Friday, March 17, 2006

Greatly Exaggerated Deaths

"The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated."--Mark Twain

I have good news for fans of comedian and actor Will Ferrell. He is not dead. On Tuesday a hoax press release, in which it was claimed Ferrell had been killed in a freak paragliding accident, was published on the website According to the release, Ferrell was killed when a gust of wind came up, and Ferrel and a companion were blown into a heavily wooded area at around 60 miles per hour. Despite the fact that the news release was filled with grammatical and spelling errors, despite the fact that news of the actor's "death" was not reported in any of the major news outlets, and despite the fact that Ferrell is still very much alive, rumours of his death soon spread across the internet. iNewswire has since yanked the prank news release.

For many rumours of the still very much alive Ferrell's death might seem strange, but rumours of the death of celebrities is nothing new. Indeed, it happened to none other than Mark Twain, possibly the greatest American writer of all time. In 1897, Twain visited his cousin James Ross Clemens, who was seriously ill, in London. Somehow this became construed that Twain himself was ill. As a result, the New York Journal published news of Twain's "death" well before he had passed on (in 1910, for the curious). Twain, with his typical wit, responded with the above quote.

At least Mark Twain was famous when his death was erroneously reported. Frank Gorshin was still an up and coming comic when his death was reported much too soon. In 1957, well before he would find everlasting fame as The Riddler on the Sixties series Batman, Frank Gorshin was in an auto accident in which he fractured his skull and after which he was in a coma for four days. Several Los Angeles newspapers reported that the upcoming comic and actor was killed in the wreck.

While Mark Twain and Frank Gorshin's deaths were only erroneously reported once, Bob Hope had the dubious honour of having his death erroneously reported twice before he actually died. In 1998 a pre-written obituary somehow made its way onto the Associated Press website. As a result Hope's "death" was even announced in the United States House of Representatives! In 2003, another pre-written obituary of Hope, along with those of other celebrities, was published on CNN's website when their password protection failed.

At least Twain, Gorshin, and Hope's "deaths" were misreported by the press. And even Will Ferrell can blame reports of his "demise" on a website. Often rumours of a celebrity's death spring from nowhere. And more often than not these urban legends have a morbid twist. In the Seventies one of the more popular urban legends was that Susan Olsen, famous as Cindy Brady on The Brady Bunch was killed when her pigtails (or in some versions her coat) was caught in the doors of a bus and she was dragged to death. Nearly as bizarre as the urban legend regarding Susan Olsen's supposed demise is one in which Steve Burns, one time host of Blue's Clues, died of a heroine overdose (or, alternatively, was killed in a car wreck). Some variations of this urban legend even claimed he was replaced by a look alike (much like Paul McCartney--see below).

Indeed, often urban legends about a celebrity's death become increasingly complex over the course of time. One need look no further than the urban legend in which Jerry Mathers, the "Beaver" of Leave It to Beaver was killed in Vietnam. Now Mathers did serve in the Air National Guard after graduating high school, but he never went to Vietnam. What makes this urban legend so strange is that it has even spawned what might possibly be urban legends regarding its origins. Supposedly, the legend that Mathers was killed in Vietnam started when a soldier with the same name died in Vietnam. This led to erroneous reports in the Associated Press and United Press International that Jerry Mathers, the Beaver, had been killed. On The Tonight Show that aired that night, actress Shelley Winters repeated the news of Mather's supposed demise. This sounds like it could have realistically happened, but Urban Legends Reference Pages has found no evidence of false reports of Mathers' death, nor a Tonight Show appearance in which Winters mentioned Mathers being killed. In other words, as the Urban Legends Reference Pages theorise, it could simply be an urban legend about the origins of an urban legend...

Of course, rumours of Jerry Mathers' death are nothing compared to the "Paul is Dead" phenomenon. The rumour may have begun with the song "Saint Paul," performed and written by Terry Knight. The song was played heavily in the Midwest in May 1969 and treated Paul McCartney of The Beatles as if he was already dead. More likley Knight was making a metaphorical reference to the eminent break up of The Beatles. At any rate, the rumour that Paul might be dead began to spread. The rumour first saw print on September 17, 1969 in the Drake University (that's in Des Moines, Iowa, if you're wondering) newspaper The Drake Times-Delphic in an article entitled "Is Beatle Paul McCartney Dead." The rumour would really catch fire, however, on October 12, 1969 when DJ Russ Gibb of WKNR-FM in Dearborn, Michigan received a call from someone calling himself Tom claiming to have "evidence" that Paul McCartney was dead. In October 14, 1969, Fred LaBour, then a junior at the University of Michigan, published a review of the album Abbey Road in which he claimed that clues to Paul's "death" could be found in the covers of various Beatles albums. The rumour soon took on a life of its own. It was "established" that Paul was killed while driving in his Aston Martin (the particulars tended to vary). Even a date for Paul's "death" was established--5:00 a.m. on Wednesday, November 9, 1966. As to Paul still being part of The Beatles, this was explained by McCartney having been replaced by a double. This double was even given a name, usually that of William Campbell, William Shears (after Billy Shears, the leader of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band), or William Shepherd.

The supposed clues that Paul was "dead" were many and grew as time passed. Supposedly on the cover of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts club Band, The Beatles were standing in front of a freshly dug grave (I don't see it myself...). On the back cover of that same album, the fact that Paul is standing backwards was used as evidence that he was dead. The cover to Abbey Road was also supposedly a clue to Paul's "death"--namely, it supposedly potrays a funeral procession. John Lennon, in white, was the priest. Ringo, in a dark suit, was the undertaker. George Harrison, in a blue shirt and jeans, was the grave digger. As to Paul himself, barefoot and walking out of step with the others, he was the corpse. The songs of The Beatles also supposedly held clues that Paul had "died." The lines "O, untimely death!" from a BBC broadcast of King Lear, sampled in the song "I Am the Walrus", was supposed to be a reference to Paul's "demise." Of course, many also pointed out that according to the song "Glass Onion" on The Beatles (better known as The White Album), the Walrus was Paul.

"The Paul is Dead" craze resulted in numerous fanzines dedicated to the "late" Paul McCartney and his mysterious "death." Even the legitimate news media took notice. Life sent photographers to Paul's farm to see if he was indeed still alive! The result was an interview, published in the November 7, 1969 issue, in which Paul dismissed many of the rumours. Despite this, there are still people to this day who believe Paul is dead.

In many of these instances it is easy to understand how celebrity deaths could be erroneously reported. Mark Twain's cousin was ill and this got misconstrued that Twain was ill and that got misconstrued as Twain was dead. Frank Gorshin was in a serious car accident which led to reports of his death. In other instances, there seems to be no real explanation for how rumours of a celebrity's demise gain currency. Indeed, I can remember in grade school there was at one time a rumour going around that Jimmy Walker, then at the height of his success as J. J. on Good Times, had died in a car crash! I can only suppose that such rumours could arise out of our own society's fears of death. Perhaps in hearing of the death of a beloved celebrity it eases our minds as to our misgivings about our own mortality. I can only suppose that the knowledge that the rich and famous can die gives ourselves some security in knowing that we are not alone in being mortal. I realise this is not much of an explanation, but it is perhaps better than my other thought on the matter. Perhaps many in our society simply have a bit of a morbid streak...

1 comment:

Unknown said...

hum. I hadn't even heard that rumor. Wow.

Thanks for the link to the urban legends page. Very cool.