How the “Paul McCartney is Dead” Hoax Started at an American College Newspaper and Went Viral (1969)

Next time you see the still-youth­ful and musi­cal­ly pro­lif­ic Paul McCart­ney, take a good hard look and ask your­self, “is it real­ly him?” Can you be sure? Because maybe, just maybe, the con­spir­a­cy the­o­rists are right—maybe Paul did die in a car acci­dent in 1966 and was replaced by a dou­ble who looks, sounds, acts, and writes almost exact­ly like him. Almost. It’s pos­si­ble. Entire­ly implau­si­ble, whol­ly improb­a­ble, but with­in the realm of phys­i­cal pos­si­bil­i­ty.

In fact, the rumor of Paul’s death and replace­ment by some kind of pod per­son imposter cropped up not once, but twice dur­ing the six­ties. First, in Jan­u­ary, 1967, imme­di­ate­ly after an acci­dent involv­ing McCartney’s Mini Coop­er that month. The car, dri­ven by Moroc­can stu­dent Moham­mad Had­jij, crashed on the M1 after leav­ing McCartney’s house en route to Kei­th Richard’s Sus­sex Man­sion. Had­jij was hos­pi­tal­ized, but not killed, and Paul, rid­ing in Mick Jagger’s car, arrived at the des­ti­na­tion safe­ly.

The fol­low­ing month, the Bea­t­les Book Month­ly mag­a­zine quashed rumors that Paul had been dri­ving the Mini and had died, writ­ing, “there was absolute­ly no truth in it at all, as the Bea­t­les’ Press Offi­cer found out when he tele­phoned Paul’s St. John’s Wood home and was answered by Paul him­self who had been at home all day with his black Mini Coop­er Safe­ly locked up in the garage.” “The mag­a­zine,” writes the Bea­t­les Bible, “down­played the inci­dent, and claimed the car was in McCartney’s pos­ses­sion.”

In 1969, rumors of Paul’s death and a con­spir­a­cy to cov­er it up began cir­cu­lat­ing again, this time with an impres­sive appa­ra­tus that includ­ed pub­li­ca­tions in col­lege and local news­pa­pers, dis­cus­sions on sev­er­al radio shows, a uni­ver­si­ty research team, and enough eso­teric clues to keep high­ly sus­pi­cious, stoned, and/or para­noid, minds guess­ing for decades after­ward. The form­less gos­sip first offi­cial­ly took shape in print in the arti­cle “Is Bea­t­le Paul McCart­ney Dead?” in Iowa’s Drake Uni­ver­si­ty stu­dent news­pa­per, the Times-Del­ph­ic. Cat­a­logu­ing “an amaz­ing series of pho­tos and lyrics on the group’s albums” that point­ed to “a dis­tinct pos­si­bil­i­ty that McCart­ney may indeed be insane, freaked out, even dead,” the piece dives head­first into the kind of bizarre analy­sis of dis­parate sym­bols and ten­u­ous coin­ci­dences wor­thy of the most dogged of today’s con­spir­a­cy-mon­gers.



Invoked are ephemera like “a mys­te­ri­ous hand” raised over Paul’s head on the Sgt. Pepper’s cover—“an ancient death sym­bol of either the Greeks or the Amer­i­can Indians”—and Paul’s bass, lying “on the grave at the group’s feet.” The lyric “blew his mind out in a car” from “A Day in the Life” comes up, and more pho­to­graph­ic evi­dence from the album’s back cov­er and cen­ter­fold pho­to. Evi­dence is pro­duced from Mag­i­cal Mys­tery Tour and The White Album. Of the lat­ter, you’ve sure­ly heard, or heard of, the voice seem­ing to intone, “Turn me on, dead man,” and “Cher­ish the dead,” when “Rev­o­lu­tion No. 9” is played back­wards. Only a col­lege dorm room could have nur­tured such a dis­cov­ery.

The arti­cle reads like a parody—similar to the sub­ver­sive, half-seri­ous satir­i­cal weird­ness com­mon to the mid-six­ties hip­pie scene. But whether or not its author, Tim Harp­er, meant to pull off a hoax, the Paul is dead meme went viral when it hit the air­waves the fol­low­ing month. First, a caller to Detroit radio sta­tion WKNR trans­mit­ted the the­o­ry to DJ Russ Gibb. Their hour-long con­ver­sa­tion lead to a review of Abbey Road in The Michi­gan Dai­ly titled “McCart­ney Dead; New Evi­dence Brought to Light.” With tongue in cheek, writer Fred LaBour called the death and replace­ment of Paul “the great­est hoax of our time and the sub­se­quent found­ing of a new reli­gion based upon Paul as Mes­si­ah.” In the mode of para­noid con­spir­a­cy the­o­ry so com­mon to the time—a genre mas­tered by Thomas Pyn­chon as a lit­er­ary art—LaBour invent­ed even more clues, inad­ver­tent­ly feed­ing a pub­lic hun­gry for this kind of thing. “Although clear­ly intend­ed as a joke,” writes the Bea­t­les Bible, “it had an impact far wider than the writer and his edi­tor expect­ed.”

Part of the after­math came in two more radio shows that Octo­ber of 1969. First, in two parts at the top, New York City DJ Roby Yonge makes the case for McCartney’s death on radio sta­tion WABC-AM. Recy­cling many of the “clues” from the pre­vi­ous sources, he also con­tends that a research team of 30 stu­dents at Indi­ana Uni­ver­si­ty has been put on the case. Yonge plain­ly states that some of the clues only emerge “if you real­ly get real­ly, real­ly high… on some, you know, like, mind-bend­ing drug,” but this pro­vi­so doesn’t seem to under­mine his con­fi­dence in the shaky web of con­nec­tions.

Was Yonge’s broad­cast just an atten­tion grab­bing act? Maybe. The next Paul is Dead radio show, just above, is most cer­tain­ly an Orson Welles-like pub­lic­i­ty stunt. Broad­cast on Hal­loween night, 1969, on Buf­fa­lo, NY’s WKBW, the show employs sev­er­al of the station’s DJs, who con­struct a detailed and dra­mat­ic nar­ra­tive of Paul’s death. The broad­cast indulges the same album-cov­er and lyric div­ina­tion of the ear­li­er Paul is Dead media, but by this time, it’s grown pret­ty hoary. But for a small con­tin­gent of die-hards, the rumor was most­ly put to rest just a few days lat­er when Life mag­a­zine pub­lished a cov­er pho­to­graph of Paul—who had been out of the pub­lic eye after the Bea­t­les’ breakup—with his wife Lin­da and their kids. Para­phras­ing Mark Twain, McCart­ney famous­ly remarked in the inter­view inside, “Rumors of my death have been great­ly exag­ger­at­ed,” and added, “If I was dead, I’m sure I’d be the last to know.”

In lat­er inter­views, the Bea­t­les denied hav­ing any­thing to do with the hoax. Lennon told Rolling Stone in 1970 that the idea of them inten­tion­al­ly plant­i­ng obscure clues in their albums “was bull­shit, the whole thing was made up.” The hoax did make for some inter­est­ing publicity—even fea­tur­ing in the sto­ry­line of a Bat­man comics issue—but the band most­ly found it baf­fling and annoy­ing. Cer­tain fans, how­ev­er, refused to let it die, and there are those who still swear that Paul’s imposter, alleged­ly named Bil­ly Shears and some­times called “Faul,” still walks the earth. Paul is Dead web­sites pro­lif­er­ate on the internet—some more, some less con­vinc­ing; all of them out­landish, and all offer­ing a fas­ci­nat­ing descent into the seem­ing­ly bot­tom­less rab­bit hole of con­spir­a­cy the­o­ry. If that’s your kind of trip, you can eas­i­ly get lost—as did pop cul­ture briefly in 1969—in end­less “Paul is Dead” spec­u­la­tion.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Paul McCartney’s Con­cep­tu­al Draw­ings For the Abbey Road Cov­er and Mag­i­cal Mys­tery Tour Film

Chaos & Cre­ation at Abbey Road: Paul McCart­ney Revis­its The Bea­t­les’ Fabled Record­ing Stu­dio

Hear Iso­lat­ed Tracks From Five Great Rock Bassists: McCart­ney, Sting, Dea­con, Jones & Lee

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

by | Permalink | Comments (15) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Comments (15)
You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.
  • Les says:

    I nev­er believed the Bea­t­les them­selves did not play into the rumors and yuk it up. Let’s face it, it had to be fun. There’s only one rea­son why John sang in Glass Onion “here’s anoth­er clue for you all… the wal­rus was Paul”. So for that rea­son I nev­er bought John’s denial.

  • Sonya says:

    I agree with Les. I think the lads invent­ed the whole thing, prob­a­bly whilst trip­ping on acid.

  • Blaknsam says:

    The Bea­t­les did­n’t make it up. By the time the con­spir­a­cy the­o­ry start­ed the Bea­t­les were all but fin­ished as a record­ing act. They already had most of Let It Be done, and were well on the way through Abbey Road.

  • Pat McArthur says:

    I was 17 years old when this non­sense first popped up in 1969.…. to this day I nev­er believed this hoax.…. I wish peo­ple would just knock off the bulls*** about Paul being dead!!!!! You sim­ply can­not dupli­cate Paul’s immense tal­ent.….

  • Paul is dead says:

    And why the fuck so many peo­ple died in a strange cir­cum­stances which were con­nect­ed with the bea­t­les since 1969?!!?why if this is a hoax?

  • Clare Kuehn says:

    You real­ly gar­bled what the sit­u­a­tion is. The Chtaibi / Had­jij thing is a total farce, impos­si­ble in detail if not improb­a­ble only. The dis­claimer from 1967 Feb­ru­ary Bea­t­les Book month­ly mag­a­zine, UK only at the time, respond­ed to rumours already cir­cu­lat­ing for months. That you don’t know about the oth­er infor­ma­tion and trust the 2000 Gad­fly arti­cle with Chtaibi / Had­jij is in itself a con­fir­ma­tion bias you show, from prej­u­dice. This case, about Paul’s death, goes far beyond the clues but includes them. RIP Paul.

  • Clare Kuehn says:

    Also, even your men­tion of the 1967 dis­claimer means your title is con­fused. Do you real­ize that now? The rumours can’t have start­ed in 1969 no mat­ter what. Also, LaBour said he made up his ver­sion real­ly, and did­n’t believe in the death. That he made it all up even for 1969 is patent­ly impos­si­ble, since he heard the Detroit call to radio, by “Tom” a few days before and Harp­er had writ­ten in Iowa Sep­tem­ber 17, 1969. Bias stood in the way of nor­mal inter­pre­ta­tion of even basic facts you men­tioned.

  • TommyRattigan says:

    I thought he’d died years ago?

  • Prudentia says:

    It’s hard to believe that Clare Kuehn is still push­ing her Paul-Is-Dead garbage. What age is Clare Kuehn, any­way? Some say sex­tu­ge­nar­i­an.
    Oth­ers say sep­tu­a­ge­nar­i­an.

    Either way,not to old old to be locked

  • Prudentia says:

    It’s hard to believe that Clare Kuehn is still push­ing her Paul-Is-Dead garbage. What age is Clare Kuehn, any­way?
    Some say sex­tu­ge­nar­i­an.
    Oth­ers say sep­tu­a­ge­nar­i­an.

    Either way,not to old old to be locked

  • Prudentia says:

    It’s hard to believe that Clare Kuehn is still push­ing her Paul-Is-Dead garbage. What age is Clare Kuehn, any­way?

    Some say sex­tu­ge­nar­i­an.
    Oth­ers say sep­tu­a­ge­nar­i­an.

    Either way,not to old old to be locked

  • James Paul says:

    James Paul McCart­ney died in car crash on Sep­tem­ber 11 1966. Bri­an Epstein with the con­sent of the author­i­ties at the time and the three Bea­t­les, he decides to replace Paul with a right-hand­ed ses­sion musi­cian named William Shep­herd. Every­one involved, includ­ing their fam­i­lies, vowed to keep every­thing a secret. How­ev­er, The Bea­t­les pro­duced over a hun­dred clues about Paul’s death in their albums and images. William under­went numer­ous cos­met­ic surg­eries to resem­ble Paul. William is two inch­es taller than Paul, William has green eyes, William has a weak­er and thin­ner voice than Paul, William has total­ly dif­fer­ent man­ners. Musi­cal­ly, Paul was a genius, William is a weak musi­cian.

  • Valery says:


    Paul is ALIVE!!!

  • Justice For James Paul McCartney says:

    Paul está vivo!!!

    Viva Paul!!!


  • Stephanas Razsa says:

    Maybe that’s why they killed John. He was gonna spill the beans.

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.