Mark Twain was born in Florida, Missouri on November 30, 1835; the same day Halley’s Comet streaked the sky.
The comet, a jumble of rocks and ice more than 100,000 kilometers across, boomeranged back into space and returned 74 years later, on April 21, 1910, the day Twain died.
Last week, a funeral procession to mark the 100th anniversary of his death was held in Elmira, New York, where the wealthy family he married into once lived. It featured horse-drawn carriages and mourners with black umbrellas (rain fell during his real funeral). The odds of being born and dying on the same day as a comet that comes once a century may seem low, but Twain, who developed an interest in parapsychology after his brother perished in a steamboat explosion he had foreseen in a dream, seemed to have expected it. “I came in with Halley’s Comet in 1835,” he said, a year before his death, “It is coming again next year, and…it will be the greatest disappointment of my life if I don’t go out with Halley’s Comet.”
Death can often be a time of jarring coincidence, but are these occurrences inevitable in a world of billions or the result of a force much more mystical? Several examples, both well-known and unknown, provide insight.
William Shakespeare died on April 23, 1616. He was born in 1564, on, what many scholars believe, April 23. Miguel de Cervantes, the author of Don Quixote, died on the same day. But while Shakespeare died on April 23 in the old style Julian calendar, Cervantes died on April 23 in the new style Gregorian calendar, which was ten days ahead of the Julian.
Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino, the Italian painter and architect known by history simply as Raphael, was born in the central Italian city of Urbino in 1483, on one of two days, March 28 or April 6. He was in good health but died at the young age of 37, after what historians say was a night of excessive sex with a baker’s daughter named Margherita Luti. He had developed a fever, did not tell the doctors the cause and was given the wrong cure, which killed him. He died April 6, 1520.
John Adams and Thomas Jefferson both died on July 4, 1826, the nation’s fiftieth anniversary. Adams spent his final years at the family farm in Quincy, Massachusetts. Here he penned elaborate letters to Jefferson, whom he had had a relationship with that was both rocky and remarkable. On July 4, 1826, Adams whispered his last words, “Thomas Jefferson survives.” He had actually died just a few hours earlier.
Here the death of two great men on the same day seemed almost magical, this isn’t always the case. On November 22, 1963 President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, an event that paralyzed the nation. On the same day, the hugely successful fantasy fiction writer C.S. Lewis died. Aldous Huxley, the author of “Brave New World” and several books about using psychedelic drugs, died on that day too. Both of their deaths were of course overshadowed by Kennedy’s.
The greatest case of overshadowing just might be that of Sergei Prokofiev, a Russian pianist considered by some to be the greatest composer of the 20th century. He died on March 5, 1953, the same day as Joseph Stalin, the Russian dictator considered by some to be the most evil man of the 20th century. Prokofiev lived near Red Square and for three days the area was so jammed with Stalin mourners that it was impossible to carry his body out for the funeral service. All the flowers and musicians in Moscow were reserved for Stalin’s funeral, which meant Prokofiev got paper flowers and a taped recording.
Perhaps the most excruciating example of death on the same day is a relatively unknown 2008 case from Malaysia. Khoo Chin Leong, 19, was on his way home after dinner when his motorcycle crashed head-on with Tey Swee Seng, also on a motorcycle. Seng, born the same day as Leong, was his best friend. Both died before reaching the hospital.