“Reports of My Death …”

Some premature obituaries:

  • An unidentified New York newspaper once carried the front-page headline POPE BENEDICT XV IS DEAD. A later edition announced POPE HAS REMARKABLE RECOVERY.
  • Melody Maker magazine once announced that Alice Cooper was dead. Cooper reassured his fans: “I’m alive, and drunk as usual.”
  • When a magazine reported that Rudyard Kipling had died, he wrote, “Don’t forget to delete me from your list of subscribers.”
  • English fiddle player Dave Swarbrick forgave the Daily Telegraph for reporting his death in April 1999: “It’s not the first time I have died in Coventry.”
  • In 1982 People magazine reported that Abe Vigoda had died. He posed for a photo sitting up in a coffin, holding the magazine.
  • After a heart attack, painter James McNeill Whistler wrote to a Dutch newspaper, saying that reading his own obituary had induced a “tender glow of health.”

“The Human Lightning Rod”


A U.S. forest ranger in Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park, Roy Cleveland Sullivan (1912-1983) survived being hit by lightning seven different times:

  1. In a lookout tower in 1942, the first bolt struck him in the leg. He lost a nail on his big toe.
  2. In 1969, a second bolt struck him in his truck, knocking him unconscious and burning his eyebrows.
  3. The third strike, in 1970, hit him in his front yard, burning his left shoulder.
  4. The next bolt struck in a ranger station in 1972 and set his hair on fire. After that, he began carrying a pitcher of water with him.
  5. In 1973, a bolt hit Sullivan in the head, blasting him out of his car and again setting his hair on fire.
  6. The sixth bolt struck him in a campground in 1974, injuring his ankle.
  7. The final bolt hit him in 1977, when he was fishing. He was hospitalized for burns on his chest and stomach.

Sullivan shot himself in 1983 … reportedly over a rejected love.

Lifelong Virgins

Lifelong virgins:

  • Hans Christian Andersen, author
  • J.M. Barrie, creator of Peter Pan
  • Lewis Carroll, author and logician
  • Emily Dickinson, poet
  • Immanuel Kant
  • Søren Kierkegaard
  • Nikola Tesla, inventor
  • Ed Gein, serial killer

Mark Twain kept his virginity until age 34; Goethe until 39. Voltaire wrote, “It is one of the superstitions of the human mind to have imagined that virginity could be a virtue.”

Seven Summits


The “Seven Summits” — the highest peak on each continent:

  1. Everest (Asia), 29,035 feet
  2. Aconcagua (South America), 22,834 feet
  3. McKinley (North America), 20,320 feet
  4. Kilimanjaro (Africa), 19,340 feet
  5. Elbrus (Europe), 18,510 feet
  6. Vinson Massif (Antarctica), 16,066 feet
  7. Kosciusko (Australia), 7,310 feet

About 80 mountaineers have climbed all seven.

The Dreadnought Hoax


That’s Virginia Woolf on the left, dressed up as an Abyssinian prince. In 1910 she participated in an elaborate practical joke to trick the Royal Navy into showing their flagship, H.M.S. Dreadnought, to a supposed delegation of Abyssinian royals.

Arriving by VIP coach, the impostors spoke in Latin, shouted “bunga bunga” at the impressive warship, asked for prayer mats and bestowed “military honors” on the officers. At one point Anthony Buxton sneezed his whiskers off, but he stuck them back on before anyone noticed. When it was over they revealed the hoax by sending a letter and a group photo to the Daily Mirror.

This was, amazingly, a typical day for Horace de Vere Cole (far right), an Edwardian dynamo of practical jokes. As an undergraduate at Cambridge University, Cole had visited his own college posing as a sultan of Zanzibar. He once impersonated prime minister Ramsay MacDonald at a Labour Party meeting, telling members to work harder for less money. And he later slipped his watch into an MP’s pocket and dared him to run to the nearest corner — then had him arrested for pickpocketing.

He could improvise, too. He once told a group of workmen to dig a hole in the middle of Piccadilly Circus; it took a week for public officials to refill it. And he once shared a taxi with a naked female mannequin; he had the cabbie stop in front of a policeman, opened the door, and banged the dummy’s head on the pavement, shouting, “Ungrateful hussy!”

It’s not recorded whether anyone ever played a joke on him. “Everything is funny,” wrote Will Rogers, “as long as it is happening to Somebody Else.”