The Quick 10: R.I.T.: Famous Tombstone Typos


Typos are rarely a good thing, but when they’re literally set in stone – well, those are monumental mistakes. Check out eight famous pieces of garbled granite, along with two that look like errors but aren’t.

(Sorry for all of the bad puns. Sometimes I can’t help myself.)

1. James K. Polk, 10th President of the United States. If history buffs (and/or They Might Be Giants fans) just gasped in horror, they have good reason to – Polk was our 11th POTUS. But that’s not what his first epitaph said. It declared him “James Knox Polk 10th President of the U.S.” big and bold. It wasn’t until Polk’s grave was moved from his crumbling homestead to the State Capitol that the engraving was replaced with one that simply said “President of the U.S.” (pictured)

2. William Gaddis, the American novelist who wrote one of the 100 best English language novels of the last century, The Recongnitions. Ahem, that’s The Recognitions. But when the book was quoted on his gravestone when he died in 1998, the engraver spelled its name wrong.

3. Shelly Winters. When the actress died in 2006, a temporary tombstone was put on her gravesite so fans could pay their respects before the permanent stone was put in place. Even though it was the temp, Shelley’s family was still quite upset that her name was misspelled.

4. Boltus Roll. The famous golf course Baltusrol in New Jersey has been home to many PGA Championships and U.S. Opens since 1901, but the course can trace its origins to blood that’s not so blue. Baltusrol is named after a farmer named (surprise) Baltus Roll, who was pulled from his bed and brutally murdered on the grounds – then his farmland – in 1831. To add insult to (fatal) injury, his name was spelled “Boltus” on the stone that marks his final resting place.

5. Zora Neil Hurston. The author of Their Eyes Were Watching God was buried in an unmarked grave until Alice Walker’s “In Search of Zora Neale Hurston” article of 1975 reignited public interest in the writer. She was found and a proper stone was put in place, but for “Zora Neil.” Walker paid to have it corrected.

7. Ben Johnson. Jonson was one of Shakespeare’s contemporaries, but didn’t have enough money to be buried in Westminster Abbey as he so desperately wanted (so says one of the stories, anyway). The powers that be took pity on him when he finally did pass over, though, and granted him just enough space to be buried standing up in the apse wall.

8. Isaac Singer, Noble Prize winner. Isaac Singer won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1978, but not according to his wife. His wife turned in documents for a tombstone that declared him a “Noble” laureate. The owner of the company that made the stone contacted Mrs. Singer and let her know about the typo; Mrs. Singer reportedly said, “Do it as I gave it to you.” So they did. It wasn’t corrected until 1993.

Two epitaphs that appear to contain errors:

9. Elvis Aaron Presley. It’s true; Elvis was born Elvis Aron Presley. Hardcore fans who believe he’s still alive insist the alternate spelling on his grave is a subtle hint from the King that he’s not really buried there, but there’s really a much simpler explanation: Elvis himself preferred the Biblical interpretation of his middle name. He even listed it as such in official documents later in his life. Out of respect, his middle name was spelled the way he preferred it on his gravestone.

10. Buddy Holley. The seemingly extraneous “e” is actually correct. Buddy dropped the vowel for his professional name, but his parents chose to bury him with the original spelling.

Begins and Ends: European Cities
Penn Vet Working Dog Center
Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
New Program Trains Dogs to Sniff Out Art Smugglers
Penn Vet Working Dog Center
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

Soon, the dogs you see sniffing out contraband at airports may not be searching for drugs or smuggled Spanish ham. They might be looking for stolen treasures.

K-9 Artifact Finders, a new collaboration between New Hampshire-based cultural heritage law firm Red Arch and the University of Pennsylvania, is training dogs to root out stolen antiquities looted from archaeological sites and museums. The dogs would be stopping them at borders before the items can be sold elsewhere on the black market.

The illegal antiquities trade nets more than $3 billion per year around the world, and trafficking hits countries dealing with ongoing conflict, like Syria and Iraq today, particularly hard. By one estimate, around half a million artifacts were stolen from museums and archaeological sites throughout Iraq between 2003 and 2005 alone. (Famously, the craft-supply chain Hobby Lobby was fined $3 million in 2017 for buying thousands of ancient artifacts looted from Iraq.) In Syria, the Islamic State has been known to loot and sell ancient artifacts including statues, jewelry, and art to fund its operations.

But the problem spans across the world. Between 2007 and 2016, U.S. Customs and Border Control discovered more than 7800 cultural artifacts in the U.S. looted from 30 different countries.

A yellow Lab sniffs a metal cage designed to train dogs on scent detection.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

K-9 Artifact Finders is the brainchild of Rick St. Hilaire, the executive director of Red Arch. His non-profit firm researches cultural heritage property law and preservation policy, including studying archaeological site looting and antiquities trafficking. Back in 2015, St. Hilaire was reading an article about a working dog trained to sniff out electronics that was able to find USB drives, SD cards, and other data storage devices. He wondered, if dogs could be trained to identify the scents of inorganic materials that make up electronics, could they be trained to sniff out ancient pottery?

To find out, St. Hilaire tells Mental Floss, he contacted the Penn Vet Working Dog Center, a research and training center for detection dogs. In December 2017, Red Arch, the Working Dog Center, and the Penn Museum (which is providing the artifacts to train the dogs) launched K-9 Artifact Finders, and in late January 2018, the five dogs selected for the project began their training, starting with learning the distinct smell of ancient pottery.

“Our theory is, it is a porous material that’s going to have a lot more odor than, say, a metal,” says Cindy Otto, the executive director of the Penn Vet Working Dog Center and the project’s principal investigator.

As you might imagine, museum curators may not be keen on exposing fragile ancient materials to four Labrador retrievers and a German shepherd, and the Working Dog Center didn’t want to take any risks with the Penn Museum’s priceless artifacts. So instead of letting the dogs have free rein to sniff the materials themselves, the project is using cotton balls. The researchers seal the artifacts (broken shards of Syrian pottery) in airtight bags with a cotton ball for 72 hours, then ask the dogs to find the cotton balls in the lab. They’re being trained to disregard the smell of the cotton ball itself, the smell of the bag it was stored in, and ideally, the smell of modern-day pottery, eventually being able to zero in on the smell that distinguishes ancient pottery specifically.

A dog looks out over the metal "pinhweel" training mechanism.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

“The dogs are responding well,” Otto tells Mental Floss, explaining that the training program is at the stage of "exposing them to the odor and having them recognize it.”

The dogs involved in the project were chosen for their calm-but-curious demeanors and sensitive noses (one also works as a drug-detection dog when she’s not training on pottery). They had to be motivated enough to want to hunt down the cotton balls, but not aggressive or easily distracted.

Right now, the dogs train three days a week, and will continue to work on their pottery-detection skills for the first stage of the project, which the researchers expect will last for the next nine months. Depending on how the first phase of the training goes, the researchers hope to be able to then take the dogs out into the field to see if they can find the odor of ancient pottery in real-life situations, like in suitcases, rather than in a laboratory setting. Eventually, they also hope to train the dogs on other types of objects, and perhaps even pinpoint the chemical signatures that make artifacts smell distinct.

Pottery-sniffing dogs won’t be showing up at airport customs or on shipping docks soon, but one day, they could be as common as drug-sniffing canines. If dogs can detect low blood sugar or find a tiny USB drive hidden in a house, surely they can figure out if you’re smuggling a sculpture made thousands of years ago in your suitcase.


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