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George Turklebaum, R.I.P.

Proofreader lay dead at his desk for 5 days before co-workers took notice

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Worker Found Dead at Desk After 5 Days
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Last updated Sep 30, 2011

I WOULD be remiss if I let another week pass without commenting on the strange story of George Turklebaum. Reports published in the British press and circulating on the Internet claim that Turklebaum, allegedly a proofreader in a New York publishing firm, sat stone-dead in his office chair for five days last October before his co-workers realized it. This has aroused Yankee 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

As the story goes, 51-year-old George Turklebaum quietly suffered a fatal heart attack one day while working at his desk. None of his 23 co-workers thought it remarkable to see him slumped motionless in his chair for five days running, apparently, because Turklebaum habitually kept to himself and was the first to arrive and the last to leave the office every day.

It's the kind of scenario Somerset Maugham must have had in mind 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 post mortem.

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 — nevermind 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 and the Guardian had already run a briefer version two days earlier.

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."

Does anyone besides me hear the phrase "too good to be true" ringing in their ears?

In any case, the Mercury does have it right when it boasts that Turklebaum-mania has swept the Internet in recent weeks. 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 tabloid
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.

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