In the Fall of 1969 a rumor swept around the world alleging that Paul McCartney, singer and bassist for the Beatles, was dead. In fact, that he had died three years ago on November 9, 1966 in a fiery car crash while heading home from the EMI recording studios. Supposedly the surviving band members, fearful of the effect his death might have on their careers, secretly replaced him with a double named William Campbell (an orphan who had won a Paul McCartney lookalike contest in Edinburgh). However, they also planted clues in their later albums to let fans know the truth, that Paul was dead.
Beatles fans, who came to be known as "cluesters," spent countless hours searching for clues hidden in the albums, eventually locating hundreds of them. Numerous articles appeared in magazines pondering the likelihood of Paul's Death. John Chancellor even discussed the issue on the NBC evening news, concluding that "All we can report with certainty is that Paul McCartney is either dead or alive." McCartney only inflamed the rumor by refusing to appear in public to deny it. Finally photographers for LIFE
Magazine tracked the singer down to his Mull of Kintyre country house where he was on vacation and took a photo of him which it ran on its cover, thereby throwing some cold water on the rumor. But not killing it entirely. To this day a few diehard cluesters still persist in their belief that McCartney died in 1966. It is the most persistent and elaborate false death rumor in history.
How the Rumor Got Started
On January 7, 1967 McCartney's Mini Cooper really did crash, and as a result a few newspapers did report he had died. However, McCartney wasn't in the car when it crashed. He was safe at a party in Sussex. The man driving the car (who didn't die either) was Mohammed Hadjij, who allegedly was using the car to transport drugs up to the partyers in Sussex. After this incident, a few scattered rumors of Paul's death and replacement by a double were reportedly overheard at London parties.
But it was two years later, in the American midwest, that the rumor really took hold. Researcher Andru Reeve has traced this midwest origin of the rumor to a song titled "Saint Paul" that received heavy airplay in the midwest in May 1969. The song, penned by Detroit-based Terry Knight, spoke of Paul being in heaven. Knight might have been speaking metaphorically about the imminent breakup of the Beatles, but the lyrics must have suggested the idea of McCartney's death to some fans. Whatever the case, the idea was planted, and the rumor began to spread around college campuses.
The first appearance of the rumor in print occurred on September 17, 1969, in Tim Harper's article for the Drake Times-Delphic
(the student newspaper of Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa) titled "Is Beatle Paul McCartney Dead?" But this article didn't receive much attention at the time. Instead, the real beginning of the Paul-Is-Dead rumor, as a pop-culture phenomenon, dates to October 12, the day Detroit DJ Russ Gibb took a call on-air from Eastern Michigan University student Tom Zarski. Zarski laid out the whole rumor for Gibb and, as proof of its truth, urged him to play "Revolution Number Nine" from the Beatles' White Album
backwards. Gibb obliged and, much to his surprise, could distinctly hear the words "Turn me on, dead man" being spoken repeatedly. Gibb was astounded by what he heard. This was the spark that ignited the fire.
Fred LaBour, a student journalist at the University of Michigan, heard Gibb's broadcast and wrote up an article for the Michigan Daily
outlining the theory and detailing many of the most sensational clues. The article electrified readers, and was soon reprinted in numerous university papers throughout the country. LaBour's article, more than anything else, spread the rumor to a national audience.
The rest was history. The mainstream media, now fully aware of the rumor, latched onto it with a fervor. Planeloads of journalists were dispatched to England to find Paul. For three weeks the musician's supposed death was one of the main topics of conversation in America. It wasn't until LIFE
printed the picture of McCartney on the cover of its November 7 issue that the excitement began to die down.
A Few of the Clues
Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band
The foreground scene on the front cover shows a floral arrangement, as if for a funeral. The white flowers on the bottom right either form a left-handed bass guitar (Paul's instrument), or they spell out Paul.
"Beatles" is spelled out in red flowers on the cover. But there's an extra letter, an "o" that is mysteriously placed at the end of the name. Perhaps the band was sending a secret message: Be At Leso. Leso was the name of a Greek Island that they had supposedly bought. Were they inviting fans who had figured out the mystery to join them there?
A toy Aston Martin convertible can be seen on the lap of a rag doll on the right-hand side of the cover. Paul supposedly died in an Aston Martin.
If you use a mirror to bisect the phrase "LONELY HEARTS" that appears on the drum, the phrase "I ONE IX HE ◊ DIE" can be seen. If "I ONE" is 11, and "IX" is the roman numeral 9, then this might be decoded to mean "11 9 HE DIE" (i.e. November 9, He Die).
A hand is held up behind Paul's head, a raised hand being a mystical symbol of death. (In some religions, it actually is.
) A hand raised behind Paul's head is a recurring clue in many photos of the band.
On the back cover Paul is wearing an arm patch that says "OPD," which is British police jargon for "Officially Pronounced Dead." (The patch actually reads "OPP," which stands for Ontario Provincial Police. Paul was given the patch while on tour in Canada.
Magical Mystery Tour
If you look at the starry letters of the Beatles name in a mirror, or upside down, they supposedly form a phone number. If you call this number, someone will answer and provide another clue. Or perhaps William Campbell himself will answer. This clue inspired an urban legend alleging that a student dialed the secret phone number and reached someone who quizzed him about Beatles trivia. The student answered all the questions correctly and was then told he had won a trip to Pepperland. He subsequently received a letter instructing him to lick the stamp on the envelope. When he did so, he experienced an LSD trip. While under the influence of the LSD, he jumped out of his dorm room to his death.
Paul is wearing a walrus suit on the cover. This is significant because Walrus means Corpse in Greek. (Actually, it doesn't.
The song "I am the Walrus" is supposedly about Paul's death. The lyrics "Stupid bloody tuesday" refer to the last time Paul was seen alive. And the eggman refers to Humpty Dumpty, who cracked his head open, as did Paul.
At the end of Strawberry Fields, the voice of John Lennon can be heard saying "I buried Paul." (John does say something at the end of the song, but it's not "I buried Paul." He says "cranberry sauce."
The White Album
One of the images on the poster inside the album shows Paul soaking in a tub of water. Many people have commented that it kind of looks like Paul's decapitated head floating in blood.
The song "Glass Onion" contains the lyric "looking through a glass onion." The DJ Russ Gibb claims that "glass onion" was old british slang for the handle of a casket, because in the nineteenth century caskets had round glass handles that looked like glass onions. Paul is looking through a glass onion because he's in a casket.
If you play the song "Revolution 9" backwards, you will hear the words "Turn me on, dead man" being spoken. (It's true, you will... or, at least, you'll hear a phrase that sounds a lot like "Turn me on, dead man."
On the cover John, Ringo, Paul, and George are walking across a zebra crossing. Fans argue that this represents a funeral procession. John (in white) is the priest, Ringo (in black) is the undertaker, Paul (barefoot... because people are supposedly buried barefoot in Italy) is the corpse, and George (in jeans) is the gravedigger. It's also believed to be significant that Paul is out of step with the others, and that he's holding a cigarette in his right hand (because the original Paul was left-handed). Finally, it's said that this picture was taken at the site where Paul crashed his car on November 8, and that the Beatles are shown walking out of a cemetery which is located on the left side of the street. (In reality, there's no cemetery there
Also on the cover, a white volkswagen can be seen parked in the background. Its license plate reads "28 IF." This could mean that Paul would have been 28 if he were alive. (He actually would have been 27.
) This Volkswagen was tracked down years later and sold at auction in 1986 for over $4000.
Was It a Rumor or a Deliberate Hoax?
Most people can agree that Paul McCartney didn't actually die in 1966, but the question remains: was the rumor of his death a deliberate hoax? Were some clues purposefully placed in the albums? Was an elaborate hoax engineered either by Capitol Records or by the Beatles themselves?
Both Capitol Records and the Beatles definitely had a financial motive to devise such a scheme. The Paul-Is-Dead rumor led to massive sales of all the Beatles' albums. People were actually buying multiple copies of the albums in order to play them backwards to listen for hidden messages. But Capitol denies having started the rumor, and it does seem farfetched to think that record executives would have been imaginative enough to dream up and pull off such a hoax. Although it is undeniable that once the rumor took hold, Capitol didn't do much to discourage it.
More suspicion is usually focused on the Beatles themselves because they had the creativity to pull off such a thing, and were well-known for their mischievous sense of humor. And intriguingly, one piece of evidence does link the Beatles to the start of the rumor. The Terry Knight song "Saint Paul" that got the whole ball rolling was published by none other than MacLen Music, McCartney and Lennon's publishing company created in 1963 to publish their own music. Why would MacLen publish this one non-Lennon/McCartney work? All of Knight's other songs were published by Storybook Music. Perhaps it's because Lennon or McCartney suggested that Knight write it. Andru Reeve writes:
"The enigma of a virtually-unknown musician's original song being published by the Beatles may be a greater mystery than the "Paul-Is-Dead" rumor itself. Would its inclusion in the Beatles' catalog (and its recent and mysterious disappearance) have something to do with Terry Knight's visit to Apple in early 1969? Was the song instigated by none other than Paul McCartney himself?"
However, even if one of the Beatles did prompt Knight to write Saint Paul, it's hard to imagine they could have predicted this song would in turn have inspired the most widely circulated death-hoax rumor in history.
Actually, if there is one hoaxer at the heart of this mystery, it's the college student Fred LaBour. His article in the Michigan Daily
was the main vehicle for the dissemination of the rumor. But he freely admits that he invented many parts of the rumor, such as the claim that a Scottish orphan named William Campbell replaced McCartney. LaBour stated in an interview: "I made the guy up. It was originally going to be 'Glenn Campbell,' with two Ns and then I said 'that's too close, nobody'll buy that,' so I made it William Campbell."
One final question remains. If McCartney didn't die on November 9, 1966, what was he doing on that day? It turns out that he was on vacation with his girlfriend Jane Asher. From November 6 through the 19th they were travelling through France and Kenya. But November 9 is a significant Beatles date for another reason. It was the day that John Lennon first met Yoko Ono. So metaphorically it could be seen as the date that the Beatles, as a group, began to die.
Paul is Dead Haiku (Submitted by Hoax Museum visitors)
So many fake clues
The three, the hand, the flowers
Paul is so not dead
Paul is a dead man
You can see it everywhere
Why don't they beleive?
|They were four, now three
Untimely death, who can say
Turn me on dead man.
Links and References
- Andru J. Reeve. Turn Me On, Dead Man: The Beatles and the "Paul-Is-Dead" Hoax. AuthorHouse. 2004.
- R. Gary Patterson. The Walrus Was Paul: The Great Beatle Death Clues. Simon & Schuster. 1996.