|The grave of "Live-Forever" Jones in Fisherville, Kentucky|
Memento mori is a Latin phrase meaning, "remember that you have to die". It is more than just a phrase, of course; it is a reminder-- a warning-- that from the moment we are born, we are careening toward our inevitable demise.
Death is a universal truth-- at least it is a universal truth in the minds of most people. Yet, for as long as mankind has buried its dead, there have been many who devoted their lives to finding the key to everlasting life. And there are also those who claimed to have found it.
We decided to check in with some of these self-proclaimed discoverers of eternal life to see how they're doing. Imagine our surprise when we discovered that they were all dead.
Of all the people who claimed to be immortal, few were as interesting as Leonard "Live-Forever" Jones, an eccentric politician who once ran for President of the United States and who genuinely believed that immortality could be achieved by adhering to a strict regimen of prayer and fasting.
Born in Virginia in 1797, Jones moved to Kentucky with his family as a child and had amassed a sizeable fortune as a young man in land speculation. After his fiancée broke off their engagement, Jones turned to religion and renounced his "wordly ways", eventually giving away 5,000 acres of land to the Shakers. Jones dabbled in several different religions throughout his life, but found disappointment in each one. At various times in his life he was a Methodist, Mormon and a member of the Church of the United Brethren. He renounced Mormonism after failing to receive the "gift of tongues" that he believed he had been promised.
While involved in land speculation in Clark County, Indiana, Jones became fascinated with the Shakers, an extreme Christian sect which promotes celibacy and simple living in a communal setting. In the time of Leonard Jones, there were some 6,000 practicing Shakers in America; today only one Shaker community remains in the entire United States (as it turns out, it's really hard to grow a religion that is based upon celibacy). For one reason or another Jones abandoned the Shakers and returned to Kentucky.
It was around this time Jones attended a revival meeting put on by an elderly traveling preacher named McDaniel. McDaniel, apparently, was something of a nut. Although he claimed to know the secret to immortality, he never drew much of a crowd, but Leonard Jones liked what he heard and became McDaniel's most loyal disciple. They traveled together preaching the doctrine of immortality-through-fasting and things were going well, but they hit a bit of a snag when McDaniel got sick and died.
When someone asked Jones if his faith had been shaken by McDaniel's death he replied, "No. But I was very much embarrassed to preach his funeral!"
During the 1856 presidential election, which was eventually won by James Buchanan, Leonard Jones announced himself the opposition candidate but received very few votes because the clerks had failed to put his name on the ballot. Jones claimed that the election was illegal and went to court, where he obtained a written injunction against Buchanan, but nothing ever came of it. He also ran against Abraham Lincoln and contested the results of the 1860 election after losing. After Lincoln's assassination, Jones-- who claimed to be the morally superior candidate-- stated that the president's untimely death was "retributive justice".
In 1867, Jones claimed to be the "morally elected" Governor of Kentucky, and viewed the death of Gov. John Helm as proof of his claim (Helm died five days after his inauguration). Jones fervently believed that since he was God's official representative on earth, he was entitled to fill every political vacancy if he so desired. Throughout his life he filed dozens of lawsuits against elected officials, claiming that he was the rightful office-holder, whether he had actually run for the office or not.
Even though very few people took Jones seriously, there was something charming about the eccentric zealot who claimed to be immortal. He practiced what he preached and was said to have no vices whatsoever. He never consumed food in the presence of others and, until the day of his death, he preached his doctrine of physical immortality through prayer, starvation and poverty.
After his death from pneumonia in August of 1868, one obituary (from the Louisville Daily Courier) stated:
No political meeting ever passed off within a hundred miles of Louisville that did not hear from Live-Forever Jones. Though a warm sympathizer with the South, he believed himself the only man who could save the country, and though his speech was usually the last, it was always there. The antics he would cut in emphasizing his remarks were grotesque in the extreme, and we have seen him jumping straight up and down for several minutes at a time, whacking the table with his cane and drowning his own voice in the racket he made. Sometimes a band of music would undertake to play him down, [but] he always waited and had his say to the rollicking, shouting crowd that was ever ready to applaud and extol him. His speeches never got into print, however, and he was always at loggerheads with the reporters for leaving him out.