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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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These Sparrows Have Been Singing the Same Songs for 1500 Years
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Swamp sparrows are creatures of habit—so much so that they’ve been chirping out the same few tunes for more than 1500 years, Science magazine reports.

These findings, published in the journal Nature Communications, resulted from an analysis of the songs of 615 adult male swamp sparrows found in six different areas of the northeastern U.S. Researchers learned that young swamp sparrows pick up these songs from the adults around them and are able to mimic the notes with astounding accuracy.

Here’s what one of their songs sounds like:

“We were able to show that swamp sparrows very rarely make mistakes when they learn their songs, and they don't just learn songs at random; they pick up commoner songs rather than rarer songs,” Robert Lachlan, a biologist at London’s Queen Mary University and the study’s lead author, tells National Geographic.

Put differently, the birds don’t mimic every song their elders crank out. Instead, they memorize the ones they hear most often, and scientists say this form of “conformist bias” was previously thought to be a uniquely human behavior.

Using acoustic analysis software, researchers broke down each individual note of the sparrows’ songs—160 different syllables in total—and discovered that only 2 percent of sparrows deviated from the norm. They then used a statistical method to determine how the songs would have evolved over time. With recordings from 2009 and the 1970s, they were able to estimate that the oldest swamp sparrow songs date back 1537 years on average.

The swamp sparrow’s dedication to accuracy sets the species apart from other songbirds, according to researchers. “Among songbirds, it is clear that some species of birds learn precisely, such as swamp sparrows, while others rarely learn all parts of a demonstrator’s song precisely,” they write.

According to the Audubon Guide to North American Birds, swamp sparrows are similar to other sparrows, like the Lincoln’s sparrow, song sparrow, and chipping sparrow. They’re frequently found in marshes throughout the Northeast and Midwest, as well as much of Canada. They’re known for their piercing call notes and may respond to birders who make loud squeaking sounds in their habitat.

[h/t Science magazine]

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18 Smart Products To Help You Kick Off Summer
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Whether you’re trying to spiff up your backyard barbeque or cultivate your green thumb, these summertime gadgets will help you celebrate the season from solstice to the dog days.

1. ROSÉ WINE GLASSES; $60

Rosé Wine Glass
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: Wine not? When the temperature rises and beer isn’t your thing, reach for the rosé. Riedel’s machine-blown SST (see, smell, taste) wine glasses will give the sparkly stuff ample room to breathe, making every refreshing sip worthwhile.

Find It: Amazon

2. NERF N-STRIKE ELITE SURGEFIRE; $25

Nerf SurgeFire
Hasbro

Why It’s Cool: The N-Strike Elite SurgeFire (say that five-times-fast) sports a pump-action rotating drum for maximum foam-based firepower and holds up to 15 Nerf darts in its arsenal.

Find It: Hasbro Toy Shop

3. BUSHEL & BERRY PLANTS; $34

plant
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: You don’t need to have a green thumb to create a brag-worthy garden this summer. Besides producing snackable mid-season berries, these open-growing bushes can be planted immediately for easy set-up to make you look like a botanical pro.

Find It: Amazon

4. INFLATABLE DONUT; $17

Doughnut float
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: When the only dunking you’re doing is taking a dip in the pool, a 48-inch inflatable donut is the perfect way to stay afloat.

Find It: Amazon

5. STAR SPANGLED SPATULA; $21

American flag spatula
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: O say can you see by your grill’s charcoal light / Meats so proudly we cooked ... with a star spangled spatula. Depending on the specific model, these all-American grilling tools (designed in New Jersey and made in Chicago) are made of a combination of walnut and stainless steel or nylon. As an added bonus: 5 percent of the proceeds go to the Penn Abramson Cancer Center.

Find It: Amazon

6. MLB HOT DOG BRANDERS; $8 AND UP

MLB San Diego Padres Hot Dog BBQ Brander
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: Take your hot dogs, sausages, brats, and more out to the ballgame without ever leaving your grill. These branders from Pangea Brands are dishwasher-safe and made of ceramic-coated cast iron.

Find It: Amazon

7. UNA GRILL; $139

grill
MoMA Shop

Why It’s Cool: This portable charcoal-heated grill is as efficient as it is stylish. The compact size lets you cook at the park, after hitting up MoMA, or anywhere in between.

Find It: MoMa Shop

8. HAMBURGER GRILLING BASKET; $21


Why It’s Cool: Made of steel and finished with a non-stick coating, this grilling tool flips four burgers at once and maintains perfect burger proportions to guarantee nobody stays hungry for long.

Find It: Amazon

9. COPPER FIRE PIT; $121

metal fire pit
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: The grill isn’t the only place for a roaring fire this summer. This 100 percent solid copper fire pit makes for the perfect gathering spot at your next BBQ, or just to warm up after a cool summer evening.

Find It: Amazon

10. BENDY STRAW POOL NOODLE FLOAT; $10

Bendy Straw Inflatable Pool Float
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: Inflatable pool floats shouldn’t be boring, and this bendy straw float definitely does not suck. This unique spin on traditional pool noodles is sure to make for some cheesy jokes, but at least you’ll be comfortable floating in the pool or at the beach.

Find It: Amazon

11. GRIDDLER DELUXE; $111

Cuisinart GR-150 Griddler Deluxe
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: If you’re looking for some serious panini power, this griddler offers up a versatile lineup of six cooking options in one. And with dual-zone functions you can sling burgers while searing filets and sautéeing vegetables all at the same time.

Find It: Amazon

12. VINTAGE SNOW CONE MAKER; $30

Vintage Snow Cone Maker
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: With its old-timey design, dual cone shelf, and endless flavor options, this snow cone maker is guaranteed create a cool treat.

Find It: Amazon

13. DACHSHUND CORN ON THE COB HOLDERS; $7

Dog Corn Holders
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: While meat-lovers will inevitably scarf down a lot of hot dogs this summer, vegetarians who happen to love another kind of dog will be smitten with these stainless steel, Dachshund-shaped corn on the cob prongs. They’re a fun spin on a summer grilling favorite.

Find It: Amazon

14. ICE CREAM SANDWICH MAKER; $16

Ice Cream Sandwich Maker
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: Four sandwiches are better than one, especially when they're of the ice cream variety. Make four ice cream sandwiches at once with this homemade spin on a classic cold treat.

Find It: Amazon

15. UE WONDERBOOM; $68

Bluetooth speaker
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: Besides delicious food and great company, some memorable tunes are required for the quintessential barbeque. This portable bluetooth speaker offers up some booming sound in a small package, and with a battery power of 10 hours on a single charge you can keep the party going all night.

Find It: Amazon

16. ROLLORS GAME; $38

Rollors Backyard Game
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: When you’re sick of bocce, hate horseshoes, and you’re over cornhole, you might want to take up “rollors,” a family-friendly game that combines your favorite traditional backyard festivities into one game for people of all ages.

Find It: Amazon

17. HAMMOCK; $174

hammock
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: Rest easy knowing that this 100 percent hand-woven and hand-dyed cotton hammock contributes to artisan job-creation in Thailand.

Find It: Amazon

18. VSSL SURVIVAL ESSENTIALS; $59

Emergency Survival Tent Outdoors
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: Compact, convenient, and durable, the VSSL Shelter can come in handy when things don’t go quite as planned. The device—which features a lightweight emergency shelter all within the handle of a compact, weather-resistant aluminum LED flashlight—is designed to keep you safe under the worst conditions.

Find It: Amazon

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