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Laughing in the face of death
'Darwin Awards' author dedicated to documenting macabre mishaps
(CNN) -- Death is like that third cousin with the funny teeth and bad smell. We generally don't talk about him if he's not around. But when he shows up unexpectedly, he depresses, repulses and fascinates us.
Sometimes, he even makes us laugh, in a morbid, hope-that-doesn't-happen-to-me kind of way.
Like, did you hear about that owner of the wood-chipping company in Maine whose woodchipper got jammed? Seems in a "Fargo" moment, he forgot the basic rule about woodchippers and tried to unjam the thing while it was still on. He fell in and he met that third cousin.
OK, maybe that's not funny to everyone. But it was funny enough to Wendy Northcutt. She put the story on her Web site, www.DarwinAwards.com, a destination dedicated to stupid deaths. And she heard from people who knew the deceased.
"I've gotten three different emails from people, saying, 'This is horrible. It has shocked our community to the core. You should remove this,' " says Northcutt, 37. "But I can't. It's just too stupid."
Not only did Northcutt keep the story on her site, she also put it in her new book, "The Darwin Awards" (Dutton), a collection of the most outrageously idiotic deaths she has encountered. She bills the book as a funny-but-true safety guide.
"I think any kid that reads this is going to be a lot more careful around explosives," she says.
Over the phone from her home in the Silicon Valley area of California, Northcutt doesn't sound like the kind of person who will send people off to the land of death by laughing in their face. She has a voice as bright as a Sunday morning.
When it's mentioned that her book is on the New York Times bestseller list, she says, "Oh my gosh! It's exciting!"
The Darwin Awards -- named after Charles Darwin, the dead guy who, when he was alive, gave us the theory of evolution and natural selection in the book "The Origin of Species" -- have been Northcutt's life for several years now. She started the site in 1994 while working as a scientist of molecular biology at Stanford University. Her cousin Ian (not death) had told her about the Darwin Awards, which already existed in basic form on the Internet.
Northcutt researched and compiled all the stories she could find about stupid deaths. Back then, it numbered about 10. But the site caught on through the popularity of email, and today DarwinAwards.com has over 250 stories.
Each year, Northcutt picks the best (or worst) of the lot and offers the deceased a posthumous Darwin Award for "improving our gene pool by removing themselves from it." The 2000 winners include "a woman who slept on the roof, two friends shooting beer cans off each other, and six men sailing in a two-man boat," according to the site.
One of Northcutt's favorite dumb deaths happened to a drunk soldier in Alabama who was involved in a spitting contest.
"He was really creative," says Northcutt. "They were on the third floor of a building and he thought, 'I'm going to add momentum to my saliva by charging at the balcony and spitting at the last minute.'"
You don't have to be a scientist to figure out what happened to the guy. Chances are, semi-intelligent readers won't repeat the death when they are involved in their own spitting contest.
But readers aren't the only ones who have learned lessons from the Darwin Awards. Northcutt has discovered first-hand the power of the Internet.
"Before (the awards became popular), we were an insular community and we could make fun of people and those people (or their families) would never find out," says Northcutt. "But as it got bigger, I realized there was more and more danger to really hurting people."
Sure, Northcutt still mocks Mr. Woodchipper. But some bizarre deaths -- usually involving children -- won't be seen on her site.
And some deaths simply never happened. The most popular Darwin Award story of all time, says Northcutt, involved the guy who strapped a JATO (jet-assisted takeoff) unit to his 1967 Chevy Impala. When he hit the turbos, the legend goes, he ended up embedded in the side of an Arizona cliff.
Northcutt says she researched the story and found it wasn't true. But it lives on in her book.
"This captures people's imagination," she says. "Boys want to do that. There's something in a boy's nature that makes him want to strap a jet to his car. I don't know what it is."
Northcutt says she spends about half her day dedicated to Darwin (she earns a steady paycheck building Web sites for others). She still has over 10,000 Darwin-related emails waiting to be read.
How long will she laugh at death, macabre third cousin to us all?
"As long as I enjoy it," she says. "I don't have any plans to stop."
(24 January 2000, Ohio) The Los Angeles Police Department contacted Ohio police hoping to locate a missing truck driver and his load of broccoli. The stalled truck was located four days later and towed to a local mechanic. They thawed and refueled the truck and found that, apart from an empty gas tank, the vehicle had no mechanical problems. The driver's personal effects and seven bricks of marijuana were discovered in the cab of the vehicle.
The trucking company and the police were both interested in the whereabouts of the errant driver, and a search was initiated. Shortly thereafter a patrolman noticed two feet protruding between the pallets of broccoli -- feet which belonged to the missing man.
The broccoli was unloaded as quickly as possible in the cold Ohio winter, leaving the frozen body of the driver standing precisely upside down, attached to the floor of the trailer by his head. He was surrounded by space heaters and eventually pried off the floor, but his frozen corpse had to be turned on its side to load it into a rescue squad vehicle, as his arm was sticking out and wouldn't fit through the door.
The Cuyahoga County coroner's office determined that the man was trying to retrieve a stash of cocaine from between the pallets of broccoli when he fell and knocked himself unconscious. He soon suffered from a fatal case of hypothermia and died in the icy air. Perhaps he should have confined his drug smuggling to the more clement climate of California.
(25 November 2000, Canada) A 66-year-old Quebec woman was hit not once, not twice, but three times by speeding cars on a Canadian highway while trying to save her Christmas trees. The woman had been driving on the highway with several conifers strapped none too securely to the roof of her vehicle, when they fell off into the traffic lanes. Although it was nighttime, and there were no lights on the road, the courageous woman risked -- and lost -- her life trying to rescue her trees from the speeding cars.
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