Peculiar, Unusual, and Stranger-than-Fiction Obituaries

Introduction: Mary Harrell-Sesniak is a genealogist, author and editor with a strong technology background. In this guest blog post, Mary searches old newspapers to find odd obituaries—some of which will give you a chuckle.

Reading obits is part of the everyday life of family historians—but some are almost stranger than fiction! Here are some unusual obituaries found in the online collection of GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives.

Untimely Death Notices

Some people die young—but more than one person has had their death reported numerous times while they were still alive!

The most famous of these was the humorist Samuel Langhorne Clemens (1835-1910), better known by his pen name “Mark Twain.” Several times in his life, Twain’s death was “greatly exaggerated,” as he was prone to say. One erroneous report occurred in 1907, when his demise was supposedly met during a dense fog while aboard H. H. Roger’s yacht.

Report of His Death (Mark Twain) Greatly Exaggerated, Baltimore American newspaper article 5 May 1907

Baltimore American (Baltimore, Maryland), 5 May 1907, page 16

Another tale was spun about American pioneer and frontiersman Daniel Boone (1734-1820), as noted in this GenealogyBank blog article: The Lessons of Daniel Boone’s Obituary: Check and Double Check. What an intricate literary fabrication the author of Boone’s obituary wove. If you read the obituary closely, he couldn’t possibly have known the details—since he reported Boone died alone:

 In this position, without a struggle, he breathed his last.

false report of the death of Daniel Boone, Providence Gazette newspaper article 19 September 1818

Providence Gazette (Providence, Rhode Island), 19 September 1818, page 3

This next obituary, from 1889, is another example of an untimely death notice.

Who would believe that an obituary could be published 18 years after a death? Perhaps Mr. Cartier’s wife needed closure—or, as the obituary mentioned, wished to silence “tongue waggers” (gossipers) who wouldn’t acknowledge that he had been lost at sea in 1871.

obituary for Justin Cartier, New York Herald newspaper article 20 May 1889

New York Herald (New York, New York), 20 May 1889, page 6

Misunderstood Diseases

Another oddity is the reporting of diseases that were not widely understood during the time period.

banner ad for GenealogyBank

Ever hear of Tourette’s syndrome, a neurological disease characterized by tics and uncontrollable outbursts of cursing? Mr. Herrington most likely was a sufferer, as his greatest fault was his extravagant use of profanity. Thank goodness he enjoyed the company of a respectable family, despite his inability to control his condition.

obittuary for William Herrington, New York Tribune newspaper article 12 December 1898

New York Tribune (New York, New York), 12 December 1898, page 3

Sleeping diseases are often linked with folklore, as in this account of the “Sleeping Beauty.” Miss Golsey passed away in 1873 after being asleep for 24 years! Her obituary indicates a comatose condition, but doesn’t explain how she took nourishment during that long time period.

obituary for Susan Caroline Golsey, Cincinnati Daily Enquirer newspaper article 9 November 1873

Cincinnati Daily Enquirer (Cincinnati, Ohio), 9 November 1873, page 9

Persnickety Penmanship

Some notices might have been worded better if the wordsmith had taken care to proofread the work!

I call this persnickety penmanship, an affliction many writers encounter. But the resulting mistakes can be fun to read, as in this case where an obituary reported that a woman gave a dinner for the church organ and another for the church carpet—instead of for real people. At the end, the poor wording seems to indicate that it was unusual for her to be married and to take her children to church!

article about church suppers, Watertown Daily Times newspaper article 13 August 1891

Watertown Daily Times (Watertown, New York), 13 August 1891, page 6

Here’s an obituary reporting that a cast-iron wheel exploded after a long illness! Many readers probably took a double-take until they realized the reporter intermingled news items that should have been in two separate paragraphs!

The obituary reads:

A large cast-iron wheel, revolving 900 times a minute, exploded in the city lately, after a long and painful illness.

Jersey Journal newspaper article 20 October 1890

Jersey Journal (Jersey City, New Jersey), 20 October 1890, page 2

Laughed to Death

Laughing isn’t always safe—and if you search old newspapers, you find it is an all-too-common cause of death. Searching on the phrase “Laughed to Death” in GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives returns over 140,000 articles, including these headlines:

  • “Actors Who Slay Their Auditors—The Man Who Laughed to Death” (1877)
  • “Telling Funny Stories Fatal to a New York Woman” (1911)

Here is another example:

Laughed Herself to Death, Daily Inter Ocean newspaper article 26 December 1878

Daily Inter Ocean (Chicago, Illinois), 26 December 1878, page 7

Practical Jokes

We know you can’t always believe what you read—so always look for retractions after the initial report.

banner ad for GenealogyBank

Believe it or not, this next piece describes an obituary that was printed as a practical joke.

Gus Mahler’s friends printed an obituary connecting him to a prophesy of his death on March 15. At first the joke seemed funny, but family felt it went too far. With friends like that, who needs enemies!

However, Mahler—according to his wife—was a practical joker himself, and she predicted that he would certainly get even with the jokers. Wouldn’t you like to know how he got his revenge on the pranksters?

obituary for Gus Mahler, New York Herald newspaper article 17 March 1893

New York Herald (New York, New York), 17 March 1893, page 4

If you’ve encountered any peculiar or stranger-than-fiction obituaries, please share them with us in the comments section.

Powered By DT Author Box

Written by Mary Harrell-Sesniak

Mary Harrell-Sesniak

Mary Harrell-Sesniak, MBA, brings to the GenealogyBank Blog a blend of technical and genealogical research skills. In addition to having been a columnist with RootsWeb Review, she was president of a computer training/consulting firm for 15+ years, worked as an editor and has authored several genealogy books. You’ll find her an active contributor to a variety of online forums, RootsWeb’s WorldConnect, Findagrave.com and indexing projects.

Print Friendly

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*

* Copy This Password *

* Type Or Paste Password Here *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>