These folks, falsely declared dead, came out stronger on the other side.
1. Betty Robinson
At the 1928 Olympic Games in Amsterdam, Betty Robinson, a 16-year-old student from Riverdale, Ill., won a gold medal in the 100-meter dash and a silver medal as part of the 100-meter relay team. But her most impressive athletic achievement would come eight years later, when she staged one of the greatest comebacks in sports history.
In 1931, Robinson was flying in a small biplane with her cousin when they crashed near Chicago. After she was pulled from the wreckage, emergency workers declared her dead. Her body was placed in the trunk of a car and driven to a mortician, who realized that she was still alive. Robinson had suffered a concussion, a broken leg, a cracked hip, and a crushed arm. She would spend a total of seven months in a coma, followed by another six in a wheelchair.
Miraculously, after just three years, Robinson was able to walk again. And before long, she was running. Within three years, she’d resumed training and was up to her previous speed. But because she couldn’t bend her knees enough to crouch in the official starting position, she wasn’t qualified to compete in most races. She could still pass a baton, though. So, at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, she was allowed to be the third runner in the 100-meter relay team. Although the German team led for most of the race, their final runner dropped the baton, and the U.S. team sprinted ahead to win by eight yards. Just five years after she’d been delivered to the undertaker, Robinson won her second Olympic gold.
2. Edward V. Rickenbacker
Edward Vernon Rickenbacker was an ace fighter pilot and one of America’s most dashing heroes. During World War II, he was sent to deliver a message to General Douglas MacArthur, who was leading the Pacific campaign from New Guinea. But in October of 1942, tragedy struck when Rickenbacker’s B-17 went down somewhere in the Pacific Ocean. After weeks of searching for his body, newspapers declared the war hero dead.
Twenty-four days after the accident, Rickenbacker and six of his companions were found alive, floating on a raft in the middle the ocean. Headlines nicknamed the pilot “Ironman Eddie” and “That Indestructible Man of Aviation.” Rickenbacker was thankful to have survived, but the weeks of starvation and dehydration had token a toll on his physical and emotional health. He and his men had to watch, helpless, as one of their ranks died aboard the raft. After Rickenbacker returned to health, he set about making certain that no soldier suffered such pain again. He used his fame to encourage the U.S. Air Force to design new life rafts equipped with radios and emergency supplies. Fittingly, they became known as “Rickenbackers.”
But Rickenbacker’s work was far from over. He also used his influence to gather a group of leading American scientists, whom he charged with finding a practical means of desalinating seawater. They soon developed a pill that would make a small quantity of seawater drinkable, and the U.S. Navy distributed it to all sailors. For the remaining years of his life, Rickenbacker campaigned tirelessly to find a better way to take the salt out of water. “Water is our greatest life-giving natural resource,” he wrote in his 1967 autobiography. “By desalinating water from the great oceans we can, without building huge reservoirs and inundating more land, irrigate the deserts and feed half a billion more people.” Although he’s best remembered as a war hero, Rickenbacker was also one of the world’s first environmental warriors.
3. Sherlock Holmes
In 1893, after six years of writing Sherlock Holmes stories, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle decided to kill off his most popular character. “For some while now,” he wrote in a letter to his mother, “I’ve been tiring of my detective creation.” And so, in The Adventure of the Final Problem, Holmes plunges to his death at Switzerland’s Reichenbach Falls in a final struggle with his nemesis, Professor James Moriarty.
To say that readers were shocked by the detective’s demise is to put it mildly. Many wrote abusive letters to Doyle; others wore black armbands in mourning. Even Queen Victoria was reportedly offended, personally asking Conan Doyle to bring back the legendary detective. “I was amazed at the concern expressed by the public,” wrote Doyle. “They say that a man is never properly appreciated until he is dead, and the general protest against my summary execution of Holmes taught me how many and how numerous were his friends.”
It wasn’t long before Doyle bowed to public pressure. In 1901, he wrote The Hound of the Baskervilles, a new Holmes story that takes place before the hero’s dramatic downfall. But that wasn’t good enough for the mystery-loving public; fans wanted Holmes alive. Caving once again to his readers’ demands, Doyle resurrected the detective (and received a record sum of money from his publishers in return). In the first of these stories, The Adventure of the Empty House, Holmes explains that he’d flung Moriarty down Reichenbach Falls and faked his own death to escape his enemy’s henchmen. With a satisfied fan base back on board, Doyle continued to write Sherlock Holmes adventures for decades, stopping only three years before his own death in 1930.
4. Samuel Coleridge
In 1813, poet and playwright Samuel Taylor Coleridge was riding a professional high. His play Remorse: A Tragedy in Five Acts was a hit at London theaters, and he was enjoying critical and financial success. But instead of writing a follow-up, Coleridge disappeared for six months.
He was known to suffer from depression and opium addiction, and many worried that the poet was dead. In the spring of that year, a newspaper reported Coleridge’s suicide. According to the story, a man had been found hanging from a tree, and although he had no means of identification, his shirt was marked “S. T. Coleridge.”
A few days later, Coleridge was sitting in a hotel café when he heard the news of his death. When he read the newspaper report, he smiled and quipped that he was probably the first man “to hear of a lost shirt in this way.”
Where had Coleridge been all that time? Uncomfortable with his newfound fame, the poet had retreated into his opium habit. He’d been quietly getting high in the countryside and avoiding his friends and family. But the false death announcement served as a wake-up call, and Coleridge began writing again. Within three years, he’d published his most popular verse, “Kubla Khan.”
5. Nikki Sixx
In the 1980s, Mötley Crüe bassist and songwriter Nikki Sixx was the poster boy for rock ‘n’ roll excess. “I was the only one in the band without a family, a girlfriend, a wife, or any prospects, and I was too smacked out to care,” he said. “I felt like the McDonald’s of rock ‘n’ roll; my life was disposable.” One night in London in 1986, he passed out in his drug dealer’s apartment after injecting heroin and was left for dead. He later woke up, reportedly in a dumpster.
Yet, it would take an even more shocking near-death experience for Sixx to change his ways. After another heroin overdose in December 1987, Sixx was incorrectly declared dead in an ambulance while being rushed to L.A.’s Cedars Sinai Medical Center.
Word of his alleged passing leaked to the press. When he came to in the hospital, a terrified Sixx ripped the tubes out of his nose and fled, wearing only his leather pants. In the parking lot, he found two teenage fans in mourning, who—once they’d gotten over the shock of seeing him alive—gave him a ride home. In the car, he heard reports of his death on the radio that included interviews with his friends and family. Soon after, he admitted to the band that he couldn’t control his addiction, entered rehab, and successfully gave up drugs and alcohol.
Sixx’s experience jolted the rest of the band into sobriety, and ironically, temperance made them bigger rock stars than they’d ever been before. Mötley Crüe peaked commercially with the release of its next album, Dr. Feelgood, in 1989. The band attributed the album’s success to their collective push toward clean living.
6. The Biograph Girl
In the early years of the movies, one of the most famous faces of the silver screen was “the Biograph Girl.” The star’s familiar smile always brought in the crowds. But in keeping with the practice of the times, audiences never learned her name. Her anonymity was part of a business model pioneered by Thomas Edison, which was designed to keep movie stars’ egos in check and their salaries down.
All of this changed in 1910, when film distributor Carl Laemmle lured the Biograph Girl to his new studio, promising her fame and fortune. Laemmle wanted to turn the Biograph Girl into a proper celebrity, and he had just the publicity stunt in mind to pull it off. First, he sent out a press report saying that the Biograph Girl had died in a tragic streetcar accident in St. Louis. Her fans barely had time to mourn her death before Laemmle sent out a second notice, revealing that the actress was alive and working exclusively for his studio. More importantly, the report also revealed her identity. The Biograph Girl was a 24-year-old, Canadian-born showgirl named Florence Lawrence.
The PR campaign worked like a charm. A week after Laemmle’s announcement, Lawrence made a public appearance in St. Louis, where she was greeted by crowds larger than those that had greeted President Taft there the previous week. But Florence Lawrence’s career wasn’t the only one elevated to new heights by the publicity stunt. Within the next few years, the cinema started attracting great actors from the stage—people who’d previously thumbed their noses at the pictures, including “the Divine” Sarah Bernhardt. And by 1912, producer Carl Laemmle had founded Universal Studios, one of the most successful production companies in history.
7. Mark Twain
In 1897, famed author and humorist Mark Twain was 61, bankrupt, and living quietly in London. He hadn’t had a major success since A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court eight years earlier, and his recent books had received scathing reviews. Rumors of his financial woes had even spread across the pond, prompting one New York newspaper to launch a charity fund in his name. (Twain asked them to close the fund.)
Then, in May of 1897, the editor of a major newspaper in New York heard that Twain was seriously ill, perhaps even dead, and dispatched a young reporter to probe for details. In response to the investigation, Twain famously quipped, “The report of my death was an exaggeration.” Like a 19th-century Tweet, the line went viral, and newspapers around the world joyously reported the news that both Twain and his sense of humor were still kicking. Once the author was back in the spotlight, people started buying his books again, and Twain’s finances rapidly improved.
Strangely, that wasn’t the last time Twain’s passing would be inaccurately reported. A decade later, The New York Times reported that the author was lost at sea and possibly dead, again. The next day, Twain, who was safely on dry land, wrote in to the paper. “I will make an exhaustive investigation of this report that I have been lost at sea,” he joked. “If there is any foundation for the report, I will at once apprise the anxious public.” For the remaining three years of Mark Twain’s life, no one else falsely reported his passing.
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