You might think that the death of a famous person would be relatively easy to double check before reporting it—but you would be wrong. For hundreds of years, the news has been jumping the gun on the deaths of some of our most celebrated personalities, so these 11 all had the surreal experience of reading their own obituaries.
1. Mark Twain
Twain is the most famous person to have had his death reported incorrectly, but the story most of us think we know is actually a combination of two. In 1897, his cousin was dying and a reporter, mixing up his Twains, sent an inquiry to Twain’s publisher asking if he had passed yet, but was corrected before an obituary ran. It was when retelling this story that Twain wrote his famous (though often misquoted) line, “The report of my death was an exaggeration.”
Ten years later, Twain actually did get a premature obituary of sorts published. While he was yachting, the waters his boat was supposed to be in became rough, and the air foggy. The New York Times published a piece saying it was likely he had been lost at sea. The next day Twain, whose boat hadn’t set off yet, got to rebuff the article with one of his own.
2. Alfred Nobel
While the story may be apocryphal, it's said that Nobel decided to start giving his famous prizes after reading about his death in the French papers. His brother had recently died, and at least one publication got confused and announced that the inventor of dynamite had passed on, under the not-at-all subtle headline, “The Merchant of Death Is Dead.” Since Nobel was a pacifist who hated that his discovery was killing people, he was allegedly inspired to rehabilitate his name before his real obituary ran.
3. Titan Leeds
Benjamin Franklin decided to annoy one of his business rivals in 1733 by announcing in Poor Richard’s Almanac that Titan Leeds, the producer of his own almanac, would die at 3:29pm on October 17 of that year. When Leeds didn’t die and made fun of Franklin for that fact in his own almanac, Franklin decided to run an obituary for him anyway. He kept the game up for years, insisting that the real Leeds was dead, and that the man calling himself Leeds had stolen his identity. This meant the real Leeds had to continue to insist he was in fact still alive until he actually did pass away 5 years later, at which point Poor Richard’s ran a note congratulating the “fake” publisher for finally accepting that Leeds was dead.
4. Marcus Garvey
The Jamaican politician is the only person known to have possibly been killed by their premature obituary. In 1940, Garvey suffered a stroke, and his death was reported in a Chicago paper which he happened to read. Unfortunately, the obituary was completely unflattering, saying the once loved man had died “broke, alone and unpopular.” According to legend, the stress of reading about what people really thought of him was so stressful it brought on another stroke, which actually did kill him.
5. Ernest Hemingway
After Hemingway was almost killed in a plane crash in 1954, numerous papers reported his death. Not only was the writer not bothered by this, he is said to have put together a scrapbook of all the obituaries and read them after breakfast every morning while drinking a glass of champagne.
6. Bill Henry
Henry might not be the most famous baseball player of all time, but his career, which included 16 years in the majors and two World Series appearances, was big enough that his death made the national news. And there was no mistake this time—there was a body and everything. Bill Henry was definitely dead.
This probably came as a shock to the real Bill Henry, who heard about his death on the news and after looking into it discovered that the man who had died had stolen his identity. A retired salesman had convinced everyone he was the retired baseball player, including his wife of 19 years, who said he even used to go to elementary schools and talk about his sports career.
7. Joe DiMaggio
In 1999, the baseball great was watching a movie in his home with his friend Morris Engelberg. He stopped the movie to do something at almost the exact moment that an NBC news crawl announced he had just died. The crawl only ran once and a retraction was issued 20 minutes later, so it was astonishing DiMaggio had seen it live. Engelberg reported that his friend was furious at first but calmed down when he started joking about them both being in heaven together.
8. Samuel Taylor Coleridge
In 1816, the famous poet was minding his own business at a hotel, enjoying a coffee, when he heard the men at the table next to him discussing his recent suicide. The paper they were reading had reported he had hanged himself. Coleridge asked to read the article and then announced who he was. In typical polite English fashion the men were mostly concerned they might have hurt his feelings by talking about his death in such a way.
9. The CNN Incident
If CNN had their way, April 16, 2003 would have been one of the most tragic days in history. That day their website announced the deaths of, among others, Fidel Castro, Dick Cheney, Nelson Mandela, Bob Hope, Gerald Ford, Pope John Paul II, and Ronald Reagan. While the sheer number of people listed as having just died should have been a clue something was wrong, the incident is also a good example of why you should always read the actual article. While the headlines may have looked accurate, the information in them was decidedly not, since most of the obituaries were just templates that borrowed text from others, specifically the late Queen Mother. This resulted in Dick Cheney being memorialized as “the UK’s favorite grandmother.”
10. Pope John Paul II
The late pope may have been the only person to have his death falsely announced three times during his lifetime. In 1981, CNN anchors referred to him repeatedly as if he was deceased after he had been shot. The same network again announced his death as part of their 2003 incident (above). Finally someone else got it wrong, although FOX was much closer; they announced the pope was dead on his actual date of death, but they jumped the gun by several hours after failing to confirm their source’s information was correct.
11. Lal Bihari
While he may not have read an actual obituary, the falsely reported death of this Indian farmer had a bigger effect on his life than anyone else on this list. When Bihari went to apply for a bank loan in 1975, he discovered that officially he was not alive and therefore did not qualify for any money. It seemed a relative had paid off a government official to register Bihari as deceased in order to steal his farmland.
Despite being very much alive, and even running for public office in 1989, it took this poor farmer 19 years of activism on behalf of himself and others who had also been falsely declared deceased before he was finally declared alive again.