The Quick 10: 10 People Pronounced Dead a Bit Prematurely

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Pope Benedict XV died on January 22, 1922, which isn't all that notable by itself "“ after all, he was 67 and had been suffering from a pretty bad case of pneumonia all month. What is notable is that he had been declared dead several days before he actually died thanks to a foible by a New York newspaper. Benedict is just one of a select group of folks who have been declared dead before their time "“ here is his story and nine others.

BENEDICT1. Pope Benedict XV was, as mentioned, quite ill with pneumonia and the whole world was on a rather morbid death watch, much like we were a few years ago when Pope John Paul II got sick. A "New York newspaper," which is always unnamed when the story is told, jumped the gun a little and declared that Benedict had died in large, boldface type. The problem? He was still kicking. The next day, this "New York newspaper" allegedly declared "Pope Has Remarkable Recovery," without acknowledging their previous error. Since the name of the newspaper can't be verified, I think this one is a job for Snopes. I just might have to submit it!

2. In 1973, British magazine Melody Maker published a satirical article that announced Alice Cooper's death due to a faulty guillotine he was using in his stage act. It was supposed to be funny, but Cooper's fans weren't quite amused. Apparently they missed sarcastic phrases such as, "Apart from the incident, the show went well and as normal," and "The body of Ms. Cooper, who was 46, is currently on show at the Charles Addams funeral parlour, Hollywood. The head, it is understood, will be the subject of a competition in one of Britian's pop magazines." After the article caused so much outrage, Alice released a statement, saying, "I'm alive and drunk as usual." You can read the original "obituary" here.

3. Ernest Hemingway and his wife, Mary, were involved in not one, but two plane crashes during a 1954 African safari. But newspapers around the world were a little too eager to report that they had both died from those crashes. Hemingway suffered a ruptured kidney, a sprained arm and leg and temporary loss of hearing and eyesight, but his vision had improved enough to allow him to read his own premature obituary while sitting in a café in Venice just a few days later.

twain
4. Most of us have heard the famous Mark Twain quip, "The report of my death is an exaggeration," but here's the story behind the quote. A journalist was incorrectly informed that Twain was knocking on death's door in 1897, but when he showed up to inquire about the writer's health, he was informed that it was, in fact, Twain's cousin who was dying. The reporter had gotten his Clemens boys confused. Samuel Clemens lasted another 13 years.

5. Sharon Osbourne's battle with cancer was pretty highly publicized in 2002 and 2003, so I guess ABCNews.com decided to prepare for the worst by getting her death announcement ready. This is pretty common practice, actually, but it becomes problematic when the announcement is published and the person in question is actually still alive and doing quite well. ABC News retracted their error ASAP and claimed it was due to a technical glitch.

6. Imagine reading your obituary and finding it less than glowing. That's what happened to Alfred Nobel in 1888. When Nobel's brother Ludvig died, a French newspaper erroneously reported that it was the dynamite inventor who died, almost gleefully declaring, "The merchant of death is dead!" They also stated in the article that Nobel had become rich by "finding ways to kill more people faster than ever before." Nobel, understandably, was not too happy with the way the media had portrayed him and set out to do something to improve his image "“ thus, the Nobel Prize was born.

7. Rudyard Kipling's premature death announcement is along the lines of Pope Benedict XV "“ the magazine involved is never named, so feel free to remain a bit skeptical. The quip is too good not to mention though: when Kipling's obituary was published in a magazine while he was still very much alive, he made sure to drop them a note, saying, "I've just read that I am dead. Don't forget to delete me from your list of subscribers." Zing!

cheney8. I don't care what way you swing politically; there probably aren't too many people who think of former Vice President Dick Cheney lovingly. That's why it was doubly strange when CNN.com published his obituary on April 16, 2003, stating that he was "The UK's favorite grandmother." Clearly they had used the Queen Mother's obituary as a template for Cheney and several others who accidentally had their obits published the same day. It was an interesting insight into who CNN thought was due to kick the bucket soon, though "“ other people included in the incident were Nelson Mandela, Gerald Ford, Pope John Paul II, Fidel Castro, Bob Hope and Ronald Reagan. Their guesses weren't too awful "“ by the end of 2006, only three of those seven were still alive.

9. Just after one of his plays had debuted to rave reviews, writer Samuel Taylor Coleridge was found dead, having hanged himself from a tree in London's Hyde Park. The problem? It wasn't Coleridge. I guess detective work has come a long way since 1816, because the body was identified by using the initials stitched in the back of the body's shirt "“ "S.T. Coleridge." The real Coleridge overheard people discussing his death and asked to see the newspaper they were looking at, which contained his obituary. One of the people remarked that it was strange that Coleridge would kill himself after such a success, but then again, he had always been known as a little bit strange. Coleridge allegedly replied, "Indeed, sir, it is a most extraordinary thing that he should have hanged himself, be the subject of an inquest, and yet that he should at this moment be speaking to you." He suspected the shirt had been stolen from him.

10. Joe DiMaggio wasn't very happy when he saw that NBC was broadcasting the news of his death in January 1999. He was watching Gunfight at OK Corral with friend Morris Engelberg and happened to switch to NBC just in time to see the error. "Joe, we must be in heaven together," Engelberg told the Yankee Clipper. DiMaggio released a statement saying that not only was alive, he was not in "hopeless condition," even though he had lung cancer. Unfortunately, DiMaggio died less than two months later.

I know Paul McCartney is another good one "“ if you're interested, I touched on it a little bit in my Sgt. Pepper post last year. And as several readers have pointed out, Abe Vigoda has been pronounced dead plenty of times. Do you remember any others were announced dead a little (or a lot) prematurely?

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January 25, 2010 - 12:19pm
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