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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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7 Famous People Researchers Want to Exhume
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This week, the surrealist painter Salvador Dali is being exhumed from his grave in Figueres, northeastern Spain, where he has lain beneath the stage of a museum since his death in 1989. Researchers hope to collect DNA from his skeleton in order to settle a paternity suit brought by a tarot card reader named Pilar Abel, who claims that her mother had an affair with the artist while working as a maid in the seaside town where the Dalis vacationed. If the claim is substantiated, Abel may inherit a portion of the $325 million estate that Dali, who was thought to be childless, bequeathed to the Spanish state upon his death.

The grave opening may seem like a fittingly surreal turn of events, but advances in DNA research and other scientific techniques have recently led to a rise in exhumations. In the past few years (not to mention months), serial killer H. H. Holmes, poet Pablo Neruda, astronomer Tycho Brahe, and Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat, among many others, have all been dug up either to prove that the right man went to his grave—or to verify how he got there. Still, there are a number of other bodies that scientists, historians, and other types of researchers want to exhume to answer questions about their lives and deaths. Read on for a sampling of such cases.

1. LEONARDO DA VINCI

An international team of art historians and scientists is interested in exhuming Leonardo da Vinci's body to perform a facial reconstruction on his skull, learn about his diet, and search for clues to his cause of death, which has never been conclusively established. They face several obstacles, however—not the least of which is that da Vinci's grave in France's Loire Valley is only his presumed resting place. The real deal was destroyed during the French Revolution, although a team of 19th century amateur archaeologists claimed to have recovered the famed polymath's remains and reinterred them in a nearby chapel. For now, experts at the J. Craig Venter Institute in California are working on a technique to extract DNA from some of da Vinci's paintings (he was known to smear pigment with his fingers as well as brushes), which they hope to compare with living relatives and the remains in the supposed grave.

2. MERIWETHER LEWIS

A portrait of Meriwether Lewis
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As one half of Lewis and Clark, Meriwether Lewis is one of America's most famous explorers, but his death belongs to a darker category—famous historical mysteries. Researchers aren't sure exactly what happened on the night of October 10, 1809, when Lewis stopped at a log cabin in Tennessee on his way to Washington, D.C. to settle some financial issues. By the next morning, Lewis was dead, a victim either of suicide (he was known to be suffering from depression, alcoholism, and possibly syphilis) or murder (the cabin was in an area rife with bandits; a corrupt army general may have been after his life). Beginning in the 1990s, descendants and scholars applied to the Department of the Interior for permission to exhume Lewis—his grave is located on National Park Service Land—but were eventually denied. Whatever secrets Lewis kept, he took them to his grave.

3. SHAKESPEARE

A black and white portrait of Shakespeare
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Shakespeare made his thoughts on exhumation very clear—he placed a curse on his tombstone that reads: "Good frend for Jesus sake forebeare/ To digg the dust encloased heare/ Bleste be the man that spares thes stones/ And curst be he that moves my bones." Of course, that hasn't stopped researchers wanting to try. After Richard III's exhumation, one South African academic called for a similar analysis on the Bard's bones, with hopes of finding new information on his diet, lifestyle, and alleged predilection for pot. And there may be another reason to open the grave: A 2016 study using ground-penetrating radar found that the skeleton inside appeared to be missing a skull.

4. JOHN WILKES BOOTH

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The events surrounding Abraham Lincoln's death in 1865 are some of the best-known in U.S. history, but the circumstances of his assassin's death are a little more murky. Though most historical accounts say that John Wilkes Booth was cornered and shot in a burning Virginia barn 12 days after Lincoln's murder, several researchers and some members of his family believe Booth lived out the rest of his life under an assumed name before dying in Oklahoma in 1903. (The corpse of the man who died in 1903—thought by most people to be a generally unremarkable drifter named David E. George—was then embalmed and displayed at fairgrounds.) Booth's corpse has already been exhumed from its grave at Baltimore's Greenmount Cemetery and verified twice, but some would like another try. In 1994, two researchers and 22 members of Booth's family filed a petition to exhume the body once again, but a judge denied the request, finding little compelling evidence for the David E. George theory. Another plan, to compare DNA from Edwin Booth to samples of John Wilkes Booth's vertebrae held at the National Museum of Health and Medicine, has also come to naught.

5. NAPOLEON

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Napoleon has already been exhumed once: in 1840, when his body was moved from his burial-in-exile on St. Helena to his resting place in Paris's Les Invalides. But some researchers allege that that tomb in Paris is a sham—it's not home to the former emperor, but to his butler. The thinking goes that the British hid the real Napoleon's body in Westminster Abbey to cover up neglect or poisoning, offering a servant's corpse for internment at Les Invalides. France's Ministry of Defense was not amused by the theory, however, and rejected a 2002 application to exhume the body for testing.

6. HENRY VIII

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In his younger years, the Tudor monarch Henry VIII was known to be an attractive, accomplished king, but around age 40 he began to spiral into a midlife decline. Research by an American bioarchaeologist and anthropologist pair in 2010 suggested that the king's difficulties—including his wives' many miscarriages—may have been caused by an antigen in his blood as well as a related genetic disorder called McLeod syndrome, which is known to rear its head around age 40. Reports in the British press claimed the researchers wanted to exhume the king's remains for testing, although his burial at George’s Chapel in Windsor Castle means they will need to get the Queen’s permission for any excavation. For now, it's just a theory.

7. GALILEO

A portrait of Galileo
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The famed astronomer has had an uneasy afterlife. Although supporters hoped to give him an elaborate burial at the Basilica of Santa Croce, he spent about 100 years in a closet-sized room there beneath the bell tower. (He was moved to a more elaborate tomb in the basilica once the memory of his heresy conviction had faded.) More recently, British and Italian scientists have said they want to exhume his body for DNA tests that could contribute to an understanding of the problems he suffered with his eyesight—problems that may have led him to make some famous errors, like saying Saturn wasn't round. The Vatican will have to sign off on any exhumation, however, so it may be a while.

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Is Death by Guillotine Painless?
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Is death by guillotine painless?

Roger Kryson:

Death by guillotine would be painless because it immediately severs the nerves from your spinal cord to brain. The clean cut would paralyze you after severing your vertebrae, so pain receptors would no longer send signals as your nerves are severed and your body is non-functional. This is, of course, assuming you’re alive after having your head completely chopped off by a 10-pound blade accelerating at speeds of 40 mph, which you wouldn't be. You wouldn't even feel the cold touch of the blade as it sliced into your neck hair; it would be too fast.

For those saying that spasms have been witnessed after execution by guillotine, it should be noted that spasms such as involuntary jerks, eye fluttering, and twitches can occur up to five minutes after death. This is because the brain suffocates, but it does not mean the presence of pain is there. Many people who pass away naturally and painlessly in a hospital bed will twitch, their eyes flutter, and even have bowel movements minutes after death. Once you are dead, you can't “feel” anything, including pain. As for studies mentioned about brain activity continuing in rats after severing of the head, the same goes. Brain activity can still be present after death, but that does not mean the subject is alive, nor [does it have] the defined senses of feeling.

The guillotine was such an effective fear-mongering tool because it didn't focus on pain and suffering, but rather punishment. The idea was you're going to literally just be wiped off the face of the Earth for your crime—you're not even going to be allowed the few extra minutes of torture. The idea of dwelling in a dark cave before being escorted out blindfolded, having your neck placed on a board with a bucket to catch your severed head, and being executed by the drop of the blade and nothing else … it's a jarring realization of just how unsympathetic death is.

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.

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