7 Premature Obituaries and Death Rumors

"Greatly exaggerated" obits and death rumors happen all the time

Steve Jobs
Apple CEO Steve Jobs at the iPhone launch in London, England, September 18, 2007. Photo © Jon Furniss/Wireimage/Getty Images

It's not unusual for someone to imagine how family members, friends, and other loved ones might react if he or she was no longer living -- as famously depicted in Frank Capra's holiday classic It's a Wonderful Life. For a surprising number of people, however, this idea actually became reality. This article offers seven examples of real people who lived to see the premature publication of their obituary or death notice or faced "greatly exaggerated" rumors of their demise.

P.T. Barnum (1810-1891)

Co-founder of the "Greatest Show on Earth," the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus, Phineas Taylor Barnum definitely had a talent for making a buck from the public's gullibility. In 1842, for example, he opened Barnum's American Museum in New York City, New York, which featured the "Feejee Mermaid" (the supposedly embalmed corpse of a "real" mermaid). He also charged patrons a 25-cent re-entrance fee for accidentally leaving the building because they ignorantly followed the museum's many "This way to the egress" signs. (Egress means exit.)

Because the master showman once publicly noted that the press says nice things about people after they die, The New York Sun deliberately published Barnum's obituary on its front page after learning that he had suffered a stroke and ended up bedridden. The newspaper's headline read: "Great And Only Barnum -- He Wanted To Read His Obituary -- Here It Is." Barnum died a few weeks later on April 7, 1891.

Kirk Douglas (1916- )

It is common practice for media outlets to prepare written obituaries for notable figures before they die. Obviously, these obits do not include the cause of death or the death date, but having everything else ready -- such as biographical information, notable achievements, etc.

-- helps a magazine, newspaper or website get the word out quickly when the inevitable occurs. It is also common practice to emblazon the words "DO NOT PUBLISH" atop these prewritten obits to prevent their public release.

Unfortunately, and despite its widely reported blunder in 1982 (see "Abe Vigoda" below), People magazine found itself at the center of a very public faux pas when it accidentally published the prewritten obituary of legendary actor Kirk Douglas online, November 30, 2014. Despite suffering a stroke in 1996, the man famed for portraying Spartacus was very much alive and in good health at age 97.

After discovering the error, the magazine quickly removed the obit from its website -- but not before social-media users feasted on the gaff, particularly the fact that the prematurely published obituary's title still read: "DO NOT PUB Kirk Douglas Dies."

Steve Jobs (1955-2011)

As mentioned above, media outlets commonly prepare obituaries in advance for notable people, and few individuals have reached the level of global renown held by Apple CEO Steve Jobs. The embodiment of the American Dream for millions of aspiring entrepreneurs, Jobs transformed a small computer manufacturing business operating in his parents' garage into a multi-billion-dollar powerhouse that radically influenced existing product markets, such as home computers and mobile phones, or essentially created new ones, such as digital music players and tablet computers.

Thus, when Jobs appeared onstage at a software-developer conference in June 2008 looking pale and significantly thinner, rumors ran rampant that the Apple wunderkind had suffered a cancer relapse. (Jobs was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2003 but underwent a successful operation the following year.) Presumably, numerous media outlets worldwide hearing these rumors updated their prewritten Steve Jobs obituaries at this time, but Bloomberg News accidentally released its version on August 27, 2008.

Bloomberg quickly retracted its story and, embarrassed, later issued this generic explanation: An incomplete story referencing Apple Inc. was inadvertently published by Bloomberg News at 4:27 p.m. New York time today. The item was never meant for publication and has been retracted.

James Earl Jones (1931- )

Even if you happen to forget what he looks like, you will probably never forget the distinctively deep voice of actor James Earl Jones. Despite appearing in a host of Broadway, television and film roles throughout his career -- including his Oscar-nominated performance in The Great White Hope -- most people will remember him for his off-camera, voice-only work, such as Mufasa in The Lion King, and as Darth Vader in the first three installments of the Star Wars movie franchise.

Unfortunately, on April 23, 1998, radio broadcaster Lanny Frattare apparently forgot not only the actor's face and voice but also his name. While providing the radio description of a Pittsburgh Pirates baseball game, breaking news reached him that the man convicted of the 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. had died in prison. Passing this information on to listeners, Frattare confused the killer's name, James Earl Ray, with that of the actor and reported the death of James Earl Jones.

Ironically, the tables were turned in 2002 when the actor's hometown in Florida mistakenly installed a commemorative plaque in his honor that read: "Thank you James Earl Ray for keeping the dream alive." The plaque was quickly removed and the error blamed on a "non-English-speaking employee" who supposedly misread the order.

Paul McCartney (1942- )

Dubbed "The cute Beatle" by the media, bassist, and songwriter Paul McCartney surely understood the endless, intense public fascination with his every move as a member of the Fab Four following the "British Invasion" of America in the early 1960s. That said, he probably never anticipated the pervasive rumors that would arise due to Beatlemania a few years later surrounding his supposed death.

Triggered in January 1967 after an automobile accident on a London highway, rumors that McCartney had died during the crash seized fans in England's capital city. The strength of these claims actually forced the group's official fan-club magazine to publish a rebuttal the following month under the headline "False Rumour."

Two years later, as tensions within the band swirled and a Beatles break-up appeared imminent, a disc jockey in Detroit, Michigan, received a call from a listener who claimed that 1968's The Beatles double album [also known as The White Album] contained clues that McCartney had indeed died in that automobile accident. When played backward, the caller insisted, certain songs contained lyrics expressing "Paul is a dead man," "Turn me on, dead man," etc.

The band's next album, Abbey Road, released in 1969, further fueled the death rumors because of its cover image, which shows the quartet crossing a street with only McCartney out-of-step and lacking shoes (among numerous other "Paul is dead" interpretations). Unbelievably, the idea that McCartney died in 1967 just won't go away. Britain's The Daily Mirror published an article in March 2015 detailing "7 completely legit signs" that McCartney really died in the 1960s!

Mark Twain (1835-1910)

The prolific American author Samuel Langhorne Clemens, a.k.a. Mark Twain, experienced a premature report of his death that resulted in one of history's most memorable quotations. This occurred in 1897 when Twain's cousin, James Clemens, suffered a life-threatening illness while visiting London. For reasons unknown, the editor of the New York Journal newspaper thought the renowned author had fallen gravely ill and sent a reporter to verify if Twain still clung to life, or when he had died.

Apparently amused at the mix-up, the author penned a note for the reporter to take home explaining that his cousin had fallen ill a few weeks earlier, but later recovered. Twain concluded the missive with the line: "The report of my illness grew out of his illness; the report of my death was an exaggeration."

About 10 years later, while writing a recollection of this event for publication, Twain enhanced his original reply by adding the word "greatly" to his final line, i.e., "The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated" -- the version most often cited or paraphrased today.

Abe Vigoda (1921-2016)

Perhaps best known for his role as the traitorous mobster Sal Tessio in 1972's The Godfather, New York City-born Abraham Charles Vigoda has worked in front of T.V. and movie cameras for decades. His career longevity and/or his naturally tired appearance, however, might have contributed to the premature report of his death when People magazine erroneously published a story in 1982 about the cast-party held after the Barney Miller T.V. series ended. The article referred to "the late" Vigoda, possibly to explain why the actor who portrayed Detective Phil Fish was not at this party. (Vigoda was actually performing in Canada at the time.)

After a second premature report of his demise five years later, the question of whether Vigoda remains alive or not entered American pop consciousness and eventually spawned a website devoted solely to informing visitors about his current life-or-death status: www.abevigoda.com. When the actor died on January 26, 2016, the website immediately updated Vigoda's status.

Related Articles You Might Like:
5 Tips for Writing a Successful Eulogy
The Dying Words of Actors & Actresses
101 Euphemisms for Dead, Death or Dying

"P.T. Barnum." www.ringling.com. Retrieved August 22, 2015. http://www.ringling.com/ContentPage.aspx?id=45831&section=45825

"People magazine accidentally publishes Kirk Douglas obituary online" by Philip Caulfield, December 1, 2014. New York Daily News. Retrieved August 22, 2015. http://www.nydailynews.com/entertainment/gossip/people-magazine-accidentally-publishes-kirk-douglas-obituary-article-1.2028858

"Bloomberg mistakenly publishes Steve Jobs obituary" by Caroline McCarthy, August 28, 2008. Retrieved August 23, 2015. http://www.cnet.com/news/bloomberg-mistakenly-publishes-steve-jobs-obituary

Morbid Curiosity: The Disturbing Demises of the Famous and Infamous by Alan Petrucelli, 2009. Retrieved August 24, 2015. https://books.google.com/books?id=r7csXXH7S9UC&pg=PT127

"Luther King assassin honoured by mistake" by Philip Delves Broughton, January 17, 2002. The Telegraph. Retrieved August 25, 2015. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/northamerica/usa/1381829/Luther-King-assassin-honoured-by-mistake.html

"The Man Who Killed Paul McCartney" by Jim Yoakum, May/June 2000. Gadfly. Retrieved August 24, 2015. http://www.gadflyonline.com/archive/MayJune00/archive-mccartney.html

The Quote Verifier: Who Said What, Where, and When by Ralph Keyes, 2007. Retrieved August 26, 2015. https://books.google.com/books?id=d6JZryGvfxYC&pg=PA42

"Abe Vigoda is still alive, thank you very much" by Todd Leopold, September 23, 2008. CNN. Retrieved August 26, 2015. http://www.cnn.com/2008/SHOWBIZ/Movies/09/23/abe.vigoda/index.html

Continue Reading