We’ve all heard the stories and seen the investigators on TV. There are few things in society more interesting than those who faked their own deaths. Whether they wanted to escape the limelight or flee from a life of crime, there are a number of celebrities who faked their death throughout history.
However, there’s a lot at stake when you leave your life behind for a new one, especially if your story is heavily publicized. Instead of finding out what happens when you die, many of these celebrities are caught during their scheme. While they might get fancy celebrity funerals, it turns out faking your own death isn’t a good answer to life’s problems.
No matter the outcome, we can’t help but be fascinated by these stories. Let’s face it—we’ve all thought about leaving life behind during the tough times. Wouldn’t it be easy to just start completely new where nobody knows you? It turns out that faking your death might not be easy as Hollywood makes it seem.
Here are some cautionary tales of famous people who faked their own death—and got caught.
Post-planning tip: While these people played with the idea of death, it often is more real than we'd like to admit. If you are the executor for a deceased loved one, handling their loved one's unfinished business can be overwhelming. We have a post-loss checklist that will help you ensure that your loved one's family, estate, and other affairs are taken care of.
1. Timothy Dexter
Though you probably haven’t heard of Timothy Dexter yourself, you most definitely would have if you were a part of Massachusetts society in the early 1800s. Though he dropped out of school at the age of 8, he got lucky financially and found himself as one of the richest men in Boston. That being said, money can’t buy culture, and high society never accepted him.
Dexter sought only the limelight, and he went so far as to begin calling himself a Lord. After facing years of disapproval, he decided it was time to see how everyone really felt about him. He faked his own death and organized a grand funeral in his honor.
Dexter watched the display from a lavish tomb in his home and saw those he was supposedly closest to weren’t as mournful as he expected. He returned to join his own funeral, and he never reached the high social status he longed for.
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2. John Stonehouse
This former member of the UK’s Parliament faked his own death in Miami in the 1970s. He wanted to start a new life with his mistress, and he’d been caught in a series of fraudulent businesses. He pretended to drown in Miami, escaping to Australia under the name Joseph Markham.
His bad deeds caught up to him, and he was caught by the police and returned to Britain the next year. He was found guilty and served a short time in prison before being released.
3. Igor Vorotinov
One of the most famous cases of faked death in the past few years is the case of Igor Vorotinov. This Minnesota man took out an insurance policy on his own life in 2010. Police in his home country of Moldova reportedly identified a dead body as Vorotinov, leading to a $2 million insurance payout to the family. There was even a memorial service held by his family in his honor.
Just three years later, the FBI received a tip that he faked his own death and was now alive in Ukraine with a new name. Agents found recent photos on his son’s laptop, leading to his charge in 2015.
4. Alexander I of Russia
Sometimes a faked death goes uncovered for years or even centuries. That is, until historians stumble upon new evidence in later years. Recently, there has been a lot of questioning around the death of Tsar Alexander I. Raised by his grandmother Catherine the Great, there has long been a rumor that he staged his own death in 1825 from typhus.
Now, Russian researchers are analyzing the handwriting of Alexander I and a monk known as Feodor Kuzmich. There has been speculation that these two are one and the same, but now DNA testing might prove that theory for good.
5. Belle Gunness
One of the most notorious celebrities who faked her own death in the early 20th century is Belle Gunness. Known as “Lady Bluebeard,” she is estimated to have murdered anywhere between 40 and 180 people during her lifetime. Instead of prosecution, she staged her own death by fire.
While she seemed to be dead after her lifetime of killing those who came into her life, her hired hand claims she escaped without any harm. Though a headless body was found on the property, he insisted this belonged to the housekeeper. For years, people across the United States claimed to see her out and about.
6. Jacquotte Delahaye
If you’re a fan of pirates, you’ve probably heard of Jacquotte Delahaye. This famous pirate queen allegedly turned to piracy to provide for herself and her younger brother. She sailed the high seas without fear, but it wasn’t without some challenges along the way.
Upon capture, she needed to fake her own death to escape. He lived a number of years as a man to protect her identity. She finally reunited with her infamous crew and returned to a life of piracy. She continued to have one of the most successful pirate careers of the 17th century. Her encounter with death gave her the infamous moniker that played on her red hair: “Back from the Dead Red.”
7. Dr. Augusto Gallego
This Columbian man might not have faked his own death, but he is said to have helped famous drug kings fake their own deaths for years. The police began to narrow in on Dr. Gallego after a man he declared dead was found alive in the Caribbean in 2012. In addition, he was found to have helped the drug king Camilo Torrez Martinez fake his own death.
Gallego put his skills and privilege as a medical professional to use to forge death certificates and assist those in this dark task. Though he claimed to be framed, he was eventually arrested for his fraudulent activities. It turns out there are a number of people who have been found to assist others in faking their deaths, though Dr. Gallego is the first doctor.
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8. William Grothe
William Grothe rose to fame after not only faking his own death but also claiming to be his own murderer. Grothe called the police, posing as a murderer, and claimed to have killed someone. His car was found in a Nashville park, and his belongings were left in front of a home and along a riverbank as a way to strengthen his story.
However, the police noticed some things didn’t add up. All of his discarded items had his identification on him to point police in the right direction, but it just didn’t seem right.
Once it was discovered that he had a million-dollar life insurance policy, he was arrested and sentenced to a five-year probation. While he cost the authorities numerous resources in searching for him, it turns out that it isn’t a crime to fake your own death.
You Can’t Trick the Grim Reaper
While many people have tried to trick the grim reaper throughout history, it never turns out well. As tempting as it often is to turn your back on your current life and escape somewhere new, reality will always catch up. Either way, you have to admit it makes a great story, especially in these unique cases above.
From feared pirate to life insurance scammer, there’s no way to outrun death and the law. Claiming your final day came sooner rather than later might not be the perfect solution to your problems.
- Bovsun, Mara. “Belle Gunness, queen of black widows, murdered dozens and planted victims around the farm.” NY Daily News. 30 November 2014. NYdailynews.com.
- Hargrove, Brantley. “SESAC Attorney Who Faked His Own Death Returns to Nashville, Faces Charges.” Nashville Scene. 7 May 2009. NashvilleScene.com.
- “Jacquotte Delahaye.” History Collection. HistoryCollection.co.
- Leggate, James. “How the FBI Caught a $2M Life Insurance Fraud After a Man Faked His Death.” Fox Business. 2 August 2018. FoxBusiness.com.
- Liesowska, Anna. “Russian tsar ‘lived secretly as monk in Siberia’ for decades after history books say he died.” The Siberian Times. 24 July 2015 SiberianTimes.com.
- “Mccleskey, Claire O’Neill. “Colombian Doctor Accused of Faking Death of 3 Crime Bosses.” InSight Crime. 8 August 2012. InsightCrime.org.
- “MP Planned Fake Death for Months.” BBC News. 29 December 2005. BBC.co.uk.
- “Timothy Dexter, the Ridiculous Millionaire Who Sold Coals to Newcastle.” New England Historical Society. NewEnglandHistoricalSociety.com.