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.

Remembering Daniel Boone, Dr. Seuss & Paul Newman with Newspapers

During this September week in American history three famous octogenarians died who had a big impact on America:

  • Daniel Boone, American explorer, died at 85 on 26 September 1820
  • Theodor Seuss Geisel (better known as “Dr. Seuss”), American children’s book author, died at 87 on 24 September 1991
  • Paul Newman, American actor, died at 83 on 26 September 2008

Newspapers are filled with obituaries and profiles that help us better understand the lives of our ancestors—and the famous people who lived during their times. The following newspaper articles about these three famous Americans are good examples.

Daniel Boone (1734-1820)

Daniel Boone, who died 26 September 1820, is one of the most famous figures in American history, a legendary frontiersman, hunter and explorer credited with opening up the area now known as Kentucky to white settlers. In his long, adventurous life, Boone was an officer in the American Revolutionary War; a captive of the Shawnees, who later adopted him into their tribe; and a successful politician, serving three terms in the Virginia General Assembly. When he died in Missouri in 1820, all of America mourned.

The St. Louis Enquirer published Boone’s obituary four days after he died. Today Daniel Boone is regarded as the quintessential American folk hero, and in this contemporary obituary we can see that he was held in high regard during his own time. When the Missouri General Assembly learned of Boone’s passing they sadly adjourned for the day, pledging to wear black armbands for 20 days as a sign of respect and mourning.

obituary for Daniel Boone, St. Louis Enquirer newspaper article 30 September 1820

St. Louis Enquirer (St. Louis, Missouri), 30 September 1820, page 3

The obituary erroneously states that Boone was 90 when he died (he was 85). It reports that up until two years before his death, Boone “was capable of great bodily activity,” and notes that “Since then the approach of death was visible, and he viewed it with the indifference of a Roman philosopher.”

Here is a profile of Daniel Boone published in 1910, burnishing his legacy and legend, calling him a “courier of civilization.”

Daniel Boone: Pathfinder, Mighty Hunter and Courier of Civilization, Oregonian newspaper article 17 April 1910

Oregonian (Portland, Oregon), 17 April 1910, section 6, page 2

The old newspaper article states: “He found more profit in the woods than in tilling the soil, and for months at a time he was away hunting beaver, otter, bear, deer, wolves and wildcats. Garbed in hunting shirt of deerskin, with leggings and moccasins of the same material, and with powder horn, bullet pouch, scalping knife and tomahawk, the world afforded him plenty. The bare ground or the bushes furnished him a bed, and the sky was his canopy. His skill with a gun or in throwing a tomahawk was marvelous. Of Indian fighting he had enough to satisfy.”

Theodor Seuss Geisel (“Dr. Seuss”) (1904-1991)

Best known as the author and illustrator of beloved children’s books, Theodor Seuss Geisel was also a novelist, poet and cartoonist. His vivid imagination, crazy rhymes, and colorful illustrations graced 46 children’s books, creating such enduring characters as “The Cat in the Hat” and “Horton” the elephant. Generations of American children grew up learning to read from such classics as The Cat in the Hat, Green Eggs and Ham, and Horton Hears a Who!

In this obituary, published two days after Geisel’s death on 24 September 1991, we learn how the wild animals that peopled his imagination and stories came from his childhood experiences in the zoo.

'Seuss' Author Dies in Sleep, Trenton Evening Times newspaper article 26 September 1991

Trenton Evening Times (Trenton, New Jersey), 26 September 1991, page 1

Dr. Seuss’s obituary states:

“The world of Geisel’s imagination was nourished by his childhood visits to the zoo in Springfield, Mass. He was born in Springfield on March 4, 1904, the son of Theodor R. Geisel, the superintendent of parks, and Henrietta Seuss Geisel.

“Superintendent Geisel, the son of an émigré German cavalry officer who founded a brewery in Springfield, expanded the zoo and liked to show it off to his son.

“‘I used to hang around there a lot,’ Geisel recalled in an interview. ‘They’d let me in the cage with the small lions and the small tigers, and I got chewed up every once in a while.’”

Geisel did very little merchandising of his popular characters during his lifetime—but that all changed after he died, as reported in this 1997 newspaper article.

'Cat in the Hat' Joins Commercial Scene, Register Star newspaper article 7 February 1997

Register Star (Rockford, Illinois), 7 February 1997, page 18

The newspaper article quotes Herbert Cheyette, Geisel’s longtime agent:

“Ted had been very reluctant to do it [merchandizing his characters],” he says. “His primary reaction was, ‘Why should I spend my time correcting the work of other people when I could do my own work creating new books?’ He said to me more than once, ‘You can do this after I’m dead.’

“In fact, Geisel’s death at 87 made merchandizing his characters a copyright necessity rather than a luxury; a case of use it or lose it, Cheyette says.”

Paul Newman (1925-2008)

Paul Newman was an Academy Award-winning American actor who appeared in more than 60 movies during his long career. Gifted, handsome, famous and wealthy, Newman shunned the Hollywood lifestyle and preferred his home life with his wife Joanne Woodward, to whom he was married 50 years—right up to his death. Newman also was a great philanthropist, co-founding a food company called “Newman’s Own” that donated more than $330 million to charity during his lifetime.

Paul Newman died on 26 September 2008; the following obituary was published the very next day.

obituary for Paul Newman, Sun newspaper article 27 September 2008

Sun (Lowell, Massachusetts), 27 September 2008

Newman’s obituary states:

“Newman, who shunned Hollywood life, was reluctant to give interviews and usually refused to sign autographs because he found the majesty of the act offensive, according to one friend.

“He also claimed that he never read reviews of his movies.

“‘If they’re good you get a fat head and if they’re bad you’re depressed for three weeks,’ he said.

“Off the screen, Newman had a taste for beer and was known for his practical jokes. He once had a Porsche installed in [Robert] Redford’s hallway—crushed and covered with ribbons.”

The following 1998 newspaper article reports on one of Newman’s charitable endeavors: he published a cookbook featuring favorite recipes from his famous actor friends.

What's on the Menu When Hollywood's Elite Meet to Eat, Aberdeen Daily News newspaper article 8 November 1998

Aberdeen Daily News (Aberdeen, South Dakota), 8 November 1998, page 52

The news article reports:

“But it’s not all about dropping names. Newman introduces several recipes by recounting fond memories of meals enjoyed. He also tells about his life as the only man in his house along with his actress wife, Joanne Woodward, and five daughters, and waxes poetic about his ‘relationship’ with food.”

Obituaries provide personal details about someone’s life that we can’t find elsewhere—whether they are our ancestors or famous people we’re interested in. GenealogyBank features two collections of obituaries:

Dig into these obituary archives today and see what you can discover!

The Lessons of Daniel Boone’s Obituary: Check and Double Check

Introduction: Mary Harrell-Sesniak is a genealogist, author and editor with a strong technology background. In this guest blog post, Mary points out some lessons learned from an early obituary of the American folk-hero Daniel Boone.

Mark Twain (Samuel Langhorne Clemens) once said: “The rumors of my death have been greatly exaggerated.”

Did you know that another great American character, Daniel Boone, could have said something similar? He died at the age of 85 on 26 September 1820—but his death was widely reported in 1818!

Daniel Boone obituary, Providence Gazette newspaper article, 19 September 1818

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

The first correct death notice for Daniel Boone that I found in GenealogyBank was published on 30 September 1820, four days after his death. This was a more factual obituary than the one published in 1818, although the legendary image of Boone lying in a blind, with one eye shut and aiming his gun at a deer when death overcame him, still resonates.

Daniel Boone obituary, St. Louis Enquirer newspaper article, 30 September 1820

St. Louis Enquirer (St. Louis, Missouri), 30 September 1820, page 3

The conclusion of this obituary is fairly close to the truth: Boone remained impressively fit and active well into his later years.

conclusion of Daniel Boone's obituary, St. Louis Enquirer newspaper article, 30 September 1820

Conclusion of Daniel Boone’s obituary, St. Louis Enquirer (St. Louis, Missouri), 30 September 1820, page 3

So the lesson from Daniel Boone’s obituary is this: check and double check. Don’t be satisfied with just the first obituary you find. Keep looking for more, since that first obituary may contain exaggerations or inaccuracies—although hopefully, unlike the case of Daniel, the first obituary of your ancestor wasn’t published two years before he or she died!

Interested in finding out more about Daniel Boone, the quintessential American folk-hero, or his family history?

A search of online family trees reveals that Daniel Boone was one of at least 11 children born to Squire and Sarah (Morgan) Boone. Daniel and Rebecca (Bryan) Boone also had a number of progeny, who in turn had many children. With such a large family, you can find numerous Boone relations in your genealogy searches.

A general search of “Daniel Boone” in GenealogyBank will produce over 52,000 hits, so you may wish to limit your results by using keywords or date ranges.

GenealogyBank search box to refine search for Daniel Boone

GenealogyBank search box to refine search for Daniel Boone

Here are a few examples of Boone descendants:

Philadelphia Inquirer of 25 January 1881:

Ex-Mayor Levi D. Boone, of Chicago, died yesterday, aged seventy-three years. He was a descendant of Daniel Boone.

Dallas Morning News of 20 December 1892:

YOAKUM, Tex., Dec. 19.—Died at his residence on East Hill J. B. Boone, aged 58 years, after a lingering illness. Mr. Boone came to this city about two years ago from Hillsboro, Tex. He was buried in the city cemetery at 4 p.m. to-day. Mr. Boone was a descendant of the illustrious Daniel Boone of Kentucky, was born and lived in Louisville, Ky., until sixteen years ago when he moved to Hillsboro.

Kalamazoo Gazette of 27 January 1903:

New Cambria, Mo., Jan. 26.—Fay Boone, an old time Mississippi river captain and a direct descendant of Daniel Boone, is dead, at the age of 89 years.

Idaho Statesman of 22 May 1903:

PIONEER DEAD.

Kansas City, Mo., May 21.—Linville Hayes, a descendant of Daniel Boone and a well known freighter in early days, when he directed the movement of large wagon trains to Salt Lake, New Mexico and Arizona, died today, aged 82 years.

Facts and fiction about Daniel Boone:

  • Daniel Boone was a Revolutionary War patriot.
  • He probably did not wear a coonskin cap; it’s probable he wore black felt and sported a pigtail.

What is your connection to Daniel Boone?

Are you related to Daniel Boone, or did your ancestors explore the frontier with him? We hope you’ll share your ancestral story by tweeting at http://twitter.com/#!/GenealogyBank or posting on our FaceBook page.

Found on FaceBook:

The Boone Society, Inc. at https://www.facebook.com/BooneSociety.

Found on the Web:

Boone Family History and Descendants: The First 5 Generations of the George Boone Family presented by The Boone Society, Inc. and reprinted at http://www.family-genealogy-online.com/little/boone.html, a family history website maintained by Pat and Jim Geary.