Photo Finish

In February 1985, British birder David Hunt led a tour around India. One of the stops was Jim Corbett National Park, in Uttar Pradesh, which has a large tiger population. The park provides an armed guard to each group of visitors, and they’re required to stay on the trails. As his party explored the park, though, Hunt heard an unknown call and walked a short distance off the track. Minutes later there was a scream. When his friends rushed to help, they discovered his mauled body in a clearing nearby. His friend Bill Oddie wrote:

When David’s body was recovered, so was his camera. Later on, the slides were developed … The first one is a nice close-up of a Spotted Owlet sitting on a branch … Then he must have heard a noise behind him, or maybe just sensed that he was not alone. Keeping crouched, he turned and saw a tiger pacing to and fro at the edge of the clearing. The next slide is of the tiger. It is some way away, walking to the right. On the next picture it is walking to the left. In the next one, it is facing the camera. In the next, it has begun to move forward, still looking straight at the lens. The next is closer. Then closer. And closer still. The final picture is of a frame-filling shot of the tiger’s head, eyes blazing and teeth exposed in a snarl.

“If David had kept shooting on his motor-drive, the whole thing must have happened in barely ten seconds,” Oddie added. “Crouched behind a camera, looking through the viewfinder and especially when using a telephoto lens, you don’t realise how close your subject has got. Neither, at the time, do you care. All you are focusing on is the picture. Press cameramen in war situations call it ‘camera blindness.’ It has proved fatal before.”

(From Oddie’s Follow That Bird!, quoted in Stephen Moss’ A Bird in the Bush, 2004.)

Good Boy
Image: Anders Sandberg

As Washington State University anthropologist Grover Krantz was dying of pancreatic cancer, he told his colleague David Hunt of the Smithsonian:

“I’ve been a teacher all my life and I think I might as well be a teacher after I’m dead, so why don’t I just give you my body.”

When Hunt agreed, Krantz added, “But there’s one catch: You have to keep my dogs with me.”

Accordingly, in 2003, Krantz’s skeleton was laid to rest in a green cabinet at the National Museum of Natural History alongside the bones of his Irish wolfhounds Clyde, Icky, and Yahoo.

Krantz’s bones have been used to teach forensics and advanced osteology to students at George Washington University.

And in 2009 his skeleton was articulated and, along with Clyde’s, displayed in the exhibition “Written in Bone: Forensic Files of the 17th Century Chesapeake.”


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

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

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

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,_1893_-_Giles_Scroggin%27s_Ghost.png

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


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


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

(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-

(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.”