The gravestone of John Renie, a 19th-century house painter, at St. Mary’s Priory Church in Monmouth, Wales, is a 285-letter acrostic puzzle — from the central H the sentence “Here lies John Renie” can be traced out (in king’s moves) in 45,760 different ways. Renie probably carved it himself; according to cleric Lionel Fanthorpe, he hoped it would occupy the devil while he escaped to heaven.
Though Republicans won a majority of seats in the U.S. House of Representatives in 1930, fully 14 House members died during the ensuing 72nd Congress, including Speaker Nicholas Longworth. As a result, Democrats were able to elect one of their own as speaker.
Things weren’t much better in the Senate. Sen. Hiram Bingham (R-Ct.) said in 1931, “It is a very striking fact and one which cannot be too often called to the attention of Senators that there is no other body of this size in the world which has as high a death rate as this body. Out of the 96 Senators, during the past 7 or 8 years at least three have died each year, and if there is anything that can be done to cause members of this body to enjoy greater health and to prolong their lives, it seems to me that no one should object to it.”
In 1996 George Washington University political scientist Forrest Maltzman and his colleagues found evidence that the Capitol’s ventilation system might have been a significant factor. As early as 1859, one senator had called his chamber “the most unhealthful, uncomfortable, ill-contrived place I was ever in my life; and my health is suffering daily from the atmosphere.” A ban on smoking didn’t seem to help, but a new ventilation system, complete with air conditioning, was installed in 1932, and Maltzman found a significant decrease in mortality beyond this point, sparing an estimated three members per Congress.
“Accordingly, we think there is at least a ghost of a chance that [political scientist Nelson] Polsby is correct when he argues that the advent of air-conditioning in the 1930s and 1940s may have had no less momentous an impact on political life (and death) in the nation’s capital than the massive changes the city underwent during the 1960s and 1970s — racial desegregation, home rule, and rapid population growth.”
(Forrest Maltzman, Lee Sigelman, and Sarah Binder, “Leaving Office Feet First: Death in Congress,” PS: Political Science & Politics 29:4 [December 1996], 665-671.)
Thomas Paine came to an ignominious end. The revolutionary activist so inspired English journalist William Cobbett that Cobbett dug up his bones in 1819 and transported them back to England, hoping to give Paine a heroic reburial in the land of his birth. (G.K. Chesterton wrote, “I wonder what he said when asked if he had anything to declare?”)
But Cobbett never got around to it. When he himself died in 1835, Paine’s bones were still among his effects, and they’ve since been lost: His skull may be in Australia, his jawbone may be in Brighton, or maybe Cobbett’s son buried everything in the family plot when he couldn’t auction it off. In 1905 part of his brain (“resembling hard putty”) may have been buried under a monument in New Rochelle, N.Y. But no one knows for sure.
Ohio inventor Philip Clover came up with a dramatic way to discourage body snatchers in 1878: a “coffin torpedo.” Basically a live cartridge is attached to the body by hidden wires so that “any attempt to remove the body after burial will cause the … injury or death of the desecrator of the grave”:
The trigger-wires are secured to the arms, legs, or other portion of the body of the corpse in such manner as to induce to the tripping of the trigger should any attempt be made to withdraw the body from the casket. The torpedo is loaded … just prior to the final closing of the casket.
“The torpedo may be placed in variable positions within the casket, and properly concealed by the trimmings of the casket or the apparel of the corpse.” Clover points out that there’s no need to protect the weapon from the elements — by the time it ceases to work, “the body would be of no use to robbers.”
From the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, via the Ohio Law Reporter, Aug. 17, 1908: During a dispute over a will in Vienna, a phonograph record was introduced into evidence so that the dead woman herself could explain her intentions, which she’d recorded during her lifetime:
Prof. Sulzer stated that he had a phonographic record that would settle beyond question the point in dispute and asked the court’s permission to introduce it as evidence. The permission was granted and Mme. Blaci, the decedent, told in her own voice of her affection for her brother and his family and announced her intention of providing before her death so that her nephew, Heinrich, would be well cared for after she had passed away.
Heinrich testified that the record was made on the twenty-first anniversary of his birth. Mme. Blaci, he told the judge, had said at the time that she wanted the words she had spoken to her brother, Heinrich’s father, put on record as a souvenir of her affection that could be handed down to her nephew.
“After hearing the record, the court immediately awarded Heinrich $120,000 as his share of the estate, which was the full amount claimed by him.”
Inventor Robert Barrows thought up a high-tech memorial in 2005: a hollowed-out headstone equipped with a weatherproofed computer monitor.
“I envision being able to walk through a cemetery using a remote control, clicking on graves and what all the people buried there have to say,” he told the Wall Street Journal. “They can say all the things they didn’t have the opportunity or guts to say when they were alive.”
He estimated that a “video-enhanced grave marker” might add $4,000 to the cost of a high-end $4,000 tombstone. If they really take off we’ll need wireless headsets to keep down the racket at the cemetery:
05/09/2017 They’re already doing this in Slovenia. (Thanks, Dan.)
In 1948, Air Force general Hoyt Vandenberg and his wife Gladys were walking through Arlington National Cemetery when they saw a young airman being buried without any family members present — only the chaplain and military honor guard who attend every burial. Moved by the lonely ceremony, Gladys organized the Officers’ Wives Club so one of its members would attend every Air Force funeral. The other branches of the armed services have followed suit so that today an “Arlington lady” attends every funeral at the cemetery. No soldier is buried alone.
“It doesn’t matter whether we are burying a four-star general or a private,” Margaret Mensch, head of the Army ladies, told NBC. “They all deserve to have someone say thank you at their grave.”
In 1818 caricaturist George Cruikshank saw several people hanging from a gibbet near Newgate Prison in London and learned to his horror that they had been executed for passing forged one-pound notes — at the time, doing so even unknowingly was punishable by death or transportation.
The fact that a poor woman could be put to death for such a minor offence had a great effect upon me — and I at that moment determined, if possible, to put a stop to this shocking destruction of life for merely obtaining a few shillings by fraud; and well knowing the habits of the low class of society in London, I felt quite sure that in very many cases the rascals who forged the notes induced these poor ignorant women to go into the gin-shops to ‘get something to drink,’ and thus pass the notes, and hand them the change.
He went home and dashed off this sketch, which was then printed on the post paper used by the bank, so that it would resemble counterfeit currency. “The general effect was of a counterfeit, but closer examination revealed that every element of the official design had been replaced by a savage parody,” writes Robert L. Patten in George Cruikshank’s Life, Times, and Art. The seal shows Britannia eating her children, the stamp depicts 12 tiny heads in prison, and the pound sign is a coiled hangman’s rope.
The protest created a sensation, and remedial legislation was passed. Cruikshank’s satire, noted the Examiner, “ought to make the hearts of the Bank Directors ache at the sight.”
In a garden in Ōtsuchi, in the Iwate prefecture on Japan’s east coast, stands an inoperative phone booth that’s nonetheless been used by more than 10,000 people since the 2011 earthquake and tsunami that killed 15,000 people and displaced hundreds of thousands more. The booth, known as the “Kaze no Denwa Box,” or Phone Booth of the Winds, was built by 69-year-old Itaru Sasaki so that local residents could communicate with loved ones who are dead or missing. Sasaki never connected the line, but callers still use the phone to speak to the departed, or write messages on a notepad, trusting that the wind will carry them to their intended recipients.
“In such a stricken environment, it might have been easy to perceive this disconnected phone booth as a whimsical art project incommensurate with the scale of loss experienced by the survivors for whom it was intended,” writes Ariana Kelly in Phone Booth (2015). “But quite the opposite has happened, and for the past several years there has been a steady stream of visitors to the booth, both from Ōtsuchi and other parts of Japan. Perhaps it provides a necessary terminus, a destination in a place marked by eradication. Perhaps one antidote to tragedy is useless beauty, or just uselessness.”
After his daughter Jean’s death in 1909, Mark Twain began to write:
Would I bring her back to life if I could do it? I would not. If a word would do it, I would beg for strength to withhold the word. And I would have the strength; I am sure of it. In her loss I am almost bankrupt, and my life is a bitterness, but I am content: for she has been enriched with the most precious of all gifts — that gift which makes all other gifts mean and poor — death. I have never wanted any released friend of mine restored to life since I reached manhood. I felt in this way when Susy passed away; and later my wife, and later Mr. Rogers. When Clara met me at the station in New York and told me Mr. Rogers had died suddenly that morning, my thought was, Oh, favorite of fortune — fortunate all his long and lovely life — fortunate to his latest moment! The reporters said there were tears of sorrow in my eyes. True — but they were for ME, not for him. He had suffered no loss. All the fortunes he had ever made before were poverty compared with this one.
“I am setting it down,” he told his friend Albert Bigelow Paine, “everything. It is a relief to me to write it. It furnishes me an excuse for thinking.”
He wrote for three days, handed the manuscript to Paine, and told him to make it the final chapter of his autobiography. Four months later he was dead.