David Bruce: Death Anecdotes



In the days before such things as Welfare and Social Security, people in this and other countries grew desperate because of poverty. A young mother — a struggling opera singer — who had been deserted by her husband grew desperate because her children were cold and hungry and she could not afford to give them what they needed. Therefore, she decided to kill her children and herself. She took them to a railroad track, planning to throw her children and herself in front of an oncoming train. Fortunately, her daughter, Lotta, screamed, “Mamma! Mamma! I love you, I love you! Take me home!” The young opera singer took her children, never thought of suicide again, and after more years of struggle, became rich and famous. Her name was Ernestine Schumann-Heink.

Early in his life, Julius Caesar travelled to take a course in rhetoric in Rhodes. Unfortunately, the ship he was travelling on was captured by pirates, and he was held for ransom. The ransom was paid, but while the money was being collected and delivered, Julius Caesar often told the pirates that he would crucify them when he was free. They thought he was joking and laughed, but after Julius Caesar had been ransomed, he gathered together a fleet of ships, then hunted the pirates down and crucified them.

John Byng failed to come to the relief of the island of Minorca when it was under attack, so he was court-martialed, found guilty, and sentenced to die. Before he was executed by firing squad, he was asked to wear a handkerchief over his face. Mr. Byng replied, “If my face will frighten them, let it be done. They will not frighten me.” (One of Voltaire’s characters commented about Mr. Byng in Candide, “It’s good to kill an admiral now and then, to encourage the others.”)

Phillips Brooks, a bishop and a strong believer in God, gave orders that no visitors be admitted as he lay in bed with a serious illness. However, when he heard that his friend the noted agnostic Robert Ingersoll had come to visit, the bishop decided to see him. When Mr. Ingersoll asked why he had made the exception, the bishop replied, “I feel confident of seeing my friends in the next world, but this may be my last chance of seeing you.”

John Weir was once inaccurately referred to as “the late John Weir” in the New York Native. Shortly afterward, he ran into a friend on the street, who was shocked to see that he was still alive. The friend asked him, “What are you doing on the planet? I thought you were dead.” Mr. Weir assured him that he was still alive, and the friend, who was burdened with too many things to do and not enough time to do them, complained without thinking, “Now I’ll have to put you back in my Rolodex.”

Classicist and poet A.E. Housman had his rooms at Trinity College, Cambridge, in an area — called Whewell’s Court — that he had to reach by climbing 44 steps. Shortly before he died, Mr. Housman endured the loss of several friends and suffered from ill health. He wrote his brother, “I still go up my 44 stairs two at a time, but that is in hopes of dropping at the top.”

Madame Giulietta Grisi once decided to commit suicide, so she ran to a river so she could drown herself. Fortunately, a friend followed her and convinced her not to drown herself — making the argument that she would be disheveled, muddy, and unglamorous when her body was fished out of the river.

The poet Percy Bysshe Shelley died by drowning. When his body was finally found, it was unrecognizable because fish had been eating it, but he was identified by the books he carried in his pockets: a volume of Sophocles’s plays and a volume of John Keats’s poetry.

“I’m no bleeding heart, OK? But. When you’re walking down the streets of New York City and you’re stepping over a guy on the sidewalk who — I don’t know — might be dead, does it ever occur to you to think ‘Wow, maybe our system doesn’t work’?” — comedian Bill Hicks.

How did the ancient Greek tragedian Aeschylus, author of the Oresteia, die? An ancient legend says that he was killed by an eagle that was trying to drop a tortoise on a rock to break it open so it could be eaten. The eagle mistook Aeschylus’s bald head for a rock.

Tenor Enrico Tamberlik was able to read his own highly complimentary obituary notices after a rumor started in 1882 that he had died. He pasted the notices in an album and enjoyed reading them until his death seven years later.

At Ferney, Voltaire had a church built. He also had a tomb for himself built, half in and half out of the church. That way, Voltaire explained, “The rascals will say that I’m neither in nor out.”

When Anthony Burgess was incorrectly diagnosed with brain cancer, he wrote five books in a year because he wanted his widow to be financially provided for after his death.

Voltaire once said about the death of a prominent nobleman: “He was a great patriot, a humanitarian, and a loyal friend — provided, of course, that he is really dead.”

The widow of a vicar once said to a visitor who talked about her late husband’s passing, “I’m sure my husband is enjoying eternal bliss. But must we talk about such an unpleasant subject?”

Final gifts are often the most important. On his deathbed, an old man made his son promise to sit — alone — for a half hour every day in the best room.

As a child, T.S. Eliot once wrote a two-page biography of George Washington, which ended, “And then he died, of corse [sic].”

“You show me something that doesn’t cause cancer, and I’ll show you something that isn’t on the market yet.” — George Carlin.

When writer Charles MacArthur was on his deathbed, he said, “I believe in God. I just wish he hadn’t written me such a lousy exit.”

When Voltaire was dying, a priest wanted him to reject Satan. Voltaire replied, “This is no time to make new enemies!”

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