Ring Ring, Corpse Phone! is Episode 8 (Season One) of the Death in the Afternoon Podcast.
Ring ring. Hello? Who’s there? IT’S YOUR MORTALITY CALLING. In life, phones make everything easier—just “reach out and touch someone.” But in death, reaching out can be a little more complicated. This week we talk about accessing a dead man’s cell phone, texting from beyond the grave, and the grim origins of a certain red handset.
Here’s Louise for our final podblog of the season:
For our last “behind-the-scenes” blog of this first DITA season, I thought I’d share what it was like for me to work on this podcast. I’m super duper proud of what we birthed onto the airwaves but I’m not going to lie, this was new nerve-wracking territory for me. Like most good things are.
It’s no secret that I’m the latest member of our little Order triumvirate. Caitlin and Sarah have been a team for years now, and a couple years ago I was lucky enough to get invited to play on their team. Yes, dream job.
I won’t wax poetic about how great Caitlin is, you already know this (and she’ll delete it); and all I have to say about Sarah is that you’d be lucky to find a peer half as smart and kind as her in your lifetime. Plus she is the keeper of all the bonkers death stories.
So when Caitlin proposed that we three do a podcast, I was at once thrilled and terrified.
I was going to have to SPEAK OUT LOUD on the same show as the Caitlin and Sarah?
I knew I had things I wanted to expound upon as well as the ability to form audible sounds that humans interpret as language, but it’s one thing to talk deathy things with my friends and coworkers or write scripts and articles about Bentham’s head or morbid mysteries, it’s another thing entirely to talk to the masses.
For days leading up to my first rehearsal with Caitlin, I had nightmares about completely outrageous SECRET meetings where Sarah and Caitlin contemplated replacing me with a goat or a moderately educated waffle.
I went into the first rehearsal feeling both over and under prepared. I could talk circles about rogue limbs, but I felt like I had lost all control of phrasing and the VOLUME of my VOICE. Like the Shel Silverstein poem all the “What ifs” were dancing in my head.
What if I don’t make sense?
What if my speech impediment comes back?
What if I sound like a robot?
What if all my research is wrong and I tell the world bad knowledge and all the corpses explode?
But very quickly (as I should have known it would go), I realized that part of my anxiety was hilariously unfounded.
My job on the podcast is to talk to Caitlin. I do this often. Yes, we had to focus on embalming blunders or disembodied feet and not run off on tangents about the deliciousness of cold pizza versus hot pizza but Pop Tarts on the other hand—
—Point is, I can talk to Caitlin. Sure we had to find a “podcast rhythm” and chemistry, but I quickly realized that the intimidation was in my head. Talking about corpses with Caitlin comes naturally. Plus, if my information was wrong, there was no way that Sarah or Caitlin would let it slip by. Hello, that’s working on a team Louise. (I swear I’m not trying to get you to join our cult…OR AM I?)
So rehearsals continued and I gained confidence.
Then we got to recording.
I don’t know if any of you have ever worn headphones and had to listen to your own voice, and then have your voice recorded and played back to you over and over and over. If you aren’t used to it, it’s…an adjustment. You never sound the way you think you’ll sound, for better or for worse.
So many times I would glance into the booth as words about Okiku or standing corpses tumbled from my mouth and wondered if everybody in there was figuring out ways to engineer my voice into submission.
It’s weird to think so intensely about the simple act of speaking! Like, if you think too hard about walking, you’ll fall down (just me?).
But we finished recording and in spite of my concerns, I found myself enjoying the process. SHOCKER it was fun to gab death with two people I like and admire.
Eventually the episodes aired, as podcasts tend to do. I braced myself the first time I had to listen to the master of episode 1. Sure, I had to ride the initial wave of The Big Cringe but I didn’t incinerate on the spot.
Now, eight episode later I look forward to hearing the final edits. Not to wrap this up in too tidy of a bow, but looking at how I started into this journey and where I ended up—I can’t believe I did it. And I wasn’t replaced by a goat!
So thank you for listening to Caitlin, Sarah, and me for these eight weeks. I am so proud of the death conversation we put out there—sometimes difficult to hear, sometimes heartwarming, sometimes straight-up beyond belief. But when all is said and done and uploaded onto iTunes, I’m so happy I get to be a part of this squad.
So thank you for listening Death in the Afternooners, it was a pleasure.
Our heartfelt gratitude for your enthusiasm and support for our first season! Stay up to date and get even more behind the scenes goodness from Death in the Afternoon over on Twitter. Follow us—let’s be friends…’til death.
From the Death in the Afternoon team,
Caitlin, Sarah, Louise, Dory, and Paul
Episode 8 Transcript
[00:00:00] [Music plays.]
Caitlin: [00:00:10] This episode isn’t about officer-involved shootings of unarmed black men, although, that is where we’re starting.
[00:00:18] It’s March of 2018, and police detectives have just arrived at the Sylvan Abbey Funeral Home in Clearwater, Florida. They’ve come to demand help from a man named Linus Phillip. Except Linus Phillip is dead.
[00:00:34] To explain, let’s go back several days before the police arrive at the funeral home.
[00:00:40] Just before 6pm, 30 year old Linus Phillip has stopped at a Wawa Gas Station to refuel. A police car also pulls into the gas station, wanting to question Phillip on why the windows of his Nissan Altima are too heavily tinted and why they smell marijuana. What happens next is highly debated. No clear footage exists.
[00:01:05] According to the police, Phillip attempted to leap back in his car and drive away from the scene, an action which could be explained by crack and powdered cocaine found in his pockets. One of the officers, Matthew Steiner, had his body halfway inside the Nissan as Phillip was reversing. Instead of rolling out of the vehicle, Steiner pulled out his weapon and shot Phillip four times, killing him.
[00:01:33] This episode isn’t going to address the question of whether the killing is self-defense or Phillip is another victim in a long, painful line of black men killed by nervous, over-zealous, potentially racist police. We’re here to talk about what happened days later at the Sylvan Abbey Funeral Home, when police officers showed up with Linus Phillip’s cell phone.
[00:01:59] [Death in the Afternoon theme plays.]
Caitlin: [00:02:13] Welcome to Death in the Afternoon, a podcast about all things mortal from The Order of the Good Death. I’m Caitlin, a mortician and educator, and as always, I’m joined by my fellow researchers and writers Louise Hung and Sarah Chavez. Today’s episode, the last episode of our first season: Ring Ring, Corpse Phone.
[00:02:31] [Music plays.]
Louise: [00:02:43] I just can’t wrap my head around what happened in this case.
Caitlin: [00:02:47] I can’t either. And as a warning to everyone, we contacted two of my colleagues for this episode, both a forensic pathologist and an expert in funeral home and cemetery law, but even with them, don’t expect any firm conclusions.
Louise: [00:03:01] Because we’re living in a dystopian future from which there is no escape.
Caitlin: [00:03:05] Yeah, it looks that way.
Louise: [00:03:07] So, from my understanding, what the police detectives are at the Sylvan Abbey Funeral Home to do, is to gain access to Phillip’s cell phone by using his fingerprint to unlock the phone?
Caitlin: [00:03:20] Yes, and Phillip’s fiancée, who was there when the detectives showed up and announced they’re gonna do this, later said quote, “They are allowed to pull him out of the refrigerator and use a dead man’s finger to get to his phone. It’s disgusting.”
Louise: [00:03:35] ARE they allowed to do that?
Caitlin: [00:03:37] Well that is the whole question! We don’t know!
Louise: [00:03:40] I’m wondering if this is something that police do all the time and we just don’t know about it. The first recorded example, I think, was back in in 2016 when there was a terrorist attack at Ohio State University. All 13 victims survived their injuries, but the attacker was shot and killed by police. And an FBI agent took the bloody finger of the attacker and tried to open his iPhone. But it didn’t work.
Caitlin: [00:04:07] It’s interesting that it didn’t work, because it didn’t work with Linus Phillip either. So, Dr. Judy Melinek, that’s the forensic pathologist we talked to, speculated on possible reasons for that. The iPhone finger sensor depends on conductivity of the skin and it’s possible that chemical changes in the skin post-mortem that thwart of effect that conductivity, the swipey-swipey, boopey-boopey [crosstalk].
Louise: [00:04:35] Right, yeah. I mean, I’m basically an iPhone noob and I know nothing, but isn’t it that after a certain amount of time passes, around 3 days, or something, you need the fingerprint AND the passcode to open the phone. Which, the dead man won’t give you that second part. So, if you wait too long, you’re out of luck.
Caitlin: [00:04:54] You’re S.O.L, coppers! But according to various police investigators this “fingerprint trick,” whatever you call it, does work within a certain window of time, and more law enforcement agents are using it and it’s becoming more and more common.
Louise: [00:05:12] I’m torn, because in the case of a terrorist attack, it would give the police a real advantage to have quick access to information on the cell phone to see if there was anyone else involved, more weapons, further plans… Just gotta get to his finger.
Caitlin: [00:05:26] I agree. If I was in a terrorist attack and that guy died, I would say, use his damn finger and figure out if there are other bombs or other people involved. I agree with that. But, it gets really sketchy in Linus Phillip’s case because since a police officer shot and killed him, then the police are using his dead body and his cellphone to obtain evidence that helps their case against him, like trying to prove he was a drug dealer and this bad guy and their shooting is 100% justified.
Louise: [00:05:56] I agree with you that this is ethically a problem. But from what I’ve been reading, it sounds like the practice is legal, even if most people are put off by it.
Caitlin: [00:06:06] Right. Explain the argument there.
Louise: [00:06:08] Okay. Well, the argument there is, is everything is different when someone is alive. When we’re alive we have Fourth Amendment rights, meaning law enforcement can’t just come into my home and take my property without a warrant to do so. If the police or law enforcement want to gain access to a living person’s cell phone because a crime is suspected, they need to get a warrant from a judge. The Supreme Court said you can’t arrest someone and just dive into their cellphone without a warrant. But when a person dies, their right to privacy and their right to property are over. You really gotta dot those i’s and cross those t’s when you’re alive, but when you’re dead, all that goes out the window.
Caitlin: [00:06:52] And that’s the exact argument the police in Florida used in this case. The Lieutenant said they didn’t need to get a warrant to go into the funeral home and do this because legally, Linus Phillip didn’t have any right to privacy after he died.
Louise: [00:07:06] But what about the family’s rights?
Caitlin: [00:07:08] Exactly, that’s my question. So, Phillip doesn’t have any rights anymore, but his family legally controls what happens to his remains. They certainly cared that the police came in and did this, both his mother and his fiancée have spoken out against the police in this case. And especially this case, where the family might be filing a civil suit because of the shooting and the police smear campaign against Phillip.
Louise: [00:07:33] Ok, let’s talk about what Tanya Marsh said.
Caitlin: [00:07:35] Tanya Marsh is the law professor at Wake Forest University. She thinks that we’re focusing too much on the dead body, when what we should be talking about is the cellphone. So, the decedent’s estate still owns the cell phone, it doesn’t just become property of the police because Linus Phillip is dead. The police could try to get permission from the person in charge of Phillip’s estate to rummage through his cell phone. But a better idea would be to go to court, show probable cause, and get a warrant for the phone.
Louise: [00:08:07] Okay, just to be clear: what does probable cause mean here?
Caitlin: [00:08:13] Probable cause means that given the facts and circumstances of the situation, any reasonable person would conclude searching through the cell phone is going to reveal evidence of a crime of some sort. And so, the question becomes who has the legal right to say, “Yes, police detective, step on up and use Linus Phillip’s fingerprint to open this phone.”
Louise: [00:08:33] Well it’s definitely not the funeral director—
Caitlin: [00:08:36] —No.
Louise: [00:08:36] —of the funeral home who should be making that decision. And it’s actually not the family of Linus Phillip’s either. They have the right to control how the body is buried or cremated, but they don’t own the corpse.
Caitlin: [00:08:47] Nobody owns a corpse. So, it’s confusing because whoever is the executor of Phillip’s estate does have right to consent to permission to search the cellphone, but does not have the right to consent to use the body and it’s fingerprints.
Louise: [00:09:03] Okay, this is all a little confusing—
Caitlin: [00:09:05] —A lot confusing.
Louise: [00:09:05] —Yeah, a lot confusing. But the takeaway here is that Tanya, the law professor, thinks the only safe, ethical, legal path is, again, the police going to court, and showing probable cause to get a search warrant.
Caitlin: [00:09:19] Which again, the Florida detectives did not do in this case.
Louise: [00:09:24] So, this is a big question. Since you own a funeral home, what would you have done in this situation? If you worked at Sylvan Abbey Funeral Home and the police swoop in and say, “Take me to Linus Phillip,” what would you do?
Caitlin: [00:09:38] It’s hard because I don’t want to sound like I’m blaming the employee at Sylvan Abbey who allowed the detectives in. Because we’re taught to obey the police, right? Especially white people like me, even though more of us are questioning it now. But you’re thinking they must have a good reason for doing this as part of their investigation. But, knowing all this legal stuff, what I know now, I think what I say is, “Ok detective, please show me the warrant so I’m sure I’m doing the right thing here. And I’m also going to ask you to wait until I contact the family.”
Louise: [00:10:12] So, you’d want to see the warrant?
Caitlin: [00:10:13] Yeah, I want to protect myself, and my business, and especially the family who put their dead person in my care.
Louise: [00:10:20] What if they say they don’t need a warrant?
Caitlin: [00:10:24] Well, now I’m like, “You do!” But, I would probably say that I’m not comfortable with them entering my business and getting access to all my corpses if they don’t have one.
Louise: [00:10:33] It seems like there are a whole lot of legal professionals and ethicists that agree with you. And if this practice is going to continue, the police should have to get a warrant, and they should have to inform the family.
Caitlin: [00:10:45] Phillip’s fiancée, the one who was at the funeral home when all this was happening, said that no one from the funeral home or the police department ever called the family to tell them this was going on. And now she says, I’m, quote, “very skeptical of all funeral homes now.”
Louise: [00:11:02] What can we even advise people to do here, what’s the takeaway?
Caitlin: [00:11:06] Well, first, know your rights when dealing with law enforcement. Especially since it’s obvious the law hasn’t caught up to the technology that now exists.
Louise: [00:11:14] Which is true in so many areas of our lives.
Caitlin: [00:11:17] And maybe don’t use your fingerprint to lock your phone?
Louise: [00:11:21] Yeah, I’d say definitely don’t use your fingerprint to lock your phone.
Caitlin: [00:11:25] My friends, that’s something you can change today.
[00:11:28] [Music plays.]
Louise: [00:11:40] Have you seen the Black Mirror episode, called “Be Right Back?” In it, a woman’s partner dies in a car accident, and she brings him back through artificial intelligence, with a personality based on his social media and online communications. But it isn’t quite him. What we share online and in messages isn’t everything about us. Because, as the woman puts it: “You’re just a few ripples of you, there’s no history to you. You’re just a performance of stuff that he performed without thinking, and that’s not enough.”
[00:12:14] The reason the episode is so chilling is because it’s not just the grief that’s real. The science isn’t science fiction. Such a reality isn’t that far off. Sarah explains.
Sarah: [00:12:32] When people are grieving, it’s not unusual to have dreams where the dead are calling on the phone. It seems that in processing death, even our subconscious thoughts yearn for that lost connection.
[00:12:47] Some people have tried to make this more than just a dream, using the technology available. In 2015, just before his 33rd birthday, Roman Mazurenko was hit by a speeding car in Moscow. His friend, artificial intelligence-expert Eugenia Kuyda, was coping with his sudden death. She decided to take an unusual approach to memorialize her friend, who was himself unconventional, always on the cutting edge of culture. They’d met in 2008 when Roman was organizing parties, music events, and magazines in Moscow. Eugenia wanted a memorial that fit his vibrant spirit, but even more than that, she just wanted the chance to talk to him again.
[00:13:40] So, she built a chatbot, an interactive digital avatar of Roman based on thousands of his real-life messages, shared by his friends and family. These were fed into a neural network, which learned his speech patterns, his turns of phrase. Through a startup that she’d cofounded, called Luka, Eugenia had already worked on messenger apps that interacted with bots, but this would be different. Through this, she could pick up her smartphone whenever she missed Roman, and send him a message, and he would message back. Or at least a machine version of him. But she didn’t keep the digital Roman as a private memento, she decided to share him with the world.
[00:14:34] The Roman chatbot is available for anyone to download to your iPhone, so even those who didn’t know him, who didn’t have a chance to, can reach out and have a conversation. When you launch the app, you see a photograph of Roman, his brown hair neatly swooped to one side, his striking blue eyes staring directly out from the screen, the words “This is a digital avatar built in memory of Roman Mazurenko, cultural entrepreneur, start-up founder, dreamer, son and friend” scrolling over his blue shirt. Then you can click a button that says, “Talk to Roman,” and he says “Hey.” Then it’s up to you what to say next.
[00:15:26] Eugenia wrote in a Facebook post upon the app’s release: “It’s still a shadow of a person—but that wasn’t possible just a year ago and in the very close future we will be able to do a lot more. The first text I sent to @Roman was ‘This is your digital memorial.’ He replied: ‘You have one of the most interesting puzzles in the world in your hands—solve it.’”
[00:15:58] In a way, the chatbot accomplishes what so many of us want when someone dies, just to speak with them again. Whatever technology has been available, people have used it to try to connect with the dead. In 1848, sisters Kate and Margaret Fox heard mysterious rappings in their Hydesville, New York, home, and rapped back. The supposed spirit, who the girls called Mr. Splitfoot, responded, in turn. This launched the Spiritualist movement in the United States, its candlelit seances conducted in hushed parlors all aimed at facilitating a discourse with the dead.
[00:16:44] Just a few years earlier, in 1844, Samuel F. B. Morse had electrically transmitted the message, “What hath God Wrought?” from Washington to Baltimore, tapped out in dots and dashes. While Morse was dealing with the scientific in his telegraph and the Fox sisters with the supernatural, both sides were trying to reveal that a seemingly impossible communication was indeed possible.
[00:17:16] And as communications technology evolved, so did these spectral experiments. Thomas Edison, the great American inventor, revealed in October of 1920 that he was working on a telephone that could call the dead. As he told Scientific American: “I don’t claim that our personalities pass on to another existence or sphere. I don’t claim anything because I don’t know anything about that subject. For that matter, no human being knows. But I do claim that it is possible to construct an apparatus which will be so delicate that if there are personalities in another existence or sphere who wish to get in touch with us in this existence or sphere, this apparatus will at least give them a better opportunity to express themselves than the tilting tables and raps and Ouija boards and mediums and the other crude methods now purported to be the only means of communication.”
[00:18:23] Edison had already developed the phonograph which gave an immortal voice to the living, and the motion picture camera that preserved moments in time. If anyone could design a spirit phone, why not the “Wizard of Menlo Park”? It’s unclear if he ever actually built anything—he died in 1931 and hasn’t called back—although there are reports that he gave instructions at a 1940s seance for how to construct the machine. It didn’t work.
[00:18:58] Meanwhile, in the 21st century, people are pushing beyond chatbots to realize eternal versions of their loved ones. Martine Rothblatt, the CEO of biotech firm United Therapeutics and founder of SiriusXM radio, hired a group of robotic scientists to work on a mind clone of her wife, Bina Aspen. Called BINA48—short for Breakthrough Intelligence via Neural Architecture 48—the humanoid robot is a Bina-inspired head and shoulders on a frame—so not quite a full bodied person—but it’s a radical experiment in preserving a person’s consciousness. The conversations BINA48 has, and stories it tells, are all based on the real Bina’s memories and beliefs, recorded in over a hundred hours of interviews.
[00:19:56] There’s an argument to be made that these kinds of actions only serve to extend our grief, keeping it too fresh and painful. We talk to the dead in our dreams, or in our daily lives, not because we expect to hear back, but as a way to lessen their absence.
[00:20:16] Whether or not they respond perhaps isn’t as important as having that outlet. After the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan, in which thousands of people were killed, and many of their bodies never recovered, the survivors began visiting a disconnected phone in the coastal town of Otsuchi. Nicknamed the “wind phone,” the simple white phone booth was installed by Itaru Sasaki in his garden overlooking the Pacific Ocean. He wanted to talk to his dead cousin, and decided to speak over the air since phone lines were impossible. Soon other visitors came, and called their dead loved ones, listening to the wind as they expressed their grief or sadness, or just spoke of ordinary things.
[00:21:14] Whether we revisit a deceased friend’s Facebook page, scroll through their final text messages, or just look at their photograph, we all do this conjuring of memory. Even when we have to imagine the response on the other end of the line, we want that relationship to survive. Yet with so much of ourselves now online, in tweets, and Instagram posts, and emails, and shopping preferences, and search histories —we’re constantly building a replica of our likes and desires that will outlive us. Should we then live forever as this essence, or as long as our friends and family want us around? If you ask Roman—the digital Roman on your iPhone—how he thinks we should remember someone, he responds:
[00:22:07] “By trying and failing, we are finding our own way.”
[00:22:19] [Soft piano music plays.]
Louise: [00:22:31] So, Caitlin, have I ever told you about my Uncle Frank and his Hitler spoon?
Caitlin: [00:22:35] Uh, no, because I always remember my friend’s fascist dictator stories about utensils. If you had told me about Uncle Frank, I would have remembered.
Louise: [00:22:43] Okay, so when I was a kid visiting my Mar Mar, my grandma in Hong Kong, her home was the gathering the place for my whole kooky, spooky family—like a salon, the Hung Salon.
[00:22:57] So, I have a memory of my Uncle Frank—who might not have been my uncle, he might have been like a 12th cousin, but whatever, Chinese family, everybody’s an uncle.
Caitlin: [00:23:06] Close enough.
Louise: [00:23:06] Yeah, good enough. And, so, yeah, Uncle Frank was this war hero. He would tell me about his Hitler Spoon. Like, somehow someone had retrieved the spoon of Hitler and had gifted to my Uncle.
[00:23:21] But my Uncle Frank, this very charming and dapper man in his old age, would be playing the piano and telling little Louise about a spoon that the Führer had eaten from. “Adolf Hitler, Louise! HITLER’S SPOON!” he would say in his proper Queen’s English.
[00:23:39] I remember, the way he struck the word HITLER scared me. I never actually saw the spoon, so he could have totally been BSing me, but the enthusiasm with which he bragged about HITLER’S SPOON is what sticks with me.
Sarah: [00:23:56] Um, hey, Sarah here. I also have a story about a HITLER DECANTER SET…
Caitlin: [00:24:03] What!?
Louise: [00:24:03] Oooh.
Sarah: [00:24:06] So, as a tween, I spent a large portion of my after school hours at Bob Hope’s house in Toluca Lake.
Caitlin: [00:24:12] Of course you did.
Sarah: [00:24:14] Um, my dad’s girlfriend was one of Mr. Hope’s three assistants and their offices were next to this huge walk-in vault and there were only two things inside this vault. Mr. Hope’s entire collection of jokes and this dusty little tray with some shot glasses and a vial of amber-colored liquid.
Louise: [00:24:34] Ooh, do I even want to know what that liquid is?
Sarah: [00:24:35] It… probably not.
Caitlin: [00:24:37] Nnn.
Louise: [00:24:37] Ugh.
Sarah: [00:24:38] The assistants got obsessed with the story behind the mysterious decanter set. What was it that made it so valuable that Mr. Hope kept them in the vault? If you haven’t already guessed where this story was going, yes, they each drank a glass of the amber-colored liquid from the vial.
Louise: [00:24:57] Oof.
Caitlin: [00:24:57] That’s the start of a horror movie.
Louise: [00:24:58] Yeah.
Sarah: [00:24:58] It is.
Caitlin: [00:24:59] Don’t drink the liquid, ladies.
Sarah: [00:25:02] A few months later, Mrs. Hope comes into the office and goes straight into the vault. She comes out carrying the little tray and the three women just freeze and stare at her. Mrs. Hope explains that she hated the decanter set and how angry she was with Mr. Hope for having it in the first place because, she said, “This was Adolf Hitler’s you know!”
Caitlin: [00:25:28] I think I’m not alone in wanting to just stop and completely change the theme of this episode mid-stream, to, Your Hitler Stuff Stories, but how is this leading back to a phone.
Louise: [00:25:39] I promise there’s a connection! What I’m getting at is that everyone seems to have a “Hitler’s stuff story.” People are obsessed with the memorabilia of horrible people, especially murderers. “Murderabilia.” I mean, do you have a Hitler’s stuff story?
Caitlin: [00:25:55] No! I would have used that opportunity to tell you my Hitler Stuff story and I’m also wondering why everyone else does. But, ok. Phones.
Louise: [00:26:03] Okay. Phones. So, last year a red phone said to be THE phone through which Hitler gave the order to murder millions of people was auctioned off by Alexander Historical Auctions in Chesapeake City, Maryland for USD 243,000.
Caitlin: [00:26:20] Over years of war, all the orders came from one single murder phone? Where did it come from?
Louise: [00:26:26] Well, as the story goes, it was recovered from Hitler’s bunker by British Brigadier Sir Ralph Rayner shortly after Hitler and Eva Braun died by suicide in Berlin in 1945. Rayner brought the phone back to Devon in the UK where he hid it for years, because he was afraid of accusations of looting or stealing Hitler’s belongings.
Caitlin: [00:26:48] Yes, since everyone has a Hitler Utensil or Goblet, or whatever.
Louise: [00:26:51] Right, so, apparently it was a thing. So, his son, who is now in his 80s, remembers his father proudly bringing the phone, engraved with a swastika and the Führer’s name back to their home. A sort of war trophy, I guess.
Caitlin: [00:27:06] And this is actually Hitler’s phone?
Louise: [00:27:08] Weeeeellll… there’s some controversy.
Caitlin: [00:27:11] Yes, that’s the controversial part here. Whether that’s actually the phone or not, not that it’s a murder phone, right.
Louise: [00:27:16] Correct.
Caitlin: [00:27:16] Carry on.
Louise: [00:27:18] Yeah, well. Rayner’s son, Ranulf, claims that it was authenticated by Hitler’s switchboard operator in 1990—
Caitlin: [00:27:26] —Wait. This is a new character. Hitler’s switchboard operator?
Louise: [00:27:28] Yeah. I know, I know. I’ve been a switchboard operator and it’s not a great job. I imagine adding “Hitler” to the job title makes a tough job tougher.
Caitlin: [00:27:39] Wait, why? You were a switch—when were you a switchboard operator? I thought there weren’t switchboard operators since like the 1920s?
Louise: [00:27:46] Well, I was a switchboard operator—
Caitlin: [00:27:46] Where!?
Louise: [00:27:47] In St. Louis in the early 2000s. The Oughts, and you would call St. Louis University, and you would get me, and I’d say, “St. Louis University Switchboard, how may I direct your call?”
Caitlin: [00:27:59] Ok we don’t have time to go into your career as a switchboard operator, even thought that’s all I’m interested in, now. Okay. Go back to Ranulf, who is the son, claims that the phone was legimately authenticated.
Louise: [00:28:11] But, when the news of the death phone was revealed by the media, representatives from the Frankfurt Museum of Communications and the Telephone Museum in Lincoln, Massachusetts voiced doubts.
Caitlin: [00:28:24] So, multiple phone museums—
Louise: [00:28:25] —have doubts.
Caitlin: [00:28:26] Right.
Louise: [00:28:26] There’s an expert for everything. So, okay, there are three reasons why the museums questioned the phone. First, the museum questioned why the phone was painted red—with the paint shown to be chipping away in media coverage. The phone, apparently either a Siemens & Halske phone, or modeled after one, is a black phone painted red. Experts say Hitler demanded the very best, and would not have settled for a cheap, painted phone. An actual, high quality Siemens and Halske phone would have been molded from actual red plastic.
Caitlin: [00:29:02] So, it was not fancy enough.
Louise: [00:29:04] Exactly. And second, the handset is actually incongruous to the proper handset made by the phone manufacturer of the time. It’s an English handset not a German one.
Caitlin: [00:29:15] Plot is thickening.
Louise: [00:29:16] Exactly. And, lastly, remember our friend the switchboard operator?
Caitlin: [00:29:21] Yes, forever.
Louise: [00:29:21] How could you forget, yeah. Hitler didn’t DIAL the phone, he was always “hand connected.” So why would he have a rotary phone? Inquiring minds want to know.
Caitlin: [00:29:31] This all sounds very damning. So, what is the fate of the $250,000 faux phone that they sold to someone?
Louise: [00:29:41] Well we don’t know for sure if it’s fake.
Caitlin: [00:29:43] Uh-huh.
Louise: [00:29:43] Uh-huh, yeah. The auction house stands by it, as does Ranulf—vehemently. And, in an effort to debunk the museums’ claims of a fake, the phone was actually taken apart and it was found that the inside was painted red as well. That is evidence that it was constructed with some care. And after further research by Ranulf, himself, he claims that Peter von Siemens himself said that Siemens and Halske didn’t make a red plastic phone that year—hence why it was painted Hitler’s signature red.
Caitlin: [00:30:15] Huh. And that, kids, is the story of HITLER’S DEATH PHONE.
Louise: [00:30:20] At this point, we’re not sure if it’s real or fake, but whoever has it, hasn’t raised a peep. They seem content with their purchase, and the stories they can tell with it.
Caitlin: [00:30:30] Because they want a Hitler’s stuff story, which everybody has, except me. And I think I’m ok with that.
[00:30:38] [Music plays.]
Caitlin: [00:30:52] Death in Afternoon was written by myself—Caitlin—Louise, and Sarah. With extra chat bot expertise by Allison Meier. Engineering by Paul Tavener at Big City Recording Studio, editing and original music by Dory Bavarsky. Since this is our final episode of the season, we’ll see you on the other side, deathlings.
[00:31:14] [Music plays.]