CLOSE
Boston Public Library, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.0
Boston Public Library, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.0

Is This the Most Mysterious Grave in Virginia?

Boston Public Library, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.0
Boston Public Library, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.0

In 1816, local legend has it that a ship dropped off an unknown couple in Alexandria, Virginia. The woman was extremely ill, possibly from typhoid fever, and couldn’t wait until their final destination to receive medical attention.

Alas, it was too late; she died a few weeks later while boarding at Gadsby’s Tavern. No one had spoken to her or, some say, even seen her face—any time anyone saw her, her features were hidden by a long, black veil. Her husband quickly arranged for a burial at St. Paul’s Cemetery, then borrowed money for a headstone from a local merchant named Lawrence Hill.

Under the circumstances, you might think the mysterious man would keep the epitaph simple, resulting in a more affordable stone and a smaller loan to repay. Instead, he went the opposite route, having a huge marker etched with this wordy tribute:

“To the memory of a Female Stranger, whose mortal sufferings terminated on the 14th day of October, 1816 Aged 23 years and 8 months. This stone is placed here by her disconsolate husband in whose arms she sighed out her latest breath, and who under God did his utmost even to soothe the cold dead ear of death."

It was followed by some verses adapted from Alexander Pope and a Bible quote, adding even more to the bill. The man spared no expense, and it’s no wonder—he apparently had no intention of paying back the loan. The female stranger’s husband skipped town without paying doctor bills, lodging bills, or funeral and burial fees (he did leave behind some currency, but it was forged). And when he left, he took more than his wallet with him—he also took his wife’s identity.

Rumors ran rampant, even 70 years later: In 1886, the Lawrence Gazette reported on several theories, including the popular notion that the woman was really Theodosia Burr Alston, the daughter of Aaron Burr. Alston had been lost at sea around 1812, but conspiracy theorists speculated that she faked her disappearance to escape a loveless marriage. “Why the stranger’s husband would permit no one to see her face after she was dead gives rise to the supposition that he may have feared its recognition by those who looked upon it,” the Gazette said.

Outlandish? Perhaps. But even more so is the tale that the woman was actually a man—Napoleon Bonaparte dressed in drag, to be exact, attempting to escape his exile.

Yet another story declared the woman was named Blanche Fordan, and the man claiming to be her husband had actually hypnotized her into marrying him, though she really loved another.

Sadly, if you're looking for answers, you're going to be disappointed—we still don't have any. The female stranger remains as mysterious today as she was 200 years ago, although her grave has since become a local tourist attraction.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
iStock
arrow
Essential Science
What Is Death?
iStock
iStock

The only thing you can be certain about in life is death. Or is it? Merriam-Webster defines death as "a permanent cessation of all vital functions." The Oxford English dictionary refines that to "the permanent ending of vital processes in a cell or tissue." But determining when someone is dead is surprisingly complicated—the medical definition has changed over the centuries and, in many ways, is still evolving.

DEATH, DEFINED

For most of human history, doctors relied on basic observations to determine whether or not a person had died. (This may be why so many feared being buried alive and went to great lengths to ensure they wouldn't be.) According to Marion Leary, the director of innovation research for the Center for Resuscitation Science at the University of Pennsylvania, "If a person wasn't visibly breathing, if they were cold and bluish in color, for example, they would be considered dead."

As time went on, the markers for death changed. Before the mid-1700s, for example, people were declared dead when their hearts stopped beating—a conclusion drawn from watching traumatic deaths such as decapitations, where the heart seemed to be the last organ to give up. But as our understanding of the human body grew, other organs, like the lungs and brain, were considered metrics of life—or death.

Today, that remains true to some degree; you can still be declared dead when your heart and lungs cease activity. And yet you can also be declared dead if both organs are still working, but your brain is not.

In most countries, being brain dead—meaning the whole brain has stopped working and cannot return to functionality—is the standard for calling death, says neuroscientist James Bernat, of the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire. "A doctor has to show that the loss of brain function is irreversible," he tells Mental Floss. In some cases, a person can appear to be brain dead if they have overdosed on certain drugs or have suffered from hypothermia, for example, but the lack of activity is only temporary—these people aren't truly brain dead.

In the U.S., all states follow some form of the Uniform Determination of Death Act, which in 1981 defined a dead person as "an individual who has sustained either (1) irreversible cessation of circulatory and respiratory functions, or (2) irreversible cessation of all functions of the entire brain, including the brain stem."

But that's not the end of the story. In two states, New York and New Jersey, families can reject the concept of brain death if it goes against their religious beliefs. This makes it possible for someone to be considered alive in some states and dead in others.

A BLURRED LINE

In the past, if one of a person's three vital systems—circulation, respiration, and brain function—failed, the rest would usually stop within minutes of each other, and there was no coming back from that. But today, thanks to technological advances and medical breakthroughs, that's no longer necessarily the case. CPR can be performed to restart a heartbeat; a person who has suffered cardiac arrest can often be resuscitated within a 20- to 30-minute window (in rare cases, people have been revived after several hours). And since the 1950s, machines have been used to take on the role of many of the body's vital functions. People who stop breathing naturally can be hooked up to ventilators to move air in and out of their lungs, for example.

While remarkable, this life-extending technology has blurred the line between life and death. "A person can now have certain characteristics of being alive and others of being dead," Bernat says.

People with severe, irreversible brain damage fall into this mixed category. Many lie in intensive care units where ventilators breathe for them, but because they have minimal reflexes or movements, they're considered alive, especially by their families. Medical professionals, however, may disagree, leading to painful and complex debates about whether someone is alive.

Take the case of Jahi McMath, whose tonsil surgery in 2013, at age 13, went terribly wrong, leaving her brain dead—or so doctors thought. Her family refused to believe she was dead and moved her from Oakland, California, to New Jersey, where she was provided with feeding tubes in addition to her ventilator. After several months, her mother began recording videos that she said were proof that Jahi could move different parts of her body when asked to. Additional brain scans revealed that although some parts of her brain, like her brain stem, were largely destroyed, the structure of large parts of her cerebrum, which is responsible for consciousness, language, and voluntary movements, was intact. Her heart rate also changed when her mother spoke, leading a neurologist to declare last year, after viewing many of her mother's videos, that she is technically alive—nearly four years after she was pronounced brain dead. By her mother's reckoning, Jahi turned 17 on October 24, 2017.

Organ donation adds another layer of complications. Since an organ needs to be transplanted as quickly as possible to avoid damage, doctors want to declare death as soon as they can after a person has been disconnected from a machine. The protocol is usually to wait for five minutes after a donor's heart and breathing have stopped. However, some believe that's not long enough, since the person could still be resuscitated at that point.

Bernat—whose research interests include brain death and the definition of death, consciousness disorders including coma and vegetative states, and ethical and philosophical issues in neurology—disagrees. "I would argue that breathing and circulation has permanently ceased even if it hasn't irreversibly ceased," he says. "It won't restart by itself."

THE FUTURE OF BRINGING PEOPLE BACK TO LIFE

As resuscitation technology improves, scientists may find new ways to reverse death. One promising approach is therapeutic hypothermia. Sometimes used on heart attack patients who have been revived, the therapy uses cooling devices to lower body temperature, usually for about 24 hours. "It improves a patient's chance of recovering from cardiac arrest and the brain injury [from a lack of oxygen] that can result from it," says Leary, who specializes in research and education relating to cardiac arrest, CPR quality, and therapeutic hypothermia.

One more out-there possibility—which had its heyday in the early 2000s but still has its proponents today—is cryonic freezing, in which dead bodies (and in some cases, just people's heads) are preserved in the hope that they can be brought back once technology advances. Just minutes after death, a cryonaut's body is chilled; a chest compression device called a thumper keeps blood flowing through the body, which is then shot up with anticoagulants to prevent blood clots from forming; and finally, the blood is flushed out and replaced with a kind of antifreeze to halt the cell damage that usually occurs from freezing.

The idea is highly controversial. "It makes a good story for a movie, but it seems crazy to me," Bernat says. "I don't think it's the answer." But even if cryogenics is out, Bernat does believe that certain types of brain damage now thought to be permanent could one day be subject to medical intervention. "There is currently a huge effort in many medical centers to study brain resuscitation," he says.

Genetics provides another potential frontier. Scientists recently found that some genes in mice and fish live on after they die. And even more surprisingly, other genes regulating embryonic development, which switch off when an animal is born, turn on again after death. We don't yet know if the same thing happens in humans.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Hulton Archive, Getty Images
arrow
History
Doctor Weighs In on What May Have Killed Saladin, the 12th-Century Muslim Military Leader
Hulton Archive, Getty Images
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

Saladin, the 12th-century sultan of Egypt and Syria, was one fearless ruler. After unifying much of the Muslim world, he took on the Christian Franks at the Battle of Hattin and won, bringing Jerusalem back under Islamic rule and setting off the Third Crusade.

It wasn’t battle that did him in, though. Dr. Stephen Gluckman, a professor of medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, believes the cause of Saladin's death in 1193 was most likely typhoid, LiveScience reports.

Up until now, the circumstances of Saladin’s passing have largely remained a mystery, as is often the case with people who lived long before modern diagnostic tools were invented. Gluckman was able to reach a diagnosis by analyzing Saladin’s symptoms as they were recorded more than 800 years ago, and shared his medical opinion at this year’s Historical Clinicopathological Conference at the University of Maryland, which taps experts to diagnose a different deceased historical figure each year. In past years, some theorized that Charles Darwin’s cause of death was cyclic vomiting syndrome, and Edgar Allan Poe’s demise was attributed to either rabies or delirium tremens—“a severe form of alcohol withdrawal.”

As for Saladin, he suffered a “mysterious fever and two-week illness,” according to LiveScience. He died at age 55 or 56, despite efforts to revive him with bloodletting techniques and enemas.

Gluckman was able to rule out plague and smallpox because they tend to kill quickly, and tuberculosis and malaria didn’t fit the bill, either. Typhoid, however, was common at that time, and Saladin's symptoms seemed consistent with other cases. Caused by the bacteria Salmonella typhi, typhoid is spread through contaminated water or food. High fever is the main symptom, but weakness and loss of appetite are also typically observed.

Saladin was buried next to the sword he had carried during the Holy War, but otherwise, his burial rites were “as simple as a pauper’s funeral,” according to author Stanley Lane-Poole in Saladin and the Fall of the Kingdom of Jerusalem. The money for his funeral had to be borrowed because he had given away all his riches.

[h/t LiveScience]

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios