Mr. Beauclerk said [to Samuel Johnson:] Mr. ——–, who loved buttered muffins, but durst not eat them because they disagreed with his stomach, resolved to shoot himself; and then he eat three buttered muffins for breakfast, before shooting himself, knowing that he should not be troubled with indigestion; he had two charged pistols; one was found lying charged upon the table by him, after he had shot himself with the other.
What remained of the Tenth [Massachusetts] departed from City Point, on the James River, on June 21 , for the return to Springfield and Northampton. But before leaving Virginia, on June 20, Sgt. Maj. George F. Polley, who was originally in Brewster’s company and had just reenlisted, carved his name and the inscription ‘Killed June –, 1864’ on a piece of board torn from a cracker box. After participating in the ‘goodbye’ rituals with his comrades and sharing an awkward amusement with them about his carving, Polley was struck flush by an artillery shell and killed. In his diary, brigade member Elisha Hunt Rhodes recorded this incident in his matter-of-fact style. Polley ‘showed me a board on which he had carved his name, date of birth and had left a place for the date of his death,’ reported Rhodes. ‘I asked him if he expected to be killed and he said no, and that he had made his head board only for fun. To day he was killed by a shell from a Rebel Battery.’ The last act of the Tenth before boarding the mailboat for Washington, D.C., was to bury Polley.
— David W. Blight, When This Cruel War Is Over, 2009
There is a little garden full of white flowers before this house, before this little house, which is sunken in a green hillock to the lintel of its door. The white flowers are full of honey; yellow butterflies and bees suck at them. The unseen wind comes rushing like a presence and a power which the heart feels only. The white flowers press together before it in a soft tumult, and shake out fragrance like censers; but the bees and the butterflies cling to them blowing. The crickets chirp in the green roof of the house unceasingly, like clocks which have told off the past, and will tell off the future.
I pray you, friend, who dwells in this little house sunken in the green hillock, with the white flower-garden before the door?
A dead man.
Passes he ever out of his little dwelling and down the path between his white flower-bushes?
He never passes out.
There is no chimney in that grassy roof. How fares he when the white flowers are gone and the white storm drives?
He feels it not.
Had he happiness?
His heart broke for it.
Does his heart pain him in there?
He has forgot.
Comes ever anybody here to visit him?
His widow comes in her black veil, and weeps here, and sometimes his old mother, wavering out in the sun like a black shadow.
And he knows it not?
He knows it not.
He knows not of his little prison-house in the green hillock, of his white flower-garden, of the winter storm, of his broken heart, and his beloved who yet bear the pain of it, and send out their thoughts to watch with him in the wintry nights?
He knows it not.
Only the living know?
Only the living.
Then, then the tombs be not for the dead, but the living! I would, I would, I would that I were dead, that I might be free from the tomb, and sorrow, and death!
— Mary E. Wilkins, “Pastels in Prose,” Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, December 1892
Northumberland’s Alnwick Garden contains a special section full of hemlock, belladonna, foxglove, deadly nightshade, Brugmansia, Laburnum, and the botanical ingredients of strychnine and ricin.
“If you’re building something, especially a visitor attraction, it needs to be something really unique,” Jane Percy, the Duchess of Northumberland, who designed the garden, told Smithsonian. “One of the things I hate in this day and age is the standardization of everything. I thought, ‘Let’s try and do something really different.'”
She collected more than 100 varieties, which visitors are forbidden to touch, taste, or smell. (Even so, in 2014 seven visitors reportedly fainted from inhaling the fumes alone.)
“I thought, ‘This is a way to interest children,'” the duchess said. “Children don’t care that aspirin comes from a bark of a tree. What’s really interesting is to know how a plant kills you, and how the patient dies, and what you feel like before you die.”
In 1897, shortly after Zona Shue was found dead in her West Virginia home, her mother went to the county prosecutor with a bizarre story. She said that her daughter had been murdered — and that her ghost had revealed the killer’s identity. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll tell the story of the Greenbrier Ghost, one of the strangest courtroom dramas of the 19th century.
We’ll also consider whether cats are controlling us and puzzle over a delightful oblivion.
In 2015 I wrote about the Hasanlu lovers (left), two skeletons discovered at the site of an ancient Iranian city that had been sacked in the ninth century B.C.
In 2007 archaeologists discovered a similar pair at a Neolithic tomb near Mantua, Italy. It appears the two were no older than 20 when they died; though weapons were found in the grave, there was no evidence that the pair had died violently. Double burials were unusual in that period, but the reason for this one is unknown.
The skeletons are on display in the National Archaeological Museum of Mantua. Archaeologist Elena Menotti, who led the excavation, told Reuters, “We want to keep them just as they have been all this time — together.”
Loggers with the Georgia Kraft Corp. were cutting down a chestnut oak in southern Georgia in the 1980s when they discovered the mummified remains of a dog inside the hollow trunk. Experts determined that it was most likely a hunting dog that had pursued some quarry up through the hollow tree sometime in the 1960s. The dog had wedged itself into the narrowing trunk and, unable to turn around, eventually perished 28 feet above ground level. But chestnut oak contains tannin, a natural desiccant that stopped microbial activity, and the dog’s position and a natural updraft through the trunk prevented other animals from scenting or reaching it. So it just remained there for 20 years, waiting to be found.
The mummified dog, now known as “Stuckie,” is on display at the Southern Forest World museum in Waycross, Georgia.
In July 1996 a family of four set out from Dresden for a holiday in the American Southwest. Architect Egbert Rimkus, 34, his son Georg, 11, his girlfriend Cornelia Meyer, 27, and her son Max, 4, arrived in Los Angeles and visited Las Vegas, then traveled to Death Valley National Park. Their names appear in the logs of several visitor sites, and it appears they spent their first night camping in a canyon near Telescope Peak.
When they failed to return as planned on July 29, Rimkus’s ex-wife began to make inquiries. When their travel agency learned that the rented van had not been returned, it notified Interpol. Temperatures in the park had topped 120 degrees on the week of the disappearance.
In late October, a helicopter search pilot spotted the van on a closed road in a remote part of the park known as Anvil Canyon. It had been driven at least 200 miles, and the tracks showed that it had run on flat tires and bent wheels for the final two miles. More than 200 search and rescue workers combed the area; under a bush a quarter mile away they found a beer bottle that appeared to have come from a package in the van.
The search was called off on Oct. 26, but 13 years later, in 2009, hikers discovered the skeletal remains of a man and a woman several miles south of that spot, near a photo ID belonging to Cornelia. Authorities said they were fairly sure the bones belonged to Egbert and Cornelia, but the remains of the children have never been found.
In the 5th century BC, Athens forbade anyone to die or to give birth on the island of Delos, to render it fit for the proper worship of the gods.
In 2005 Roberto Pereira, mayor of the Brazilian town of Biritiba Mirim, proposed a ban on death because the local cemetery had reached its capacity.
The French settlements of Le Lavandou (in 2000), Cugnaux (in 2007), and Sarpourenx (in 2008) have all outlawed death because of limited capacity in local cemeteries. The Sarpourenx ordinance added: “Offenders will be severely punished.”
Since 1878, no births or deaths have been permitted near Japan’s Itsukushima Shrine, a sacred site in Shinto belief.
In 1999 the mayor of the Spanish town of Lanjarón outlawed death, again because of an overcrowded cemetery. His edict ordered residents “to take utmost care of their health so they do not die until town hall takes the necessary steps to acquire land suitable for our deceased to rest in glory.”
“I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work,” said Woody Allen. “I want to achieve immortality through not dying.”