The year 2016 struck many of us as grim when it came to celebrity deaths—David Bowie, Prince, Alan Rickman, Gene Wilder, Nancy Reagan, Fidel Castro, Arnold Palmer, and Muhammad Ali. The list of those who died had quality to match quantity.
I mourned Richard Adams, author of Watership Down, as much as Harper Lee, but there can be no denying the most significant death of the year was Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.
The low point of my year came when John Glenn and Greg Lake both passed on the same day. I still have a record of John Glenn’s orbits around the Earth. We were living in Orlando and, at school, we went outside to watch the Mercury rocket take off from Cape Canaveral. As vocalist for the progressive rock group Emerson, Lake and Palmer, Greg Lake had the singing voice I most wished that I possessed in my daydreams of being a rock god.
But I think we would all agree the brutal exclamation mark came at the end of December, when Carrie Fisher died four days after suffering a heart attack, and her mother, Debbie Reynolds, passed the next day.
In the history of American presidents, there are two notable stories of people dying on the same day, one of which happened on Valentine’s Day, 1884.
Two days earlier, Alice Hathaway Lee Roosevelt had given birth to a daughter, whose father, Theodore, was a member of the New York State Assembly, where he was too busy making a name for himself fighting corporate corruption to come home.
Then a telegram called Roosevelt back to New York City from Albany because his mother, Mittie, was burning up with typhoid fever. When he arrived home, Theodore was met at the door by his brother, Elliott, who told him, “There is a curse on this house. Mother is dying and Alice is dying, too.”
Roosevelt’s beloved Alice was barely able to recognize him. Her pregnancy had masked kidney failure, called Bright’s disease at the time. Shortly before 3:00 in the morning on Valentine’s Day, Roosevelt was called from his wife’s bedside to go downstairs to be with his mother as she passed away.
Eleven hours later, his wife passed away as well—four years to the day since they had announced their engagement. In his pocket diary entry for Thursday, February 14, 1884, Roosevelt wrote a large bold X, and beneath it, “The light has gone out of my life.”
Earlier pages of the diary contained entries lovingly describing his courtship, wedding, and happy marriage. After her death, Roosevelt never spoke his wife’s name again and would not allow others to speak it in his presence. He believed such pain had to be buried as deep inside as possible or else it would destroy him.
His daughter was christened Alice Lee Roosevelt, but he called her “Baby Lee” and turned her care over to his sister, Bamie, so he could lose himself in the Dakota Territory. It was not until he remarried two years later that his new wife insisted Theodore bring Alice home.
Ironically, Roosevelt’s final words before he died in his sleep in 1919 were, “Please put out the light.”
The second “holiday of double death” was Independence Day 1826—the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. American independence was actually declared by the Second Continental Congress on July 2, 1776, but the declaration of that independence bore the date “July 4th” and that was that.
In anticipation of the big anniversary, Thomas Jefferson had been asked to deliver a speech, but his failing health prevented him from doing more than working on a draft. At his home in Monticello, Virginia, Jefferson wanted to “breathe the air of the Fiftieth Anniversary.”
Jefferson’s last words the night before his death are said to have been, “Is it the Fourth?” But when day broke, Jefferson was silent, passing away early that afternoon.
Adams died five hours later at his home in Quincy, Massachusetts. Reportedly his last words were, “Thomas Jefferson still survives,” which was not true except in the sense that people become immortalized.
So it was that two of the nation’s first three presidents, both of whom had not only signed the Declaration but authored it as members of the congressional committee, died on the fiftieth anniversary of independence.
When John Quincy Adams, son of John Adams and sixth president of the United States, learned his father and Jefferson had both passed on the anniversary, he wrote that this could not have been mere coincidence, calling it a “visible and palpable” manifestation of “Divine favor.”
In his two-hour eulogy, Daniel Webster called the fact that Adams and Jefferson died on the nation’s fiftieth birthday is “proof” from God “that our country, and its benefactors, are objects of his care.”
Five years later, the nation’s fifth president, James Monroe, also died on the Fourth of July. But as the author of the Monroe Doctrine and the guy holding the flag in the painting of Washington crossing the Delaware, his passing did not cause as much excitement.