19th Century 20th Century

Celebrity Death Hoaxes

Have a drink with: Tom Petty
Into the great wide open…

Ask him about: Not backing down.

Skeleton hand: celebrity death hoaxes

Tom Petty recently achieved the feat, as far as the press was concerned, of dying twice in a single day.

On Monday, October 2, news outlets began reporting in the afternoon that Petty had died following a cardiac incident at his California home, following a CBS News breaking news item declaring the singer dead. Only a few hours later, amidst a social media explosion of remorse and YouTube videos, did the news squeak out that announcements of Petty’s death may, in fact, have been premature. The Los Angeles Police Department, which had been CBS’ source in breaking the news, shortly clarified that it could not in fact confirm Mr. Petty’s death, noting on Twitter: “The LAPD has no investigative role in this matter. We apologize for any inconvenience in this reporting.”

It isn’t the first time death has seemed less than final in the realm of celebrity.

Modern media culture is full of conspiracy-laden, media friendly death theories: Babe Ruth and Frank Sinatra died on the same day in 1945! Why do you think Paul McCartney’s barefoot on the Abbey Road cover? Elvis faked his death and is living under witness protection! Abe Vigoda didn’t just miss a wrap party during the 1980s, he opted out ENTIRELY. (Sorry, that’s during the 90s.) (Oughts?) (Check the website.)

Are celebrity death hoaxes an unpleasant, if inevitable, modern consequence of the Internet’s viral credibility problem?

Nope. The gleeful anticipation of celebrity deaths as mass mourning events is a particularly tawdry offshoot of modern mass media culture. But the phenomenon isn’t new. Since the 1800s, death hoaxes and premature obituaries have punctuated American history (and yes, American – we seem to specialize in both death obsession and gullibility).

In the 19th century, cultural entertainment centered on what was called “humbug” or, in the words of author Neil Harris, the “operational aesthetic” – the idea that part of the experience of a given fantastical thing is the act of poking inside to see how it works, of playing in the space between belief and truth. (We’ve arguably now moved on to not caring how the fantastical thing works, but nonetheless wanting to manipulate it for kicks.) The culture was soaked in experiential riddles: Barnum’s Feejee Mermaid, the Zoo Hoax, spiritualism, patent medicines, to name only a few. That fake deaths would be part of it all is hardly surprising – though, let’s face it: in the 19th century, a hoax may have spread, but “viral” had a distinctly slower pace.

Perhaps most famous among celebrity death hoaxes is the old saw attributed to Mark Twain: “Rumors of my death have been greatly exaggerated.”

On June 2, 1897, the New York Journal reported: “Mark Twain was undecided whether to be more amused or annoyed when a ‘Journal’ representative informed him to-day of the report in New York that he was dying of poverty in London.” Assuming readers that Twain was living comfortably – in “luxury,” even – in a lovely Chelsea home, where he was finishing a travelogue, the article continued: “The great humorist, while not perhaps very robust, is in the best of health.”

Twain explained to the inquiring journalist that his cousin, James Ross Clemens, had been in London in preceding weeks and was decidedly unwell, and no doubt the confusion between one Clemens and another had led to the rumor. He claimed no offense at having been presumed dead (actual quote: “The report of my death was an exaggeration”), but, well, poor? He continued, “The report of my poverty is harder to deal with.”

Less known but perhaps even pithier was P.T. Barnum’s response to an odd fan letter: Barnum’s biographer Arthur Saxon relates that one J.A. McGonagle had written Barnum to let him know that, at least in the vicinity of Cherokee, Iowa, rumors had spread that the showman was believed dead. Perhaps he could reply to prove otherwise? Whether this was a genuine inquiry or a hamfisted autograph request, Barnum obliged, writing succinctly:

Bridgeport, 21 July 1880

Dear Sir,

Your letter of inquiry is received. My impression is that I am not dead.

P.T. Barnum

This was neither the first nor only such rumor to attach to Barnum: during 1884, James Bailey freaked out reading reports of his partner’s death in the Paris newspapers, frantically cabling a colleague to ask if it was really true. Two years later the idea had not kicked the bucket (and neither had Barnum) and he was still pressed to reassure friends, partners and ticket buyers that he was still breathing. In a particularly poetic turn, Barnum would later solicit his own genuine obituary ahead of time, claiming in his waning days to want to know how folks would talk about him when he was gone. The New York Evening Sun granted his request.

Fun Facts:

Death hoaxing ain’t just for humans, either: newspaper coverage of a 1928 dog show noted that cut-throat competitors had gone so far as to send a fake telegrammed death notice for a particularly favored collie.

On April 14, 1945, the New York Times reported on a rash of death rumors after the (actual) passing of Franklin D. Roosevelt, with gossips and crank-callers claiming Frank Sinatra, Charlie Chaplin, Babe Ruth, Jack Benny, Errol Flynn and Mayor LaGuardia had all died.

An April 2017 Willie Nelson song called “Still Not Dead” pokes fun at the whole concept, the singer having been hounded in 2015 by a series of online death claims. The song is accompanied by a video in which Nelson cheekily sings that “the gardener did not find me that way,” while wearing a weed-emblazoned Christmas sweater. (This didn’t stop people, in August 2017, from once again claiming online that he was dead.)

In 2003, a hosting/computer glitch allowed public access to a CNN development server hosting many of the network’s pre-staged obituaries, leading to the impression that Dick Cheney, Ronald Reagan, Bob Hope, Fidel Castro, Pope John Paul II, Nelson Mandela, and Gerald Ford had died on the very same day. This particular leak opened the door on the editorial practice of pre-writing notable figures’ obituaries.

Social media delights in the death fake-out, trivializing death with claims that any number of A-list celebs have died suddenly. Many are the works of “Fake A Wish” or Media Mass, online content generators that create fake death notices for the celebrity of one’s choice. (In the celebrity death hoax universe, falling off a cliff and snowboarding are both popular.) The site proprietors claim that it’s all in good fun, and that with very limited exception, most celebs either don’t care or don’t mind the attention.

Additional Reading:

Elizabeth Greenwood, Playing Dead: A Journey Through the World of Death Fraud

Joanna Ebenstein, Death: A Graveside Companion

Caitlin Doughty, From Here to Eternity