Skyward

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.

A Grave Summons

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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.”

Last Words

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?”

Mahler: “Mozart!”

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?”

Zeus Displeased

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.

Take that for what it’s worth. In modern times meteorites have struck an Alabama woman and a Ugandan boy, but neither was seriously injured. (There’s also a dog story.)

A Farewell

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.

Exit Speech

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.”

Darwin’s Revenge

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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.”

See “Monkeys Demanding Their Dead.”

Home Is the Sailor

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

R.I.P.

Epitaph on a Florentine tombstone of 1318:

Here lies Salvino Armolo D’Armati,
of Florence,
the inventor of spectacles.
May God pardon his sins!

From Walter Henry Howe, “Here Lies,” 1900