Stacy Conradt
Stacy Conradt

The Flying Wallendas

Stacy Conradt
Stacy Conradt

For years, every time we so much as touch a toe out of state, I’ve put cemeteries on our travel itinerary. From garden-like expanses to overgrown boot hills, whether they’re the final resting places of the well-known but not that important or the important but not that well-known, I love them all. After realizing that there are a lot of taphophiles (cemetery and/or tombstone enthusiasts) out there, I’m finally putting my archive of interesting tombstones to good use.

Contrary to what the song would have you believe, flying through the air doesn’t exactly happen with the greatest of ease—even if the Flying Wallendas make it look that way.

The world’s most famous high wire act has been making headlines since 1780, when the Wallenda family traveled Europe as a complete circus act that included high wire, clowns, jugglers, and animal trainers. The modern-day act began when young Karl Wallenda joined the family business in the early 1900s. He developed a new four-person pyramid stunt that caught the eye of John Ringling, who invited the troupe to perform with his circus. They accepted, and so completely stunned the audience at their 1928 Madison Square Garden debut that they received a 15-minute standing ovation. The Wallendas say such an ovation has not happened at Madison Square Garden before or since.

As the family grew, so did the act. By the 1960s, children, in-laws, nephews, and family friends were all performing death-defying stunts—until the day that they didn’t defy death. On January 30, 1962, the Wallendas were in the middle of their famous seven-person pyramid 35 feet up when the front man on the wire faltered, sending three men plummeting to the ground. Two of them, Karl’s son-in-law and nephew, died from their injuries. The third, Karl’s adopted son Mario, was paralyzed from the waist down for the rest of his life. Here's the modern-day troupe recreating the act:

A year after the accident in Detroit, Rietta Wallenda, Karl’s sister-in-law, was killed in Omaha when she fell 50 feet during her sway pole act.

Tragedy spared the Wallendas for the better part of a decade. Then, in 1972, Karl’s son-in-law was killed in a freak accident when the pole he was holding accidentally brushed a live wire. The resulting shock made him fall; he later died from head injuries sustained in the accident.

Karl himself died in 1978 at the age of 73 when he fell from a high wire strung 121 feet in the air between two buildings in San Juan. Though many reports chalk the accident up to high winds, the family has stated that it was due to some misconnected guy ropes along the wire.

Images: Stacy Conradt

The legendary aerialists who gave their lives to the craft can be found at Manasota Cemetery in Bradenton, Florida, which is a neighboring town to the Ringling Brothers’ winter home of Sarasota.

See all the Grave Sightings posts here.

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Ben Pruchnie, Getty Images
The Curse on Shakespeare's Grave
Ben Pruchnie, Getty Images
Ben Pruchnie, Getty Images

It's a pretty good practice to avoid incurring the wrath of the dead in general, but if there's a ghost you really don't want to upset, it's probably William Shakespeare's. Just think of the many inventive ways he killed people in his plays. That's why the curse on his grave at the Church of the Holy Trinity in Stratford-Upon-Avon should be taken seriously:

"Good friend for Jesus sake forbeare, To dig the dust enclosed here. Blessed be the man that spares these stones, And cursed be he that moves my bones."

It's thought that the warning was penned by Shakespeare himself. In his day, it was common for bodies to be exhumed for research purposes or even just to make room for more burials, and the Bard did not want that to happen to his remains. So far, his warning seems to have worked. Even when the grave received some repairs in 2008, workers said the stones would not actually be moved and the bones certainly would not be disturbed. 

It has recently been suggested that Shakespeare's remains be exhumed and studied using the same techniques that allowed us to learn more about King Richard III, so we may soon find out how effective that curse really is. Professor Francis Thackeray from the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, who wants to exhume the bones, seems to be pushing his luck. "We could possibly get around [the curse] by at least exposing the bones and doing high-resolution, non-destructive laser surface scanning for forensic analyses without moving a single bone," he said. "Besides, Shakespeare said nothing about teeth in that epitaph."

Will it be enough to avoid the Bard's wrath? Only time will tell.

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Stacy Conradt
Grave Sightings: Hubert Humphrey
Stacy Conradt
Stacy Conradt

With the state of politics lately, it’s hard to imagine a generous act of kindness from one political rival to another. But if Hubert Humphrey and Richard Nixon were capable of burying the hatchet, there’s hope for anyone.

Humphrey, a senator from Minnesota, ran for president several times. In 1952, he lost the Democratic nomination to Adlai Stevenson. In 1960, of course, he faced a charismatic young senator from Massachusetts named Jack Kennedy. In 1968, Humphrey, who was vice president at the time, came closest to the presidency—but Nixon triumphed by a little more than 500,000 popular votes.


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Though he graciously admitted defeat and pledged to help the new president-elect, Humphrey wasn’t shy about criticizing Nixon. Just 10 months after Nixon took office, Humphrey stated that the administration had done “poorly—very poorly” overall, citing the increase in interest rates and the cost of living. Nixon and his team, Humphrey said, had “forgotten the people it said it would remember.” He was still making his opinions known four years after the election, turning his eye to Vietnam. “Had I been elected, we would now be out of that war,” he told the press on January 10, 1972.


Stacy Conradt

The Watergate scandal broke later that year, and Humphrey no doubt felt validated. He mounted another unsuccessful bid for the presidency in 1972, but lost the nomination to George McGovern. Humphrey briefly considered trying one more time in 1976, but ultimately nixed the idea. "It's ridiculous — and the one thing I don't need at this stage in my life is to be ridiculous," he said. The public didn’t know it at the time but the politician had been battling bladder cancer for several years. By August 1977, the situation had become terminal, and Humphrey was aware that his days were numbered.

When he knew he had just a few weeks left to live, Humphrey did something that would stun both Republicans and Democrats: He called former rival Richard Nixon and invited him to his upcoming funeral. He knew that Nixon had been depressed and isolated in his political exile, and despite the Watergate scandal and the historical bad blood, he wanted Nixon to have a place of honor at the ceremony. Humphrey knew his death would give the former president a plausible reason to return to Washington, and told Nixon to say he was there at the personal request of Hubert Humphrey if anyone questioned his motives.

Humphrey died on January 13, 1978—and when the funeral was held a few days later, Nixon did, indeed, attend. He stayed out of the Washington limelight, emerging right before the ceremony—to audible gasps. Humphrey’s gracious act must have been on Nixon’s mind when he listened to Vice President Walter Mondale sing the fallen senator’s praises: “He taught us all how to hope, and how to love, how to win and how to lose. He taught us how to live, and finally he taught us how to die.”

Nixon wasn’t the only former foe whom Humphrey had mended fences with. Barry Goldwater, who ran against Humphrey in 1964, had this to say:

“I served with him in the Senate, I ran against him in campaigns, I debated with him, I argued with him. But I don’t think I have ever enjoyed a friendship as much as the one that existed between the two of us. I know it may sound strange to people who see in Hubert a liberal and who see in me a conservative, that the two of us could ever get together; but I enjoyed more good laughs, more good advice, more sound counsel from him that I have from most anyone I have been associated with in this business of trying to be a senator.”

After the ceremony in D.C., Humphrey was buried at Lakewood Cemetery in Minneapolis. His wife, Muriel, joined him there when she died 20 years later.

Peruse all the entries in our Grave Sightings series here.

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