Death Diaries: 6 People Who Deliberately Recorded Their Own Death

Studio Shot Of Human Skull

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The act of dying is usually a private moment, shared (if the person dying has any choice) with only friends and family. It's unusual for someone to narrate or photograph their own death and thereby produce a public record of it. But that's what we have in the cases gathered here. 

Cases such as these are sometimes described by the media as "death diaries." News stories detail the final thoughts of the person dying with a morbid fascination. Most often these death diaries are kept by suicide victims, as a kind of grim final farewell. But not always. There are several cases in which the diaries have been kept by researchers who believe that by recording information about their death they're furthering the cause of science.

1936: Cocaine Diary

Edwin Katskee's Wall Notes

Mad Science Museum

On the night of November 25, 1936, Nebraska doctor Edwin Katskee injected himself with a lethal dose of cocaine. On the wall of his office, he then calmly began writing down a clinical account of his symptoms as he died.

In his first notes, he made his intention clear, explaining that he envisioned his suicide as a form of scientific experiment, hoping that by his sacrifice scientists would be able to better understand why some patients had adverse reactions to cocaine (which, at the time, was often used as an anesthetic). But he warned, "I'm not going to repeat the experiment."

The handwriting on the wall grew progressively harder to read as the drug took effect, but the final word he wrote was quite legible. It was the word "Paralysis" followed by a long wavy line tapering down to the floor.

A doctor at the University of Nebraska College of Medicine later examined Katskee's wall notes, but decided they were so disorganized that they had no scientific value at all.

1897: Laudanum Diary

Hands holding old bottle of laudanum


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John Fawcett was a 65-year-old Englishman living in New York. On the morning of April 22, 1897, he sat down beside a pond at the corner of 180th Street and Clinton Avenue in the Bronx and began writing in a small journal, determined to document the final moments of his life. His opening line read, "I have just swallowed an ounce of laudanum, and as soon as I feel its effects coming over me I shall step into the water."

It's not clear what drove Fawcett to suicide, nor why he decided to document the experience, but over the course of several hours, he kept jotting down his thoughts. His most frequent thought — that he was anxious it all be over soon and frustration that the laudanum wasn't taking effect more quickly.

Finally, he penned his last sentence: "Died twenty-four hours after taking one ounce of laudanum." The drug must have distorted his sense of time since, in reality, it could not have been that long since he had taken the laudanum. He was found lying in the pond with the journal in his pocket.

1957: Snakebite Diary

Reptile expert dies after snake bite headline in newspaper

San Rafael Daily Independent Journal

On September 25, 1967, a small South-African boomslang snake bit Dr. Karl Schmidt on the thumb. Schmidt was Curator Emeritus of Zoology at the Chicago Natural History Museum. He had been attempting to identify the snake at the request of a colleague. 

At first, Schmidt and his colleagues thought the bite was nothing to worry about since it was a small snake of a type not known to be dangerous. Nevertheless, in the interest of science Schmidt began writing down his symptoms.

Over the course of the next fifteen hours, Schmidt continued to record what he was experiencing — such as a strong feeling of nausea as he took the train home, followed by the onset of fever and bleeding from the gums. 

The next morning Schmidt seemed to think the worst had passed, and he told his wife to phone the museum and tell his colleagues that he was "feeling pretty good" but had decided to spend the day at home.

He recorded his final notes about his condition soon after 7 a.m. — "Mouth and nose continuing to bleed, but not excessively." Several hours later, he collapsed and was rushed to Ingalls Memorial Hospital where he died.

1950: Myasthenia Gravis Diary

News clipping of Keeps death diary for science

Pottstown Mercury

When Dr. Edward F. Higdon of Missouri learned in 1950 that he was dying of myasthenia gravis, he knew there was no cure. He could only delay the inevitable. But he felt it was his duty to carefully record his symptoms every day, in the hope that the information might somehow help researchers discover a cure.

As it was difficult for him to write, he used a tape recorder to preserve his thoughts (paying careful attention to what he ate, his energy levels, how much he perspired, etc.). A secretary transcribed the daily reports. 

As it turned out, he lived on for another eight years, far longer than he had anticipated, dying in 1958 at the age of 83.

1971: The Diane Arbus Suicide Portfolio

Diane Arbus in 1949

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Photographer Diane Arbus took her life on July 26, 1971 by overdosing on barbiturates and then cutting her wrists. Her body was found two days later. Soon after a rumor began to spread alleging that, before committing suicide, she had set up a camera and tripod and photographed her own death.

The subject matter of her work, which was preoccupied with themes of darkness, horror, and the grotesque, probably inspired the rumor. Photographing her own death just seemed like the kind of thing she might have done.

However, the police never reported finding any suicide photos, and those closest to Arbus have consistently denied the rumor. Nevertheless, the rumor persists, which makes it worth mentioning (though we're not including Arbus in the count of people who recorded their own death).

The rumor served as the inspiration for a short story by science-fiction writer Marc Laidlaw titled "The Diane Arbus Suicide Portfolio."

1995: No Second Take

Train Tracks

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On the morning of November 3, 1995, Renwick Pope of Colorado Springs, CO took his life by laying down across a train track. Before going, he set up a camera on a tripod, apparently intending to photograph the last moment of his life. 

A freight train arrived on schedule at 6:32 a.m. However, the photography didn't work out as planned. The police reported that there was only one photograph on the roll. It showed nothing except the headlight of the approaching train.

1996: Timothy Leary Is Dead

LSD Molecule
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Timothy Leary led an unconventional life. He attracted followers during the 1960s as an advocate of mind-expansion through the use of drugs, particularly LSD. He also had many critics who dismissed him as a charlatan and self-promoter.

In 1995, upon learning that he had inoperable prostate cancer, Leary decided to exit life in a typically unconventional and dramatic manner — by broadcasting his death online. He promised it would be the world's first "visible, interactive suicide," since he planned to take a cocktail of life-ending drugs at some point before the cancer progressed too far.

However, the plan to webcast his death was quietly shelved when he decided he felt too sick to go through with it. His death, on May 31, 1996, was actually recorded on Hi-8 video cameras, but the footage wasn't placed online. As he died, he reportedly muttered the single-word question "Why?" And then repeatedly answered himself, "Why not?".