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Nic Cage via YouTube

Dead Air: The Talk Show Guest Who Died on Dick Cavett's Stage

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Nic Cage via YouTube

During his first few years on the air, talk show host Dick Cavett might have imagined his worst moment as a broadcaster would remain the night when actors Peter Falk, Ben Gazzara, and John Cassavetes showed up for a taping drunk and incoherent. Things got so bad that at one point Cavett walked off his own show.

That was September 18, 1970. Less than a year later, Cavett would outdo himself. Interviewing New York Post columnist Pete Hamill, Cavett and his guest stopped momentarily to regard the odd behavior of the man sitting a few feet away. Jerome Rodale, who had just spent 30 minutes talking to Cavett about the organic food lifestyle he promoted, was snoring loudly.

That was funny only during the brief time it took for Cavett to realize Rodale’s color was pallid and that his head was slumped listlessly against his shoulder. Moments after the 72-year-old had declared he “never felt better in my life,” Rodale was dead, having expired in full view of ABC's cameras.

 

Wikimedia Commons

The name Jerome Rodale doesn’t have the same resonance today that it once did. At one time, the man media dubbed “Mr. Organic” was one of the most famous health advocates in the country, urging consumers to ignore the store aisles of increasingly processed food and to eat as many natural, whole foods as possible.

After a spell writing unsuccessful plays and self-publishing books, Rodale spent several years heading up magazines that espoused good nutritional habits. Many—like Prevention—are still in circulation today; others were used as a pulpit for Rodale to broadcast some of his more eccentric views on longevity and wellness. Polio, he once wrote, could be avoided not by vaccination but by eating a balanced diet; club soda contributed to poor eyesight.

It was contrary, occasionally outlandish advice, but Americans ate it up. By 1971, Rodale was firmly in control of a publishing empire and even made the cover of The New York Times Magazine for his status as a leading organic food advocate—at the time, a novel idea. The resulting publicity caught the attention of Cavett, who was preparing to tape a program in New York on June 7 of that year and had one spot open for a guest. His producers booked Rodale with the expectation that some of his more eccentric advice would make for good television.

They weren’t wrong. After Cavett opened his show with an act involving trained monkeys and comedian Marshall Efron, Rodale strolled out to the set bearing gifts. One was a goose egg that he declared harbored numerous health benefits; another was some asparagus that he claimed had been boiled in urine. The audience, perhaps drawing a line at consuming their own waste to benefit their health, responded with concerned murmuring.

Cavett, however, was happy. Rodale was as advertised, and the two spent 30 minutes of Cavett’s 90-minute running time exploring Rodale’s plans to live to be 100.

When Hamill came out, Rodale made room and shifted to another seat. After a few minutes, he appeared to lose consciousness. Though Cavett doesn’t recall it, he’s been told some people remember him asking Rodale if they were boring him.

Once Cavett realized what was happening, he began to shout for a doctor in the audience. Two medical interns rushed the stage, attending to a now-prostrate Rodale. "Two stewardesses in the front row who’d been winking and joking with me during the commercial breaks were now crying," Cavett recalled. "I guess from their training and having seen emergencies, they knew the score."

As police and EMTs began to fill the stage, it was obvious that Rodale would not be leaving under his own power. His inert body was taken away on a stretcher, leaving Cavett and his astonished audience to process what had just happened. Rodale had suffered a fatal heart attack.

 

Rodale’s death didn’t go on the air that night—or any night, for that matter. Both ABC and Cavett had the good sense to never exploit the incident in any way out of respect for Rodale and his family. Cavett aired a rerun, then went on the following night to explain what happened to viewers who had read of the incident in the papers. (Hamill had been taking notes during the entire fiasco.)

Cavett did watch the tape several weeks later with some of his production staff, and it’s likely someone in the network’s pipeline made copies of the morbid footage to give to their wives or friends as a scare. Aside from those incidences, Rodale’s death has never been seen by anyone.

Despite that embargo, Cavett once estimated that he is confronted 20 or so times a year by people who want to discuss “the guy who died on your show” and how shocked they were to see it. Cavett had painted such a detailed picture of the segment on his show that it created a kind of false memory in his viewers, some of whom could not be convinced the show didn’t actually air. A 2007 New York Times editorial by Cavett recalling the episode even featured a comment by one reader who swore that “I DID see this.” If they did, you’d think they’d remember the urine-soaked asparagus, too.

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Weird
The Long, Strange Story of Buffalo Bill's Corpse
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Hulton Archive/Getty Images

You probably know William Frederick Cody, a.k.a. Buffalo Bill, as the long-haired Wild West icon who turned the frontier experience into rip-roarin’ entertainment. But the story of Buffalo Bill’s body and its many burials is almost as outrageous as the man himself.

When Cody died of kidney failure in January 1917, his body ended up on a mountain outside of Denver, Colorado—a counterintuitive choice given his close ties to the town in Wyoming that bore his last name. Cody, Wyoming was founded in the 1890s with help from Buffalo Bill, who employed many of its residents and was responsible for its tourism business. It might seem natural that he’d be buried in the place he’d invested so much in, but he wasn’t. And that’s where the controversy began.

Though Cody spent much of his time in the town named after him, he also loved Colorado. After leaving his family in Kansas when he was just 11 to work with wagon trains throughout the West, he headed to Colorado for the first time as a 13-year-old wannabe gold prospector. During his short time in the area, he chased the glittery fortunes promised by Colorado’s 1859 gold rush. Even after leaving the territory, his traveling vaudeville show, which brought a glamorous taste of Wild West life to people all over the United States, took him back often. Later in life, he frequently visited Denver, where his sister lived. He died there, too—after telling his wife he wanted to be buried on Lookout Mountain.

The mountain, located in Golden, Colorado, has a commanding view of the Great Plains, where Buffalo Bill experienced many of his Wild West adventures. It was also a place to contemplate the giant herds of buffalo that once roamed the West, and from whom Cody took his nickname. (Denver still maintains a small herd of buffalo—direct descendants of original American bison—near the mountain.)

But weather almost thwarted Cody’s burial plans. Since he died in January, the road to Lookout Mountain was impassable and his preferred burial site frozen solid. For a while, his body lay in state in the Colorado Capitol building. Governors and famous friends eulogized Cody in an elaborate funeral service. Then his body was placed in a carriage that moved solemnly through the streets of Denver, where thousands showed up to say goodbye. Afterwards, his body was kept in cold storage at a Denver mortuary while his family waited for the weather to change.

Meanwhile, Colorado and Wyoming started a heated feud over one of America’s most famous men. Wyoming claimed that Cody should be buried there, citing an early draft of his will that said he intended to be buried near Cody. Colorado cried foul, since Cody’s last will left the burial location up to his widow, who chose Lookout Mountain. Rumors even began to circulate that a delegation from Wyoming had stolen Cody’s body from the mortuary and replaced it with that of a local vagrant.

In part to stop the rumor mill, Cody was finally buried in an open casket on Lookout Mountain in June 1917. Twenty-five thousand people went to the mountaintop to bid him farewell before he was interred. To prevent theft, the bronze casket was sealed in another, tamper-proof case, then enclosed in concrete and iron.

Pennies on Buffalo Bill's grave
V.T. Polywoda, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Yet his rocky grave was anything but safe. In the 1920s, Cody’s niece, Mary Jester Allen, began to claim that Denver had conspired to tamper with Cody’s will. In response, Cody’s foster son, Johnny Baker, disinterred the body and had it reburied at the same site under tons of concrete to prevent potential theft [PDF]. (Allen also founded a museum in Wyoming to compete with a Colorado-based museum founded by Baker.)

The saga wasn’t over yet. In 1948, the Cody, Wyoming American Legion offered a $10,000 reward to anyone who could disinter the body and return it to Wyoming. In response, the Colorado National Guard stationed officers to keep watch over the grave.

Since then, the tussle over the remains has calmed down. Despite a few ripples—like a jokey debate in the Wyoming legislature about stealing the body in 2006—Buffalo Bill still remains in the grave. If you believe the official story, that is. In Cody, Wyoming, rumor has it that he never made it into that cement-covered tomb after all—proponents claim he was buried on Cedar Mountain, where he originally asked to be interred.

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crime
Exhumation Confirms Gravesite of World's Fair Killer H.H. Holmes
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Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

It’s a sordid true crime tale that has few peers. By 1893, the year of the Chicago World’s Fair, a man named H.H. Holmes had converted a sprawling property into an amusement house of murder, filled with secret passages, gas chambers, ovens, and the bodies of young women who made the mistake of booking a room.

Holmes eventually confessed to over two dozen murders and was sentenced to death by hanging in 1896. His body was tossed into a plot at Holy Cross Cemetery near Philadelphia. But ever since then, there has been speculation that Holmes somehow cheated death and may not have been buried there at all. Those rumors can now officially be laid to rest as researchers have confirmed that the remains buried at Holmes's gravesite do in fact belong to the serial killer, according to the AP.

In May, NBC Chicago 5 reported that two of Holmes’s great-grandchildren had persuaded a Pennsylvania court to allow the inspection of their relative’s body in the hope that DNA testing would settle the issue of whether Holmes faked his own death once and for all.

According to newspaper accounts of the era, Holmes requested that his coffin be laid over cement, then topped off with more of the same. That led to a belief that Holmes had somehow eluded his appointment with the noose by offering bribes to law enforcement and had his tomb sealed to prevent any investigation into the matter. Other accounts, including one from the Chicago Tribune on May 8, 1896, appeared certain it was Holmes (real name: Herman Webster Mudgett) who was hung by his neck.

The definitive answer came with assistance from the University of Pennsylvania's Anthropology Department, which agreed to assist Holmes's descendants. The results of that testing were confirmed earlier this week on the series finale of American Ripper, a History Channel series that documented the exhumation and the scientists' search for the truth.

University of Pennsylvania anthropologist Samantha Cox, who was part of the team, said it was a difficult job. Even though his body had decomposed, because of Holmes's very specific burial requests, his clothes were almost perfectly intact, as was his ever-present mustache.

“It stank,” Cox said. “Once it gets to that point we can’t do anything with it. We can’t test it, can’t get any DNA out of it.” Instead, Cox and her colleagues had to use Holmes's teeth to identify him.

[h/t AP]

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