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7 People Whose Death Notices Improved Their Lives

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These folks, falsely declared dead, came out stronger on the other side.

1. Betty Robinson

At the 1928 Olympic Games in Amsterdam, Betty Robinson, a 16-year-old student from Riverdale, Ill., won a gold medal in the 100-meter dash and a silver medal as part of the 100-meter relay team. But her most impressive athletic achievement would come eight years later, when she staged one of the greatest comebacks in sports history.

In 1931, Robinson was flying in a small biplane with her cousin when they crashed near Chicago. After she was pulled from the wreckage, emergency workers declared her dead. Her body was placed in the trunk of a car and driven to a mortician, who realized that she was still alive. Robinson had suffered a concussion, a broken leg, a cracked hip, and a crushed arm. She would spend a total of seven months in a coma, followed by another six in a wheelchair.

Miraculously, after just three years, Robinson was able to walk again. And before long, she was running. Within three years, she’d resumed training and was up to her previous speed. But because she couldn’t bend her knees enough to crouch in the official starting position, she wasn’t qualified to compete in most races. She could still pass a baton, though. So, at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, she was allowed to be the third runner in the 100-meter relay team. Although the German team led for most of the race, their final runner dropped the baton, and the U.S. team sprinted ahead to win by eight yards. Just five years after she’d been delivered to the undertaker, Robinson won her second Olympic gold.

2. Edward V. Rickenbacker

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Edward Vernon Rickenbacker was an ace fighter pilot and one of America’s most dashing heroes. During World War II, he was sent to deliver a message to General Douglas MacArthur, who was leading the Pacific campaign from New Guinea. But in October of 1942, tragedy struck when Rickenbacker’s B-17 went down somewhere in the Pacific Ocean. After weeks of searching for his body, newspapers declared the war hero dead.

Twenty-four days after the accident, Rickenbacker and six of his companions were found alive, floating on a raft in the middle the ocean. Headlines nicknamed the pilot “Ironman Eddie” and “That Indestructible Man of Aviation.” Rickenbacker was thankful to have survived, but the weeks of starvation and dehydration had token a toll on his physical and emotional health. He and his men had to watch, helpless, as one of their ranks died aboard the raft. After Rickenbacker returned to health, he set about making certain that no soldier suffered such pain again. He used his fame to encourage the U.S. Air Force to design new life rafts equipped with radios and emergency supplies. Fittingly, they became known as “Rickenbackers.”

But Rickenbacker’s work was far from over. He also used his influence to gather a group of leading American scientists, whom he charged with finding a practical means of desalinating seawater. They soon developed a pill that would make a small quantity of seawater drinkable, and the U.S. Navy distributed it to all sailors. For the remaining years of his life, Rickenbacker campaigned tirelessly to find a better way to take the salt out of water. “Water is our greatest life-giving natural resource,” he wrote in his 1967 autobiography. “By desalinating water from the great oceans we can, without building huge reservoirs and inundating more land, irrigate the deserts and feed half a billion more people.” Although he’s best remembered as a war hero, Rickenbacker was also one of the world’s first environmental warriors.

3. Sherlock Holmes

In 1893, after six years of writing Sherlock Holmes stories, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle decided to kill off his most popular character. “For some while now,” he wrote in a letter to his mother, “I’ve been tiring of my detective creation.” And so, in The Adventure of the Final Problem, Holmes plunges to his death at Switzerland’s Reichenbach Falls in a final struggle with his nemesis, Professor James Moriarty.

To say that readers were shocked by the detective’s demise is to put it mildly. Many wrote abusive letters to Doyle; others wore black armbands in mourning. Even Queen Victoria was reportedly offended, personally asking Conan Doyle to bring back the legendary detective. “I was amazed at the concern expressed by the public,” wrote Doyle. “They say that a man is never properly appreciated until he is dead, and the general protest against my summary execution of Holmes taught me how many and how numerous were his friends.”

It wasn’t long before Doyle bowed to public pressure. In 1901, he wrote The Hound of the Baskervilles, a new Holmes story that takes place before the hero’s dramatic downfall. But that wasn’t good enough for the mystery-loving public; fans wanted Holmes alive. Caving once again to his readers’ demands, Doyle resurrected the detective (and received a record sum of money from his publishers in return). In the first of these stories, The Adventure of the Empty House, Holmes explains that he’d flung Moriarty down Reichenbach Falls and faked his own death to escape his enemy’s henchmen. With a satisfied fan base back on board, Doyle continued to write Sherlock Holmes adventures for decades, stopping only three years before his own death in 1930.

4. Samuel Coleridge

In 1813, poet and playwright Samuel Taylor Coleridge was riding a professional high. His play Remorse: A Tragedy in Five Acts was a hit at London theaters, and he was enjoying critical and financial success. But instead of writing a follow-up, Coleridge disappeared for six months.

He was known to suffer from depression and opium addiction, and many worried that the poet was dead. In the spring of that year, a newspaper reported Coleridge’s suicide. According to the story, a man had been found hanging from a tree, and although he had no means of identification, his shirt was marked “S. T. Coleridge.”

A few days later, Coleridge was sitting in a hotel café when he heard the news of his death. When he read the newspaper report, he smiled and quipped that he was probably the first man “to hear of a lost shirt in this way.”

Where had Coleridge been all that time? Uncomfortable with his newfound fame, the poet had retreated into his opium habit. He’d been quietly getting high in the countryside and avoiding his friends and family. But the false death announcement served as a wake-up call, and Coleridge began writing again. Within three years, he’d published his most popular verse, “Kubla Khan.”

5. Nikki Sixx

In the 1980s, Mötley Crüe bassist and songwriter Nikki Sixx was the poster boy for rock ‘n’ roll excess. “I was the only one in the band without a family, a girlfriend, a wife, or any prospects, and I was too smacked out to care,” he said. “I felt like the McDonald’s of rock ‘n’ roll; my life was disposable.” One night in London in 1986, he passed out in his drug dealer’s apartment after injecting heroin and was left for dead. He later woke up, reportedly in a dumpster.

Yet, it would take an even more shocking near-death experience for Sixx to change his ways. After another heroin overdose in December 1987, Sixx was incorrectly declared dead in an ambulance while being rushed to L.A.’s Cedars Sinai Medical Center.

Word of his alleged passing leaked to the press. When he came to in the hospital, a terrified Sixx ripped the tubes out of his nose and fled, wearing only his leather pants. In the parking lot, he found two teenage fans in mourning, who—once they’d gotten over the shock of seeing him alive—gave him a ride home. In the car, he heard reports of his death on the radio that included interviews with his friends and family. Soon after, he admitted to the band that he couldn’t control his addiction, entered rehab, and successfully gave up drugs and alcohol.

Sixx’s experience jolted the rest of the band into sobriety, and ironically, temperance made them bigger rock stars than they’d ever been before. Mötley Crüe peaked commercially with the release of its next album, Dr. Feelgood, in 1989. The band attributed the album’s success to their collective push toward clean living.

6. The Biograph Girl

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In the early years of the movies, one of the most famous faces of the silver screen was “the Biograph Girl.” The star’s familiar smile always brought in the crowds. But in keeping with the practice of the times, audiences never learned her name. Her anonymity was part of a business model pioneered by Thomas Edison, which was designed to keep movie stars’ egos in check and their salaries down.

All of this changed in 1910, when film distributor Carl Laemmle lured the Biograph Girl to his new studio, promising her fame and fortune. Laemmle wanted to turn the Biograph Girl into a proper celebrity, and he had just the publicity stunt in mind to pull it off. First, he sent out a press report saying that the Biograph Girl had died in a tragic streetcar accident in St. Louis. Her fans barely had time to mourn her death before Laemmle sent out a second notice, revealing that the actress was alive and working exclusively for his studio. More importantly, the report also revealed her identity. The Biograph Girl was a 24-year-old, Canadian-born showgirl named Florence Lawrence.

The PR campaign worked like a charm. A week after Laemmle’s announcement, Lawrence made a public appearance in St. Louis, where she was greeted by crowds larger than those that had greeted President Taft there the previous week. But Florence Lawrence’s career wasn’t the only one elevated to new heights by the publicity stunt. Within the next few years, the cinema started attracting great actors from the stage—people who’d previously thumbed their noses at the pictures, including “the Divine” Sarah Bernhardt. And by 1912, producer Carl Laemmle had founded Universal Studios, one of the most successful production companies in history.

7. Mark Twain

In 1897, famed author and humorist Mark Twain was 61, bankrupt, and living quietly in London. He hadn’t had a major success since A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court eight years earlier, and his recent books had received scathing reviews. Rumors of his financial woes had even spread across the pond, prompting one New York newspaper to launch a charity fund in his name. (Twain asked them to close the fund.)

Then, in May of 1897, the editor of a major newspaper in New York heard that Twain was seriously ill, perhaps even dead, and dispatched a young reporter to probe for details. In response to the investigation, Twain famously quipped, “The report of my death was an exaggeration.” Like a 19th-century Tweet, the line went viral, and newspapers around the world joyously reported the news that both Twain and his sense of humor were still kicking. Once the author was back in the spotlight, people started buying his books again, and Twain’s finances rapidly improved.

Strangely, that wasn’t the last time Twain’s passing would be inaccurately reported. A decade later, The New York Times reported that the author was lost at sea and possibly dead, again. The next day, Twain, who was safely on dry land, wrote in to the paper. “I will make an exhaustive investigation of this report that I have been lost at sea,” he joked. “If there is any foundation for the report, I will at once apprise the anxious public.” For the remaining three years of Mark Twain’s life, no one else falsely reported his passing.

This story originally appeared in an issue of mental_floss magazine. Subscribe here.

All images courtesy of Getty Images unless otherwise noted.

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History
Alexander Hamilton’s Son Also Died in a Duel
Alexander Hamilton
Alexander Hamilton
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

When Aaron Burr shot Alexander Hamilton on July 11, 1804, the scene must have been eerily familiar to the former Secretary of the Treasury. After all, his son died in a similar setting just three years earlier.

On November 20, 1801, 19-year-old Philip Hamilton and his friend Richard Price had a run-in with a young lawyer named George I. Eacker at Manhattan's Park Theatre. A supporter of Thomas Jefferson, Eacker had delivered a Fourth of July speech that harshly criticized the elder Hamilton, and his son was apparently determined to take revenge.

On that fateful day in November, according to biographer Ron Chernow, Price and the younger Hamilton "barged into a box where Eacker was enjoying the show ... [then] began taunting Eacker about his Fourth of July oration."

As onlookers started to stare, Eacker asked the two young men to go into the lobby, where he called the pair "damned rascals." Tempers rose, and although the trio went to a tavern in an attempt to settle their differences, they failed miserably. Later the same night, Eacker had a letter from Price challenging him to duel.

Customs of the time meant that Eacker had little choice but to accept or face social humiliation. He and Price met that Sunday in New Jersey, where the penalties for dueling were less severe than in New York. They exchanged four shots without injury—and considered the matter between them closed.

Philip Hamilton wasn't so lucky. Cooler heads tried to negotiate a truce with Eacker's second, but their efforts were also for naught. Once the duel had been scheduled for November 23 on a sandbar in today's Jersey City, the elder Hamilton advised his son to preserve his honor by wasting his first shot—by waiting until Eacker fired first or firing into the air, a move the French called the delope. The intent was to cut the duel short, and, if the other side fired to kill, plainly show they had blood on their hands.

Philip seemed to follow his father's advice. For about a minute after the duel officially began, neither man made a move. Then, Eacker raised his pistol, and Philip did too. Eacker fired, and Philip shot back, though it may have been an involuntary reaction to having been hit. The bullet tore through Philip's body and settled in his left arm. Despite being rushed to Manhattan, he died early the next morning.

On July 11, 1804, Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr also departed to New Jersey, this time Weehawken, to settle their infamous differences. This time, the elder Hamilton fired the first shot—and he aimed to miss. (According to his second, anyway.) Burr, on the other hand, seemed to have every intention of connecting with his target. He shot Hamilton in the stomach, and the bullet lodged in his spine.

Just like Philip, Hamilton died the next day.

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Image courtesy of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia and the Mütter Museum. Photography by Evi Numen 2017.
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History
Mütter Museum Showcases the Victorian Custom of Making Crafts From Human Hair
Palette work from the collection of John Whitenight and Frederick LaValley
Palette work from the collection of John Whitenight and Frederick LaValley
Image courtesy of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia and the Mütter Museum. Photography by Evi Numen 2017.

During the Victorian era, hair wasn’t simply for heads. People wove clipped locks into elaborate accessories, encased them in frames and lockets, and used them to make wreaths, paintings, and other items. "Woven Strands," a new exhibition at Philadelphia’s Mütter Museum, explores this historical practice by featuring dozens of intricate works culled from five private collections.

According to Emily Snedden Yates, special projects manager at the Mütter Museum, hair work—as it’s called today—was common in England and America between the 17th and early 20th centuries. The popularity of the practice peaked in the 19th century, thanks in part to Queen Victoria’s prolonged public mourning after her husband Prince Albert’s death in 1861. People in both the UK and U.S. responded to her grief, with the latter country also facing staggering death tolls from the Civil War.

With loss of life at the forefront of public consciousness, elaborate mourning customs developed in both nations, and hair work became part of the culture of bereavement. "[The 19th century was] such a sentimental age, and hair is about sentiment," exhibition co-curator Evan Michelson tells Mental Floss. That sentimental quality made hair work fit for both mourning practices as well as for romantic or familiar displays of fondness.

Palette work culled from the collection of Evan Michelson and featured in the Mütter Museum's "Woven Strands" exhibition.
Palette work from the collection of Evan Michelson
Image courtesy of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia and the Mütter Museum. Photography by Evi Numen 2017.

Most hair artworks were made by women, and created solely for the domestic sphere or as wearable trinkets. Women relied on multiple techniques to create these objects, fashioning wreaths with hair-wrapped bendable wires—a process called gimp work—and dissolving ground hair into pigments used to paint images of weeping willows, urns, and grave sites. Watch fobs, necklaces, and bracelets were woven using an approach called table work, which involved anchoring hair filaments with lead weights onto a table and using tools to twist them into intricate patterns through a hole in the furniture’s surface. Yet another technique, palette work, involved stenciled sheets of hair that were cut into various shapes and patterns.

Hair work remained popular until World War I, according to Michelson, who co-owns New York City's quirky Obscura Antiques and Oddities shop and organized "Woven Strands" along with 19th century decorative arts expert John Whitenight.

“Women hit the workforce, and death occurred on such a huge scale that it really swept away the old way of mourning and the old way of doing things,” Michelson says. By the early 20th century, tastes and aesthetics had also changed, with hair work beginning to be viewed “as something grandma had,” she explains.

The Mütter’s exhibition aside, people typically won’t see hair work in major museums. Being a craft primarily performed by women at home, hair works were usually passed down in families and often viewed as worthless from a financial and artistic perspective.

“A lot of hair work was discarded,” Michelson says. Many owners repurposed the shadowbox frames often used to display hair work by removing and tossing the artworks within. Works stored in basements and attics also frequently succumbed to water damage and insects. Antique dealers today typically only see hair jewelry, which often featured semi-precious materials or was encased in a protective layer.

Sepia dissolved hair culled from the collection of Jennifer Berman and featured in the Mütter Museum's "Woven Strands" exhibition.
Sepia dissolved hair from the collection of Jennifer Berman
Image courtesy of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia and the Mütter Museum. Photography by Evi Numen 2017.

Yet examples of hair wreaths, palette work, and other delicate heirlooms do occasionally surface. They’re prized by a small group of avid collectors, even though other connoisseurs can be grossed out by them.

“People have this visceral reaction to it,” Michelson says. “They either gasp and adore it—like ‘I can’t get over how amazing it is’—or they just back away. There are very few other things where people are repulsed like this … In the 19th century no one batted an eyelash.”

“It’s a personal textile,” Snedden Yates explains. “It’s kind of like bone in that it doesn’t really decompose at the same rate as the rest of our bodies do. It’s not made of tissue, so if you keep it in the right environment it can be maintained indefinitely.”

Table work culled from the collection of Eden Daniels and featured in the Mütter Museum's "Woven Strands" exhibition.
Table work from the collection of Eden Daniels
Image courtesy of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia and the Mütter Museum. Photography by Evi Numen 2017.

“Woven Strands” features examples of gimp work, palette work, table work, and dissolved hair work. It’s often hard to trace these types of artworks back to their original creators—they typically don’t bear signatures—but the curators “really wanted to find hair that you could connect to an actual human being,” Michelson says. “We chose pieces that have provenance. We know where they came from or when it was made, or who actually donated the hair in some cases, or what the family name was. We also picked out things that are unusual, that you don’t see often—oddities, if you will.”

Woven hair culled from the collection of Jennifer Berman and featured in the Mütter Museum's "Woven Strands" exhibition.
Woven hair from the collection of Jennifer Berman
Image courtesy of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia and the Mütter Museum. Photography by Evi Numen 2017.

Displayed in the Mütter Museum’s Thomson Gallery, “Woven Strands” opens on January 19, 2018, and runs through July 12, 2018. On April 7, 2018, master jeweler and art historian Karen Bachmann will lead a 19th century hair art workshop, followed by a day-long historical symposium on the art on Sunday, April 8.

Michelson hopes that “Woven Strands” will teach future generations about hair art, and open their minds to a craft they might have otherwise dismissed as parochial or, well, weird. “We hope that people see it and fall in love with it,” she says.

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