Grave Sightings: Walter Cronkite

Stacy Conradt
Stacy Conradt

Beloved news anchor Walter Cronkite tearfully reported the news of John F. Kennedy’s assassination in 1963. A decade later, he took a call delivering the news of Lyndon B. Johnson’s death live on-air. He told the world about Martin Luther King Jr’s assassination in 1968. And when the most trusted man in America himself died on July 17, 2009, at the age of 92, it was reported by news outlets around the globe.

Color photo of anchorman Walter Cronkite in his later years, wearing a pinstriped suit, a blue-and-white-striped dress shirt, and a navy tie with a red pattern on it.

Although Cronkite made a career and a reputation out of breaking and reporting news on a nightly basis for nearly two decades, his own illness was kept under wraps. His family announced that he was suffering from cerebrovascular disease just a few weeks before his death.

The funeral at St. Bartholomew Church in Manhattan was a star-studded affair filled with former coworkers and competitors such as Diane Sawyer, Dan Rather, and Barbara Walters. After a number of poignant speeches by friends, family, and colleagues, the funeral concluded with a raucous rendition of “When the Saints Go Marching In,” which friends said would have pleased Cronkite, an amateur clarinetist.

A shot of Walter Cronkite's pink marble gravestone, set flat into the ground and surrounded by grass.

If you want to pay your respects to Uncle Walter, however, you won’t find him in New York. Despite his longtime residency in Manhattan, Cronkite was buried in Kansas City, Missouri, where he spent some time early in his career as a broadcaster at KCMO radio station, reading news and summarizing football games under the name Walter Wilcox. But it wasn’t cherished memories of the job that brought him back to the Show Me State for all eternity—it was his wife. While Cronkite was working at KCMO, a writer named Betsy Maxwell caught his eye. They got married in 1940. Betsy died from cancer complications in 2005 and was buried in her family plot at Mount Moriah Cemetery in Kansas City, Missouri. Cronkite joined her four years later.

Close-up image of the gravestone of news anchor Walter Cronkite and his wife, Mary. The small stone is pink marble and set into the ground.

For such a legend, the stone is simple and unassuming, not entirely unlike the man himself. Though he "loved being Walter Cronkite, being around all those celebrities," journalist David Halberstam once said that Cronkite could never seem to believe that he had entered the realm of celebrity himself. Part of Cronkite never left his hometown of St. Joseph, Missouri, Halberstam said—which makes it only fitting that he returned to the area for his final sign-off.

Peruse all the entries in our Grave Sightings series here.

When Skeleton Rocking Chairs and ‘Vampire Killing Kits’ Fooled People Into Thinking They Were Rare Historical Artifacts

A vampire killing kit at Ripley's Believe It or Not! in San Francisco
A vampire killing kit at Ripley's Believe It or Not! in San Francisco
Glen Bowman, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

In 2012, bizarre rocking chairs—usually dark brown, with various kinds of ornate flourishes, always in the shape of a skeleton—began popping up on sites across the internet. Gothic.org and io9 ran stories about them, and Facebook pages like Steampunk Tendencies soon followed. The chairs were sometimes described as modeled on 19th-century Russian examples—and other times described as 19th-century Russian items themselves.

The grotesque chairs were funny, but got even funnier in 2013 when someone appropriated a photo from an auction house and meme-ified it. They added a blurred effect and magnified the skeleton’s anguished, open-mouthed expression, making it seem as if it were screaming into the void—perhaps upon realizing that it must spend the rest of eternity as a rocking chair in some eccentric collector’s parlor. By early 2014, someone on 4chan had associated the meme with the words “Wake Me Up Inside (Can't Wake Up)” after lyrics from the 2003 song "Bring Me to Life" by rock band Evanescence. Then, in true internet fashion, people started adding their own text.

By then, another story had attached itself to the chairs. In 2009, the Lawrence Journal-World discussed the macabre furniture item in a column titled "Ghoulish pieces attract collectors," and suggested that the chair had something to do with a Masonic ritual.

So—aside from the joy of a good meme—what’s the deal? Was this chair used in some secret society's ceremony, or is it just a strange artifact made by some long-forgotten Russian woodworker?

A Macabre Fantasy

According to James Jackson, the answer is neither. Jackson—the president and CEO of Jackson’s Auctions in Cedar Falls, Iowa, and a specialist in Russian art—sold the chair that was featured in several of the early news stories.

He says most of these chairs were probably made in the '90s, but were designed to look older to fool buyers into forking over more money. “These are the type of things that are created in various markets to appeal to the eclectic, exotic tastes of a wannabe fine art consumer,” Jackson tells Mental Floss. “So the person making this chair—and the guy buying it and reselling it—they understand this brain very well.”

The precise origins of the chairs Jackson's sold are murky. A couple of the chairs were sold to a third-party seller called a consignor, who then resold them to Jackson’s Auctions. Jackson suspects they were probably made somewhere in Europe—probably at a workshop where the primary goal is to “make a buck.” That would explain why no artist or craftsman's name is ever attached to the chairs.

These “fantasy chairs” were initially thought to be rare, and some sellers may have benefited from the myths and stories surrounding their origin. Over the years, people started to see more and more of these chairs at auction, which contributed to their diminishing value. Jackson said his auction house sold one of the chairs for $2600 in 2008, but in 2012, the price dropped to $1500. At its lowest price point, a skeleton chair sold for $900 in Detroit, according to Jackson's database of different auction houses.

Artifacts of the Hyperreal

Jackson says the skeleton chairs remind him of the vampire slayer kits that were popular in the '90s, and continued to be sold throughout the 2000s (they still pop up on eBay and other online auctions from time to time). Wooden trunks—purportedly full of vampire-repelling tools from the 1800s such as wooden stakes, garlic, a crucifix, and sometimes pistols—used to command high prices at auction. Sotheby’s even sold one for $25,000 in 2011.

“It was BS,” Jackson says of the trunks, explaining that while they may have contained old tools, the pieces were assembled later for commercial purposes and given a phony backstory. “Whenever we see anything weird like that, it’s an automatic red flag. To the consumer, though, they want it to be some rare and unusual thing—and that’s not true.”

Jackson said one obvious sign that the slaying kits were inauthentic was that "they don’t show up in any literature prior to the 1990s, [and] something like that would have been written about somewhere.” In hindsight, Jackson thinks the whole scam was pretty comical. He said you had experts on TV doing careful analyses of the paper labels inside these kits, when in reality, all they had to do was use a magnifying glass to see that the letters were printed by a dot matrix.

"It’s like doing a metallurgic study on a brand new Mercedes-Benz," he said. “I didn’t have to get a microscope out and a black light and spend an hour fondling it. It’s common sense.”

Jonathan Ferguson, a curator at the UK-based National Museum of Arms and Armour, also debunked these hunting trunks. He wrote in a blog post, “Nowhere was there evidence to support real vampire slayers carting about one of these kits.”

Still, he wrote that they were somewhat valuable as “genuine artifacts of the Gothic fiction,” and rather than being seen as fakes (since there never was a Victorian original), should be seen as "'hyperreal' or invented artifacts somewhat akin to stage, screen or magician's props."

As for the Sotheby's kit that was snatched up for $25,000, its creation was also probably inspired by the popularity of Dracula (1897) and other late 19th century vampire lore, according to Dennis Harrington, head of Sotheby's European furniture department in New York City. Harrington notes that some of the pieces inside the kit are valuable in their own right.

"[The kit] was complete and did contain individual elements that have some intrinsic value themselves, like silver bullets and an ivory figure of Christ on the Cross (though we can no longer sell ivory items today) ..." Harrington tells Mental Floss. "The curiosity value would also have helped, and of course the golden rule of auctions is that any one lot is worth whatever someone is willing to pay for it on a particular day."

Likewise, the skeleton rocking chairs—despite not being antiques—certainly have their own unique appeal. “They’re cool, they’re neat. These are ‘man cave’ type things for the most part,” Jackson says. However, “They’re obviously not functional. You can’t sit in it comfortably.”

And what of the skeleton meme? Do the makers of these chairs know that their creation has been turned into an absurd internetism? Jackson, for his part, hadn’t heard anything about it. “I’m glad they made a joke out of [the chairs],” he said, “but I don’t know what meme means.”

Gas Leak at University of Canberra Library in Australia Revealed to Be Durian Fruit

iStock.com/dblight
iStock.com/dblight

On Friday, May 10, firefighters in the Australian Capital Territory received a concerning call: There was a possible gas leak in the University of Canberra library. After evacuating the building and conducting a thorough search, the team found the source of the toxic smell was actually a harmless durian, a Southeast Asian fruit that's infamous for is pungent odor, The Guardian reports.

Writers have been attempting to capture the durian's stench on paper for centuries. Bangkok-based food writer Bob Halliday said Durian smells like "a bunch of dead cats," and 19th-century journalist Bayard Taylor wrote, "To eat it seems to be the sacrifice of self-respect." It may smell like something that died, but Durian's distinct odor actually comes from special genes that release sulfur at a supercharged rate.

The stench apparently is also reminiscent of deadly gas. Emergency services searched the University of Canberra library and conducted "atmospheric monitoring" before tracing the reported gas leak to some fruit. The durian had been placed near an air vent on the building's second floor by an unidentified culprit. It's since been removed in a sealed bag and the library has reopened.

This marks the second time in recent memory that a durian fruit has inspired panic at an Australian university. Just over a year ago, the library at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology was evacuated following reports of a gas leak that also turned out to be a forgotten durian.

[h/t The Guardian]

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