Example: [Sunday Mercury, 17 December 2000]
BOSSES of a publishing firm are trying to work out why
George Turklebaum, 51, who had been employed as a proof-reader at a New York firm for
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
'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 proof-reading manuscripts of medical textbooks when he died.
Variations: In March 2001, a slightly-rewritten version began circulating on the Internet, this one transforming dear dead George into a geologist working for an oil company in Calgary, Alberta. One especially adorable difference between this version and the earlier incarnation is the closing comment by Turklebaum's boss, Elliot Wachiaski, which attempts to explain why no one noticed Turklebaum's deceasitude: "Besides he was a geologist, they never really do much anyway."
Origins: What a fable for
So of course people took to the story of dead-but-undiscovered George Turklebaum, which the Birmingham [England] Sunday Mercury claimed to have broken when it reported his death as a "Crazy Worlds" item on
The Sunday Mercury's Crazy World spots are compiled by journalist Keith Chalkley — a man with a Midas touch for finding strange
Keith said: 'I was first alerted to George's story by a New York radio station I broadcast to.
'But New York police, to whom I spoke, say the case isn't as odd as people might think.
'In 1975, an insurance clerk with a firm in Manhattan died in his workplace — and it was
- Even though the supposed bucket-kicking took place in
New York,it wasn't reported in any American newspaper at the time of Turklebaum's demise. Forget about an obituary showing up; not even a news report about an unnamed dead person discovered sitting at a desk for five days made the news. New Yorkpapers aren't so jaded that they wouldn't run such an item if they'd been alerted to one. (Several other foolhardy publications later printed the same story, having convinced themselves that its appearance in a British paper constituted diligent fact checking, but those accounts shouldn't be confused with contemporaneous news reports of a man's death.)
- This item came from only a few sources (who ran essentially the same story), all of them in England, even though the death supposedly occurred in New York City.
- The identification of the dead man's employer was too vague (a "publishing firm" in
New York)to allow for verification.
- The Sunday Mercury's source for the story was said to be "a
New Yorkradio station," which is not exactly the most reliable of sources. (Just think of how much misinformation Paul Harvey has spread via the radio over the years, all by himself.)
- Even the Sunday Mercury didn't say that New York police actually confirmed the story; only that they maintained "the case isn't as odd as people might think." (As it turned out, even the police quote wasn't really a quote at all, but a line taken from a made-up tabloid story.)
- A spokesperson at the New York Medical Examiner's office neither remembered the case nor was able to turn up information on the death of anyone named Turklebaum for 1999 or 2000.
- A search of the Social Security Death Index unearthed no information about anyone named Turklebaum.
- Last but not least, the process of decomposition of human remains is such that a dead body could not have sat unnoticed for five days unless it were in a sealed, completely unused area of a building.
The Turklebaum saga is a prime example of why we stress repeatedly that the appearance of a news story in one or more newspapers (even respected publications such as the London Times) is no guarantee of its truthfulness. Extraordinary news requires extraordinary documentation, which is something more than a bevy of newspapers simply running the same unsourced piece.
The passing of people who have died at their desks hasn't always been discovered immediately, but at no time has there been a
In January 2004 several news outlets picked up a similar story from the Finnish tabloid Ilta-Sanomat, which claimed that a tax office official in Finland died at his desk, but his death went unnoticed by up to
Sightings: A June 2000 Conseco television commercial anticipated (and maybe even have inspired) this fake news story about George Turklebaum. The ad showed an unmoving man wearing sunglasses seated at a desk. Throughout the day various assignments were placed on his desk and then picked up, completed, and dropped back at his desk by
Last updated: 16 February 2011
Beatty, Jim. "We Started It! World Goes Crazy for George E-Mail." [Birmingham] Sunday Mercury. 28 January 2001. Buse, Uwe. "Der Scheintote." Der Spiegel. 14 May 2001 (p. 72) Norman, Matthew. "Diary." The Guardian. 15 January 2001. Robidoux, Carol. "The Legend of George Turklebaum: An American Tragedy." The Bucks County Courier Times. 31 March 2001. BBC News. "Finns Miss Death in Tax Office." 19 January 2004. [Birmingham] Sunday Mercury. "Worker Dead at Desk for 5 Days." 17 December 2000. KTLA News. "L.A. County Employee Dead in Cubicle a Day Before Being Noticed." 15 February 2011. Weekly World News. "Dead Man Works for a Week!" 5 December 2000.