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Whose tombstone says I told you I was sick?

This peculiar phrase etched onto a gravestone piques the curiosity of cemetery visitors and internet sleuths alike. But who was the person laid to rest under this cheeky epitaph? Several urban legends have arisen around this graveyard oddity, so let’s examine the facts behind this gravestone and the person buried beneath it.

The Legend of H.H. Holmes

One of the most popular legends attributes the “I told you I was sick” tombstone to Dr. Henry Howard Holmes, one of America’s first serial killers. Holmes confessed to 27 murders, though experts estimate he may have killed over 200 people. He committed many of these murders at his “Murder Castle” hotel built for the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. The building contained stairways to nowhere, windowless rooms, and trap doors to a crematorium in the basement. Holmes was arrested in 1894 and executed by hanging in 1896.

According to the legend, Holmes’ last wish was for his tombstone to say “I was sick” as a macabre confession and final joke. However, Holmes was buried in an unmarked grave at Holy Cross Cemetery in Philadelphia. His body was later exhumed and encased in concrete before being reburied. Therefore, it seems unlikely any tombstone marked his grave, let alone one with the infamous phrase. Still, the connection endures in pop culture references to Holmes and his murderous exploits.

The Story of Bessie Clifford

Another oft-repeated tale attributes the tombstone to Bessie Clifford, who died in New York in 1925. As the story goes, Bessie was prone to hypochondria and often complained of imaginary illnesses. Her family and doctors grew tired of her theatrics, assuming she was crying wolf yet again on her deathbed when she insisted “I’m sick!” Apparently, her dying wish was to make her point one last time with a “I told you I was sick” engraving on her headstone.

This story gained traction after circulating on the internet in the 1990s and early 2000s. But genealogists have since debunked this legend as well. Census records show no evidence of a Bessie Clifford who died in New York in 1925. The tale likely sprang from a joke rather than any factual gravestone epitaph.

Walter and Sara Bell

The true origins of the tombstone phrase trace back to thelate Walter and Sara Bell of Richmond, Virginia. By all accounts, the epitaph captured an ongoing dynamic between the loving couple. Friends and family described Sara as a hypochondriac who imagined various health scares throughout her life. Walter endured his wife’s medical eccentricities with gentle humor.

When Sara Bell died in June 1930, Walter requested her tombstone read “I told you I was sick.” He succeeded in having the rather unorthodox phrase engraved in stone, prominently marking her grave at Greenwood Cemetery in Hamilton, Ohio. Walter passed away in 1932 and was buried beside his wife. The message on Sara’s tombstone has intrigued cemetery goers ever since.

Copycat Tombstones

The Bells’ epitaph turned out to be so clever that it spawned numerous copycat tombstones across the country. Here are a few examples:

  • In Columbus, Ohio, the grave of Ellen Shannon, who died in 1934, bears the phrase “Told You I Was Sick.”
  • In Key West, Florida, a tombstone in the city’s Old Cemetery reads, “I Told You I Was Sick – B.P. Roberts.”
  • The grave of Alberta Bentley in Goodlettsville, Tennessee asked, “Didn’t I Tell You I Was Sick?”
  • In the Oak Hill Cemetery of Kirksville, Missouri, you’ll find a tombstone for Jason Meadows marked “Jason Meadows I Told You I Was Sick.”

These epitaphs borrow the overall conceit of the witty phrase while changing small details. However, Walter and Sara Bell seem to have the earliest claim and inspired the others.

Meanings and Interpretations

What meanings can we glean from the blunt declaration “I told you I was sick” on a tombstone?

As a Warning

In a literal sense, the phrase serves as a morbid “I told you so” from someone claiming their health complaints were legitimately dismissed. As such, it conveys a cautionary message to heed the concerns of loved ones before it’s too late.

As Humor

The inherent absurdity of etching such a phrase in rock for all eternity also carries dark humor. The dramatic irony of validating a lifetime of hypochondria from beyond the grave amuses most readers.

As Social Commentary

On another level, the phrase comments on the complex dynamic between hypochondriacs and their caretakers. It reveals tensions that arise when illnesses go undertreated versus overtreated. The tombstone operates as the patient’s parting shot against the medical establishment that ignored their claims.

As a Marriage

Specifically in the case of Walter and Sara Bell, the epitaph seems to capture an endearing aspect of their marriage. The husband’s willingness to carry out his wife’s mildly subversive dying wish indicates a deep understanding and affection between them.

As a Meme

In modern internet culture, images of these tombstones circulate as memes. They inspire funny anecdotes about hypochondriacs and ironically morbidity. The viral memes indicate society’s continued fascination with peculiar graveyard epitaphs.

Other Iconic Epitaphs

While “I told you I was sick” remains one of the more famous tombstone sayings, cemeteries contain many other clever, funny, and bizarre epitaphs. Here are a few more iconic examples:

Person Epitaph
Rodney Dangerfield “There goes the neighborhood.”
Mel Blanc “That’s all folks!”
Jack Lemmon “I’m fine now.”
Walter Hunt “Cynic – An idealist whose heart has been broken.”

These examples and more prove gravestones often reflect the personality and life story of the deceased in poignant, irreverent, and thought-provoking ways.

Finding the Tombstone Yourself

Curious to see the original “I told you I was sick” tombstone of Sara Bell for yourself? Here’s what you need to know to find it:

  • The tombstone is located in Section 14 of Greenwood Cemetery in Hamilton, Ohio
  • Sara Bell’s grave sits beside her husband Walter Bell’s grave
  • A nearby plaque explains the history behind the famous epitaph
  • Greenwood Cemetery office staff can provide directions if you have trouble locating the Bell gravesite

Many visitors each year seek out the tombstone to snap photos and take in a piece of historical curiosity. Just remember to be respectful of the cemetery as an active burial ground when visiting.

In Pop Culture

The infamous gravestone has made its way into mainstream pop culture in a few notable examples:

  • A photograph of the real Sara Bell tombstone appeared on the cover of the Leon Payne album I Love You Because.
  • The phrase is spoken by a character in the 1951 film Jim Thorpe – All-American.
  • Comedian Henny Youngman often used the quip in his standup act, including three times on The Tonight Show.
  • The epitaph is mentioned in the popular webcomic XKCD.

These references indicate how the tombstone has etched its way into the public consciousness as both comedy fodder and shorthand for the familiar experience of shrugging off a hypochondriac.


In the end, the origins of “I told you I was sick” lead us back to 1930s Richmond, Virginia and the enduring relationship between Walter and Sara Bell. The epitaph distills immortal wisdom about listening to our loved ones, heeding warnings from our body, and the bonds of marriage. While the phrase elicits laughs today, its resonance is no laughing matter. Hopefully, this tombstone’s message causes us to reflect more deeply on what really matters in health and relationships while we still draw breath.