Tales of my Demise are Greatly Exaggerated

by M-Gillies
Head shot of American author mark Twai

In 1907 after being reported lost at sea by the New York Times, author Mark Twain got the chance, as few people do, to write a rebuttal to the second report of his premature death. “I will make an exhaustive investigation of this report that I have been lost at sea.” he said.

Aside from celebrity death hoax sites, such as FakeAWish.com, which gives users the opportunity to input a celebrity’s name into a pre-written faux death report for the sole purpose of spreading a rumor in the hopes of making it viral (much in the same vain of The Boy Who Cried Wolf), there are other reasons for a premature death notice and obituary, which include:

Accidental publication: It isn’t uncommon for media outlets to pre-write obituaries in order to give that newspaper the upper-hand when news breaks of a notable individual’s death. With the competition of social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, et al.,  news outlets have in the past published an obituary that wasn’t yet necessary. Author Mark Twain was feared dead twice and on each occasion published a humorous account of his demises; one of them which included the now famous quote, “The report of my death was an exaggeration”.

Brush with death: Sometimes, because the lives of high-profile individuals are so closely watched, if they were the victim of a serious illness or accident which made them appear to be dead or certain to die, news reports have often erroneously killed off said individual. Zsa Zsa Gabor, a 95 year old actress was deemed dead many times in 2011 on various websites after being admitted to hospitals with numerous ailments.

Fraud victim: In Uttar Pradesh, India, many people are becoming the victims of being registered dead by officials who are bribed by relatives and neighbors. The reason, to inherit land that they own want to steal from the owner. With ensuing legal disputes often taking years, many victims are elderly or have even died before they issue has been resolved.

Hoax: As one story went, the author of Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift, so despised astrologers that using a pseudonym and posing as a created astrologer, published an article predicting the death of early 1700s English astrologer John Partridge. On the day of Partridge’s supposed death, Swift published a second article, describing in detail the graphic descriptions of Partridge’s final moments. After protesting he wasn’t really dead, Swift published a third article with several proofs of Partridge’s death and further claimed that Partridge was actually an imposter of himself. Because of this, people began to believe that Partridge was in fact dead, and the man claiming to be him was an interloper trying to take over Partridges’ Almanac business.

Since that day, and especially in recent years, celebrity hoaxes have become more frequent, particularly with the website FakeAWish.com, which has reported the deaths of numerous celebrities who were said to have died in untimely and often grisly fashion.

Impostor: In 2001, Jim Carrey starred in the movie, The Majestic about an up-and-coming screenwriter accused of being a communist during the 1950s. When he accidentally drives his car off a bridge, he wakes up in a small town, with no memory, only to be thought of by the townsfolk to be a local boy who had been killed in World War II 9 years prior. While his character assumed the identity of another due to the persuasion of the town, a real imposter is one who passes themselves off to family and friends as a missing individual.

Misidentified body: This happens when a corpse is misidentified as someone else, and generally occurs in the event that someone who was involved in the same incident or happened to go missing at the same time. Much like in April, 2006, when a van collided with a semi-truck, killing five and leaving four others critically injured. Due to the severity of her injuries Whitney Cerak was mistakenly identified a woman named Laura Van Ryn following the car accident due to their similarities. It was only after the funeral that Cerak’s family held for, that the Van Ryn family began noticing the young woman making strange comments while she recovered in the hospital. When they asked her for her name, she wrote Whitney Cerak, which was soon confirmed by dental records.

Missing in action: During war time, it isn’t uncommon for soldiers to go missing in action, sometimes leading to being incorrectly declared dead if no body is found. Take Shoichi Yokoi, a World War II Japanese soldier, who, when American forces captured the Mariana Island during the 1944 Battle of Guam, went into hiding with 10 other Japanese soldiers. Despite news being spread that the war was over, Yokoi and the others believed it to be propaganda and remained hidden. As the years went on, seven of the 10 left hiding, two others died, and Yokoi remained in hiding for the next 28 years, only emerging after local fisherman subdued him and carried him out of the jungle.

Misunderstanding: Communication is key, but sometimes, information isn’t always relayed properly, and even word of mouth can become skewed, as in the case of Sky News. It was in 1993, when a London-based Sky News employee saw an internal rehearsal for Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother’s future death. Believing it to be real, he phoned his mother in Australia, who relayed the information to the Australian media.

Name confusion: When someone has an identical or similar name as the person who has died, it isn’t uncommon for confusion to arise over the death. This is quite common when the subject of the obituary is famous while the deceased is not. However, in one incident a teacher from West Monroe, New York was thought to have died in 2006, when his name Terry L. Fergerson was mistaken with Terry L. Ferguson, who had been killed in a vehicle collision. The following day, as Fergerson went to work, he found fellow teachers and students consoling each other over his death.

Pseudocide: Often occurring when a person fakes their own death in order to evade legal, financial or marital difficulties, while starting a new life. To commit pseudocide, many people often fake their own deaths by drowning in order to account for the lack of body. Throughout history there has been numerous accounts of pseudocide, including American author Ken Kesey, who faked his death in 1966 and fled to Mexico to avoid imprisonment for marijuana charges.


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