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Great Lives Worth Reliving


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About The Book

From beloved CBS Sunday Morning correspondent and humorist Mo Rocca, a rigorously researched, “funny and smart” (Jon Stewart) book that celebrates the dead people who have long fascinated him.

Mo Rocca has always loved obituaries—reading about the remarkable lives of global leaders, Hollywood heavyweights, and innovators who changed the world. But not every notable life has gotten the send-off it deserves. His quest to right that wrong inspired Mobituaries, his #1 hit podcast. But here, in this “delightful, hilarious romp through history” (Booklist) he has gone much further, with all-new essays on artists, entertainers, sports stars, political pioneers, founding fathers, and more. Even if you know the names, you’ve never understood why they matter...until now.

Take Herbert Hoover: before he was president, he was the “Great Humanitarian,” the man who saved tens of millions from starvation. But after less than a year in the White House, the stock market crashed, and all the good he had done seemed to be forgotten. Then there’s Marlene Dietrich, well remembered as a screen goddess, less remembered as a great patriot. Alongside servicemen on the front lines during World War II, she risked her life to help defeat the Nazis of her native Germany. And what about Billy Carter and history’s unruly presidential brothers? Were they ne’er-do-well liabilities…or secret weapons? Plus, Mobits for dead sports teams, dead countries, the dearly departed station wagon, and dragons. Yes, dragons.

Rocca is an expert researcher and storyteller who offers “joy for curious minds” (Walter Isaacson, #1 New York Times bestselling author of Steve Jobs and Leonardo da Vinci), and with his dogged reporting and trademark wit, he brings these men and women back to life like no one else can. “In our fact-challenged times, Rocca’s joyful tour through the didja know’s of history is an unexpected antidote” (The New Yorker).


Death of the Fantastic: Dragons (3000 BC–1735)
I know what you’re thinking: Mo, you can’t write an obit for dragons because dragons never existed. I mean, what’s next? Obits for those silly cartoon animal appliances on The Flintstones? To which I have a three-part response:
  1. I, for one, loved the animal appliances on The Flintstones. My favorites were the woodpecker camera and the pelican dishwasher.
  2. This isn’t an obit; it’s a Mobit.
  3. Dragons may be imaginary but here’s the thing: people used to believe they were real.

For most of Western history, in fact, dragons were considered part of zoology or “natural history,” no more mythical than horses or chickens. Ancient writers describing dragons never questioned whether they were real. In the year 77, Pliny the Elder, in his Natural History, a model for the encyclopedia, described epic battles in India between dragons and giant elephants with the professorial tone of a biology teacher detailing how a cheetah runs down an antelope. For the Greeks, in fact, the word drakon simply meant “snake.” Over time, bits of folklore and religious symbolism got mixed in with the natural history of the ancients. Writers started to describe dragons of exotic colors that could breathe fire and fly and that Peter, Paul, and Mary would one day sing about. (St. Augustine seems to be the main authority for claiming that dragons can fly. By the eighth century it was normal to see dragons represented with wings.) But no matter how magical these beasts seemed to get, historians still struck the tone of the worldly zoologist whom no marvel could faze. In the early third century, for example, Philostratus, a Greek teacher and orator, sounds as if he sees these flame-belching terrors every day while he’s out walking the dog:

The dragons of the mountains have scales of a golden color, and in length excel those of the plain, and they have bushy beards, which also are of a golden hue; and their eye is sunk deep under the eyebrow, and emits a terrible and ruthless glance.

In 1025, the Persian philosopher Abu Ali Ibn Sina (aka “Avicenna”) added marine species of the dragon to his Canon of Medicine. He was probably referring to moray eels and stingrays. Fifteenth-century maps warned explorers, “Here be dragons,” and featured drawings of both land and sea dragons. And again, in Conrad Gessner’s Schlangenbuch, a Renaissance treatise on snakes, a dragon was just another reptile. As late as the early eighteenth century, it was not strange for university-educated men to believe in dragons.

Enter the great Swedish botanist-slash-dragon-slayer Carl Linnaeus (1707–1778). Perhaps you didn’t know there were any great botanists, let alone great Swedish botanists. But back then the Swedes were powerhouses in the world of science and Linnaeus was tops. I recognized his name because AP Bio was my favorite course in high school and Linnaeus was the father of modern taxonomy, the scientific system for classifying plants and animals that I was required to learn. (I was ridiculously proud of how well I memorized my levels of classification and still look for any excuse to show off. That’s not a sponge in my kitchen sink. It’s Phylum Porifera!)

Linnaeus showed an interest in the natural world from early childhood. At age five his father gave him his own little plot of land to tend. As a teenager he was well-versed in the existing literature on botany. At Uppsala University he began to stand out for his work in classifying plants. His reputation continued to grow as he continued to study and to observe the natural world.

Then in 1735, while still a young man, Linnaeus and a friend traveled to the Dutch Republic to pursue degrees in medicine. En route they stopped for a stay in Hamburg (today a city in Germany, then a prosperous independent city-state). The mayor at the time, Johann Andersson, was eager to show the young scientists a prized possession—a taxidermied hydra. Both weird and terrifying looking, it was said to be a small version of the species, with seven symmetrical long necks capped off by heads that contemporary Swedish scholar Professor Gunnar Broberg thinks look like ET. (Actually in the drawing I’ve seen each head looks like the chest-busting monster in the movie Alien.)

The creature had first been displayed in Prague on a church altar, but when the city was sacked by the Swedes in 1648, its treasures were seized. It eventually made its way via a Swedish count to Mayor Andersson’s collection in Hamburg. But it truly became famous when Albertus Seba, the great Dutch naturalist, included a drawing of the creature in his Cabinet of Natural Curiosities, a lavish four-volume compendium of plant and animal illustrations that sold throughout Europe.

When young Linnaeus saw this “dragon,” he immediately discerned that it was a fraud. As author Marc Cramer has detailed, Linnaeus’s knowledge of zoology was such that he could see clearly that the creature’s skin was that of several snakes, sewn together and stretched over various mammal parts, including the jaw and feet of a weasel. He reasoned that this patchwork animal had been assembled by Catholic monks some centuries back in order to represent the Beast of Revelation described in the New Testament—an object manufactured with the deceitful aim of inspiring fear in gullible congregants. “God never put more than one brain in one of [His] created bodies,” remarked the young scientist, demonstrating his knowledge of both zoology and theology at once. He quickly published his findings in a Hamburg magazine. Mayor Andersson was not too thrilled with this verdict, since he was trying to sell the thing, hoping that its inclusion in Seba’s popular book would juice the price. At one point, the king of Denmark was said to have offered ten thousand thalers. (A thaler was a silver coin currency. If it sounds familiar, that’s because its name lives on in the “dollar.”) Linnaeus’s article exposed the inauthenticity of the hydra and ended the mayor’s hopes for a windfall. As he related years later in his autobiography, Linnaeus and his friend had to flee Hamburg under Andersson’s threats.

Of course Linnaeus may have been exaggerating the danger he was under, since he was painting himself as a hero. And, as Professor Broberg argues, he wasn’t just any hero. He was a dragon-slayer. In Linnaeus’s Europe, the dragon-slayer was just as iconic a figure as the dragon itself. The city of Stockholm still possesses a prominent wooden statue of St. Goran (George) slaying a dragon that dates to the fifteenth century. Linnaeus surely knew the statue, which had been commissioned to commemorate a defeat of the Danes. He also would have understood the allegorical meaning of slaying the dragon. In Christian tradition the dragon had become a symbol of Satan, in the form of both the serpent of Eden and the beast of the Apocalypse, and the dragon-slayer was Christ, or a servant of Christ. Moreover, for Protestants like Linnaeus (whose father was a Lutheran minister), the dragon had come to symbolize the Antichrist, or what they saw as the false religion of the pope. Thus Linnaeus stressed that the hydra was a papal fraud—a symbol of Catholicism’s deception. In slaying the dragon, Linnaeus was striking a blow for the Protestant Reformation.

But with the rise of modern science, Linnaeus, maybe unconsciously, was investing “slaying the dragon” with yet another meaning: science triumphing over superstition. In his autobiography Linnaeus described himself as the first person to recognize that the hydra was a creation of art, not of nature. For him, science was not about freaks or marvels, but about the everyday wonder of creation. According to the new school of thought called “natural theology,” it was the order and regularity of nature that revealed God’s plan, not onetime miracles and certainly not frauds. The way to understand nature was through careful, empirical observation of details.

Linnaeus soon published his own masterwork, the Systema Naturae, where he established that taxonomical system that I loved so much in high school. (Quickly: if you’re looking for a good mnemonic to remember the rankings of Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, Species: King Philip Came Over For Good Spaghetti!) Among many other accomplishments, the book was the first taxonomy to place humans in a group with other primates. The book, which he would expand and revise in many editions over the course of his life, included a section called “Animalia Paradoxa” (animal absurdities), devoted to frauds and impossibilities. Chief among these is the Hamburg hydra. Additional entries of imaginary animals include the dragon, the unicorn, the phoenix, the satyr, and, um, the pelican. (Clearly Linneaus never watched The Flintstones.) Referencing his moment of triumph in Hamburg, Linnaeus wrote: “Nature is always true to itself and never naturally produces several heads on one body. When seen for ourselves, the fraud and artifice were most easily detected, since the teeth of a wild weasel differ from the teeth of an amphibian.” The dragon had become the symbol of medieval, unscientific thinking, and the zoologist a knight, pledged to the service of reason and enlightenment, the quest for which would reveal the presence of God on earth.

…and Other Mythological Creatures We Used to Think Were Real (well, most of them, anyway)

Mermaids People had been believing in the existence of mermaids for thousands of years when in the 1840s the great showman P. T. Barnum exhibited his “Fiji Mermaid,” an artifact constructed from the upper body of a monkey and the tail of a shark. Barnum was more like an anti-Linnaeus, seeking to convince people that this fake was real. Although his specimen looked nothing like Daryl Hannah in Splash—it was shriveled and grotesque—Barnum sold a lot of tickets, even supporting his exhibition with lectures given by a scientist named Dr. J. Griffin. (Griffin was actually a lawyer and Barnum associate named Levi Lyman.) It wasn’t until the 1880s, when the English naturalist Henry Lee published Sea Fables Explained and Sea Monsters Unmasked, that science was untangled from myth: Lee suggested that most mermaid sightings were probably manatees, seals, or other marine mammals.

Kishi One of these days the Kishi of Angolan folklore is going to make a great movie, or at least a cool comic book. The Kishi is two-faced. Really. On one side of its head is the face of a very handsome man and on the other, the face of a very unhandsome hyena. The Kishi is also one smooth operator: it saunters out of the hills into an unsuspecting village, all the while presenting its young man’s face. It then charms the most beautiful young woman it can find, takes her off into the hills… then eats her savagely with its hyena face. So remember, insist on seeing both his faces before you swipe right.

The Roc Originating in Persian and Arabic mythology, this giant bird with a wingspan that blocked the sun shows up in One Thousand and One Nights, where Sinbad the Sailor describes its egg as fifty paces around. To escape a deserted island, Sinbad ties the cloth from his turban to the bird’s leg. Marco Polo claimed to observe one during his thirteenth-century travels through Asia. “It was for all the world like an eagle, but one indeed of enormous size… so strong that it will seize an elephant in its talons and carry him high into the air and drop him so that he is smashed to pieces; having so killed him, the bird swoops down on him and eats him at leisure.” It’s unclear what exactly Marco Polo saw, but a real-life inspiration might be the enormous Haast’s eagle, native to New Zealand, which died out around 1400. Either way, it’s indisputable: the Roc is dead.

Unicorns Unicorns did exist: The Siberian unicorn is an extinct species of mammal that resembled a furry brown rhinoceros. It died out about 39,000 years ago. But the unicorn you’re thinking about never existed, though it was for many years thought to be real. The ancient Greeks described a swift, white-coated animal with a single spiraling horn and which supposedly lived in India. Pliny the Elder (yes, him again) somehow concluded that the unicorn possesses “the body of a horse, the head of a stag, the feet of an elephant, the tail of a boar, and a single black horn three feet long in the middle of its forehead.” The creature gradually acquired associations with purity and became a fixture in religious art alongside a virginal maiden. But belief in unicorns was largely dispelled by the Scientific Revolution.

Frankenberry We may never know what Mary Shelley’s monster ate for breakfast. We do know that Frankenberry didn’t come into existence until 1971, when General Mills launched its line of monster-themed cereals, which over time included Count Chocula, Booberry, Fruit Brute, and Fruity Yummy Mummy. The strawberry-flavored Frankenberry was soon discovered to contain a dye that turned children’s feces pink. According to medical researcher John V. Payne, “The stool had no abnormal odor but looked like strawberry ice cream.” This horrifying (to parents), hilarious (to children), and harmless (to doctors) condition was named “Frankenberry Stool.” While Frankenberry still lives, Frankenberry Stool seems to have, as it were, passed out of existence when General Mills tried a new dye in its recipe.

About The Author

Mo Rocca is a correspondent for CBS Sunday Morning, host of the hit Mobituaries podcast, and host of The Henry Ford’s Innovation Nation. He’s also a frequent panelist on NPR’s hit weekly quiz show Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me! and host and creator of Cooking Channel’s My Grandmother’s Ravioli. Rocca is coauthor of the New York Times bestselling Mobituaries: Great Lives Worth Reliving and author of All the Presidents’ Pets.

Why We Love It

“Think of this book in the tradition of Sarah Vowell, or Bill Bryson: it’s history with a pop culture sensibility that asks big questions about how we leave a mark after we’re gone. It goes down easy with humor, and heart.” —Emily G., Editor, on Mobituaries

Product Details

  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster (November 2, 2021)
  • Length: 384 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781501197635

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Awards and Honors

  • Topaz Nonfiction Reading List (TX)

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