remonstrances to him to move him to Mercy and Compassion, and to forbear polluting himself with the Blood of the Innocent, will be but in vain, and that we must still sigh and groan under his Cruelty and Tyranny, which as long-run will return seven fold upon his own guilty Head.

Early Delivery

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In the 1940s British psychologist Robert H. Thouless set out to test the existence of life after death by publishing an enciphered message and then communicating the key to some living person after his own death. He published the following in the Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research:

CBFTM HGRIO TSTAU FSBDN WGNIS BRVEF BQTAB QRPEF BKSDG MNRPS RFBSU TTDMF EMA BIM

He wrote that “it uses one of the well-known methods of encipherment with a key-word which I hope to be able to remember in the after life. I have not communicated and shall not communicate this key-word to any other person while I am still in this world, and I destroyed all papers used in enciphering as soon as I had finished.” He hoped that his message would be unsolvable without supernatural aid because the message was relatively short and the cipher wasn’t simple. To prevent an erroneous decipherment, he revealed that his passage was “an extract from one of Shakespeare’s plays.” And he left the solution in a sealed envelope with the Society for Psychical Research, to be opened if this finally proved necessary.

He needn’t have worried — an unidentified “cipher expert” took up the cipher as a challenge and solved it in two weeks, long before Thouless’ death. It was the last two lines of this quotation from Macbeth:

Sleep that knits up the ravelled sleave of care
The death of each day’s life, sore labour’s bath
Balm of hurt minds, great nature’s second course,
Chief nourisher in life’s feast.

(It’s a Playfair cipher — a full solution is given in Craig Bauer’s excellent Unsolved!, 2017.)

Interestingly, Thouless published two other encrypted ciphers before his death in 1984, and only one has been solved. If you can communicate with the dead perhaps you can still solve it — it’s given on Klaus Schmeh’s blog.