George Turklebaum, R.I.P.

Did a man lay dead at his desk for 5 days before coworkers noticed?

Business man leaning head on desk in office
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Reports published in the British press and passed around on the internet claim that George Turklebaum, allegedly a proofreader in a New York publishing firm, lay stone-dead in his office chair for five days before his co-workers realized it. This has aroused skepticism.

In England, the item has appeared in the Birmingham Sunday Mercury, the Daily Mail, the Guardian, the Times of London, and even on the BBC, but American newspapers have, by and large, not seen fit to propagate it.

Death a Dull, Dreary Affair

Here's a version received via forwarded email on January 12, 2001:

Subject: Fw: Look out for your coworkers
In the Birmingham Sunday Mercury (7th Jan 2001):
Worker dead at desk for 5 days
Bosses of a publishing firm are trying to work out why no one noticed that one of their employees had been sitting dead at his desk for FIVE DAYS before anyone asked if he was feeling okay.
George Turklebaum, 51, who had been employed as a proof-reader at a New York firm for 30 years, had a heart attack in the open-plan office he shared with 23 other workers. He quietly passed away on Monday, but nobody noticed until Saturday morning when an office cleaner asked why he was still working during the weekend.
His boss Elliot Wachiaski said: "George was always the first guy in each morning and the last to leave at night, so no one found it unusual that he was in the same position all that time and didn't say anything. He was always absorbed in his work and kept much to himself."
A post mortem examination revealed that he had been dead for five days after suffering a coronary. Ironically, George was proofreading manuscripts of medical textbooks when he died.
... You may want to give your co-workers a nudge occasionally.

Surely, this is the kind of scenario Somerset Maugham envisioned when he said, "Death is a very dull, dreary affair."

No Telltale Symptoms

But let's be scientific. Medical examiners say that within three days after a person dies, the corpse should exhibit obvious signs of decay: swelling, discoloration, fluid leakage, and that distinctive "odor of death." It's unlikely those telltale symptoms would have gone unnoticed by Turklebaum's fellow employees on into the fifth-day postmortem.

Be that as it may, the Birmingham Sunday Mercury stands by its account. Defiantly.

"We reported in December that New Yorker George Turklebaum had died at work — but none of his colleagues noticed for FIVE days," a follow-up article says. "We estimate that international interest in poor George's woeful tale means that more than 100,000 emails have now been sent from office worker to office worker."

"Of course the story is true," the Mercury continues — never mind that the New York City white pages don't list a single Turklebaum in the entire metropolitan area; the item came from a reliable source, a Big Apple radio station.

Who Scooped Whom?

It's interesting to find the Sunday Mercury bragging as if it scooped the story, given that its first published report was dated December 17, yet The Guardian had already run a shorter version two days before.

Among the colorful details, we find in the Mercury's rendition is this closing tag: "Ironically, George was proofreading manuscripts of medical textbooks when he died."

Is the phrase "too good to be true" ringing in your ears?

In any case, the Mercury does have it right when it boasts that Turklebaum-mania had swept the Internet. True or not, the story resonates with disaffected office workers everywhere. As one email correspondent put it, the tale bespeaks "a universal fear of being ignored (and unappreciated) in the workplace."

Not to mention a universal fascination with the macabre, and the unlikely.

Update #1: Weekly World News

After the above comments were published, the Birmingham Mercury offered an alternative explanation of where the Turklebaum story originated, claiming it was culled from the pages of the Weekly World News, a supermarket tabloid renowned in the U.S. for its outrageous, credulity-defying "scoops" concerning human females impregnated by space aliens and the like. We have since confirmed that the item did, in fact, appear in the December 5, 2000 issue of WWN under the headline "Dead Man Works for a Week," then again on June 3, 2003, headlined, "Man Dies at Desk — And Nobody Notices for 5 Days."

Update #2: Life Imitates Tabloids

Via BBC News: In January 2004, the Finnish tabloid Ilta-Sanomat reported — as factual — that a tax auditor in his late sixties keeled over at his desk in the Helsinki tax office and his dead body went undiscovered by co-workers for two days.