Long ago, reporters sometimes resorted to thievery in order to get a good story. For example, a reporter who did not work for the Chicago Tribune heard that a man named something like John Jones had been murdered. He got a policeman’s star from his editor and went to Mr. Jones’ apartment building, where he flashed his star at the apartment building superintendent and asked to be let inside Mr. Jones’ apartment, which he ransacked for letters and a diary, which he carried to his car. Just then, Mr. Jones arrived, safe and sound. The reporter told him, “Jones, you have caused us a great deal of trouble. Now hop upstairs and phone the detective bureau. Tell ’em to take you off the death list. Of course, the reporter didn’t need the letters and diary anymore. Therefore, he went to the building that housed the rival Tribune. He hailed a cab and paid the driver to deliver a package containing the letter and diary to Mr. Jones, along with a message saying that the package was from the Tribune. Soon Mr. Jones was calling the Tribune and threatening to sue the newspaper for invasion of privacy and for illegal entry.
A study of history reveals fascinating stories about the legendary ways that some people have died. Nicocreon, the tyrant of Cyprus, executed the philosopher and skeptic Anaxarchus by placing him into a mortar big enough to hold a human being and ordering him pulverized by iron pestles. But the philosopher denied that he was his body and shouted as he died, “Pound, pound the pouch containing Anaxarchus — you do not pound Anaxarchus.” Pythagoras stayed away from beans, and when an assassin pursued him, he refused to save his life by crossing a bean field. The assassin caught him and cut his throat. Dionysius, the tyrant of Syracuse, tortured Timycha, Pythagoras’ assistant, to find out why the philosopher so disliked beans. She would not tell him, preferring instead to bite off her own tongue and spit it at him, knowing that he would then have her killed. The ancient Egyptians believed in facing up to one’s own death. They hosted skeletons at parties, and told guests, “Drink and be merry, for when you are dead you will be like this.”
Folk tales can contain truth, even if it is not literal truth. Death, who brings death to all living things, was near death one day, but a happy young man saw him and took care of him, saving him. In gratitude, Death said that he would not arrive suddenly on the day that the man was to die, but that he would first send messengers to remind the man that he would die one day. The man lived long and mostly happily, but at times he grew ill and occasionally he even wished that he were dead. One day Death arrived and told the man that it was his day to die. The man was shocked and asked, “Have you forgotten your promise to me? You said that you were going to send messengers to remind me that I would die one day.” Death said, “I did send messengers. Every time that you ill, and especially those times when you wished that you were dead, was a reminder that you would die one day.”
One should tell the truth, even when telling the truth means admitting that you are guilty. Rabbi Elimelech of Lyzhansk believed in a merciful God Who is also a judge. He said that on the Day of Judgment, God would ask him some questions. God would ask, “Have you been as just and as righteous as you ought to have been? Have you been as charitable as you ought to have been? Have you studied sacred writings as much as you should have? Have you prayed as much as you should have?” To each of these questions, Rabbi Elimelech would answer with the truth: “No.” However, Rabbi Elimelech believed that God, Who is merciful, would then say, “Elimelech, you have spoken the truth. For this alone, you will have a share in the World to Come.”
Some people find unusual ways to die. William S. Burroughs, author of Naked Lunch, married a woman to help her escape from the Nazis. She worked for a playwright named Ernst Toller, and she always returned promptly from lunch at 1 p.m. However, one day she met and spoke to a fellow refugee she knew and so she arrived back from lunch 10 minutes late and discovered that Mr. Toller had hung himself. It turned out that he had attempted suicide at other times, but he had always been careful to do so at a time and place where he knew that someone would rescue him. Because Mrs. Burroughs arrived 10 minutes late from her lunch, he succeeded this time in killing himself.
When John F. Kennedy was assassinated on November 22, 1963, 11-year-old Karen Hess, a future author of young readers’ books, watched his funeral on television. She was so affected by the assassination that she started folding everything — towels, clothing, etc. — into a tight triangle like the American flag that was given to President Kennedy’s widow, Jackie.
Movie producer Marcel DeSano once tried to commit suicide by turning on the gas and suffocating. He planned almost everything in detail. He taped the windows shut, he sprayed perfume around the room, he put on a favorite record, he turned the gas on, and he lay down and went to sleep. However, he woke up again, very much alive — he had forgotten to pay his gas bill.
When Eleanora Hughes was dancing in Paris, a Spanish marquis fell in love with her and threatened to jump out of a window unless she returned his love. She told him, “All right, dear, go ahead and jump. But since the room is only two stories above the ground, I’m not the least impressed by your bravery.”
Tom Lehrer is famous for his comic songs, but one of his lesser-known activities is that he likes to start rumors that he is dead. He even has a collection of newspaper and magazine articles that refer to him as the late Mr. Lehrer.
© 2016, David Bruce, All Rights Reserved
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