originally published January 6, 2014
When a journalist was dispatched in 1897 to confirm the rumors that Mark Twain was near death, the author – whose cousin was actually the sick one – famously quipped, “The report of my death was an exaggeration.” Leave it to the granddad of American humor to reduce bogus speculation and rampant rumor-chasing to a delightfully quotable line of schtick.
There are several reasons why a premature obituary might slither through the fact-checking cracks and splatter into the world. Sometimes the person in question has faked their death. Maybe someone with a similar name passed away and somewhere along the gossip lines the ball was dropped. Mostly it’s merely a question of someone screwing up.
This is why any Facebook post, any tweet or any text regarding a famous person’s demise must be double or even triple-checked before being forwarded to all one’s friends and family. No one wants to be the egg-faced schmuck who peddles bogus info. We all have enough of those on our feeds.
Yeah, I’m talking to you, Uncle Kirby. I looked it up – the male actors from Full House did not die together in a weird orgy in John Stamos’s sauna last weekend. And while we’re at it, quit inviting me to play friggin’ Candy Crush.
Marcus Garvey was a black nationalist, a Jamaican leader, and a Rastafarian prophet. His ideas influenced millions, and his words tickled the depths of his followers’ souls. Then, shortly after he’d suffered a stroke in 1940, the Chicago Defender proclaimed that the man had died “broke, alone and unpopular.” A powerful prickle of anxiety jabbed at Mr. Garvey from his insides when he read this, prompting a second stroke to swoop in and finish the job. Five months later, Garvey was dead. This may be the best example of the importance of double-checking vital signs I’ve ever heard.
Ernest Hemingway and his wife were both reported dead after a plane crash in Africa. They had both survived, and Hemingway reportedly flipped through a scrapbook of his premature obituaries each morning with a glass of champagne.
Rich Williams, the guitar player in the band Kansas, was reported dead early in 2009. In fact the guitarist had not become dust in the wind – he was carrying on as any wayward son would, playing in the band with which he had become famous. The corpse in question belonged to Eric de Boer of Kingston, New Hampshire. De Boer had spent decades impersonating Williams, claiming that he had joined Kansas after a turbulent tour in Vietnam. Williams had known about de Boer’s weirdness for years, but dismissed it as “really wacky stuff.”
The fact that Williams was such a good sport about this is encouraging. Maybe I’ll actually get away with billing myself as the lost Jonas brother after all.
Betty White, who has become more popular in her 90’s than she was during her Golden Girls heyday, was listed by a Today Show correspondent as among the famous people buried at Forest Lawn Memorial Park. The reporter was covering Michael Jackson’s funeral service, and may have simply been too distraught to realize what he was saying. Meredith Vieira was quick to correct the guy, pointing out that it was actually Bette Davis whose remains were tucked under the sod at Forest Lawn.
During a 1998 radio broadcast of a Pittsburgh Pirates game, announcer Lenny Frattare mistakenly let it slip that actor James Earl Jones (he’s the one on the right) had recently died. What Frattare meant to say was that James Earl Ray, the guy who shot Martin Luther King Jr., had died. A subtle slip, but a significant one nonetheless.
You’ve probably never heard of this guy with the overstuffed powder-blue man-purse, but that’s Anthony John Allen, who had drowned in a 1966 suicide near Beachy Head in Britain. He was a serial criminal who was up on multiple theft charges, so suicide seemed like a natural way out. Except those 1966 obituaries were false; Allen faked his suicide, assumed a new identity, and set about resuming his profession in the thieving arts.
He might have gotten away with it, but for the 1992 autobiography of Eunice Chapman Yabley, who’d had an affair with Allen and written all about it. The police tracked him down in 2002, and he was subsequently convicted of having murdered his wife and children in 1975.
In 1888, Ludvig Nobel passed away. Not being sticklers for detail, a number of newspapers reported that Ludvig’s brother Alfred had died instead. Alfred had no problem correcting them, but he was particularly shaken by the content of his bogus obits. “The merchant of death is dead,” read one French newspaper. They all focused on one thing: the fact that Nobel had invented dynamite, and had become wealthy by selling an utterly effective means of killing lots of people.
Nobel was inspired by his rancid legacy, and sought to balance the scales by putting together the funds to award six annual Nobel Prizes every year, beginning in 1895. Alfred died in 1896, his mission accomplished.
Apparently Paul McCartney was killed in a car crash in November of 1966. Rather than announce his death and move on, the Beatles replaced him with a look-alike named William Campbell, then sprinkled tiny and elaborate clues in their music and album covers for the remainder of the band’s existence, because this is logically what a band would do. It was a hoax that dropped into the student newspaper at Drake University in Iowa in the fall of 1969, and to this day some folks still believe it.
On April 16, 2003, seven notable personalities were declared dead on CNN’s website. The obituaries were sitting in the development section of the site, which required no password to access. Finding them was only a matter of punching the right terms into Google and clicking on the results. Among the supposed dead were Fidel Castro, Dick Cheney, Nelson Mandela, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, Pope John Paul II and Bob Hope.
It’s not surprising that a major news outlet would have obituaries ready to go in the event of a famous earthly departure – they don’t want their staff scribbling away while other news sources plop the story into the global consciousness. But these are supposed to sit in a drawer somewhere, not in a publically-accessible part of their site.
Also, the obits weren’t quite finished, borrowing text from one another and even from the previously-published obituary of the Queen Mother. This is how Castro was called a “lifeguard, athlete, movie star” – the description from Reagan’s obit was copy-pasted. Also, Dick Cheney is not, in fact, “The UK’s favorite grandmother.”
I’m not nearly famous enough for such weirdness to befall me, but just in case I hope someone double-checks my pulse before leaking my demise to the press.