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.”
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.)
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.”
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.”