“A Most Determined Suicide”

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

Mathematicians’ Graves


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.”

Trouble Along the Way


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.

Death Be Not Crumbly

Image: Flickr

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.

A Grave Summons


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.