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8 People Who Faked Their Own Deaths

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Faking your own death is not in and of itself illegal. If you wanted to walk away from your life and start anew, there are no federal statutes to prevent you from doing so, but it is rarely the best solution to your problems. Sometimes people who commit pseudocide, like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest author Ken Kesey, are trying to evade capture for a crime. Others disappear purely for financial reasons, like businessman Jose Lantigua and businesswoman Kankanit Angkinand. Some stories of staged deaths are even more complex, from the man who faked his death to gauge his popularity to the man who testified at the trial of his alleged murderers. Here are some of the more unusual cases of pseudocide over the past 500 years.

1. JACQUOTTE DELAHAYE // C. 1656

According to legend, Jacquotte Delahaye's mother died in childbirth and her father was murdered during her youth, so she turned to piracy to provide for herself and her younger, mentally disabled brother. At one point during her reign as pirate queen, Delahaye was captured and forced to fake her death to escape. She lived in hiding as a man for a number of years, after which she reunited with her crew and returned to piracy. She and her crewmen even went on to claim a whole Caribbean island as their own. Not only was Delahaye a successful pirate, but she had one of the best sea-faring monikers around, thanks to her staged death and auburn hair: “Back from the Dead Red.”

2. TIMOTHY DEXTER // 1800

Timothy Dexter is regarded as one of America’s first famous eccentrics, and with good reason. A poor leather craftsman who dropped out of school at the age of 8, Dexter happened into his fortune when he made some lucky financial decisions regarding speculation on the Continental dollar and instantly became one of the richest men in Boston. Unfortunately, high society folk never took to Dexter, regarding him as an uneducated man who married into his money. His wife, Elizabeth Frothingham, was independently wealthy and did not care for the lavish stables and gaudy statues that littered their property—including a statue of Dexter himself. Dexter went so far as to bestow upon himself the title of Lord, demanding his servants address him as such.

When the disapproval of his countrymen proved too much, Dexter decided to fake his own death so he could ascertain how the public really felt about him. He entrusted a few men to organize a grand funeral and let his family in on the ruse. While his children put on an appropriate display of grief, Dexter, who watched from a lavish tomb built in the basement of his home, determined his wife was smiling too much and not properly crying. He quickly marched to the kitchen, berated her, caned her, and then walked amongst the mourners as if nothing odd were happening. Unfortunately for Dexter, he never really received the respect he felt he deserved, and he died (for real, this time) six years later.

3. ALEXANDER I OF RUSSIA // 1825

The death of Tsar Alexander I—who was raised by his grandmother, Catherine the Great, and succeeded the throne just a few years after her death—has long been contested and recently underwent a new round of questioning. Svetlana Semyonova, the president of the Russian Graphological Society, conducted handwriting analyses this summer that strongly suggest similarities between Alexander’s penmanship and that of a monk known as Feodor Kuzmich (or Feodor Tomsky). Even before Semyonova’s latest examination, the rumor mill had long been claiming that Alexander staged his 1825 death from typhus. Eleven years later, Kuzmich first appeared in the Russian city of Krasnoufimsk, where he was arrested and sent to the Siberian city of Tomsk. One proponent of the theory that Tsar Alexander and Kuzmich were one and the same was Leo Tolstoy, who noted that both commoners and members of the elite spoke about the astounding similarities between the two men, including their identical height, weight, age, and particularly round shoulders. The monk was also known to speak multiple languages and carry himself with an air of nobility, even though he claimed he was homeless and did not remember his family.

The Tomsk branch of the Orthodox church does not oppose the idea of testing Kuzmich’s DNA, so perhaps one day we will know once and for all whether the tsar and the monk were the same man. Interestingly enough, Alexander’s wife, who died the year after he allegedly did, is also rumored to have faked her death. Similarities between her handwriting and that of a nun support the theory that she too took on a holy order as Silent Vera.

4. WILLIAM GOODWIN GEDDES // 1877

William Goodwin Geddes is noteworthy if only because he is likely the first person in Australia to fake his death for financial reasons. A surveyor, Geddes had a reputation for being an excellent swimmer and all-around athlete. But on November 29, 1877, Geddes mysteriously drowned in King John’s Creek in Queensland. His brother, who had been with him at the time, said he heard Geddes call for help and attempted to save him, but his dives were fruitless. Geddes’s body was never found, and although his friends weren’t entirely convinced of his demise, his two life insurance policies were paid out four months later. In 1889, a man who looked virtually identical to Geddes and went by the name Louis Sydney Brennan was admitted to the Adelaide Asylum for the Insane, having been committed after his wife of several years called the police on him. While Geddes’s parents said Brennan was not their son, Geddes and a policeman did recognize each other. The insurance company filed a suit against Geddes’s father for being complicit in the scam. Some have suggested that Geddes had a genuine case of amnesia after a horse riding accident, but that wouldn’t explain his parents’ claim that they failed to recognize him.

5. BELLE GUNNESS // 1908

Belle Gunness, or "Lady Bluebeard" as she came to be known, is estimated to have murdered anywhere between 40 and 180 people. She managed to evade prosecution, however, by staging her death. Gunness emigrated to America from Norway in the late 1880s, and by 1900 she had already been widowed after the death of her first husband. It is suspected, though, that her husband died of poisoning at her hand. Two years later, her second husband died from a crushed skull, which Gunness claimed was caused when a meat grinder accidentally fell from a high shelf. Gunness’s two small children, her second husband’s youngest daughter, and a foster daughter also all died under mysterious circumstances while in her care. And even through her grief, Gunness was always sure to collect on life insurance policies for her family members soon after their deaths.

With greed as her apparent motive, Gunness kept on killing. She took out personal ads in the paper featuring text like:

"Comely widow who owns a large farm in one of the finest districts in La Porte County, Indiana, desires to make the acquaintance of a gentleman equally well provided, with view of joining fortunes. No replies by letter considered unless sender is willing to follow answer with personal visit. Triflers need not apply."

Her no-nonsense attitude garnered the attention she was looking for, and suitors appeared with money in hand only to be unceremoniously killed upon their arrival. Gunner was operating without suspicion until Andrew Helgelien answered her ad and disappeared shortly after. His brother, Asle, grew worried, but Gunness answered his concerned letters by saying his brother had gone to Norway. Before Asle could get in touch with local police, in the early morning of April 28, 1908, Gunness’s Indiana farmhouse erupted in flames. Under a burnt piano were the bodies of three children and a headless woman everyone assumed to be Gunness. Police believed the fire to be set by Ray Lamphere, a hired hand who had been harassing Gunness. He was arrested and charged with arson and murder when Asle Helgelien showed up with his theory that Gunness had murdered his brother and set the house on fire to hide her crime. The authorities investigated and soon found remains all over the farm, including those of Andrew Helgelien. Amid the remains found in the hog pens, police also found the bones of the foster child Gunness claimed had gone away to California.

Twelve hours before the fire, Gunness had been to a lawyer to draft a will, as she said she feared Lamphere would kill her and burn her house down. Lamphere, who was later convicted of arson, admitted that he had set the fire and that Gunness had drugged and killed her children, but he insisted Gunness escaped unharmed. He claimed the headless body was that of a woman who had come to the farm to be a housekeeper and that Gunness had stolen over $6 million (in 2015 dollars) from her murder victims. Because the corpse in the house didn’t quite match Gunness’s 280-pound frame and her bank account was suspiciously emptied the day before the fire, it is probable she survived. Up until 1931, people claimed to see Gunness in and around the United States, once even during an investigation for the poisoning death of an old man. In 2008, a team of forensic analysts attempted to determine once and for all whether Gunness had fled the fire, but DNA tests on the remains were inconclusive.

6. MARION FRANKLIN ROGERS // 1929

It’s not every day you get to testify at the trial for your own murder. In 1926, Marion Franklin Rogers escaped from the State Hospital for Nervous Diseases in Arkansas after being admitted three months prior. He was married with three children, but after his escape he abandoned them and started a new life as a drifter. He claimed to be a 22-year-old named Connie Franklin, and he found work cutting timber and doing manual labor on a farm. As Franklin, he began courting 16-year-old Tillar (or Tiller, depending on the newspaper) Ruminer. In spring 1929, Ruminer told the sheriff her fiance had been murdered some months ago, but she had stayed silent because his murderers threatened to kill her if she told anyone.

According to Ruminer, on the night she and Franklin were to be married, they were ambushed by a group of attackers who beat him until he was unable to move. They then mutilated him and burned him while he was still alive, throwing his remains into a stream. Two of the men then sexually assaulted Ruminer before threatening her to ensure her silence. Four men were charged with Franklin’s torture and murder, but the December 1929 trial came unraveled when Rogers appeared, claiming to be the murdered man. (The trial was already unusual to watchers, as the prosecutor and defense attorney were brothers.) Rogers testified that on the night in question, he got drunk with the defendants, was slightly injured after a fall from his mule, and vanished voluntarily because Ruminer wanted to postpone the wedding ceremony. His identity proved difficult to confirm, as some swore him to be their friend and neighbor while others refused to believe he truly was Franklin. While handwriting comparisons seemed to support Rogers’s claim, tests of a pile of charred bones from the woods were inconclusive, and Ruminer did not acknowledge him as her former beau even though he recognized her father by name and serenaded her with her favorite songs both a cappella and on the harp. Ultimately the men on trial went free, and Rogers died of exposure in December 1932. Whether the real Franklin was murdered or Rogers merely faked his disappearance has yet to be positively established.

7. ALFRED ROUSE // 1930

The story of Alfred Rouse reads like an episode of Law & Order. In a botched effort to escape child support payments for several illegitimate children, Rouse set out to fake his death by setting his car ablaze with someone else’s body inside. He picked up a hitchhiker and promptly beat him with a mallet, set him in the driver’s seat, and lit a match. Rouse assumed his crime wound remain unseen in the early hours of the morning, but he was spotted by two witnesses. After his arrest, Rouse claimed the car had burst into flames when he left the hitchhiker alone with a lit cigar and asked him to fill the tank with some gas canisters. The police didn’t buy it, and Rouse was hanged in 1931.

Forensic scientists are still trying to identify Rouse’s victim thanks to a particularly solid DNA specimen, but so far they have only been able to eliminate a few candidates.

8. JOHN STONEHOUSE // 1974

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One of the more well-known fakers on our list, John Stonehouse gained fame before his disappearance as a Labour Party member in the British Parliament. Stonehouse was the son of a Southampton mayor and was accomplished in his own right; a graduate of the esteemed London School of Economics, he was a former postmaster general and served as secretary to the minister of aviation. He had aspirations to be prime minister, but problems in his personal and political life were getting in the way. He was trapped in an unhappy marriage and wished to be with his secretary and lover, Sheila Buckley. Taking inspiration from Frederick Forsythe's novel The Day of the Jackal, Stonehouse decided to create an alternate identity with the name A.J. Markham. He acquired a passport under his assumed name, opened foreign bank accounts to channel hidden funds, and finally staged his disappearance while on a trip to Florida in November 1974.

On a beach in Miami, Stonehouse took off his clothes, placed them in a pile, and walked away. It appeared he had drowned tragically in the Atlantic, and Stonehouse's wife Barbara, as well as his political allies, initially believed he was truly gone. But American and British police weren't so quick to agree, thinking he may have been involved in some sort of espionage. Stonehouse could have disappeared permanently except for unlucky timing. On November 7—right around the time when Stonehouse vanished—the wealthy Richard John Bingham, Earl of Lucan, disappeared after being suspected in an attack in which his wife was beaten and the nanny murdered. When Stonehouse visited a bank in Australia, a teller became suspicious when he made a sizable deposit. Believing the man could be Lord Lucan, police put him under surveillance only to discover he was the missing John Stonehouse. Stonehouse was deported back to Britain, where he was sentenced to seven years in prison for theft and fraud. Lord Lucan, however, was never seen again.

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Penn Vet Working Dog Center
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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
New Program Trains Dogs to Sniff Out Art Smugglers
Penn Vet Working Dog Center
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

Soon, the dogs you see sniffing out contraband at airports may not be searching for drugs or smuggled Spanish ham. They might be looking for stolen treasures.

K-9 Artifact Finders, a new collaboration between New Hampshire-based cultural heritage law firm Red Arch and the University of Pennsylvania, is training dogs to root out stolen antiquities looted from archaeological sites and museums. The dogs would be stopping them at borders before the items can be sold elsewhere on the black market.

The illegal antiquities trade nets more than $3 billion per year around the world, and trafficking hits countries dealing with ongoing conflict, like Syria and Iraq today, particularly hard. By one estimate, around half a million artifacts were stolen from museums and archaeological sites throughout Iraq between 2003 and 2005 alone. (Famously, the craft-supply chain Hobby Lobby was fined $3 million in 2017 for buying thousands of ancient artifacts looted from Iraq.) In Syria, the Islamic State has been known to loot and sell ancient artifacts including statues, jewelry, and art to fund its operations.

But the problem spans across the world. Between 2007 and 2016, U.S. Customs and Border Control discovered more than 7800 cultural artifacts in the U.S. looted from 30 different countries.

A yellow Lab sniffs a metal cage designed to train dogs on scent detection.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

K-9 Artifact Finders is the brainchild of Rick St. Hilaire, the executive director of Red Arch. His non-profit firm researches cultural heritage property law and preservation policy, including studying archaeological site looting and antiquities trafficking. Back in 2015, St. Hilaire was reading an article about a working dog trained to sniff out electronics that was able to find USB drives, SD cards, and other data storage devices. He wondered, if dogs could be trained to identify the scents of inorganic materials that make up electronics, could they be trained to sniff out ancient pottery?

To find out, St. Hilaire tells Mental Floss, he contacted the Penn Vet Working Dog Center, a research and training center for detection dogs. In December 2017, Red Arch, the Working Dog Center, and the Penn Museum (which is providing the artifacts to train the dogs) launched K-9 Artifact Finders, and in late January 2018, the five dogs selected for the project began their training, starting with learning the distinct smell of ancient pottery.

“Our theory is, it is a porous material that’s going to have a lot more odor than, say, a metal,” says Cindy Otto, the executive director of the Penn Vet Working Dog Center and the project’s principal investigator.

As you might imagine, museum curators may not be keen on exposing fragile ancient materials to four Labrador retrievers and a German shepherd, and the Working Dog Center didn’t want to take any risks with the Penn Museum’s priceless artifacts. So instead of letting the dogs have free rein to sniff the materials themselves, the project is using cotton balls. The researchers seal the artifacts (broken shards of Syrian pottery) in airtight bags with a cotton ball for 72 hours, then ask the dogs to find the cotton balls in the lab. They’re being trained to disregard the smell of the cotton ball itself, the smell of the bag it was stored in, and ideally, the smell of modern-day pottery, eventually being able to zero in on the smell that distinguishes ancient pottery specifically.

A dog looks out over the metal "pinhweel" training mechanism.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

“The dogs are responding well,” Otto tells Mental Floss, explaining that the training program is at the stage of "exposing them to the odor and having them recognize it.”

The dogs involved in the project were chosen for their calm-but-curious demeanors and sensitive noses (one also works as a drug-detection dog when she’s not training on pottery). They had to be motivated enough to want to hunt down the cotton balls, but not aggressive or easily distracted.

Right now, the dogs train three days a week, and will continue to work on their pottery-detection skills for the first stage of the project, which the researchers expect will last for the next nine months. Depending on how the first phase of the training goes, the researchers hope to be able to then take the dogs out into the field to see if they can find the odor of ancient pottery in real-life situations, like in suitcases, rather than in a laboratory setting. Eventually, they also hope to train the dogs on other types of objects, and perhaps even pinpoint the chemical signatures that make artifacts smell distinct.

Pottery-sniffing dogs won’t be showing up at airport customs or on shipping docks soon, but one day, they could be as common as drug-sniffing canines. If dogs can detect low blood sugar or find a tiny USB drive hidden in a house, surely they can figure out if you’re smuggling a sculpture made thousands of years ago in your suitcase.

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