How the Rumor That Paul McCartney Died in 1966 and Was Secretly Replaced by a Look-Alike Got Started

paul-mccartneyFor a couple of months in the fall of 1969, a persistent rumor that Paul McCartney had been killed two years earlier and replaced with a look-alike captured the imaginations of Beatles fans and the general public.

The rumor began in the winter of 1967 when, after a particularly icy night, reports were flying among Britain’s national press that Paul had been killed in a car crash on January 7, 1967. The tale was reported in the February issue of The Beatles Monthly Book (#43) under the heading of “False Rumour,” and with a denial from the Beatles’ press office. In fact, it claimed that neither Paul nor his black Mini Cooper had even left the house that day.

Fast-forward to September 1969, about one week before the release of Abbey Road (9/26/69), when the student newspaper of Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa ran the story Is Beatle Paul McCartney Dead? In the article, which is written in the same style with which today’s Ancient Aliens posits its wildest theories, Tim Harper opined that Paul “may indeed be insane, freaked out, even dead.”

Harper supported the statement by examining Beatle’s album covers and lyrics, and pointed to Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (6/1/67) where he found two mysterious symbols (a hand over Paul’s head and what is conjectured to be “an ancient death symbol”), a left-handed guitar that “lies on the grave at the group’s feet,” (Paul was the only lefty), on the back cover Paul is the only one not facing the camera, and in the centerfold Paul is the only one wearing a black arm band.

Continuing with the examination, Harper looked at the walrus of The Magical Mystery Tour (11/27/67) (revealed to be Paul in 1968’s Glass Onion), which, at least according to Harper, was a Viking symbol of death. And then turning his attention to The Beatles (11/28/68), he reported that playing Revolution No. 9 backward produced phrases about death.

It’s not clear if Harper was kidding or not with his story, but it certainly captured the imagination of the country. By October 1969, the Beatles press office was flooded with questions about Paul’s health, and on October 12, 1969, DJ Russ Gibb of WKNR-FM in Detroit, Michigan moderated a full hour of an impromptu discussion of the topic with listeners who were calling in.

Inspired, Fred LaBour, a University of Michigan natural resources student and reporter with its student newspaper, Michigan Today, who was assigned to review the recently released Abbey Road, penned a satirical piece titled McCartney Dead; New Evidence Brought to Light on October 14, 1969. Unfortunately, many people failed to realize he was kidding.

In a 2009 article, LaBour admitted that he had pulled all of his alleged “clues” out of his hat, but because so many didn’t realize he was joking at the time, several of LaBour’s creations became part of the “Paul is Dead” lore. These include that the lyric “the walrus was Paul,” really means “the corpse was Paul,” with LaBour claiming “walrus” is Greek for “corpse,” and that Paul was replaced with “a Scottish orphan named William Campbell.”

LaBour also claimed that letters on Paul’s black arm band from Sgt. Pepper’s, OPD, stood for the British equivalent of DOA (and meant “Officially Pronounced Dead”), and that Paul’s bare feet on the Abbey Road cover signified that he was a corpse. LaBour also noted that Paul was smoking right-handed, a sure sign that this was an imposter.

Within a week, the rumor, which now contained several of LaBour’s fabrications, had reached the national media. On October 21, 1969, the story was examined on New York’s WABC which was picked up (at least at that time) in 38 states. By now, the alleged crash was claimed to have occurred on November 9, 1966, after Paul had angrily left a Beatles recording session. In addition, at some point, rather than William Campbell, some people were saying “Billy Shears,” was Paul’s replacement, due to the lyric in Sgt. Pepper’s.

Although the Beatles’ press office continued to deny the rumor as “a load of rubbish,” for many the rumor lived on, even after Paul did an interview with Life on November 7, 1969.

It all worked out for Paul and the Beatles though, as a result of the rumor, Beatles’ albums sales increased significantly and both Magical Mystery Tour and Sgt. Pepper’s re-entered Billboard’s top album charts.

At the end of November 1969, LaBour participated in a “cross-examination,” televised on New York’s WOR, that was hosted by F. Lee Bailey and which analyzed the rumor. When LaBour admitted to Bailey before the show that he had made up his “facts,” Bailey reportedly said, “We have an hour of television to do; you’re going to have to go along.” So, he did.

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  • I was 10 when all the hubbub about Paul’s alleged death hit the news. I, like a lot of Beatle fans, hung on every report, rumor, and denial about his demise. I remember that Life issue that came out (wish I had kept it!).

    To this day, the rumor still persists, thanks to the internet and the preponderance of conspiracy-minded folks now gathering in the same virtual space. This is one of many:

    The fake Paul is known as “Faul,” by the way. 😀

  • Sam

    Other “facts” that helped the rumor out from the Abbey Road cover were John wearing white signifying a priest or minister (someone who presided over the funeral/burial), Ringo dressed respectively as a person mourning and George dressed down as a worker (a grave-digger). But the clue that grabbed most attention was the VW bug with the license plate “28 IF” which would have been Paul’s age IF he had lived; according to the rumor.
    A VW Bug with that license plate has made appearances in many photo shoots and movies (‘The Parent Trap’ from 1998 had it, I think).
    So many fun facts regarding this rumor! Great article. Thanks.

  • c.j.

    Let’s not forget about strawberry Fields. At the very end of the song you can here John say Paul is dead. You have to turn the bass down and treble up and be in a quiet setting to hear it.

    • DT

      It says or is supposed to say “I buried Paul”, not Paul is dead.

    • Josh in Champaign

      I think you’re referring to where John supposedly says “I buried Paul”. If you listen to another mix on Beatles Anthology 2, you can more clearly hear that he’s saying “Cranberry Sauce” slowly, in a strange voice.

    • Bob

      I believe if you play the record of Strawberry Fields backwards, at the end you hear someone say “I bury Paul”.

  • David Block

    This article is hogwash. The rumor started MUCH sooner than 1969. On the White Album, in “Glass Onion,” John sings, “And here’s another clue for you all/the walrus is Paul.”

    The article mentions the walrus in the “Glass Onion” song, but neglects to point out that the only reason John would mention any “clue” was to feed the frenzy that already existed. And, since the White Album came out in 1968, it stands to reason that people were looking for clues long before October, 1969.

  • DiscoDollyDeb

    At the end of “Strawberry Fields,” John says very slowly, “I’m very bored ,” which has been misheard as “I buried Paul” (or “Cranberry sauce”!)

    Back in 1969, when this story was everywhere, my cousin and I were totally freaked out by playing “Revolution Number Nine” backwards to apparently hear John saying, “Turn me on, dead man.” I still can’t listen to that song (which, because it’s one of John and Yoko’s experimental pieces, is no great loss).

  • Erica

    The rumor was that at the end of “Strawberry Fields,” John is saying “I buried Paul.” What he is actually saying is “Cranberry sauce.”

    • linda h

      good, you keep believing that. baaaaa…..

  • Armitage

    The black arm band doesn’t even say OPD, it says O.P.P. it’s for the Ontario Provincial Police.

  • mark

    This article is a continuation of the attempt to put the rumor to rest. What I’ve learned in my long life is this; if a rumor persists and reappears over a long period of time, the rumor very likely is true. There have been comprehensive cranial comparisons by experts in the field and the results prove without any doubt whatsoever that the guy claiming to be Paul Mccartney today isn’t the real Paul Mccartney. The real Paul McCartney died in 1966. Just look at the first pictures of ‘Paul’ from 1967; they don’t resemble the real Paul in the least. The replacement wore a fake moustache to conceal surgical scars , he had numerous plastic surgeries to make him look as much like the real Paul as possible. Look at the pictures of the current Paul. None of his features match the real Paul McCartney. Sorry but it’s a fact that today’s ‘Paul’ isn’t Paul McCartney. His death explains the abrupt announcement the following day that the Beatles were not touring anymore. It also explains why ‘Paul’ had no emotions or reaction at all when a reporter asked him about the murder of John Lennon on that very day. ‘Paul’s’ response to the reporter was, ‘ it’s a bummer isn’t it’. It also explains why Heather Mills’ life was threatened when she was divorcing ‘Paul’, and why she said on a television talk show,’ if you top me off ( kill me)the box filled with all that I know will go to a friend and all will be exposed anyway. She added,’ if the people knew the truth about things they wouldn’t be able to handle it,….that’s how big this is’. What could be so ‘big’ that the public couldn’t handle it?

    • linda h

      i agree on all of the above. Very good point about Heather Mills, and the information she had in her possession.
      I used to put the “Paul dead” rumors aside, ‘Paul’ said it was a gimmick to sell records.
      But it always bothered me deeply.
      Why would they perpetuate and continue a vicious story line like that? the demise of their brother, friend, band member?
      And then Stella McCartney was born.
      She simply does not look like either family , McCartney or Eastman.
      The circle always comes around. This is why we are never to have human ‘icons’…humans aren’t up to it

  • Taliso

    Absolute trash perpetuated by a bunch of PID wassocks and smegheads.

    Paul McCartney is ALIVE.

    Don’t let anybody try to
    tell you anything different.

    Paul McCartney is ALIVE!!

  • Wolfwolveswolf

    Ringo Starr is also Left Handed, he just play’s a Drum Kit set up like for a right handed Drummer.