There's a reason why so many biopics suck -- most of them end with "and then he got old and died," which is a pretty unoriginal third act as far as stories go. No, the famous life stories that stick in your mind are the ones that end on a dramatic note, like John Lennon (shot by a crazed fan), or Princess Diana (chased by paparazzi), or Hugh Hefner (smothered by giant fake boobies, inevitably).
However, it turns out that some of the most famously juicy, ironic, or poetic deaths ever were nothing like they told you. For example ...
Charles Darwin's theory of evolution has many detractors, but as millions of evangelical Christians can tell you, perhaps the most notorious was ... Charles Darwin himself. As the story goes, when Darwin grew ill, he turned to religion and began studying the Bible. On his deathbed, he met up with a British evangelist and confided to her that he regretted his past work, saying, "I was a young man with unformed ideas." It's a powerful story about how even the most intellectual skeptic can change his beliefs when confronted with death.
"I also renounce beards. Bring me a razor! Banish this wretched thing from my face!"
But Actually ...
Not only has Darwin's family denied the story, but there's no reason to believe it's true.
Keep in mind that Darwin started out religious and turned less so as he got older, eventually becoming an agnostic, as he was at the time of his death. His last words were "I am not the least afraid to die." Also remember that Darwin's wife, Emma, was religious herself and would have delighted in her husband's conversion, yet she never mentioned anything of the sort. So where did the rumor come from? Well, let's put it this way: It wasn't exactly an unbiased source.
"And then Darwin was all 'God's the bomb, yo! Let's dunk some shit.' And then we totally dunked some shit."
The story came from an evangelist named Lady Hope, who claimed that Darwin recanted his beliefs while she was visiting him. First, even among evangelists, Hope, whose real name was Elizabeth Cotton, wasn't well-trusted. Second, while she published more than 30 books filled with evangelistic themes and personal anecdotes, she never mentioned the Darwin story until 1915, 33 years after the man's death. According to her own telling, Darwin urged her to spread the word of Jesus among his tenants, servants, and neighbors ... yet not a single person confirmed that she was even there.
Who could forget that lovely hat, or those empty, soulless eyes?
Oh, and there's also the fact that Darwin wasn't even bedridden on the date she claimed to have visited him, six months before his death.
It's easy to see why the story got traction in religious circles. The guy who came up with evolution didn't even believe in it? That ought to end any message board debate on the subject right there! And to be fair, the most respected creationist organizations agree that Hope was full of shit. Maybe she thought she was serving a higher purpose by making up stuff, but claiming that the man disavowed his life's work, and that only she was there to hear it? That's a dick move, lady.
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This is one you've probably heard in the form of a joke, if nothing else. The fact that Walt Disney had his head (or entire body) cryogenically frozen turned up in episodes of The Simpsons and 30 Rock ("Go to Disneyland? Lemon, I've held Walt Disney's frozen head in my hands!"). The Weekly World News even once claimed that Walt's frozen head had been stolen.
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The thieves were never heard from again.
It's strangely plausible. Walt Disney was as eccentric as he was rich -- if anyone could defeat death via some kind of forward-thinking brain-freezing technology, it was him. And in fact, some biographies of Disney claim that when Disney learned he had lung cancer, he decided to have his remains preserved in a cryogenic chamber in the hopes that one day in the future, technology would be able to bring him back to life (with robot parts, if necessary). And he's still there, they say, frozen in some secret location to be resurrected in 2040 to wreak vengeance on us all.
But Actually ...
If Disney is frozen in some chamber, then who the hell is buried here?
Note that this grave isn't conveniently placed right next to a power generator.
There are a number of silly myths surrounding Walt Disney, like that he was anti-Semitic, or a pervert, or the actual creator of Mickey Mouse. The whole "frozen corpse" thing is just another one of them, unfortunately. There isn't a single piece of evidence to support it. In fact, the exact opposite thing happened: We have Walt Disney's death certificate saying that he was cremated.
So now we can never ask him what the fuck Goofy is.
It's true that Disney had no funeral, but only because he'd previously stated that he didn't want one (as published in interviews 10 years before his death). It's also true that a couple of his biographies mention this story as fact, but they also happen to be the most bullshit-filled Disney biographies ever published. One of them sources the story to Disney's "closest colleagues," who ended up being employees that never spoke to the man about the subject and were just repeating the old myth.
Marc Eliot via Wikipedia
Half the quotes are sourced to one "H. Horsecollar."
Nobody is sure where the rumor started, but it probably has to do with the fact that news of the first for-real frozen dead guy came out a month after Disney's death, and also the fact that he was rich and crazy. It sounded like something he would do, and it made for a fitting ending for such a larger-than-life personality. Who knows, maybe if Disney had lived a month longer, he would have read about that guy in the paper and liked the idea, but in reality, he probably never even knew cryogenics was a thing.
General Photographic Agency / Stringer / Getty
"I apologize for not being some kind of comic book supervillain."
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Everyone knows the name "Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart" now, but he was never appreciated in his own era. After all, isn't that the way it goes with most real geniuses? Mozart's operas failed, and he was hated in Vienna because his music was too ahead of its time. Consequently, he died a poor man and was buried as such -- in a ditch. In the film Amadeus, we see how they literally dump his corpse into an unmarked mass grave with other poverty-stricken nobodies.
"Let's just leave him over here with Da Vinci, Copernicus, and Pete the Hand Job Hobo."
But Actually ...
While it's more romantic to think of Mozart as some misunderstood genius, the truth is that he was by no means a starving artist. He got himself into quite a bit of debt, sure, but his income was around 10,000 florins a year, which put him in the top 5 percent of the population. Mozart's concerts and piano lessons gave him a steady source of wealth, and his last opera, The Magic Flute, was a huge success.
As was the actual "magic flute" it was based on (with the ladies).
As for his burial, several sources state that he was buried in a "communal grave," but this is apparently a mistranslation: He was actually buried in a common grave, which is to say, "not a fancy one." In 18th century Vienna, it was the custom for middle-class people to be buried in plots they didn't own, from which they were eventually dug up to make space for others, which is why his body's current whereabouts are unknown. Some biographer probably read about that, thought, "Holy shit, that's fucked up," and exaggerated it just a tiny bit ... so we ended up with "they threw him in a ditch."
In Amadeus, we see Mozart begging for money and unable to impress his father. In reality, Mozart's dad was bragging in letters about how much money his son was making. So he wasn't exactly an unappreciated artist who suffered all his life -- he was more like the Michael Bolton of the 1700s: a popular artist who had some huge hits, but wasn't a huge deal either.
Mick Hudson / Getty
Who knows what legends will be told about this man, centuries from now?