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Howard Swains recently reported in Wired on the phenomenon of fake online deaths. He writes:

Many online tales of death and suffering are works of complete fiction, "pseuicides" dressed up as real-life catastrophes. Some are contrived to titillate or garner attention, some result from something more serious, and some are the result of a uniquely modern psychiatric disorder known as Munchausen by internet.


In two investigations between 2007 and 2009, I encountered countless examples of fake deaths in all corners of the online world. A contributor to a knitting forum, for instance, faked her death rather than provide patterns she had been commissioned to design. A member of an online art gallery discovered that the 18-year-old, gay, male, lead-singer of a rock band, with whom she had developed a close friendship before he was killed in a car crash, was actually the work of two 14-year-old girls, who had entirely invented his life. A teenage British boy broke up with his real-life girlfriend to marry a 16-year-old online friend, later discovering (on her "death") that his deceased wife-to-be was a 12-year-old fantasist who had been sending photos of her older cousin and inventing graphic details of incest and rape.

No mention of the Kaycee Nicole Swenson case, which I thought was one of the most famous ones. Perhaps it's because Swains focuses a lot on LiveJournal examples. But overall, an interesting article.
Categories: Death, Identity/Imposters
Posted by Alex on Tue Jun 09, 2009
Comments (7)
You can breathe a sigh of relief. Tila Tequila is not dead, despite the "tweet" posted on her twitter account claiming that someone had broken into her house and killed her and her dog. Seems that someone had hacked into her account. I have no idea who Tila Tequila is. I'm guessing she's some kind of D-list celebrity. [binside]
Categories: Death, Social Networking Sites
Posted by Alex on Tue Apr 14, 2009
Comments (3)
Faye Shilling is accused of not only buying life insurance policies for people who didn't exist, but also of holding fake funerals for their (fake) deaths. She would fill the casket with "various materials" to make it the right weight, then bury it. And then, because she was afraid authorities would somehow later find an empty casket, she would file fake documents to indicate the body had been exhumed and then file more fake documents to show it had been cremated. [Daily Breeze]
Categories: Death, Scams
Posted by Alex on Thu Apr 09, 2009
Comments (1)
After President Lincoln died, there was a huge demand for photos of him lying in his casket. However, the army didn't allow any photos to be taken. As a result, a lot of fake Lincoln death photos appeared. I've posted about this before, and I have an example of a fake Lincoln death photo in the Hoax Photo Database.

Mary Curtis just sent me an old newspaper clipping describing some Lincoln death photos owned by her grandmother. Unfortunately, no one knows where the photos are now. According to the clipping, she kept them "in a bank vault in a nearby town."

Actually, reading over the clipping, it's not clear to me whether Mary's grandmother owned photographs or "mourning pictures" (i.e. drawings). The first picture, showing Mrs. Lincoln kneeling before her husband, who is surrounded by his cabinet members, is clearly an illustration, not a photograph.

The second picture seems to be a photograph. The caption says that it shows Mrs. Lincoln standing in front of her husband's coffin. But is that really Mrs. Lincoln? And is she in front of a coffin? It's hard to tell from the quality of this copy.

A third picture is partially visible in the news clipping, but the clipping offers no details about it.
Categories: Death, Photos/Videos
Posted by Alex on Wed Apr 08, 2009
Comments (7)
Deacon Freeman Moore doesn't think that the fake grave someone dug behind his church was a funny prank. It had a black, wooden cross at one end, with the name "Eli" on it. He called the police, who did a bit of digging before deciding it was a hoax. []
Categories: Death, Pranks
Posted by Alex on Mon Apr 06, 2009
Comments (1)
Occasionally I've run across references to a French artist who supposedly committed suicide because he was driven mad by the mystery of the Mona Lisa's smile. There aren't many details to the story. The Telegraph, in an article from 2003, summarizes the entire tale:

On June 23, 1852, a young French artist, Luc Maspero, threw himself from the fourth floor window of his Paris hotel. In a final letter, he wrote: "For years I have grappled desperately with [Mona Lisa's] smile. I prefer to die."

Many articles about the Mona Lisa casually include this tale without bothering to provide any references. For instance, it's mentioned in a 1999 Smithsonian article. Before that, the earliest reference I can find (searching in Google Books) occurs in an obscure 1966 work, Green Leaves: Harish S. Booch Memorial Volume. I came up empty-handed searching archives of nineteenth-century newspapers.

All versions of the tale, from 1966 onwards, are basically the same. No one ever supplies any information about who Luc Maspero was, or where the story of his unusual death originally came from. Tellingly, a 1961 article in the New York Times Magazine specifically about Mona Lisa's smile doesn't mention the Luc Maspero story. This suggests that the tale hadn't circulated very widely (at least in the English-speaking world) at that time.

Because the story of Luc Maspero sounds like an urban legend, and because I can't find any evidence to suggest that it's true, I'm going to list its status as "unlikely".
Categories: Art, Death
Posted by Alex on Thu Nov 27, 2008
Comments (4)
A woman walking her dog in the Welsh countryside recently found an empty coffin sitting in the middle of a field. The coffin had a note in it: "Jump in, you're next."

No one knows who put the coffin there, but the likely suspects are local students since it's freshman week and there have been other pranks in the region, such as "a tree full of knickers and a young driver sticky taped into his car." Link: North Wales Chronicle
Categories: Death, Pranks
Posted by Alex on Fri Sep 19, 2008
Comments (4)
Ken Campbell recently died at the age of 66. The Telegraph's obituary describes him as "an actor, writer and director of wilful eccentricity" who worked in experimental theater. However, he was perhaps best known for a hoax he pulled off in 1980, when he sent around letters announcing that the Royal Shakespeare Company was renaming itself the Royal Dickens Company.

I couldn't find a good description of this hoax online (and, unfortunately, I've never gotten around to writing one up... so many hoaxes, so little time). So here's an account of the hoax from Nick Yapp's book Great Hoaxes of the World:

In 1980, Campbell went to the Royal Shakespeare Company's production of Nicholas Nickleby. A friend in the cast told him that Trevor Nunn, the producer of Nicholas Nickleby, had encouraged the cast at rehearsals to adopt the style of The Ken Campbell Road Show in their approach to parts of the play. Although Campbell sat in the front row, and enjoyed what he saw, the link with his own Road Show escaped him. After the performance, he went backstage where one of the cast had a bowl of fruit in his dressing room. Friends were invited to help themselves from this bowl, but there was a catch in the banana. If anyone touched it, it turned into a penis. Campbell says that it was this that in some way inspired him to create his hoax.

With the help of a couple of friends, Campbell had some headed writing paper printed, a perfect replica of the Royal Shakespeare Company notepaper, save for the replacement of 'Dickens' for 'Shakespeare', and 'RDC' for 'RSC'. He also discovered that Trevor Nunn signed his letters 'Love, Trev'. Campbell wrote dozens of individual letters to actors, writers, directors, producers, designers and composers, as well as to Sir Roy Shaw of the Arts Council. A typical letter read:

Dear X,
As you probably heard there has been a major policy change in our organization.
Nicholas Nickleby has been such a source of real joy to cast, staff and audience that we have decided to turn to Dickens as our main source of inspiration.
So that'll be it for the bard as soon as our present commitments decently permit.

There followed a suggestion for the next production: Sketches by Boz, Bleak House, or The Pickwick Papers. Each letter ended with an individually tailored invitation. For Lindsay Anderson, Campbell signed off with: 'Thinking of you brings The Old Curiosity Shop to mind. What a coup if you could bring Sir Ralph and Sir John together again in a script by David Storey. I feel your cool, intelligent approach is going to be badly needed in these new times.' Max Stafford Clark was offered Barnaby Rudge as a production: 'I find this a compelling piece which could be admirably served by your sparse, clear directorial style -- especially if the whole sweep of the book could be captured with the aid of no more than six chairs.' Norman St John Stevas, the Arts Minister, was told: 'The first production of the RDC is hoped to be Little Dorrit. Any thoughts you have on this will, as always, be treasured.' To accompany the letters and add punch to the campaign, the Aldwych Theatre was covered in RDC posters, in the style of the RSC, giving advance notice of the production of Little Dorrit.

The RSC production of Nicholas Nickleby was spread over two nights, and it was a few nights later that Campbell went to see the second half. He was told that the letter had not gone down well, and that Trevor Nunn had called in the Special Branch. There was no suspicion on Campbell, as Nunn believed it was an inside job. Newspaper reports of the hoax grandly exaggerated the affair, saying that 'thousands of sheets' of RDC notepaper had been printed, and that 'hundreds of letters' had been sent. Trevor Nunn was reported as saying: 'It is deeply embarrassing; a lot of people have written to me refusing, or, even more embarrassing, accepting the offers'.

Some months later, while Campbell was working at the Everyman Theatre, Liverpool, he was phoned by a researcher from the BBC TV programme Newsnight, who accused him of being the RDC hoaxer. Campbell denied it at first, and consulted with his accomplices, who offered him mixed advice. He decided to come clean, and was asked to appear on Newsnight. In the television studio, where he made his confession, he was horrified to see himself, on a monitor, lit like a terrorist, a sinister, dark figure in silhouette. But the affair blew over with no harm done and no recriminations.
Categories: Death, Entertainment, Literature/Language
Posted by Alex on Thu Sep 11, 2008
Comments (6)
That's the latest rumor. The Telegraph reports:

Lieutenant Colonel Cynthia Ryan of the US Civil Air Patrol has said Fossett, whose body or plane was never found, could still be alive.
She said: "I've been doing this search and rescue for 14 years. Fossett should have been found.
"It's not like we didn't have our eyes open. We found six other planes while we were looking for him. We're pretty good at what we do."

Some anomalies about his disappearance:
  • Only one person saw him take off.
  • He took no emergency equipment.
  • He flew a plane that was easy to dismantle.
Related: The hoax forum thread from Sept. 2007 about his disappearance.
Categories: Death
Posted by Alex on Mon Jul 28, 2008
Comments (12)
Suicide has become such a problem in South Korea that many companies, including Samsung and Hyundai, are sending their employees on "well-dying" courses, which involve writing out your will and faking your own funeral. Somehow this is supposed to prevent suicide. From the Financial Times:

Before they are "buried", participants are asked to pose for their funeral portrait.
Participants enter a "death experience room" where they choose a coffin and put on a "death robe".
Course members get into their coffins and a flower is laid on each person's chest.
Funeral attendants place a lid on the coffin and dirt is thrown on the casket.
Participants are left in the closed casket for five minutes and some start to cry in the darkness.

Samsung has even built its own fake funeral center. Creepy.
(via Business Pundit)
Categories: Death
Posted by Alex on Tue Jul 22, 2008
Comments (7)
I've previously noted a few cases where extreme shock tactics were used to teach a lesson. (See Fake Attack at Elementary School and Fake Terrorism Drill.) The following case isn't as bad as those earlier examples, but it still comes across as creepy for officials to trick students into believing their classmate had died in order to teach a lesson about drunk driving. From

Many juniors and seniors were driven to tears – a few to near hysterics – May 26 when a uniformed police officer arrived in several classrooms to notify them that a fellow student had been killed in a drunken-driving accident. The officer read a brief eulogy, placed a rose on the deceased student's seat, then left the class members to process their thoughts and emotions for the next hour.
The program, titled “Every 15 Minutes,” was designed by Mothers Against Drunk Driving. Its title refers to the frequency in which a person somewhere in the country dies in an alcohol-related traffic accident.
About 10 a.m., students were called to the athletic stadium, where they learned that their classmates had not died. There, a group of seniors, police officers and firefighters staged a startlingly realistic alcohol-induced fatal car crash. The students who had purportedly died portrayed ghostly apparitions encircling the scene.
Categories: Death, Law/Police/Crime
Posted by Alex on Wed Jun 04, 2008
Comments (22)
Mariam Amash, who lives in the village of Jisr a-Zarka in Israel, claims that she is 120 years old. Her claim recently surfaced when she applied for a new Israeli identity card.

She might be telling the truth. Apparently she has a birth certificate issued by Turkish authorities, who ruled Jisr a-Zarka back in 1888 when Amash says she was born. She also has eleven children, the eldest one being in her late 80s. So assuming that her children aren't lying about their ages, Amash would have to be at least over 100 years old.

If Amash really is 120, that would make her the oldest person in the world. According to the Guinness Book of Records, the current record holder is 114-year-old Edna Parker of Indiana.

The reason to be skeptical about her claim is because of the phenomenon of age exaggeration. Elderly people often lie about their age, pretending to be older than they really are. They usually do this because claiming extreme age is a way to gain social status. In Amash's case, it seems kind of odd that she would have eleven children, if she only had her first child when she was in her mid 30s (which the age difference between her and her oldest daughter suggests).

Researchers have been fooled by the age exaggeration phenomenon before. The most famous case occurred in the Ecuadorian town of Vilcabamba, located high in the Andes. The town gained fame during the 1970s because it appeared to be the home of 23 centenarians, which statistically was unheard of. Even one centenarian among a population that small would have been extraordinary. It turned out that basically all the elderly people in the village were lying about their ages. When researchers carefully examined the birth records, they realized there wasn't a single person over 100 in the village. The average age of the people claiming to be over 100 was 86. The plans to build a longevity research center in the village had to be scrapped.
Categories: Death, Health/Medicine
Posted by Alex on Mon Feb 18, 2008
Comments (2)
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