In memory ov
John Smith, who met
wierlent death neer this spot
18 hundred and 40 too. He was shot
by his own pistill;
It was not one of the new kind,
but a old fashioned
brass barrel, and of such is the
Kingdom of heaven.

— Headboard, Sparta Diggings, Calif., cited in Walter Henry Howe, Here Lies, 1900

The Dog of Pompeii


When Vesuvius erupted on Aug. 24, A.D. 79, a Roman fuller named Vesonius Primus fled toward the sea, leaving a watchdog chained to a post in the atrium of his house. It appears that the dog managed to survive the night by climbing continuously atop the mounting ash, but at dawn it reached the limit of its chain and was buried alive.

Like other victims of the eruption, its body left a vacancy in the ash layer, so a plaster cast could be made of its final position.

“Extraordinary Prediction”

It is recorded of the poet Dryden, by Charles Wilson, in his ‘Life of Congreve,’ that having, strange to say, belief in astrology, he was careful to ascertain to the second the time at which his son Charles was born. He then calculated the boy’s nativity, and was alarmed to discover that evil influences prevailed in the heavens. … He concluded that in his eighth year, and on the day of birth, his son’s life would be seriously endangered if not lost; and that if he lived, the same danger would exist when he attained his twenty-third birthday, and again on his thirty-third or fourth. On the boy’s eighth birthday, despite every precaution to keep the boy from every possible danger, he was nearly killed by the fall of a wall. On his twenty-third birthday he was seized with giddiness and fell from an old tower belonging to the Vatican at Rome; and he was drowned at Windsor while swimming across the Thames in his thirty-third year.

The World of Wonders, 1883

A Rude Awakening

On the 3rd of this month, Nicephorus Glycas, the Greek-Orthodox Metropolitan of Lesbos, an old man in his eightieth year, after several days of confinement to his bed, was reported by the physician to be dead. The supposed dead bishop, in accordance with the rules of the Orthodox Church, was immediately clothed in his episcopal vestments, and placed upon the Metropolitan’s throne in the great church of Methymni, where the body was exposed to the devout faithful during the day, and watched by relays of priests day and night. … On the second night of ‘the exposition of the corpse,’ the Metropolitan suddenly started up from his seat and stared round him with amazement and horror at all the panoply of death amidst which he had been seated. The priests were not less horrified when the ‘dead’ bishop demanded what they were doing with him. The old man had simply fallen into a death-like lethargy, which the incompetent doctors had hastily concluded to be death.

— London Echo, March 3, 1896, quoted in William Tebb, et al., Premature Burial and How It May Be Prevented, 1905

Senselessness Squared

The armistice that ended World War I went into effect at 11 a.m. on Nov. 11 (“the 11th of the 11th of the 11th”) in 1918.

Gordon Brook-Shepherd writes: “[A]ny firing still going on ended on the last second of the tenth hour, sometimes with droll little ceremonies — as on the British front near Mons, where [a] German machine-gunner blazed off his last belt of ammunition during the last minute of the war and then, as the hour struck, stood up on his parapet, removed his steel helmet, bowed politely to what was now the ex-enemy opposite, and disappeared.”

The last casualties were not so droll. At 10:45 a.m., French soldier Augustin Trébuchon was running to tell his friends that hot soup would be served after the ceasefire when he was shot and killed.

And in the Forest of Argonne, American private Henry Gunther charged a German position just before 11:00 and was shot down. He died 60 seconds before the end of the war.

Out With a Bang


Lawyer James Otis was a hero in American politics before the revolution. In his later years he used to tell his sister, “I hope, when God Almighty in his righteous providence shall take me out of time into eternity, that it will be by a flash of lightning.”

On May 23, 1783, he was standing in a doorway during a thundershower, telling a story to his family, when his wish came true.

“No mark of any kind could be found on Otis,” ran one account of his death, “nor was there the slightest change or convulsion on his features.”

“This flash of lightning was the first that came from the cloud, and was not followed by any others that were remarkable.”

“Sucked to Death by a Bear”

Aftermath of a bear attack, Dhaka, Bengal, recounted by a Captain Williamson in The Terrific Register, 1825:

We found her husband extended on the ground, his hands and feet, as I before observed, sucked and chewed into a perfect pulp, the teguments of the limbs in general drawn from under the skin, and the skull mostly laid bare; the skin of it hanging down in long strips; obviously effected by their talons. What was most wonderful was, that the unhappy man retained his senses sufficiently to describe that he had been attacked by several bears, the woman said seven, one of which had embraced him while the others clawed him about the head, and bit at his arms and legs, seemingly in competition for the booty.

“We conveyed the wretched object to a house, where in a few hours, death relieved him from a state, in which no human being could afford the smallest assistance!”

A Delicate Matter

In 1926 an English probate court accepted a will written on an empty eggshell.

A Manchester widow had found the shell on her husband’s wardrobe. On it was written, “17-1925. Mag. Everything i possess. — J. B.”

The dead man had been dieting and used to bring eggs with him to work. His initials had been J.B., the message was in his handwriting, and he had always called his wife “Mag.” The court accepted the shell as a valid will (Hodson v. Barnes, 1926).

See also Let’s Get This Over With.

The Curse of Genius


Shortly after Joseph Haydn died in 1809, two phrenologists dug up the composer’s corpse to determine whether his talent was somehow reflected in his cranium. Johann Peter, governor of a local prison, found indeed that “the bump of music” in Haydn’s skull was “fully developed,” and he proudly kept the skull in a box adorned with a golden lyre.

Eleven years later, Haydn’s old patron Prince Esterházy discovered the outrage while arranging to have Haydn’s remains transferred elsewhere, and the phrenologists were forced to stash Haydn’s skull briefly in a straw mattress while they passed a different one to Esterházy.

The real skull was bequeathed eventually to the Viennese Society of the Friends of Music and was reunited with its corpse only in 1954, 22 years after Esterházy’s descendant had built a marble tomb for the purpose. Even in death, there’s paperwork.

Other truant heads: Oliver Cromwell, Jeremy Bentham, Albert Einstein.


At Honolulu on Dec. 12, 1794, the American merchant sloop Lady Washington fired a 13-gun salute to greet the English schooner Jackal.

The Jackal returned the salute — instantly killing the other ship’s captain and several crewmen.

One of its cannon had been loaded with real grapeshot.