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.