Mr. Samuel Clemens
Photo: Corbis Historial (Getty Images)
Wiki WormholeWe explore some of Wikipedia’s oddities in our 5,664,405-week series, Wiki Wormhole.  

This week’s entry: List of premature obituaries

What it’s about: Mark Twain once said, “The report of my death was an exaggeration,” though he’s more famously misquoted as saying the report was “greatly exaggerated.” Which just goes to show it’s hard to get good information, even on something as basic as whether someone’s alive or dead. Through the years, countless people from all walks of life have been proclaimed deceased, when they were still far from their appointment with destiny.

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Strangest fact: Rich Williams, guitarist for Kansas (the band, not the state), was reported dead after the actual death of Eric De Boer, a man who had been impersonating Williams for decades. De Boer claimed he had been using “Rich Williams” as a stage name since being released as a POW in Vietnam. The real Williams called the situation “really wacky stuff,” but didn’t object, saying he respected De Boer’s military service, which, perhaps unsurprisingly, also turned out to be a lie.

Thing we were happiest to learn: According to CNN, Pope John Paul died and came back to life more times than Jesus. In 1981, only weeks after CBS erroneously reported White House Press Secretary James Brady had been killed when he was shot alongside President Reagan, CNN made the same mistake after a failed assassination attempt on the pontiff. John Paul lived long enough for CNN to make the same mistake in 2003, in what Wikipedia calls the CNN.com Incident. Like many news organizations, CNN writes obituaries of public figures in advance. Unlike many news organizations, CNN accidentally made them available online. Apart from the pope, Reagan, Fidel Castro, Nelson Mandela, Dick Cheney, and Gerald Ford were all listed as having died in 2001, per the site’s default text. Hilariously, many of the obits were filled in with text from Britain’s Queen Mother, who had died the year before, including a description of Dick Cheney as “the U.K.’s favorite grandmother.” Castro was listed as “lifeguard, athlete, movie star,” a description lifted from Ronald Reagan’s bio. Not to be left out, paragon of accuracy Fox News reported John Paul’s death a day early in 2005, when his health had taken a turn for the worse, but he had not yet died.

Thing we were unhappiest to learn: If someone with a similar name to yours dies, get ready to see your obituary. James Earl Jones was reported dead in 1998 when Martin Luther King’s assassin, James Earl Ray, had in fact died. When Jerry Lewis died last year, several outlets announced that Jerry Lee Lewis was dead. The same goes for the falsely reported deaths of Maureen O’Hara (actually Maureen O’Sullivan), William “The Refrigerator” Perry (a different, non-Super Bowl-winning William Perry), Bob Seeger (Pete Seeger), Neil Young (Neil Armstrong, perhaps confused with fellow Apollo astronaut John Young), Betty White (Bette Davis), and former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher (Transport Minister John Baird’s cat, Thatcher).

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Mistaken identity also led, in a roundabout way, to one of our greatest celebrations of human achievement. When Alfred Nobel’s brother died, newspapers mistakenly ran his own obituary instead, calling the dynamite inventor “the merchant of death.” Not wanting to be remembered so gruesomely after his actual death, Nobel committed most of his fortune to the prize that is now what he’s best remembered for.

Also noteworthy: People have occasionally responded to their own obituaries. Apart from the famous Twain quote, Rudyard Kipling got to write to a magazine, “I’ve just read that I am dead. Don’t forget to delete me from your list of subscribers.” When Axl Rose’s death was announced in 2014, the singer tweeted, “If I’m dead do I still have to pay taxes?” Neil Young (in a different premature obit than the one mentioned above) was claimed to have been killed in “a drug accident.” Young joked, “Right, I was traveling on the highway and was hit by a huge drug truck.”

Abe Vigoda died in 2016 at the age of 94, but his death was reported countless times, starting with People magazine in 1982—he appeared in a later issue of People sitting in a coffin, holding the issue that claimed he was dead. Vigoda joked through the years that so many people thought he was dead that it was costing him work.

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Best link to elsewhere on Wikipedia: P.T. Barnum’s obituary was published prematurely by request. On his deathbed, the great showman hoped to read what the papers would say about him. The New York Evening Sun couldn’t refuse the request and printed his obituary two weeks before his death, acknowledging that he had not yet passed. Barnum’s story is a fascinating one, as beyond virtually inventing the concept of entertainment in America, he was also a newspaper publisher, author, philanthropist, abolitionist, and politician. Nowadays a renowned huckster running for office as a Republican would be unthinkable, but Barnum served two terms in the Connecticut legislature, speaking passionately against slavery and sponsoring an 1879 law that banned birth control in the Nutmeg State until it was overturned by the Supreme Court in 1965.

Further down the Wormhole: Ted Nugent was declared dead in a 2017 hoax, but is regrettably still alive. Despite avoiding military service by taking meth and shitting his pants, Nugent was named a “special deputy sheriff” in Lake County, Michigan, and a reserve deputy constable in McLennan County, Texas, presumably for his work in stopping a deadly epidemic of cat scratch fever. McLennan County is best known as home to Baylor University and its largest city, Waco. It’s less well-known for its smallest and shortest-lived town, Crush. Crush, Texas, was a town incorporated for one day in 1896, specifically to host a spectacular (intentional) train crash. We’ll check out the Crush crash next week.